Aspen Music Festival (6): Brahms, Hodkinson, Pärt, Ponce, Prokofiev, Schoenberg, Schubert, Shin-Ichiro, Tchaikovsky

 United StatesUnited States Aspen Music Festival (6): Brahms, Hodkinson, Pärt, Ponce, Prokofiev, Schoenberg, Schubert, Shin-Ichiro, Tchaikovsky. Aspen, Colorado. 20-23.7.2015 (HS)

Chamber music, July 20
Harris Hall

Manuel Ponce: Sonata for Violin and Viola
Sydney Hodkinson: Rogatio gravis
Shin-Ichiro Ikebe: Flash!
Schubert: Piano Trio in B-flat major


Chamber music, July 21
Harris Hall

Daniel Hope (violin), Alisa Weilerstein (cello)

Tchaikovsky: Souvenir de Florence
Schoenberg: Verklärte Nacht


Recital, July 22
Harris Hall

Joseph Swenson (violin), Jeffrey Kahane (piano)

Arvo Pärt: Fratres
Prokofiev: Violin Sonata in F
Brahms: Violin Sonata No. 1 in G major


Recital, July 23
Benedict Music Tent

Vittorio Grigòlo (tenor), Vincenzo Calera (piano)

Songs by Bellini, Rossini, Verdi, Tosti, Gastaldon, Leoncavallo, Curtis, d’Annibale


Vocal recitals are not exactly a staple at the Aspen Music Festival, but it was a fine idea to line up the vivid and irrepressible Italian tenor Vittorio Grigòlo when he was available to sing a recital in the Benedict Music Tent Thursday evening.

Grigòlo displayed a gorgeous lyric tenor voice and magnificent control of dynamics—from loud to soft to loud again, in total control. Even at Aspen’s 7,900-foot elevation, his breath control was impressive. Energetic and charming, he sometimes laid it on a bit thick, roaming the stage, cutting up, occasionally breaking into dance or a Charlie Chaplin open-toed waddle. And how many classical singers lead their own cheers? And for the pianist, Vincenzo Scalera, while we’re at it?

 The program traced Italian song from the 1820s (Bellini, if not at his most incisive) to the 1930s. If too many of the selections sounded too much like others, some gems stood out. Rossini’s rapid-fire “La danza” sparkled, and arias by Donizetti (“Angelo casto e bel” from Il duca d’Alba) and Verdi (“Tutto parea sorridere” from Il corsaro) let him inject needed drama. Grigòlo did so with consummate ease.

But not every choice received such intensity and attention. In a set of five Tosti songs, “Ideale” and “’A vucchella” stood out for their fully formed storytelling: the former a wistful torch song that dripped with intensity, the latter a love song that contains a wicked little caveat. Leoncavallo’s “Mattinata” reached an ardent climax and d’Annibale’s “O paese d’ ’o sole’” finished the program with a burst of sunlight.

The encores lifted matters several notches, in part because they are simply better music than most of what preceded. “Una furtiva lagrima,” the sweet aria from Donizetti’s Elisir d’Amore and one of the great moments in opera for a lyric tenor, displayed Grigòlo’s ability to spin out a long line and control dynamics. His pianissimo singing could be heard plainly in the back rows. The second encore, Curtis’ famous “Non ti scordar di me,” put into perspective what was missing elsewhere on the program, and this Italian tenor could not resist finishing with di Capula’s “O sole mio,” even repeating the finishing flourish (with a wink at the Three Tenors).

 Chamber music earlier this week hit some lows and a few highs, and there was one absolutely gorgeous half-hour: a mesmerizing traversal of Schoenberg’s heart-on-sleeve Verklärte Nacht. That one capped a Tuesday program featuring two different sextets helmed by guest artists. Cellist Alisa Weilerstein led the Schoenberg team, which included luminous work by faculty and student violinists (respectively) Alexander Kerr and Eduardo Rios playing off each other, and rock-solid viola work by Sabina Thatcher. The ad hoc ensemble moved with gentle propulsion and made subtle shifts in tone, abetted by clear textures and impressive unanimity of purpose. The gentle opening never rushed as it gained momentum, and at the end, the sparkles of the high violins meshed perfectly.

Not so subtle was the first half. With violinist Daniel Hope at the controls, Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir de Florence came charging out of the gate at a fast clip. Missing, for the most part, was clarity and grace. Except for a beautifully rendered solo turn by cellist Eric Kim, quieter portions felt like something to get through merely to gear up another loud climax.  Attacks felt mushy, robbing the stirring chords in the second movement of their majesty. Big sound? Sure. Speed? You bet. Transparency? Not so much.

On Monday, Kim and Kerr matched up with pianist Anton Nel, for a stirring Schubert Piano Trio in B-flat. Kim was the rock at the center, but the interplay of the three old friends was something to behold—by turns graceful, muscular and triumphant. This program, full of variety, opened with Renata Arado (violin) and Espen Lilleslåtten (viola) who were charming in a Latin-tinged duo by Mexican composer Manuel Ponce. Joaquin Valdepeñas lent haunting clarinet sounds to resident composer Sydney Hodkinson’s warm and delicately wrought Rogatio gravis (2006), and a flock of flutes and offstage piccolos led by flutist Nadine Asin (conducted by Stephen Mulligan) took wing in Flash!, a showpiece by Shin-Ichiro Ikebe.

Violinist Joseph Swensen and pianist Jeffrey Kahane made an odd pairing on Wednesday. The violinist positioned himself at the edge of the stage, about as far from the pianist as he could, and although they played in tune with each other and matched tempos they took divergent interpretive paths. While Kahane applied warmth and seemed to be reaching out to the audience musically, Swensen seemed to be playing for himself, despite some careful phrasing.

This was especially so in Brahms’ Violin Sonata No. 1, which unfolded with fine attention to detail, but little excitement or surprise. Prokofiev’s Violin Sonata in F resonated only in the quieter moments; the angry interchanges between violin and piano seemed like long volleys over a tennis net. Kahane created a serene piano setting for Arvo Pärt’s magical Fratres, but the violin’s glosses missed the piece’s spiritual essence.

Harvey Steiman

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