Violinist Shaham makes Beethoven warm, lyrical
ASPEN It may be hard to figure just how the first half of Friday’s Aspen Chamber Symphony concert, a mishmash of minor jazz-inspired works by classical composers of the early 20th century, related to the “Beethoven Violin Concerto,” which occupied the second half. But violinist Gil Shaham’s transcendental performance of the iconic concerto made the issue irrelevant.Conductor David Zinman began the concerto with his usual approach to Beethoven – lean, no-nonsense, refreshing as a splash of cool water. Shaham clearly wanted something more warm and lyrical, and the first movement seemed, if not quite a tug-of-war, at least a serious conversation about how they should proceed.But then, on the closing pages of the first movement, Shaham launched into a breathtaking extended cadenza, spinning gorgeous elaborations on Beethoven’s themes. From then on, it was Shaham’s concerto, and Zinman apparently decided to throw in with him.The result was sublime music-making in the Larghetto, a slow movement in which Shaham unfurled long, heartbreakingly pure melodic lines. That segued into a sprightly finale that danced as lightly as any performance I can recall. The thunderous ovation that greeted Shaham was thoroughly deserved.This being the first concert I attended upon my arrival in Aspen for the summer, it was also my first taste of this year’s “Blue Notes” theme, which explores how jazz and classical music have influenced each other. George Antheil, Charles Ives, Silvestre Revueltas and Igor Stravinsky were among the most original composers of the 20th century. The Chamber Symphony musicians lacked nothing in brio, but the compositions at best represented some early stabs in the direction of merging jazz and classical.Antheil’s “A Jazz Symphony” plays with divergent styles of 1920s jazz, from the dance hall to Duke Ellington, but its episodes fit awkwardly. “Four Ragtime Dances” incorporates some syncopation into Ives’ trademark juxtapositions of church hymns with crashing dissonances, dance hall music and serious musical development. But a rhythm seldom continues for longer than a few measures, not very rag-like. Revueltas’ “Ocho por Radio” makes mariachi music more sophisticated, creating a pleasant six minutes.Leave it to Stravinsky to dash off the most convincing music. “Four Études for Orchestra” managed to be clever, amusing, true to its jazz roots and yet completely Stravinsky.On Saturday evening, Vladimir Feltsman offered a short and decidedly downbeat recital that, in its 85 minutes (including intermission), displayed the pianist’s ability to draw the sound to a filament without losing its power, then rise to majestic heights with rich chords.He opened with Liszt’s “Tre Sonetti di Petrarca,” three short single-movement pieces for solo piano inspired by sonnets of the Italian poet Petrarch. Feltsman’s playing was serene and mesmerizing, and then, without a break, came two short pieces by the contemporary Russian composer Valentyn Sil’vestrov.The first, “Postludia,” a gloss on music by Wagner, was as chordal as Liszt’s was pianistically flowery, accented by occasional thrums of the piano’s low strings. The second, “The Messenger,” used snippets of Mozart’s music (and music written like it) that trail off into nothing. It’s compelling stuff. Feltsman savored every phrase. His playing in the Mozart passages suggested that, should he return for an entire evening of Mozart, his distinctly idiomatic touch would do it justice.After intermission, Aspen faculty violinists Alexander Kerr and Cornelia Heard, violist Masao Kawasaki and cellist Jaehee Ju joined Feltsman for the Russian composer Alfred Schnittke’s “Piano Quintet,” a sort of requiem for Shostakovich. Schittke’s music can be sweet one moment and enter into long passages of microtonal dissonances the next. The microtones can sound like a swarm of angry bees, or simply seem out of tune. The second movement waltz hovers claustrophobically around a narrow range. In the finale, wheezing microtonal chords interrupt a tranquil “pastorale.” The musicians lavished fine and evocative playing on this problematic music.Sunday’s Festival Orchestra concert never quite came together, despite the conducting of the energetic and irrepressible David Robertson. Soloist of the day honors must go to Steve Mackey, composer in residence here this summer, who showed formidable technique on electric guitar on his own 2000 composition, “Tuck and Roll.” His rock-flavored solos held more interest than the piece itself did. The orchestral music seems to listen to the guitar riffs and say, “I can do that, too.” The musicians gave it a good try, but the work lacks the substance of Mackey’s more recent music.Pianist Orli Shaham gave credible accounts of Stravinsky’s “Capriccio,” a concerto in all but name, and Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm” variations. She had originally programmed Gershwin’s “Second Rhapsody” but elected to go with the much-shorter (and frankly better) variations. The pianist, sister to Gil and wife to Robertson, has become a more rhythmically assured player since her early appearances here in Aspen, but both pieces require a bit more snap than she could deliver.The musicians took a healthy swing at the tart sonorities and playful rhythms of Stravinsky’s endlessly inventive “Symphony in C,” which concluded the concert. Even Robertson’s athletic conducting couldn’t quite coax that last ounce of juice that makes the music special.Not to miss this week:Mozart’s opera “Cosi fan Tutte,” a comedy that contains some of his most sublime music, gets performances tonight, Thursday and Sunday at the Wheeler Opera House. George Manahan conducts.The angelic soprano voice of Kathleen Battle should add luster to the all-Gershwin program in Saturday’s season benefit concert. David Zinman conducts and Simon Trpceski plays “Rhapsody in Blue.”Miguel Harth-Bedoya conducts the Aspen Concert Orchestra in an intriguing program Friday at 6 p.m. It includes “La Noche de los Mayas,” a more serious piece from Revueltas, and “Last Round,” by one of today’s most listenable composers, Osvaldo Golijov. And oh yes, the Tchaikovsky “Violin Concerto,” featuring teen violinist Veronika Eberle.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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