Aspen 5: A Young Pianist with an Old Soul, Daniel Hope in Mendelssohn, and Hannu Lintu’s Quiet Authority

United StatesUnited States Aspen Music Festival (5): Bach/Busoni, Brahms, Debussy, Mackey, Mendelssohn, Messiaen, Ravel, Sibelius, R. Strauss, Stravinsky: Soloists, Aspen, Colorado. 17-19.7.2015 (HS)

Chamber Symphony, July 17
Larry Rachleff (conductor)
Daniel Hope (violin)
Tengku Irfan (piano)

Messiaen: Oiseaux exotiques
Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto in D minor
Stravinsky: Suite from Pulcinella


Recital, July 18
Lise de la Salle (piano)

J.S. Bach/Busoni: Chaconne from Partita in D minor for Unaccompanied Violin in D minor
Ravel: Gaspard de la nuit
Debussy: Selections from Preludes, Books I and II
Brahms: Variations and Fugue on a Theme by G.F. Händel


Festival Orchestra, July 19
Hannu Lintu (conductor)
Orli Shaham (piano)

Strauss: Don Juan
Steven Mackey: Stumble to Grace
Sibelius: Symphony No. 5 in E flat major


Hannu Lintu conducts an orchestra with an eye toward the music’s overall shape. Not for him big gestures or body movements when a climax appears, nor does he crouch when the music goes quiet. In Sunday’s excellent concert with the Aspen Festival Orchestra, he hardly ever cued an entrance with a gesture noticeable from the audience’s point of view, either glancing at the musicians or trusting that they knew when they needed to come in.

It was something to watch and something to hear. He had barely stepped onto the podium when he gave the downbeat for Richard Strauss’ Don Juan. The orchestra responded with the same sense of impetuousness—and precision. Throughout, his baton communicated shifting tempos and nuances of dynamics and tone. Completing the picture, soloists within the orchestra fashioned a series of special moments, most notably Elaine Douvas’ sinuous oboe solo, echoed briefly by clarinetist Joaquin Valdepeñas. Concertmaster David Chen and timpanist David Herbert made similarly vibrant contributions.

There was similar hair-trigger response to Lintu’s subtle shifts in tempo and tone during Sibelius’ Symphony No. 5. The Finnish conductor let the tension ebb and flow until the glorious finish unfolded.

Perhaps the biggest challenge for Lintu and the orchestra was Steven Mackey’s Stumble to Grace, a nervous, offbeat and endlessly invigorating mashup emulating children’s toys, jazz, and all kinds of complex rhythms and jagged tunes. A piano concerto that debuted in 2011, it was written for Orli Shaham and aims to trace a child’s growing confidence from early stumbles to moments of triumph. At times the music evoked Vince Guaraldi and at others Stravinsky, but Shaham looked and sounded like she was having a ball. She played with remarkable abandon, even as the densely packed rhythms of the finale gained irresistible momentum. Audience reaction was immediate and enthusiastic.

There were far too many empty seats in Harris Hall Saturday evening for Lise de la Salle’s extraordinary piano recital. Beyond her electrifying technique, the 27-year-old Frenchwoman played music of Ravel, Debussy and Brahms with a maturity far beyond her years. There’s an old soul behind that baby face.

For ravishing delicacy there was a group of Debussy preludes, ranging from the atmospheric wafting clouds of “Les sons et les perfumes tournament dans l’air du soir” to the skittering twinkles of “Les fées son d’exquises danseuses” and the mid-air hovering of “Le filles aux chevaux de lin,” all given readings of uncommon nuance.

For sheer pianistic extravagance, she not only met the technical challenges of Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit, one of the most difficult pieces in the literature, but made the sloshing waves of “Ondine” feel so fresh one could feel the spray, injected a palpable sense of foreboding into “Le Gibet” and made “Scarbo” prance like a demented imp.

In Brahms’ Variations and Fugue on a Theme by G.F. Handel, each successive page revealed a different color and style, yet each moment seemed like one more turn of the same kaleidoscope. The final fugue, a Romantic era composer’s broad-beamed take on the strict counterpoint of Handel’s era, echoed the opening work, Busoni’s wildly elaborate arrangement of Bach’s majestic chaconne from his second violin partita (itself a sort of theme and variations). De la Salle managed to give Busoni’s sonic expansion its due. She let the forte and double-forte passages ring out fully but without clangor, focusing on dynamic shifts, crescendos and diminuendos to superb effect.

On Friday evening, the weekend began in the Music Tent, with a beguiling program pairing offbeat Mendelssohn and Stravinsky works. Both reveled in the antique forms and styles of the Baroque adapted for the composers’ own era. Larry Rachleff, in his best work as a conductor here in several years, got buoyant playing from string players (standing) in Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in D minor, and captured the cheekiness of Stravinsky’s neo-classical era in the suite from Pulcinella.

Daniel Hope, the soloist in Mendelssohn’s youthful concerto, has plenty of experience playing Bach and Vivaldi. He eased into the teenage composer’s nod to the Baroque with characteristic élan. This is a different animal from the Concerto in E minor, perhaps the most-played violin concerto in the repertoire, but it’s still unmistakably Mendelssohn in its elegant phrasing and indulgence in lush phrases or harmonies. This was especially true in the short cadenzas, which Hope dispatched with a silky touch.

Stravinsky’s Pulcinella suite uses tunes originally attributed to Pergolesi but now known to be by a variety of contemporaries. Rachleff got the orchestra to play them in fairly strict Baroque style, while injecting Stravinsky’s pungent harmonic and offbeat rhythmic glosses with barely concealed glee. He also trusted solo players to make the most of their moments in the lead. Oboist Arianna Ghez was especially beguiling in her nuanced delivery of the tune in the Serenata. The slapstick duet between trombonist Nick Platoff and bassist Albert Laszlo came off with the appropriate fizz.

Messiaen’s Oiseaux exotiques served as a pungent opener. Combined woodwinds and brass gave the dissonantly harmonized birdcalls a sharp edge, and 16-year-old Tengku Irfan played the extensive piano part with admirable crispness and flair.

Harvey Steiman

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