Steiman: Shaham’s resonant premiere tops the week

Harvey Steiman
Special to The Aspen Times
Violinist Gil Shaham.
Diego Redel/Courtesy photo

Violinist Gil Shaham, always a welcome visitor to the Aspen Music Festival, debuted a new sonata by Jonathan Leshnoff on Wednesday in his Harris Hall recital. The world premiere of the heart-on-sleeve, unabashedly-melodic, lushly-expressive piece made for a memorable occasion.

Shaham has history with Leshnoff, having premiered his “Yiddish Dance Suite” in 2011 and chamber concerto in 2015. With a Grammy nomination to his name, Leshnoff knows how to communicate with audiences.

Alternately melancholy and wistful, the four movements in 20 minutes occasionally burst into a lively dance, even though the piece reflects the composer’s preoccupation with his dying father as he wrote the piece. A strain of Yiddish-tinged sorrow runs through the tuneful first movement, reminiscent of John Williams’ “Schindler’s List” theme but not at all a copy.

The second-movement Adagio was especially touching, and the two final movements felt like someone shaking off sadness for something more positive. Festival music director Robert Spano at the piano shaped a kaleidoscope of harmonies with a soft touch.

Especially striking was a long cadenza in the finale that at times seemed to be channeling the Chaconne from Bach’s “Partita No. 2” for unaccompanied violin. It rose to a frenzied climax before receding into the piece’s sigh of a finish. This, of course, was catnip for Shaham, who can make his instrument sing like few others.

The duo opened with Bach’s “Violin Sonata in F minor.” Anticipating the new piece, it began with a long, winding melody in slow motion against a gently twisting counterpoint in the piano. Shaham often takes a more Romantic approach to Bach’s music, and Spano went along with a softer-edged (if heavier) touch than we usual hear. The closer, Brahms’ “Violin Sonata No. 3 in D minor” found its direction in the gorgeous Adagio, and finished strong in the Presto Agitato finale.

The encore, “Meditation” from Massenet’s opera “Thaïs,” brought things to a gorgeously peaceful close. Both musicians unfurled the music in unhurried fashion.

The rest of the week had its ups and downs.

Guitarist Sharon Isbin, a longtime Aspen favorite, joined Thursday’s Pacifica Quartet recital to carry the familiar strains of Vivaldi’s “Guitar Concerto in D major” with panache. She topped off the first half leading a lively and fun “Fandango” from Boccherini’s “Quintet No. 4 for Guitar and Strings in D major.”

In between came a new work, “The Song of a Dreaming Sparrow,” by composer Joseph Schwantner. Written for Isbin and the quartet, the piece never seemed to find footing, meandering aimlessly through impressions of life in rural 19th-century New England.

The second half was devoted to Beethoven’s “String Quartet in A minor, op. 132.” As if the score had not notated enough sudden dynamic changes, crescendos, and diminuendos, the quartet added more of their own. This created an extra-fussy version that only found glory in the magnificent Molto Adagio at the center of the quartet.

In Harris Hall on Monday evening, Michelle Cann, who holds the piano chair at Curtis Institute, brought enthusiasm and dynamic playing to a program that celebrated the women composers of the Chicago Black Renaissance. In the music realm, the better-known Harlem Renaissance — the emergence of Black artists to be reckoned with — leaned more heavily on jazz, where the group of Chicago-based women presented here took on the classical world.

Florence Price is the best known of this group, but Cann demonstrated why the music of Margaret Bonds, Irene Britton Smith, and Betty Jackson King deserves more attention, too.

She revealed a deep understanding of the music’s roots as she spoke from a lectern to describe how they all moved to Chicago when they could make no headway with classical music in their hometowns in the Deep South. They supported each other and created a Black classical-music community with music steeped in spirituals and the pianism of a range of classical composers.

To help us hear the references to spirituals, Cann sang portions of a few of them in a well-trained voice that movingly carried all the colors these songs needed.

Smith’s “Variations on a Theme by MacDowell” made a fine example to start. The variations echoed keyboard styles from Bach to Brahms, with a touch of Mozart and Beethoven, before delving into her own more modern style in further variations. Bonds’ “Spiritual Suite” got even more explicit, developing delicious glosses on such familiar strains as “Dem Bones” and “Wade in the Water.” King’s “Four Seasonal Sketches” took a very different approach to music of the seasons than Vivaldi did, a tinge of sadness seeping into the holiday and spring movements.

Cann played all those with formidable piano technique, intensity, sometimes with more weight than was necessary but always on point with references and decorative touches. Best of all were two Price “fantasies,” which reflected the composer’s elegant style, open textures, and seamless structure. The encore, a transcription of the incomparable Hazel Scott’s boogie-woogie version of Rachmaninoff’s “Prelude in C-sharp minor,” brought things to a juicy high point.

This recital was the fourth concert in four days offering music from Black composers. The works, reflecting the culture from a variety of perspectives, are worth pondering.

Billy Childs’ saxophone concerto, played brilliantly by Steven Banks on Friday’s Chamber Symphony, painted musical pictures from Africa to slavery and ended on a positive note with music of the Black church. Joel Thompson’s “An Act of Resistance” condensed today’s racial turbulence into the need for love to triumph over a national lack of empathy. There was no sense of hope, however, in Kyle Rivera’s raw “Black Body Collage,” played by the Aspen Contemporary Ensemble on Saturday’s Chamber Music program. Its harsh expressions of anguish and anger lingered in repelling dissonances and blats from the orchestra.

Message received, but now I know which of these pieces, including those on Cann’s program, I want to hear again.

Harvey Steiman has been writing about the Aspen Music Festival for 30 years. His reviews appear Saturdays and Tuesdays in The Aspen Times.


Two, highly-anticipated pieces by composer John Luther Adams, who created last Sunday’s “Crossing Open Ground,” include “An Atlas of Deep Time,” which arrays the Festival Orchestra’s musicians around the perimeter of the music tent on Sunday afternoon. Today’s chamber music concert includes an indoor Adams piece and Wynton Marsalis’ “A Fiddler’s Tale” featuring violinist Alexander Kerr. In her recital, Saxophonist Jess Gillam ranges from Bach to Bjôrk.

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