Review: Violinists all over the map
Special to The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
ASPEN – Three days, three very different approaches to string playing, especially violin. At times it was hard to believe they were all playing the same instrument in their Aspen Music Festival concerts in Harris Hall.
Representing the traditional wing, as it were, Peter Winograd fine-tuned his sound and his style to match the styles of Beethoven, Tsontakis and Dvorak in the American String Quartet’s Tuesday recital. On Monday, spiky-haired Nicolas Kendall and his compatriot, Zachary De Pue, melded classical music with country fiddling with their group, Time for Three. Wednesday, Sarah Chang laid her big, broad sound onto the Franck Violin Sonata in A major and a posthumous Scherzo by Brahms. Her star turn was less successful than her foray into Shostakovich with the Festival Orchestra last Sunday.
Chang ramped up the intensity so high that she seemed determined to sound like a whole violin section. She seemed angry at her fiddle and bow. There was little deftness to her playing, which made Franck’s soaring music come off as vulgar and tiring. The mannerisms that she managed to keep in check Sunday, the overt body language, iffy intonation on lower strings and excessive vibrato, did not help either.
Pianist Andrew von Oeyen, however, opened the concert with a fiery but finely articulated Sonata No. 23, “Appassionata” by Beethoven, which he played without pause after Berg’s highly chromatic Piano Sonata Op. 1. It was unclear exactly what the connection could be, and making the Berg into a prelude for Beethoven only diminished its effect.
The American String Quartet demonstrated its versatility with its three challenging and very different pieces. Dvorak’s String Quartet in F major, “American” is not exactly the group’s signature piece, despite the same name, but it might as well have been as Winograd spun out the pentatonic-inflected melodies with a winning combination of straightforward tone and graceful phrasing. The seamless interplay between him and violist Daniel Avshalamov, cellist Wolfram Koessel and second violin Laurie Carney felt like second nature to them.
The Dvorak put the cap on a strong concert that included George Tsontakis’ String Quartet No. 4, “Beneath the Tenderness of Heart.” Written in 1988 on a commission from the ASQ, the piece begins with a sonorous Eastern Orthodox hymn, expands into more complex and dissonant harmonies, and repeatedly ends phrases on high sustained unisons. Throughout, there is a sense that the music is going somewhere. The journey is not easy, especially for the musicians, who rose to the challenge of complex rhythms and harmonic balances.
The opener, Beethoven’s early Quartet in G major, sashayed in with a spring in its step. The rapid interplay between the members of the quartet was especially appealing as they subtly emphasized the composer’s deft harmonic shifts and unexpected turns of phrase.
Time for Three made their Aspen debut Monday night with a difficult-to-categorize but riveting 1-hour, 50-minute concert that demonstrated a new way to use classical players’ technical facility to have fun with music.
Only about 30, violinists De Pue and Kendall, with bassist Ranaan Meyer, veer from jazz to country fiddling to pop to classical material in high-energy arrangements that demand virtuosic technique. They turned the first movement of Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins into a bluegrass romp by doubling the tempo, shifting some accents and introducing a jazz-inflected bass line. They added high harmonics and delicate pizzicato glosses to Lennon and McCartney’s “Blackbird,” and dug into Brahms’ Hungarian Dance No. 5 with reckless abandon and utter disregard for propriety. At one point Kendall added “Hava Nagila” to DePue’s “Fiddler on the Roof” – on the same violin, as Meyer came in with “If I Were a Rich Man” as counterpoint. It was only a brief aside, but quite a trick.
Meyer, no relation to Edgar (but also able to play to the end of the fingerboard on his bass and shift from pinpoint technical accuracy to down-home rhythms), was most impressive soulfully carrying the tune in the high range on Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” He also writes most of the group’s original material. The gorgeous three-part chorale that opens “Of Time and Three Rivers” was especially fine, as were the bluesy bass lines of “Philly Phunk” and the fleet fiddling of “Thunder Stomp.”
In Monday’s faculty chamber music, violinist David Halen anchored a well-matched ensemble that defined finesse in a gossamer-fine performance of Schoenberg’s delicate “Verklärte Nacht.” They played the original sextet version.
Not to miss this weekend: It’s Piano Weekend, with appearances by Marc-Andre Hamelin, Yuja Wang, Simone Dinnerstein and Steven Hough all within 48 hours. Hamelin plays the Beethoven 4th Friday with Hugh Wolff conducting the Aspen Chamber Symphony on a program that includes Schumann’s “Spring” Symphony and Steven Stuckey’s new Chamber Concerto. On Saturday Yuja Wang plays Scriabin, Schumann, Prokofiev and some LIszt transcriptions of Schubert songs at 6 p.m. in the tent, followed by Dinnerstein in Harris Hall at 8:30 p.m. playing Bach with the Concert Orchestra. Hough takes the spotlight Sunday in the Brahms Concerto No. 1, Mark Wigglesworth conducting a program that finishes joyfully with the Sibelius Symphony No. 2.