Review: Pianist, cellist liven up Aspen Music Fest weekend

Harvey Steiman
Special to The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

ASPEN – Joyce Yang is more than a young pianist who can dazzle with sheer technique. What makes her special is what she does with the music. Sunday in the tent she tackled one of the most popular and familiar concertos in the literature, Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1, and created moment after moment that surprised a listener with a bit of extra musical insight.

With conductor Leonard Slatkin keeping the Aspen Festival Orchestra on its toes with fleet tempos and well-shaped phrases, Yang applied her formidable technique to making flurries of notes go somewhere instead of just impressing us with their flair, to coaxing pearl-like tone from delicate phrases, even when playing in octaves, and leaning into the big chords to get more power than her slender frame would suggest possible. The result was a performance that made the concerto seem fresh.

The program began with something really fresh. Slatkin conducted composer Cindy McTee’s Tempus Fugit in its debut with his Detroit Symphony in June. It starts with overlapping tick-tocks on wooden blocks and takes off from there, revving its engine for 10 lively minutes. It got a warm reception from the audience.

After intermission, Slatkin walked the audience through the themes and structure of Richard Strauss’ Sinfonia Domestica, then led a riveting performance that made the composer’s autobiographical tone poem more absorbing than usual. Even a rattling downpour that drummed on the tent midway through did not faze the orchestra. (The rain kept Slatkin’s streak alive of his concerts being drowned out, at least in part, in his last four appearances.)

Friday evening in a beautifully programmed Aspen Chamber Symphony concert, cellist Sol Gabetta made the biggest impression with a 7 1/2-minute encore that had everyone buzzing at intermission. The piece was “Dolcissimo,” an excerpt from the Latvian composer Peteris Vasks’ Gramata Cellam, a book of unaccompanied cello partitas written in 1978. Using high harmonics, fluttering trills, a singing tone on the cello and her own clear, fresh-sounding soprano providing the melody the second time around, Gabetta entranced musicians and audience alike with remarkably communicative, delicate music making.

The slender, blond-haired Argentina-born cellist, who now lives in Switzerland, made her Aspen debut with Lalo’s dramatic Cello Concerto in D minor, matching fire with the aggressive approach of conductor Robert Spano. There’s plenty of power in that winsome frame, and it came through vividly in the concerto, even if the orchestra’s contribution had some rough edges. But it was the encore that put a quiet exclamation point on Aspen’s discovery of a new talent. (Maybe next time she comes here the festival won’t have to give away tickets to locals to fill so many empty seats.)

Spano opened the program with the delicate Berceuse elegiaque by Busoni, and drew gorgeous playing from the orchestra on the suite from Faure’s “Pelleas et Melisande.” Mark Sparks’ flute solo on the famous Sicilienne was sonorously played. To conclude, Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements practically swung like a jazz band. Exciting stuff.

On the opera stage, Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro,” the second installment of what the festival is calling the “Beaumarchais trilogy,” opened Saturday night at the Wheeler. The sound of healthy voices was several steps up from the misfortunes of “The Barber of Seville.” “Figaro” has one more performance on Wednesday, and it’s worth seeing.

The orchestra continued to demonstrate why it is by far the best pit group in memory for these summer operas. James Gaffigan conducted, and drew nicely shaped playing from the start of the overture to the very last ensemble. He breathed with the singers, and the great finale of Act II almost took on a life of its own. (That’s a good thing.)

The voices overall came off as a bit light, but that’s OK for Mozart. Geoffrey Sirett, a Canadian-born baritone, made the strongest impression. As Count Almaviva, he managed to look and sound dignified despite a puffy wig that looked like he was carrying a raccoon on his head and an ill-advised soul ‘stache on his bottom lip. Believable as his long-suffering wife, Mary-Jane Lee showed some steel in her creamy soprano. Two Korean-born singers – baritone Jeongmin Lee as Figaro and soprano Hae Ji Chang as Susanna – made an attractive pair, looked their parts, and sounded warm.

Mezzo-soprano Davia Bandy also scored as Cherubino. She looked nervous in Act I, which only added a level of reality to her opening aria, “Non so più.” She also carried herself like a boy, which not all mezzos can do.

Ensembles were especially good, including Lee’s and Chang’s sigh-worthy “Canzonetta sull’aria” duet in Act III. The scene where Figaro discovers who his true parents are was delightfully played and sung.

Mary Duncan’s stage direction represented a step up. She juggled the elements of the same set used for “Barber” to much less obtrusive effect, and she got the humor without going too far with it. The only directorial misstep came in Act IV when she completely ignored the obvious height difference between the tall, willowy Lee and the diminutive Chang as they pretended to be the other. And yet, they fooled their husbands. Ah, the magic of opera.

Not miss this week: It’s piano week at the festival, with recitals each night featuring keyboard artists playing orchestral transcriptions. Wednesday Steven Osborne tackles a piano version of Ravel, plus two Beethoven sonatas. Thursday in a special event Jean-Yves Thibaudet, backed by the Aspen Wind Ensemble, plays Bernstein and Gershwin. All are at Harris Hall.


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