Renée Fleming’s offers a highly personal recital
July 31, 2006
Renée Fleming’s return to the Aspen Music Festival after an absence of 13 years overshadowed several other remarkable performances last week, including a musically satisfying recital by cellist Lynn Harrell, two very different orchestral concerts and an opera premiere (reviewed in Monday’s Aspen Times).Fleming put her own stamp on an eclectic program of music from four centuries Thursday. Purists may cluck over her approach to Purcell’s 17th-century “ayres” and Handel’s 18th-century arias, but she communicated in ways that period-authentic renditions may not. The lusher music of 19th-century opera and a couple of encores of Strauss songs justifiably got the most enthusiastic responses.She is, first and foremost, a woman of the theater. Her presence is almost regal as she glides on stage, her long pale green gown barely sweeping the floor. When she sings, the soprano sound has a creaminess and voluptuousness that demands a listener’s attention, even if it sometimes runs at cross-purposes with such fine points as agility in fast-moving phrases. She does like to color it from phrase to phrase, but she does it without sacrificing intonation or vocal quality, as dramatic sopranos have been known to do.In the aria “Poveri fiori,” from Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur, for example, the octave skips were breathtakingly poignant. In “Song to the moon,” from Dvorâk’s Rusalka, the long, languid line poured out like a fine sauce, a contrast to the feverish intensity of the prayer-like chant that came just before the final flourish.The baroque sets were less satisfying, The long slow lines produced a beautiful cantilena, but the rapid passages lacked precision and the da capo arias missed their expected explosions of coloratura in the second or third go-round. There was also a disconnect between Fleming’s highly personal approach and that of the period-style band, including harpsichord and theorbo.Fleming doesn’t shy from tackling non-mainstream repertory. George Crumb’s Apparition, a setting of Walt Whitman texts from “When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d,” challenges the singer to find expressiveness in difficult and tricky music. She and pianist Richard Bado, of the Aspen Opera Theater Center faculty, made it a wrenchingly beautiful experience.In his recital Wednesday in Harris Hall, Lynn Harrell brought clarity, precision and just enough stylistic flourish to a delectable program of Debussy, Ravel and Brahms cello sonatas. The highlight for me was the Ravel Sonata for Violin and Cello, in which the composer gets a deeper and more complex sound than you have any right to expect from two bowed instruments. Harrell and his wife, Helen Nightengale, reveled in the piece’s endless invention.That’s not to denigrate the Debussy Cello Sonata and the Brahms Cello Sonata No. 2 in F major, in which his pianist collaborator, Jeanne Pearce Martin, seemed to be breathing with him phrase by phrase. Both pieces gained a welcome sense of intimacy, especially the Brahms.Friday’s Chamber Orchestra concert introduced conductor Andrey Boreyko to Aspen, and off of this performance he ought to be back soon. He made charming stuff of a puffball programmatic piece by Roussel. Despite soloist Piotr Anderczewski’s colorless playing, the conductor got plenty of juice out of the orchestra in Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23. And Boreyko vividly brought to life an orchestration of Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 3.As a string quartet, the music is gripping. As the Chamber Symphony in F, it demonstrates how instrumental colors can enhance an already galvanizing piece. It starts off about as happy as Shostakovich gets, clouds form and it gets darker and more nervous, finally ending on a whisper of despair. Orchestrator Rudolf Barshai got Shostakovich’s OK for his reworking of the first two quartets. Woodwinds take over melodies when it feels appropriate and, along with the string basses, inject extra density at some points. There are times when Shostakovich seemed to be pushing the boundaries of what a string quartet sound can do. This orchestration lets it happen the way Shostakovich might have wanted it, and Boreyko conducted it with passion and clarity.Leonard Slatkin conducted Sunday’s Festival Orchestra program brilliantly, but Aspen’s unpredictable weather did him in for the second straight year. Last summer a huge storm drowned out what might have been a great performance of Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5. Sunday, the heavens opened for a sustained deluge just as Slatkin came out to conduct Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5.What we could hear of the first movement sounded pretty good. He waited for the rain to abate. And waited. He sat down on the podium. He chatted with the principal cellist and the concertmaster. He huddled with the festival brass. It was decided that he and the orchestra would skip to the fourth movement, which is fairly loud, and if the rain stopped, they would then play the quieter second and third movements. After a rousing go at the finale, and an ovation, they called it a day. It was a good decision. The rain continued for another 45 minutes.Before the rains, the Mozart Concerto for Two Pianos in F major “Lodron” got a lively performance, both by the orchestra and the student pianists, 12-year-old Conrad Tao and 14-year-old Peng Peng. But the showstopper was a sensational gallop through Christopher Rouse’s loud, rhythmic, wild and wooly 1984 composition Gorgon. The percussionists covered themselves with glory. And then came the rains.Next year, when Slatkin comes back, no Russian fifth symphonies, OK? Mother Nature apparently objects.Not to miss this weekThe percussion ensemble’s annual Harris Hall event is always a great show. Tuesday’s event features a premiere of a piece by Gunther Schuller.Violinist Hilary Hahn plays the Goldmark concerto Friday, guitarist Sharon Isbin explores Spanish music Saturday with mezzo-soprano Gemma Coma-Alabert, and James Conlon returns Sunday for some Britten and Shostakovich.Harvey Steiman’s weekly commentary about the Aspen Music Festival is founded in 13 years of attendance and a background as a professional critic.