Aspen Music Festival 2011 (12) – Gerstein, ASQ, West Side Story with Sarah Chang and some unforgettable Messiaen

United StatesUnited States Aspen Music Festival (12): Gerstein plays Brahms concerto, American String Quartet plays Ravel, a new “West Side Story” showpiece for Sarah Chang and an unforgettable Quartet for the End of Time. 15.8.2011 (HS)

Pianist Kirill Gerstein’s highly anticipated Aspen Music Festival debut Sunday didn’t exactly blow the top off the Benedict Music Tent. That’s not his style. Though he can play with virtuosity and power, the 31-year-old pianist was more interested in investing Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat with restraint and refinement. The result was a revelatory performance that emphasized elegance where many pianists aim for fireworks.

The 2010 winner of the Gilmore Artist Award, a sort of MacArthur Grant for classical pianists, strode calmly to the piano bench in a sport coat and open collar, sat down and started delving into the music by caressing the opening chords. Conductor Ingo Metzmacher was right there with him, coaxing polished playing from the Festival Orchestra. They focused on how the music fit together, rather than splashy effects. As often is the case in this kind of approach, most effective was the slow movement, which glided effortlessly in the orchestra, Gerstein spreading a veil of pianistic delicacy around it. His rapport with principal cellist Desmond Hoebig was especially fine. Brahms plus restraint is never a bad idea.

Earlier, Metzmacher made a strong case for Hartmann’s thorny but impressively crafted Symphony No. 6. Completed in 1953, it employs a large orchestra and dense, dissonant sound in its two movements, the first a restless adagio, the second a series of contrapuntal developments that reach several shattering climaxes. It can be tough music, but this conductor clearly believes in it, and the energy and emotion were palpable.

Saturday was a good day for twentieth-century French chamber music in Harris Hall. In its recital, the American String Quartet delivered a vivid, incisive account of Ravel’s String Quartet. The entire program flaunted the quartet’s chameleon-like ability to fine-tune the sound and overall musical approach to whatever composer they happen to be playing. Their deft playing dripped with finesse for Haydn’sString Quartet in G major Op. 77 no. 1, then shifted gears for the nonstop run through a scary forest that is the Bartók String Quartet No. 3, finally emerging into the blazing sun for the Ravel.

In the Haydn, the jaunty rhythms of the opening measures put a smile in place that never faded. Haydn’s patented shifts in harmony came through with the necessary sense of surprise, the slow movement sang gently and the finale whizzed to the finish without missing a step. The Bartók reveled in the piece’s thorny harmonies, confident that the sheer energy and brilliance of the musical gestures at its heart would carry the day. And they did.

But the pièce de resistance was the Ravel, a piece this quartet plays so often that the members know it inside out. That showed in the unanimity of approach to every moment, especially the vigorous pizzicatos and rhythmic shifts of the second movement. The jazzy, shifting harmonies of the slow movement maintained a plushness despite the nervous undertones, and the sudden turns from 5/8 to 4/4 to 3/4 in the finale felt so totally natural that the entire musical arc came through to a satisfying finish.

Saturday afternoon’s faculty chamber music program featured an unforgettably colorful and fearlessly played Quartet for the End of Time, Olivier Messiaen’s religiously passionate response to his experience as a prisoner of war. Pianist Steven Osborne was the glue that held Messiaen’s quartet together with playing alternately forceful and graceful, and always attuned to the other three players. I can’t recall a pianist playing this complex, often knotty piece and hardly ever referring to the score. He led the big unisons depicting the “Angel who announces the end of time” with bravura, receding to provide a soft cushion for the strings in the “harmonies of heaven” that followed. Clarinetist Joaquin Valdepeñas’ otherworldly pianissimos created a breathtaking “Abyss of the Birds.” Cellist Brinton Smith delivered a gorgeously soulful “Praise to the Eternity of Jesus.” Violinist Bing Wang went for fearless pianissimos in the final “Praise to the Immortality of Jesus,” but unfortunately lost the sound in the final measures. The overall performance, however, was alternately haunting and thrilling, utterly mesmerizing

As an appetizer for that, ageless violinist Sylvia Rosenberg joined pianist David Friend in Messiaen’s earlier Thème et variations. Without the religious content and birdsong, Messiaen’s style, alternately raw edged and ethereal, came through clearly. In between came “Terrible Beauty,” a 2007 piece by English composer David Matthews for mezzo-soprano and small orchestra based on texts from Homer’s Iliad and Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra. Kirsten Scott delivered them engagingly, the music a pleasant, mildly dissonant wash.

Friday’s Chamber Symphony concert in the tent, conducted by Hugh Wolff, featured two new works. The more high profile of them was a suite of Leonard Bernstein’s music from West Side Story arranged by the noted film composer David Newman for violinist Sarah Chang. The first portion, which sprints through bits from the prologue, “Somewhere,” “Tonight” and “The Rumble,” feels like it either needs space or a more inventive way to deliver this music without it feeling quite so breathless. There is hardly any room for the violinist to show off. The last few minutes, however, based on “I Have a Love,” finally finds its footing, and the piece ends with a flourish, reprising the mambo. With a little more fleshing out, this could easily be a violin showpiece on the order of Schehedrin’s “Carmen Fantasy”-the musical elements are just as good-but in this form it felt stitched-together. It needs polishing.

The opening piece, Time’s Fool, a world premiere by onetime Aspen composition student Andrew Norman, contains some extraordinary effects (the brass players creating wind machine noises by blowing tonelessly through their horns, for example) and counterpoises shifting quiet harmonies against a steady pedal point. It holds interest, and deserves another hearing.

The second half afforded a chance to experience the full score of Stravinsky’s cheeky neo-classic ballet, Pulcinella, complete with songs. Tenor Alexey Sayapin was especially impressive, and one highlight was the comic duet involving trombonist Sarah Paradis and bassist Albert Laszlo. But Wolff seldom caught the rhythmic bite and nervous energy that drives the piece, and the usually brilliant finale limped home.

Harvey Steiman