Review: Weilersteins wow in Aspen concert |

Review: Weilersteins wow in Aspen concert

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

ASPEN – Alisa and Joshua Weilerstein, who blazed through a virtuosic Kodaly duo earlier in the week, proved as potent in the Dvorak Cello Concerto on Sunday afternoon in the Benedict Music Tent. Cellist Alisa was the star, ably abetted by her conductor brother.

Let’s put it this way: She pretty much played the concerto the way I want to hear it, not a hint of sentimentality but plenty of honest emotion behind impeccable execution. When the music was supposed to sing, she drew seamless legato from the instrument. When it turned introspective, she made it seem like she was letting us in on a secret. When it needed to rise above the orchestra leading up to a climax, she found reserves of intensity.

Joshua, for his part, kept the orchestra in sync with her and balanced the dynamics nicely. On his own in the second half, he showed similar mastery of conducting technique, getting exactly what he wanted from the massed forces of the Shostakovich Symphony No. 5. The musicians responded with vivid playing. Unfortunately, it missed the point of the symphony.

Talking to the audience before the performance, Weilerstein noted (correctly) that Shostakovich needed to get himself out of Stalin’s bad graces to save his career (and possibly his life), and thus he had to make the symphony seem triumphant. Stalin bought it, but what the composer really wanted was to communicate to the Soviet people that he knew how oppressed they really were. So he buried the real message under a misleading veneer.

Weilerstein, however, elected to hide nothing. He took intentionally deliberate tempos, stretching a performance that usually lasts 45 minutes to 53. He built every climax to the same crushing intensity. The orchestra responded with brilliant playing. But if the “hidden” message had been so blatantly obvious in the first performance, Stalin might have shot Shostakovich on the spot.

Saturday night’s guitar recital couldn’t have been more different from that Shostakovich symphony. Guitarist Sharon Isbin played meticulously. The dynamics, though quiet, ranged expressively. There was some tasty contemporary American music on the program, especially Joan Tower’s inventive duet with flute “Snow Dreams,” with Nadine Asin contributing the trigger-responsive flute part. But the Spanish music was most compelling, including the evocative scene painting of Barrios Mangore’s “La Catedral” and the famous arrangement by Andres Segovia (Isbin’s teacher) of Albeniz’s “Asturias,” which delivered some real fire and temperament.

In introductory remarks to Friday’s Chamber Symphony program, Aspen Music Festival CEO Alan Fletcher suggested that at least one of the pieces would be new to everyone in the audience and urged us to listen to Beethoven’s very familiar Symphony No. 3 “Eroica” as audiences 200 years ago would have.

Music director Robert Spano obliged in his conducting choices, linking the disparate works on the program by emphasizing the more revolutionary aspects of the Beethoven. The program began with Webern’s arrangement of Bach’s Ricercar à 6. Webern’s music, note-by-note Bach, makes the highly chromatic theme sound almost like a tone-row, broken into fragments assigned to different instruments in the orchestra. Schoenberg, in his late-in-life piano concerto (which followed), softened his dissonant, atonal music by folding in Romantic elements.

Pianist Jeremy Denk made the music as amiable as he could. A blithe expression on his face, he unfurled the tone-row in its various modified forms, interrupted occasionally by a stern look as the music turned louder and more intense. Denk shaped the classical forms of the four connected movements to do everything those sonata and song forms should do except wander away from an established key and return to it (a key difference, in a manner of speaking). Avoiding extroverted expressionism, he kept it a cool and studied performance. Spano made the orchestral textures crisp and spare, whipping up a gleefully raucous finish.

If the theme of the evening was to rework aspects of classical music, that naturally led Spano to an unusually muscular, hard-edged approach in the Beethoven. The two opening chords came off as savage. The pace was deliberate (though not nearly as draggy as Sunday’s Shostakovich), which meant that nothing about the 3/4 time lilted. Tricky syncopations took on a wild aspect – so much so that at one point Spano had to call out the downbeat like a gridiron quarterback calling signals. The funeral march in the second movement seemed angry rather than sorrowful. The hunting horns sounded forth in the scherzo, not quite blaring but much louder and feral than usual, and when they picked up the “Prometheus” theme in the finale it almost seemed like a concerto for French horns. Thrilling stuff, if not the usual.

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