Ling’s dynamism, bang-on entrances highlight concert
With its vivid instrumentation, rip-roaring ensembles, individual turns and refreshingly delicate moments, Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 demands the most of the musicians in the orchestra.Conductor Jahja Ling, a late substitution for Emmanuel Krivine, originally scheduled to lead Sunday’s Aspen Festival Orchestra concert, corralled all that energy and found the big arch of the music without losing any of the flash and dash.A native of Indonesia who currently heads the Blossom Music Festival, the summer home of the Cleveland Orchestra, and is music director designate of the San Diego Symphony, Ling is a dynamic conductor. He has a clear, communicative style and an instinct for a piece’s inner workings.The musicians responded with spectacular playing. Recurring fanfares in the brass always arrived sounding fresh. Woodwind solos, notably Theodore Oien’s folklike clarinet phrases, Per Hannevold’s reprises on bassoon, and Alyce Johnson’s wickedly difficult piccolo turn in the third movement, injected just the right level of spice. The strings brought accuracy and a sense of amplitude to the big, soaring moments and their long paragraphs of pizzicato playing. Entrances across the board were bang-on, showing none of the raggedness that often dogs a one-shot festival performance.Ling and the orchestra made it clear this was going to be something special with their bold statement of the opening theme, punctuated by thunderous crashes and grand pauses. By contrast, the gentle start of the third movement, with the strings plucking as one, gave the music plenty of space to wax and wane, growing in momentum into a mighty climax as the fanfares and big tunes returned in the finale.Such a riveting performance had to overshadow a pleasant if lightweight first half, which featured duo pianists Misha and Cipa Dichter in the Mendelssohn Double Concerto, long on charm if short on depth. The opener, Charcoal, a rousing excerpt from Torke’s recent ballet, Black and White, went by swiftly without incident.Earlier in the week, the composer Robert Schumann dominated the programming, one of several minifestivals embedded into the larger framework of this year’s schedule. Programmers mostly avoided the composer’s greatest hits, instead exploring the less familiar.After the desultory performances those obscure works got on the first half of two concerts exploring Schumann’s music for piano and strings, the better known quartet on the first program and the quintet on the second evening came as a huge relief.Violinist Robert McDuffie injured his side jogging and had to cancel as the featured violinist with pianist Christopher Taylor on Tuesday and in the quintet the following evening in a tent concert featuring the Dichters. Maybe McDuffie would have made more of the Schumann sonatas than Beth Newdome did in the Violin Sonata No. 1 in A minor with Taylor and oboist Janet Bittar did with Schumann’s Three Romances for oboe and piano (which replaced the second sonata). Both performances were earnest, and Taylor showed himself to be an alert collaborator, but with juicier material things got better.The slow introduction of the Piano Quartet in E-flat major seemed to suspend itself in midair until it erupted into the first theme, a harbinger of exciting music making from Taylor, cellist David Geber, violist Lawrence Dutton and pinch-violinist Alexander Kerr. Each instrument seemed to be singing in the lovely Andante cantabile, and the finale ripped to a brilliant conclusion.The long first half of the Dichters’ concert seemed ill-suited to the vast open spaces of the tent. Bilder aus Osten: Six Impromptus, for one piano four hands, and Six Etudes in Canon Form, for two pianos, came off as innocuous drawing room music. Andante and Variations, for two pianos, two cellos and horn, was more appropriate for the surroundings. Cellist Margo Tatgenhorst Drakos and hornist David Wakefield injected some much-needed life into the proceedings.About half of the crowd got up and left after the Variations. An announcement had to be made to bring them back for Misha Dichter’s rushed, perfunctory solo rendition of Viennese Carnival.After intermission, the broad, heroic open theme of the Piano Quintet in E flat major brought me bolt upright in my seat. In the lyrical sections that followed, Drakos and Dutton traded off phrases seamlessly. With spot-on intonation, Peter Winograd stood in for McDuffie in the lead. His wife, violinist Elizabeth Lim-Dutton, completed the quintet. Misha Dichter, however, seemed to have a different sense of the rhythmic pulse than the others. Although his playing seemed uninflected, he kept up the pace, and the result was several steps up from the first half.The Schumann part of Friday’s Aspen Chamber Symphony concert went off splendidly as music director David Zinman led a buoyant Symphony No. 1 “Spring.” But pianist Yefim Bronfman completely overshadowed it with his pure, unaffected approach to Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3. There is nothing willful or studied about what he does. It just flows out, expressive, instinctive. He has enormous technique at his disposal, but his protean Beethoven was never showy.His encore was. Bronfman tore into Prokofiev’s Toccata in D minor, Op. 11, with almost alarming savagery. It was a tremendous contrast with the Beethoven, and the crowd leapt to its feet with a second – and richly deserved – standing ovation.Those who came back for the American String Quartet’s evening concert were rewarded by clear-headed, precise readings of Schumann, Shostakovich and Brahms. J.D. Landis, whose novel, “Longing,” is about Robert and Clara Schumann, added welcome texture to several programs during the week. In this one he revealed the relationships among the Schumanns and Brahms, their letters and other historical materials suggesting that Clara’s relationship with Brahms was more than mere friendship.Neither the Schumann Quartet No. 3 “Clara” nor the Brahms Quintet, in which they were joined by violist John Graham, left anything to complain about, but Shostakovich’s magnificent String Quartet No. 3 simply overwhelmed them. The ASQ’s immaculate performance emphasized the lyrical sections and sighing moments of repose more than the gritty, hard-edged soul of the piece.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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