Aspen I: Spano, McGegan and a Parade of Pianists

United StatesUnited States Aspen Music Festival 2012 (1): On opening weekend, Spano leads energetic Gershwin and Bartók, McGegan makes Beethoven and Mendelssohn dance, and a series of pianists take on Gershwin, Mendelssohn, Wyner, Lutoslawski, Bolcom and, finally, Rachmaninoff. 1.7.2012 (HS)

The first few days of the 2012 Aspen Music Festival demonstrated in sharp relief everything that makes this 7-1/2-week summer event what it is. On opening night three first-tier pianists rendered Gershwin piano music impressively with student ensembles. The podium’s most entertaining practitioner (Nicholas McGegan) led a lively Chamber Symphony program of Mendelssohn and Beethoven, and the Festival Orchestra put the cap on the weekend when new music director Robert Spano knocked two of the twentieth century’s most audience-friendly works out of the park, aided and abetted by pianist Garrick Ohlsson.

These were also Spano’s first official concerts as music director. Although he appeared here often last summer as director designate, 2012 is the first season in which he had a hand in programming from the onset. The level of music making was generally high.

It was a busy weekend for pianists. The all-Gershwin program featured internationally known Inon Barnatan and Marc-André Hamelin, and an emerging star in Conrad Tao. Tao is a product of the music school (which currently numbers 650 students) that is an integral part of the festival.

The programs also reflected this year’s theme, “Made in America,” focusing on pieces written on U.S. soil or for U.S. performers, whether by homegrown composers, visitors or immigrants. In a festival covering more than seven weeks, not every program can hew entirely to the theme, so the works are sprinkled here and there through the summer. But we got a strong dose of them in the opening days.

Although Friday’s Beethoven and Mendelssohn obviously have no connection to America, Yehudi Wyner’s Piano Concerto Chiavi in Mano, also on the dance card, certainly did. As did Sunday’s offerings. Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic, which debuted it in 1909, Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra by Serge Koussevitsky when he was conductor of the Boston Symphony, which debuted it in 1944.

Sunday’s concert began with blue cathedral, Jennifer Higdon’s evocative, colorfully scored 12-minute work that dates from 2000. After the music reached a climax, it subsides gracefully to a haunting obbligato of water glasses and delicate percussion. That piece touches on another element destined to become part of the Aspen Music Festival texture; Spano has long championed a group of composers who write in a highly accessible idiom, which includes Higdon.

In the Concerto for Orchestra Spano found ideal tempos, spacious enough to let Bartók’s ideas unfold but taut enough to keep the pace moving unflaggingly. The second movement “Game of Pairs” featured the principals, who play in some of the world’s leading orchestras, in fleeting duets with the students playing alongside them, another Aspen hallmark. The finale’s majestic brass interjections brought things to an energetic close.

Ohlsson jumped onto the back of Rachmaninoff’s wild and wooly Third Piano Concerto and wrestled it into submission, emphasizing the piece’s architecture and irresistible sweep. Finely gauged pacing and seamless transitions from one section to the next made this an absorbing performance. If Ohlsson whizzed past some of the details along the way, it was a small price to pay for such a muscular, broad-beamed triumph.

The sun shone Sunday on a beautiful day in the Rocky Mountains, where Aspen’s 2,050-seat Benedict Music Tent is a blessedly quiet place for music making. But on opening night Thursday Mother Nature provided her own obbligato. As several thunderstorms swept through during the second half, lightning and distant thunder added their effects. One thunderclap close to the tent punctuated the music dramatically, and heavy downpours drowned out whole paragraphs of the Rhapsody in Blue. The opening clarinet trill was inaudible, but in what we could hear, Hamelin showed a keen grasp of the piano part’s jazz nuances, fearlessly taken at breakneck tempo. It’s not how we usually hear this music, but Gershwin himself played it that fast on his famous piano rolls.

With similar ease in the jazz elements of the Concerto in F, Barnatan blazed through the flashy outer movements and lavished a tender bluesy touch to the Andante con moto in the middle. It was Tao, who just turned 18, who delivered the most arresting performance, attacking the Second Rhapsody with a lethal combination of power, rhythmic thrust, technical perfection and sheer joy. For his part Spano led nicely idiomatic readings.

McGegan uses his whole body and witty gestures to coax vivid performances. In Friday’s concert he drew a full measure of rhythmic vitality from Beethoven’s Leonore Overture No. 2 and Symphony No. 8, and Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in G minor. His dance-like motions shaped phrases gracefully and, in the Mendelssohn, found eloquence in tunes with the orchestra that pianist Robert Levin never quite brought to life. Levin did better in Wyner’s 2004 concerto, an arresting mashup of jazz gestures, Yiddish music and dissonant odysseys that would call to mind the music of Charles Ives if he had grown up Jewish and half a century later. Again the orchestra delivered the better phrasing and all-round finer musicality.

Saturday’s Chamber Music concerts, which showcase mostly faculty artists, usually draw minimal crowds at 4:30 p.m., but this time, at 8 p.m., a good audience in the 500-seat Harris Hall came for a mixed bag of music mostly by late twentieth-century composers. The highlight was a two-piano finale featuring Wu Han and Anton Nel galloping through the high-wire act that is Lutoslawski’s Variations on a Theme of Paganini, which outdoes Rachmaninoff in both dazzle and brevity. And they killed it (that’s a compliment) with Bolcom’s ragtime-infused, whirlwind, nonstop, too-much-fun showpiece The Serpent’s Kiss.

Harvey Steiman