Intimate Shostakovich and Schnittke Outshine Big Orchestra Events

United StatesUnited States Aspen Music Festival (7): Joyce Yang (piano), Pacifica Quartet, Robert McDuffie (violin), Festival Chamber Symphony and Orchestra, Osmo Vänskä and Thierry Fischer (conductors). Benedict Music Tent and Harris Concert Hall, Aspen, Colorado. 18-20.7.2014 (HS)

Chamber Symphony, 18 July
Benedict Music Tent
Osmo Vänskä, conductor
Joyce Yang, piano
Steven Stucky: Rhapsodies
Grieg: Piano Concerto in A minor
Nielsen: Symphony No. 1 in G minor


Pacifica Quartet, 19 July
Harris Concert Hall
Simin Ganatra, violin
Sibbi Bernhardsson, violin
Masumi Per Rostad, viola
Brandon Vamos, cello
Shostakovich: String Quartet No. 2 in A major
Schnittke: String Quartet No. 3
Shostakovich: String Quartet No. 9 in E-flat major


Festival Orchestra, 20 JulyBenedict Music Tent
Thierry Fischer conductor
Robert McDuffie, violin
Ravel: Valses nobles et sentimentales
Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto in D major, op. 35
Brett Dean: Three Memorials (U.S. Premiere)
Ravel: La valse


On a weekend that featured two soloists who are audience favorites at the Aspen Music Festival, the return of the Pacifica Quartet provided the most riveting performance. The quartet, which last played here 19 years ago as students in the Festival’s school, took Harris Hall by storm Saturday evening with vivid performances of two Shostakovich quartets and a thorny but ultimately rewarding one by Schnittke, once a Shostakovich student.

The first thing that strikes a listener about the Pacifica is its sound. Each instrument has an individual personality, uncannily tuned to each other to blend seamlessly. At times the four musicians can sound as full as a string orchestra. Intonation is never a problem, and neither is emotional impact. Passion seems to be as critical as intonation for these guys.

First violin Simin Ganatra can winnow down her rich, robust timbre into a slender caress in sweeter moments, go all velvety in softer sections, and harness her tone to be as powerful and potent as any quartet leader when the music calls for it. She has the stage presence of a solo performer, as demonstrated by the Shostakovich Quartet No. 2, its first three movements a quasi-concerto for violin and string trio. She can’t sit still; her body moves with the music, its intention clearly reflected on her face.

The finale of that quartet finally tosses the ball around to reveal second violin Sibbi Bernhardsson’s silvery sound, which can also blend with Ganatra’s, creating the illusion of a single violin playing harmony with itself. Then violist Masumi Per Rostad, who has been with the quartet since 2001, emerged from the rich texture to carry the ball with slithery moves. Cellist Brandon Vamos provided a solid foundation but also got his instrument to sing with a distinctive tone.

The Schnittke Quartet No. 3 (1983) starts and ends with a brief quote, rendered with a glassy lack of vibrato, from the 16th-century monk and composer Orlando de Lassus. Recurring like Mendelssohn’s references to the “Dresden Amen” in his “Reformation” Symphony, the Lassus motif offers an icy-cool respite from Schnittke’s relentless dissonance. Played with the kind of intensity and fieriness this quartet thrives upon, the music grabs listeners with its power, especially as the long central Scherzo, in fast tempo, develops into a shattering climax. The quartet treated the two slow movements that surround it as an uncertain prelude and a wistful postlude.

The capper was Shostakovich’s Quartet No. 9, among the often bitter and sardonic composer’s more lyrical chamber works. The interplay of textures and rhythms revolved like a kaleidoscope in the five connected movements, and the third-cousin reference to the galloping rhythm from Rossini’s William Tell Overture took on a sly wink as it peppered the finale. The Allegretto Pizzicato from Bartók’s Quartet No. 4 made a delicious encore.

Sunday’s Festival Orchestra concert, led by Swiss conductor Thierry Fischer (currently music director of the Utah Symphony), offered a grab bag of Tchaikovsky, Ravel and a U.S. premiere from the Australian composer Brett Dean. All of it was good, at least as far as we could hear in the rain-interrupted performance. The rain was loud enough that Fischer and Robert McDuffie, the soloist in the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, called a halt in the midst of the slow movement. After a short break they moved on to the finale. But the break was regrettable because McDuffie was on form, making the music come to life with vigorous rhythmic bite and apt phrasing in passages from slow to quick. McDuffie’s playing was fresh and vital throughout, and Fischer had the orchestra on the same page.

Dean’s music, a collection of three pieces written in 2001, 2003 and 2006 as memorials for public tragedies, relies on many delicate and quiet moments. It was difficult to get a complete picture of it against the rain. A delay of 5 minutes before the third piece helped, as the rain lightened up, but then the precipitation didn’t stop until the very end of Ravel’s La Valse, which concluded the afternoon. Fischer got the orchestra to dig deeply into what was a fine performance.

The attraction for Friday evening’s Chamber Orchestra program was Joyce Yang’s lively approach to the Grieg Piano Concerto, with conductor Osmo Vänskä leading a dry-eyed approach that minimized sentimentality and emphasized gracefulness. For her part, Yang delivered unmannered playing that kept the highly familiar music from being cloying.

The program opened with Rhapsodies, a 2008 piece by composer-in-residence Steven Stucky that makes bird song, throbbing strings, fleshy brass utterances and busy percussion flourishes into a series of highly enjoyable episodes. The closing work, Danish composer Nielsen’s heart-on-sleeve Symphony No. 1, made a nice mirror to the Norwegian Grieg, this time the emotions pouring out.

Harvey Steiman

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