Mother Nature plays second fiddle to McDuffie’s cadenza
The sounds of a summer evening can interfere with live music, but sometimes they add to the atmosphere. Friday night at the Benedict Music Tent, distant thunder mingled with the rumble of a bass drum, and the squawking of a lone magpie meshed perfectly with the rustling of plucked strings in James MacMillan’s already colorful and atmospheric Symphony No. 2, which opened the Aspen Chamber Symphony program.That’s part of the magic of music in Aspen. In a venue open to the outdoors, an utterly silent background won’t happen. Distant wailing sirens, airplanes banking into or out of Sardy Field and the occasional barking dog can intrude on the moment. But this time, Mother Nature helped.McMillan’s symphony, written in 1999, begins with tolling chimes, which quickly develop into highly chromatic, mildly dissonant episodes that alternate between elegiac and angry. The long second movement has a series of ingenious and harmonically arresting episodes, here playing off the texture of a whole string section seemingly improvising in quick pizzicato, there weaving hazy woodwind harmonies with outbursts from the brass. The piece ends with marvelously quiet harmonic and sonic effects.A full-blown thunderstorm interrupted violinist Robert McDuffie’s extended cadenza that opens Ravel’s Tzigane. Having already dazzled a three-quarters-full audience with the Bartok Rhapsody No. 2, McDuffie persevered. And by the time conductor Hugh Wolff had completed a noble, graceful traversal of the Brahms Symphony No. 3, the setting sun was lighting up puffy clouds downvalley.You don’t get that in a regular old concert hall.On Thursday, a gang of pianists on the music school faculty presented an uneven concert larded with oddities for multiple pianos. In a riveting performance, Ann Schein and Anton Nel caught the rhythmic bite in Bartok’s unique Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion. Except for one unfortunately dropped cymbal, Jonathan Haas and Douglas Howard contributed sensitive work on various drums, timpani, xylophone, triangles and cymbals.Opera provided material for the opening and closing pieces. Antoinette Perry and Virginia Weckstrom charmed with a two-piano transcription of Mozart’s overture to The Magic Flute much more than four pianists did in Mack Wilberg’s strange 1990 fantasy on music from Bizet’s Carmen. Wilberg thought it witty to throw in a bunch of wrong notes, rather than develop the tunes. It just sounded like amateur night at the piano center.In a tag-team approach to Rachmaninov’s Suite No. 2 for two pianos, four hands, I wished Jean-David Coen and Robert Koenig, who took the first and third movements, had done the whole thing. John Nauman and Brian Zeger got no dance feeling into the second-movement waltz or the finale’s tarantella.An encore rounded up all eight pianists for a rousing four-piano, 16-hand transcription of Wagner’s “The Ride of the Valkyries.” It was great fun. I only wished they had dragooned some sopranos from the opera department into singing the ho-jo-to-ho’s.Saturday night’s concert in Harris Hall found the American Brass Quintet in fine form, offering the world premiere of a perky, jazzy Brass Quintet by Steven Christopher Sacco. It’s highly listenable music, and the piece has a lot of energy, but the same tunes recur often, insufficiently developed. Robert Dennis’ Blackbird Variations offered a juicy series of atmospheric turns on a simple figure, and Anthony Plog’s Music for Brass Octet (performed with members of the student Urban Quintet) applied fanfare techniques to an all-trumpet and trombone lineup.Sunday’s Festival Orchestra concert reflected another thought-provoking program from music director David Zinman, juxtaposing Richard Strauss’ quiet, dignified lament for strings, Metamorphosen, with Gustav Mahler’s considerably more boisterous Das Lied von der Erde, a collection of six songs, which ends with one of the most heart-rending goodbyes in the concert literature. Both pieces reflect on death, but in very different ways.Zinman’s conducting emphasized the quiet dignity of the Strauss vs. the Technicolor brilliance of the Mahler. He might have found greater contrasts between phrases in Metamorphonsen, more changes of tone and tempo to set the sections apart, but the gentle arc he achieved had a wonderful unanimity of feeling. In a nice gesture, he walked through the orchestra shaking the hand of each musician individually after the mellow finish.In Das Lied, which opens with jaunty horn call and a robust introduction from the full orchestra, Zinman drew lithe, responsive playing. Among the many fine solo turns, special mention should be made of Louis Ranger’s sprightly trumpet filigrees in the first movement and Nadine Asin’s flute quietly closing the first half of the finale.Tenor Jon Villars, who sings many heroic roles in opera, never seemed to be straining for Mahler’s high-lying phrases but he didn’t always get through the thick orchestration, either. Low notes often were inaudible. Nancy Maultsby, a true contralto who can also maneuver in the higher reaches of the mezzo-soprano territory, was especially effective in quieter moments, when it counted most. In Abschied (“Farewell”), the final song and the longest and most thoroughly developed of the six movements (lasting about a half hour), she had the space to develop pathos and nobility. By the time she got to the final, fading repetitions of “ewig …” (“eternally”), Maultsby and Zinman created exactly the sort of suspension in time that Mahler wanted.Not to miss this weekEdgar Meyer, the phenomenal bassist who can play classical and bluegrass with equal abandon, headlines the Friday Aspen Chamber Orchestra concert with his Bass Concerto No. 1. Michael Stern conducts and concludes the program with the Schubert’s monumental Symphony No. 9. And conductor James Conlon takes his always highly anticipated turn at the helm of the Aspen Festival Orchestra Sunday in a program that includes the Dvorak Symphony No. 8.This week is also a bonanza for vocal music lovers. Mezzo-soprano Susanne Mentzer, with Craig Rutenberg at the piano, offers a recital of music by women tonight at Harris Hall. Baritone Masanori Takayashi, winner of the voice competition, sings Ravel’s ravishing Don Quichotte à Dulcinée in the Sinfonia concert Wednesday. After presenting dozens of excerpts in recent years at the Saturday morning Opera Scenes Master Classes, the opera department finally brings Britten’s Turn of the Screw to the Wheeler Opera House stage in its entirety in two performances starting Saturday.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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