Review: Aspen festival ends with ecstatic Mahler’s Eighth | AspenTimes.com

Review: Aspen festival ends with ecstatic Mahler’s Eighth

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

ASPEN – The Aspen Music Festival’s final-day programs always aim for big pieces with massed instrumental and vocal forces. Mahler’s Symphony No. 8, known as the “Symphony of a Thousand,” just might be the quintessential work for these occasions. It starts big, ends big and scatters brass players and a singer around the edge of the Benedict Music Tent, and, damn – it sure finishes up exultant.

In Sunday’s performance, an expanded Festival Orchestra, the Colorado Symphony Orchestra Chorus, Kantorei and Colorado Children’s Chorale, seven solo singers arrayed across the front and one stationed at the back of section 400 might not have added up to 1,000, but they sounded like it. Festival music director Robert Spano set a majestic pace, and when all the elements came together, the results were hair-raising.

Part I, “Veni Creator Spiritus,” seemed relentlessly loud, however. The mass of sound was impressive, but whether it was the volume or the sheer difficulty of getting all those choristers to enunciate at precisely the same time, the text did not come through well at all.

Part II, the closing scene from Goethe’s “Faust,” was much different. Spano created a marvelous sense of foreboding in the long, ultraquiet introductory section, with the whispers of the “echo” chorus adding chilling undertones. Dynamics had more subtlety throughout this part, the music more transparency, and the text became more discernible. The long buildup to the climactic final pages had just the right tension, and when, one by one, the various choruses added their sound to the texture, it could have lifted the tent roof – thankfully not at the expense of beautiful sound.

The soloists, who each got a turn at the forefront, all acquitted themselves admirably, especially Heidi Melton, a last-minute substitute for Angela Meade. Melton’s muscular, cutting sound had a creamy sheen that made it rich and warm, ideal for the role of Magna Peccatrix. Mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke displayed a rich lower register in Mülier Samaritana’s music. Russell Thomas seemed tireless, his clear tenor cutting through the thick background. Baritone Stephen Powell (Pater Ecstaticus) and bass-baritone Ryan McKinny (Pater Profundis) dispatched their arias with clarity and warmth. Soprano Esther Heideman’s two soaring lines as Mater gloriosa provided a gorgeous transition to the big finale.

Two strengths of the Festival Orchestra this year paid dividends in that finale. First was the richness and sonority of the brass section, which muscled up without blaring, even the extra brass in the outer ring. The other was the string section, which had the intensity and bloom to its sound that completed the picture.

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Friday’s final Chamber Symphony concert of the season proved a mixed bag. Jun Märkl, a demonstrative conductor, favored lively tempos, great in the opening piece, Kodaly’s “Dances of Galanta,” not so much in the Brahms Symphony No. 4 in G minor.

Märkl, who conducts the MDR Symphony in Leipzig, Germany, drew evocative, colorful playing from the orchestra in the Kodaly. But his dry-eyed, unsentimental approach to the Brahms symphony lost cohesion several times. What should have been grand and complex bobbed and weaved. A rare (for Aspen) orchestral encore, harking back to the Hungarian music of the first half, was Brahms’ popular Hungarian Dance in G minor. It got off to a rousing start, but a lack of unanimity on how phrases should finish kept it from being quite the cracker Märkl hoped for.

A question arises: What encouraged so many guest conductors and performers this season to play music so unnecessarily fast? The particularly rapid clip might have undone Stephen Hough, the soloist, who clearly had a genuine sense of where the showy, glittery Liszt Piano Concerto No. 1 could develop some depth. But exposed clinkers whizzed by with disturbing regularity. It got a standing ovation anyway.

Hough did much better Saturday night with the Liszt Sonata in B minor, one of the pinnacles of the piano literature, subbing last-minute in a solo recital for John O’Conor. A few flubbed notes here and there mattered little when he poured so much soul and energy into the musical narrative. Especially telling were the slight hesitancies and his pearl-like touch on the quiet interludes between stormy climaxes.

A fast tempo in Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 14 in C-sharp minor “Moonlight,” the one holdover from O’Conor’s all-Beethoven program, lost some of its magic in the meditative first movement. But the deft dance of the second movement could not have showed more charm, and the fiery arpeggios of the finale delivered plenty of energy. Hough’s own episodic Sonata for Piano (“Broken Branches”) is worth hearing more than once. It started off quiet and wistful, gathered power as it darted this way and that, and receded from a somewhat reluctant climax into a feeling of peace. He finished the first half by delving deeply into Skryabin’s stormy and brief Piano Sonata No. 5, which should go onto his highlight reel. For one encore, he veered to Spain for his own arrangement of a Segovia guitar piece.