Review: Robertson, Rachleff lead satisfying Aspen Music Fest weekend
August 9, 2011
ASPEN – Conductors David Robertson and Larry Rachleff, both Aspen regulars, drew some of the most idiomatic and coherent playing of the summer this past weekend from the Aspen Music Festival’s two prime orchestras. Robertson revved up a Technicolor performance of Holst’s crowd-pleasing “The Planets” on a Sunday program that also included the Aspen summer debut of German violin phenom Veronika Eberle. For his part Rachleff led the Aspen Chamber Symphony in winning style Friday, especially in a nicely nuanced Beethoven Symphony No. 6 Pastoral.
Robertson, music director of the St. Louis Symphony, is principal guest conductor of the BBC Symphony, so he knows his way around English music. Yet “The Planets” got off to an ominous start, trudging at first in an excruciatingly slow tempo in “Mars” when the score says it should march inexorably (in 5/4 allegro). But he brought it up to full tempo for the return of the main theme, and the performance was off and running. He coaxed serene playing from the winds and strings in “Venus,” and “Mercury” scampered deftly, even if it missed some of the impishness. Aside from a few muddles in dense passages, “Jupiter” caught the robust spirit and segued smoothly into and out of the nobility of the big tune. (After the punctuated finish, a few audience members clapped; Robertson turned and ad-libbed, “It’s hard not to clap after that one.”)
After that, “Saturn” rolled out seamlessly and sonorously. “Uranus” stepped quickly, tossing the solo parts around cleanly, as it smirked knowingly at “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.” Best of all, “Neptune” floated through the void on a bed of soft, plush sound, the women’s voices of the opera program fading beautifully offstage at the close.
In the Dvorak Violin Concerto, which opened the program, the 22-year-old Eberle played with effortless articulation, pure sound, deft phrasing and poise. Though beguiling and immaculate, it was short on the Slavic earthiness inherent in Dvorak’s music. A quiet, serious presence on the stage, she seemed to curl herself around her violin, internalizing the music. Rather than use body language, as most solo violinists do, to offer the music with the audience, she put it all into the instrument. The controlled, vibrant sound emerged in a seamless line.
In Friday’s concert, Rachleff, music director of the orchestras at Rice University in Houston, the Rhode Island Philharmonic and the Chicago Philharmonic, demonstrated clear communication with the orchestra. He seemed to know when to apply his conducting gestures, and when to stand back and let the music flow, which it did with clarity and character.
Berlioz’s “Beatrice et Benedicte” overture started the program with fleet tempos and (mostly) precision playing from the orchestra, a nice nod to the Shakespeare theme floating through the festival this summer.
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Violinist Adele Anthony, an Aspen regular, and violist David Aaron Carpenter, new to this scene, cruised through the Britten double concerto, an early work by the composer, who, according to the program notes, came close to tearing up at one point. It’s a good thing he didn’t. Not only does it contain a particularly alluring slow movement, played lovingly, but attentive listeners could pick up flashes of Britten’s later music in nascent form. The insistent rhythm of the finale, for example, sounds like a precursor to parts of the opera “Peter Grimes.”
After intermission, the Pastoral gave us some of the tightest-played Beethoven heard this year from festival orchestras. The most arresting solos came from principal horn Richard King and oboist Jeannette Bittar. Rachleff had a clear idea of where he wanted to go with this music, creating some lovely atmospheric moments in the opening movement, getting some gentle thrust in the scene at the brook, an earthy thump of rhythm in the ländler, a nice climax in the storm, and peaceful close in the finale. Nice work all around.
A vocal recital Tuesday in Harris Hall features student voices in a tempting collection of songs drawn from Shakespeare. Wednesday’s free Wind Ensemble concert includes Stravinsky’s Octet, a neoclassical landmark. And Friday’s Aspen Chamber Symphony concert features Bernstein’s “West Side Story” music fashioned by composer David Newman into a suite featuring violinist Sarah Chang.