Review: De Young triumphs with Mahler, McDuffie with Glass | AspenTimes.com

Review: De Young triumphs with Mahler, McDuffie with Glass

Harvey Steiman
Special to The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

ASPEN – When the 2010 Aspen Music Festival calendar was announced several months ago, one of the dates I circled was July 25, because mezzo-soprano Michelle de Young would be singing Mahler’s “Kindertotenlieder” with the Aspen Festival Orchestra, James Conlon conducting. All hands exceeded expectations.

De Young transcended the technique, breath control and musicality that this music requires, and simply fused the words and melodic line into something otherworldly and beautiful. From the very first lines in “Nun will die Sonn’ so hell aufgeh’n,” the first of the five songs in the cycle, with its long arch punctuated by an upward skip, she sustained the line, the thought and the musical expression with uncanny ease. It would have been impressive at sea level. At 8,000 feet here in Aspen, it should have been impossible.

The songs, on poems by Friedrich Rückert on the deaths of his two children, are heartbreaking to begin with. De Young’s voice, sensitively and movingly supported by Conlon and the orchestra, doubled the stakes with its richness and direct-to-the-heart communication, even at slow tempos and quiet dynamics. The final stanza, where the sun comes out musically, was simply breathtaking. On the words, translated as, “they rest as if in their mother’s house: frightened by no storm, sheltered by the Hand of God,” de Young finally unleashed a smile as radiant as the music.

In the orchestra, solos by principal French hornist John Zirbel and oboist Richard Woodhams in particular contributed color and distinctive moments. Conlon, who recently conducted a Ring cycle in Los Angeles in which de Young had sung four parts, seemed totally in sync with her.

To open the concert, Conlon introduced an overture by Franz Shreker, one of the many forgotten European composers he has championed that were banned by the Nazis. Lively and colorful, it definitely made me want to hear one of his long-lost operas. To conclude, he revved up a high-calorie performance of the seldom-performed Symphony No. 1 by Rachmaninoff. It had colorful episodes and orchestration aplenty, but amounted to less than the sum of its parts.

Philip Glass’ new violin concerto, written for the violinist Robert McDuffie, got a lively and impressive U.S. premiere in Harris Hall Thursday night. The audience responded immediately and enthusiastically at the conclusion, leaping to its feet with a roar. Clearly, it was a hit.

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Glass creates music that either delights or infuriates. Audiences love him. Many musicians hate to play his music, and critics pigeonholed him early as repetitive and boring. But that misses the power in his signature ostinatos, arpeggios, subtle harmonic shifts and, most of all, a strong rhythmic pulse, even as his music has become more complex and densely layered in recent years. In its 38 minutes duration, the Violin Concerto No. 2, subtitled “American Four Seasons,” plays off Vivaldi’s general model of four contrasting sections, but instead of breaking each section into three discrete movements Glass keeps the momentum going without pause. Cadenza-like solos tie the sections together.

These elements, combined with an uncanny sense of theater and an ability to harness rhythm to create an irresistible sweep, create a cumulative effect. It’s like listening to a great jam band. If you give in to it, it can take over your entire body.

The individual movements do not identify which season they represent, leaving it to the audience to decide for itself. Each one had its own colors, its own harmonic and textural palette. The music starts with rhythmic, open arpeggios in the orchestra, over which the violin plays something contrasting, arpeggios, filigrees, or a melody on more sustained notes. Harmonies shift, as do the throbbing rhythms. The first and third movements feel dark, the second and fourth lively and effusive.

The orchestral instrumentation follows Vivaldi’s string ensemble scoring, using a synthesizer instead of harpsichord (mostly set to sound like a harpsichord). For the world premiere in December, Peter Oundjian led the Toronto Symphony, and earlier this year Marin Alsop led the London Philharmonic. In Aspen a conductor-less group stood to play (except for the cellos and the synthesizer), which may have helped propel the rhythms better than a conducted orchestra of old pros might have done. Concertmaster David Halen (concertmaster of the St. Louis Orchestra) provided the few cues necessary.

Glass wrote the piece for McDuffie, who produced the definitive recording of his first violin concerto. Aspen audiences have heard McDuffie perform that concerto and Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” in thrilling performances in previous seasons. The music in the new piece plays to McDuffie’s strengths – a willingness to dive headlong into driving rhythms and fast-moving lines, unabashed sweetness for melody and 100 percent involvement in the team effort making music. He played it from memory.

Rhythm being a key element in the concerto, playing a pulsating encore of the Presto from Vivaldi’s “Summer” put the perfect cap on things.

In a satisfying first half, McDuffie collaborated with several highly talented students. He played eight short duos for two violins by Bartok with a well-matched Xiaoxiao Qiang and Moszkowski’s unabashedly romantic suite with equally passionate playing from violinist Elizabeth Fayette and elegant contributions from pianist Fei-Fei Dong.

The celebrated violinist Valeriy Sokolov made his Aspen debut with an immaculate if somewhat subdued performance of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto Friday night with the Aspen Chamber Symphony in the tent. His playing was refined, uncannily accurate, clear and highly musical. What was missing was a sense of fun, a sense of spontaneity to leaven the music. It didn’t help that conductor Andrey Boreyko’s serious, no-nonsense approach left Sokolov little wiggle room.

Boreyko applied similarly dogged style to Grieg’s seldom-heard Symphony in C, a youthful work that only shows flashes of the flair yet to come from the Norwegian composer.

Not to miss this week: Wednesday, Jane Glover returns to Aspen to conduct the Vaughan-Williams Tuba Concerto and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 with the Concert Orchestra in the tent, and the American Brass Quintet does its recital in Harris Hall.

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