Powerful Prokofiev, passionate Strauss lead a strong weekend
July 25, 2005
The most rewarding moments of last week’s Aspen Music Festival came in the big tent concerts, with Leonard Slatkin leading an energetic Prokofiev Symphony No. 5 and David Zinman taking a bold stab at Strauss’ problematic domestic opera, “Intermezzo.” Earlier, Joshua Bell made some real magic with Saint-Saëns, Brahms and Beethoven, and there were two world premieres in chamber music concerts in Harris Hall.Slatkin’s vigorous traversal of Prokofiev put the cap on a concert in which attacks and releases had a sense of unanimity and phrases developed distinct shapes. It generated enough energy to overcome the wrath of a thunderstorm. The heavens opened just before the downbeat, which scattered the lawn crowd and kept a drumbeat going on the roof.The broad strains of the first movement opened with nobility, and the climaxes were just over-the-top enough to question whether Prokofiev really meant this to be a symphony of triumph. The scherzo zipped by deftly, and the long Adagio had a sense of agony and impending defeat. The finale’s jocular main theme picked up a sense of growing panic as the lower brass swept it aside. It was an epic performance.In the first half of the concert, Orli Shaham gave an amiable account of Dvorak’s early Piano Concerto in G minor, even if her piano sound and rhythmic approach missed some of the Czech colors.Friday’s concert performance of Strauss’ offbeat opera “Intermezzo” fit perfectly into the festival’s 2005 theme, “composer self portraits,” but it took a while to repay the audience’s patience. Told in 13 scenes preceded and separated by 15 well-crafted intermezzos, the story is based on a misunderstanding that almost broke up Strauss’ marriage. It is so plot-driven that the singing has little time to soar in the first act. The eight exposition scenes had the audience filtering out even before intermission.Those who stuck around were rewarded by several marvelous moments. In the second act’s colorful opening scene, Storch (Strauss in the opera) and his pals are gambling at cards when he receives a telegram from his wife demanding divorce. The pals, played by student singers, distinguished themselves, especially Jonathan Taylor as Stroh (another conductor) and David Salsbery Fry as an opera singer. This scene played vividly, musically and dramatically, and a got a well-deserved ovation that cut into the ensuing intermezzo.Zinman’s passionate, idiomatic conducting drew rich orchestral utterances from the Aspen Chamber Symphony, especially in the intermezzos. As Storch, Robert Gardner stamped himself as a baritone worth watching, singing seamlessly and beautifully, especially in the final scene’s long duet with his now mostly reconciled wife. It begins with a quarrel and ends in an irresistible Straussian climax. Soprano Pamela Armstrong, who had seemingly been singing all night already, had plenty of silvery tone left to make this a highlight. Raymond Very handled with aplomb Strauss’ ungrateful music for the tenor, Baron Lummer.In Saturday’s recital, the Brentano Quartet added bassist Edgar Meyer for Dvorak’s early String Quintet in G major, a rare treat. The quartet alone also brought a full measure of drama and color to Mario Davidovsky’s String Quartet No. 5, a brief one-movement work with plenty of modern effects.The Brentano might be the fidgety-est quartet around. First violin Mark Steinberg holds his fiddle at a low angle, rocks back and brings his foot down to coincide with a big accent. Second violin Serena Canin twists and leans. In one agitated passage, cellist Nina Maria Lee’s ponytail became a blur. Violist Misha Amory apparently didn’t get the memo. He plays normally.Does it affect the music? Well, every phrase and gesture seems to emerge with extra emphasis, perfect for Davidovsky, acceptable for Dvorak, but death to poor Haydn. His Quartet in B flat major Op. 64 No. 3 came off as grotesquely exaggerated. On the other hand, the straight tone and pure intonation they brought to Bruce Adolphe’s transcription of five Gesualdo madrigals from 1611 was impressive.There was nothing idiosyncratic about Bell’s “Evening with…” Thursday. He has his own body language moments, but he played the music with such grace and facility that all a reasonable listener could do was sit there and grin at the privilege of hearing it.Bell and his regular pianist, Frederic Chiu, made real music out of Saint-Saëns Violin Sonata No. 1 in D minor. They captured the fragile loveliness of the gentle second theme, refused to let the slow movement get too sentimental and brought refinement to the scherzo. The finale made my jaw drop. Plenty of fiddlers can sail through the technicalities of the whiz-bang finale, but I would wager few of them could make it sound like a natural, organic thing. This was no show-off fiddle-faddle but an exciting climax.The level of play continued in the Brahms’ Horn Trio in E flat major, with French hornist William VerMeulen, and the Beethoven Septet in E flat major. Instead of drafting members of the festival’s artist faculty, Bell surrounded himself with musicians he has worked with elsewhere. Their unanimity of approach made for one of the most satisfying concerts of the year.Two premieres, both New York reactions (at least in part) to Sept. 11 2001, highlighted programs earlier in the week. Libby Larsen’s sing cycle, “Sifting Through the Ruins,” powerfully evokes the feelings of those shellshocked days. The piece uses real people’s texts collected by mezzo-soprano Susanne Mentzer, who sang the work vividly. It’s brilliant stuff, but there is no relief from its despair. Although one song contains the lines “Slowly the heart adjusts/To its new weight,” there is no ray of light in the music.Robert Beaser’s much lighter-hearted suite, “Souvenirs,” concludes its cycle of six folk-oriented movements with “Ground O,” Beaser’s response to Sept. 11. Beaser retreated to his studio and wrote a gossamer-fragile tapestry of serene harmonies, long clarinet legatos and delicate piano arpeggios that evoke the spray of spring rain. Clarinetist Joaquin Valdepeñas and pianist Anton Nel brought it to life gorgeously.In the more heavily promoted midweek event, Violinist Pinchas Zukerman and his Zukerman Chamber Players looked bored and distracted as they slogged through the Bruckner String Quintet in F and an only slightly livelier rendition of Mozart’s String Quintet in C.Not to miss this weekIn a week featuring Robert McDuffie, Kyoko Takezawa, the American Brass Quintet and James Conlon conducting his beloved Schulhofrf, the chance to hear the indomitable Leon Fleisher play a recital in the intimate surroundings of Harris Hall (Wednesday 8 p.m.) has music lovers salivating.Harvey Steiman has been coming to Aspen annually for the music festival since the early 1990s. His comments on selected concerts will appear weekly.