REVIEW: Petrenko, Trifonov pierce through the rain in Sunday’s concert

Harvey Steiman
Special to The Aspen Times

A piano soloist with the bona fides of Daniil Trifonov and a conductor with the stature of Vasily Petrenko figured to make Sunday’s Festival Orchestra program one of the high points of the Aspen Music Festival season. It was. They cut through a rainstorm that persisted through the entire concert to deliver an incendiary performance of Skryabin’s lurid Piano Concerto in F-sharp minor.

The rain started to fall on the Benedict Music Tent just as Petrenko gave the downbeat for the opener, composer Gabriela Lena Frank’s spicy 10-minute tone poem, Concertino Cosqueño. Although the skies did not clear until the concert ended an hour and a half later, the drumbeat on the tent mostly stayed in the background, allowing details of the music to reach an enthusiastic audience.

Frank, whose other pieces heard here in years past always struck me as spiky and cantankerous, channeled her Peruvian heritage in this postcard from Cusco. It imagines the composer Benjamin Britten visiting this city high in the Andes, combining gestures from his music (the timpani theme from his violin concerto) with the Peruvian strains played by a string quartet, getting a lively orchestra to dance and respond colorfully.

Thus energized, the orchestra shaped the gauzy opening measures of the concerto with a sense of mystery, setting up the piano’s fascinating journey from florid Chopin-esque curlicues to thundering chords. Over the next 30 minutes, Trifonov hit all points in between, spinning out the piano part buried in the orchestra’s dense textures only for Skryabin’s maximalist sound world to emerge brilliantly when the piano was on its own. Dazzling stuff.

To conclude the program, Petrenko’s Russia-nurtured baton freed a suite from Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker” from its Christmas links to showcase the ear-pinging music it is. The Trepak was especially vivid. All the short dances reveled in their individual flavors, and the extravagant flourishes of the big finish sent the audience home smiling.


Trifonov returns Tuesday for a special-event recital, and Petrenko’s back Friday with the Aspen Chamber Symphony. On Wednesday, the American String Quartet’s annual recital includes a world premiere of a piano quintet by Octavio Vázquez, who joins the quartet on piano. Vázquez writes in an accessible style tinged by his native Galicia in northern Spain.

Friday’s Aspen Chamber Symphony program featured pianist Tengku Irfan and conductor Gemma New, two musicians who wowed perceptive listeners when they were summer students in Aspen recently.

New introduced an Aspen audience to her energetic, athletic conducting style, favoring big gestures to accentuate a commanding visual presence on the podium. These paid off in a joyride through Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony, which combined bouncy rhythms with weightless textures in the orchestral balances.

Tengku blazed through Ravel’s jazzy Piano Concerto in G. Even if the composer’s sharply defined rhythms sometimes took a few measures to take hold, the result was enough to quicken the pulse in the rapid-fire outer movements. The languid Adagio assai made the best impression, establishing a dreamy flow in the orchestra for Tengku’s soulful playing.

The opener, Canadian composer Samy Moussa’s “Polarlicht,” painted a sonic representation of the northern lights. New managed to pull together the composer’s flashes of woodwind and brass harmonies and high-lying string tones that never quite coalesce into a melody or theme but rather float enticingly in the air.

Saturday’s faculty artist recital in Harris Hall traveled in classical music derived from non-classical styles. The “blues” middle movement of David Baker’s Sonata for Cello and Piano found cellist Eric Kim and pianist Anton Nel trading long, eloquent melodic lines that proved to be the best moment of the afternoon. The surrounding faster movements highlighted Kim’s virtuosity but did not connect emotionally.

Libby Larsen’s “Jazzy Variations” opened the program. Nancy Goeres, principal bassoon of the Pittsburgh Symphony, valiantly and energetically plowed unaccompanied through a tour de force attempt to transfer the style of John Coltrane to a low double-reed instrument that didn’t quite capture the tenor saxophonist’s magic. Much better was Mexican Arturo Márquez’s “Zarabandeo,” an impression of the Baroque sarabande dance. It was leagues livelier than the usual slow movement we hear in Baroque music. Clarinetist Joaquin Valdepeñas and pianist Nel gave it a juicy ride.

Mid-20th-century composer Rebecca Clarke’s “Dumka” would sound familiar to anyone who knows what Dvořák and Smetana drew from this melancholy Czech music. In this case, violinist Renata Araldo, violist Victoria Chang and pianist Rita Sloan delivered it pleasantly.

Harvey Steiman has been writing about the Aspen Music Festival for 28 years. His reviews appear Tuesdays and Saturdays in The Aspen Times.