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Review: Soloists put the cap on a blazing musical weekend

Harvey Steiman
Special to The Aspen Times

There’s nothing like star quality to push a good concert onto a higher plane. Both major Aspen Music Festival orchestra programs of the past weekend benefited from great performances of oft-played music by leading names in classical music today. On Friday, it was violinist Gil Shaham making consequential music out of one of the most popular showpieces for violin and orchestra, the Bruch Violin Concerto in G minor.

On Sunday, it was Alisa Weilerstein, lending her trademark combination of precision and passion to Elgar’s profound Cello Concerto. Both programs benefited from excellent conducting and a lineup of less familiar music that can grab an audience’s interest.

Friday’s concert, conducted by Ludovic Morlot, music director of the Seattle Symphony, opened with “Hungarian Sketches,” five settings by a mature Bartok of pieces he wrote much earlier. Every bit as charming as the titles, such as “Bear Dance” and “Slightly Tipsy,” the composer, in a relaxed, folk-music mode, may have surprised those who think they don’t like Bartok, thinking of his more challenging pieces.

Shaham invested the opening of the Bruch concerto with a lovely sweetness, gradually picking up intensity as it pointed toward the great adagio. Although this slow movement is appealing enough when played as a lovely meditation, Shaham just seemed to unfold riches that kept welling up with increasing certainty. The finale, which dances as enticingly as Mendelssohn’s, has plenty of scope for violinistic brilliance, and Shaham delivered.

For an encore, he played the familiar “Gavotte en Rondeau” from Bach’s Partita No. 3, a tasty preview of his marathon Wednesday evening of all six Bach unaccompanied sonatas and partitas.

“Jeu de Cartes” was the first of Stravinsky’s several ballet scores for Balanchine. A droll series of neoclassical episodes, each introduced by a fanfare that sounds like it might have been written by Haydn before veering off into the 20th century, it puckishly quotes music from Rossini’s “Barber of Seville” in the tongue-in-cheek finale. Morlot kept the proceedings lively and delivered the funny business with a straight face. Though few programs finish with an overture, this one concluded on Beethoven’s Leonore No. 3, probably because of its definite ending. Why these four pieces were on the same program is baffling, but they were all well-played.

Sunday’s program, under Leonard Slatkin, fit together more coherently, as Slatkin noted that all the pieces look back with some sadness, especially the centerpiece concerto by Elgar. Arvo Part’s brief but heartfelt “Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten,” written in 1977 for the English composer ubiquitous here this summer, resonates with Elgar, the composer credited with reawakening English music. Janacek, often paired with Britten’s music in concerts because, well, they just seem to go together, provided a rousing finale with his 1926 Sinfonietta, a paean to Czech heroes of World War I.

The concert opened with Symphony by Steven Stucky, the newly minted head of Aspen’s composition studies department. A model classical symphony moves away from an established tonal center, and the musical interest lies in how it finds its way back to the home key. The 20-minute piece, debuted last year by the Los Angeles and New York philharmonics, scatters intriguing musical fragments — a hymn played by the brass, skittering figures that bounce through the orchestra, blankets of harmonic fog in the strings — that find strong resonance as they repeatedly try to gain momentum, repeatedly dashed until it all pieces itself together at the finish.

A long and sinuous oboe solo, eloquently played by principal oboe Richard Woodhams, opens the piece. A brass chorale seems to wrap things neatly. The music dissolves into a fog of string harmonies. Long, graceful gestures in the orchestra ascend scales only to run afoul of abrupt, falling figures. A restless second movement leads to a frantic scherzo, and finally, it all assembles into a coherent finish.

Along the way, Stucky’s colorful orchestrations create wonderful moments in the spotlight for soloists and every section of the orchestra. He uses an approachable language and frames episodes effectively. It’s worth hearing more than once. Slatkin pulled it together with vim and remarkable specificity.

Weilerstein was flawless in the concerto, notable for her sensitivity and delicacy in a piece that is often played heart on sleeve. Instead, she reveled in fine moments, such as the ascending scales that fade gently as they rise to the top of the fingerboard. In her subtle phrasing of the soulful adagio’s long, singing melody, there was never a sense of rushing or pulling back for effect — just an effortless flow of sound and emotion. Slatkin got fine balances from the orchestra without losing the plush texture of Elgar’s harmonies.

Part’s six-minute piece for strings and a single chime layers simple major and minor scales in increasingly complex ways, building depth and power until it cuts off at the end with only the chime sustaining. Without leaving the stage, Slatkin moved directly into the Sinfonietta’s opening fanfares. The five movements of Janacek’s evocative music, buoyed by the rhythms of the Czech language, not only bookended Stucky’s equally dazzling opener nicely but, as the legato brass fanfares returned with the full orchestra at the end, provided a blazing finish to one of the most compelling concerts of the year.

Not to miss in the coming days

The riches begin today as dazzling mezzo-soprano Joyce di Donato offers exquisite songs by Obradors and Hahn and arias by Mozart and Rossini in her recital. On Wednesday, Shaham starts early and ends late as he wends his way through all six of Bach’s sonatas and partitas for unaccompanied violin. And on Thursday, longtime Aspen regular Anton Nel gets his first solo piano recital that touches on Haydn, Debussy, Granados and Schubert’s majestic Sonata in B-flat.


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