Turtle Island, Cho and DePreist make the jazz work
This was the week that concentrated on jazz at the Aspen Music Festival, focusing on the year’s theme, “Blue Notes.” Jazz-classical matchups provided several of the week’s highlights.First was the Turtle Island Quartet in Harris Hall for Friday’s “Aspen Late.” These guys play real jazz. They improvise solos. They swing. They employ jazz inflections. And they play the same instruments Haydn used in the 18th century. The Ying Quartet, which opened the program with Haydn, may not get into the same groove, but the members held their own in music for the combined quartets.Among the best moments of this revelatory and exciting concert: John Coltrane’s soulful “Model Trane,” played by the Turtles alone, and Danny Seidenberg’s arrangement for string octet of Darius Milhaud’s “La Création du Monde,” which soared much higher than an orchestral performance earlier this summer. Idiomatic playing matters.On Thursday, violinist Jinjoo Cho, only recently a student here, lit a fire under the all-student Aspen Concert Orchestra in Astor Piazzola’s “Four Seasons of Buenos Aires,” tango music that draws on jazz elements. Although the ensemble limped through pieces by Morton Gould, Samuel Barber and Bohuslov Martinu, the Piazzola must rank as one of the top performances of the summer.Cho dug into the music with gusto, reveling in Piazzola’s distinctive, plaintive sound. Leonid Desyatnikov’s version for string orchestra and solo violin interpolates phrases of Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” in the same way jazz artists often quote other tunes. Cho dispatched them with the proper Baroque touch. Conductor Tito Muñoz (only recently in the American Academy of Conducting program here) caught all the little surges and ebbings in the orchestra.Finally, in the tent Sunday, trumpeter Kevin Cobb and bass trombonist John D. Rojak lit up excerpts from Chris Brubeck’s 2001 “Convergence: Concerto for Orchestra” in the Festival Orchestra’s opener. The two movements emulate a New Orleans funeral, a wistful blues followed by a bumptious march. The march dances in seven beats to the measure. (Chris is the son of Dave Brubeck, after all, who introduced unusual time signatures to jazz.)The final work on the program, a suite from Prokofiev’s ballet “Romeo and Juliet,” got stellar contributions from bassoonist Steven Dibner, clarinetist Joaquin Valdepeñas, saxophonist Gregory Chambers and hornists David Wakefield and John Zirbel. Conductor James DePreist brought tremendous verve to both of these works and got marvelous playing from the orchestra.The same cannot be said of Bernstein’s Symphony No. 2, “The Age of Anxiety,” which found pianist Misha Dichter fumbling with the jazz elements and playing with little inflection. In Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto, soloist Sarah Chang seemed alternately angry and blissful. Neither emotion suited the music. There were some lovely moments in the slow movement, but in the finale she and DePreist clearly wanted different tempos. She pushed, he pulled. The music floundered.On Friday’s Chamber Symphony program, Yevgeny Sudbin’s underarticulated playing left Beethoven’s Concerto No. 5 “Emperor” short of its majesty. Although his delicate touch made the slow movement sing, the ascending chords to open the finale came off as shapeless, flattening both outer movements. Conductor Rossen Milanov whipped up a spirited and idiomatic performance by the orchestra, but Sudbin seemed unfazed.Billed as a world premiere, “Folk Songs” by Robert Beaser reworks most of the material in the composer’s “Souvenirs” for clarinet and piano, which charmed listeners here a couple of year ago. Beaser uses real folk tunes and composes melodies to sound like them, spiking them with piquant harmonies and rhythms. It is likable music, and there are lovely moments in the more delicate sections. The finale, “Cindy Redux,” seemed to come from another country. It was fun, but it fit awkwardly.At Saturday afternoon’s chamber music concert in Harris Hall, artist faculty tried to achieve the jazzy inflections of Paul Schoenfeld’s deliberately kitcshy “Cafe Music,” for violin, cello and piano, and Bill Douglas’ more complex and overtly rhythmic “Suite cantabile,” for wind quintet, with intermittent success. The Aspen Contemporary Ensemble did better with Nicolas Scherzinger’s short, tangy “Fractured Mirrors.But Brahms took the day with a beautifully shaped, ebullient reading of Brahms’ Piano Quartet No. 1. Violinist Eric Halen, violist Lawrence Dutton, cellist Ralph Kirschbaum and pianist Jonathan Gilad know their way around this music, and they missed no opportunity to spank it around and make it lively.Guitarist Sharon Isbin generously shared her program Saturday night with the Sichuan Quartet for delicate support in arrangements for guitar and strings of Vivaldi’s familiar Concerto in D major, Albinoni’s oft-heard Adagio and a Bach Concerto in A Minor. The quartet also played music by Wenjing Guo, which creates an arresting sound world with elements of Chinese music.After several pieces by Howard Shore from the film “The Departed,” with fellow guitarist Matthias Jacobsson, and two lovely short pieces by Antonio Carlos Jobim with flutist Nadine Asin, we finally heard Isbin alone in two short pieces by the composer Barrios Magoré of Paraguay. Good as all these collaborations were, both Allegro Solemne from “La Catedral” and a little waltz left this listener wishing we had heard more of her solo playing.Not to miss this week:The American String Quartet takes on Mozart, Beethoven and early Berg (atonal, but Berg couldn’t help making it sound almost like Wagner or Strauss) tonight in Harris Hall.The Festival Orchestra plays Friday under Leonard Slatkin. The program includes Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1 with Jonathan Gilad and Stravinsky’s Petruchka ballet music. The last two times Slatkin conducted Russian music in the tent, it poured. Do an anti-rain dance as you enter.Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” takes the stage in the tent Saturday night with an expanded Aspen Chamber Orchestra under David Zinman. Bring handkerchiefs.A couple of major fourths highlight Sunday’s concert. Conductor Peter Oundjian leads Sinfonia in Mahler’s relatively lighthearted Symphony No. 4 and Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4, one of the few in the literature that opens with solo piano without orchestra.Harvey Steiman’s weekly commentary about the Aspen Music Festival is founded in 14 years of attendance and a background as a professional critic.
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