Spano Leads a Tautly Focused Mahler Third

United StatesUnited States  Aspen (9): Soloists, Choruses, Aspen Chamber Orchestra, Aspen Festival Orchestra, Christian Arming (conductor), Robert Spano (conductor), Aspen, Colorado. 27.7.2014 (HS)

Chamber Orchestra, 25 July
Christian Arming, conductor
Lynn Harrell, cello
Debussy/Alan Fletcher: Six épigraphes antiques
Augusta Read Thomas: Cello Concerto No. 3, “Legend of the Phoenix”
Gershwin: Catfish Row: Suite from Porgy and Bess


Recital, 26 July
Augustin Hadelich, violin
Joyce Yang, piano
Pablo Sáinz Villegas, guitar
André Previn: Tango Song and Dance
Rodrigo: Invocación y danza
Falla:Suite populaire espagnole
Ginastera: Danzas argentinas, op. 2
Piazzola: Histoire du Tango
Ysaÿe: Sonata for Unaccompanied Violin in E major, op. 27, no. 6
Villa-Lobos: Bachianas brasileiras No. 5


Festival Orchestra, 27 July
Robert Spano, conductor
Sasha Cooke, mezzo soprano
Women of the Aspen Opera Theater Center
Colorado Children’s Chorus
Mahler: Symphony No. 3 in D minor


Any performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 3, his longest, is an Occasion with a capital O. Its six movements cover 100 minutes, culminating in a finale that spans nearly a half hour of slow music, gradually deepening into a fervent expression of spiritual ecstasy,  finally reaching several majestic climaxes. Along the way nearly every principal and section of the orchestra steps into the spotlight.

Conductor Robert Spano, the festival’s music director, went about managing this potentially unwieldy enterprise with a winning combination of directness and expansiveness. Although the long opening movement seemed to bounce from one idea to the next, he pulled all the pieces together beautifully for the rest, each movement building on elements presented in the first part.

Once that process started, the progression gained a sense of inevitability. The second movement began with a delicate opening dance, the third benefiting from a glorious offstage song-like posthorn solo (played with beautiful sound, accuracy and grace by Kevin Cobb). Mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke sang the fourth’s stone-faced warning of Nietzsche’s “Midnight Song” with richness around a core of steel.  Sprightly singing from both children’s and women’s choruses illuminated the fifth movement’s references to bells and angels, with more earthly interpolations sonorously sung by Cooke.

The finale was remarkable for its unity of purpose as each section of the brass took turns taking the lead in chorales and slow fanfares. Karin Bliznik’s supple phrasing and silvery trumpet sound glimmered atop round after round of gleaming brass statements. John Zirbel shaped his French horn solos with his usual flair and accuracy, and Michael Powell lavished polish and personality on his exposed trombone solos.

In contrast to all this grandeur, violinist Augustin Hadelich’s recital Saturday night in Harris Hall brought a sense of fun to music that had roots in both the ports of Buenos Aires and the chamber music of Europe. On a semi-darkened stage he, pianist Joyce Yang and guitarist Pablo Sáinz Villegas performed a series of short pieces that centered on tango in the salon style.

The most riveting moments involved duets. Hadelich and Villegas made Astor Piazzola’s 1986 Histoire du Tango spring to life with thrusting musical gestures played with deep wells of soul. The program separated the three parts or American André Previn’s Tango Song and Dance suite, written in 1997 for him and Anne-Sophie Mutter to play, as a sort of framing device. Hadelich and Joyce Yang were especially in sync on the virtuosic challenges of the final “Dance.”

Each took a solo turn as well. Villegas made the Spanish composer Rodrigo’s Invocación y danza  into a moody, intoxicating ten minutes. Yang’s blistering traversal of Ginastera’s Danzas argentinas was nothing short of a tour de force. Hadelich lavished brilliant playing on the Belgian composer Ysaÿe’s Sonata for Unaccompanied Violin in E major, a piece in the form of a habañera. They concluded with an arrangement of the Villa-Lobos’ famous Bachianas brasilieras No. 5, with the violin in the role of the singer and the  guitar and piano bringing lighter texture to the composer’s original scoring for a bevy of cellists.

Friday’s Chamber Orchestra program opened with a deft orchestration by Alan Fletcher, the festival’s CEO and a composer in his own right, of Debussy’s wistful suite Six épigraphes antiques. It made a stark contrast to Augusta Read Thomas’ Cello Concerto No. 3, Legend of the Phoenix,which featured the longtime festival favorite, Lynn Harrell. In the program note Read said that bringing out the singing qualities of Harrell’s playing one of her goals, but her often spiky orchestral music tended to overwhelm the cellist. Nevertheless, the piece had its moments, and it was full of color.

The star of that program was Gershwin’s suite from his opera Porgy and Bess. Titled “Catfish Row,” it included several of the hit songs and some of the delicious scene-setting music set in the rundown neighborhood where the title characters lived. Austrian conductor Christian Arming showed a disarming enthusiasm for the jazzy rhythms, earthy smears and harmonic richness of Gershwin’s iconically American score, and the principals in the orchestra responded with idiomatic playing. Of special note was “I Got Plenty of Nuttin’,” which paired the banjo of Wilson Harwood with some funky clarinet commentary by Bil Jackson. At times, the lean and muscular brass section sounded as if it could have stood in for the Ellington band.

Harvey Steiman

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