Violinist dazzles with Beethoven, Bartók
Violinist Robert McDuffie, a longtime Aspen favorite, made the most of his sole performance in this year’s Aspen Music Festival with incandescent readings of music by Beethoven and Bartók before a packed house Wednesday in Harris Hall.In the opening work, Beethoven’s Sonata No. 4 in A minor, was an equal partnership with pianist John O’Conor. They took the same approach to Beethoven, neither succumbing to theatricality nor underplaying the drama in the music. McDuffie can play a sweet phrase with guileless innocence, never letting it tip over into saccharine, then dig into a fast, more aggressive passage without making it seem rough or scratchy. O’Connor seems to tap into some subterranean pulse in the music, because it spills out of his piano all of a single piece. You don’t see the stitches or hear the cogs.Cellist Ralph Kirschbaum joined them for the Piano Trio in E-flat major, Op. 1, No. 1. Some play early Beethoven like it was late Mozart. Not these three. Without losing the inherent elegance, the piece emerged with its early Romantic elements intact. Violist Lawrence Dutton (of the Emerson Quartet) joined McDuffie and Kirschbaum for Beethoven’s String Trio in G major. You would think these three play together regularly, the sense of purpose was so unanimous. It was luminous playing all around.Between the two trios, McDuffie interjected Bartók’s Rhapsody No. 1, a showpiece that highlights the violinist’s unfettered, uncomplicated approach and unerring sense of rhythm. This concert was one of the season highlights.The Percussion Ensemble concert Tuesday in Harris Hall, often among the season highlights, had its share of special moments, but the program weighted too strongly toward loud, heavy ensemble pieces. The few changes of pace provided the standouts. In the first half, Leonard Bernstein’s 1973 “Halil,” written for flutist Jean-Pierre Rampal and played here by Nadine Asin, got a beautiful, expressive performance by the soloist and the percussionists, with the help of a harp, piano and an alto flutist.After intermission came “Malletoba Spank,” which Duke Ellington wrote in 1958 for a studio date using percussionists from the New York Philharmonic with his band. It was never performed live, until this week, an arrangement for marimbas and vibes replacing the Ellington band. The jazz classic “Big Noise From Winnetka” followed without pause, expanded from a bass and drum duet into competing drummers and tympanists. The snap and creativity in both numbers went leagues beyond anything else on the program.Two excerpts from Philip Glass’ “Powaqaatsi” score, a pretentious piece called “Rage and Peace” in which a recorded voice intoned “Don’t do that” in rhythm with four live drummers, and George Antheil’s exhilaratingly obnoxious “Ballet mécanique” needed the kind of explanation faculty leader Jonathan Haas provided for the Ellington piece. On their own, and with long gaps while yeoman stagehands moved the big instruments around, the show lost momentum.At Monday’s chamber music concert in the tent, a mix of tango specialists and artist faculty led by conductor Murry Sidlin played Astor Piazzola’s tango operita “Maria de Buenos Aires” with great spirit. But the performance foundered on the wavering pitch and unrelentingly husky voice of mezzo soprano Jennifer Hines. Much better was Milhaud’s charming Suite Op. 157b, played with panache by clarinetist Bil Jackson, violinist David Perry and pianist Rita Sloan before intermission.Harvey Steiman’s weekly commentary about the Aspen Music Festival is founded in 14 years of attendance and a background as a professional critic.