REVIEW: Hadelich, Handel opera, lift music festival’s final weekend |

REVIEW: Hadelich, Handel opera, lift music festival’s final weekend

Harvey Steiman
Special to the Aspen Times


Renowned violinist Augustin Hadelich performs in the final summer concert of the season by the Aspen Music Festival and School on Sunday, Aug. 22, 2021, inside the Benedict Music Tent in Aspen.
Photo by Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times

After his unforgettable solo recital Wednesday, violinist Augustin Hadelich returned Sunday for Aspen Music Festival’s final concert. Good thing, too. His performance of the Bruch Violin Concerto No. 1 gave those who missed the recital a taste of what all the excitement was about.

Every phrase had meaning, even in a piece as unrelentingly beautiful as this one, whether it was a soulful tinge to a slow melody, a subtle lilt to a rhythmic gesture or all-out virtuosity that said something more than “look what I can do.” He can do it all, but he makes it fit an organic whole that can envelop a listener in all its intricacies.

Music director Robert Spano conducted, and thankfully kept the orchestra’s dynamics below the violin, only letting the orchestra rip when it was on its own. Few concerto performances have met such a standard this season, and it was particularly welcome with someone like Hadelich.

For an encore, Hadelich made his violin imitate a mandolin or guitar on “Recuerdos de la Alhambra,” written by Francisco Tarrega for guitar. Ruggiero Ricci’s delicate arrangement is a perpetual-motion wonder, keeping musical lines moving in two directions, tremolos and trills managed without a hiccup, all without exceeding mezzo-piano in volume. It was spellbinding.

Renowned violinist Augustin Hadelich performs in the final summer concert of the season by the Aspen Music Festival and School on Sunday, Aug. 22, 2021, inside the Benedict Music Tent in Aspen.
Photo by Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times

A great performance of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 can raise the rafters. The performance, which concluded the program, did not. It wasn’t bad. Everyone played in tune. They were together. A few horn bobbles spoiled nothing important. Spano’s tempos were fine. But it never jelled. It just sailed along, without any particular inspiration.

On Saturday night, however, Aspen Opera Theater’s production of Händel’s “Rodelinda” showed what real inspiration could do.

This season’s voice program boasted impressive talent, the best collection of young voices in my 28 summers here, even if COVID considerations limited the number to 15. Instead of the usual several shows each of three operas in the Wheeler Opera House, we got one performance each of two semi-staged concerts—July’s “Magic Flute” in the music tent and this final weekend’s gem in Harris Hall.

The half-full audience that showed up was willing to ignore any notion that Baroque operas are dry when compared with, oh, say, Mozart, Puccini or Verdi. Attentive opera fans could hear in this score the seeds of dramatic vocal gestures that spiced up the music of later eras. They were rewarded with juicy arias and scenes, delivered by eight young singers with real acting chops and a grip on the emotions they needed to portray.

Projected titles, another victim of COVID protocols, led to drafting soprano Sarah Vatour (Queen of the Night in “Magic Flute”) as narrator to provide enough of a summary of the intricate plot to set up the scenes. The music is what really counted. The title character’s twin opening arias, sung by Chilean soprano Yaritza Véliz, set the bar high. Véliz and countertenor Key’mon Murrah carried the ball the most, with more than a half dozen arias and scenes each in the abbreviated 90-minute production. They sang at a level that would benefit any major opera house.

Véliz’s lush, focused tone conveyed a palpable sense of a Lombardy queen who believes she has been widowed by the usurper Grimoaldo. Murrah, as Bertarido, the defeated king, traced a remarkably vivid dramatic arc, from furtive early scenes seeking to reunite with his family to a moment that combined triumph and clemency, and ringing high-C’s that would do a dramatic soprano proud. In two duets, their voices intertwined sinuously with breathtaking beauty.

Over his series of arias and scenes as Grimoaldo, tenor Ricardo Garcia traced a downward arc from brash to remorseful, vocalizing with brilliant tenor sound and passion. As Garibaldo, his scheming companion, bass William Guanbo Su connected well with the other singers in his scenes and delivered impressive low notes.

Mezzo-sopranos Lauren Decker lavished robust tone and steely intensity as Eduige, Bertarido’s sister, and Erin Wagner conveyed boyish awkwardness as Unulfo, a sort of two-way spy with a good heart. Australian soprano Yvette Keong (Papagena in the “Flute”) returned as Rodelinda’s child, in this staging a mime role.

Director Omer Ben Seadia developed clear intent for each character and created a series of touching scenes. She navigated the limits of concert opera with a few chairs, a desk and a toy boat. A chessboard-like floor defined rooms and gave the characters something to use as a maze and finally rip apart as the complicated plot reached its climax.

Conductor Kenneth Merrill — who has been a coach since 1980 in the voice programs at Juilliard, Manhattan School of Music and Aspen — marshaled a cohesive and often propulsive team: the singers, pianist Manuel Arellano (playing the orchestra’s music), a continuo of Sahar Nouri on harpsichord and Ethan Cobb on cello (all young artists).

Friday’s final Chamber Orchestra concert brought the Aspen debut of English cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason, whose unique star quality has as much to do with his ability to connect with audiences as his accomplishments as a cellist. Even if conductor Christian Arming allowed the orchestra to overpower him, Kanneh-Mason’s robust tone and solid technique were discernible in the Dvořák cello concerto.

His rapt attention to the orchestra’s long exposition in the first movement and animated facial expressions when he played went a long way to establishing that connection. Even better was his encore, an all-pizzicato arrangement of “I Say a Little Prayer for You,” written in 1966 by Burt Bacharach and Hal David for Dionne Warwick, and later popularized by Aretha Franklin. Not your usual classical encore but representative of Kanneh-Mason’s rare ability to cross genre borders.

A graceful if uneventful performance of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony followed.

Harvey Steiman has been writing about the Aspen Music Festival for 28 years.