Review: Festival welcomes back Bruckner in brassy style | AspenTimes.com

Review: Festival welcomes back Bruckner in brassy style

Harvey Steiman
Special to The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

ASPEN – It seems hard to believe, but the Aspen Music Festival has not performed a Bruckner symphony for 25 years. After Sunday’s rousing performance of the Austrian composer’s Symphony No. 7, you can bet we won’t have to wait another quarter century.

Filling the big Benedict Music Tent stage with more than 100 musicians, including a brass section of four trumpets, four trombones, five French horns, one tuba and four Wagner tubas, presents no problem for a festival with hundreds of student musicians available. They played like champs, too, making exactly the sonorous, reverberating sounds Bruckner wanted.

Conductor David Zinman, who pushed for this performance, showed a wonderful feel for Bruckner’s extra-long line, riding the waves of brass perorations to increasing heights. He kept a near-capacity audience in their seats to the big finish, which often doesn’t happen with Beethoven or Schubert here.

The program opened with Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 27 in B-flat. Jeffrey Kahane gave it the requisite deft touch, but his tendency to rush to the end of long runs, and begin the finale’s main phrases almost hesitantly, created some conflict with Zinman’s steady, even slightly stodgy approach. Though the result was pleasant to hear most of the time, it kept losing momentum.

Saturday evening’s concert in Harris Hall featured guitarist Sharon Isbin, the queen of classical guitar, and violinist Mark O’Connor, weaned on bluegrass music. He played the first half alone, his finger-busting Six Caprices (written ca. 1984), wedding the techniques and styles of country fiddlin’ (his description) with classical. They emphasize technique over content, but then Paganini was no stranger to that sort of thing. Isbin sidestepped mainstream classical music in her solo turns, playing a suite by John Duarte based on music popularized by Joan Baez, and a lovely rumination called Andecy by the new-age composer Andrew York. The two finished together with O’Connor’s Strings and Threads, originally for violin and string orchestra, recently adapted by O’Connor for a recording with Isbin. The suite of 13 original tunes, a pastiche of folk music tracing the composer’s family history, made for jaunty hors d’oeuvre. A little more meat would not have been out of place.

There was plenty of meat on the Saturday afternoon chamber music program, including John Harbison’s Four Songs of Solitude soulfully played by Sylvia Rosenberg on violin, and a juicy Piano Quintet No. 2 by Martinu anchored by pianist Rita Sloan. But the gnarliest entree was Graal theatre, a 1994 violin concerto by the Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho, who created a strange, dissonant and fascinating sound world, achieved by violinist J. Austin Wulliman and the Contemporary Ensemble under Sydney Hodkinson.

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Haydn was the whole menu at Friday’s Chamber Symphony concert in the tent. John Nelson conducted the reduced forces in symphonies No. 85 and 86 with verve, and got especially good playing from the violins. The concerto’s highlight was mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung’s smoldering performance of the composer’s seldom-heard cantata, Arianna a Naxos. Pianist Ingrid Fliter played the more familiar Concerto in D major with crispness, more so in the right hand than the chords in the left. Her trills and flourishes felt more brittle than graceful.

The weekend’s festivities got off to an early start with Edgar Meyer’s annual concert. The string bass virtuoso embraces music that speaks to open-minded classical music fans over the divide of unexpected genres. Once it was jazz with another brilliant bassist, Christian McBride. But more often it has something to do with Meyer’s bluegrass roots. This time Sam Bush, who plays mandolin and fiddle, and Jerry Douglas, a dobro specialist, joined him on the music tent stage.

Virtuosity reaches across the musical divide when these guys tear into one of their original pieces. All three can pack more notes into a bar of music than 99 percent of their competitors. More than technical prowess, however, it’s a direct connection to the mother lode of music, where pitch, rhythm, harmony and timbre come together with improvisation of fierce intelligence.

Meyer gets more out of a bass than any sane person might have thought possible, reaching far up the fingerboard for sounds only violinists ought to make, then plunging to the depths to lay a foundation for the next harmony or the next rhythmic turn. In a piece called “Duet” (even though it was for three instruments), his improvised solo involved playing double-stops at breakneck tempo, then spinning a legato melody against a drone set on another string, seamlessly weaving it into the return of the tune.

For his part, Bush made the mandolin alternately into a sprightly solo instrument, a harmonic foundation for the trio, and a rhythm guitar. On the Jamaica-tinged “The Lochs of Dread,” he somehow strummed the instrument into a fair imitation of a reggae guitar. His solos stretched the boundaries of fretted instruments (other than guitar), venturing into jazz and rock as easily as bluegrass picking. When he switched to fiddle, the results were nearly as fine.

Douglas’ dobro, a sort of steel guitar that he plays horizontally with a bar in one hand and a pick in the other, veered into jazz, country, blues, and even a whiff of Hawaiian music with its slides. If anything, he’s even more eclectic than Bush or Meyer. And yet, their unison passages came off clean.

Meyer gets both feet back into the classical world Tuesday evening at Harris Hall when he joins the American String Quartet for a Boccherini quintet. Mozart’s Don Giovanni, the final opera of the season, also opens Tuesday at the Wheeler, and repeats Thursday and Saturday. Wednesday the brass competition winner plays the Strauss horn concerto with Sinfonia in the tent.

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