Review: Lugansky, Hadelich in majestic recitals at Aspen Music Festival and School |

Review: Lugansky, Hadelich in majestic recitals at Aspen Music Festival and School

Harvey Steiman
Special to The Aspen Times

It will be hard to top the one-two punch this past week of pianist Nikolai Lugansky on Tuesday and violinist Augustin Hadelich on Wednesday. Both were magnificent, and whether it was intentional, the music of Debussy stood out for both.

Beethoven’s Sonata No. 4 in A minor and Brahms’ Sonata No. 2 in A major were models of classical elegance, but Hadelich’s program sprang to life when he and piano partner Orion Weiss made the Debussy’s Violin Sonata into a rainbow of colors. The music emerged as if from a cocoon, starting quietly and simply, then gaining complexity naturally and gradually until it blazed at the finish.

In the Sonata for Unaccompanied Violin in E major, which Eugène Ysaÿe wrote in the style of the Spanish violinist Manuel Quiroga, Hadelich’s ability to transcend the mind-boggling demands of playing the notes made it into a tour de force of sun-drenched brilliance.

Weiss’ solo spot in the second half brought technical clarity to Debussy’s “L’isle joyeuses,” and that set up an even more joyful romp with Hadelich on John Adams’ “Road Movies,” written in 1995 just as the composer started to break free of minimalism’s formal constraints. That spirit of American energy spilled over into the encore, a bracingly effusive arrangement for violin and piano of “Hoe-Down” from Copland’s ballet “Rodeo.”

Lugansky’s magic Tuesday leavened his muscular power by never letting the music get heavy, with a touch that avoided tipping his astonishing technical mastery over into brittleness. His program rambled through music by French composers who straddled the late 19th- and early 20th-century transition from high romanticism (César Franck) to impressionism (Claude Debussy), then finished with a stunning early example of Aleksander Skryabin’s mystical piano works.

The pianist brought a depth of musicality to Debussy’s “Deux arabesques,” contrasting the shimmering delicacy of the first with the grand flourishes of the second. He captured colors and textures “Images, Series 2” to paint the fluttering leaves against the chiming bells of “Cloches à travers les feuilles” (bells through the leaves) and the gauzy longueur of “Et la lune descend sur le temple qui fut” (moon setting over the temple that was), finishing with quicksilver darting music in “Poissons d’or” (goldfish).

To bookend the French part of his program Lugansky found a sustained feeling for what was originally an organ work from 1868 by Franck, “Prélude, fugue, et variation,” in Harold Bauer’s solo piano version from 1910. Likewise, “Prélude, choral, et fugue,” which Franck wrote for piano, revealed Lugansky’s ability to make complex works seem more direct than expected.

As might be expected from a great Russian pianist, the Skryabin roared to life with its stormy opening movement, receded into soft colors in the second, turned sad in the third, and took magnificent upward leaps of ecstasy in the finale until the energy dissipated into resignation at the end. Brilliant stuff.

Encores included a Rachmaninoff Prélude in G Major that made the pianistic flourishes feel inevitable and lovely, and Debussy’s extroverted “Jardins sous la pluie” from “Estampes,” which brimmed with exuberance.

Sandwiched between these recitals was perhaps the Aspen Philharmonic’s most important concert of the season Wednesday in the tent. It included the debuts of a big new concerto by the musical polymath Wynton Marsalis and the local debut of an extraordinary violinist, Nicola Benedetti. Between persistent rain that drowned out a good portion of the soloist’s contributions, the 45-minute concerto revealed itself as a work of originality, humor and polyglot style that ranged from sweet lyrical song to dashes of Celtic flavor, blues and stomping jazz.

The rain stopped early in the finale, a mashup of square dancing and broad gestures that called to mind Copland and Ives. The piece finished with a wistful song as the violin faded out. We could finally hear Benedetti’s touch clearly here. She deserves a rain check.

Robert Spano conducted with a feel for the various musical styles, drawing idiomatic playing from the all-student orchestra. The energy never dissipated, even if he tended to exaggerate dynamic contrasts in this work and Copland’s Symphony No. 3. Spano got the orchestra to make its points.

In her recital Thursday night in Harris Hall, pianist Simone Dinnerstein, another solo artist overshadowed by the splendor of Lugansky and Hadelich, focused on music of obsession. The centerpiece of the first half, Philip Glass’ “Mad Rush” (1973), kept returning to the same gestures. Two 18th-century Couperin miniatures and Schumann’s familiar Arabesque in C major surrounded the Glass. Each work enlightened the next, all played with appropriate intensity.

The second half, not so much. Following Satie’s slight, abstract Gnossienne No. 3, Schumann’s Kreisleriana might have paid dividends if Dinnerstein’s pedal-heavy, stodgy performance had delivered more clarity and expressiveness.

The percussion ensemble’s daring program Monday evening in Harris Hall ended with a rousing go at George Antheil’s surreal, ear-splitting, audacious “Ballet mécanique” for four pianos and a percussion battery than includes an insistent doorbell and a (sound clip of an) airplane propellor. The raucous (and much less accessible) Percussion Quartet by Charles Wuorinen was a bear for both players and listeners.

There were gentler moments, too. The concert began with “Dark Full Ride, Part 1,” a piece by Julia Wolfe (a co-founder of Bang on a Can) for four percussionists playing with an incessant rhythm on (mostly) hi-hats. They got a range of sound from these cymbals mounted on poles and adjusted by pedals, a vivid demonstration of the range of music from untuned percussion.

Inspired by Lou Harrison’s midcentury concertos for violin and percussion, composer Kati Agócs surrounded violinist Jennifer Koh with pairs of mallet instruments — vibes, xylophones, marimbas and glockenspiel — and only made drums prominent in the finale. Once a student in Aspen’s composition program, Agócs spun fluid and sometimes florid music for Koh over busy (and mostly soft-textured) ear-friendly harmonies and rhythms.

Jaime Cardénas-España, a student percussionist from Chile, opened the second half by singing Chilean folk legend Violetta Parra’s heartbreaking “El Gavilán” with his own glosses on a big marimba, an extraordinary nine minutes of fervent musical expression.


Sharon Isbin’s annual recital Saturday night in Harris Hall enhances a program of Spanish guitar music with a group of songs by Richard Danielpour based on texts by Rumi, and sung by Jessica Rivera. The Percussion Collective performs “Drum Circle,” by Aspen composer-in-residence Christopher Theofanidis on Sunday with the Aspen Festival Orchestra in the tent.

Harvey Steiman has been writing about the Aspen Music Festival for 25 years. His reviews appear Tuesdays and Saturdays in The Aspen Times.