Aspen V: Artists on Fire in the New and the Familiar

United StatesUnited States  Aspen Music Festival (5): Meyer and Bell in Meyer’s new double concerto; Auerbach’s solo take on Mussorgsky’s ‘Pictures’; Trpceski vivid in Tchaikovsky concerto. 13-15.7.2012 (HS)

Edgar Meyer’s new Concerto for Violin and Double Bass drew a near-capacity throng for Friday evening’s Chamber Symphony program. This wasn’t a world premiere—the Boston Symphony having done the honors a week earlier at Tanglewood—but Meyer, on bass, and Joshua Bell, violin, are favorite sons of festival attendees. The two have been friends since their Aspen days as teenagers, and each returns here often.

The 28-minute work makes a strong first impression, especially in the keen rapport the two soloists so obviously share. Meyer wrote the music for himself and Bell. They perform together occasionally in concerts and for recordings, and neither limits his music-making to classical repertoire. They were so clearly on the same page that it was mesmerizing just to listen to them play so seamlessly, and in tricky music, too.

Meyer, clearly influenced by his longtime association with the tabla virtuoso Zakir Hussain, has layered complex rhythms into this concerto (the first he has written since the one for Hussain, the banjo marvel Béla Fleck, and himself). At one point in the finale a 27-beat cycle overlaps an 18-beat cycle, and if that doesn’t bend your mind you’re not paying attention. Odd rhythms and meters abound, but Meyer and Bell execute them with élan. The piece also takes advantage of Meyer’s jaw-dropping ability to make his bass sound like a cello, or in some phrases a violin, and articulate rapid-fire passages with a nimbleness seldom associated with his instrument. The writing for violin beautifully fits Bell’s clear-eyed, pure tone and style, coupled with a flair for explosive cadenzas.

Harmonically and melodically, Meyer writes in an easy-to-grasp style. With him and Bell in such perfect sync, and conductor Robert Spano guiding the orchestra into a neat fit, the chapters unfolded smoothly. The piece starts nervously, recedes into a comfortable slow movement, or more accurately, slower than the outer ones, gets more complex for the finale and then ends simply and appealingly.

Spano created a wonderful atmosphere in the opening work, Barber’s evocative Knoxville: Summer of 1915. The orchestra sketched a lovely picture of a warm summer evening—you could almost see the fireflies and smell the lawns being watered—while laying the foundation for gorgeous work from soprano Susanna Phillips. She caressed James Agee’s words and reflected their emotions and memories radiantly.

The significant portion of the crowd who left an intermission missed a superbly buoyant and sharply articulated performance of the Schumann Symphony No. 4. Spano, in an especially demonstrative mood, drew energetic and expressive playing.

The same sort of long-standing camaraderie that worked so well for Meyer and Bell was evident Saturday, when some of the more prominent resident artists collaborated on the afternoon chamber music program. Most notably, violinist Sylvia Rosenberg and pianist Anton Nel brought sonatas by Hindemith and Mozart to life gracefully, and pianist Jeffrey Kahane led violinist Alexander Kerr, violist Masao Kawasaki and cellist Eric Kim in a take-no-prisoners, brilliantly executed Brahms Piano Quartet No. 1.

Saturday’s highlight was a remarkably played recital by composer-pianist-poet Lera Auerbach. She seemed amped up and gave her 24 Preludes for Piano a hard, muscular edge that I don’t recall from previous performances (or her recording), but that excess of energy stood her in good stead in Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. Her arrangement for piano, based on the composer’s own manuscripts and not the posthumous edited version Ravel used for his more famous orchestration, required every ounce of her formidable technique. Some of her tempo choices and dense textures may have seemed strange, but they closely reflected the original. Mussorgsky was a rougher cob than most of the cleaned-up orchestrations of his music would suggest.

Piano was in the spotlight Sunday as well. Soloist Simon Trpčeski showed admirable restraint in the familiar and popular Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1, the music all the more compelling for it. Grand gestures from the soloist aren’t necessary when Tchaikovsky provides them in the score. The result was a beautifully shaped and dynamically subtle performance, conductor Osmo Vänskä marshaling the Festival Orchestra troops with big, oddly jerky gestures. The big-boned, broad-shouldered Berlioz Symphony Fantastique on the second half of the program missed the swagger in the composer’s colors, an exception being the lovely English horn and oboe duet in the third movement. Still, the quiet moments seemed like something to get through before the next big, crashing climax. The orchestra sounded resplendent in those.

Harvey Steiman