Review: Shaham, Falstaff among Aspen Music Fest highlights
September 1, 2011
ASPEN – Something good, often really good, happened every week this summer at the Aspen Music Festival. Not all of these moments were as predictable as my pick for the highlight of highlights – violinist Gil Shaham’s foray through four concertos written in the 1930s over four concerts – but it’s a measure of just how fine things went that two of my usual favorites didn’t even make the list.
Yes, as much as I love to listen to bass master Edgar Meyer and the goings-on at the Percussion Ensemble’s annual recital, other concerts crowded those off my Top 10 list this year. I also had to omit cellist David Finckel and Wu Han stepping in at the last minute for pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet, who bowed out of his all-Ravel recital with a bad back. And Jeremy Denk’s formidable tour of Ligeti’s etudes. And, most regretfully, Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra because, well, it was a co-production with Jazz Aspen.
Those were memorable. The following, even more so. Note that a significant number of them came in mid-week concerts. These seemed to be even more lightly attended than usual this year, unless a familiar and popular name was involved. Make a note for next summer and try to make time for the goodies available in mid-week. Parking is easier.
In order of preference:
1. The Gil Shaham concerto marathon, July 6-21: Over four concerts in two weeks, each with a different orchestra, the violinist took on the Walton, Bartok No. 2, Stravinsky, and Hartmann’s Concerto funebre. The last was the most impressive, a heart-on-sleeve cry of despair beautifully realized, and with an ad hoc orchestra to boot. For a lagniappe, he played the lively Haydn concerto in G. Played by perhaps the violinist of our day, they were all astonishing to hear.
2. Verdi’s “Falstaff,” July 28-Aug. 1: This great opera, Verdi’s autumnal comic masterpiece, seldom gets such a loving and detailed performance. The mostly student orchestra played with nuance under young Tomas Netopil. The whole cast shone, but Noel Bouley in the title role was a revelation, better at this than many big-name baritones already. Golda Schultz’ radiant Alice was icing on the cake.
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3. Marc-Andre Hamelin, July 7: The pianist, for years pigeonholed as a modernist, applied breathtaking technique and total understanding to two Everests of the literature: Ravel’s “Gaspard de la Nuit” and Liszt’s Sonata in B minor. The music emerged organically, naturally, flowingly.
4. Slatkin, Weilerstein and Kern, all Shostakovich, Aug. 19: The best-conducted concert of the year came on the final Friday with Leonard Slatkin leading the Chamber Orchestra in the Symphony No. 9 and the Suite No. 1 for Jazz Orchestra, plus two riveting works for soloists, Olga Kern in the raucous, fun-loving Piano Concerto No. 1 (Kevin Cobb providing flawless trumpet obbligato) and Alisa Weilerstein in the more serious-minded Cello Concerto No 1.
5. Spano and Mahler, Aug. 21: The Symphony No. 2 “Resurrection” closed the season literally on a note of triumph. The chorus, soloists and orchestra raised the tent top with a glorious wrap-up to the year, led by music director-designate Robert Spano in his best work of his four concerts this summer. Another highlight for him was a rip-snorting, busting-at-the-seams Symphony No. 5 on July 31 (much better than several unfortunate concerto match-ups along the way).
6. American String Quartet, Aug. 13: Never have I heard the Ravel String Quartet in F major played with such detail and finesse. Then again, the Bartok No. 3 lurched and soared, and the Haydn Op. 77 No. 1 danced disarmingly. A fabulous string quartet at the top of its game, the finest chamber music of the year.
7. Joyce Yang and Stefan Jackiw, July 16: We heard several fine violinists this summer already in the top echelons before their 30th birthdays, but Jackiw was particularly notable for his finesse and intelligence, reminiscent of the first time we heard Julia Fischer here. His recital with Yang ranged from Stravinsky and Lutaslowski to Copland and Brahms, each piece its own little musical world.
8. Quartet for the End of Time, Aug. 13: The faculty chamber music concerts this year achieved the most consistently high level I can recall. Among many memorable moments, the most powerful came with a courageous and hauntingly beautiful performance of Messiaen’s prisoner of war epic, especially clarinetist Joaquin Valdepenas and pianist Steven Osborne.
9. Inon Barnatan, Aug. 10: In a year of fine pianists, Barnatan stood out for the depth he brought to each piece in wide-ranging repertoire – Scarlatti plus a contemporary piece riffing on the 18th-century composer, a Mendelssohn fugue and the weighty Schubert Sonata in C minor. Not to mention those flying fingers in fast passages.
10. McGegan and “Midsummer Night’s Dream,” July 1: The irrepressible conductor Nicholas McGegan and the presence of the unique actor Matthew Rhys reading lines from Shakespeare’s play lifted a performance of Mendelssohn’s overture and incidental music for the story (with singers) into something resembling magic.