Review: Renée Fleming in recital outdoes three big concertos at the music festival

Harvey Steiman
Special to The Aspen Times
Soprano Renée Fleming and pianist Inon Barnatan in recital Saturday.
Diego Redel/Courtesy photo

Weekends are busy at the Aspen Music Festival with the big orchestra concerts in the Benedict Music Tent Fridays and Sundays, a marquee recital Saturday evenings and a chamber music concert featuring faculty and visiting soloists on Saturday afternoons. You never know which will make the biggest impact.

Soprano Renée Fleming, who co-runs the opera and voice program here, delivered the biggest rewards Saturday night. Demand for tickets had forced the festival to move it from the intimate confines of Harris Hall to the 2,000-seat music tent. With Inon Barnatan on piano, Fleming explored a range of music connected to nature, which dovetailed with her most recent album, “Voice of Nature,” and the festival’s theme for 2023, “Adoration of the Earth.”

New music on the program, by Nico Muhly, Caroline Shaw and Kevin Puts, stood its ground with such masters of the past as Händel, Hahn and Liszt.

Händel’s ode to a tree, “Ombra mai fu,” opened the proceedings, followed immediately by Muhly’s “Endless Space,” written for Fleming’s album, quoting two authors’ concerns about climate change. Both pieces take advantage of Fleming’s unaffected vocal tone and ability to convey meaning with remarkable ease. The first half ended with the Reynaldo Hahn songs “L’heure exquise” and “Les étoiles,” which use the sky’s illuminations to inspire sultry music.

Vocally, the first half felt like a tuneup for a glorious second half, Fleming’s voice finding a freedom and spaciousness in several sublime songs. Shaw’s delicate setting of “Aurora Borealis,” based on a 2006 poem by Mary Jo Salter, manifested the northern lights in music Barnatan played with utmost sensitivity. Fleming brought great joy to a pair of Liszt songs and a couple of Grieg songs that deserve wider hearing. But the best was a new and expansively operatic song by Kevin Puts, “Evening,” set to a 2019 poem by Dorianne Laux that touches on a spectrum of emotions before coming to rest in resignation.

Barnatan’s piano solos included the Prelude and “Clair de Lune” from Debussy’s “Bergamasque” and Ravel’s descriptive “Jeux d’eau.”

Fleming brought out her jazz voice for a mesmerizing encore, Jerome Kern’s “All The Things You Are,” a treasure of the American Songbook. Barnatan set a gentle pace, and Fleming finished with a luscious vocal flourish.

Violinist Augustin Hadelich takes a cue from conductor Markus Stenz in a new concerto Sunday.
Diego Redel/Courtesy photo

The going was a bit bumpier in the other concerts. Sunday’s marquee attraction was the incomparable violinist Augustin Hadelich performing a a new concerto written for him and co-commissioned by the Aspen Music Festival. Markus Stenz, who had conducted the premiere last fall with the Oregon Symphony, was on the podium, and the audience seemed primed for something different from the violin concertos we all know.

Irish composer Donnacha Dennehy did create some fascinating moments, weaving orchestral textures and floating melodic lines in an atmospheric slow movement. The first movement, however, kept Hadelich scratching away at rapid-fire notes at the top of the violin’s range as the orchestra heaved heavy chords and dropped in punchy octaves in support. The finale occupied arguably the greatest violinist in the world today with jig-like rhythms instead of anything melodic. It never got anywhere.

The encore (a favorite of this violinist), “Louisiana Blues Strut” by Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson, said more in its three minutes than the whole concerto did. (And by the way, wouldn’t it be great to hear whatever bass line festival regular Edgar Meyer might add?)

The soloist on Friday’s program, pianist Jorge Federico Osorio, is something of a legend in his native Mexico. He made his way uneventfully through Beethoven’s popular “Emperor” Piano Concerto, though he relied on pedal a bit more than we are accustomed to hearing these days, so the rapid runs lost some of their sparkle. The slow movement unfolded with elegance.

The concerto performance of the weekend came in Saturday afternoon’s chamber music recital. Violinist Karen Gomyo, who played the world premiere with the Chicago Symphony under conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen in 2018, did justice to Samuel Carl Adams’ spiky, adventurously fashioned Chamber Concerto. Barefoot under a flowing black grown, Gomyo dived into the bristling music, bringing a level of eloquence to Adams’ constantly shifting rhythms and melodic leaps.

The non-concerto portions of the weekend’s orchestral programs produced very different results, as well.

Sunday’s second half, an hourlong compilation of music from Wagner’s Ring cycle, benefited from knowledgeable conducting from Stenz. But it had a down side. Danish composer Henk de Vlieger’s arrangement stitched together orchestral highlights from 16 hours of music from Wagner’s four operas into an hour-long symphonic grand tour. The fatal flaw was an over-reliance on big orchestral moments, and virtually none of the saga’s wonderful intimate music.

Starting with Wagner’s long, resonant depiction of the flowing Rhine, it segued without pause to the clatter of Nibelheim, then to the grand fanfare of Valhalla, to the Ride of the Valkyries and the Magic Fire Music. We were 30 minutes in before the soft flute flutterings of Forest Murmurs gave us a respite from loud, loud, and more loud — an unceasing attack on our ears. Then it was back to more loud: Siegfried’s heroics, and death. What could have been a fascinating example of Wagner’s ingenuity in composition was exhausting instead of invigorating.

Despite all that, three friends who had steadfastly resisted the lures of the Ring made a point to tell me that now they’re enthusiastic about seeing the operas when they get a chance. The music may have triumphed after all.

On the brighter side, the first half of Friday’s program was a gem, offering two of Sibelius’s most-concise and concentrated expressions. It started with “The Bard,” a seven-minute tone poem that focused on the title character, represented by the harp (played with exceptional panache by Renée Murphy). An richly resonant performance Symphony No. 7 in C major followed, perfectly paced by music director Robert Spano. Though less-often played than other, more extroverted symphonies, it explored a rewarding range of magnificent sonorities in its 20-minute journey. Kudos to principal trombone Hiram Sebastian Rodrigues for leading the way.

Spano also struck good balances with the orchestra on Beethoven’s concerto.

Harvey Steiman has been writing about the Aspen Music Festival for 30 years. His reviews appear Tuesdays and Saturdays in The Aspen Times

Not to Miss…

The one must-go recital for me on the 2023 calendar is Hadelich playing a recital Tuesday of works for unaccompanied violin in Harris Hall—J.S. Bach, Ysaÿe and Perkinson, and all I can say is “yum.” Flutist Nadine Asin, oboist Elaine Douvas and cellist Darrett Adkins join Spano to play some of Elliott Carter’s more accessible music Wednesday, and the Brentano Quartet premiers a new piece by Steve Mackey Thursday, both in Harris Hall. The climax Friday evening in the tent is a semi-staged performance of Jimmy Lopez Bellido’s contemporary opera “Bel Canto,” based on Ann Patchett’s award-winning novel.

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