REVIEW: Dvořák quintet and Beethoven triple concerto spices up music festival’s weekend
Special to the Aspen Times
All was right with the world this past weekend when a trio of longtime Aspen Music Festival favorites breathed soulful life into Beethoven’s triple concerto before the biggest audience of the season in the Benedict Music Tent, and chamber music returned to Harris Hall, albeit briefly.
The triple concerto essentially puts a chamber trio — in this case violinist Stefan Jackiw, cellist Alisa Weilerstein and pianist Inon Barnatan — before a full orchestra with the sort of extroverted music that can fill a big space like the tent. It was a thoroughly satisfying performance, and the communication among the soloists was ebullient and joyful.
Weilerstein was the key, her playing setting the trio’s statement in motion time and again. She got the ball rolling with a tender statement of the theme, which Jackiw picked up with his own graceful version, Barnatan completing the picture with his trademark delicate touch. As the level of intensity waxed and waned, with and without the orchestra, their virtuosity and dynamic range kept pace with Ludovic Morlot’s on-point conducting, and the concerto flowed as smooth as the polished wood on Jackiw’s violin. The sense of unity and purpose played out through the gorgeous Largo and into the bouncy finale.
The concert began with “The Spark Catchers,” a nervous nine-minute tone poem by English composer Hannah Kendall, based on an evocative 2012 poem about an 1888 strike in a London match factory. Part of the festival’s renewed effort to showcase music by Black artists (in this case both poet and composer), the orchestra executed the jagged rhythms and bright flashes of harmony to create a mood of terror against a backdrop of beauty.
In between, Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements (1946) revels in its own punchy rhythms, and it got a vivid performance. Pianist Noah Sonderling in the first movement and harpist Nancy Allen in the second contributed virtuosic solos (the movements originally cast for concertos that were never completed), and the group effort in the finale hit all the right marks.
Over in Harris Hall on Saturday afternoon, a group of longtime Aspen Music Festival professionals delivered a Dvořák Piano Quintet in A major for the ages, a revelation as every nuance emerged with startling clarity and presence in the 500-seat auditorium.
At its best chamber music relies on communication that goes far beyond synchronized timing, dynamics and all the other elements of music making. After practicing together for years, members of great string quartets develop a sixth sense of what their colleagues are going to do, thus lifting a performance into something unexpected and marvelous.
In the first faculty chamber music program of this season something like that got into Bing Wang, Espen Lilleslåtten, James Dunham, Desmond Hoebig and Anton Nel, who have played together here for decades of summers. Nearly two years since the last time they performed together, their musical nuances were breathtaking. It starting with cellist Hoebig’s warm, generous statement of the sweet major theme. First violin Wang’s response spun out the tune with even more tenderness. Pianist Nel provided soft chords, perfectly timed. The gentle pulse of the first movement’s Allegro ma non tanto framed masterly interweaving of Dvořák’s musical material, Lilleslåtten’s violin and Dunham’s viola moving the flow with a sense of inevitability.
These details wafted effortlessly from the stage in the perfect acoustics of the 500-seat theater, a marked difference from chamber music in the big tent next door. The contrast between the second movement’s aching melodic gestures and the third movement’s Molto vivace Czech dance shifted colors from gloom to joy, their sense of utter unity marking an Allegro finale that threatened to burst its seams yet kept it all pointing in the same direction.
The group that played Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Clarinet Quintet in F-sharp minor had a difficult act to follow. Moments of rough intonation in ensemble passages aside, the individual talents of first violin Robert Chen, cellist Eric Kim and, most of all, the supple playing of clarinetist Michael Rusinek carried the day. Coleridge-Taylor, England’s most prominent Black composer in the late 19th and early 20th century, was inspired by Brahms’s clarinet quintet, and the intricacy of his work was well worth appreciating.
The ghost of Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, another European Black composer and a pioneer in his day, infused the program for Friday’s Chamber Symphony, conducted with his usual verve by Nicholas McGegan. Bologne, a contemporary of Mozart’s and often compared with him, wrote the brief three-movement overture to his 1780 opera “L’armant anonyme” (“The Anonymous Lover”) that opened the program. He also led the French orchestra that commissioned Josef Haydn’s six “Paris” symphonies, including No.82, which concluded the program. In between, Stephen Waarts played Mozart’s Violin Concerto No.3, providing us with a chance to compare Bologne to his most famous contemporaries.
Waarts, who has developed quite the reputation in Europe for his range of repertoire and effortless technique, offered a restrained version of the Mozart concerto, emphasizing sweetness and simplicity, even in solo moments when he could have shown off. Despite McGegan’s best efforts, the opening overture, though lively, was much more predictable than the Mozart concerto or the Haydn symphony, which bounced along like a friendly bear jogging down one of Aspen’s mountains.
In that company, the Aspen debut of Julia Bullock, who bills herself as a classical singer instead of soprano, was an exotic outlier with “Quatre poemes hindous.” Besotted with Indian music, 20th-century French composer Maurice Delage employed winds and a string quartet to emulate the sounds of Indian instruments accompanying four songs based on florid romantic poems.
Bullock sang with gorgeous tone and careful attention to the French poetry (which she herself translated brilliantly for the program sheet), her sound rising effortlessly above the wind instruments. Especially beguiling were the extravagant curlicues of melisma at the end of the longest song at the center of the piece.
NOT TO MISS IN THE COMING DAYS
Renée Fleming’s much-anticipated performance of the gorgeous song cycle “Winter Morning Walks” by jazz artist Maria Schneider headlines Friday’s Chamber Symphony concert, to be conducted by Robert Spano. Before that, all the soloists from the weekend return for solo concerts — Bullock in recital Tuesday, Waarts (and McGegan) in a Brandenburg Concerto fest Wednesday, and Beethoven sonatas from Sunday’s trio Thursday. Take your pick, or get there for all of them.
Harvey Steiman has been writing about the Aspen Music Festival for 28 years. His reviews appear Tuesdays and Saturdays in The Aspen Times.
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“The Sweetest Sounds“ will be the second Richard Rodgers go-around for the Aspen Music Fest and Theatre Aspen, who first collaborated in 2019 for a concert version of “South Pacific” at the Music Tent.