Beethoven 9th Triumphs Over Rain

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Aspen Music Festival (15): Vladimir Feltsman (piano), Aspen Chamber Orchestra, Jun Märkl (conductor); Susanna Phillips (soprano), Carolyn Sproule (mezzo-soprano), Vinson Cole (tenor), Eric Owens (bass-baritone), Colorado Symphony Chorus, Duain Wolfe (chorus director), Aspen Festival Orchestra, Robert Spano (conductor). Benedict Music Tent, Aspen, Colorado. 15-17.8.2014 (HS)

Chamber Orchestra, Aug 15
Benedict Music Tent
Jun Märkl , conductor
Vladimir Feltsman, piano
Saint-Saëns: Phaéton, op. 39
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, op. 37
R. Strauss: Le bourgeois gentilhomme, op. 60


Festival Orchestra, Aug 17
Benedict Music Tent
Robert Spano, conductor
Susanna Phillips, soprano
Carolyn Sproule, mezzo-soprano
Vinson Cole, tenor
Eric Owens, bass-baritone
Colorado Symphony Orchestra Chorus (Duain Wolfe, chorus director)
Pärt: Fratres
Rachmaninoff: “Vyes’ tabor spit” from Aleko
Mussorgsky: Coronation Scene from Boris Godunov
Beethoven: Symphony No. 9 in D minor “Choral”


For a while on Sunday it looked like Mother Nature and some uninvolving musical patches would put a damper on the Aspen Music Festival’s sold-out finale, which concluded with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 and its magnificent hymn to brotherhood. The weather obscured whole swaths of the first half, and the outlook seemed somewhat uncertain for the Beethoven until the finale. But in the end, “The Ode to Joy,” a smashing quartet of singers and a mighty sound from the Colorado Symphony Orchestra Chorus (long a fixture on Aspen’s final day), managed thrilling moments of triumph in the final 20 minutes.

Rain began pounding the Benedict Music Tent shortly after the 4 p.m. start, perversely letting up briefly as the opening work, Arvo Pärt’s hypnotic Fratres, gained in volume and intensity. The quiet open and close of this serenely spiritual 10-minute work were barely audible over the clatter on the tent roof.

Two Russian opera excerpts followed, but the rain made it difficult to discern much detail in bass-baritone Eric Owens’ booming voice. “Vyes’ tabor spit,” an aria from Rachmaninoff’s first opera (and a favorite showpiece for the Russian bass Feodor Chaliapin) reflects an aging leader’s anguish over his young wife’s infidelity. There was no trouble hearing the chorus in the Coronation Scene from Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, although their repeated hails of “slava” lacked a measure of enthusiasm. Owens was expressive in both, and the rain slacked enough in Boris’ scene to let us hear most of it.

It’s always interesting to hear what music directors choose to precede a Beethoven Ninth. In this case, musical connections were puzzling. Perhaps Fratres was meant to contrast with Beethoven’s storm and triumph. Or maybe the title (which means “brothers”) was a link with Beethoven’s “Ode.” What’s the connection for the Russian pieces, which deal with lost love and a reluctant new monarch? Was it that Rachamaninoff’s opera was a student composition, and included here to honor the students who distinguished themselves in the Aspen festival’s school? Perhaps the Coronation Scene was included since it deploys the same tune Beethoven used in his “Razumovsky” Quartet No. 2?

The skies cleared at intermission, and only clouded up briefly during the symphony, which did not get off to a great start. Conductor Robert Spano drew little mystery in the opening bars. He could have shaped and inflected the music more, given that the first movement seemed to just trudge along. The Scherzo perked up, getting more expressive, but lost synchronization at times. Also, tympanist Joseph Pereira, feeling his oats, made too many sections into excerpts from a percussion concerto.

The noble slow movement barely registered on the eloquence meter, and the stormy opening to the finale needed much more thunder. The “recitative,” announced by massed cellos and basses (which Beethoven pointedly interrupts with reiterations of previously heard themes in the rest of the orchestra), wanted more inflection. But when the low strings finally got to the first iteration of “Ode to Joy,” something clicked. Suddenly we were in Beethoven’s world.

Owens’ entrance and statement of the familiar tune seemed to light a spark under Spano. As the quartet developed, the music began to pick up momentum: first by adding tenor (and festival faculty member) Vinson Cole and mezzo-soprano Carolyn Sproule (only recently a student here) to the mix, and finally with the glorious, pure sound of soprano Susanna Phillips soaring over the rich texture. With the chorus’s entrance, the piece burst into bright sunlight. Spano smoothed out Beethoven’s often awkwardly shaped changes of pace, and the forward motion gained impetus, bringing it all to a rousing and satisfying finish.

Friday’s final Chamber Orchestra concert had its fraught moments as well. An amped-up conductor, Jun Märkl, aimed for big gestures in the two tone poems that framed the main attraction, Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3, with pianist Vladimir Feltsman. The opener, Saint-Saëns relentlessly galloping Phaéton, and the closer, Richard Strauss’ Le bourgeois gentilhomme, sacrificed nuance for broad effect.

This urge could be excused in Phaéton, which after all is about an outsized hero who meets a tragic end. Strauss’ music for a production of the Molière play was meant to evoke the era of Lully and the Baroque in general, and like Lully, the composer found a deft balance of delicacy, drama and wit. This performance tossed out the delicacy and turned the sly wit into slapstick.

The Beethoven concerto was much better, with the often willful Feltsman applying a sort of straight-backed austerity and crispness. Märkl set a fleet pace and the pianist obliged. For some reason Feltsman joined in on the orchestra’s statement of the second theme in the first movement, and only some extra ideas in the cadenza (which fit nicely) strayed from straight-ahead Beethoven. If his performance missed some buoyancy, he made up for it with subtle urgency.

Harvey Steiman

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