Aspen Music Festival 2011 (5) Contemporary and familiar connect with listeners

Aspen Music Festival (5): Daniel Hope, Jean-Yves Thibaudet, Joyce Yang and Stefan Jackiw, Julian Fischer and Daniel Mueller-Schott. 17.7.2011 (HS)

If Friday night’s Chamber Symphony concert in the tent reflects the kind of programming Robert Spano has planned, Aspen Music Festival audiences can expect some real excitement in the coming years. The music director-designate led works that made sense together and struck a welcome balance of familiar composers and contemporary works that connect with listeners. Spano has been doing this in Atlanta, where he champions composers such as Osvaldo Golijov and Jennifer Higdon, who write startlingly original music that does not assault the ear.

This program embedded contemporary works among two Ravel showpieces and a symphony by Beethoven, and managed to interconnect them intelligently. Violinist Daniel Hope, for example, opened with Ravel’s Tzigane, then came back in the second half to play French-Lebanese composer Bechary El-Khoury’s haunting Unfinished Journey. Adam Schoenberg’s sumptuous Finding Rothko separated the two Ravel pieces, the Piano Concerto in G Minor closing the first half with a rush. Beethoven’s Symphony No. 4, a fine work sandwiched between his more famous Eroica and the Fifth, topped off the afternoon.

Although the net effect was positive, one more rehearsal may have smoothed over some obvious rough spots in execution. Tzigane got things off to a messy start, an unsavory mix of poor intonation and rough tone from Hope and ragged timing between the orchestra and soloist. But Finding Rothko, from 2006, played out its four sections with colorful orchestration, rich textures and a sense of power and inevitability similar to that which invests the painter’s work. This was highly listenable music, rewarding to apprehend, especially in the broad outlines of the final section’s glowing climax. Schoenberg, once a student in the festival’s composition program, is now a recipient of several Aspen commissions.

Thibaudet, who bowed out of his all-Ravel recital Wednesday with a bad back, deployed formidable technique leavened with finesse and jazz timing on the Ravel concerto. The first movement snapped by in a happy blur. The slow movement pressed the tempo slightly but captured the wistful beauty of Ravel’s slow bluesy writing. Thibaudet wanted the finale to race, but Spano kept pulling back on the tempo, which dimmed the excitement a bit, but in the end the pianist’s flair won out.

Hope’s work on Unfinished Journey, an improvement over Tzigane, called on him to play slowly moving, sustained lines against quietly dissonant, plush chords in the orchestra. It was lovely to listen to, but for me the work needed a change of pace somewhere. Without that, it came off as monochromatic.

Spano and orchestra delivered a strong Beethoven Fourth, reveling in the tempo shifts and Beethoven’s basket of surprises in a work that always brings smiles in a good performance. This one got through the music deftly but never quite found the humor, nor the finale’s rhythmic bounce and boundless joy.

Saturday’s highlight was a stunning recital by pianist Joyce Yang and violinist Stefan Jackiw. Aspen audiences know how good the Korean-born pianist is, but Jackiw is new here. Let’s hope it won’t be the last time we hear the Boston native’s liquid tone, phenomenal technique and intelligent musicianship.

They made a sensitive and responsive pair in this finely judged program. It began with Stravinsky’s Suite Italienne. The composer’s arrangement of his Neo-Classic Pulcinella suite highlighted Jackiw’s enormous dynamic range, from a whisper of silken sound to big fortissimos that can sound like an entire violin section. Yang held nothing back on her end, but the violin always came through clearly. The piece danced. Copland’s Violin Sonata, which followed, found every mood from pensive and sweet to broad and expressive, even when Jackiw played the simple tunes with little or no vibrato.

Lutoslawski’s cheeky 7-minute “Subito” opened the second half, a brief virtuosic nod to modernism as an apéritif before the main course, a beautifully etched Brahms Violin Sonata No. 3 in D minor. With Jackiw spinning out the sweet theme in the first movement, Yang nudged the process with edgy syncopations before they relaxed into six minutes of luxurious respite in the slow movement. The tension picked up in the dancelike third movement and ratcheted up to several rocketing climaxes in the finale. For an encore, they played the mind caressing second movement again.

Sunday introduced Danish conductor Thomas Søndergård and cellist Daniel Müller-Schott, who played the Brahms double concerto with violinist Julia Fischer to open the proceedings in the tent. The soloists’ elegant playing made the concerto, not one of Brahms’ most compelling pieces, seem better than it is.

Søndergård whipped up one crashing full orchestra climax after another in the Shostakovich Symphony No. 10, a big, loud whirlwind of a piece. That resulted in plenty of excitement, although Søndergård did little with the flashes and dashes of brilliance in the smaller moments. It was as if the conductor left it to the principals to work out how they were going to play their quieter moments rather than melding them into the piece as a whole. The big kabooms were impressive, though.

Harvey Steiman