Review: At Aspen Music Festival pianist shines, new Previn work doesn’t |

Review: At Aspen Music Festival pianist shines, new Previn work doesn’t

Harvey Steiman
Special to The Aspen Times

“Penelope” had everything going for it. An all-star lineup that included soprano Renée Fleming and the Emerson String Quartet performed André Previn’s unfinished final effort, a co-commission by the Aspen Music Festival. They filled every seat in Harris Hall, but the results were bittersweet.

The night before, the 28-year-old Russian pianist Daniil Trifinov also filled Harris Hall and delivered high-voltage thrills as his bold recital explored unconventional but seminal works of the past century.

I wish I had a few pages to explore the heights, depths and sheer magnificence of Trifonov’s audacity in programming one solo piano piece to represent each decade of the 20th century. His mastery of the keyboard discovered fresh timbres and new means of expression in an instrument we thought we knew, and his commitment found each work’s essence.

The program drew musical links among diverse works. Berg’s Sonata, Op. 1, with its pre-atonal lush pianism and layers of intertwined lines, contrasted with Prokofiev’s rough-hewn “Sarcasms,” from the next decade. Later, the soothing harmonies of Messiaen’s “Le baiser de l’Enfant-Jésus” from Vingt régards sur l’Enfant-Jésus harked back to Berg’s softer sound before exploding with ecstasy.

Calling to mind John Lennon with his beard, long hair and wire-rimmed glasses to see the scores he played from, Trifonov found flourishes and nuances in Bartók’s Out of Doors suite that rode his technical proficiency to shed light on what made the piece a worthy representative of the 1920s. In Copland’s Piano Variations from 1930, shafts of light and hints of bebop peeked out from the dense and dissonant mass of notes.

Pieces in the second half introduced humor and aimed for beauty. Four of Ligeti’s 11 sly miniatures from “Musica ricercata” (from 1953) included an Allegro that broke into a jazzy dance before a waltz sneaked in snippets from famous waltz classics. Stockhausen’s Klavierstücke No. 4, No. 9 overstayed its welcome, but around it the sun came out.

The two living composers communicated more directly. John Adams’ “China Gates” (from 1977) delivered five minutes of shimmering, twinkling sweetness, and John Corigiliano’s “Fantasia on an Ostinato” (1985) finished the concert by exploring the Allegretto from Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7. Trifonov made an improvised central section fit seamlessly.

About one-third of the audience skipped the second half, either daunted by the dissonance in the earlier works or up past their bedtimes (intermission extended past 10 p.m.). Those who stayed were rewarded by a phenomenal piano recital that ranks as one of the greatest this festival has ever presented.

Hopes were high for “Penelope” on Thursday. Having already performed the 40-minute monodrama at two other summer festivals that co-commissioned it, soprano Fleming sang with her trademark flowing sound and care for text, and the Emerson String Quartet played with precision. Simone Dinnerstein sounded as if Previn himself was playing the piano part.

If only the piece were worthy of all that attention. Previn was still working on it when he died Feb. 28, and his longtime editor, David Fetherolf, assembled this performing version. Its best attribute, however, is not Previn’s music but playwright Tom Stoppard’s text, a crackling retelling of Homer’s “Odyssey” from the perspective of Penelope, the hero’s wife, left at home on the island of Ithica.

Fleming shares the storytelling with a narrator, the radiant Victoria Clark. (Uma Thurman did the premiere in Tanglewood.) It’s all in prose, but Previn applies relatively florid passages to music. We know this composer could set words brilliantly for the voice. He wrote the role of Blanche Dubois in his opera “A Streetcar Named Desire” for a young Fleming, including one of the soprano’s signature arias, “I Want Magic.”

Alas, nothing close to that happens here. The music traces the words smoothly but, hampered by the rhythms of prose rather than poetry, it never opens up into song. Instrumental interludes give the quartet and the piano their moments, but they pass quickly.

The concert’s first half saw the quartet bounce merrily through Haydn’s cheerful String Quartet in D Major, op. 71 No. 2, and apply a polished veneer to a dry-eyed performance of Barber’s String Quartet — the one that includes the famous Adagio.

For an example of something that uses music and words to great effect, look no further than a riveting opera, also co-commissioned by the festival, from composer Missy Mazzoli. In its Aspen debut Tuesday in Harris Hall, the concert setting of “Proving Up” emphasized Mazzoli’s music, evocative as scene-setter, and working magic with librettist Royce Vavrek’s words to induce feelings of dread worthy of Stephen King or Alfred Hitchcock.

The story explores the deathly peril that the fictional Zenger family suffers pursuing the promise of a farm from Uncle Sam in 1870s Nebraska. Stoic Ma (the richly voiced soprano Shayleen Norat) and drunken Pa (baritone Samson McCrady), live with their son, 13-year-old Miles (River Shayne Guard, shading his tenor into a range of hues), and the ghosts of their two deceased daughters (Vincentia Geraldine and Hailey McAvoy, singing in close harmony and behaving oddly). There’s also a silent, injured older son, Peter.

Pa, rendered ineffective by drought and drink, sends Miles to a distant farm to deliver a window, the final requirement (along with a sod house, acres of grain and five harvests) for the government to sign over the deed on a homestead. The Zengers acquired their window under troubling circumstances, but Pa is willing to share it with another farmer. Thrilled with the assignment, Miles applies a thrilling voice and stage presence to an impressive extended solo scene, riding his horse into a blizzard. He meets a specter of doom in The Sodbuster (bass Eric McConnell), whose skin-crawling character brings with him, in the final 20 minutes, some of the orchestra’s most potent music.

As a metaphor for our times, when wide swaths of our population fight economics stacked against them, the sobering story is thought-provoking. If uncomfortable to experience, the 80-minute opera wields extraordinarily power in spite of, or perhaps because of, obsessive repetition of the Homestead Act’s requirements. Aspen Opera Center singers, director Mary Duncan Steidl, conductor Scott Terrell and the 15-piece orchestra delivered it all in spades.

The contrast couldn’t be greater with the tuneful 20th-century music in Monday’s chamber music lineup the night before, which benefited from two pieces that relied on jazz, and musicians that knew how to make them work. The first was “Peaches,” a five-minute bonbon in soft jazz by Previn that dates from 1978. Pianist Anton Nel and flutist Nadine Asin lavished the required delicacy on it. The other showcased the jazz chops of David Kraus (principal trumpet of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, in residence with the festival this summer) and pianist Derek Wang (a teenage wonder here only a few years ago) on “Blues Variations,” from Travels for Trumpet by David Amram.

Violinist Sylvia Rosenberg, sitting alone on stage in profile, found simplicity and inner space in John Harbison’s “Four Songs of Solitude,” and violinist Renata Arado and violist Espen Lilleslåtten made a delightful hoedown of “Three Madrigals,” a 1950 work by the Czech composer Bohuslav Martinu.


A hot button on the classical music scene, the Escher String Quartet, takes on Mozart, Ives and Schubert in their recital tonight in Harris Hall. Conductor James Gaffigan returns to Aspen to lead Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” on Sunday afternoon in the music tent. Monday night it’s the always-intriguing Percussion Ensemble in Harris Hall, topping things off with George Antheil’s infernally rollicking Ballet Mécanique.

Harvey Steiman has been writing about the Aspen Music Festival for 25 years. His reviews appear in The Aspen Times Tuesdays and Saturdays.