Jazz theme sparks music fest highlights
August 23, 2007
When the Aspen Music Festival titled its theme for 2007 “Blue Notes,” few would have guessed that it would lead to some of the most rewarding music of the summer, including Wynton Marsalis’ evening-long “Congo Square” on June 26 and a riveting evening featuring the jazz-oriented Turtle Island String Quartet (with the Ying Quartet) on Aug. 3.”Blue Notes” explored how jazz has affected classical music, but it also inspired a collaboration between two of the world’s great bass players that broke down barriers. For sheer musical euphoria, nothing could top the bass summit meeting July 19 between festival regular Edgar Meyer and jazz star Christian McBride.That concert may have positive repercussions for the future. As artistic director of Jazz Aspen Snowmass’ summer programs, McBride may be involved in future collaborations with the Aspen Music Festival. It’s something music festival director Alan Fletcher says he wants to pursue.”We had a strong response to opening up the repertoire,” Fletcher said this week. “We will never stop doing the great [classical] repertoire, and yet, I just loved the improvisation and the spirit that Edgar and Christian brought. We have to find a way to keep doing that.”In jazz, a blue note unexpectedly flattens one or more notes in an otherwise normal scale. It adds color and personality to the music, and that fits some of the better concerts untinged by jazz. In the final weeks, for example, pianist Vladimir Feltsman explored four Schubert Impromptus and the four Chopin Ballades in electrifying fashion Aug. 18. And the Opera Theater’s ravishing take on Cavalli’s 340-year-old opera “Eliogabalo” mesmerized for its entire 160 minutes Aug. 14-18.On the other hand, blue notes are often sung or played “in the cracks,” not exactly on pitch. In a generally strong nine-week season, several programs landed in the cracks. Can someone explain why the audience had to hear violinist Sarah Chang in the Mendelssohn Concerto on the same Aug. 5 concert with Chris Brubeck’s “Convergence” and Prokofiev’s music from the ballet “Romeo and Juliet,” which the Festival Orchestra played so briliantly under conductor James DePreist? Neither the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto (nor Bernstein’s “Age of Anxiety” symphony featuring pianist Mischa Dichter) added a thing to that program. But local fans turn out for Chang and Dichter. Good as the Brubeck and Prokofiev were, it’s not likely they alone would have filled the tent.
Violinist Valeriy Sokolov was on the final Friday night concert to play Schumann and Saint-Saëns in the midst of conductor Murry Sidlin’s lively program of Bernstein works. Sokolov’s presence amidst all the Bernstein music suggests that the festival believes it needs a solo draw for the Friday and Sunday concerts, or a pre-eminent conductor who’s popular locally, such as James Conlon or David Zinman.Although negotiations with headliners for next year are still in progress, Fletcher says “there are some great stars coming next season, some new names and some returns of favorites from the past that we haven’t seen here for four or five years.” Maybe the festival can get them to play something appropriate to the program, not just what they happen to be bringing on tour with them.One innovation this year was “Aspen Late,” a series of three Friday concerts in Harris Hall that started at 9 p.m. Violinist Hilary Hahn drew the biggest audience for her touring show with pop songwriter Josh Ritter. It was the only chance for the local audience to hear Hahn, who played brilliantly. The Turtle Island/Ying evening and a rousing set by tango artist Pablo Ziegler were the others in the series.”I liked Late Night,” said Fletcher, who attended many performances beyond the major ones throughout the summer, something his predecessor did not. “And I thought we had a growing audience for it. But it is a stress on the facility. In our planning, we’ll have to talk about whether it was excellent enough to continue doing it. Maybe that will be a good time to keep a collaboration with Jazz Aspen on the schedule.”Fletcher introduced a series of initiatives involving other Aspen cultural entities. Other than Jazz Aspen Snowmass, there were evenings with the Aspen Institute involving Jessye Norman and Anna Deavere Smith, discussions of Freud and Mahler, and a program with Aspen Santa Fe Ballet in the tent in which faculty artists provided the music.”That was a good start,” Fletcher said. “What gives me a lot of satisfaction is bringing great music into the realm of ideas. I want to do stronger and deeper work with the institute, and all of our collaborations. I like having real ideas underlie this.”The theme for next year involves telling stories through music. “We’re still working on how to articulate it exactly, but here’s my version,” Fletcher explained. “We’re looking at the way folklore, fairy tales and legends help create a sense of identity and place through music. We’ll do some of the great nationalistic Czech, Spanish, Russian and Norwegian pieces. We’ll hear a lot of opera overtures and other instrumental music from operas.”For its part, the Opera Theater will present three versions of the Cinderella story: Rossini’s “La Cenerentola,” Massenet’s “Cendrillon” and Rodger and Hammerstein’s “Cinderella.” (One wonders if SummerFilms will scare up a print of Jerry Lewis’ “CinderFella,” which featured the Count Basie band.)
Although the festival’s semi-staged benefit performance of “Madama Butterfly” on Aug. 11 drew a capacity throng to the tent, Fletcher does not anticipate a similar opera event in 2008. “Maybe every other year,” he said. There will be a Saturday night special event and a benefit performance to draw the big donors in 2008, details to be announced soon, he added.In retrospect, while 2007’s big events filled the tent (the other was Kathleen Battle and an all-Gershwin program July 14), the most memorable music mostly involved less glittery names. My picks among events starting July 6 (when I arrived for the summer) would include Meyer and McBride, Feltsman, the Turtle Island Quartet and “Eliogabalo” (all mentioned above). But they were among the few concerts in which the entire program scored on a high level. Among the special moments this summer, often in the midst of less-arresting programs, are these (in chronological order):July 6: Violinist Gil Shaham, conductor David Zinman and the Aspen Chamber Orchestra in a splendid Beethoven Concerto.July 15: English conductor Mark Wigglesworth in a magnificent account of Elgar’s Enigma Variations.July 26: Violinist Julia Fischer, with pianist Jonathan Gilad and cellist Daniel Mueller-Schott, playing trios by Mozart, Beethoven and Mendelssohn. (She also returned to play beautifully in the thankless Maw concerto.)July 22: James Conlon’s rough-hewn, take-no-prisoners account of Mahler’s Symphony No. 6.
July 28: The Ying Quartet’s exhilarating and edgy Ravel Quartet, emphasizing rhythms and unearthing dissonances most quartets suppress.Aug. 2: Violinist Jinjoo Cho, only recently a student here, and the all-student Aspen Concert Orchestra in Astor Piazzola’s fiery “Four Seasons of Buenos Aires.”Aug. 7 and 16: The American String Quartet’s silvery sound in Mozart, Berg, Beethoven’s, Mendelssohn, Dvorak and Robert Sirota’s moving “Tryptich.”Aug. 10: Leonard Slatkin and the Festival Orchestra in a technicolor performance of Stravinsky’s “Petrushka.” (Slatkin returned Aug. 15 to lead the all-student Concert Orchestra in a thrilling “Pictures at an Exhibition.”)Aug. 11: Tenor Hugo Vera and soprano Tamara Wilson concluded a Saturday morning opera scenes master class with a volcanic performance of the Act II duet from Verdi’s “Un ballo in maschera.” Vera sounds ready for the Met stage.Aug. 19: Off of his performance in the season finale “Carmina Burana,” Stephen Powell proved a baritone to be reckoned with. He also scored as Sharpless in the “Butterfly.”Harvey Steiman’s weekly commentary about the Aspen Music Festival is founded in 14 years of attendance and a background as a professional critic.