Review: Cellist Harrell finds the magic in Elgar
July 7, 2009
ASPEN – After a half day of gray skies and rain, the sun emerged about an hour before Sunday’s concert, lifting spirits for a concert that surrounded cellist Lynn Harrell’s heart-tugging performance of the Elgar Concerto with lighter material by Enescu and Ravel. It was a good way for me to ease into the Aspen Music Festival’s eight-and-a-half week schedule, already under way for more than a week.
Harrell, 65, literally grew up at this festival, where his father, the baritone Mack Harrell, was a favorite here as performer and teacher. Regulars today look forward to the cellist’s performances, and for good reason. He ranks among the world’s best on the instrument, and he always approaches his Aspen appearances with enthusiasm.
This one was no exception, despite some bland conducting by Lawrence Foster, who was the music director of this festival prior to David Zinman. Leading the Aspen Festival Orchestra, Foster drew largely undifferentiated articulation. Under his baton, there was nothing of the surging emotions that run underneath the dignity on the surface of Elgar’s music, only a clean slate for Harrell to work his magic.
The concerto is an introspective piece, and the cellist took a distinctly unpretentious approach to it. He laid out the themes with simple eloquence. The performance had a wistfulness that was endearing, and an underlying nobility that carried through, even as the tension ratcheted up in the finale.
Foster got a little more color into the surrounding music. Rhythmic vitality carried Enescu’s Romanian Rhapsody in D major, op. 11, no. 2, although the conductor did little to inject variety into Enescu’s relentless tonic-dominant-tonic harmonic palette, and the texture came off as dense. Ravel’s music in the second half showed more sparkle.
Rapsodie espagnole had the transparency of texture that was lacking in the Enescu, and a stately but not at all morose reading of Pavane for a Dead Princess couldn’t help but charm. Alborada del gracioso, which opened with the string section doing a dead-on imitation of a big guitar, climaxed with virtuosic panache.
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The finale, a crowd-pleasing Bolero, drew its power from the orchestra’s principal musicians as one by one they took their turns in the spotlight. Of special note, Thomas Stubbs kept a steady pace with that unceasing snare drum motif, tenor saxophonist Patrick Posey painted a new range of color when he took over the repeating melody, and trombonist Joseph Munoz slipped and slid engagingly through his turn at the tune.
The Takacs Quartet joins with faculty artists Joaquin Valdepenas (clarinet) for Mozart and Antoinette Perry (piano) for Schumann Tuesday at Harris Hall. Violinist Cio-Lang Lin plays Lalo Schifrin’s Tangos Concertante, a music festival co-commission, at the Sinfonia concert at 6 p.m. Wednesday, and cellist Alisa Weilerstein follows with Brahms, Britten, Chopin and Falla in her recital with pianist Inon Barnatan later that same evening.