Review: Paris blooms at Aspen Music Festival
August 14, 2018
Atmospheric music dominated this past weekend at the Aspen Music Festival, in large part French pieces that fit into the season's Paris theme, culminating in a beautifully expansive performance of Debussy's evocative "La Mer" in the Benedict Music Tent on Sunday.
But the award for most bewitching performance of the weekend had to be Benjamin Britten's ravishing Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings, which led off Friday evening's Aspen Chamber Orchestra program. Tenor Ben Bliss and French horn master Andrew Bain delivered sensitive contributions and conductor Johannes Debus wove the orchestra's strings into a shapely carpet of sound for them.
Bliss, who was a student here only a few years ago and now sings principal roles at the Metropolitan Opera and Santa Fe Opera, articulated the poetry of Tennyson, Blake and Keats with clarity in a sweet tenor that had no trouble ascending to the high range the score requires. Bain, principal horn of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, played a valveless instrument with aplomb for the solo prelude and epilogue (the latter played from outside the tent with an appropriate edge of wildness to the sustained beauty of the music). He switched to a modern French horn to soften the sound and make it match with Bliss' during the six songs.
This is some of Britten's most gorgeous music. Imagine what a difference it might have made a couple of summers ago — in the 2013 season focused on his work — if the first thing audiences heard was this rather than the challenging pieces that drove away a whole swath of regulars.
Debus also led a delicious traversal of Richard Strauss' "Bourgeois gentilhomme" suite in the second half, acknowledging the contributions of each member of the chamber-sized orchestra with individual bows. Well deserved, as it all came together with charm and spice.
Violinist Sarah Chang, also an Aspen alum, followed the Serenade with a dramatic, if uneven, account of Sarasate's showpiece "Carmen Fantasy." Once past a rough opening minute of wobbly intonation in her instrument's low range, she coaxed some lovely delicate playing in the high range, especially a rapid passage of all high harmonics. The piece finished with multiple flourishes.
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More elegance was evident in Saturday afternoon's chamber music program in Harris Hall, saturated with woodwinds and French finesse. The creamy soprano of Esther Heideman caressed the gentle vocal lines of Ravel, Stravinsky and Delage, contemporaries in a 1912 to 1914 effort to bring more color to modern French music using more than a piano but less than a full orchestra. Conductor Weiss and an expanded Aspen Contemporary Ensemble provided watercolor backgrounds.
If that weren't delicious enough, faculty members Alex Klein (oboe) and Nancy Goeres (bassoon) joined pianist Vivian Hornik Weilerstein for an exuberant romp through a Poulenc trio before harp competition winner Deanna Cirielli contributed the needed virtuosity and flair to Ravel's "Introduction and Allegro." An impressive group of woodwind students flanked pianist Anton Nel in a vibrant, pungent and utterly delightful Poulenc Sextet to finish off a splendid afternoon.
Jun Märkl, who made a strong impression leading the all-student Philharmonic Wednesday, underlined what a compelling conductor he is with Sunday's Festival Orchestra program. The opening work, Grieg's "Peer Gynt" Suite No. 1, made the familiar music feel fresh and nuanced, ending with a "Hall of the Mountain King" that ratcheted up intensity to a ringing climax.
After a dappled, painterly performance of Ravel's "Une barque sur l'océan" opened the second half, Debussy's "La Mer" closed the concert admirably. The episodic opening movement shifted seamlessly from one aspect of the sea to another. The second movement was a study in orchestra subtlety, and the finale found all hands on deck for a triumphant finish.
One of the larger audiences in the tent this summer gave a standing ovation to pianist Vladimir Feltsman's error-laden, unsubtle work on Grieg's popular Piano Concerto. The orchestra did fine.
NOT TO MISS IN COMING DAYS
Whichever you choose tonight — pianist Lise de la Salle in recital at Harris Hall or the opening night of Offenbach's opera "Tales of Hoffman" at the Wheeler Opera house — you get a second chance of sorts later this week. "Hoffman" repeats Thursday and Saturday, and de la Salle returns Friday to play Ravel's jazz-infused Piano Concerto on Friday with the Chamber Orchestra, Xian Zhang conducting a program that includes the Mozart Requiem. The choral group Seraphic Fire and its Aspen students form the chorus.
Harvey Steiman has been writing about the Aspen Music Festival for 23 years. His reviews appear Tuesdays and Saturdays in The Aspen Times.