Aspen Music Festival 2011 (10) – Shakespeare Songs, Scarlatti and Appalachian Spring

United StatesUnited States Aspen Music Festival (10): Shakespeare songs, pianist Inon Barnatan plays Scarlatti, David Robertson conducts Appalachian Spring. 11.8.2011 (HS)

Talk about varied musical experiences. In a four-day span, attentive listeners at Aspen Music Festival events could hear a bucolic sonata for flute and harp by Nino Rota (better known for his Fellini film scores), watch the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet dance engagingly to music of Philip Glass and Prokofiev, revel in four centuries of vocal music inspired by Shakespeare, smile to a series of Scarlatti piano sonatas and a modern gloss on them, and reflect on the original version of Copland’s iconic Appalachian Spring.

Judging by a sold-out Harris Hall and a long line of disappointed last-minute audience hopefuls, the crowd favorite had to be Thursday night’s oddly titled “A Recital of Appalachian Spring.” Conductor David Robertson led the chamber music version with plenty of energy, a minimum of sentiment and an eye toward toward the big climaxes. Personally, I like it when the music lingers with more hesitancy in the introduction, and regret at finishing in the final pages. But, a few intonation issues aside, the performance hit home. Crisply focused piano playing by Orli Shaham was the spark that made it go.

Shaham was also instrumental in bringing the opening work, Janacek’s Violin Sonata, to life. She and violinist David Halen brought incisive intelligence to the work, emphasizing its lyric elements without shorting the gruff asides and the lurching rhythms. That was followed by “Miss Manners on Music,” a setting by Dominick Argento of various advice by the columnist on audience behavior. Good thing we had copies of the words because mezzo-soprano Kiri Parker, who sounded fine otherwise, could not quite make the majority of them intelligible.

Wednesday’s blazing recital by pianist Inon Barnatan should have had a full house (but didn’t) for his dynamic traversals of five finger-busting Scarlatti sonatas, followed by Sebastian Currier’s witty (and equally virtuosic) contemporary reflections on the Baroque composer’s gestures and style. Fast tempos had the curious effect of making the first iteration of florid phrasings blur, only for them to come into focus as they repeated.

Mendelssohn’s Prelude and Fugue in E minor and Rondo Capriccioso effected a smooth transition from the Baroque to the high-romantic eloquence of Schubert’s Sonata in C minor. Barnatan galloped through the finale with jaw-dropping stamina and resilience. The music never ceased to delight.

Tuesday’s jaunt through Shakespeare songs featured several excellent and personable singers accompanied by faculty artist Kenneth Merrill on piano and some characterful violin obbligato from student Luke Hsu. Soprano Caitlin Lynch and tenor Paul Appleby sang most of them, ranging from Purcell to Cole Porter with a variety of styles. They were at their best in 20th-century songs by William Schuman, Walton, Britten and Vaughan Williams (the latter a gorgeous “Dirge for Fidele”), and a duet from Gounod’s opera Romeo et Juliette. They also handled songs and duets from Rodgers and Hart’s The Boys from Syracuse and Porter’s Kiss Me Kate with reasonable flair.

Among student singers, soprano Deanna Breiwick caressed Strauss’ Ophilia Songs with winning delicacy, mezzo-soprano Kirsten Scott paired well with Appleby on a comic duet from Berlioz’s Béatrice et Bénédict, and Jessica Strong deployed her powerhouse soprano in “Fentonཀ” from Nicolai’s The Merry Wives of Windsor. The encore converted the Brooklyn-accented gangsters in Porter’s Kiss Me Kate to upper-class Brits on “Brush Up Your Shakespeare,” not a bad idea, even if the tempo was too fast to catch all the jokes.

Monday’s riches began with a series of charming performances on the faculty chamber recital in Harris Hall. Renata Arado and Espen Lilleslåtten deadpanned brilliantly in a series of cheeky Berio violin duets, and harpist Nancy Allen and flutist Nadine Asin brought smiles with Rota’s sonata. Festival president Alan Fletcher’s 2003 “Study: Woman Holding a Balance” got a committed and ultimately ravishing performance from Halen on violin and music director-designate Robert Spano on piano, the finely spun phrases floating effortlessly. Tenor Vinson Cole’s set of Beethoven songs offered sweet tone and iffy Italian vowels.

Violin prize winner Robyn Bollinger opened the ballet program with a delicious and vivid account of Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 2, despite huddling with the orchestra and conductor Joshua Weilerstein at the back of the stage to allow space for the dancing later. The orchestra delivered fine playing in scenes from Act I of Prokofiev’s ballet, which the company delivered nicely, but the true gem was “Where We Left Off,” a dance to Glass’ piano pieces Metamorphosis No. 2 and Mad Rush, which contain many of the same minimalist gestures in different harmonies. Pianist Han Chen played them brilliantly and the dancing featured exquisitely posed and balanced movement.

Harvey Steiman