Shaham and Bell in One Weekend—A Violin Double Treat

United StatesUnited States Aspen Music Festival (2): Gil Shaham and Joshua Bell (violins), James Feddeck (organ), Aspen Chamber Orchestra, Robert Spano and Miguel Harth-Bedoya (conductors), Benedict Music Tent, Aspen, Colorado. 5-6.7.2014 (HS)

Aspen Chamber Orchestra, 5 July
Benedict Music Tent
Robert Spano, conductor
Gil Shaham, violin
Beethoven: Coriolan Overture
Bartók: Violin Concerto No. 2
Beethoven: Symphony No. 5 in C minor


Aspen Festival Orchestra, 6 July
Benedict Music Tent
Miguel Harth-Bedoya, conductor
Joshua Bell, violin
James Feddeck, organ
Falla: Selections from the Three-Cornered Hat Suites
Bruch: Violin Concerto No. 1 in G minor
SaintSaëns: Symphony No. 3 in C minor “Organ”

Two bona fide violin giants treated Aspen music fans to some glorious fiddling over the weekend. Even for the likes of Gil Shaham and Joshua Bell, this was something special.

Shaham made the tricky Bartók Violin Concerto No. 2 an immensely rewarding experience Saturday with Robert Spano leading the Chamber Symphony and sandwiching two familiar Beethoven works around the concerto. Bell brought his unblinking directness and warmth to bear on the heart-on-sleeve Bruch Violin Concerto Saturday. Conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya drew sumptuous playing from the Festival Orchestra in a program that introduced the festival’s new electronic organ and might go down as the feel-good concert of the season.

Physically, Shaham is an ingratiating presence, especially because he plainly is having a great time. Not for him the furrowing brow, serious demeanor or extravagant gesture. He smiles while playing fiendishly difficult music. He makes eye contact with musicians other than the conductor, whoever in the orchestra might be carrying the melodic ball. His body responds to all of the music, not just his own big moments. The feeling of joy is palpable.

Deftly articulating the trickiest phrases, Shaham invests his pure and precise sound with emotional content. His Stradivarius, rich from the bottom of its range to the stratosphere, seems to enunciate exactly what any composer was trying to say. All these elements made the Bartók concerto an effusion of colorful Hungarian folk-inflected melodies, set against a harmonic style ranging from gorgeous simplicity to dissonant punch.

As stunningly energetic as the fast-and-furious sections were, the jewels of Shaham’s work were the warmth and naturalness of the singing melodies. The opening tune set the tone, and the eloquent expression of the slow movement expanded upon it. The finale picked up where the first movement left off, and Spano’s responsive conducting made everything feel fresh and communicative.

Bell’s stage presence Sunday may have had a bit more of the standard soloist’s gestures and body gyrations, but there was absolutely nothing over-the-top about his work. Bell has that magical ability to play with such apparent simplicity that it surprises when it packs such emotional power.

He never let Bruch’s long, serpentine melodies tip over into the saccharine, spinning them out with sweetness and just enough matter-of-fact frankness to keep things honest. Hart-Bedoya was right with him, keeping the orchestra’s resonant and easy-to-grasp harmonies from getting anywhere close to schmaltzy.

The suite from de Falla’s ballet The Three-Cornered Hat that opened Sunday’s concert basically traced the entire ballet. (Each of the composer’s own two suites contain just three dances or so.) Peruvian-born Harth-Bedoya drew remarkably idiomatic playing, not just in the big brassy finale but also in the sensuous “The Miller’s Wife” and “The Grapes.”

After the Bruch concerto, the festival gave its new electronic organ a workout in Saint-Saëns’ showy “Organ” Symphony. An array of black rectangular speakers occupied most of the chorus loft behind the stage, the low-profile instrument positioned between the percussion section and the piano. James Feddeck played it with sensitivity and, when necessary, showing the power of the pipe organ the composer wrote it for.

Harth-Bedoya set propulsive tempos but nothing ever felt rushed. The organ’s delicate underlining in the lovely Poco Adagio was especially winning for its restraint. The big buildup to the finale gained momentum patiently. When the organ finally let loose with a towering chord at the beginning of the finale, it got the hair on the back of my neck tingling, especially as it played against the plush sound of the extended brass and woodwind sections. To everyone’s credit, we could still hear the strings.

The Beethoven pieces surrounding the Bartók on Friday’s concert were more of a mixed bag. Spano drew appropriately stentorian opening chords and punchy accents in the more rhythmic sections of the theatrical Coriolan Overture, which opened the program. The Fifth Symphony, however, was curiously lacking in drama.

Right from the start, when he blew right past the pauses Beethoven calls for in the opening motto, Spano seemed intent on keeping the trains running rather than drumming up the intensity. The magical transition to the finale—and the sudden appearance of C major—glided smoothly rather than exploding into the sunlight. The result was a careful performance, neatly tucked in at the edges—nice, but not really Beethoven.

Harvey Steiman

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