An Octet, a Pianist and a Brass Quintet Walk Into a Concert Hall

United StatesUnited States Aspen Music Festival (3): Faculty artists, Aspen Philharmonic, Robert Spano (conductor), American Brass Quintet. Aspen, Colorado, 15-17.7.2013 (HS)

Chamber Music, 15 July

Faculty artists
Brant: Angels and Devils
Schubert: Octet in F major, D. 803

Aspen Philharmonic, 17 July
Robert Spano, conductor
Jonathan Biss, piano
Adam Schoenberg: Bounce (World Premiere)
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, op. 58
Strauss: Tod und Verklarung (Death and Transfiguration)
Wagner: Prelude to Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg

American Brass Quintet, 17 July
Raymond Mase, Kevin Cobb (trumpets)
David Wakefield (French horn)
Michael Powell (trombone)
John D. Rojak (bass trombone)
Marenzio/Raymond Mase: Three Madrigals
David Snow: Dance Movements
Riegger: Nonet For Brass, Op. 49
Josquin Des Prez/Raymond Mase: Chansons
JoanTower: Copperwave
Gabrieli/Raymond Mase: Venetian Canzoni

Three highlights from the first part of this week at the Aspen Music Festival reflect the variety of the genre we call classical music. All they have in common is extraordinary performances of beautifully crafted pieces.

In chronological order we have a first-team roster of faculty musicians coming together for a vivid performance of the Schubert Octet, an A-list pianist bringing his own glosses to one of the great concertos, and superb playing from the American Brass Quintet (and friends) in music of the 16th century.

Oh, and there was also a world premiere for orchestra by an American composer in his early 30’s making his mark and a dazzling rendition of a 2006 work by a veteran American composer in her mid 70’s.

The Schubert Octet topped off the regular chamber music recital Monday evening in Harris Hall, displaying the formidable talents of musicians whom long-time Aspen concertgoers have learned to anticipate with relish. Insiders know whenever they see Adele Anthony and Ellen dePasquale (violins), James Dunham (viola), Darrett Adkins (cello), Bruce Bansby (bass), Joaquin Valdepeñas (clarinet), Per Hannevold (bassoon) and John Zirbel (horn) on the list of artists, it will be worth hearing.

In the octet’s hour-long running time, each had plenty of opportunity to show what he or she could do, and the result was jaw-dropping in its musical clarity, precision, buoyancy and sheer life. As an ensemble, they qualified as an embryonic symphony orchestra in their range of expressiveness and richness of sound. The marches were stirring, the Adagio a showpiece for Valdepeñas’ floating clarinet sound, the Scherzo brilliant, the minuet graceful.

Jonathan Biss, the soloist in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4—the centerpiece of Wednesday evening’s Aspen Philharmonic concert in the tent—clearly had a different idea from most pianists. The opening measures, in which the piano plays quietly alone, before the orchestra enters—also quietly—felt almost hesitant, as if the soloist were asking an impertinent question.

Conducting the all-student orchestra, festival music director Robert Spano favored slower-than-usual tempos. (What is it with conductors drawing out the pace this year? It seems to be happening often.) But he got graceful playing from the ensemble, and it fit with Biss’ approach. One could quibble with the deftness of his trills or the extensive use of pedal in the piano’s many rapid runs, but he had an idea of where this music was going.

Biss’ extensive first-movement cadenza (it wasn’t Beethoven’s) roamed freely into harmonic and formal territory that could be seen as anachronistic, but it had a freshness and flair for the dramatic that Beethoven might have loved. The slow movement ached with yearning and the finale, slow-paced as it was, still had enough rhythmic bite when it revved up, providing the needed contrast with moments of repose.

Later Wednesday evening in Harris Hall, the American Brass Quintet rolled out several of first trumpet Raymond Mase’s well-crafted arrangements of 16th-century giants Gabrieli and Josquin des Prez. The quintet started with three utterly charming madrigals by the Italian composer Marenzio, opened the second half with five wonderfully polyphonic chansons by Josquin and finished with two magnificent Gabrieli canzoni. The Kyōdai Brass Quintet, on a fellowship at Aspen this summer, joined seamlessly with the ABQ for the Gabrieli. Arrayed across the stage in reverberant Harris Hall, it was easy to imagine we were listening in Venice’s Basilica di San Marco.

Three pieces written in the past 62 years contrasted with this ancient music. The most recent (2006), Copperwave by Joan Tower, spun out 12 minutes of energetic, rhythmic and harmonically piquant music that fascinated and embraced the audience in equal parts. The ABQ’s playing focused the musical lines clearly and brought out the dance-like feel of the final pages.

The newest was Adam Schoenberg’s Bounce, the world premiere. A 10-minute joy ride for orchestra, it kept the percussion section busy with mallet-instrument interjections, cymbal crashes and bass drum thuds against a breathless volleyball match as the rest of the orchestra tossed musical ideas from one part of the ensemble to another. The slower central section sounded almost restful, with its small minimalist gestures. Throughout, although the meter seemed to change every few bars from 2 beats to 3 to 4, it sounded so natural that Spano’s baton was the only evidence of this asymmetry.

Harvey Steiman