Percussionist, Cellist Upstage Big Names at Aspen (8)

United StatesUnited States Aspen Music Festival (8): Aspen Percussion Ensemble, Kyrill Gerstein (piano), American String Quartet; Harris Hall, Aspen, CO. 29-31.7.2013 (HS)

Aspen Percussion Ensemble, 29 July

Jonathan Haas, director and conductor
Nicholas Mariscal, cello
Bonita Boyd, flute
Shostakovich: Entr’acte From The Nose, Op. 15
Bernstein: Halil
Tan Dun: Elegy: Snow In June
Arvo Pärt: Fratres
Górecki : Aria, Op. 59
Mark Appelbaum: Aphasia
Debussy/Grainger: Pagodas

Kyrill Gerstein (Piano), 30 July
Haydn: Variations In F Minor, Hob. Xvii/6
Schumann: Carnaval, Scènes Mignonnes Sur Quatre Notes, Op. 9
Oliver Knussen: Ophelia’s Last Dance, Op. 32
Mussorgsky: Pictures At An Exhibition

American String Quartet, 31 July

Peter Winograd, violin,
Laurie Carney, violin
Daniel Avshalomov, viola
Wolfram Koessel, cello
plus James Dunham, viola
Haydn: String Quartet In F Major, Hob. Iii/82, Op. 77, No. 2
Janáček: String Quartet No. 1 After L. N. Tolstoy, “The Kreutzer Sonata”
Brahms: String Quintet No. 1 In F Major, Op. 88


In a three-day period that included a recital by the much-lauded pianist Kyrill Gerstein and the much-loved American String Quartet, who would have guessed that the most stunningly beautiful moments would have come from an amplified cello and an array of percussion?

Tan Dun’s 1991 piece Elegy: Snow in June made the biggest impression in the Aspen Percussion Ensemble’s eclectic annual recital . The cellist, 20-year-old Nicholas Mariscal, seemed born to play Dun’s soulful, endlessly inventive and expressive music. With rock-solid technique and undeniable star quality, Mariscal seemed less a student getting a break than a bona fide artist lending a little extra class to the proceedings.

Dun wrote the piece, a fierce and heart-rending response to the riots in Tiananmen Square, shortly after he immigrated from China and was still pursuing a doctorate at Columbia University. The 18-minute work opens with a plaintive cello solo in what has become Dun’s signature style: a melding of Chinese inflections in a Western structure. A rattle of Chinese gongs, cymbals and drums interrupts the melodic line and finally erupts into the sort of cacophony one hears as lion dancers approach in a Chinese New Year parade. The cello responds with its own up-tempo expressions, and the game is on for the rest of the kaleidoscopic stream of consciousness. It’s mesmerizing stuff, virtuosic and emotionally potent.

Without amplification, a solo cello has no chance against four percussionists clattering away. The electronic processing certainly affected the sound, but it could not alter Mariscal’s gasp-worthy technique and pinpoint articulation.

Similar emotional content underlay Bernstein’s Halil, inspired by the death of an Israeli flutist in the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Faculty artist Bonita Boyd gave it a heartfelt reading, but the music lacks Dun’s communicative punch. Much better was Pärt’s 1977 Fratres in the composer’s 2006 arrangement for percussion. Originally written for strings plus a recurring flourish by bass drum and wood block, four marimbas of various sizes revealed the inner voices more completely, if not the sustained sonorities.

Percussionist and actor Kevin Schlossman’s timing and wit had to be seen to believed as he essentially body-synced to a prerecording percussion track in Aphasia, a 2010 piece by Mark Applebaum. Finally, Percy Grainger’s exuberant and colorful arrangement of Pagodas, from a piano suite by Debussy, proved just how beautiful percussion music can be when it includes a harp, harmonium and two pianos.

In each of these pieces the student musicians, under the direction of Jonathan Haas, delivered playing that was impressive for its precision and sensitivity. Plus, they could sure make a wondrous racket when the music called for it.

The next night, Gerstein was alternately dazzling and exasperating in his recital. Although he played the quieter music with uncommon grace, he seemed to champ at the bit for moments when he could whale away at the piano, often producing a harsh sound rather than something round and majestic. In the 21 movements of Schumann’s Carnaval, the ones that stood out were “Coquette,” “Aveu” and especially “Chopin,” a delicious imitation of the Polish pianist and composer who was Schumann’s contemporary. It made me want to hear what Gerstein could do with real Chopin.

Mussorgsky’s original Pictures at an Exhibition, which he wrote for solo piano, got a similarly polarized reading. The delicate “Tuileries” and the sprightly “Ballet of the Chicks in the Shells” came off much better than “Baba Yaga” or the concluding “Great Gate at Kiev,” which suffered from willful wrenching of tempos and clangy fortissimos.

On the following day, the American String Quartet’s signature ability to dissolve itself into any given composer’s world came as a breath of fresh air. Haydn’s String Quartet in F Major combined rhythmic buoyancy, impeccable balance of inner voices and graceful articulation into a delightfully puckish opener.

Like actors changing from comedy to drama, they made a seamless switch to Janáček’s emotionally wrought “Kreutzer” String Quartet. They invested the Romantic harmonies with squeezes of angst and applied the dissonant, slashing interjections of harsh bow-near-bridge with the power of a slap. Evoked by Tolstoy’s story of hot-blooded jealousy sparked by Beethoven’s music, the Kreutzer packed an appropriate wallop, a stunning performance.

As if to pour oil on turbulent waters, Brahms’ musically inventive and resolutely uplifting Quintet No. 1 in F Major capped off the concert. Violist James Dunham, who seems to be the viola-designate among the Aspen faculty artists for such assignments, melded effortlessly with the warm, rich sound. Despite the rotund sonorities, none of the details escaped notice.

Harvey Steiman