From Shostakovich to Zappa: Sterling Work by Aspen Faculty and Students

 United StatesUnited States  Aspen Music Festival (3): Soloists, Aspen Contemporary Ensemble, Aspen Percusssion Ensemble, Jonathan Haas (director), Aspen Philharmonic, Nikolas Nägele (conductor). Harris Concert Hall, Belly Up, Benedict Music Tent. Aspen, Colorado. 7-9.7.2014 (HS)

Chamber music, 7 July

Harris Concert Hall
Mark Simpson: Septet
Aspen Contemporary Ensemble
Chopin: Polonaise-Fantasy in A-flat major, Op. 61
Ann Schein (piano)
Aribert Reimann: Nachtstück
Steven Eddy (baritone)
Zalman Kelber (piano)
Shostakovich: Piano Quintet in G minor, op. 57
Alexander Kerr (violin)
William Hagen (violin)
Masao Kawasaki (viola)
Eric Kim (cello)
Steven Osborne (piano)

Under the Radar, 8 July

Belly Up
Aspen Percussion Ensemble, Jonathan Haas (director)
Zappa: G Spot Tornado, Peaches En Regalia
Varese: Density 21.5
Nadine Asin, flute
Zappa: We Are Not Alone, Let’s Make the Water Turn Black, The Idiot Bastard Son, Rdnzl
Una Tone, electric violin
Zappa/Varese: Ionisation & Black Page
Zappa: Regyptian Strut

Aspen Philharmonic, 9 July

Benedict Music Tent
Nikolas Nägele (conductor)
Steven Osborne (piano)
Sydney Hodkinson: Epitaphion
Ravel: Piano Concerto in G major
Dvořák: Symphony No. 8 in G major

Recital, 9 July

Harris Concert Hall
Daniel Hope (violin)
Burt Hara (clarinet)
Nancy Goeres (bassoon)
Michael Powell (trombone)
Edgar Meyer (bass)
Thomas Stubbs (percussion)
Beethoven/Jan Müller-Wieland: Overture to Egmont, Op. 84
Stravinsky: Histoire du soldat

This was a good week to appreciate the artists of the Aspen Music Festival faculty and their students. Often they work in the shadow of guest artists who get top billing, but a series of concerts put the festival’s own in the spotlight.

The week started strong at the weekly Monday night chamber music concert with colorful playing by the Aspen Contemporary Ensemble in a septet by the then-17-year-old British composer Mark Simpson, followed by a well-wrought Chopin Polonaise-Fantasy in A flat by Ann Schein, one of several pianist favorites on the faculty.

Then it got even better. The lineup for the Shostakovich Piano Quintet featured violinist Alex Kerr, violist Masao Kawasaki and cellist Eric Kim, longtime Aspen faculty members who perform regularly with international stars. Joining them were international star pianist Steven Osborne and the 20-year-old violinist William Hagen. They played with remarkable unity of purpose and articulation on a piece that ranges from deft little dance figures to raw emotional swipes.

The music-making was vivid and precise, leavened where appropriate with portions of humor, delicacy, power and emotional clarity. The slow fugue in the second movement unfolded with aching restraint; the scherzo in the third movement careened from one point to the next like a pinball machine. The elegiac fourth movement hovered in space expectantly for the finale, which emerged into a sudden patch of sunlight, finishing with unexpected grace.

The Percussion Ensemble’s gig at the Belly Up, Aspen’s venue for visiting non-classical music acts, fulfilled a dream for the group’s director, Jonathan Haas. As a percussionist, he saw the effect Varese’s music had on Zappa’s, and approached the iconoclastic musician for permission to play their music together on a concert. It happened, once, but Haas wanted to pull a representative range of Zappa’s music together with Varese’s for a whole concert.

There were muscular renditions of Zappa works such as Peaches En Regalia, We Are Not Alone (complete with a solid trumpet trio) and Idiot Bastard Son (the latter written in bitter satire of a 1980s U.S. Congressional move to apply ratings to popular music). Faculty flutist Nadine Asin gave Varese’s Density 21.5 a sinuous reading. But the topper came with a wonderful mashup of Varese’s iconic percussion masterpiece Ionisation and Zappa’s Black Page, intentionally written with fiendishly difficult counter-rhythms to confound drummers. Drum kit soloist Andrew Talley handled the assignment with aplomb.

On Wednesday’s Aspen Philharmonic program, last year’s conducting prize winner Nikolas Nägele had his hands full with a racing soloist (Osborne) in the Ravel Piano Concerto in G Major and sometimes laggard playing by woodwinds in the Dvořák Symphony No. 8. Things got smoothed out in the finale, which reveled in sonorous brass phrases.

In the second half of the night’s doubleheader, another group of faculty hotshots teamed with visiting violinist Daniel Hope in what seemed like an endless performance of Stravinsky’s Histoire du Soldat. Their playing was fine, especially in slyly articulated duets between Hope and Burt Hara (the new principal clarinetist of the Los Angeles Philharmonic) and eloquent playing by Louis Hanzlik (the new trumpet player with the American Brass Quintet). Superstar bassist Edgar Meyer was luxury casting. Still, differences among the several characters and scenes could have been defined more clearly.

Using a translation that was too poetic and lathered with superfluous theatricality, the staging overinflated what is actually a droll parable about making choices in life. Hope tacked on a somewhat comic arrangement of Beethoven’s Overture to Egmont, complete with a too-long antiwar message at the beginning. But mostly it just took too long to get to the next delicious bit of Stravinsky’s music.

Harvey Steiman

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