REVIEW: Glover, Ehnes and Yang take it up a notch at the music festival
Whatever magic Jane Glover brought with her from England for her annual conducting gig at the Aspen Music Festival, it worked Sunday. She led the Aspen Festival Orchestra to its best showing yet this summer, drawing out details in the Beethoven Violin Concerto and making the Dvořák Symphony No. 8 a thrill ride of serious proportions.
And, despite rumblings of distant thunder, the rains stayed away until Sunday’s concert was over.
Maybe it was just really good conducting. In years past here, Glover’s strongest impression was in the opera house, especially with the Baroque and Mozart. Alternate years she leads one of the A-list orchestras, always well, but this time reached a different order of magnitude.
James Ehnes was the soloist in the concerto, and he played the cadenzas with all the swagger one could want. But he also found a great partner in Glover. Her every phrase had an arc, and she winnowed the ends of those phrases so they did not cover Ehnes’ refined playing when it sailed into the fiddle’s highest notes.
When the orchestra carried the ball, Glover drew the full measure of muscle from the music. She allowed phrases to breathe, slowing a tad for emphasis only to pick up the pace without delay to keep things moving.
Known for his admirable accuracy, Ehnes also drew out the human communication in Beethoven’s music. At a measured pace, the opening movement had plenty of space for phrases to bloom. The Larghetto’s unhurried flow allowed the violinist to spin out the music serenely, and the Rondo finale popped out of the gate with sprightly flair.
In the symphony, Glover tied phrases together seamlessly, a welcome approach as Dvořák tended to map his music in blocks. She made the flow feel utterly natural, even when a stentorian phrase interrupted a cozy moment. The orchestra’s players had room to make their own statements — especially the horns in the finale (which always remind my wife of a happy herd of elephants).
The brass and woodwinds distinguished themselves throughout. The strings, though a bit fewer than unusual (because of COVID protocols), never sounded undernourished. Glover struck excellent balances in tutti passages. It made the familiar music thoroughly satisfying, the way it ought to be heard — with freshness and intention.
At Friday evening’s Chamber Symphony concert, Joyce Yang prevailed over a loud thunderstorm. The rain pounding on the tent roof interrupted her Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1 just as she started the quiet slow movement, but she won over an enthusiastic audience with some thunder of her own. Returning for an encore, she first swiveled at the piano bench to face the audience, and grinned, “I’ll never forget this concert.”
And then she lavished her most sensitive playing on Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in G-sharp minor, op. 32 no. 12. By then the downpour had quieted, and we could hear every note.
The omens were not promising when she first sat down at the piano, though, when a clap of thunder echoed in the mountains and a light rain set up a rattle. Yang gave conductor Benjamin Manis a worried look, but they got through the boisterous first movement. But it wasn’t long before a cloudburst dropped the heaviest rain on a concert this summer.
Although weather radar apps showed clearer air coming, a light rain persisted after a 10-minute delay. Yang and the orchestra not only made it through, they delivered an exciting performance with bravado piano work. The orchestra achieved fine balances without losing the pep in Liszt’s step.
Manis, resident conductor of Houston Opera, had led this orchestra Aug. 6 in an excellent concert featuring soprano Golda Schultz. He stepped in Friday for Roderick Cox, who canceled shortly before he would have made his Aspen main stage debut. The concert opened with a lively, deftly shaped run through Kodály’s Dances of Galánta, and concluded with a stately, confident traversal of Brahms’ Symphony No. 3 in F major.
Maybe it was because this orchestra already had a concert under its belt with him as conductor, but balances among the sections and responsiveness by the whole orchestra were especially rewarding.
Saturday’s artist faculty recital in Harris Hall featured works that attempt to corral disparate musical forms into a classical frame. Results were mixed.
Best was a particularly alluring set of seven Sephardic Jewish songs, with flavors of Arabic exoticism and Klezmer spicing up the mix in Robert Sierra’s “Cancioneri Sefardì.” Redolent of southern Spain, the seven songs got an atmospheric reading. All the slinky phrases from soprano Esther Heidemann shone through against light but pungent accompaniment from the Aspen Contemporary Ensemble.
Violinist Alexander Kerr (who was concertmaster in the Friday concert) and pianist Derek Wang lavished colorful playing on William Grant Still’s jazz-infused 1943 Suite for Violin and Piano, even if Still’s attempt to fit African-American tunes into a violin suite didn’t quite swing.
Gabriela Lena Frank’s writing for piano quintet in “Tres Homenajes: Compadrazgo” juxtaposed music from various South American regions, but the piece never let the rhythms roll. Too much self-conscious dissonance robbed them of their folk essence.
Finally, Saturday morning’s opera master class at Wheeler Opera House concluded with an extraordinary moment: A concert of new art songs by eight young composers in the festival’s program, including a setting of Langston Hughes’ poem “Mother to Son.” Mei-ling Meilina Tsui, from Kazakhstan by way of Hong Kong, wrote irresistible, emotionally convincing music that drew from her own culture and that of countertenor Key’mon Murrah, who grew up in a Black family in Kentucky. Both said the poet’s words resonated with their histories, and the music, and Murrah’s performance with pianist Manuel Arellano, certainly conveyed it. Let us hope that we get to hear it again and again.
NOT TO MISS IN THE COMING DAYS
Primo violinist Augustin Hadelich and pianist Jeremy Denk must have compared notes for their recitals for this week. Both programs sandwich works with Black cultural origins between classical icons — Hadelich with Bach and Paganini on Wednesday around jazzy works by Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson, and Denk on Thursday with Bach and Beethoven around Coleridge-Taylor, Blind Tom Wiggins and Scott Joplin. Friday’s Chamber Symphony concert features cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason (remember him from the Duchess of Sussex’s wedding?) in the Dvořák concerto.
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