Leaving with a big thumbs up, Jack Nicholson got it right | AspenTimes.com

Leaving with a big thumbs up, Jack Nicholson got it right

Harvey Steiman

In a panel discussion earlier this summer, conductor Murry Sidlin and music director David Zinman tossed around ideas for opening up the classical music experience, without dumbing down the music. Sidlin likes to create a dramatic scenario around the music, as he did recently with the Oregon Symphony and Chorus in a moving performance (available on video) of the Verdi Requiem that re-enacted an actual incident at the Nazi concentration camp at Terezin. The captors let the prisoners perform the work in an attempt to show the world that they were being treated humanely.For Sunday’s Aspen Festival Orchestra concert, Sidlin preceded a wonderfully raw performance of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 with a dramatic setup that cast actors Michael York and John Rubinstein as Shostakovich and Stalin, respectively. Excerpts from the symphony and other music by the Russian composer illuminated the text, based on Shostakovich’s memoir, Testimony.Sidlin focused on the composer’s cat-and-mouse game with the Soviet dictator. After the 1935 premiere of Lady McBeth of Mtsenk, Stalin wrote a screed in Pravda denouncing the music and threatening the composer with his life if he did not hew to the Soviet line. The Fifth Symphony (1937) was presented publicly as Shostakovich’s apology, but the composer confirmed in his memoirs that he laced his music with the anger and desperation he felt.The program opened with a recording of the composer playing two children’s songs he wrote for piano, seguing into soprano Angela Fout stage right singing the composer’s “Rescue Me” (1951). As the Jasper String Quartet played the Allegro molto from the eighth quartet, the actors walked on stage, Stalin scowling at the music and shaking his head, Shostakovich nodding with the raw accents.The script eventually arrives at an account of the New York Philharmonic’s appearance in Moscow in 1959, when conductor Leonard Bernstein led a performance of the Symphony No. 5. In rehearsal, according to Shostakovich’s memoir, Bernstein stopped the orchestra at the coda. “Dmitri,” he shouted, “your metronome markings are all wrong.” Playing it at that tempo, the conductor said, makes the music sound like a parody, sarcastic. Bernstein then played it at a faster clip, and it sounded triumphant. Shostakovich acquiesced to Bernstein’s tempo, which he regretted when it was preserved on a recording that became – at least for a while – standard.Sidlin’s drama also explored Shostakovich’s fascination with the tune, “I’m off to Chez Maxim,” from Lehar’s operetta, The Merry Widow. The reference is to Dmitri’s son, Maxim, and it shows up repeatedly in the composer’s music, representing the plight of the Russian people, most famously when the orchestra hammers away at it in the Symphony No. 7 “Leningrad.” The opening movement of it got a muscular performance from this orchestra before intermission. Bartok mocked Shostakovich’s use of the tune in his Concerto for Orchestra, a fact that the character of Stalin gleefully points out.”I was an eyewitness,” the composer says early in this performance, to which Stalin responds, “We have a wonderful expression among the Russian people that he lies like an eyewitness.” After the quartet played the Allegretto of the Eighth quartet and baritone Craig Verm sang Hymn of Ellas, a war march, the two actors repeated the exchange just before Sidlin launched into the symphony itself.Even if you read program notes or already know something about the context of the Fifth Symphony, Sidlin’s presentation powerfully sets up what’s going on in the music. You can’t help but listen to the piece with fresh ears.And this was a ripper of a performance. Sidlin got the outsized orchestra to throw itself into the music. If entrances and balances were sometimes ragged, especially in the loud parts, the overall effect was overwhelming. The opening movement, with its martial feel, constantly whacked at the sarcasm surrounding it without missing the beauty of the lyrical sections. And when those last pages arrived, Sidlin took the slower “Shostakovich” tempo. There was no doubt of the parody and sarcasm.But there was more. After the cast bow, Sidlin picked up his baton and led the coda again, this time at Bernstein’s tempo. The difference was palpable. It sounded almost like Beethoven. (Nothing like driving home the point.) Actor Jack Nicholson, who listened raptly to the whole thing, walked up to the stage to congratulate the cast, leaving with a big thumbs up. Jack got it right.You couldn’t ask for a bigger contrast between the bombast of Shostakovich symphony and the simple delicacy of the previous evening’s recital in Harris Hall. Folk songs (and a little pop) provided the material for Guitarist Sharon Isbin and mezzo-soprano Susanne Mentzer. Isbin was captivating in a suite by John Duarte of music associated with Joan Baez, but the highlight was the final set of American folk songs, especially “Wayfaring Stranger,” which closed the program. For an encore, Mentzer got straighter of backbone for a gorgeous, flowing performance Joaquin Rodrigo’s own guitar-and-voice setting of the slow movement from his Concierto de Aranjuez.Friday night, in the Benedict Music Tent, Finnish conductor Osmo Vänskä led the Aspen Chamber Orchestra in Sibelius, Mozart and Haydn. Conducting without a baton but plenty of body language, he never seemed to consider it necessary to show the musicians a steady beat. They kept it anyway (mostly), and surprisingly, despite the broad gestures, the music had real subtlety.English horn soloist Andrea Overturf, a fellowship student, was a standout in her three long solos in Sibelius’ suite from Pelleas et Melisande. Pianist Andreas Haefliger displayed a crystalline technique and lively touch in Mozart’s Concerto in C major, K. 503. Maybe too lively, as he rushed many of the fast runs, consistently finishing a half beat ahead of the orchestra. And Haydn’s Symphony No. 101 completed the program, the inner movements showing an especially fine touch.The gem from Sunday evening’s lightly attended chamber music concert of seldom-heard Czech music was Smetana’s emotionally wrought Piano Trio in G minor, given a powerful reading by pianist Ann Schein, violinist Laurie Carney and cellist William Grubb. This is heart-on-the-sleeve music, and they managed to get all the juice without slopping into sentimentality.The annual Percussion Ensemble concert last Tuesday was a mixed bag. A performance of the playwright Sam Shepard’s Tongues, painfully reminiscent of a bad 1950s beat-generation coffee house, turned out to be the low point of an otherwise solid program. The most complex piece on the program, and ultimately the most satisfying, was Tan Dun’s Elegy: Snow in June. Subtitled “a concerto for cello and percussion,” it gives the cello strident, angular lines and lets it join in with the drummers in loud, clattering sequences before finally resolving into a gorgeous Chinese-tinged melody in the final minutes. The final section was breathtaking, similar to some of the writing Dun did for Yo Yo Ma in his score for the movie “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.”The piece was written in 1991, long before the movie score, and Dun’s musical language was much more caustic and dissonant then. Cellist David Requiro lit into the music with a real flair for its colors and the percussionists played the complex rhythms with ease.Not to miss this weekTwo of the highlights of a week focusing on the composer Robert Schumann were to feature violinist Robert McDuffie, who injured his side jogging and can’t play. Joshua Bell has been enlisted for Wednesday night’s recital in Harris Hall with pianist Christopher Taylor, and Alex Kerr for Thursday night’s quintet with the piano-playing Dichters in the tent.Pianist Yefim Bronfman plays the Beethoven Concerto No. 3 on Friday’s Aspen Chamber Orchestra concert in the tent, and David Zinman conducts Schumann’s “Spring” Symphony. There’s more Schumann chamber music Saturday, and the Sunday Aspen Festival Orchestra concert features more of the Dichters and the dynamic young conductor Jahja Ling.Harvey Steiman’s weekly commentary about the Aspen Music Festival is founded in 12 years of attendance and a background as a professional critic.

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