Aspen Music Festival 2011 – The Opening Weekend

Aspen Music Festival (1): McGegan, Rhys have fun with Mendelssohn; Marsalis brings Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra to Aspen; Feltsman plays Rachmaninov 2. 4.7.2011 (HS)

The opening weekend at the Aspen Music Festival jumped right in to the summer’s main theme: “Art Inspires Art,” presenting music stimulated by literature, painting, sculpture, poetry, architecture and abstract ideas. That just about covers most of Western music, doesn’t it? Shakespeare popped up, and will reappear regularly; the Aspen Opera Theater’s three offerings this summer are Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Verdi’s Falstaff and Bernstein’s West Side Story, all based on the Bard of Avon.

For the first orchestral concert of the summer Friday night, conductor Nicolas McGegan led the Aspen Chamber Symphony, actor Matthew Rhys and the women of the opera program in an engaging romp through Mendelssohn’s overture and incidental music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Saturday’s chamber music included Schumann’s Poems of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, and Sunday’s Aspen Festival Orchestra concert began with Mahler’s Songs of a Wayfarer (texts by the composer) and concluded with Strauss’ tone poem Don Quixote.

Amidst the breathtaking scenery of the Rocky Mountains, Aspen presents one of the busiest schedules in the music festival world. Except for some solo recitals involving guest artists, most concerts involve the more than 630 students and 120 faculty artists in the festival’s school, often playing side by side. In the Chamber Orchestra and Festival Orchestra, faculty occupy the principals’ chairs, with students selected by audition to fill the rosters. Guest artists often collaborate with faculty in chamber ensembles as well.

For its 7-1/2 weeks of concerts, the agenda begins with a mixed faculty recital on Mondays, with midweek appearances by guest artists, the all-student Concert Orchestra and American Academy of Conducting Orchestra. The latter is the performing arm of the conducting program founded by David Zinman, who resigned in 2010 as the festival’s music director. Robert Spano was named to replace him starting in 2012, and conducting four concerts this summer as music director designate.

Spano was on the podium leading the Festival Orchestra Sunday in the 2,000-seat Benedict Music Tent, highlighted by a colorful performance of Strauss’ Don Quixote. Principal cellist Eric Kim, now a professor at the University of Indiana, took the protagonist’s role and created moment after beautiful moment in the music representing the bedraggled knight, especially touching in the wistful sighs of the final pages. Spano muscularly blazed a trail through the episodic piece, relishing the soundscape (the scene with baa-ing sheep were especially smile-worthy) and the shifting rhythms.

Pianist Vladimir Feltsman, ever willful, clearly had different ideas about the Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No. 2 than did this conductor. As in his previous regular appearances at this festival, Feltsman seems unwilling to play anything like anyone else has. For this concerto, which can easily descend into bombast, he chose to avoid any sentimentality, often racing ahead of the beat. For his part, Spano stayed the course and simply waited for Feltsman to find his way back to the pulse that had originally been established. It was frustrating to listen to, and no doubt terrifying for Spano and the orchestra. But it all ended together and Feltsman’s leap from the piano bench on the final note brought most of the audience out of their seats as well.

For openers, Austrian baritone Markus Werba took an appropriately delicate approach to Mahler’s Leider eines fahrenden Gesellen, his youthful tone and exuberance investing the first two songs with hope, and a sense of unease adding depth to the final two. Good communication among conductor, soloist and orchestra bodes well for Spano’s tenure here.

The highlight of Friday’s Chamber Orchestra concert was the Midsummer Night’s Dream. For his narrative, Rhys drew from scenes in the Shakespeare play, quoting several speeches by Puck, but also using accents and distinct voices for other moments. McGegan – as always ebullient, present and active – led a performance brimming with personality and color. He also drew muscular, vital playing in the opener, Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture (another Shakespeare reference).

That was much more satisfying than a desultory Bruch Violin Concerto No. 1 in G minor, which preceded it. Russian violinist Mikhail Simonyan never got into sync with McGegan and got little of the music’s Romantic sweep. Maybe, like Feltsman, he was trying to avoid sentiment. It didn’t work.

Music making of a much higher order than those concertos lit up the tent Saturday evening as Wynton Marsalis led the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra in a well chosen concert co-presented by Jazz Aspen Snowmass. The repertoire spanned a wide range of styles, from 1920s stride piano to moments of 1960s free jazz. Marsalis opened with a straight-ahead up-tempo version of Gershwin’s “Oh, Lady Be Good,” with just him and the rhythm section, and finished with “Tree of Freedom,” a sprawling, rip-snorting product of a collaboration with the Flamenco Jazz Ensemble, in which the full 15-piece orchestra morphed from free improvisations into Basque-based dance sounds.

Attentive to the festival’s theme, Marsalis programmed several pieces inspired by art works, including “The Block,” written by trombonist Chris Crenshaw, and “Blue Twirl: A Portrait of Sam Gilliam,” both of which used episodes of different jazz styles to describe facets of the art. There was a nod to classical music with a strange arrangement from the 1940s by Fletcher Henderson of Ravel’s “Bolero,” up-tempo, invigorating and musically inventive.

But the moments to treasure most were four true jazz classics, one featuring a liquid Ted Nash also sax solo on “Moody’s Mood for Love,” and the other three involving Duke Ellington’s music. “The Mooche” bent trumpet sounds and notes with straight-faced attention to plunger mutes against an insouciant shuffling rhythm. In a riveting duet, Joe Temperley on bass clarinet and Dan Nimmer on piano brought a luminous patina to “Single Petal of a Rose.” And Walter Blanding Jr. on clarinet, Vincent Gardner on trombone and Kenny Rampton on trumpet produced an immaculate, delicate and haunting version of “Mood Indigo,” a model of musical control and finesse.

Harvey Steiman

Not to miss this week: Busy and varied days ahead. Wednesday features Gil Shaham with the Concert Orchestra in the Walton Violin Concerto at 6 p.m. in the tent, and Feltsman turns his attention to Schumann in his recital at 8:30 p.m. in Harris. And Thursday the brilliant pianist Marc-André Hamelin takes on some formidable challenges in his 6 p.m. recital in the tent, and then the poignant sound of women’s voices a cappella comes to Aspen with Anonymous Four, 8:30 p.m. in Harris.