Review: Powerful opening week to start Aspen Music Festival
Special to The Aspen Times
With complete command of a 10-foot Steinway grand piano, Yefim Bronfman took hold of the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1, made it stand up straight, and highlighted all of its subtleties in a riveting performance Sunday in the Benedict Music Tent. The expected rain graciously held off to allow an attentive Aspen Music Festival audience to hear it.
Conductor Joshua Weilerstein, who won the Aspen conducting prize as a student in 2010, let the Festival Orchestra stomp over a few phrases, but mostly kept the intensity high in his first go at this concerto. Despite a slow tempo in the opening movement, he kept it properly majestic and short of ponderous. The Adagio created a sensuous balance with the woodwinds, and the finale charged ahead with controlled energy.
But the energizer-in-chief was Bronfman, sprinkling dazzling filigrees around phrases here and there, generating his trademark power in the big chords and rapid-fire double octaves, and creating deliciously lyrical moments in quieter sections. His encore, a short Scarlatti sonata full of delicate trills, made the perfect dessert.
Although parts of Sibelius’ Symphony No. 5 scrolled by with less effect, Weilerstein captured the big gestures in the opening and closing pages, riding nicely rounded legato playing from the brass to conclude a meaty concert.
The program opened with an Aspen premiere from another festival regular, composer August Read Thomas. Her 12-minute tone poem “Brio,” trades in nervous rhythmic shifts and colorful splashes of orchestral color. An homage to one of the festival’s prime supporters Kay Bucksbaum, it was perhaps louder and more astringent than the ebullient and popular Mrs. Bucksbaum, but certainly just as busy.
“Brio” fits into the festival’s 2019 theme, “Being American.” Through the seven-and-a-half weeks of programming several dozen works by American composers from the past century-plus are spread around. The opening weekend in late June offered a new orchestral piece by Edgar Meyer, works by Gershwin and a tribute to Nat King Cole, but also pieces written elsewhere that were inspired by the United States.
That was the case for the opener for the Chamber Symphony’s Friday evening program in the music tent, Gustav Holst’s early Walt Whitman Overture, a British composer’s ode to the American poet. Conductor Nicholas McGegan, himself British, made the piece stride into the spotlight with good intentions, even if it came off as more dutiful than soulful.
The program included Prokofiev’s dynamic Violin Concerto No. 1 and Schubert’s elegant Symphony No. 5, but the surprise hit was a Vivaldi concerto originally for two cellos, here played by two flugelhorns.
The Vivaldi was in McGegan’s wheelhouse. He recently completed a long tenure with the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, and although the orchestra’s role in this concerto mostly supports the soloists with springy rhythms and appropriate harmonies, he laid the foundation for brilliant playing from Hungarian trumpet virtuoso Tamás Pálfalvi and the Atlanta Symphony’s principal trumpet Stuart Stephenson.
Hearing this music with a brass instrument’s clarity and articulation was a revelation. Staccato passages lifted off the page with extra zip, and the mellow tone of the flugelhorn — the same range as a trumpet, but with a darker texture — gave the softer, legato moments real presence.
The marquee concerto, the Prokofiev, found soloist Simone Porter (another Aspen alum) playing with her trademark agility and purity in the silky opening pages. She dug into the rougher sections, but not hard enough to realize the potential of the contrasts. This put more emphasis on the sweeter lyric sections, and that’s how the concerto ends, the result leaving a cuddly impression.
The Schubert symphony, with McGegan’s sprightliness leading the way, spun itself out with pleasing inevitability.
Saturday afternoon’s chamber music program included vocal selections from American operas, which nodded to the summer’s theme. Soprano Avery Boettcher, slated to sing the Countess in “Le Nozze di Figaro” later this summer, started with beautifully soft tone and applied unexpectedly powerful high notes to Floyd’s “Ain’t It A Pretty Night” from “Susannah.” Another standout was tenor River Shayne Guard, who shaped Martin’s Aria from Copland’s “The Tender Land” with appropriate simplicity and ringing high notes. Both of them topped the ensemble in an emotionally resonant quintet, “The Promise Of Living,” from “The Tender Land.”
To finish off that program, violinist David Halen, cellist Desmond Hoebig and pianist Anton Nel grabbed onto Dvorák’s Piano Trio in F Minor and didn’t let go for its 40-minute duration.
For Saturday night’s recital program in Harris Hall, Aspen regulars David Finckel (cello) and Wu Han (piano) joined forces with violinist Paul Huang, a longtime chamber music partner of theirs from concerts in Lincoln Center. Huang and Wu Han opened with Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No. 8 in G major, but the highlights were two piano trios of totally different style and intent.
The group made Saint-Saëns Piano Trio No. 1 in F major dance and brim with wit, especially in the fleet Scherzo and the bobs and weaves of the lively and playful Allegro finale. Tchaikovsky’s Trio in A minor oozed tragedy and grief in its minor-key harmonies and perpetually falling melodic shapes. If a little more variety in tone and phrasing might have been welcome, the musicians shaped each episode with unanimity, care and fervency to create a powerful statement.
Harvey Steiman has been writing about the Aspen Music Festival for 24 years. His reviews appear Tuesdays and Saturdays in The Aspen Times.
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