Gray skies can’t dampen Mahler Sixth |

Gray skies can’t dampen Mahler Sixth

Harvey Steiman
Aspen, CO Colorado

ASPEN ” Despite looming clouds, the rain stayed away from Sunday afternoon’s Aspen Festi­val Orchestra concert in the Benedict Music Tent. James Conlon then provided the thun­der with a rough-hewn, take-no-prisoners account of Mahler’s Symphony No. 6.

Conlon looked like he was ready to go 12 rounds with ol’ Gustav, pumping the orchestra to a high energy level from the opening bars and sel­dom letting up. Sheer power compensated for any lack of finesse in the symphony’s 80 minutes. Mahler builds up tremendous musical structures before making them crash to earth with three massive hammer blows of fate. They’re literal hammer blows, too. A percussionist whacks a gigan­tic box with a big mallet, setting off a slow­motion collapse in the orchestra, marked by fearsome minor chords in the brass.

By this point, about an hour into the music, the orchestra was chugging along, after ragged playing robbed the first move­ment of some of its nuance. Conlon placed the Andante second in this performance (it’s usually done third, after the sarcastic scher­zo), which seemed to give the musicians a chance to regroup in the slow-moving lines. The scherzo had plenty of bite, and once the snowball started rolling down the slope in the finale, there was no backing off.

Conlon opened the concert with a set of songs by Alma Mahler, whose career as a composer and musician Gustav cut short. They’re well-crafted and listenable, espe­cially when sung so sympathetically by mezzo soprano Kristine Jepson.

At Friday’s Aspen Chamber Symphony concert, Dvorak’s Symphony No. 6 in D major ” despite an energetic, if unsubtle, performance conducted by Michael Stern ” overshadowed two evocations of the jazz theme for this year’s festival.

Milhaud’s “La creation du monde” dates from 1923, when serious composers first tried to use jazz. Scored for a small dance band-like ensemble that uses a saxophone instead of a viola, it sounds quaint today, like a pale imitation of 1920s jazz. Though the work has a certain power heard up close, the small group just got lost in the big tent.

Stephen Hartke’s 2001 clarinet concerto “Landscapes with Blues” brings us into the 21st century. Clarinetist Joaquin Valdepenas got a serious workout, but Hartke’s music was long on atmospherics and short on melody. In the long slow movement, titled “Delta Nights,” crick­ets chirp, gauzy chords waft by, and the soloist plays snatches of tunes.

For a piece supposedly grounded in the blues, its communication seemed unexpectedly indirect.

Saturday’s recital in Harris Hall by the Brentano Quartet included a world pre­miere, Steve Mackey’s “Groundswell,” for viola solo and a nine­piece ensemble of string quartet, piano and winds. In this episodic work, the viola ( played by Hsin- Yung Huang) chatters away while the ensemble evokes scenes of climbing a mountain. The 22-minute trave­logue is not exactly Berlioz’s “Harold in Italy,” where a viola leads a whole orches­tra, nor does it have the grandeur of Strauss’ “An Alpine Symphony,” which also describes a mountain walk. But the central scene, “Peak Experience,” has a certain spa­ciousness and beauty that’s worth getting to, just as climbing a real mountain does.

The Brentano, which uncannily matches its sound and style to specific composers, did so perfectly with a deft performance of Mozart’s String Quartet in B-flat to open the concert. The second half was given over to a vivid, thoughtful reading of the Beethoven String Quartet in E-flat major, one of the sublime late quartets.

Friday also saw the first of the new 9 p.m. “Aspen Late” concerts in Harris Hall, this one featuring a The Pablo Ziegler Trio for New Tango. Pianist and composer Ziegler, who played with Astor Piazzola’s own band for 10 years, delivered the real thing with the help of a sensational youthful-looking bandoneon player, Hector del Curto, and a jack-of-all-trades guitarist, Claudio Ragazzi (who had to carry the bass

line and play chords and solos). They imbued an 80-minute set of music by Piaz­zola and Ziegler with plenty of energy and jazz-steeped music that enthralled a sparse but enthusiastic audience.

Pelting rain threatened to scuttle Thurs­day’s “Evening With…”, featuring husband and wife violinists Gil Shaham and Adele Anthony. It turned the tent into a loud drum part way through the Dvorak’s “Bagatelles,” but they took an early intermission and returned, with cellist Michael Mermagen and pianist Joseph Kalichstein, to pick up where they left off. It was still raining. Amplification was turned on, a mixed bless­ing. The sound system made the piano sound like a cimbalom and the violins harsh, but at least they could be heard.

The rain softened enough to let the sounds of Brahms’ Sextet No. 1 in B-flat major float more naturally. Violists Masao Kawasaki and Catharine Carroll joined cel­lists Mermagen and Chia-Ling Chien on a rewarding tour of this tasty music.

For sheer musical euphoria, it will be hard to top Thursday night’s bass summit meeting between festival regular Edgar Meyer and jazz star Christian McBride. Aspen Times’ arts editor Stewart Oksen­horn’s review went into greater detail, but to me their improvisations demonstrated a musical and personal connection that went beyond technique (which was phenomenal) and musical bravado. One would lay down a creative bass line, and the other would play the tune in what for the bass is the stratosphere. Then they would switch for solos, and the bass line passed seamlessly from one to the other, as if the same player were continuing. That’s an ear, that’s respect for the other, and it makes for thrilling music.

Violinist Julia Fischer, who wowed Aspen audiences last year, returns for an evening of chamber music Thursday at 6 p.m. and Nicholas Maw’s grand, romantic violin concerto Sunday at 4 p.m. with the Festival Orchestra and conductor David Zinman. That program concludes with Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4.

The Aspen Ensemble, composed of artist faculty, takes on Mozart, Martinu, Weber and Brahms in their debut recital tonight in Harris Hall at 8 p.m.

The American Brass Quintet debuts a new piece by jazz composer Billy Childs in its Wednesday concert, 8 p.m. at Harris.