Review: Sarah Chang wows ’em with Shostakovich | AspenTimes.com

Review: Sarah Chang wows ’em with Shostakovich

Harvey Steiman
Special to The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

ASPEN – A different Sarah Chang from the one we heard in recent years played Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto No. 1 with the Aspen Festival Orchestra Sunday in the tent. The violinist who made her debut at this festival as a child seemed to have lost her way in recent years, but this time the mannerisms, the grotesque sounds and intonation problems were gone. She marshaled phenomenal intensity, clarity and musicality in service of the Russian composer’s dark score. It was a triumph.

If only conductor James DePreist had kept up with her. She set a breathless pace in the faster movements, and the orchestra continually seemed a tick behind. That, along with a relatively bland interpretation of this sardonic orchestral score, robbed the music of its full effect.

But Chang was in her element. The long, slow opening nocturne found her probing intensely through Shostakovich’s wondering melodic line, playing against a shifting carpet of questioning chords in the orchestra. The rhythmic outburst in the second movement came fast and furious, but never too much, even against the rough edges in the orchestra. The slow third movement gathered intensity like a spring coiling to release in the dazzling finale.

This was the Sarah Chang we missed for the past few years, virtuosity with a purpose. The dramatic gestures are still there, but tossing her body with the music, the occasional stamping of a foot and the near-loss of balance at a musical climax seemed the result of real music making this time. And she still looks great in a horizontal-striped form-fitting gold gown.

DePreist unleashed the orchestra, replete with extra personnel, for colorful performances of Respighi’s “The Fountains of Rome” and “Roman Festivals,” the latter with an extra lineup of trumpets in the choir loft to paint the lily.

Two vivid clarinet solo turns by Music Festival artist faculty and an evening of charming guitar music from Grammy winner Sharon Isbin this past weekend broke up the steady diet of instrumental soloists on violin, cello and piano so far this summer. They did so delightfully.

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Most newsworthy was a new clarinet concerto from American composer Kevin Puts, given its first performance in its current extended form Friday evening in the tent with the Aspen Chamber Symphony. Bil Jackson, principal clarinet of the Colorado Symphony, played the premiere last year with that orchestra under Jeffrey Kahane. Also the principal in the Chamber Symphony, he came out front to deliver the melodic score with impeccable facility and gorgeous tone, bringing out a welcome sense of emotional depth in the piece.

At times, Puts’ score recalls the music of Barber and Copland, with hints of John Adams when the rhythms rev up in the finale. But he has his own way with fusing melody and harmony to create ear-warming sounds and touch emotional points. The first movement opens with a soft, plush carpet of string chords over which the clarinet quietly sketches a sustained line. That sets the tone for the concerto, very much a solo vehicle accompanied by an orchestra that only occasionally takes off on its own.

A visit to the portion of Arlington National Cemetery devoted to those who died in the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan inspired this first of two movements. Regret tinges this music, titled “Vigil.” In the faster second part, titled “Surge,” the clarinet part becomes complex with rapid passages, and the piece ends by weaving in elements from the first movement for a satisfying finish. (This was the part Puts extended after the first hearing last year.)

Conductor Josep Caballe-Domenech, who conducted Rossini’s opera “Barber of Seville” earlier this summer, drew sensitive playing and fine articulation between the orchestra and soloist in the clarinet concerto. His work was less convincing, however, with pianist Steven Osborne in Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 19 in F Major, which opened the program. Neither conductor nor pianist gave Mozart’s lines much shape. It sounded like a run-through, not a performance. Those same problems affected Brahms’ Variations on a Theme by Haydn, which concluded the concert with more attention to getting the notes in place that turning them into the music Brahms wanted.

Isbin, who usually shares her recital evening with other soloists, this year performed with the Aspen Concert Orchestra, an all-student ensemble that usually plays on Wednesdays in the tent. Conductor Nicholas Kraemer, known for his work in early music, tried his darnedest to elicit a true Baroque sound in a suite by Telemann and two guitar concertos by Vivaldi, but the highlights of that first half were two ravishing slow movements in which Isbin carried the ball with arresting finesse.

In the second half, Kraemer got lively, idiomatic playing in Rodrigo’s marvelous 1954 suite Fantasia para un gentilhombre. Isbin was a wonder, caressing the slow parts to draw in the audience with a sense of intimacy, then capturing the heat of the rhythmic outbursts in the faster dances. For an encore, she cooled things down with a floating performance of Andrew York’s “Andecy” (which she played on her program last year).

Saturday afternoon in Harris Hall, Joaquin Valdepenas, principal clarinet of the Toronto Symphony and a longtime member of the artist faculty, gave a gorgeous account of Brahms’ Clarinet Sonata. He painted watercolors in the elegiac first movement, catching the dance rhythms of the scherzo and putting together the building blocks of the variations in the finale with finesse. Antoinette Perry accompanied on piano.

Sophie Wingland, one of the bright lights of a strong voice program this summer, deployed a rich soprano and clear diction for four of Schoenberg’s Six Orchestral Songs. Scott Terrell, an alumnus of the conducting academy here and now music director of the Lexington Symphony, led an augmented Aspen Contemporary Ensemble in this early opus, written in the composer’s pre-atonal style, ultra-romantic and lush, without going over the top.

Not to miss this week: The American String Quartet plays Beethoven, Tsontakis and Dvorak Tuesday night in Harris Hall. Sarah Chang returns to play the expansive Franck Violin Sonata with pianist Andrew Von Oeyen, who assays Berg and Beethoven in his half of the program, Wednesday night in a special event in Harris Hall.

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