Review: A tale of two Music Festival violinists (with vigor)
August 7, 2009
ASPEN – Aspen Music Festival audiences got a chance to compare violin styles of two longtime festival favorites in concerts at Harris Hall earlier this week. In between their events, the annual Percussion Ensemble concert this time around featured some of the clangiest, along with some of the mellowest, music imaginable for drums, gongs and things struck with mallets.
Robert McDuffie filled the hall to overflowing for his concert Wednesday, highlighted by Vivaldi’s ever-popular The Four Seasons. Aided and abetted by a fine ensemble of string students led by faculty artist and St. Louis Symphony concertmaster David Halen, McDuffie emphasized contrasts in dynamics, tempo and tone. It was about as vigorous a performance of this music as we are likely to hear. In reverberant Harris Hall, the loud parts sounded like a whole symphony orchestra, the quieter bits hushed and expectant. Especially beguiling were the one-on-one moments, such as the giggle-inducing byplay with Halen on all the bird-trilling in the first movement of “Spring,” and the solo violin’s excursions against the cello continuo and harpsichord in “Autumn.”
Throughout, the students played with refinement and unanimity. Some of the fastest, flashiest ensemble passages were breathtaking in their clarity and power. If there was a downside to the gung-ho dynamics, it’s that it often obscured the harpsichord. When we heard it, Kenneth Merrill’s work sounded lovely. McDuffie’s playing may have missed on intonation here and there, but the overall effect was so brash and enthusiastic, few could care. This was not a purist’s Four Seasons, but it probably lifted spirits more than an era-correct interpretation would.
The same can be said of Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins in D Minor, played before intermission by the same forces with a bit more refinement but just as much vigor. Ray Chen, who has been winning competitions right and left, matched McDuffie phrase for phrase in the music, among Bach’s finest. For openers, McDuffie and pianist Andrew von Oeyen combined for a savory romp through Stravinsky’s Suite italienne, a reworking of music from his ballet Pulcinella. Stravinsky used baroque sources for the music, which made it nicely compatible with the Bach and Vivaldi works.
If McDuffie’s playing was athletic, so was Chang’s on Monday. But where McDuffie was schussing like a downhill skier, Chang was more like a hockey player body checking the music. She tore into Brahms’ Violin Sonata No. 3 in D minor as if it were a concerto, not chamber music. She seemed more interested in twisting her body dramatically and finishing bowings with panache than focusing on the musical details. Her sound was often coarse, phrases blunt. On the other hand, when she pulled back, the more delicate passages had a real beauty. The short Adagio was the best element of the four-movement work. In contrast Von Oeyen, who accompanied Chang as well as McDuffie, played with refinement throughout.
Chang appeared on the Monday night chamber music program that usually comprises only faculty artists. Her star presence drew an extra-large audience that also heard von Oeyen avoid excess flashiness in Liszt’s Vallee d’Obermann, delivering the long arc of the music in an even-handed performance. Villa-Lobos’ spiky Quinteto en forma de choros got a sprightly reading from a group that included some especially fine interplay among clarinetist Joaquin Valdepenas, oboist Elaine Douvas and flutist Nadine Asin.
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On the Percussion Ensemble program Tuesday, the highlights for me were two late additions to the agenda. The big bonus was Mariel, a hypnotic duet by OIsvaldo Golijov for cello and marimba. The cellist and percussionist Ian Sullivan let the music unfold unhurried, profound and heartfelt. This is a terrific piece that ought to be heard again and again. Another marimba specialist, Robert Garza, transferred Bach’s Lute Suite No. 1 to his instrument and applied astonishing technique and poise to the effort.
The transparency and clarity of this music was much easier to grasp than the dense, thorny and largely impenetrable Ringing Changes by Charles Wuoronin. Ginastera’s Cantata para America Magica is good enough to stand without the dated, pretentious costume drama surrounding it, gamely acted by David Ledingham as some sort of Aztec priest. Sopranos Alize Rozsnyai and Stephanie Nakagawa managed to sing through some of the less-dense passages in the Ginastera, and they sounded fine. Both those pieces relied more on pounding and crashing than on creating an interesting and resonant sound world. Robert Miller’s Full Circle, commissioned by the ensemble in 1996, made the tonal colors much clearer. It would have been more interesting had its melodic components (yes, actual melodies) not repeated themselves a few times too often.
Chang returns to address a real Brahms violin concerto Sunday with James DePriest conducting. And don’t bail after intermission. The Nielsen Symphony No. 4 is a Romantic treat. Sinfonia gets a rare Friday night spotlight under Peter Oundjian, with the program to include a world premiere of Unforgettable, a double violin concerto by Aspen composer-in-residence George Tsontakis. And a cello ensemble takes over Harris Hall Saturday night, the program embracing Villa-Lobos and Piazzola.