REVIEW: Shaham works his magic at the music festival

Harvey Steiman
Special to The Aspen Times
Violin soloist Gil Shaham and conductor Robert Spano kept things moving without rushing during Sunday afternoon’s Aspen Festival Orchestra concert at the Benedict Music Tent. (Photo courtesy Carlin Ma)

We know that Gil Shaham is a magician with a violin. Who knew he could control the weather, too?

A thunderous downpour began one hour before Sunday afternoon’s Aspen Festival Orchestra concert at the Benedict Music Tent. Unlike most summer mountain rainstorms it persisted as the audience filed in. When he started playing Barber’s sunny violin concerto the rain didn’t quite stop, but the light patter on the tent roof did not intrude on his performance.

By the end of the concerto, we could not hear the rain.

He also inspired music director Robert Spano’s best conducting this summer. Spano picked up Shaham’s no-dawdling tempo choices in the lyrical song of the first movement, and kept things moving without rushing, which allowed the melodies to soar. Although the orchestra could have reined in the volume just a tad here and there in the first movement, the middle movement spun out in long, unhurried lines, oboist Elaine Douvas setting the tone with the aching, arching tune.

The finale clinched a victory. The violin hardly stops during the rapid-fire toccata, and Spano had the orchestra pacing Shaham step-for-step, right up to the crisp, tight finish.

In the other major piece, Sibelius’ Symphony No. 2, Spano kept tempos pushing forward through the first three movements, which paid dividends as the finale became more and more expansive. The brass section was in its glory, offering shiny harmonies that filled the tent without blaring.

At Friday’s Aspen Chamber Orchestra concert, Behzod Abduraimov’s account of the Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 1 wiped away any bad taste from the previous evening’s unfortunate stumbles by another pianist playing Beethoven. Abduraimov hit all the right points, with fluid and precise playing that punched climaxes where needed. His articulation made everything clear and present, with a notable sense of purpose.


Soprano Golda Schultz, who spent a couple of summers in the voice program here before launching a big international career, returns to sing Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1916, some of the most gorgeous music written by an American composer, on Friday’s Chamber Orchestra program. Those who missed Monday’s concert of Richard Rodgers songs can get another chance tonight when the program repeats. Sharon Isbin’s always highly anticipated guitar recital is Thursday.

In her Aspen debut guest conductor Erina Yashima (assistant conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra) reined in the orchestra where the concerto necessitated it, and let it fly when the piano was quiet, keeping up the energy with tempo and phrasing that fit smoothly.

Her approach to the composer’s second symphony favored lively tempos and deft balances once the first movement got moving, a lovely serenity in the Larghetto and a bit of a sly wink in the Scherzo. The finale breezed along until the stop-and-go measures at the end, which kept us guessing where it might go until the final measures brought things to a satisfying close.

On Saturday, there was singing. Oh my, was there singing, as seven young artists from the vocal program put on quite a show in the morning’s weekly opera master class, this time held in the tent. Across the board the level of talent in the program this summer, with but 15 singers involved, is the most impressive I’ve heard here.

The singers, the Aspen Conducting Academy Orchestra and five student conductors, working in the music tent instead of the Wheeler Opera House, tackled a series of scenes from Händel operas. Although newly minted co-directors Patrick Summers and Renée Fleming have rethought the format of these master classes to cover a wider range of elements that make opera work, they thankfully have kept the two midseason sessions with orchestra.

Most of Saturday’s singers also are cast in Händel’s Rodelinda, to be presented semi-staged on the festival’s final weekend. The showstopper Saturday was Key’mon Murrah, a countertenor with an extraordinarily high range, rich tone and terrific presence. He got a standing ovation, a rare occurrence in these classes, for the long aria about stages of grief, “Furie terribili,” from Rinaldo, and as the morning’s finale he joined soprano Yvette Keong for a deliciously sweet duet, “Bramo aver mille vite,” from Ariodante. (Keong was Papagena in The Magic Flute earlier this summer.)

Summers, as host, did a great job of introducing Händel’s music, explaining what singers and conductors must do to work together well, and how conductors and directors can influence each other.

Harvey Steiman has been writing about the Aspen Music Festival for 28 years. His reviews appear Tuesdays and Saturdays in The Aspen Times.


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