Latino music spices up Sunday; two-handed Fleisher beguiles
August 1, 2005
David Robertson’s high-voltage approach and sharp playing from the Aspen Festival Orchestra produced one of the most exciting programs of the Aspen Music Festival’s nine-week season Sunday, kicking off “Postcards from Latin America,” a week-long minifestival of Latin American music.Big orchestral pieces by the mid-20th century Mexican composers Silvestre Revueltas and Carlos Chávez shared the program with important works by Stravinsky and Prokofiev, both of whom revel in rhythm as much as the Mexican music does. Hearing Revueltas and Chávez alongside these certified masterpieces proves they belong.The pieces fit together on several levels. You can hear echoes of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” in Revueltas’ “Sensemayá,” the seven-minute tone poem, and in Prokofiev’s early blockbuster Scythian Suite. The Stravinsky Violin Concerto has plenty of his signature ostinatos. Like “Sensemayá,” Chavez’ Sinfonia India employs a huge battery of percussion. It also ends with an irresistibly wild finale.Robertson and the orchestra made “Sensemayá’s” irregular rhythms feel totally natural. Sinfonia India feels simpler on the surface, based on Mexican Indian rhythms, chants and melodies. But it too has tricky rhythms and a variety of sound colors. Ginastera might have been inspired by its headlong final pages when he wrote “Estancia” five years later.Violinist Kyoko Takezawa gave the Stravinsky concerto all the bite its rhythms could want, but she managed to make it all sound beautiful at the same time. The open chord that launches each movement rang distinctively each time. The lyrical arias that make up the middle two movements (and keep breaking into a strong rhythm despite themselves) were especially beguiling.The Scythian is probably Prokofiev’s thorniest music. Dense, dissonant chords pile up on themselves as they enunciate the rugged rhythms in the opening section. This is muscular, epic music and it’s not for the faint of heart, player or listener. The Festival Orchestra made a huge sound without ever losing articulation. Robertson and the orchestra made this music thrilling.Last Wednesday evening’s Leon Fleisher recital at Harris Hall was as subtle and refined as the Sunday concert was not. A regular at the Aspen Music Festival, he had not offered a full-scale recital for a while.A piano produces a tone by hitting strings with a felt-lined hammer. It should not be able to sustain a legato as gorgeous as what Fleisher coaxed from the instrument in his mesmerizing account of J.S. Bach’s cantabile favorite “Sheep May Safely Graze.” His distinctive sound is not just a clever effect but it makes the music come to life and clarifies textures.The music just oozes out of Fleisher’s pores. Or, more precisely, it travels down the arm, through the fingers, once gnarled by dystonia, now supple, and transmits itself through the instrument in a powerful way. The rare disease forced him to use only his left hand for 30 years, so it’s not surprising that the highlight of the program was Brahms’ left-hand-only arrangement of J.S. Bach’s Chaconne in D minor. One of the towering masterpieces of the violin literature, it takes on new life in the broader, deeper range of the piano. Fleisher’s take, grounded in the architecture of the piece not its flash, was magnificent.The main event, Schubert’s Piano Sonata in B flat, was notable for its gorgeous Andante, which seemed to float serenely through the hall, and its fleet Scherzo: Allegro vivace con delicatezza, which was all of that but also found a rhythmic spiral that carried it to unexpected heights. While Fleisher’s revived right hand can create the most astonishing delicacy and warmth, passages that require sheer power present challenges. Fatigue caused some faltering moments in the climax of the finale, but one could sense exactly what Fleisher was trying to communicate. The evident effect made the performance, and the music, all the more heroic.Thursday’s “Evening with…” in the tent featured violinist Robert McDuffie, an Aspen favorite. McDuffie’s flair for lyrical music came through vividly as he and pianist Anne Marie McDermott delivered a ravishing account of Ravel’s 1927 Violin Sonata. They savored the filigree of the first movement’s harmonies, the broad jazzy gestures in the second movement (subtitled “Blues”) and the juiced-up perpetual-motion of the finale. The Jasper Quartet could have put a little more oomph into their contribution to Chausson’s Concert for violin, piano and quartet, a full-scale concerto for reduced forces, but McDuffie and McDermott cut a satisfying artistic arc.Friday’s concert paired two very familiar pieces by Mozart with two unfamiliar symphonies by the Czech composer Erwin Schulhoff, who was smothered by the Nazis. James Conlon gave both pieces all the energy they should have needed, but it was a mixed bag.One could appreciate the composer’s orchestration skills and his ear for a good tune. But his tendency to repeat, and then repeat some more, can wear a person down. The Symphony No. 1 dates from 1924 and reflects Schulhoff’s Czech heritage, but it came off as second-rate Janacek. The Symphony No. 3 is from 1935, when he was already had a Soviet passport, and sounds like road-company Shostakovich. That would be OK if there were other compensations, but the musical rewards were slim.Mozart’s Symphony No. 38 “Prague” got a straightforward, modestly stylish reading. Its endless invention and lovely sense of proportion made Schulhoff seem clumsy by comparison.In the title role Korean soprano Jung-a Lee made some beautiful sounds, hit all the notes and made the most of Lucia’s delicate moments, but she seemed to recede when the drama and the music wanted her to soar. Much more red-blooded as singers were St. Lucia-born tenor Blaise Claudio Pascal as Edgardo, her beleauguered lover, and Korean bass Young-Bok Kim as Raimondo, the chaplain. When they were not involved, the dramatic effect lost much of its oomph.Staged on a raised, raked triangle surrounding by figures that could remind some viewers of twisted Easter Island statues, the best thing that can be said about the sets is that they didn’t get in the way.Not to miss this weekMore Latin-American music invigorates tonight’s percussion ensemble, a Thursday concert with tangos and guitarist Sharon Isbin’s Saturday recital. Fleisher’s free master classes on Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1 today will teach you more about music than any 10 concerts.Harvey Steiman has been coming to Aspen annually for the music festival since the early 1990s. His comments on selected concerts will appear weekly.