Review: ASQ breathes life into Haydn, Prokofiev, Mozart | AspenTimes.com

Review: ASQ breathes life into Haydn, Prokofiev, Mozart

Harvey Steiman
Special to The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

ASPEN – Someone should have set up a video camera and recorded Wednesday’s recital by the American String Quartet in Harris Hall, if for no other reason than to demonstrate what chamber music is all about. For the audience, it was like listening in on a private conversation that was eloquent and poised.

That’s the trick of performing chamber music in public, to make it interesting enough to keep a listener on the hook while hewing to the original idea of making music among friends. That’s certainly what Haydn had in mind when he wrote his quartets for wealthy patrons, who played it with their inner circle for invited guests, seldom for public concerts. True to form, the ASQ got itself so immersed in Haydn’s Op. 64 No. 3, it was almost as if we were not even there.

For us voyeurs in the audience, the first thing to savor was how completely violinists Peter Winograd and Laurie Carney, violist Daniel Avshalomov and cellist Wolfram Koessel adopted the deft, witty style Haydn’s music demands. This is music of finesse, but it’s anything but wimpy. They gave it enough vigor to propel it rhythmically even as the melodies intertwined. Intonation was on the mark. It sounded fresh and sprightly. Perfect Haydn.

Then came Prokofiev’s String Quartet No. 2 in F major, a totally different sound world. Spikier and more dissonant than much of the Russian composer’s most popular music, it calls for a range of sonic effects – playing without vibrato, scratching away entire phrases with harsh down-bows, then contrasting that with sweet, muted chords and melodies. This music is much less appreciated today than the composer’s symphonies, ballets, operas and film scores, but this performance made a strong case for it.

To conclude, clarinetist Joaquin Valdepenas joined the fun for Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet in A major. The word that comes to mind here is “seamless;” Valdepenas’ floating a pianissimo sound melded with the strings, his interjections emerging from the texture organically. Here again the playing style adapted easily to Mozart’s deceptive simplicity, letting the complexity of the music bubble up from beneath the pretty surface.

During the piece it looked as if Valdepenas was chewing on the back of his clarinet. Turns out he had discovered a crack in the ebony instrument and taped it over just before coming on stage. He sounded great anyway.

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Pianist John O’Conor focused on Beethoven, one of his strengths, in his recital Tuesday in Harris Hall. He worked his way through the Six Bagatelles and the Piano Sonata No. 8 in C Minor “Pathetique” with obvious skill but he seemed to have trouble finding the long arc of the music. It stopped and started rather than plunging forward compellingly, and he favored fast tempos, which robbed the famous Adagio cantabile of gravitas.

Much better was the Piano Quintet in E-flat, an unusual piece that matches up the piano with four woodwinds. O’Conor seemed much more effective here gamboling through the work with John Zirbel on horn, Jonathan Fischer on oboe, Theodore Oien on clarinet and Per Hannevold on bassoon. At times it sounded like a small-scale piano concerto with the string section laying out of the orchestra. It brought the evening to a satisfying close.

Monday’s chamber music concert featuring the artist faculty got off to a splendid start with flutist Bonita Boyd and cellist Andrew Shulman breezing easily through Villa-Lobos’ folk-infused “The Jet Whistle.” Valdepenas bobbed and weaved with beautiful melodies and countermelodies to the trio of violinist Paul Kantor, cellist Darrett Adkins and pianist David Friend in composer-in-residence George Tsontakis’ highly listenable 1995 work, Eclipse.

Joseph Swenson was having trouble keeping his violin in tune for Brahms’ String Sextet No. 2 in G, which lent a slippery feel to the piece as he was playing the lead part. Otherwise it was nicely played by Shulman, Michael Mermagen, Catharine Carroll, Stephen Wyrczynski and David Halen.

If you liked the bluegrass inflections in last night’s evening with bassist Edgar Meyer and friends, check out violinist/fiddler Mark O’Connor, who hails from the same world, Saturday night in concert with guitarist Sharon Isbin in Harris Hall. Haydn specialist John Nelson leads the Chamber Orchestra Friday evening in a program featuring pianist Ingrid Fliter and dazzling mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung. David Zinman leads the Festival Orchestra in Bruckner’s orotund Symphony No. 7 in E in Sunday’s concert, preceded by Jeffrey Kahane playing the Mozart Piano Concerto No. 27 in B-flat.