McDuffie’s violin sings a sweet song at Aspen Music Festival |

McDuffie’s violin sings a sweet song at Aspen Music Festival

Harvey Steiman
Special to The Aspen Times
Aspen CO Colorado

ASPEN – One of Robert McDuffie’s great strengths as a violinist, his ability to make the instrument sing soulfully and lyrically, made Brahms’ three violin sonatas an apt choice for his recital Tuesday night in Harris Hall. Doing all three on the same concert could have been too much of the same, but listening to McDuffie spin out those long, effulgent melodies never gets old.

Hearing all three in succession makes clear how Brahms’ music grew more complex over time. The first sonata comes right after the violin concerto and a whole raft of songs. The other two debuted seven years later, in a spurt that included more songs (which make brief appearances in the violin sonatas). So more was going on in the music as the program progressed.

Aspen Music Festival music director Robert Spano accompanied the longtime Aspen favorite, fitting the piano’s expansions, underlinings and countermelodies into the violin’s line smoothly. He played with clarity and gave the ace a gentle propulsion.

Spano’s work this summer to date deserves a pause to appreciate. No previous music director in Aspen has executed so many widely varied assignments with such stunning results. He opened the festival in June by leading big-band ensembles in Gershwin’s piano works – “Rhapsody in Blue” and both concertos – with real idiomatic flair. He drew colorful and dramatic playing from the Festival Orchestra in Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra. On another program, he fashioned evocative atmospherics in Barber’s “Knoxville: Summer of 1915” and introduced Aspen to Edgar Meyer’s double concerto in an impressively assured performance. And then he got a student pit orchestra to capture the magic of Stephen Sondheim’s score in the Opera Theater’s “Sweeney Todd.” Sitting down to play Brahms with a violin star like McDuffie put a little more icing on the already well-decorated cake.

Wednesday night’s program included some Brahms, too, but Kodaly and Janacek provided the highlights in a recital by members of the Weilerstein family. Alisa, now a world-renowned cellist, made her Aspen debut in 1996, performing in a trio with her violinist father, Donald (who taught here from 1988 to 2000), and pianist mother Vivian. The trio reconvened to play an unusual “completion” by composer Stephen Coxe of Janacek’s “Kreutzer Sonata” string quartet, based on a manuscript that suggests the composer abandoned a trio version until rewriting it for a string quartet commission. If this version lacked the spaciousness of the familiar quartet, it certainly got the feeling of the music’s harrowing narrative.

Even better was Alisa’s performance with Mom of Janacek’s “Podhaka” and, best of all, Alisa and her brother, Josh, trading virtuosic flourishes on Kodaly’s spectacular Duo for Violin and Cello. (Josh’s budding conducting career includes last summer as assistant conductor of the festival. He is now an assistant at the New York Philharmonic.) Both performances were fine examples of what chamber music is about – the seamless fusing of a few musicians playing from matching impulses. The Brahms sextet, amiable and appealing as it was, got fine contributions from cellist Michael Mermagen and violists Masao Kawasaki and Elzbieta Weyman but never jelled quite so completely.

On Thursday night, the American String Quartet put the cap on an extraordinary week of music with focused, dig-deep playing on Beethoven’s final quartet, Op. 130, coupled traditionally with the “Grosse Fuge.” The 45-minute tour de force requires utmost concentration and stamina. The fifth movement, “Cavatina,” found first violin Peter Winograd unfurling the melody against a subtly moving weave of sound from the rest, a heart-stoppingly beautiful moment. In the fugue, second violin Laurie Carney and violist Daniel Avshalamov brought muscle to the inner voices and instant responses to the shifting rhythms while cellist Wolfram Koessel anchored with a lithe line.

In the first half, Joan Tower’s 1994 “Night Fields” made a fascinating study in developing chromatic lines against sustained pedal tones that morph from one instrument to another. Dvorak’s seldom-heard String Quartet in E-flat, Op. 51, made a tuneful transition.

On Monday, an exhilarating, take-no-prisoners gallop through George Antheil’s “Ballet Mecanique,” a magnificent curiosity from the 1920s, put an exclamation point on the Aspen Percussion Ensemble’s best program in recent years. Four pianists and nine percussionists played the pared-down (and less clangy) 1953 revision (no sirens, no array of player pianos) with the requisite rigor and exuberance. The airplane propellors (seriously) rendered electronically in surround sound, seemed to be flying around the hall.

In another highlight, a quartet of percussionists voiced a witty and deftly timed performance of David Ives’ short one-act play “Philip Glass Buys a Loaf of Bread,” a snarky send-up of Glass’ repetitive minimalist style, with plenty of personality, no instruments needed. Flutist Martha Aarons played Jolivet’s 1965 “Suite en Concert” with deadpan seriousness while four percussionists rattled in the background like bongo drummers at a beatnik soiree. And solo-competition winner Josh Vanderhiede dazzled everyone with a seven-minute tour de force on marimba by Andrew Thomas.

What not to miss in the coming days: More goodies from Weilersteins on Sunday, the emotionally vivid cellist Alisa in the beloved Dvorak cello concerto and the Festival Orchestra conducted by her brother, Joshua. Sharon Isbin’s annual guitar recital always draws an enthusiastic audience; it’s tonight in Harris Hall. And baritone Nathan Gunn entertains the deep-pocketed with cabaret songs (some accompanied by Spano) in a Monday evening benefit in Harris Hall.

Harvey Steiman has been writing about the Aspen Music Festival for 18 years. His reviews appear in The Aspen Times on Tuesdays and Saturdays.

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