Aspen 7: Weilerstein Blazes in Prokofiev, Verve from Kahane, and Hodkinson’s New Quartet              

United StatesUnited States Aspen Music Festival (7): Argento, J.S. Bach, Brahms, Chausson, Debussy, Haydn, Hodkinson, Mozart, Prokofiev, Shostakovich/Barsai, Stravinsky, Symanowski. Soloists, Jeffrey Kahane and Ludovic Morlot (conductors), Aspen, Colorado. 24-26.7.2015 (HS)

Aspen Chamber Symphony, July 24
Benedict Music Tent

Gil Shaham (violin), Jeffrey Kahane (conductor)

J.S. Bach: Violin Concerto in A minor, BWV 1041
Shostakovich/Barshai: Chamber Symphony In D Major
Haydn: Symphony No. 103 In E-Flat Major “Drumroll”

Chamber music, July 25
Harris Hall

Sylvia Rosenberg and Naoko Tanaka (violins), Anna Engländer (mezzo-soprano), Esther Heideman (soprano), James Dunham (viola), William Billingham and Rita Sloan (pianos)

Szymanowski: Slopiewnie (Word Songs), Op. 46B
Mozart: Duo For Violin and Viola In G major, K. 423
Dominick Argento: Casa Guidi
Chausson: Concert in D major, Op. 21

Recital, July 25
Harris Hall
Jupiter String Quartet (Megan Freivogel, Nelson Lee, violins; Elizabeth Freivogel, viola; Daniel Mcdonough, cello)

Haydn: String Quartet In B-Flat Major “Sunrise”
Sydney Hodkinson: String Quartet No. 7 (world premiere)
Brahms: String Quartet No. 1 In C Minor, Op. 51, No. 1

Aspen Festival Orchestra, July 26
Benedict Music Tent

Alisa Weilerstein (cello), Ludovic Morlot (conductor)

Stravinsky: Petrushka
Debussy: Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun
Prokofiev: Symphony-Concerto for Cello and Orchestra in E minor, Op. 125

Let’s face it, Alisa Weilerstein can do no wrong. A fixture at the Aspen Music Festival since she was a pre-teen, the cellist blazed through Prokofiev’s Symphony-Concerto Sunday afternoon with consummate skill and powerful intent. The jaw-dropping 40 minutes topped off a weekend that included Gil Shaham playing Bach and a world premiere of a string quartet.

Spinning a lyrical web around a soft tread in the orchestra, Weilerstein began the Prokofiev by emphasizing the cello’s singing qualities. The extensive cadenza that ushers in the second movement upped the ante, using every inch of the instrument’s fingerboard for explosive musical gestures. Then, against a propulsive orchestra, the cello eventually insists on broad lyrical phrases. The finale turns into a kaleidoscopic theme and variations—the cello playing ever more difficult and demanding double-stops, triple-stops, even a harmonized melody against a drone at one point—climbing ever more difficult terrain before reaching the summit in the final pages.

Through it all, despite Weilerstein’s impressive technical command, even  more satisfying was how she found Prokofiev’s narrative, spinning a tale with her instrument, and unfolding a saga. Conductor Ludovic Morlot kept the orchestra harnessed to the same train of thought, alternately providing rhythmic propulsion, soft pillows of chords and charging melodic gestures.

She finished with an encore (unexpected after all that exertion), an impeccably nimble account of the Bouree from Bach’s Third Cello Suite.

In the first half, Morlot led a compelling performance of Stravinsky’s complete Petrushka ballet, lavishing special attention on instrumental colors. The crowd scenes of “Shrovetide Fair” gave way to the magical wisps of “The Magic Trick” and a lively Russian dance (the piano playing a lead role). All the woodwinds, horns and trumpets articulated the emotional struggles of the puppets with charm, especially the dippy little trumpet waltz tune played by Kevin Cobb. Shifting rhythms and flashy solos whizzed past with only a few bumps, and after all that, the resigned shrug of an ending hit just the right beat.

As it would be uncouth to keep a French conductor entirely from French music, Morlot sketched a leisurely and sonically soothing Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, with principal flute Nadine Asin voicing Debussy’s serpentine opening melody with gentle persistence.

The weekend started Friday evening with another nicely nuanced and responsive performance in the tent by the Aspen Chamber Symphony. Providing star qualities, conductor Jeffrey Kahane brought the music of Bach, Shostakovich and Haydn to life with tremendous verve and a welcome  freshness. Gil Shaham provided extra wattage with brilliant playing in the opening work, J.S. Bach’s Violin Concerto No. 1.

The violinist’s usual grace, tonal precision and deft phrasing synchronized perfectly with Kahane’s brisk pace. The unanimity of purpose allowed for  delicate moments that breathed between phrases, without losing momentum. This is what chamber music is all about, but you don’t always hear it happen with a full orchestra.

Audience response was ecstatic. After the fourth curtain call, it seemed as if Shaham might not play an encore. But he responded to vocal pleas from the crowd with the Gavotte en rondeau from Bach’s Third Partita, a marvel of dexterous technique, sublime phrasing and tasteful elaboration.

The Shostakovich Chamber Symphony that followed is actually the composer’s String Quartet No. 4, orchestrated brilliantly by Rudolf Barshai, who played violin in the quartet’s premiere. It starts moodily and ends quietly but not before reaching a terrifying climax.

Rain dampened but did not totally drown out the Bach and Shostakovich. In Haydn’s Symphony No. 103 (aptly nicknamed “Drumroll”), the watery tattoo on the tent’s roof almost made the famous opening timpani sequence redundant. The conductor and orchestra caught the deft interweaving of phasing and dancing rhythms, the rain finally let up midway, and Haydn finished with high spirits.

Saturday’s chamber music program in Harris Hall hit several high points. Soprano Esther Heidemann, a regular at the Metropolitan Opera, filled the room with creamy sound and colorful articulation in Szymanowski’s Word Songs, with an augmented Aspen Contemporary Ensemble, led by Sydney Hodkinson, commenting on the Polish imagery. Violinist Sylvia Rosenberg and violist James Dunham, two of the bright lights among Aspen veterans, kept the reins tight on Mozart’s warm and fuzzy Duo for Violin and Viola, allowing the piece to flow with purpose. Violinist Naoko Tanaka settled comfortably into the plush sofa of Chausson’s Concert in D major, abetted by pianist Rita Sloan and an all-student string quartet.

Hodkinson’s String Quartet No. 7 premiered on Saturday evening’s program in Harris Hall, played by the Jupiter String Quartet. The piece is most absorbing in its second half, a spooky passacaglia with all sorts of colorful articulations and sonorities to liven it up before it glides to a gentle finish. The first half, marked “feroce,” might need further hearings to sort out its purpose, other than as a foil for the lovely passacaglia.

The Jupiter ensemble, now an Aspen regular, shone most brightly on the opening work, Haydn’s “Sunrise” String Quartet. With a breathtaking sense of unity, the instrumentalists made the music bob and weave, bubbling merrily in an intricate dance. The serious effort that went into the Brahms First String Quartet was no less in sync, but there could have been more leavening of the unrelenting melancholy.


Harvey Steiman

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