Review: Crowd-pleasing 20th-century music enlivens Aspen Music Festival weekend
Special to The Aspen Times
For those who hear the words “20th-century classical music” and cringe expecting something difficult to grasp and hard on the ears, the Aspen Music Festival’s major orchestral programs this past weekend should have been revealing. Palpable joy in music-making consistently connected with audiences.
Although every piece, written between 1903 and 1937, was well worth hearing, differences in audience familiarity and with the quality of execution are revealing. The turnout was much better Sunday, the program comprising three certified audience favorites, than Friday, when the accessibility of the works may have surprised listeners who may think of Britten and Shostakovich as tough going.
For a quick comparison, look no further than the featured piano works. The Festival Orchestra on Sunday featured Joyce Yang in Rachmaninoff’s romantically luxuriant Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. Though not a concerto, it runs exactly the same 22 minutes as Ravel’s jazz-inflected Piano Concerto in G, the opener on Friday’s Chamber Orchestra lineup. Jeffrey Kahane was both soloist and conductor.
For his rhapsody, the much more familiar work of the two, Rachmaninoff looked back to the late 19th century from his vantage point in 1934 and produced a favorite of many great pianists and audiences alike. For her part Yang lavished jaw-dropping technique and tremendous flair on this music, diving deep into its ebb and flow to produce a stellar performance. Conductor Larry Rachleff, inspired by Yang’s sparkling work, kept the orchestra in step with both pace and expression. Big gestures had plenty of oomph, which made special treats of the small touches, right down to the piano’s sly wink after the orchestra’s final crashing chords.
Though most ticket buyers might have been unaware of it going in, more than a whiff of Gershwin’s ultra-popular Rhapsody in Blue scents Ravel’s concerto, mostly in harmonies and gestures inspired by American jazz. Ravel expressed an admiration for Gershwin’s piece when he visited the United States in the years between its 1924 debut and the 1932 premiere of his concerto. Kahane’s playing was best in the rhythmic first movement, deftly tossing off syncopations, but the Adagio Assai was too blunt and fast to breathe, losing its essential dreaminess. The rapid-fire finale lacked the snap and drive of the best performances. Conducting while playing, a tried and true practice during the baroque and classical eras, mostly worked here, although in too many moments the balance between orchestra and soloist slipped sideways.
What made the Sunday program the bigger crowd-pleaser was not only audience familiarity with the pieces but the grand gestures they revel in. This was especially so in Respighi’s big, splashy “Pines of Rome,” replete with sonic outbursts contrasted with quiet, atmospheric moments graced with tweeting birds, the finish adding 12 extra brass players arrayed around the choir loft in back of the stage. Respighi made full use of the huge sound a symphony orchestra in full cry can produce, and Rachleff opened the throttle to let it happen.
Although the same could be said of Debussy’s “La Mer,” which opened the Sunday concert, Rachleff never quite managed to catch the delicate atmospherics or the throbbing pulse of the music. As musical seascape, it seemed more like paint-by-numbers than distinctive brushstrokes. Much the best aspects came from moments where individual principals emerge from the flow, especially those of concertmaster David Halen, flutist Nadine Asin with harpist Emily Levin and English horn player Pedro Diaz with cellist Desmond Hoebig.
No longer attending to a solo piano part after the concerto Friday, Kahane drew nuanced playing in the Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, an early orchestral masterpiece by Britten. He emphasized the musical pokes in the ribs that interrupt the long lines. It’s the sort of piece that gets more comfortable to hear as it develops its sardonic sneers and colorful harmonies into a tapestry. The rollicking Symphony No. 1 of Shostakovich, among the most accessible of this composer’s symphonic works, also deals in piquant wit to leaven moments that veer toward weighty tragedy but seem to pull their punches. Kahane and the orchestra captured the piece’s youthful bravado to finish on a high note.
Not to miss in the coming days
Thursday, after two hours of tongue-in-cheek satire, we hear one of the great sentimental choral finales in all of opera, “Make Our Garden Grow,” in the opening night of “Candide” by Leonard Bernstein, who knew a thing or two about big finishes.
Harvey Steiman has been writing about the Aspen Music Festival for 19 years. His reviews appear twice weekly in The Aspen Times.
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