Vengerov’s long-awaited Aspen debut tops a busy Music Fest weekend

Harvey Steiman
For The Aspen Times
Maxim Vengerov's Aspen debut was a success.
Diego Redel/Courtesy photo

Friday’s Chamber Symphony program introduced the established violin virtuoso Maxim Vengerov to Aspen audiences. He’s in the fourth decade of a storied career, and he did not disappoint.

Even the oh-so-familiar Mendelssohn Violin Concerto felt fresh and unforced under his fingers and bow. Subtle nuances abounded: tiny hesitations before key phrases, a delicate glissando here, a whisper of a diminuendo there. Not an aggressive rethinking of the piece, reflecting a sense of humility before the composer’s intent. There were fireworks, but they stemmed from his ability to meet the most demanding technical challenges without showing off and applying that to caressing softer phrases with a gentle touch.

The concerto also benefited from the energy and deftness of conductor Nicholas McGegan. No stranger to Aspen, McGegan wrestled the smallish orchestra into a taut, crisp ensemble that executed the tricky score in sync with Vengerov.

They also reflected his modest approach to the score.

I can’t remember the last time a symphony soloist played an encore accompanied by the orchestra. Usually, it’s the soloist alone, but this time Vengerov and McGegan teamed up to bring their flair to a smile-inducing rendition of Saint-Saëns’ “Havanaise.”

Schubert’s Symphony No. 6 and a collection of lieder orchestrated by a variety of famous composers surrounded the concerto. I sensed a connection between the symphony and Mendelssohn’s popular No. 4 (titled ‘Italian’), as McGegan brought out its Italianate passages with exuberance, and crisp attention to details.

The lieder were sung by students in the Aspen Opera Theatre and Vocal Arts program, all of whom displayed gorgeous voices. Most arresting were three songs from mezzo-soprano Erin Wagner. She portrayed the three characters with distinct vocal colors in “Der Erlkönig” (in Berlioz’s orchestration), caught the serenity of ‘Standchen’ (via Offenbach) and the intense devotion that underlies “Du bist die Ruh” (Webern), all with a voice of liquid richness.

Webern’s orchestrations, faithful to Schubert’s harmonies, also included “Ihr Bild” (even if baritone Evan Nelson missed the underlying despair). Britten’s setting of ‘Die Forelle’ made a charming opener orchestrally, although Matthew Goodheart’s take steered away from any discernible emotional engagement.

If the turnout was less than one might expect for a soloist of Vengerov’s stature, it reflected a quirk in Aspen’s audience for classical music events. Beyond a solid core of musicians and music lovers, a large portion of potential attendees come because it’s the thing to do, and they tend to favor figures they already know. It took a while for them to warm to violinists the likes of Gil Shaham, Joshua Bell and Augustin Hadelich, all Aspen regulars now. Even Hadelich drew a small crowd when he made his debut a few years ago.

Pianist Inon Barnatan, who has become an Aspen regular, drew more of an audience for his go at  Ravel’s jazzy Concerto in G with the Festival Orchestra, and it was a blast. He launched into it with an appreciable sense of swing and brought sensitivity and leisurely pace to the lovely, central slow movement. For his encore, he ripped into Earl Wild’s flashy arrangement of Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm.” An apt sentiment.

Good as that was, the discovery of Sunday’s concert was conductor Kevin John Edusei. In 2004 the Ghanian-German musician was in Aspen studying with David Zinman, for the past eight years chief conductor of the Munich Symphony, and now principal guest conductor of the Fort Worth Symphony. The clarity of the sound, liveliness and suppleness of the music he drew out of the orchestra, and balances with the pianist in the concerto were exemplary.

The opener, English composer Anna Clyne’s “The Midnight Hour,” unfolded with attention to her exceptional orchestral colors and effect of each of its several episodes. Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances got a robust performance to finish off a strong Aspen debut.

Demarre McGill, Dan Schlosberg and Anthony McGill.
Blake Nelson/Courtesy photo

In a vibrant recital Saturday evening in Harris Hall Demarre McGill, who plays principal flute in some of the orchestral concerts here, and his brother Anthony, the clarinetist, played with formidable articulation (plus a few theatricalities to liven things up). Even through their regular trio piano partner could not get to Aspen, Dan Schlosberg stepped in at the last minute to provide a seemingly seamless connection.

Poulenc’s sonatas for flute and clarinet (both brilliantly played) may have been the tentpoles of a highly listenable program, but the juiciest moments involved lesser known composers. Kicking things off was Chris Rogerson’s kalediscopic nine-minute tone poem “A Fish Will Rise,” which the McGills premiered in Philadelphia.Widely played French composer Guillaume Connesson’s breathlessly tail-chasing “Techno-Parade” made for a mid-concert lift-me-up.

Contemporary flutist/composer Valerie Coleman’s Portraits of Langston closed the evening.The concert jazz writing in the evocative and painterly short tone poems deserves extensive performances. A sort of ‘Lincoln Portraits’ for more intimate forces, the piece can be performed with or without a narrator reading the great Langston Hughes’ poems. Segments such as ‘Jazz Band in a Parisian Cabaret’ and ‘Harlem’s Summer Night’ made a strong impact. ‘Silver Rain’ was especially delicious, a moment of respite.

On his own, Schlosberg offered Wild’s pianistic arrangement of Gershwin’s “The Man I Love.” Introduced as a parallel to Liszt’s famous piano versions of opera music, to my ears it owes a bigger hat-tip to the midcentury jazz pianist Art Tatum.

For Saturday afternoon’s chamber music, Anthony McHale and an expanded Aspen Contemporary Ensemble wended their way through composer Anthony Davis’ clarinet concerto, “You Have the Right to Remain Silent.” It was rough going, and while that might be appropriate for the subject matter (the fright of being arrested), musically it never quite jelled.

William Grant Still, whose midcentury American music should be heard much more than it has, wrote the highlight of the afternoon, “Ennaga” for Harp and String Quartet, in which harpist Emily Levin stood out brightly in the spotlight. Smetana’s galumphing Piano Trio in G minor, even with stellar musicians playing it, may have overstayed its welcome.

Harvey Steiman has been writing about the Aspen Music Festival for 30 years.

Not to miss…

Shadows of the weekend’s activities linger over two Harris Hall concerts this week. On Wednesday Barnatan plays his own piano transcription of the Symphonic Dances, and McGegan returns Thursday to conduct J.S. Bach’s Magnificat in D. Friday’s Chamber Symphony program in the tent features Mexico’s celebrated pianist Jorge Federico Osorio in Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto. Robert Spano conducts.

More Like This, Tap A Topic

See more