Aspen Music Festival 2011 (9) – Mahler’s 4th and 5th, Barber’s Violin Concerto and More…

United StatesUnited States  Aspen Music Festival (9): Robert Spano and Jeffrey Kahane conduct Mahler; Robert McDuffie plays Barber Violin Concerto; the Percussion Ensemble. 1.8.2011 (HS)

Robert Spano’s transition year took a big step forward as the music director-designate of the Aspen Music Festival led a highly charged performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 to cap off the Festival Orchestra’s program Sunday. His two previous concerts came off as uneven, but this one burst forward with confidence as the 50-year-old conductor energized the big orchestra into some of its best playing of the summer.

Individuals set the bar high, particularly Kevin Cobb’s accurate and beautifully colored trumpet solos in the first movement and John Zirbel’s inspired horn obbligatos and leadership of the seven-horn section throughout. And Spano’s finely focused tempos, fluid approach to transitions and well-paced climaxes helped provide the sparks that kept the engine running smoothly. Make no mistake: there are a lot of moving parts in this one. Mahler employed counterpoint to a much greater extent in this symphony than he ever had, which means that individual sections and parts are often complex. Seldom did the sound congeal. Generally the message came through with clarity.

Spano seemed to aim at keeping things smoldering in the first two movements and let that come to a head in the sharp-witted scherzo, then backed off to let the serenity of the Adagietto stop time – as it should – only to finish with a finale that raced to an exuberant climax. He reined in the recurring (but never quite exactly the same) funeral marches in the first movement so they seemed to strain at the yoke, and let the second movement snarl. He conducted the scherzo, the center of the piece, smoothly, almost as if it were Mendelssohn, until the intrusion of a gorgeous chorale and the brash the rush of the coda crashed into the movement’s finish with finality.

I have heard the famous Adagietto played with more hushed sound, but seldom with such aching feeling. Moving the tempo along gently, Spano drew delicate, refined playing from the strings, punctuated by Nancy Allen’s harp. The finale erupted as if the lull of the Adagietto had freed it from its constraints, and bounded to one of Mahler’s most joyous finishes.

Spano’s first appearance, leading this same orchestra on July 3, also included some Mahler—the Songs of a Wayfarer—which made a pleasant but uneventful impression, missing a good deal of the rich detail that was so evident here. Given that it was the first Sunday concert of the season, the tentativeness could have stemmed from that. The next one, July 15 with the Chamber Orchestra, included a deft but straight-faced Beethoven Symphony No. 4, and two crowd-pleasing contemporary works, products of his 10-year tenure leading the Atlanta Symphony. Unfortunately, those solo works foundered on poor synchronization with violinist Daniel Hope and pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet—which was also a problem on July 3 with Vladimir Feltsman’s bizarre performance of the Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No. 2, but the pianist was more to blame for that.

To open Sunday’s program, Robert McDuffie imbued Barber’s heart-on-sleeve violin concerto with simple grace in the first movement, a sweet yearning in the second, and rapid-fire pyrotechnics in the finale. Thought there were no obvious timing problems, Spano let the string section override McDuffie during his gorgeously simple statement of the theme. Fortunately, the rest was fine, especially the interplay with oboist Elaine Duvas in the slow movement.

Spano’s Mahler Fifth made a bigger impression than did the Symphony No. 4 on Friday. Conductor Jefferey Kahane’s performance ambled amiably. A smaller than usual string section (for Mahler) struggled to balance the woodwinds and horns, but the textures were transparent and articulation clear. Concertmaster Bing Wang provided an appropriately spectral solo on her (intentionally) retuned violin in the scherzo and soprano Esther Heidemann floated the lovely, childlike song that comprises the finale with ease and charm.

Maybe it was the crisp delicacy of the Mozart Piano Concerto No. 25 that occupied the first half, but in the end the symphony seemed as much Mozart as Mahler. Although it is the lightest of Mahler’s symphonies, it still shifts its weight suddenly and occasionally turns corners into unexpected dark alleys. Kahane’s interpretation never quite brought that into the foreground, so the music remained pleasantly blithe throughout, even in the funeral march of the third movement. More details would have deepened the expressiveness.

Conducting from his piano bench, Kahane zipped through the Mozart concerto with rapid tempos and crisp playing. At that pace, the orchestra didn’t always mesh cleanly in the outer movements, but the slow movement had a peaceful glow, preceded and followed as it was by all those fast-moving notes.

A talented group of young drummers and mallet-wielders made Monday night’s Percussion Ensemble concert worth hearing. Most appealing was Matthew Lau’s soulful and technically impressive solo on David Friedman’s 20 Minutes Off the Pavement, still an engaging piece 20 years after its Aspen debut. Friedman, known for pop songs and Broadway arranging and conducting, put together the most cohesive score of all those played, redolent of jazz. Omphalo Centric Lecture, by Australian composer Nigel Westlake (something of a percussion classic since he wrote it in 1984), opened the proceedings in a whirlwind of sharp marimba playing by four players. The quietest piece, Lou Harrison’s First Concerto for Flute and Percussion, featured faculty artist Nadine Asin with extremely modest percussion accompaniment in three simple, hypnotically repetitive movements.

Harvey Steiman