Aspen XII: Visits to France, Germany and…the USA

United StatesUnited States Aspen Music Festival (XII): Thibaudet plays Saint-Saëns; Gil Shaham find the soul in Britten’s concerto; Ray Chen gets loud with Bach, Beethoven and Franck; Spano leads uplifting Messiaen. 12.8.2012 (HS)

Thursday 9 August

Chamber Ensemble, Robert Spano (conductor), Juho Pohjonen (piano), John Zirbel (French horn)

Messiaen: Des canyons aux étoiles (From the Canyons to the Stars)

Friday 10 August

David Robertson (conductor), Gil Shaham (violin)

Stravinsky: Chant du rossignol

Britten: Violin Concerto, Op. 15

Haydn: Symphony No. 103 In E-Flat Major

Saturday 11 August

Ray Chen (violin), Inara Zandmane (piano)

J. S. Bach: Partita No. 3 for Unaccompanied Violin in E Major

Beethoven: Violin Sonata No. 5 in F Major, Op. 24, “Spring”

Milstein: Paganiniana

Gershwin/Heifetz: “It Ain’t Necessarily So” And “Summertime” From Porgy and Bess

Franck: Violin Sonata in A Major

Sunday 12 August

Christian Arming (conductor), Pleasure Is The Law, Jean-Yves Thibaudet (piano)

Wagner: Prelude to Act I from Parsifal

Messiaen: Concert à Quatre

Saint-Saëns: Piano Concerto No. 5 in F Major, Op. 103

Wagner: Brünnhilde’s Immolation from Götterdämmerung

The theme of this year’s Aspen Music Festival, “Made in America,” took a turn this past weekend to “Made in France,” as each of four major programs this past weekend gave us a big French piece. Visiting artists played Franck and Saint-Saëns. We also heard two rarely played opuses by Olivier Messiaen. Aspen, with its large roster of accomplished faculty, is uniquely positioned to provide the forces necessary for the splendid performances these works got.

One of those Messiaen pieces actually fit the theme. Not limited to American composers, it embraces any work written in the United States. Visits to the Grand Canyon in Arizona and Bryce Canyon in Utah (the music commissioned by Alice Tully of New York) inspired Messiaen to write his ecstatic Des canyons aux étoiles. A 44-piece ad hoc ensemble dug into the 90-minute piece in the small but sonorous confines of the 550-seat Harris Hall Thursday night.

Festival music director Robert Spano conducted with a mixture of musical precision and spiritual expansiveness. John Zirbel, principal horn in Montréal for the rest of the year, made a 10-minute wonder of the solo movement “Appel interstellar,” and Finnish pianist Juho Pohjonen supplied the extended outbursts of bird calls with the requisite splash and euphoria. He has the pianistic presence to demand more appearances here.

Messiaen’s Concert à Quatre, on Sunday’s Festival Orchestra program, featured colorful and committed solo work from resident artists Nadine Asine (flute), Elaine Douvas (oboe), Darrett Adkins (cello) and visiting pianist Steven Beck, a longstanding group that call themselves Pleasure Is the Law. The piece, Messiaen’s last, was written as a sort of homage to Mozart, Rameau and Scarlatti. Although it contains plenty of his signature bird song, it hews to classical forms rather than aiming for the spiritual ecstasy of his most popular works.

Thibaudet’s brilliant traversal of Saint-Saëns’ under-appreciated Piano Concerto No. 5proved to be the highlight of the Sunday program, brightened by the pianist’s verve and technical command. Conductor Christian Arming had the orchestra right with him—but in the Wagner excerpts that opened and closed the program, not so much. Arming got stately and foursquare playing in the prelude to Parsifal rather than Wagner’s spiritually elevating intent, and, despite clear articulation by the musicians in even the most complex passages of the Immolation Scene from Götterdämmerung, his rapid tempos completely missed this music’s magic, especially in the final, potentially glorious pages.

Friday’s Chamber Symphony concert featured Gil Shaham in the Britten Violin Concerto. This youthful work (Britten was 25 when he started to write it, well before his famous operas) has many of the hallmarks of the composer’s mature style — exotic phrases, colorful harmonies and orchestration, and an irresistible undercurrent of emotion. Shaham found all of that, executing the Spanish-inflected phrases with a vocal cry to his violin that added breathtaking depth to his precise, incisive playing. David Robertson conducted with enthusiasm, totally in sync with the soloist.

Robertson opened the program with Stravinsky’s Chant du rossignol, a suite extracted from an earlier short opera, drawing out the exotic threads. The program finished with a dashing, exuberant performance of Haydn’s Symphony No. 103, “Drum Roll.”

The broad-beamed sonata by Caesar Franck topped off violinist Ray Chen’s recital Saturday night. He preceded that with two short Jascha Heifetz arrangements of tunes from Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess after offering his deadpan observation, “This is the ‘made in America’ portion of the program.” He lavished much more delicacy and flair on those two miniatures than on the rest of his recital, where he seemed intent on producing the biggest, baddest, richest, broadest sound he could from his Stradivarius, sometimes at the expense of intonation.

That could be excused in Milstein’s Paganiniana, an unaccompanied show-off piece that’s all about violin pyrotechnics. Chen certainly could deliver on the fast, finger-busting passages in that one, as well as in the Bach Partita No. 3 for Unaccompanied Violin in E major. Bach should be about deft playing and elegant phrasing, but Chen went for the jugular, distorting rhythms and tempos into a caricature of the music. He indulged in exceedingly loud dynamics in Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No. 5 in F major “Spring,” although at least he kept a steady beat.

The style of the Franck sonata suited to this approach better. Substituting for Khatia Buniatishvili, the originally announced pianist, Inara Zandmane seemed content to provide competent accompaniment until she got to the Franck. She took command of the sweeping phrases and, in the lovely slow movement, laid down a background of refinement and delicacy. And Chen finally showed how sweetly he can play.


Harvey Steiman