Review: Bronfman, orchestra deliver majestic Brahms
August 5, 2009
ASPEN – Pianists have dominated the Aspen Music Festival’s calendar these past few weeks. Most recently, Friday’s Chamber Symphony concert introduced Lise de la Salle to Aspen audiences. Despite some difficulties coordinating with the orchestra, she made a strong impression in Prokofiev’s youthful Piano Concerto No. 1. Sunday, fresh from his beguiling recital earlier in the week, Yefim Bronfman put an exclamation point on the keyboard parade in a majestic Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2 with the Aspen Festival Orchestra.
Bronfman had the advantage of an orchestra primed by conductor Peter Oundjian. Right from the beginning, with Bronfman’s arpeggios emerging as if organically from the horn tune played by Julie Landsman, the pace was set. Bronfman displayed a knack for adding ju-u-u-st enough rubato to shape a phrase, varying his attack to produce delicate pings here and rich chords a few moments later, all in the service of giving Brahms’ music the perfect dose of personality.
In the gorgeous Andante, his piano played obbligato to a soulful solo from the principal cello, here presented without excess sentiment by Andrew Shulman. In the finale, the dancing theme nearly took on a mind of its own as it tripped lightly over Oundjian’s sprightly accompaniment. With brilliant pianistic flourishes to enliven the outer movements, Bronfman knocked this concerto out of the park. And not on sheer power either, but on finesse and flair.
That concert included an atmospheric Sorcerer’s Apprentice by Dukas, Per Hannevold’s bassoon section distinguishing itself with the familiar tune. A world premiere suite of music from Peter Lieberson’s 1997 opera Ashoka’s Dream ambled along pleasantly, but it might have had more impact in the original version, with the words and action.
The Chamber Orchestra proved more of a competitor for De la Salle Friday than a collaborator. Despite her best efforts, the performance of the Prokofiev concerto kept threatening to derail in the first and last movements. The orchestra often lagged behind conductor James Conlon’s beat, which was exactly with de la Salle’s. The results were periodic forays into a morass of sound instead of Prokofiev’s signature tight rhythms. The slow movement, however, laid down gossamer harmonies, and Bil Jackson floated the sinuous melody in the clarinet part, with De la Salle responding by spinning it out on the piano.
The orchestra did better in the rest of the concert, especially the opening Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge. Britten’s youthful piece displayed all the elements of style we have come to associate with his later works, though not quite completely formed. Conlon and the orchestra seemed to savor the wit in these variations. Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 3 “Scottish” came off as less personalized, more general, but still nicely done.
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A third pianist, Joyce Yang, made a final bow Thursday in the Jupiter String Quartet’s evening in the tent. She added a classy touch to the Schumann Piano Quintet. There was a crispness and stylishness to her playing that was missing from the strings, who seemed to apply the same approach to Schumann as they did to Mendelssohn, Haydn, Mozart and Shostakovich in their two concerts.
On Thursday the American Brass Quintet introduced two new works in their annual concert in Harris Hall. David Sampson’s Chants and Flourishes, for the combined forces of the ABQ and the Atticus Quintet, made colorful use of brass instruments’ ability to call with fanfares and blend with chorales. Shafer Mahoney’s Brass Quintet meandered amiably through some interesting developments, savoring the textural possibilities mutes and dynamics can apply to the sound of brass. But neither one quite came off as convincing as Ingram Marshall’s 1981 Fog Tropes, played against recorded foghorns and ambient sounds of San Francisco Bay.
On the vocal front, Aspen music lovers generally stayed away from the Wheeler Opera House for the final performance of Opera Theater’s The Rape of Lucretia. Turnout Saturday was appalling, but the execution of Britten’s gripping chamber opera could not have been better. Jane Glover led the taut music with precision and power, and the sweet moments were simply ravishing. That includes the discomfitingly sensuous music leading up to the title event, hauntingly sung by baritone David Krohn as Tarquinius, the perpetrator. He topped a strong cast that included mezzo-soprano Heather Jewson as a regal yet vulnerable Lucretia.
Tenor John Andrew McCullough and soprano Carla Janzen brought bright dignity and exceptionally clear singing to the roles of Male and Female Chorus. From a point closer to our times, they tell the story, set in 500 B.C. Some of the Christian theology in their comments can bother nonbelievers, but the story itself, which plays out in less than two hours, remains compelling. Those who avoided it missed a good one.
Voice fans can’t wait for Thursday’s special event with Deborah Voigt in the music tent. Wednesday, violinist Robert McDuffie takes on Vivaldi’s Four Seasons.