Aspen VI: A Startling 21-Year-Old, Regrettable Rachmaninov and Ravel

United StatesUnited States Aspen Music Festival (6): American Brass Quintet debuts colorful new work, The Magic Flute set in New York, and Benabdallah flounders in Rachmaninov. 16/17/18.7.2012 (HS)

Of all the chamber ensembles resident at the Aspen Music Festival, the American Brass Quintet has the most extensive presence. It’s the only group here all summer, and its members fill principal roles in both the Chamber and Festival orchestras. The quintet’s annual concert in Harris Hall, always worth hearing, usually includes a premiere or two, commissioned by the group.

On Wednesday, the newest work on this year’s program was a colorful and brashly dissonant 15-minute tour de force, which challenged the players at every turn. Written by Jay Greenberg, barely 21 years old, his Quintet for Brass seemed to explore every bit of color and articulation possible, from trumpeters Raymond Mase and Kevin Cobb, French hornist David Wakefield, trombonist Michael Powell and bass trombonist John D. Rojak. Full of nervous energy, the piece wove together short strands of mostly quiet music into a rippling fabric of overlapping rhythms and lines. The final five minutes, with quarreling muted trumpets that sounded like “Samuel Goldberg and Schmuyel” from Pictures at an Exhibition on drugs, was especially engrossing.

Another impressive new work, Songs of War and Loss, written by Anthony Plog in 2011, found deep reservoirs of beauty and power in a series of Civil War poems by Walt Whitman. Baritone Christòpheren Nomura sang the words with conviction, warmth and lyric sound while the writing for the brass painted the scenes behind them. “How Solemn as One by One,” an arresting depiction of an army company fording a stream, and “Reconciliation,” a touching glimpse of a surviving soldier honoring his dead opponent, were especially moving. Of the remaining works, most written in the 1950s and 1970s, Kenneth Singleton’s sly arrangement of Charles Ives’s witty Four Songs was the most beguiling.

On Monday Richard Bado, a longtime member of the festival’s voice faculty and now an accomplished opera conductor, led a juicy final performance of Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute that featured impressive contributions in the major roles and a terrific chorus.

The Aspen Opera Theater Center’s first production of the summer got a new setting and new dialogue that updated the action to New York in the 1960s (the original fairy-tale libretto specifies neither time nor place). Director James Alexander set the action in the mind of Tamino, the wielder of the eponymous flute, which changed color from one scene to the next. Sarastro and the Queen of the Night were an estranged socialite couple, Papageno a vet living on the streets catching birds for a living, the three boys were newspaper sellers, and the three ladies clothed in op-art black-and-white. The temple of wisdom lay behind the projected façade of the New York Public Library. The English-language dialog wittily captured the essence of the story, perhaps making a better connection with an American audience. Unfortunately, some of the Asian singers lacked the command of English to be believable in the dialog.

The primary vocal performances featured current Aspen students. Soprano Ying Fang sang Pamina with creamy tone and marvelous specificity in each moment, and baritone Mark Diamond invested Papageno with an honest humanity, appealing physical humor and a light sound. Soprano Soyoung Park delivered a relentless, forceful and blazingly sung Queen of the Night. Tenor Yujoong Kim sang Tamino’s music with admirably clarity, if with less nuance than one could want.

In the bass roles, Joseph Hubbard had the low notes if not the noble demeanor of Sarastro, while Adam Lau got the attitude and sharply delineated sound of the Speaker (here called Spokesman, actually a better description of his role). Soprano Sarah Parnicky’s nimble sound and stage movement made for a charming Papagena. Elizabeth Rosenberg, Samantha Renea Gossard and Julie deBoer blended their voices nicely, tormenting Papageno and fawning over Tamino to excellent effect.

Tuesday night’s Aspen debut of pianist Marouan Benabdallah included a series of Moorish-influenced French, Spanish and Moroccan pieces, mostly from the early twentieth century. Benabdallah, whose father was Moroccan and mother Hungarian, has been heavily promoted as Morocco’s gift to classical music, but there was little subtlety to his playing in those works by Debussy, Albeñiz and Granados. Only a brief nocturne and song without words by his Moroccan contemporary Nabil Benabdeljalil showed much color and atmosphere. The rest, including Rachmaninov’s tedious and seldom played Piano Sonata No. 1 and Ravel’s Alborada del gracioso, came off as flat.

Harvey Steiman