Review: Big week for violins, Saariaho at the music festival |

Review: Big week for violins, Saariaho at the music festival

Harvey Steiman
Special to The Aspen Times


The Pacifica’s final appearance in Aspen this summer comes tonight on Sharon Isbin’s annual recital in Harris Hall. It involves a Boccherini quintet. Sunday afternoon at 1:30 p.m. - whatever the weather - percussionists gather outside the music tent to play John Luther Adams’ “Inuksuit,” an interactive “installation.” Sunday’s Festival Orchestra concert featured pianist Stephen Hough in two different sets of variations on the same Paganini theme, the familiar one by Brahms and the mind-stretching one by Lutoslawski. Finally, Monday’s Percussion Ensemble recital is, as usual, a don’t-miss event that will include a sonorous mallet quintet and a rambunctiously rhythmic piece by Ginastera.

The Pacifica Quartet raised the bar to a high level Thursday night in Harris Hall, delivering extraordinary rewards to listeners with quartets by Shostakovich and Beethoven that make intense demands on the musicians.

They made the most of the quartet’s last Aspen recital with its present personnel. First violinist Simin Ganatra announced in June that she is leaving the ensemble this fall to devote more time to expanded duties at the University of Indiana’s Jacobs School of Music and to her two children. She helped found the quartet 20 years ago with her husband, the cellist Brandon Vamos.

Those two were the linchpins in stunningly executed traversals of Shostakovich’s Quartet No. 12 and Beethoven’s late Opus 132. The group’s strengths as an ensemble were in evidence throughout—unanimity of phrasing, seamless transitions and a warm sound that can shift to edgy when required. But as this recital confirmed, visually and musically Ganatra is the vivid extrovert that carries the emotional ball. Her expressive face and body movements signal to an audience what the music is all about. Though the other members of the quartet do their part musically, they do it stone-faced.

Pairing these two towering quartets emphasized how they both deal, in their own ways, with contrasting music. Shostakovich’s transitions are so gradual we hardly realize that a moment ago we were listening to spectral knockings in the dark and now the lights have come on when we weren’t aware of it. Shadings of color, tempo and dynamics flowed so smoothly that the music unfurled naturally.

Beethoven contrasts each of the five movements to the ones around it. Even in the opening movement the slow introduction sets up the Allegro that follows with hidden connections. A gentle country-style second movement separates this intense music from the sustained, mostly quiet glory of the plainsong-infused long Adagio at the center of this work. Here’s where this ensemble’s ability to create colors and moods paid big dividends. The fourth movement march dissolved almost imperceptibly into a recitative-like rumination by Ganatra that emerged into a superbly paced and momentum-building finale.

The concert opened with a romantically sad “Chanson perpetuelle” beautifully sung by soprano Esther Heinemann against the quartet’s subtle accompaniment.

On Wednesday evening, Stefan Jackie showed a rapt audience in the music tent how Mendelssohn’s popular violin concerto should be done. He favored quick tempos in the outer movements just short of breakneck, and took the audience on a luxurious spin that seemed intent on pointing out elements of the scenery only the great ones can bring out. It made the overly familiar music fresh and vital.

The capper was a gloriously silky, long-breathed and sigh-worthy slow movement that sang with deceptive simplicity. Nuances were there, but he did not call extra attention to them. Conductor Stephen Mulligan melded beautifully with the soloist, although not all the musicians in the all-student Aspen Philharmonic kept up in the fleet finale.

Jennifer Koh offered violin playing of a different stripe in her recital later that evening in Harris Hall, part of the festival’s current residence of composer Kaija Saariaho. The Finnish-French composer creates unique sound worlds that seem to flit in and out of reality, weaving into the texture dissonances from subtle ambience to crushingly powerful punches.

In “Frises,” a series of fantastic duets written in 2011 for violin and electronics (managed here by sound designer Mark Grey), the player initiates prerecorded ambient sounds and computerized transformations of the violin’s own voice to create an endless soundscape. Fascinating and remarkably expressive, it is inspired by, if not quite variations upon, J.S. Bach’s D minor Partita. That’s the one that concludes with the chaconne, one of the pinnacles of violin literature.

Koh played the entire Bach work first, with engaging simplicity and restraint, her feet planted, her body hardly moving. In “Frises” she removed her blue heels to access the foot switch that activates the electronics.

“Graal Theatre,” a concerto in all but name, dates from 1994. It was a whole different thing. The music grates with harsher dissonances and seldom lets the violin play with pure tone. To accommodate the gruff bowings, scratchy articulations and such, Koh moved with almost manic ferocity. It starts and ends quietly, and intersperses a few moments of beauty within the dissonances. The Aspen Contemporary Ensemble and a dozen additional players ripped into the music with gusto, as did Koh. I preferred the more recent work.

In Monday’s faculty chamber recital in Harris Hall, Saariaho’s “Jardin Secret II” used sound design similar to “Frises” to electronically enhance a solo harpsichord, here played with precision by Mahan Esfahani. The highlight of the program, however, came with “Techno-Parade,” a 5-minute tour de force of boogie-woogie and bebop-tinged rapid-fire music from the French composer Guillaume Connesson. Flutist Nadine Asin, clarinetist Joaquin Valdepeñas and pianist Rita Sloan nailed it.

On Tuesday in Harris Hall, pianist Jonathan Biss embarked on a three-year exploration of Beethoven’s piano sonatas. He’s scheduled three recitals here in August, more next summer and the following year, as he records (in a studio elsewhere) all 32 sonatas over several years. The first installment was not promising. Despite moments of clarity and elegance, especially in the slow movements, the busier the music got the more he rushed phrases, trivializing some critical moments and throwing Beethoven’s rhythms into a blur. More than a few clunkers marred exposed passages. One hopes rounds two and three will be better.

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