Jaw-dropping Mahler, Rachmaninoff make for great weekend
Special to The Aspen Times
Two of the most remarkable performances of the year highlighted a strong weekend of exciting music-making at the Aspen Music Festival. It took something special to top Friday’s knockout performance of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 by the teenage Yunchan Lim, but Sunday’s majestic Mahler Symphony No. 3 did.
Superlative conducting and orchestral playing by musicians at the top of their game combined to produce something like a miracle Sunday. That’s what Mahler was after in the six movements of his longest and most joyful symphony. It starts with battling marches, moves through explorations of nature’s splendor, detours to uplifting song, and finally builds a series of increasingly ecstatic hymns to a glorious finale.
It just might be conductor Robert Spano’s greatest work in a 13-year tenure as the festival’s music director. Again and again he found just the right pace and shaped phrases with subtlety and carefully judged dynamics. Over the piece’s 100 minutes he laid the groundwork in the musical development with infinite patience to climb several mountaintops in a monumental finale.
Along the way there were several standouts, most impressively principal trumpet Stuart Stephenson (currently with the Dallas Symphony) in a breathtakingly languid solo for offstage posthorn (played at the back of the tent on a cornet with shimmering tone) in the third movement. Mezzo-soprano Kelley O’Connor added quietly fervent moments in the fourth-movement setting of Nietzsche’s “Midnight Song” and the Colorado Children’s Chorale, enhanced with treble singers from the festival’s voice program, found the charm in the fifth movement’s bright chorus of angels.
Rising to the occasion in briefer moments in the spotlight were concertmaster David Halen, principal flute Mark Sparks, principal horn Alexander Kienle and, at one point, the whole cello section. But it was the collective focus and round sound of the entire orchestra in the finale, especially by the brass section, which never overdid it and still managed to thrill us. Their stateliness brought the piece home in triumph.
Give an assist to Mother Nature, too, in a season thus far unmarred by rainstorms that can turn the music tent into a giant drum. As the finale began, a light shower added its own background patter, accompanied by rumbles of distant thunder—a touch of inspiration to the overall effect.
Lim’s triumph Friday comes with a back story. After flawless and insightful playing won him the top trophy at 18 in the 2022 Van Cliburn piano competition, hopes were high for his Aspen debut recital almost exactly a year ago. Opinion was divided. I was among those puzzled by his work in Harris Hall.
Let’s just call that a mulligan, because what he did in the music tent with the Rachmaninoff concerto was astounding. With a touch that ranged from liquid legato in the quiet opening phrases to climactic chords that rang with richness rather the clangor we heard last year, he conquered this challenging music with the hands of a sorcerer and the soul of someone who’s been on this earth much longer than he has.
Credit rising-star conductor Matthias Pintscher for finding a comfortable balance between the big orchestral outbursts while letting Lim’s wizardry come through clearly. Recently ending his tenure as music director of the Ensemble Intercontemporain to become music director of the Kansas City Symphony, and a respected composer, Pintscher proved able to muscle up the sound but also create wonderful scenes of serenity and refinement.
Under Lim’s fingers Rachmaninoff’s extroverted writing for piano, which in other hands can feel splashy, always had a reason for being, making us feel the ebb and flow of the composer’s dramatic arc. The big chords, the extensive rapid-fire runs and the quiet, more reflective passages all fit together in an interpretation that shaped every phrase into something that followed logically from what came before.
After a boisterous standing ovation refused to stop after four curtain calls came a much simpler encore, Chopin Étude op.10 no.3. The melancholy tune that began and ended the piece was elegantly played.
Preceding all that, Pintscher got the orchestra to instill two lesser-known mid-20th-century pieces with plenty of sparkle. First was an orchestral suite by Stravinsky comprising music from his opera Le Rossignol, then came a rarely heard Sinfonietta by Zemlinsky that was the only work he produced after he immigrated to the United States to escape the Nazis.
Saturday afternoon’s program in Harris Hall gave us a chance to hear more from flutist Demarre Gill, whose presence in orchestras and chamber music has added extra depth to an already strong group of flute professionals here in Aspen. He relished the sinuous and exotic solo line in Amy Beach’s Theme and Variations for Flute and String Quartet (from 1916), in tandem with a quartet of A-list players: Alexander Kerr and Espen Lilleslåtten (violins), Victoria Chiang (viola) and Brinton Averil Smith (cello).
Finally, what happened Saturday morning in the Wheeler Opera House deserves note. For decades on Saturdays opera fans have enjoyed an inside look at what it takes to make the art form work. A highlight of most seasons were sessions when the conducting academy orchestra joined the proceedings, led by several of the student conductors.
What used to be called Opera Scenes Master Classes were rebranded as Opera Experiences after Renée Fleming and Patrick Summers rethought all aspects of the voice program after they assumed the helm in 2019. Individual Saturday sessions now focus on various aspects of the profession, such as art song one week or American musical theater another. The idea of performing with orchestra rose a few notches this week by mounting the entire final act of Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro.
This version added back several arias and scenes almost always deleted in an effort to trim the opera’s four-hour-plus running time. This extra material mostly tells us more about some of the minor characters, and Saturday it was a delight to see mezzo-soprano Ruby Dibble show us a feisty side to Figaro’s mother and tenor Angel Vargas expand our understanding of the supercilious Basilio (the music teacher) in an aria filled with inside musical jokes.
After performing the entire 40-minute act, Summers worked with individual conductors to make parts of each scene musically better, thus demonstrating just how much detail goes into every second of an opera, especially one as seminal as Figaro.
We also saw a workaround rarely employed but sometimes necessary. Soprano Grace Lerew stepped in for the key role of Susanna, with zero rehearsal, when the assigned singer reported in sick. Singing from the side, with staffer Joanna Latini charmingly miming the role, Lerew handled the assignment with aplomb. Baritone Alan Williams as Figaro and countertenor Chuanyuan Liu as Cherubino (a “pants role” usually sung by a mezzo-soprano) excelled in both singing and stage presence.
Harvey Steiman has been writing about the Aspen Music Festival for 30 years.
American music of various kinds lifts the proceedings this week. Maurice Cohn, who led that outstanding John Williams show, conducts Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” tonight on an all-American program in Harris Hall. O’Connor and Spano present a fascinating recital Wednesday that includes songs composed by Spano, and Broadway star Audra MacDonald returns to Aspen for an evening at the music tent Thursday. Friday’s Chamber Symphony program includes a new saxophone concerto.