Review: Aspen chamber music programs prove ‘You gotta believe’ |

Review: Aspen chamber music programs prove ‘You gotta believe’

Harvey Steiman
Special to The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado

ASPEN – Time was, modern music would scare off half the Aspen Music Festival’s audience. To the festival’s credit, thornier 20th century and contemporary music remained on the program, even if much of it came with an undertone of “good medicine,” rather than “rewarding to hear.”

To win over even an open-minded audience with unfamiliar music, musicians must wholeheartedly commit to it, believe in it so deeply it can’t help but communicate. Indeed, that happened in a series of concerts this week with works of unusual form, quirky musical utterance and, yes, dissonance. The message clearly got through, and audiences responded.

The musicians who played George Crumb’s weirdly fascinating Music for a Summer Evening had to appreciate the standing ovation from an audience ready to lap up Mendelssohn next on Monday’s chamber music program. Enthusiasm also greeted violinist Daniel Hope and pianist Jeffrey Kahane’s assays of somewhat spiky Walton and Schulhoff sonatas Tuesday, and pianist Marc-Andre Hamelin’s assault on the piano in Villa-Lobos’ Rudepoema Wednesday. In each case, not only was the music executed with impressive precision, but the emotions came through, because the players believed in the music.

Oddly, the Emerson Quartet’s traversal of Thomas Ades’ 2010 work The Four Quarters was an exception Thursday in a sold-out Harris Hall for the quartet’s sole concert in Aspen this year. Unfortunately, their struggle to execute Ades’ tricky rhythms and challenging sound textures subtracted from the overall effect of a piece they themselves debuted in 2011.

This wonderful work only sporadically came together. The quick trading-off of high harmonics in the opening “Nightfalls” scratched a bit, and the complex rhythms of the rapid pizzicatos got jumbled in the next, “Morning Dew.” But the music soared when it got into the long build to climaxes in the third movement, “Days,” and the finale, “The 25th Hour,” and in the quiet subsidence into soft, plush chords at the very end.

In contrast, the Shostakovich Quartet No. 8, played after intermission, stunned with its virtuosity and power. Shostakovich’s music has seeped into their bones in their years of playing it, and violinists Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer, and especially violist Lawrence Dutton and cellist David Finckel, tore into it fearlessly. Here was the level of commitment and ease in execution that made the music come to life, so full of specifics, depth and overall thrust.

For an encore, the quartet gave a richly detailed, soulful and mesmerizing slow movement of Beethoven’s final Op. 135 quartet. In his last appearance with the Emerson in Aspen (he’s leaving the quartet next year) Finckel demonstrated an uncanny ability to weave his bass gently but firmly into the seamless textures that this group can achieve.

Hamelin displayed fierce intelligence and staggering technique in a daunting recital Wednesday that ranged from delicacy (miniatures by Faure and Rachmaninov) to the savage assaults of the Villa-Lobos. The pianist’s own Variations on a Theme of Paganini (on the same violin tune Rachmaninov used for his famous rhapsody) was full of witty turns, some naughty, many dissonant but always pianistically ebullient. How appropriate to follow it with some actual Rachmaninov – two preludes and the majestic Sonata No. 2. He gave each phrase shape, detail and color, whether quiet or blazingly loud.

After Busoni’s elaborate arrangement of Bach’s organ Fugue in G Minor “The Great” used the grand piano to achieve organ-like sonorities amid cascades of counterpoint, Hamelin caught his breath with two short Faure pieces before launching into the jaw-dropping Villa-Lobos. The piano had to be retuned at intermission, but the audience was grinning at the thrill of it all. For a calming encore, he turned to “Bruyeres” from Debussy’s Preludes Book 2.

The Crumb piece and the Mendelssohn Cello Sonata No. 2 have virtually zero in common. They simply create their own separate worlds and invite us to explore them. Some in the audience Monday might have come for the percussive quirkiness and dissonance of the Crumb, others for the joyful 19-century tunefulness of the Mendelssohn, but, impressively, they stayed for both. It was an extraordinary concert.

Pianists Wu Han and Rita Sloan joined forces with percussionists Jonathan Haas and Vonder Heide for a thoroughly engrossing traversal of Crumb’s five-part exploration of night music. Crumb generally uses percussion delicately, although there are crashing moments as well. The quartet captured the varied, colorful and musically arresting details of the 40-minute piece vividly. Cellist Eric Kim and pianist Anton Nel, longtime friends and collaborators at Aspen, relished the wit in the pizzicato scherzo of the sonata, the gorgeous arioso of the slow movement and the fast-break give-and-take of the exuberant finale.

In Tuesday’s recital, violinist Hope played four sonatas with pianist Kahane, his regular recital collaborator, in better form than his Prokofiev concerto showed on Sunday. They produced juicy and emotionally affecting moments in Schulhoff’s Violin Sonata No. 2 and a kinky and thoroughly engrossing reading of the Walton Violin Sonata. They finished with a rapid-fire Mendelssohn Violin Sonata in F Major. The encore, a heartfelt Kaddish by Ravel, made up for the minimally defined Ravel sonata that opened the program.

Saturday in Harris Hall, Lera Auerbach plays her own set of 24 Preludes, a fantastic exploration of possibilities for piano. It could be the highlight of the summer, unless her solo version of Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” (originally written for two pianos) surpasses it. The redoubtable Kahane is on the chamber-music roster for some Brahms, Saturday afternoon for the Piano Quartet No. 1 and Monday evening in the Trio for Clarinet, Cello and Piano.

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