Aspen Music Festival 2011 (14) – Brahms, Mahler 2 and some jazzy Shostakovich

United StatesUnited States  Aspen Music Festival (14): Slatkin conducts Shostakovich, Olga Kern (piano) and Alisa Weilerstein (cello); Spano conducts Mahler 2, Twyla Robinson (soprano), Sasha Cooke (mezzo soprano). 21.8.2011 (HS)

Music director designate Robert Spano put an exclamation point on the 2011 Aspen Music Festival season Sunday, conducting a muscular, detailed performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 in C minor, “Resurrection.” The ecstatic finish reached a majestic level.

Soprano Twyla Robinson, mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke and the Colorado Symphony Orchestra Chorus provided the vocal beauty as Spano worked hard to define exactly what he wanted from them and the orchestra. The conductor at times seemed like a man possessed, using his body and his hands to get a level of precision and intensity from the music. If that sense of improvisation, which can make Mahler sound extra-fresh, was missing, that’s a lot to ask from a student ensemble with faculty occupying the principals’ chairs. What reached out from the orchestra was a powerful determination to make this Mahler Second as expressive as possible, with attention to fine-tuned dynamics and pulsing tempo. The momentum carried the finale to its explosive final 20 minutes.

The opening movement shifted gears smoothly, if a bit effortfully, between the big, broad perorations and the quieter moments, still ripe with anticipation. The broad expanse of the fifth and final movement played out with a sense of inevitability, one thread tying together the slow fanfares that begin so innocently and end up playing majestic counterpoint to the rising sound of the chorus. Meanwhile, the chorus distinguished itself, and Robinson rose above it all with high-lying soprano lines.

The other disarmingly beautiful stretch of time came in the fourth movement with mezzo soprano Sasha Cooke’s poised, expansive “Urlicht” (“primeval light”), for which Spano laid down a lovely, undulating orchestral background. If the second movement’s ländler seemed a bit stolid and the mockery in the third movement scherzo came off as tame, the pieces still fell in place, and they led to that magnificent finish.

Opening the program with two works for voice and orchestra by Brahms showed off the chorus – first with Robinson in a craftsmanlike “Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit” from Ein deutsches Requiem, then with Cooke in the Alto Rhapsody. Cooke was mesmerizing, demonstrating that she has become a graceful singer with a rich, deep mezzo voice since her time here as a student. These 20 minutes of additions, followed by a 25-minute intermission, kicked the program over to 2 hours and 15 minutes. The sight of a few folks straggling out at around 6 o’clock, forgoing the ecstasy of the big finish, was something to pity.

The energy, pertinence and sheer music-making evident in Friday night’s all-Shostakovich program, conducted by Leonard Slatkin, righted the ship from a season-long series of uneven orchestral programs. This one was notable for the Aspen Chamber Symphony’s responsiveness, the cohesiveness of their playing and the brio with which they attacked the composer’s snarky, witty and sarcastic music. Even distant rumbles of thunder never quite became the downpours that have interrupted Slatkin’s appearances in years past (which also involved symphonies by Russian composers).

Slatkin led off with a smart, cheeky romp through the Suite No. 1 for Jazz Orchestra (which features both a banjo AND a Hawaiian guitar). OK, it’s more like salon music than saloon music, but the small ensemble made it feel like a barely suppressed grin.

If anything, the Piano Concerto No. 1 upped the smart-aleck quotient, with soloist Olga Kern applying a deft touch throughout the piece. The first and last movements devolve into a sort of battle between the pianist and a solo trumpet, who seems intent on leading in circus elephants. (Kevin Cobb played brilliantly as the only instrument in the score that does not involve strings, but why he was placed facing the piano instead of the audience was puzzling.) Framed by those jaunts, the slow middle movement had a glow that seldom comes through in concert. This time the warmth of the string playing and Kern’s touch, like drops in a pool, created a serene respite from the hijinks.

Alisa Weilerstein provided even longer moments of gravitas with a shapely, lyrical account of the serious-minded Cello Concerto No. 1, impressive for its range of colors and her extended, slow cadenza that tied the slow movement to the more intensely rhythmic finale. Then it was back to the sarcastic side of Shostakovich to finish with a nimble, thumb-on-nose Symphony No. 9, which came off as nothing less than the composer’s 30-minute raspberry directed at Stalin. Of course Shostakovich had to bury those sentiments in a veneer of gaiety, but it all came through clearly in Slatkin’s approach – best conducting of the season.

Harvey Steiman