Aspen Music Festival 2017 (2): Conrad Tao Pushes Boundaries

11/07/2017

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Aspen Music Festival 2017 [2] – Mozart, Schubert, Crockett, Latta, Sutermeister, Schumann, Lara, Boulez, Glass, Britten, Ravel, Brahms: Soloists, Aspen Chamber Orchestra / Nicholas McGegan (conductor), Aspen Festival Orchestra/Michael Stearn (conductor), Benedict Music Tent, Harris Hall, Aspen, CO. 7-9.7.2017. (HS)

Aspen Chamber Orchestra, Benedict Music Tent, 7 July
Nicholas McGegan (conductor), Robert Chen (violin), Robert Levin (piano)

Mozart — Overture to Die Zauberflöte; Rondo in D major
Mozart/Levin — Concerto for Violin and Piano in D major
Schubert — Symphony No.9 in C major “The Great”

Chamber Music, Harris Hall, 8 July
Faculty and guest artists

Crockett — Whistling in the Dark
Latta — Watch and Learn
Sutermeister — Serenade No.1
Schumann — Piano Quartet in E-flat major

Piano Recital, Harris Hall, 8 July
Conrad Tao (piano)

Lara — Injust Intonations
Mozart — Prelude and Fugue in C major; Piano Sonata in A major K.331
Boulez — une page d’éphémeride
Glass — Etude No.16
Liszt — Piano Sonata in B minor

Aspen Festival Orchestra, Benedict Music Tent, 9 July
Michael Stearn (conductor), Yefim Bronfman (piano)

Britten — Sinfonia da Requiem
Ravel — Daphis et Chloé Suite No.2
Brahms — Piano Concerto No.2 in B-flat major

On Saturday night, pianist Conrad Tao’s Aspen Music Festival solo program looked provocative, with two of Mozart’s quirkier works alternating with 21st-century music by Pierre Boulez, Philip Glass and Felipe Lara (the latter a world premiere). Liszt’s form-shattering, single-movement Piano Sonata in B minor capped off the menu after intermission.

Aspen Music Festival audiences met Tao in 2006 as a 12-year-old prodigy on both piano and violin. At 23 he has blossomed in an internationally recognized composer and a pianist (playing barefoot on this occasion) who can coax a stunning array of colors from the keyboard. His musical intellect is willing to push boundaries to encourage deep thought about what is being heard.

He led off with the premiere, Lara’s seven-minute Injust intonations, and finished the first half with Glass’s superbly moody and atmospheric Étude No. 16.

Lara’s music opens with a middle D dampened by the pianist’s left hand and allowed to resonate while waves of intricate passages swirl around it. As the D recurs periodically, the patterns unfurl differently, suggesting “natural” intervals on an instrument tuned to avoid them. Without pause, Tao launched into Mozart’s Prelude and Fugue in C major. Mozart was famous in his time for improvising on this contrapuntal form. Tao managed to suggest an extemporizing style while maintaining the Baroque structure.

Boulez’s craggy, sharp-edged dissonances, executed with sparkling technical brilliance, somehow made an appropriate lead-in to Mozart’s Piano Sonata in A major. Although it starts innocently enough with a set of variations that become increasingly idiosyncratic, and a deceptively innocent minuet, Mozart’s sonata detours into the exotic (for the time) in the famous Turkish March. Sharp ears might have caught Tao increasingly sneaking in his own ornamentations. The playing was anything but “Mozart-classic.” If my ears were not deceiving me it was downright Liszt-like.

Tao’s kaleidoscopic approach to the actual Liszt sonata, already a work that would have unsettled mid-19th-century ears, pushed every phrase to an extreme. The soft, gentle sections emerged with cuddly warmth, surrounded by outbursts of multiple-forte passion that threatened to dislodge the piano mechanism, sometimes sacrificing clarity for terror-instilling clangor. The magic of this performance was in Tao’s handling of the transitions, which exerted a tidal pull that did not quit.

After that dark storm, an encore: Scarlatti’s Sonata in A major K.208, a four-minute work of intimate sunniness, let Tao (and everyone else) catch a breath.

At Friday night’s Aspen Chamber Orchestra concert in the tent, conductor Nicholas McGegan paused briefly before the finale of Schubert’s Symphony No. 9. He glanced around at the musicians arrayed before him and rubbed his hands together in anticipation. He conducted a couple of silent upbeats to the Allegro vivace finale, the effect like firing off a starter’s gun. The orchestra came out of the blocks like a row of sprinters.

To build momentum in his Ninth Symphony, Schubert uses repeated phrases. The challenge is to give each return a different color, deftly shading dynamics or tone to make the engine rev. In this performance those subtleties showed up from the top. Once the first-movement Allegro kicked into gear, there was no stopping its forward movement, and it never lost its poise. The Andante con moto put the emphasis on “moto” without sacrificing legato elegance, and the Scherzo sped by with gazelle-like fluidity.

Conducting without a baton, McGegan communicated with facial expressions, dancelike body movements and graceful hand gestures. No conductor radiates joy quite like McGegan does, and this orchestra—the A-list professionals in principal’s seats and the student flanking them alike—responded alertly with 10 minutes of propulsion in that finale.

The cohesiveness and rhythmic clarity was a team effort. Joseph Pereira landed the timpani beats with exactly the right urgency, and the brass put a silvery edge to their interjections. McGegan, rotating his conducting arm like a baseball third-base coach waving in the winning run, ratcheted up the momentum to bring the concert to a satisfying close.

Tempo and rhythm played a less positive role in Robert Levin’s completion of Mozart’s Concerto for Violin and Piano, and his Rondo – both in D major. Levin’s tendency to rush the ends of phrases in his piano playing kept tilting the rhythmic seesaw in both Concertmaster Robert Chen rendered the violin part in the concerto well, and the orchestra made its music dance along with McGegan, who also led a effervescent opener in the composer’s Overture to Die Zauberflöte.

Individual soloists provided the brightest spots in Sunday’s Aspen Festival Orchestra program. Pianist Yefim Bronfman invested Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 2 with his usual intellectual acumen and emotional insight, not to mention breathtaking control of dynamics and touch. The most memorable moment came in the delicious piano-cello duet in the third movement Andante, principal cellist Desmond Hoebig weaving the gorgeous melody as Bronfman threaded delicate commentary around it.

Nadine Asin’s extended flute solo, suitably exotic and languorous, wove its own magic at the center of Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé Suite No. 2, and led the large woodwind section’s impressive contributions to the proceedings. Conductor Michael Stern kept the pace nicely, and generated powerful climaxes, but couldn’t quite achieve the Gallic transparency of the best performances.

The opening, Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem, also had its moments of beauty, and avoided any excesses.

Saturday afternoon’s chamber music olio featured a lithe, muscular and impressively unified Schumann Piano Quartet in E-flat major, pianist Marc-André Hamelin providing a vital pulse, with the warm sound of the string trio of Masao Kawasaki (violin), Beth Guterman Chu (viola) and Michael Mermagen (cello).

Three charming modern works preceded. Composer Donald Crockett conducted the Aspen Contemporary Ensemble in his jittery, percussion-infused Whistling in the Dark. The violin duo of Paul Cantor and his student, Alejandro Valdepeñas, had fun with the jabs and inside jokes that abound in Giancarlo Latta’s Watch and Learn. And in Sutermeister’s sprightly Serenade No. 1 (1949), Alejandro’s dad, Joaquin, traded light-hearted musical gestures on clarinet with Kevin Cobb on trumpet, Per Hannevold on bassoon, and fellow clarinetist JJ Koh.

Harvey Steiman

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