Aspen Music Festival (8): Impressive Singing, and a World Premiere Concerto

02/08/2017

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Aspen Music Festival [8] – Beethoven, Mahler, Schumann, Reich, Cerrone, Kellogg, Schubert, Berg, Theofanidis, Fletcher, Tilson Thomas, Björk/Ek, Stravinsky: Soloists, Aspen Chamber Orchestra/Markus Stenz (conductor), Aspen Contemporary Ensemble / Timothy Weiss (conductor), Benedict Music Tent, Harris Hall, Aspen, CO. 28-30.7.2017. (HS)

Aspen Chamber Orchestra, Benedict Music Tent, 28 July
Markus Stenz (conductor), Paul Lewis (piano), Andrè Schuen (baritone)

Beethoven — Piano Concerto No.1 in C major
Mahler — Songs of a Wayfarer
Schumann —  Symphony No.4 in D minor

Chamber music, Harris Hall, 29 July

Reich — Vermont Counterpoint [Nadine Asin (flute), Ingmar Beck (conductor)]
Cerrone — Night Mare [Aspen Contemporary Ensemble, Timothy Weiss (conductor)]
Kellogg — String Quartet No.1 (world premiere, Pacifica Quartet)

Recital, Harris Hall, 29 July
Andrè Schuen (baritone), Andreas Haefliger (piano)

Beethoven — Piano Sonata No.27, op.101
Schubert — Schwanengesang
Berg — Piano Sonata, op.1

Aspen Festival Orchestra, 30 July
Robert Spano (conductor), Inon Barnatan (piano), Renée Fleming (soprano)

Theofanidis — Dreamtime Ancestors
Fletcher — Piano Concerto (world premiere)
Tilson Thomas — from Poems of Emily Dickinson
Björk/Ek — Virus; All is Full of Love
Stravinsky — The Firebird Suite

Fire alarms went off almost exactly at 4 pm. Sunday, just as the Aspen Festival Orchestra was preparing to start, evacuating  audience and musicians from a nearly full Benedict Music Tent. It was an unfortunate omen for a program that included a world premiere and mostly new pieces.

The biggest drawing card was the soprano Renée Fleming, singing six women-centered examples from Michael Tilson Thomas’ 2002 Poems of Emily Dickinson (plus a couple of Björk songs). The program also included a first Aspen hearing of the new Piano Concerto by the music festival’s president and CEO Alan Fletcher, and a 2015 piece by Christopher Theofanidis. Stravinsky’s The Firebird Suite, written a century before the others, finished the program on a high note.

First impressions of new music are notoriously elusive. All of these pieces traveled in big gestures. They generated standing ovations, including Fletcher’s Piano Concerto. Unlike the reliably amiable music, aiming for beauty (which Aspen audiences have heard in the past), this concerto confronts anger. Lots of it.

The first movement reaches a climax with the pianist pounding chords literally by the armful, and the orchestra responds in kind, before the second movement makes a transition into quiet reflection. The outer movements quote familiar music—a hymn in the first movement à la Ives, and several American songbook standards in jazz dance-band mode, complete with a muted trumpet solo against walking bass and drum set in the finale.

From a listener’s standpoint, this heartfelt work comes off like three very different postmodern pieces. Connections seem intellectual rather than visceral. A bigger problem is technical; though piano soloist Inon Barnatan could be seen working hard, much of the time he was overwhelmed by the orchestra, aside from a few short (and effective) solo moments. There were no extended cadenzas, not what one expects from something called a piano concerto.

In Dreamtime Ancestors, a tone poem inspired by Australian Aboriginal culture, Theofanidis deploys an imaginative orchestral color palette, a penchant for pulsing rhythms, and a keen ear for evocative sounds within a mostly traditional framework. The middle of three movements paints an extraordinary portrait of the “rainbow serpent” origination myth, and the end drips with triumph.

Orchestral playing was impressive throughout the concert, especially in The Firebird’s solos by John Zirbel (French horn) and Elaine Douvas (oboe). Conductor Robert Spano nailed the long buildup to the finale’s famous climax.

The orchestra is a full partner with the singer in Tilson Thomas’ songs, which were written for Fleming and her chameleon-like ability to take on different characters. She was in gorgeous voice, playing against the orchestra’s seductive jazz in “The Bible,” sassy jazz to “Fame,” painterly gouaches for the restful “Down Time’s a Quaint Stream,” and the lyrical outburst of “Take All Away from Me.”

A strong believer in Björk’s musical worth, Fleming picked up a microphone and lent her unique sound to two of the Icelandic pop star’s songs. Perhaps their position—between the Dickinson poems and Firebird—made them pale in comparison.

Vocal music was a major strength in the rest of the weekend’s programming, with baritone Andrè Schuen’s auspicious U.S. debut in Mahler’s Songs of a Wayfarer in Friday night’s Aspen Chamber Orchestra concert. On a recital the next night, he focused on Schubert’s Schwanengesang by forging a memorable partnership with pianist Andreas Haefliger.

Schuen graced both performances with a calm stage presence, and a lyrical sound with warmth and charm. His top range extends with ease, evoking a sense of simplicity and directness. His velvety tone expresses the words’ meaning clearly.

Before the Schubert songs, the innovative program began with Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No.28 and, after intermission, six songs by the surrealistic poet Heine, with Berg’s Piano Sonata, which stretches the boundaries of harmony without tipping over into atonality. Haefliger found a darker tone to give the Beethoven sonata a little extra warmth than usual, the better to match up with the gentle piano splashes that open the song set. The kaleidoscopic colors of the Berg sonata made a nice transition from the Heine songs to the simpler “DieTaubenpost.” For an encore, Schuen and Haefliger offered the heart-stopping floating-in-time salve of Schubert’s second Wandrer’s Nachtlied.

Although conductor Markus Stenz and the Aspen Chamber Orchestra in Mahler’s Wayfarer songs didn’t quite match Haefliger’s profundity the following night, Schuen’s unaffected style and command made it the highlight of an uneven concert.

With noticeably different interpretations of tempo and pulse, Stenz and pianist Paul Lewis had a rocky go at Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No.1. Schumann’s Symphony No.4 was better, but never quite made hay out of the contrasts and genius transitions.

Fletcher’s concerto wasn’t the only world premiere this past weekend. Daniel Kellogg’s String Quartet No.1 got its first public hearing on Saturday afternoon’s chamber music recital. The Pacifica Quartet, with Espen Lilleslåtten on second violin, rendered the broad, jagged lines with vigor, and the contrasting ecstatic sections with wonder.

Before that, a gaggle of flutists behind soloist Nadine Asin revived the minimalist pleasures and overlapping canons of Reich’s Vermont Counterpoint with gusto, and the Aspen Contemporary Ensemble made Christopher Cerrone’s 2011 audio-assisted The Night Mare into a truly scary ten minutes.

Harvey Steiman

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