Zinman delivers mighty Mahler
The weekend belonged to David Zinman and the celebrations surrounding his 70th birthday, but the chamber music wing provided even more rewards the rest of the week at the Aspen Music Festival.After a riveting recital last weekend involving Britten and Schubert, the Boulder-based Takacs Quartet returned to Harris Hall Thursday night for two Mozart quintets. Mozart’s String Quintet in C major, K. 515, with violist James Dunham providing the fifth string, as it were, was notable for its sense of balance and deft phrasing. But clarinetist Joaquin Valdepeñas added a layer of unearthly beauty with some absolutely gorgeous pianissimo playing in the Clarinet Quintet in A major.At the clarinet’s first entrance, the sound seemed to well up seamlessly from the Takacs’ cohesive string texture. The clarinetist’s phenomenal breath control (not easy at this altitude) made the long, achingly beautiful phrases in the Larghetto second movement seem to hang in the air forever. A sense of serenity hovered over the entire performance, even in the speedy flourishes of the Allegro finale, when Valdepeñas and first violinist Edward Dusinberre traded identical rapid-fire counterphrases. Valdepeñas’ rock-solid sense of rhythm spurred the Takacs players, who had shown a tendency to soften the edges earlier. The result was something near perfection.On Wednesday, pianist Yefim Bronfman and violinist Gil Shaham, Aspen regulars, joined Norwegian cellist Truls Mørk for a spirited run at the Schubert B Flat and Tchaikovsky trios.The broader, outward gestures of the Tchaikovsky Trio made a much greater impact than the relatively introspective Schubert. Bronfman and Shaham especially seemed to relish the big moments when all three instruments were whaling away. The tent’s vast open spaces swallowed up the climaxes in the Schubert. The delicate moments came off best, underlining the intricate interplay that these three musicians achieved.In Monday’s chamber music concert, pianist Wu Han, violinists Alexander Kerr and Laurie Carney, violist Dunham and cellist Eric Kim wrung every last drop of emotion from the seldom-heard Piano Quintet by the English composer Edward Elgar.Another English composer provided the high point in the Saturday afternoon chamber music. Violinist Lev Polyakin, violist Masao Kawasaki, cellist David Finckel and his wife, Wu Han, infused William Walton’s seldom-heard Piano Quartet with rich sound and rhythmic drive. Also on that program, violinist Sylvia Rosenberg, a festival treasure, brought rare clarity and élan to the Mozart Duo in B-flat with violist Dunham.After Saturday night’s benefit gala honoring Zinman sprawled over 3 1/2 hours, the weekend climax came in Sunday’s Festival Orchestra concert as Zinman led a mighty performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 1. Under Zinman’s sure hand, the piece grew organically from its sketchy roots in the opening minutes, unfolding naturally and with unerring pace. If the village-band interludes in the third movement needed a bit more of a sardonic bite, and if the Scherzo might have galumphed a tad more, the overall shape of the piece was perfect.Individually, oboist Richard Woodhams’ cuckoolike interjections in the first movement and his edgy work in the third movement were especially delightful. Nancy Allen’s harp added atmosphere to the first-movement dirge, and concert master Herbert Greenberg caught exactly the right spirit in his brief solo.But the day belonged to Zinman, who shaped this episodic work like a sculptor. In the opening, he drew delicate playing in the strings, letting the nature-calls interrupt raucously. The appearance at the end of the third movement of the gentle, quiet music from the last of the composer’s Wayfarer songs shone like a pearl on a velvet case. The big, loud passages came off with compelling drama, especially the brass perorations on the final pages.Zinman also kept things moving along well in the opening piece, the Beethoven Triple Concerto. Despite a rainstorm that threatened to drown out the soloists in the first movement, Bronfman, Shaham and Mørk tossed off the music as if it were child’s play. Vintage Beethoven this wasn’t, but it sure was fun to hear those guys play it.During the first movement, the sound guys introduced some amplification to offset the drumbeat of the rain on the tent. It allowed us to hear the soloists, but the cello sounded awfully tinny through those speakers. The violin also lacked resonance. Good thought, but it needs work.The clear highlight of the Friday chamber symphony concert, Bartók’s Dance Suite, got the right combination of rhythmic zing and Hungarian flamboyance from conductor Michael Stern. Stern also offered an unprogrammed opener for the birthday weekend: Stravinsky’s Greeting Prelude, which uses snatches of “Happy Birthday to You” as musical material. The composer wrote it for Pierre Monteux, Zinman’s mentor. Much of the Saturday benefit gala was played for laughs, including an extended “This Is Your Life” spoof that featured violinist Cho-Liang Lin spouting Yiddish catch-words as Zinman’s Hassidic-clad purported first violin teacher, conductor Murry Sidlin as a “deceased” Pierre Monteux, Bronfman in a tutu as a pianist who wanted to be a ballet dancer, and Gil Shaham as street violinist with a wayward monkey. Sidlin also led a long opera parody that purported to explain why Zinman is so short. A jazz set displayed Lev Polyakin’s formidable jazz violin chops and Zinman’s ability to croon a funny song of his own devise, “Skanky Lady.”For more subtle musical humor, Wu Han played a pastiche of “Happy Birthday to You” in the style of various famous Beethoven works. A downpour that made a giant drum of the entire tent drowned out what must have been a great solo by bassist Edgar Meyer and much of the Opera Center’s excerpt from Copland’s “The Tender Land.”In one true musical highlight, however, pianists Leon Fleisher and Katherine Jacobson-Fleisher brought enviable tenderness to William Bolcom’s “Graceful Ghost Rag.” And faculty ringers reinforced the Academy of Conducting Orchestra in Zinger for Zinman, a colorful, energetic five-minute bauble composer Christopher Rouse wrote for the occasion. Too bad only the few who remained, like the sparse crowd in the 13th inning of a baseball game, got to hear it.Not to miss this weekThose who were here in 1999 when the Emerson Quartet played the entire cycle of Shostakovich quartets will want to be there to see if lightning can strike again when they do Nos. 13, 14 and 125 tonight in a special event at Harris Hall. They play No. 9 in the tent on Thursday along with Beethoven and Mendelssohn.Nicholas McGegan, known for his energetic early music work, conducts Mozart, Vivaldi and a U.S premiere of Britten’s “Plymouth Town” at Friday night’s chamber symphony concert. At Sunday’s festival orchestra concert, pianist Leon Fleisher plays Hindemith’s Piano Music for Left Hand, and violinist Sarah Chang uses both hands for Bruch’s melodic Concerto No. 1
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