Meyer mesmerizes audience
July 24, 2006
In a week that featured Lynn Harrell’s triumphant return to Aspen after four years, Sarah Chang’s star turn at Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” and a rarely heard Mozart piece for two violins and orchestra played by Gil Shaham and his wife, Adele Anthony, the most unforgettable concert was Edgar Meyer’s solo recital on string bass.Meyer mesmerized a packed Harris Hall Saturday night, making his bass do things that should not be humanly possible. He can play rapid figures as deftly as a cellist and induce his instrument to sing as sweetly as a violin, coaxing harmonics as high as a violin’s from the very end of the instrument’s fingerboard.Meyer’s music creates an irresistible intimacy with his audience, in part because it is so quiet that it draws a listener in. Meyer uses the lightest strokes of the bow, producing about half as much sound as we are accustomed to hearing from other stringed instruments.Most of the first half of the program was written for cello, its precursor the baryton (a transcription of material from Haydn trios) or the violin (Fritz Kreisler’s showy bon-bon, Tambourin Chinois). More astonishing than the fact that Mayer can play these on the bass, he makes gorgeous music of them. It is as if the bear can not only dance on point, but look good doing it.He can also get funky, as he did after the intermission on some of his own works for the bass, which reach back to his bluegrass roots or out-and-out jazz and blues. His longtime piano collaborator, Amy Dorfman, not only found the right dynamic balance but segued smoothly into the shambling sense of rhythm in his own brilliant pieces, such as the inventive Canon. It sends a faintly jazzy tune skittering off in ever more complex and delightful directions.The following morning, I met a young student wheeling his bass through the West End to a rehearsal. After the concert, he practiced until long after midnight. Edgar Meyer sets the bar high for the next generation.It was a good weekend for low strings. The Schumann Cello Concerto Sunday in the tent was memorable for Harrell’s sensitive phrasing, especially in the quieter moments. The big moments came off well, too, but this cellist excels in such details as a silken turn when a melodic line comes to rest.Conductor Hans Graf opened the concert with Shostakovich’s very first work, a lively, tuneful Scherzo the composer wrote when he was 13. The concert closed with Stravinsky’s complete score of The Firebird. (Both pieces should mollify that portion of the Aspen audience who find Shostakovich and Stravinsky too dissonant.)Most striking was the extra instrumental color in the outsized orchestra for the original Firebird, complete with offstage trumpets and Wagner tubas chiming in on the resplendent finale. We don’t hear that in the suites Stravinsky compiled for normal-sized ensembles. Graf got all the juice possible out of the big moments, although the opening could have created a more expectant atmosphere and he could have made the Lullaby gentler.Friday night, conductor Jahja Ling guided the Aspen Chamber Orchestra through a rousing Beethoven Symphony No. 4. With finely judged tempos and plenty of brio, the conductor made it fresh and immensely appealing, overshadowing some lovely work by Mr. and Mrs. Shaham in a Mozart rarity, Concertone for Two Violins in C major.Ling might have emphasized the little musical jokes in the first movement of the Mozart, but the piece’s grace and verve came through. Shaham and Anthony went for finesse in the music over showmanship. In the opener, Arvo Pärt’s Cantus in memoriam Benjamin Britten, Ling and the orchestra struck a fine balance between Pärt’s spirituality and simple tonal richness. Leon Fleisher brought his whole family along for what was billed as a “Leon Fleisher Family Jamboree” Thursday in the tent. The event was lightly attended. Perhaps the fault lay in the announced program and the relative absence of the renowned and beloved pianist himself.Leon conducted Hindemith’s Concert Music for Brass and Harps, an instantly forgettable piece. The Escher Quartet and daughter-in-law Kayo Ishimaru-Fleisher drew out the drama in Conte Fantastique by André Caplet, after daughter Paula Fleisher read a condensed version of Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death,” which inspired the music. Finally, despite their best efforts, Leon and wife Katherine Jacobson-Fleisher demonstrated that a four-hand piano transcription of Ravel’s La Valse lacks the color of Ravel’s orchestration.The parade of Fleishers not named Leon, most of them harpists playing music that veered far from convention, did not exactly light up the sparse audience in the first half. After intermission, son Julian Fleisher and his band had the audience streaming out as the program ran past 2 1/2 hours. Although this festival has embraced non-classical music – Edgar Meyer would be Exhibit A – Julian’s voice and his band seemed more suited to a Las Vegas lounge. Many of those leaving headed for Harris Hall for pianist Anton Nel, cellist David Geber and the indefatigable violinist Sylvia Rosenberg, who gave Schumann’s Piano Trio No. 3 in G minor a gorgeous reading. It was quite a contrast to the circus in the tent.That group’s refinement also made Sarah Chang’s work on Vivaldi’s Four Seasons suffer in comparison. In her other recent concerts here, the overall élan of the music overshadowed moments of wayward intonation and ugly tone production. But “Four Seasons” on Wednesday night’s special event concert in Harris Hall revealed grotesque dynamics and manipulative phrasing.The 25-year-old American violinist, no longer the prodigy in a prim dress but a lithe and attractive woman in strapless numbers, seems hellbent on proving she’s no delicate flower. She presses her instrument to produce as brilliant a sound as possible. Rapid-fire scales made the effusive interjections in “Winter” erupt like a geyser. But then a phrase in the lower register would veer out of tune and turn raucous.There are times when her formidable technique and a good idea about the music coalesce into pure magic. The opening measures of “Summer,” with their sighing downward phrases, perfectly conjured up the picture of a hot, lazy afternoon by a stream. The slow movement of “Spring” matched her sound with the feathery lightness of the student string ensemble, led by the consummate professionals Alexander Kerr and the harpsichordist Kenneth Merrill. They deserved the standing ovation the piece got.Not to miss this weekRenee Fleming, once a student here, brings her charm and beautiful voice to Aspen after a 13-year absence for a recital Thursday in the tent. Richard Bado of the opera faculty accompanies on piano. (Fleming also does the voice master class Sunday at 1 p.m. at the Wheeler.)After its impressive production of Verdi’s La Traviata, the Opera Theater Center has a go at contemporary composer Ned Rorem’s take on “Our Town,” the classic American play. It debuts Saturday.Lynn Harrell plays Debussy, Ravel and Brahms sonatas in a special event Wednesday in Harris, and Leonard Slatkin returns to conduct Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 Sunday in the tent.Harvey Steinman’s weekly commentary about the Aspen Music Festival is founded in 13 years of attendance and a background as a professional critic.