‘Petrushka’ upstages parade of pianists

Harvey SteimanAspen, CO Colorado

ASPEN Though Saturday night’s benefit performance of “Madama Butterfly” was the centerpiece of a busy weekend at the Aspen Music Festival, it was also a weekend for pianists.Ingrid Fliter wrestled with Beethoven and Chopin in her recital Thursday and eventually triumphed with an exuberant encore of music from her native Argentina. On Friday, Jonathan Gilad fashioned a mellow, delicately wrought performance of Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1. And Sunday, John O’Conor provided a subdued, nicely detailed Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 4But the highlight turned out to be a vivid, energetic performance of Stravinsky’s ballet music for “Petrushka.” Conductor Leonard Slatkin got plenty of pizzazz out of the Aspen Festival Orchestra, playing Friday night instead of in its usual Sunday slot. The orchestra’s (mostly) crisp ensemble playing and one great solo turn after another made the “Petrushka” a joyful romp. Most notable was pianist Louise Chan, but special mention also should go to Nadin Asin’s artfully phrased flute solo and the whole trumpet section – individually and as a group.In the Chopin concerto, Gilad handled the melodies with refinement and the flashy runs with precision. Slatkin provided sensitive accompaniment. What was missing was the wild, unruly, passionate side of Chopin. The program opened with an early piece by Ned Rorem, whose operatic setting of “Our Town” made a significant impression here last summer. “Lions (A Dream)” contrasts a soft halo of string chords with a jazz combo and dissonant uprisings from the orchestra.In her recital Thursday in Harris Hall, Fliter couldn’t wait to get to the piano and start playing. She strode onstage, bowed quickly and deeply to the full house, turning to acknowledge the overflow crowd seated on stage. A bundle of nervous energy in a clingy brown gown, she slid onto the bench, brushed her tousled blond hair from her eyes and started playing. No pretense at staring into the distance to focus, no long silences before diving into the music.Fliter proved a willful interpreter. She has an opinion about the music, about every turn, every phrase, every tone color, every rhythmic gesture, and it’s almost as if she can’t wait to express it. And she has the technique and the intellect to pull it off. Every time a phrase repeated, she gave it a different inflection so it felt fresh, giving the music shape and texture. It made for an exhilarating evening of pianism, especially in Beethoven’s Sonata No. 7 in D major. She brought a playful touch to the proceedings, favoring quick tempos, pauses that felt improvised, executing scales with real flair.In a string of seven Chopin pieces, a set of three waltzes formed a kind of quasi-sonata. The Waltz in A flat major Opus 42, which starts with an unusual two-against-three rhythm, develops its themes almost like a sonata. The famous Waltz in C-sharp minor Opus 64 No. 2, with its wistful theme, served as a sort of slow movement for contrast, and the Waltz in E-flat major Op. 18, with its rip-snorting coda, made a dramatic finale. Fliter’s attention to fresh phrasing, unabashed rubato and dynamic contrasts was endlessly absorbing, if unusually robust for Chopin.The delicate ending of the Mazurka in A minor Op. 59 no. 1 let Fliter use it as a sort of seamless prelude to the great Ballade No. 4 in F minor. The ballade’s opening theme, with Chopin’s endless variations, gave Fliter more opportunities to apply her own glosses, as if turning a diamond in the light to see it sparkle, setting it down gently before the fiery coda. The encore, Ginastera’s Danza del Gaucho Matrero, gave the pianist a chance to show off music by a countryman and a riveting sense of rhythmic power.Sunday’s concert challenged the all-student Sinfonia, which had spent the early part of the summer in the pit for “Cosi fan tutte” and “Carmen,” and conductor Peter Oundjian, with not only the Beethoven piano concerto but Mahler’s Fourth Symphony. Granted, it’s the composer’s lightest symphony, but it’s still Mahler and requires a bit more sustained concentration and willingness to skate to the edge than the students could muster. Oundjian tried to compensate with relatively quick tempos, which made the music less sardonic than it should have been in the scherzo and less spacious in the dreamlike slow movement.Not to miss this week:Cavalli’s “Eliogabalo,” the opera center’s final production of the summer, opens tonight at the Wheeler. A lurid tale of a Nero-like Roman emperor, it was never performed in Cavalli’s time (17th century) and gets its American debut in a score conductor Jane Glover reconstructed.Leonard Slatkin adds his own glosses to Ravel’s orchestration of Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” in a concert orchestra program Wednesday that includes several delightful Stravinsky miniatures and the Walton Viola Concerto with competition winner Elzbieta Weyman.Pianist Vladimir Feltsman returns to play Schubert’s Impromptus and Chopin’s ballades on Saturday night in Harris Hall, most likely with his own unconventional ideas about the music.The season ends Sunday afternoon with two big 20th-century choral works: Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms and Orff’s “Carmina Burana.”