Percussion energizes concert with new work by Theofanidis |

Percussion energizes concert with new work by Theofanidis

Harvey Steiman
Special to The Aspen Times

“Drum Circle,” a splashy new work for four percussion soloists and orchestra by composer-in-residence Christopher Theofanidis, opened Sunday’s penultimate Festival Orchestra concert Sunday with a bang. It’s hard to resist — both the performance and the “bang” pun.

Four members of The Percussion Collective roamed among marimbas, vibes, chimes, bells, conga drums, and a few office equipment odds and ends, wielded claves and triangles, and delivered Theofanidis’ score with consummate musicianship and more than a little showmanship.

Jonathan Allen, Ji Hye Jung, Ji Su Jung and Matthew Gordon Keown attacked their array of instruments without benefit of written scores to consult, adding gestures for panache. Theofanidis’ music made endlessly fascinating use of their ability to play with precision, with one of them picking up a phrase from another before tossing it to the next player.

Each of the five movements in the 25-minute piece explores a different aspect of percussion. The first wove together phrases from the pitched mallet instruments playing against punchy commentary from the big orchestra. The second focused on the clicks and clacks of woodblocks and claves against the soft texture of strings.

The third movement, the concerto’s short scherzo, found the players huddled over a typewriter and various office supplies extracted from two briefcases (here’s where showmanship played a role). In what seemed like the real centerpiece, the fourth movement, “Spirits and Drums,” set up a sort of call-and-response between the soloists and the orchestra’s percussion section, at one point creating a sort of sonic “wave” that circled the stage. The finale softened the tone with lyrical melodies and harmonies from the mallet instruments, bringing back the opening musical gestures to complete the circle.

Conductor Michael Stern seemed to energize the orchestra to keep up with these phenomenal musicians, resulting in a memorable performance. An encore, Astor Piazzolla’s “Grand Tango,” originally written for cello and dedicated to Mstislav Rostrapovich, emerged in the hands of the Percussion Collective as a mallet frenzy worthy of Gary Burton’s classic performances on vibes with Piazzolla’s bandoneon.

Stern kept the energy high, starting the second half with a rousing if somewhat overexcited “Cuban Overture” by Gershwin. The extra juice spilled over into the first movement of Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto No. 1, but soloist Jan Lisiecki adjusted his sights for more elegance in the last two movements.

A colorful and rhythmically invigorating “Miraculous Mandarin” Suite by Bartók concluded the concert on a high note.

Saturday night in Harris Hall, guitarist Sharon Isbin found a worthy sub for mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard to sing a collection of exotic songs at her guitar recital — soprano Jessica Rivera. Though Leonard recorded this music with Isbin in 2017, she canceled her Aspen appearances both last summer and this year. Having prepared some of this music to record herself later this month, Rivera proved a worthy musical partner.

Her sound and style may not be as elegant as Leonard’s, but Rivera floated a gorgeous pianissimo second verse of Villa-Lobos’ aria from Bachianas Brasilieros No. 5 and lent a Latina charge of her own to the “siete canciones populares españolas” by Falla. Isbin clearly likes to play this music. She enlisted faculty cellist Brinton Smith last year to play Falla’s own arrangement of the canciones populares for guitar and cello. Rivera injected tons of personality while singing them with clarity.

Smith made a welcome return, this time for Rodrigo’s cello-guitar arrangement of “Aranjuez, ma pensée,” the famous adagio from his “Concierto de Aranjuez.” His soulful playing created another sublime moment with Isbin’s gently amplified guitar.

In her only solo piece, Isbin traced Brittten’s “Nocturnal,” a 20th-century set of variations on John Dowland’s 16th-century lute piece, “Come Heavy Sleep.” The music explored psychological angles of sleep and death with a beauty and keen insight that Isbin matched in a mesmerizing 18 minutes. Rivera and Isbin created 11 minutes of sheer beauty with “Love and Longing,” composer Richard Danielpour’s 21st-century setting of three Rumi texts.

Songs played a big role earlier Saturday in the faculty’s chamber music program in Harris Hall. Leonard Bernstein’s sardonic ragging of love and life came through in “Arias and Barcarolles,” his 1988 song cycle for mezzo-soprano, baritone and two pianists (on one piano). Megan Mikailovna Samarin and Samson McCrady acted the roles well, but heavy-handed accompaniment by Vivian Hornik Weilerstein and Robert Spano didn’t help. Another song cycle, Stephen Albert’s “Into Eclipse,” told the Oedipus story with grating music. Tenor Spencer Lang did his best with Albert’s random interval skips. A few moments of beauty in the second half of the cycle did not quite make up for the raspy sounds from the enhanced Aspen Contemporary Ensemble in the first half.

In between, in as sublime a performance as one could ask, Joaquin Valdepeñas shaped supple clarinet lines, James Dunham wove in spicy viola comments and Anton Nel anchored the whole thing with shapely piano work in Mozart’s “Kegelstatt” trio.

In Friday’s Aspen Chamber Orchestra concert, conductor Erik Nielsen, debuting in Aspen, led a jewel-like performance of Mozart’s Symphony No. 39. He drew playing from the smallish orchestra that caught the sprightly style and sonic clarity that makes Mozart Mozart. Paying attention to subtle changes in dynamics and tempos, he produced one of the most satisfying half-hours of the Friday night band’s season.

Other than a tendency for the trumpets to go a bit strident occasionally, the performance was a model in celebrating Mozart’s harmonic ingenuity. Nielsen didn’t shy away from emphasizing dissonances just enough so that their resolution felt like a balm.

A harpist himself, Nielsen seemed to relish the roles of harp soloist Nancy Allen and oboe soloist Elaine Douvas in Frank Martin’s succulent little ode to flamenco, “Three Dances for Oboe, Harp and Strings,” which preceded the Mozart symphony. Both Aspen veterans acquitted themselves admirably, especially Douvas, who channeled a flamenco singer’s wails in her moments in the sunshine.

If the rhythmic vitality sometimes came up short, Martin’s tart piece, with its splashes of unexpected color, made a better showcase for Allen and Douvas than the Schumann violin concerto did with Midori in the first half. The violinist’s reticence of demeanor and painfully slender sound did her no favors, no matter how much Nielsen worked to tamp down the orchestra’s volume. A dash of Bach made a gentle encore.


As the calendar winds down on this year’s festival, the highlight of the midweek events looks to be the Opera Center’s “Le Nozze di Figaro.” Jane Glover conducts Mozart’s jewel of an opera Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. A recital by the JCT Trio on Tuesday and a tempting program by violinist Robert McDuffie on Thursday forces audiences to choose between the goings-on at Harris Hall and the Wheeler Opera House, as always happens with opera here.