REVIEW: From blues to ‘ghosts’ at the Aspen Music Festival

When it comes to Beethoven, violinist Stefan Jackiw, cellist Alisa Weilerstein and pianist Inon Barnatan make a good team. Thursday evening in the Benedict Music Tent, with the composer’s “Ghost” Trio, they took things up a notch or two from last Sunday’s triple concerto performance.

The Piano Trio Op. 70 No. 1 got the nickname “Ghost” because of all the spooky tremolos in the expansive slow movement. Today’s audiences may not find it all that sinister, but the shifting textures and stop-and-start gestures make it one of the composer’s most distinctive. Freed of coordinating with an orchestra, the trio was mesmerizing, a case study in concentration and unity.

The livelier outer movements were just as cohesive. The furious opening flurry emerged with precision and just hair-raising enough to make a startling contrast with the slower, gentler phrases that followed, the first movement gaining momentum and ending with snap. The finale left the restlessness of the first two movements behind in favor of a lively flow of melody and rhythm.

The “Ghost” set things right after an uneven series of sonatas. Jackiw’s approach to the Violin Sonata No. 1 in D major was more dutiful that celebratory. Barnatan’s dry-eyed go at the familiar “Pathétique” piano sonata found beauty in the noble Andante, and excelled in the quieter moments of the outer movements. In the Cello Sonata No. 2 in D major Barnatan and Weilerstein drew out wonderful details on every page, creating serenity in the Adagio at the piece’s center and launching an exciting Allegro finale with a vibrant take on the intricate fugue.

The concert began at 5 p.m., unusually early in order to accommodate the dress rehearsal for Mozart’s opera “The Magic Flute,” which gets its only performance tonight.

Tuesday evening, Julia Bullock’s Aspen debut was an adventure on other levels. When a rainstorm pounding the music tent threatened to drown out her singing, the concert—and the audience, relatively sparse thanks to the rain—were moved into Harris Hall next door. That smart decision paid dividends immediately, when Schubert’s rarely heard song “Suleika I” emerged in finer detail than the tent could allow.

The classical singer, as she bills herself, offered songs that ranged from Schubert and Hugo Wolf to Alberta Hunter and Nina Simone. One set mixed Gioacchino Rossini with Luciano Berio, successfully. Along the way we heard from such composers as the obscure Connie Converse to the well-known Kurt Weill.

Bullock’s voice, lovely as it is, is not her strongest point. It’s what she does with it. She can deliver German art songs with a conversational fluency that frees the words and music. She can also take blues classics by Hunter and Civil Rights-era anthems by Simone (and Billy Taylor) and shape them as art songs, without losing their funky power. It’s all driven by a fierce intelligence and a vocal range that can dive below the staff and hit high notes with assurance.

She has a knack for combining songs of different eras and style into revelatory sets. Four Weill songs included the sardonic “Denn wie man sich bettet so liegt man” (How you put yourself to bed is how you lie), from “The Rise and Fall of Mahagonnny,” and the sly fairy tale of “The Princess of Pure Delight” (lyrics by Ira Gershwin) from “Lady in the Dark.” The thread connecting the 19th-century Rossini and the 20th-century Berio was their wit, Rossini’s irony dovetailing nicely with Berio’s popular songs that show this usually thorny composer in a lighter vein.

The highlight for me was Nina Simone’s “Four Women,” which unflinchingly contrasts the harsh reality of Black women’s lives against their sunny names; Bullock’s approach, almost analytical until the end, was mesmerizing. Her encore, Schubert’s “Seligkeit” (Bliss), delivered buoyantly, sent the audience home with hearts lifted.

The rains stopped Wednesday evening in time to hear Nicholas McGegan’s bouncy rides through four of Bach’s six Brandenburg Concertos. Despite chilly conditions the audience, bundled up as for night baseball in April, was treated to especially good renditions of No. 5 (the one with the big harpsichord cadenza) and No. 4 (the one with two flutes chasing around the violin line).

Jacob Dassa, fresh out of Juilliard, triumphed with the virtuosic harpsichord solo, and provided lively continuo to underline the work of soloists in the other works. Flutist Nadine Asin and violinist Simone Porter completed a star-quality trio of soloists for No. 5, which danced deftly in the outer movements and flowed with feeling in the central slow movement.

Asin returned for yeoman work in No. 4, joined by flutist Alejandro Lumbo, also a Juilliard student, to deliver refreshingly lively harmony and counterpoint. Violinist Stephen Waarts completed the front-line trio, and also took the violin lead in No. 1, where horn soloists Erik Ralske, principal horn of the Metropolitan Opera orchestra, and Tanner West (still a student at University of Southern California) distinguished themselves with bravado.

Porter took the solo role in No. 2, in which Stuart Stephenson (principal trumpet of the Atlanta Symphony) wrangled a piccolo trumpet with flair in the brisk finale to end the concert on (literally) a high note.


Tonight’s slimmed-down version of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” in the tent is a sort of handing-off of the baton. Before leaving Aspen for Santa Fe, Edward Berkeley, who ran the vocal program here for decades through 2019, directs the first offering from the new regime, a partnership between soprano Renée Fleming and conductor Patrick Summers. The voices heard in Saturday morning master classes promise something special. On Sunday Yefim Bronfman returns to play Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto with James Conlon conducting the Aspen Festival Orchestra. Bronfman’s solo recital Tuesday takes on sonatas by Beethoven, Chopin and the iconoclastic Russian composer Galina Ustvolskaya.

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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