Review: French music carries the weekend at Aspen festival |

Review: French music carries the weekend at Aspen festival

Harvey Steiman
Special to The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado

ASPEN – The theme of this year’s Aspen Music Festival, “Made in America,” took a turn this past weekend to “Made in France,” as each of four major programs gave us a big French piece. Visiting artists played Franck and Saint-Saëns. We also heard two rarely played opuses by Olivier Messiaen. Aspen, with its large roster of accomplished faculty, is uniquely positioned to provide the forces necessary for the splendid performances these works got.

One of those Messiaen pieces actually fit the theme. Not limited to American composers, the theme embraces any work written in the U.S. Visits to the Grand Canyon in Arizona and Bryce Canyon in Utah (the music commissioned by Alice Tully, of New York) inspired Messiaen to write his ecstatic “Des Canyons Aux Etoiles.” A 44-piece ad hoc ensemble dug into the 90-minute piece in the small but sonorous confines of the 550-seat Harris Hall on Thursday night.

Festival music director Robert Spano conducted with a mix of musical precision and spiritual expansiveness. John Zirbel, principal horn in Montreal for the rest of the year, made a 10-minute wonder of the solo movement “Appel Interstellar,” and Finnish pianist Juho Pohjonen supplied the extended outbursts of bird calls with the requisite splash and euphoria. He has the pianistic presence to demand more appearances here.

Messiaen’s Concert à Quatre, on Sunday’s Festival Orchestra program, featured colorful and committed solo work from resident artists Nadine Asin (flute), Elaine Douvas (oboe), Darrett Adkins (cello) and visiting pianist Steven Beck, a longstanding group that calls itself Pleasure Is the Law. The piece, Messiaen’s last, was written as a sort of homage to Mozart, Rameau and Scarlatti. Although it contains plenty of his signature birdsong, it hews to classical forms rather than aiming for the spiritual ecstasy of his most popular works.

Thibaudet’s brilliant traversal of Saint-Saëns’ underappreciated Piano Concerto No. 5 proved to be the highlight of the Sunday program, brightened by the pianist’s verve and technical command. Conductor Christian Arming had the orchestra right with him. The Wagner excerpts that opened and closed the program, not so much. Arming got stately and foursquare playing in the prelude to “Parsifal” rather than Wagner’s spiritually elevating intent, and despite clear articulation by the musicians in even the most complex passages of the immolation scene from “Götterdämmerung,” his rapid tempos completely missed this music’s magic, especially in the final, potentially glorious, pages.

Friday’s Chamber Symphony concert featured Gil Shaham in the Britten Violin Concerto. This youthful work (Britten was 25 when he started to write it, well before his famous operas) has many of the hallmarks of Britten’s mature style – exotic phrases, colorful harmonies and orchestration, and an irresistible undercurrent of emotion. Shaham found all of that, executing the Spanish-inflected phrases with a vocal cry to his violin that added breathtaking depth to his precise, incisive playing. David Robertson conducted with enthusiasm, totally in sync with the soloist.

Robertson opened the program with Stravinsky’s “Chant du Rossignol,” a suite extracted from an earlier short opera, drawing out the exotic threads. The program finished with a dashing, exuberant performance of Haydn’s Symphony No. 103 “Drum Roll.”

The broad-beamed sonata by Caesar Franck topped off violinist Ray Chen’s recital Saturday night. He preceded that with two short arrangements by Jascha Heifetz of tunes from Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess.” “This is the ‘Made in America’ portion of the program,” he observed, deadpan. He lavished much more delicacy and flair on those two miniatures than on the rest of his recital, where he seemed intent on producing the biggest, baddest, richest, broadest sound he could from his Stradivarius, sometimes at the expense of intonation.

That could be excused in Milstein’s “Paganiniana,” an unaccompanied show-off piece that’s all about violin pyrotechnics. Chen certainly could deliver on the fast, finger-busting passages in that one and in the Bach Partita No. 3 for Unaccompanied Violin in E major.

Bach should be about deft playing and elegant phrasing, but Chen went for the jugular, distorting rhythms and tempos into a caricature of the music. He indulged in exceedingly loud dynamics in Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No. 5 in F major “Spring,” although at least he kept a steady beat.

The style of the Franck sonata suited this approach better. Substituting for Khatia Buniatishvili, the originally announced pianist, Inara Zandmane seemed content to provide competent accompaniment until she got to the Franck. She took command of the sweeping phrases and in the lovely slow movement laid down a background of refinement and delicacy. And Chen finally showed how sweetly he can play.

Thibaudet returns for an all-Debussy recital Tuesday in Harris Hall. On Wednesday, the Pro Arte Quartet’s recital includes Barber’s beloved Adagio for Strings and a quartet by John Harbison. Consider that a prelude to Harbison’s 1999 opera “The Great Gatsby,” a score punctuated by pastiches of popular music of the 1920s. The Opera Theater Center presents the first of two performances Thursday.

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