Aspen X: Percussion Detonates a Memorable Week

United StatesUnited States Aspen Music Festival X: American String Quartet wows with Beethoven Op. 130; a Weilerstein family recital emphasizes the “chamber” in chamber music; McDuffie and Spano make Brahms sing; and the Percussion Ensemble rattles the walls of Harris Hall. 3.8.2012 (HS)

Steve Reich: Mallet Quartet
Jolivet: Suite en concert
David Ives: Philip Glass Buys a Loaf of Bread
Andrew Thomas: from Merlin
Cage: Third Construction
Antheil: Ballet mécanique

Brahms: Violin Sonata No. 1 in G major, op. 78
Brahms: Violin Sonata No. 2 in A major, op. 100
Brahms: Violin Sonata No. 3 in D minor, op. 108

Janácek: Pohádka (Fairy Tale)
Kodály: Duo for Violin and Cello, op. 7
Janácek/Stephen Coxe: Piano Trio after L. N. Tolstoy, “The Kreutzer Sonata”
Brahms: String Sextet No. 1 in B-flat major, op. 18
JoanTower: Night Fields

Dvorák: String Quartet in E-flat major, B. 92, op. 51
Beethoven: String Quartet in B-flat major, op. 130
Beethoven: Grosse Fuge in B-flat major, op. 133


One of Robert McDuffie’s great strengths as a violinist, his ability to make the instrument sing soulfully and lyrically, made Brahms’ three violin sonatas an apt choice for his recital Tuesday night in Harris Hall. Doing all three on the same concert could have been too much of the same, but listening to McDuffie spin out those long, effulgent melodies never gets old.

Hearing all three in succession makes clear how Brahms grew as a composer, weaving in more and more complexity. The first sonata’s opus number comes right after the violin concerto and a whole raft of songs. The other two sonatas debuted seven years later, in a spurt of works that included even more amiable-sounding songs (snatches of which make brief appearances in the violin sonatas). So, more was going on in the music as the program progressed.

The festival’s music director Robert Spano, who accompanied the long-time Aspen favorite, fit the piano’s expansions, underlinings and countermelodies into the violin’s line smoothly. He played with clarity and gave the pace a gentle propulsion. Things moved deftly.

Spano’s work this summer to date deserves a pause to appreciate. No previous music director in Aspen has executed so many widely varied assignments with such stunning results. He opened the festival in June by leading big-band ensembles in Gershwin’s piano works — Rhapsody in Blue and both concertos — with real idiomatic flair. He drew colorful and dramatic playing from the Festival Orchestra in Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra. On another program he fashioned evocative atmospherics in Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915 and introduced Aspen to Edgar Meyer’s double concerto in an impressively assured performance. And then he got a student pit orchestra to capture the magic of Stephen Sondheim’s score in the Opera Theater’s Sweeney Todd. Sitting down to play Brahms with a violin star lie McDuffie put a little more icing on already well-decorated cake.

Wednesday night’s program also took on Brahms, but the highlights came in a first half of Kodály and Janáček, featuring members of the Weilerstein family. Alisa, now a world-renowned cellist, made her Aspen debut in 1996, performing in a trio with her violinist father Donald (who taught here from 1988 to 2000) and pianist mother Vivian. The Weilerstein Trio reconvened to play an unusual “completion” by composer Stephen Coxe of Janáček’s “Kreutzer Sonata” string quartet, based on a manuscript that suggests the composer started the piece as a trio and abandoned it until rewriting it for a string quartet commission. If this version lacked the spaciousness of the familiar quartet instrumentation, it certainly got the feeling of the music’s harrowing narrative.

Even better was Alisa’s performance with Mom of Janáček’s Podháka, and best of all Kodály’s spectacular Duo for Violin and Cello with Alisa trading virtuosic flourishes with her brother Josh, who has embarked on a conducting career. (He was assistant conductor of the festival last summer, now an assistant at the New York Philharmonic.) These were great examples of what chamber music is about, the seamless fusing of a few musicians playing from matching impulses. The Brahms sextet, amiable and appealing as it was, got fine contributions from cellist Michael Mermagen and violists Masao Kawasaki and Elzbieta Weyman but never jelled quite so completely.

Thursday night the American String Quartet put the cap on an extraordinary week of music with focused, dig-deep playing on Beethoven’s final quartet, Op. 130 coupled traditionally with the Grosse Fuge. The 45-minute tour de force requires utmost concentration and stamina. The fifth movement Cavatina found first violin Peter Winograd delivering unfurling the melody against a subtly moving weave of sound from the rest, a heart-stoppingly beautiful moment. In the fugue, second violin Laurie Carney and viola Daniel Avshalamov brought muscle to the inner voices and instant responses to the shifting rhythms while cellist Wolfram Koessel anchored with a lithe line.

In the first half, Joan Tower’s 1994 Night Fields made a fascinating study in developing chromatic lines against sustained pedal tones that morph from one instrument to another. Dvořák’s seldom-heard String Quartet in E flat Op. 51 made a tuneful transition.

The week began Monday with an exhilarating, take-no-prisoners gallop through George Antheil’s Ballet mécanique, a magnificent curiosity from the 1920s, putting an exclamation point on the Percussion Ensemble’s best program in recent years. Four pianists and nine percussionists played the pared-down (and less clangy) 1953 revision (no sirens, no coordinated player pianos) with the requisite rigor and exuberance. The airplane propellors (seriously), rendered electronically in surround sound, seemed to be flying around the hall.

In another highlight, a quartet of percussionists voiced a witty and deftly timed performance of David Ives’ short one-act play, Philip Glass Buys a Loaf of Bread, a snarky send-up of Glass’ repetitive minimalist style, with plenty of personality, no instruments needed. Flutist Martha Aarons played Jolivet’s 1965 Suite en concert with deadpan seriousness while four percussionists rattled in the background like bongo drummers at a beatnik soirée. And solo competition winner Josh Vanderhiede dazzled everyone with a seven-minute tour de force on marimba by Andrew Thomas.

Harvey Steiman