Aspen Music Festival 2011 (6) – Baroque, Beethoven and Britten’s Midsummer Night’s Dream

Aspen Music Festival (6): Gil Shaham (violin); Baroque with Daniel Hope; Jupiter Quartet begins Beethoven odyssey; Britten, Midsummer Night’s Dream. 18-21.7.2011 (HS)

Violinist Gil Shaham has done some phenomenal playing here in Aspen, including recent concerts involving concertos by Walton, Bartók and Stravinsky, but Thursday night’s performance of K.A. Hartmann’s 1939 Concerto funebre in Harris Hall topped them all. It was an anguished cry from the depth of his soul, the violin a ideal vehicle for expressing its eloquence.

The concerto was written in Germany as Hitler began to run roughshod over Europe by annexing Czechoslovakia. Those first melodic lines quote a Czech hymn, and one could feel the tears as Shaham played them, gradually broadening and shaping the line into something infinitely moving. With conductor Vasily Petrenko urging an ad hoc student string orchestra into a richly detailed background, Shaham delivered playing over the concerto’s 22 minutes that was as expressive as it was impeccably played, throughout the entire range of the instrument.

After that, Haydn’s Violin Concerto in G Major provided a welcome lift. Playing it with a conductor-less orchestra, Shaham supplied 20 minutes of pure happiness, the musicians appearing to enjoy it every bit as much as he did. For a finale, Petrenko led a full-throated, broad-beamed performance of Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings. Perhaps it could have used a bit more grace and a bit less emphasis, but it wore its heart on its sleeve and filled Harris Hall with rich sound. It brought a smile like a warm, eager-to-please golden retriever. The students played like champions. And yes, that was Julia Fischer playing in the second chair, turning the pages for concertmaster Ben Ohdner.

Tuesday night’s Baroque Evening, hosted by violinist Daniel Hope, came perilously close to a pops concert-Pachelbel’s Canon in D and Bach’s “Air On a G String”-but enthusiastic and often virtuosic musicmaking made for a vivid and smile-worthy concert. Much of the virtuosity came from violinist Stefan Jackiw, who proved himself as adept at Vivaldi and Bach as he was at Copland and Brahms in his recital last Saturday. Mostly, he played second fiddle to Hope, who did some especially beautiful playing in a Telemann concerto. A mostly student ensemble kept the momentum flying.

Wednesday, the Jupiter Quartet began its odyssey through all 16 of Beethoven’s string quartets. Their performances of Op. 18 No. 1, Op 59 No. 3 and Op. 127 were long on zeal and short on accuracy. They really went for it, creating an exciting buzz but missing many details. The quest continues tonight.

For its first offering of the summer, the Opera Theater Center mounted an intelligently conceived production of Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, impressive for some of the best playing by a pit orchestra here in recent memory. Under the baton of Jane Glover (who knew Britten personally), the instrumental music emerged distinctly and connected with every moment in the opera. The ensemble (all students except for concertmaster David Halen) played idiomatically, colorfully and executed with precision. Worthy of special mention are the hellishly difficult solo trumpet fanfares associated with the character of Puck, played by Douglas Lindsay.

On stage, the bamboo-studded set evoked the mystery, magic and timelessness of Shakespeare’s forest. Some costumes were clever, including a Hippolyta done up like Kate Middleton and a set of lovers looking like they wandered in from a lawn party in the Hamptons. The rustics wore tool belts, which worked just fine. But Oberon (countertenor Biraj Barkakaty) and Tytania (soprano Teiya Kasahara) were clad mostly in black and the fairies in long, dark coats. Tytania and the four lead fairies balanced enormously tall and wide hairpieces. With her long metal nails, Tytania (the queen of the fairies) looked like an unholy amalgam of Turandot, the Queen of the Night and the Bride of Frankenstein.

There were some strong voices in the cast, heard in Monday’s second and final performance, most notably Adrian Rosas, who wielded a focused, colorful baritone as Bottom; Alexey Sayapin, whose bright and piercing tenor made for a compelling Lysander; and Kasahara as a steely-voiced Tytania who had no trouble with the fierce coloratura. Oberon’s music seemed to lie a bit low for Barkakaty, but he sounded fine when the line rose.

Taylor Walsh, a tenor in the program, cavorted and scampered, climbing all over the set in the speaking role of Puck, whose lines often serve as narrative. Britten’s perfectly tuned music is an equal narrator. At the end of brilliantly played and sung Act III, all the characters complete their arcs and the rustics present their woebegone play to the composer’s sharp parody of bel canto opera music. And then, as the fairies’ final chorus caresses our ears with a calming balm, there was a sense that it couldn’t have been better.

Harvey Steiman