Aspen XIII: Harbison’s “Gatsby,” Superb Thibaudet, Brilliant Copland

United StatesUnited States Aspen Music Festival (XIII): Harbison’s The Great Gatsby in reduced orchestration; Thibaudet entrances with superb Debussy; Pro Arte settles down with Schubert; and a brilliant Copland Sextet 13-16.2012 (HS)

Monday 13 August

Copland: Sextet
Schoenfield: Café Music
Franck: Piano Quintet in F minor

Tuesday 14 August: Jean-Yves Thibaudet (piano)

Debussy: Préludes, Book II
Debussy: Suite bergamasque
Debussy: Estampes
Debussy: L’isle joyeuse

Wednesday 15 August: Pro Arte Quartet

Haydn/John Harbison: Finale, Presto
Bloch: Prelude
Barber: Adagio for Strings, op. 11
John Harbison: String Quartet No. 5
Schubert: String Quintet in C major, op. 163, D. 956

Thursday 16 August

Harbison: The Great Gatsby

Conductor: Anne Manson
Director: Edward Berkeley
Daisy Buchanan: Meredith Lustig
Jay Gatsby: Daniel Curran
Tom Buchanan: Rafael Moras
Nick Carraway: Geoffrey Sirett
Jordan Baker: Allegra De Vita
George Wilson: Adam Lau
Myrtle Wilson: Oriana Dunlop

John Harbison’s opera The Great Gatsby wants to make a great American novel into a powerful opera. Thursday’s opener at Wheeler Opera House didn’t quite get there, but not because of any failings by the Aspen Opera Theater Center.

The large cast created individual characters, mostly sung with beautiful voices. Edward Berkeley directed the complex story with inventive touches, defining details with impressive clarity. Conductor Anne Manson, however, let an orchestral reduction by Jacques Dejardins of Harbison’s opulent 1999 original score for the Metropolitan Opera grind along. It lacked inflections when it needed space to breathe. Harbison’s otherwise beautifully crafted score doesn’t frame the many big, crowd-pleasing, revealing and musically exciting moments with the kind of dramatic clarity we are used to hearing in great operas. So they don’t pop.

In the late-summer scene when Daisy and Jordan are sighing that it’s so hot, or in the final funeral scene where we meet Gatsby’s father, the writing is evocative. But emotional individual moments in complex scenes, as in the personal confrontations at Gatsby’s lavish parties, get lost in the waves of music. The “jazz age” dance music, which emerges from radios and a dance band at Gatsby’s lavish parties, was played, sung and, yes, danced to, with flair.

Cast members worth singling out include Allegra De Vita, who applied her rich mezzo soprano to Jordan, the female golfer friend of Daisy, sung with creamy tone and (appropriately) vacant eyes by soprano Meredith Lustig. As the mysterious Gatsby, Daniel Curran’s high tenor sounded fine but never quite revealed the angst beneath. Rafael Moras put his lyric tenor to dramatic use as Tom Buchanan, Daisy’s two-timing husband, and baritone Geoffry Sirett made Nick Carraway, their mutual friend, into a good guy pulled in too many directions. Bass-baritone Adam Lau gave the garage mechanic Wilson a kind of rough nobility.

Gatsby is worth seeing. Several folks seated around me grumbled about its dissonance (it’s not that dissonant, and it’s mostly easy to listen to), but they stayed for the whole thing.

An all-Debussy program is so deep in pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet’s wheelhouse that what came out in a recital Tuesday Harris Hall simply sounded so right that all you can do is sit back and drink it in. Thibaudet, who played a remarkably agile Saint-Saëns Concerto No. 5 on Sunday, found a rainbow of colors in the piano’s black and white keys for Debussy. He created fuzzy textures for the fog of “Brouillards,” the opening piece of the Préludes Book II, without losing the rigorous pulse that supports the music. He caught the nostalgic feeling of “Feuilles mortes” with dark tone and the pixieish, fleeting rhythms of “Les fées sont d’exquises danseuses” with pinpoint detail. Each prelude created its own little world.

The Suite Bergamasque had the same specificity and control, the contrast between the playful jousting of the “Menuet” with a totally unsentimental but exquisite “Clair de lune” especially fine. He finished with two show-off pieces, painting vivid scenery in Estampes and riding an extra-fast tempo in L’isle joyeuse to a thrilling conclusion. For an encore, he infused Ravel’s Pavane pour une infante défunte with a strong pulse to keep it wistful instead of sentimental.

The Pro Arte Quartet started its program Wednesday with Finale, Presto, an imagining by composer John Harbison of how Haydn might have finished an incomplete quartet if he knew about music in the 20th century. That one was peppy, bright and witty, but then it took awhile to get over some kind of funk that skewed Barber’s famous Adagio for Strings into strange directions. They didn’t seem to get as much they could out of John Harbison’s String Quartet No. 5, which they premiered last year.

The Schubert String Quintet settled things down. A controlled pace that let the music emerge gracefully. After so many fast, faster and too-fast performance the past week or two, it was nice to hear the music breathe. The slow movement was especially endearing. Sure, it could have ramped up into zestier climaxes, but the group, joined by cellist Michael Mermagen, stayed the course and came out ahead.

The highlight of Monday’s faculty chamber music concert in the tent was Copland’s Sextet, which the composer created from his thorny Chamber Symphony by adding clarinet and piano to a string quartet. The perilous rhythmic challenges and jumpy articulation held no terror for this group, driven precisely and appealingly by first violin Bing Wang and clarinet Bil Jackson.

Paul Schoenfeld’s Café Music, a pastiche of mid-century lounge music for piano trio, got a dedicated performance from Rita Sloan (piano), Renata Arado (violin) and Brinton Smith (cello), who grimaced every time he had to attempt a jazzy beat. It swung intermittently. The Franck Piano Quintet in F minor, probably chosen because it’s broad enough to fill the tent’s space, made plenty of sound but never quite found its footing.

Harvey Steiman