Aspen 2: Towering Jazz, Intriguing Chamber Music—and Disappointing Yundi

United StatesUnited States Aspen Music Festival (2), Beethoven, Chopin, Debussy, Haydn, Jalbert, Liszt, Perle, Rachmaninov, Schumann, Smetana, Xinyan: Soloists, Aspen, Colorado. 6-8.7.2015 (HS)

Chamber Music, 6 July
Harris Hall
Music School faculty

Perle: Critical Moments 2
Pierre Jalbert: Secret Alchemy
Rachmaninov: Trio Élégiaque in G Minor
Xinyan Li: Mongolian Impressions         
Smetana/Trneček: “Vltava” (Moldau) from Mà Vlast


Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, 6 July
Benedict Music Tent
Wynton Marsalis (leader, trumpet)
Recital, 7 July
Harris Hall

Yundi (piano)

Chopin: Nocturne in B-Flat Minor, Op. 9, No. 1
Chopin: Nocturne in E-Flat Major, Op. 9, No. 2
Chopin: Andante Spianato Et Grande Polonaise, Op. 22
Beethoven: Piano Sonata No. 23 In F Minor, Op. 57, “Appassionata”
Schumann: Fantasy In C Major, Op. 17
Liszt: From Années de Pèlerinage, Supplément aux 2de Volume: “Venezia E Napoli,” Lw A197

Takács Quartet, 8 July
Harris Hall

Haydn: String Quartet In G Minor, Hob. Iii/74, Op. 74, No. 3, “The Rider”
Debussy: String Quartet In G Minor, Op. 10
Beethoven: String Quartet In F Major, Op. 59, No. 1, “Razumovsky”

The first half of the first full week of Aspen Music Festival concerts delivered its share of excitement, and one notable disappointment.

On the plus side, the Takács Quartet excelled in its program Wednesday, and the faculty’s chamber music recital Monday introduced Aspen audiences to several intriguing examples of contemporary music (and, as a lagniappe, a sensational harpist). On the down side, pianist Yundi didn’t live up to his hype—not even close.

Towering over it all, however, was the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, which on Monday night covered a staggering range of styles in a special event co-presented by the festival and Jazz Aspen Snowmass. Led by trumpet genius Wynton Marsalis, the program focused on original works and compelling arrangements by members of the band, finishing with a blazing up-tempo romp through a Duke Ellington Cotton Club-era riff.

Among the highlights, alto saxophonist Ted Nash’s “Tryst With Destiny,” part of a 2014 suite inspired by historic speeches, rode the rhythms, rises and dips of a Jawaharlal Nehru oration to brilliantly express the meaning of the Indian hero’s words. Chris Crenshaw’s “The Prodigal Son: Your Arms Too Short to Box With God” found the lower brass showing off sassy licks and hard swing timing en route to a rousing gospel-like finish. Crenshaw’s own solo chattered, wailed and barked.

Singer René Marie joined the band for for three suave and telling arrangements, including a sultry version of Cole Porter’s “My Heart Belongs to Daddy” and a wistful take on Hoagie Carmichael’s “Skylark.”

Marsalis himself makes his trumpet do things a brass instrument should be incapable of articulating. In three unforgettable extended solos he made the music speak eloquently, swooping, strutting and insinuating. On the opening “Back to Basics,” from his 3-1/2-hour masterpiece Blood on the Fields, he made the instrument laugh and cry, all the while remaining totally musical and in the flow. On the fast-paced finale, he took inspiration from the double- and triple-tongued staccato phrases in chorus after chorus of kaleidoscopic spins, a celebration of virtuosity and swing.

Disconcertingly, a significant portion of the audience starting filing out between pieces about two-thirds of the way through the 100-minute program. They missed a fiery finale.

On its July 8 evening, Takács Quartet fashioned a supple, fleshy rendering of the Debussy quartet, all shimmering colors on the surface, a steely backbone at its core. The first movement got a serious take, but the second lightened up into a witty standoff between pizzicato and bowed phrases. The third movement glowed softly with rich harmonies and tonal deftness, and the finale glided smoothly until a suddenly vivid and energetic finish.

For a nice opener, the Takács players captured the rhythm and wit of Haydn’s quartet in G minor “The Rider.” After intermission they paid due respect to Beethoven’s Op. 59 No. 1, the first of the “Razumovsky” quartets, with perhaps more restraint than was necessary for a program finale. Still, it was music-making of a high order.

On Monday in Harris Hall, highlights included American composer Pierre Jalbert’s 2012 Secret Alchemy, a 17-minute study in medieval tropes updated for modern ears. Violinist Paul Kantor, violist James Dunham, cellist Desmond Hoebig and pianist Virginia Weckstrom gave it a nuanced reading. And in a U.S. premiere, Xinyan Li’s 2014 Mongolian Impressions played off the native music of the autonomous region in central China. Bassoonist Per Hannevold and a mix of students and faculty (a string quartet plus percussion) brought it to vivid life.

The all-student Contemporary Ensemble opened the proceedings with Perle’s quirky Critical Moments 2, and the professional trio of David Halen (violin), Richard Aaron (cello) and Yoheved Kaplinsky (piano) applied welcome restraint to Rachmaninov’s Trio élégiaque in G minor. For those who stayed to the end, harpist Anneleen Lenaerts displayed dynamic finesse, fine articulation and jaw-dropping skill in Trneček’s arrangement of Smetana’s Vltava” (“Moldau”) from Mà Vlast.

Evidence of rock-star Chinese pianist Yundi’s freshness and finesse can be heard on recordings and in live-performance YouTube videos. However, little of that informed his Aspen appearance Tuesday in Harris Hall. That wondrous ability to make phrases liquid never showed up. The technical prowess was there, in staccato clarity, but not in subtleties of dynamics and tone. He amped up mezzo-fortes into banging double-fortes.

Chopin nocturnes, for which he is famous, came off as brittle. Beethoven’s “Appassionata” sonata flew by too fast to capture details. Schumann’s Fantasy in C major yielded beauty only in the soft and tender finale. Best was a final romp through a finger-busting excerpt from Liszt’s “Venezia e Napoli.”


Harvey Steiman

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