Review: Soloists carry day in Aspen weekend of diverse music

Harvey Steiman
Special to The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado

ASPEN – Two extraordinary soloists new to Aspen, and one beloved of the music festival’s audiences, provided the major impetus to a rollicking weekend of widely varied music. On Friday, Augustin Hadelich joined Julia Fischer for a pulse-quickening Bach double concerto and a no-holds-barred performance of Schnittke’s weird and woolly Concerto Grosso No. 1, and on Sunday, percussionist Colin Currie roamed the music tent stage in a Wagner-inspired percussion concerto by composer-in-residence Christopher Rouse.

It was exciting programming, comfortably sandwiched by guaranteed crowd-pleasers. The atypical fare had the audience buzzing, however, even more than the familiar works surrounding them.

On Friday’s program, for example, conductor Vasily Petrenko opened with a murky, soft-focused “Romeo and Juliet Fantasy” Overture by Tchaikovsky, which ultimately muscled up into loud and impressive climaxes. He finished by drawing mostly dazzling playing in Stravinksy’s popular “Firebird” Suite. Both pieces use a large-sized orchestra. Although that raises the question of whether they belong on a Chamber Orchestra program, these big, familiar Russian works certainly set off, as a fancy frame on a modernist piece of art would, Schnittke’s bizarre and captivating work, written in 1977 for a Baroque-sized orchestra.

Preceding the Schnittke with J.S. Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins in D minor also was a fine stroke. It provided the audience with a taste of the era that created the form and gave us a generous dose of the exquisite violinist Fischer and her partner in this endeavor, Hadelich, who matched her gesture for gesture. Petrenko led a refreshingly unaffected, fast-paced performance, and the two violinists responded brilliantly.

Despite the similar-sized orchestra, the first odd sonorities and dissonances of the prepared piano in the Schnittke (not heard here since 1982) signaled that we were in for something totally different. And over the next 30 minutes the music caromed from snatches of faux-Baroque to a dippy little tango, stopping along the way for a bit of jazz, and a lot of tonal but densely chromatic dissonances, all of these elements played with utter conviction by the soloists and orchestra.

In the end, the sense that the musicians believe in it and want to communicate it to us is what makes unfamiliar, potentially repellent music connect with an audience. A perfect example was the long cadenza for the two violins. It starts by exploring a tiny half-step motif on which the whole piece is based, and ultimately explodes into an all-pizzicato “anything you can pluck, I can pluck better” climax. In the wrong hands, it could sound affected and, well, plinky-plunky, but here and throughout, Fischer and Hadelich delivered Schnittke’s surreal, deadpan wit with dead-on precision.

Composer Christopher Rouse injected considerable humor in his percussion concerto, titled “Der Geretette Alberich,” written for Evelyn Glennie in 1997. In the performance Sunday, Scottish soloist Colin Currie infused an array of percussion instruments from guiros to log drums, not to mention a giant marimba, a rock ‘n’ roll drum kit and a steel pan, with virtuosic flair.

The inspiration for the piece was Wagner’s “Ring of the Nibelung,” and what might have happened to Alberich, the chief villain, after the curtain falls. And indeed, Rouse starts right off with the final glorious measures of “Götterdämmerung.” Currie then segues into a guiro solo that scratches out and extends the rhythm of “Ride of the Valkyries,” and we’re off on a strange and wonderful tour of Wagner’s leitmotifs. Rouse scores them exactly as Wagner did, then develops them in several directions. All the while Currie adds percussion glosses, which often develop into complex solos.

It’s raucous fun, and even beautiful in the slow middle section, which finds the percussionist quietly offering on the marimba the syncopated chords that punctuate a recurring leitmotif. Rouse’s penchant for gunning for loud climaxes and even extended passages prompted conductor Marin Alsop to lead a muscular performance, full of brio and wit. The only part that didn’t work for me was the beginning of the third section, when the soloist begins a rock ‘n’ roll beat. The orchestra, pretending to be a big rock band, just sounded cheesy. The rest was a kick.

To set up the concerto, Alsop conducted a solid if oddly uninflected “Ride of the Valkyries.” After intermission, however, she started Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5 at an agonizingly slow pace. The result was a first movement that never got out of first gear. Although the pace picked up in the remaining movements, the point of this symphony is that massive forces can beat down any triumph of the human spirit. Alas, there was precious little triumph to be beaten down.

A strong lineup begins Tuesday in the tent as the always fascinating pianist Jeremy Denk takes on Ligeti etudes and Bach’s “Goldberg” Variations. Wednesday in Harris Hall the American Brass Quintet debuts a new piece by David Sampson. The Opera Theater Center presents Verdi’s witty masterpiece “Falstaff” Thursday in the first of three performances at the Wheeler. And Jeffrey Kahane leads a Mahler Fourth on Friday.