Aspen 12: Sultry Piazzola, Brake Drums and Flower Pots, and Scriabin’s Influence

United StatesUnited States Aspen Music Festival (12): Byne, Donatoni, Glass, Harrison, Mosolov, Piazzola, Protopopov, Roslavets, Rouse, Scriabin, Xenakis: Soloists, Jonathan Haas and Scott Terrell (conductors). Aspen, Colorado. 10-12.8.2015 (HS)

Aspen Percussion Ensemble, August 10
Harris Hall
Robert McDuffie (violin), Jonathan Haas (conductor)

Glass: “Train to São Paulofrom Powaqqatsi
Byrne: Ninevah
Rouse: Ku-Ka-Ilimoku
Harrison: Concerto for Violin and Percussion
Donatoni: Movement II from Omar for Vibraphone
Xenakis: Persephassa

Recital, August 11
Harris Hall
Scott Terrell (conductor)
PiazzollaMaría de Buenos Aires
María: Cecelia Hall
El payador: Luis Alejandro Orozco
El duende: Enrique E. Andrade
Bandoneón: Héctor del Curto

Piano Recital, August 12
Harris Hall
Vladimir Feltsman (piano), Darrett Adkins (cello), Elaine Douvas (oboe), Gilliam Bennett Sella (harp)

Scriabin: Piano Sonata No. 4 in F-sharp major
Scriabin: Deux danses
Scriabin: Vers la flamme, Poème
Mosolov: Two Nocturnes
Mosolov: Legenda
Roslavets: Five preludes
Roslavets: Nocturne
Protopopov: Piano Sonata No. 2
Scriabin: Valse in F minor

Ripe, sultry voices laid atop a brilliant, haunting tango score by Astor Piazzolla lifted the temperature inside Harris Hall by several degrees on Tuesday evening. Maria de Buenos Aires, the composer’s operatic homage to his native city, got an alluring performance from two young singers, a resonant-voiced narrator, a stylish bandoneón soloist and a 10-piece ensemble (mostly students), captained by violinist David Halen, concertmaster of the St. Louis Symphony. They got the feeling of the music right, and produced one of the triumphs of the season.

Scott Terrell, winner of the first conducting prize at this festival and now conductor of the Lexington Philharmonic, got a distinctive bite from the rhythms. Sonorities picked up piquancy, and things moved along smoothly. If that last ounce of raunchiness was missing, the gentler moments were exquisitely done.

The splendid voices included mezzo-soprano Cecelia Hall in the title role. Clad in a slinky black gown and a blood-red shawl that she shifted and re-tied for each song, she invested Piazzolla’s sinuous melodies with low-voiced richness and definition. Baritone Luis Alejandro Orozco, as an itinerant gaucho, sang the story of María with solidity shaded with a musky masculinity. Enrique E. Andrade, his chocolate timbre both supple and scary, caught the subtle rhythms of the speaking role of El Duende, the evil spirit who resurrects María to relive her tortured life.

María, of course, personifies Piazzolla’s native city in the complex and sometime obscure text by the Uruguayan poet Horacio Ferrer. The story lies in the music, just as the tango is the soul of Buenos Aires. This composer revolutionized tango music, hardening edges and coloring sonorities distinctively. He infused bandoneón playing with jazz to create a new style. Soloist Héctor del Curto seemed to downplay the jazz aspects in an otherwise idiomatic performance.

The score is a feast for the ears, redolent of early tangos, modern milongas and waltz-tangos, and includes a toccata for El Duende and even a tango fugue. Halen’s solos (and those of second violinist Aubrey Oliverson) captured the sweet ache of tango melodies, and flutist Emma Gerstein provided richly textured and expressive work as the sole wind instrument. Nipped and tucked to barely over an hour, the performance omitted one intermezzo and a burlesque-like scene for Maria and several psychoanalysts. Instrumental moments replaced several choral spots. The net effect was so mesmerizing it could have gone on much longer.

Monday’s Percussion Ensemble recital, a much-anticipated annual event, fulfilled its mission to offer arresting and diverse music. In the opening set, three colorful pieces written between 1978 and 1991 about faraway places began with Philip Glass’ “Train to São Paulo” from the film Powaqqatsi, riffing on chugging rhythms. Then David Byrne’s Nineveh added a nine-person chorus, chanting in waves in unintelligible syllables, and Christopher Rouse’s Ku-Ka-Ilimoku explored Hawaiian drumming with the composer’s customary abandon.

After that great start, Lou Harrison’s Concerto for Violin and Percussion provided an excellent opportunity to hear the composer’s unique ear for unusual sounds, using brake drums, flower pots and tapping on the strings of a double bass for rhythmic color. But even Robert McDuffie could get little charm from a solo violin line using only intervals of a minor second, major thirds and sixths.

Derek Tywoniuk, this year’s solo percussion winner, put a vibraphone through its paces in an ear-dazzling nine minutes from Donatoni’s Omar for Vibraphone. Ear-splitting was more the result from Xenakis’ Persephassa, as six percussionists banged and clanged to computer-generated timings, which only they could hear through earphones. The fascination with ever-shifting synchronization wore thin after about 15 of the 30 minutes.

Wednesday evening pianist Vladimir Feltsman offered the first of two recitals exploring music of Soviet composers suppressed under Stalin in the 1920s and ’30s, focusing on those influenced by Scriabin. Unlike Stravinsky, Prokofiev and Rachmaninov, who made their names in the west, these composers’ music never got out.

As noble an endeavor as it is to bring works by Mosolov, Roslavets and Protopopov to light, none of them could match the communication, depth or ear-worthiness of the Scriabin pieces Feltsman played so well; his Piano Sonata No. 4 brimmed with charm, and even the more challenging late works Deux dances and Vers la flamme, Poème put their dissonances to a colorful purpose.

Of the others, only Roslavets’ Nocturne (for two violas, cello, oboe and harp) delivered delicacy and beauty. The clangorous Piano Sonata No. 2 by Sergei Protopopov had its moments, especially the final section where a quick-draw theme-and-variations rose to a climax. The delicacy and refinement of Scriabin’s Waltz in D-flat, which concluded the program, was like applying salve to raw skin.

Harvey Steiman

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