Aspen 8: A Day with Violin in the Spotlight


  Aspen Music Festival (8): Brahms, Debussy, Françaix, Franck, Jónsson, Kurtág, Lutoslawski, Mase, Paterson, Rieti, Sacco, Sampson, Stravinsky, Young, Ysaÿe. Augustin Hadelich (violin), Joyce Yang (piano), Aspen, Colorado. 27-30.7.2015 (HS)

Chamber Music, July 27
Benedict Music Tent

Sampson: Just Keep Moving
Françaix: Wind Quintet
Jónsson: Wind Quartet
Brahms: Horn Trio in E-flat major


Vijay Iyer Trio, July 27

American Brass Quintet, July 28
Harris Hall
Eric Reed (horn), Louis Hanzlik, Kevin Cobb (trumpets), Michael Powell (trombone), John  D. Rojak (bass trombone)

Mase (ed.): Elizabethan Consort Music
Rieti: Incisioni: Five Engravings in Brass
Paterson: Shine, for Brass Quintet (world premiere)
Lutoslawski: Mini Overture for Brass Quintet
Sacco: Little Suite of Miniatures
Mase (ed.): Canons of the 16th Century
Young: Fata Morgana


Recital, July 30

Augustin Hadelich (violin), Joyce Yang (piano)
Stravinsky: Suite after Themes, Fragments and Pieces by Pergolesi
Debussy: Estampes
Ysaÿe: Sonata for Unaccompanied Violin in D minor “Ballade”
Kurtág: Three Pieces for Violin and Piano, op 14e
Franck: Violin Sonata in A major


Thursday was a day in Aspen to thrill a music lover, especially anyone enamored of the violin.

At 6 p.m. the second installment of the Science and Music series (co-presented by the Aspen Music Festival and the Aspen Science Center) focused on what makes a great violin. A cogent and personal discussion with violinists Robert McDuffie and Elizabeth Pitcairn, moderated by Alan Fletcher, the music festival’s president, explored the differences between their violins and others. At the culmination, McDuffie, a longtime festival favorite, played snatches of Tchaikovsky on six different instruments so the audience could judge their relative merits.

Then he played the first movement of the Brahms C major sonata, on his own Guarneri del Gesù “Ladenburg,” made in 1735. Prompted by a request from the audience, Pitcairn played a little Bach on her Stradivari “Red Mendelssohn.” Made in 1721, it’s the model for the “Red Violin” in the 1999 film of the same name. Both performances brought out the nuances that distinguish these two violin styles—Guarneri richer in the mid range and Stradivari more brilliant at the top.

As if things couldn’t get any better, Augustin Hadelich put his Stradivari Ex-Kiesewetter (1723) to extraordinary use in the evening’s recital in Harris Hall. With the pianist Joyce Yang in total sync, they galloped joyfully through Stravinsky’s Suite After Themes, Fragments and Pieces by Pergolesi, an arrangement of the Pulcinella suite, and drew out all the broad gestures, cycling themes and rich tonalities of the Franck Violin Sonata in A major.

As a lagniappe, they preceded the Franck (without pause) with three skittish little pieces by Kurtág. The effect was, as Yang described it, “like lifting the curtain on an opera.” To complete the program, Yang gave Debussy’s moody showpiece “Estampes” a soft glow and Hadelich tore through Ysaÿe’s Sonata for Unaccompanied Violin in D minor “Ballade” with astonishing technical command, and without losing an ounce of subtlety.

The encore, the first two movements of Sarasate’s Carmen Fantasy, put the spotlight squarely on Hadelich’s ability to string together show-off technique with real music making.

In his introduction on Tuesday evening, bass trombonist John D. Rojak noted that the American Brass Quintet has been performing at this festival for more than 40 years. In the more than two decades I’ve been coming to Aspen, Tuesday’s program was perhaps the best. The quintet’s clear sound and precise articulation let the music speak with big-time personality—and the works brought plenty of personality. Among the highlights were the two newest: a world premiere, Shine, for Brass Quintet, by Robert Paterson, who mentioned in his introduction that he was a student composer here 16 years ago, and Fata Morgana (2014) by Nina C. Young, who wrote it last summer at Tanglewood.

Premieres and new pieces are something of a regular occurrence in the quintet’s concerts here, but this one was something different. Paterson challenged the members of the quintet with difficult solo and ensemble passages, all in service of colors that made joyful use of everything brass instruments can do. Mutes, glissandos and brief fanfares all played roles in four very different movements. The first emphasized staccato playing, all brightness, and the second cast the brass as chorale singers in interwoven lines. The third, a scherzo, explored contrasts between open and muted sounds, and the finale raced hell-bent for brilliance—and achieved it.

Young’s piece ended the concert with a stage populated by two full brass quintets, five extra French horns and a battery of percussion led by Jonathan Haas providing shimmering phrases on vibraphones, clashes on tam-tams and powerful use of bass drums. The 10-minute tone poem explores the effects of seagoing optical illusions, which can be magical or disastrous. Never let it be said that a woman can’t write muscular, powerful music. This one nearly took the roof off with its intensity.

Other highlights included Lutoslawski’s cheeky and pungent little Mini Overture and two of Raymond Mase’s always eloquent adaptations of early music. A collection of offbeat 16th-century canons held more interest than a pleasant group of Elizabethan Consort Music, all of it played with refinement and detail.

Wind music was on the menu at Monday’s chamber music in the music tent. Aside from a charming wind quartet by Françaix, the best thing on the agenda was a beautiful Brahms Horn Trio in E-flat major featuring supple and precise French horn work by Eric Reed.

Monday’s special event featuring the contemporary jazz of the Vijay Iyer Trio had its moments, but the sublime interplay for which this group is famous never quite materialized. The musical choices were, in many cases, off-putting, rambling and repetitious. Iyer on piano, Stephan Crump on bass and Marcus Gilmore on drums had some brilliant minutes amid long uninspired stretches.

Harvey Steiman

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