Voices and violins highlight music fest season
August 24, 2006
Voices and violins made the biggest impressions in the Apen Music Festival’s 2006 season, which concluded last Sunday with the deeply moving “War Requiem” by Benjamin Britten. It was an unusual option for a closer, but somehow appropriate in a season that included a new American opera by Ned Rorem, a new cello concerto for Yo-Yo Ma and lots of great Shostakovich and Britten.The theme this year, as printed on the program cover, celebrated the composer Mozart’s 250th birthday, the composer Shostakovich’s 100th and conductor (and festival music director) David Zinman’s 70th. The festival made an effort to program less-familiar Mozart pieces, and that, coupled with a a slew of disappointing performances, shifted the balance strongly toward Shostakovich, whose music received much better care, and Britten, who was included because he was the Russian composer’s contemporary and long-distance friend.As for Zinman, his work on the podium produced some of the year’s most memorable moments, including that final “War Requiem.” But a 70th birthday program, which was the season’s big Saturday benefit concert, ran overly long. Torrential rains drowned out part of it, and most of the music was played for laughs. Who will soon forget the sight of pianist Yefim Bronfman in a tutu?In the plus column, the season revealed perhaps the music school’s strongest overall level of student musicians ever. One need not think back too far to remember chronic intonation and articulation problems and unresponsive playing. No more. Students excelled in every orchestra, from the top-billed Festival Orchestra and Chamber Symphony, where they play alongside professionals, to the all-student Concert Orchestra and Sinfonia. Students who were tapped to play in chamber programs with faculty and visiting artists handled their assignments with aplomb.This was also a banner year in the voice department. The student casts I heard in Verdi’s “La Traviata,” Rorem’s “Our Town” and Britten’s “Albert Herring” performed at a high level. Several seem ready for the big time: soprano Amanda Grooms and tenor Rolando Sanz, who starred in “La Traviata”; soprano Jennifer Zetlan, who sang Emily in “Our Town”; and tenor Kalil Wilson and baritone Liam Bonner, who were in “Albert Herring.” Other students distinguished themselves on many programs in the past few weeks, almost enough to qualify as an unofficial voice festival.Soprano Renee Fleming headlined a list of pro singers on major programs this summer. These included tenor Anthony Dean Griffey, soprano Jane Eaglen and baritone Willliam Dazeley.It was good year for violin fanciers, who heard dazzling work from Hilary Hahn, Julia Fischer and Lev Polyakin, who are new to this festival or have played here only seldom. Here’s hoping we hear more of them.On the downside, there was way too much second-rate Mozart on the agenda. Sarah Chang, Lang Lang and the Dichters delivered substandard performances in their moments in the spotlight. A Hindemith piece for piano left hand and orchestra had to disappoint Leon Fleisher’s many fans. His concert with family went overlong and fell flat. He didn’t do his concerto master class this year, either.Also, too many concerts started late. A three- to five-minute leeway for latecomers is one thing, but the typical starting time this year was about 10 minutes past the hour. Some 6 p.m. concerts didn’t end until 8:25. And it was a rare concert in the Tent that wasn’t interrupted by a cell phone ringing. (Nicholas McGegan, preparing to conduct as one went off, turned and reminded the audience that the devices have an off button, earning applause.)”We’re having a competition next year with Tanglewood and the Hollywood Bowl to see who can have the fewest interruptions,” said Alan Fletcher, president and CEO of the Aspen Music Festival and School. More announcements and new signage are among the ideas being considered.Fletcher made a strong positive impression in his first year. In remarks before some concerts, he revealed a sense of shared ownership of the festival that embraced the community. He has a knack for saying the right thing. And he’s a musician himself, which bodes well for the festival’s future.”Especially for the core of people who come to a lot of the concerts, I think they heard a good mix of really important standard repertoire and some less familiar music,” Fletcher said this week. “That’s the meat and potatoes of what we do. I get no credit for the planning, but I was excited by the Britten and Shostakovich this year. A lot of that deserves to be in the standard repertoire.”Next year’s theme, Fletcher said, “involves the importance of jazz to classical music around the world.” Zinman suggested the idea, and typed up three single-spaced pages of ideas, “off the top of his head,” Fletcher added. “We asked every conductor who we want to come back next year for ideas, and every one of them said, ‘Can I do …’ and had two or three things they were excited about.”A jazz emphasis opens the door to several composers and performers who have not appeared in Aspen before. If negotiations are successful, programs next year could feature trumpeter-composer Wynton Marsalis and composers Osvaldo Golijov and Steve Mackey, among others.Fletcher said that one of next year’s minifestivals will focus on jazz, another on Stravinsky (who dabbled in all kinds of music, including jazz) and a third one on Beethoven, who was at least a revolutionary composer in his time. The planned operas are Mozart’s “Cosi fan tutte,” Bizet’s “Carmen” and Cavalli’s recently discovered 17th-century opera “l’Eliogabalo.” Cavalli’s “Giasone” was a hit last summer.In compiling a list of this summer’s highlights, I focused on individual performances. I missed the first week-and-a-half (and thus Feltsman’s Shostakovich recital on June 21, Ma’s appearance on June 25 and Gil Shaham’s evening in the Tent June 28, which by all accounts were splendid). But in the seven weeks (plus one weekend) I was here, these were my 10 most-memorable performances (in chronological order):Emerson String Quartet: Shostakovich String Quartets 13, 14, 15 (July 11, Harris Hall) and Shostakovich String Quartet 9 (July 13, Tent). The Emerson does Shostakovich better than anybody today. These were jaw-dropping in their musical power.Opera Theater: Verdi “La Traviata” (July 16, Wheeler). A strong cast and Julius Rudel’s expert conducting shook the Wheeler’s rafters.David Finckel, Wu Han, Alexander Kerr: Shostakovich “Piano Trio No. 2” (July 15, Harris Hall). The Emerson’s cellist and his wife enlisted faculty violinist Kerr for a thrilling performance of this masterpiece.Edgar Meyer: Recital (July 22, Harris Hall). He makes a double bass sing, drawing in audiences with the music’s quiet, mesmerizing eloquence.Hilary Hahn, Aspen Chamber Symphony: Goldmark “Violin Concerto No. 1” (Aug. 4, Tent). Hahn’s immaculate technique and deep musicianship make for heady music making.Anthony Dean Griffey, John Zirbel, Aspen Festival Orchestra: Britten “Serenade” (Aug. 6, Tent). Gorgeous, idiomatic singing and playing in a meditation on night (and death) under the baton of James Conlon.Julia Fischer: Ysae “Sonata for Unaccompanied Violin in E minor” and Beethoven “Sonata in A major” (Aug. 10, Tent), and Brahms “Violin Concerto” (Aug. 12, Tent). Warmth, brilliance and musical generosity in some of the pillars of the repertoire.Opera Theater: Britten “Albert Herring” (Aug. 17, Wheeler). An operatic comedy that was actually funny and beautifully sung. Robert Spano conducted.Jane Eaglen, Anthony Dean Griffey, William Dazeley, Aspen Festival Orchestra, Colorado Symphony Chorus: Britten “War Requiem” (Aug 20, Tent). A stunning and powerfully gripping season finale, superbly sung by all hands and well-played. Zinman set a perfect pace.And finally,Opera Theater: Saturday morning Opera Scenes Master Classes. These never get reviewed because they are student workshops, but some of the most thrilling singing of the year has come in these scenes. It’s also a great introduction to young voices and performances of the future.