Aspen 9: Opera Humor from Stucky and Theofanidis, Delectable Chamber Music—and More Rain

United StatesUnited States  Aspen Music Festival (9): Barber, Bernstein, Brahms, Chopin, Debussy, Haydn, Hindemith, Meyer, Ravel, Stucky, Theofanidis, Turina. Soloists, Patrick Summers and Robert Spano (conductors). Aspen, Colorado. 31.7.2015 through 1-2.8.2015 (HS)

Aspen Chamber Orchestra, July 31
Benedict Music Tent
Nikolai Lugansky (piano), Susanna Phillips (soprano), Patrick Summers (conductor)

Brahms: Hungarian Dance No. 1 in G minor
Chopin: Piano Concerto No. 1 in E minor
Haydn: “Berenice, che fai?”
Brahms: Variations on a Theme by Haydn

Chamber music, August 10
Harris Hall

Druckman: Come Round
Turina: Piano Quartet in A minor
Barber: Mélodies passagères
Meyer: Thanks (for Marty)
Ravel: Sonata for Violin and Cello

Opera double bill, August 1
Wheeler Opera House
Robert Spano (conductor)

Stucky: The Classical Style (An Opera, of Sorts)
Theofanidis: The Cows of Apollo (Or the Invention of Music)

Aspen Festival Orchestra, August 2
Benedict Music Tent
Robert McDuffie (violin), Michael Stern (conductor)
Ravel: Alborado del gracioso
Bernstein: Serenade, after Plato’s Symposium
Debussy: “Iberia” from Images
Hindemith: Symphonic Metamorphoses after Themes by Carl Maria von Weber

Wit and silliness bumped headlong into some inspired music in Aspen Opera Theater’s midseason double bill of Steven Stucky’s The Classical Style: An Opera (of Sorts) and Christopher Theofanidis’s Cows of Apollo, Or the Invention of Music. The two performances were nicely staged by Edward Berkeley.

On Saturday at Wheeler Opera House, musical jokes and clever portrayals of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven leavened Classical, the one-act opera co-commissioned by the Aspen Music Festival. Looking through a 21st-century lens, Jeremy Denk’s libretto finds laughs in attitudes toward music’s classical era (roughly 1775 to 1825). Composer Stucky alternately demonstrates the inner workings of the music, and pokes fun at it. Addressing how music moved on from that era into more complex harmonies and forms, the final scenes created a wistful, emotional ending.

Sonorous bass Andrew Munn made a moody and gawky Beethoven, tenor Joseph Leppek voiced a younger and more youthful Haydn than expected, and soprano Sarah Vautour was a surprisingly chirpy and (of course) vulgar Mozart. Leppek doubled as a bartender contending with a trio of anthropomorphized chords: Tonic, played by tenor Micah Schroeder singing “me, me, me”; Dominant, sung by soprano Alysson Dezii, fatally attracted to Tonic; and the “trois” in this ménage-à-trois, Subdominant (mezzo soprano Jazimina MacNeil).

Vautour doubled as an excellent Donna Anna in a brief parody of a scene from Mozart’s  Don Giovanni. In this version the fabled lothario loses his, um, vigor when over-analyzed by a pedantic musicologist. Tenor Mark Williams struck just the right tone as Snibblesworth in a brilliant spoof of the “Catalogue Aria” from Don Giovanni, delineating to Beethoven how widely his music is heard today.

The inspiration for all this is the highly respected musicology tome The Classical Style. Baritone Jonathan McCullough portrayed the author, Charles Rosen, as absent-minded and prone to lecture on anything that comes to mind. McCullough doubled as the Tristan Chord, who arrives at the bar looking like the Wanderer from Wagner’s “Ring.” He portends music’s future in a brilliant parody of Wotan’s narration from Die Walküre, complete with leitmotifs in the orchestra. The future arrives as Robert Schumann (MacNeil) visits with Rosen, in a final scene punctuated by Anton Nel’s deftly played snatches of Schumann’s piano music.

The Cows story (libretto by William M. Hoffman) is much sillier, with a stage full of goat-horned Bacchanalians led by bass Andrew Dwan as Silenus, dressed like a top-hatted cannibal, and tenor Nicholas Martorano as Apollo, incongruously clad in a white suit. With baritone Dogukan Ozkan a barely draped Bacchus and a chorus of women in short diaphanous outfits, the scene felt like a staging of the musical Hair, especially when Tyler Stahl as Hermes led a three-piece heavy metal-ish band on electric guitar.

The story follows this motley crew’s search for Apollo’s 50 missing cows. Hermes has them, and has turned one of them into his guitar. Chastened, he gives his guitar to Apollo, who transforms the recurring line of Hermes’ music into the seeds for a glorious final hymn to music. That’s just one if the beauties of Theofanidis’s score, which includes a soaring aria for Maia (soprano Elizabeth Novella), in which she recounts her abduction by Zeus and the birth of Hermes.

Audience response was highly enthusiastic. The laughs kept coming, the casts delivered good comedic timing and even better singing, and festival music director Robert Spano conducted a 47-piece orchestra that sounded positively Wagnerian when the scores called for it. The massed chorus of 23 student singers plus the cast of Cows topped off the evening with a soul-stirring finale.

More vocal music jump-started the weekend. Susanna Phillips provided the highlight of Friday’s Chamber Music concert, lavishing a range of colors, impeccable articulation and an opera artist’s ability to drawing vivid images from the music in “Berenice, che fai?” a concert aria by Haydn. It was 12 minutes of vocal magic.

Patrick Summers, a first-rate opera conductor, seemed energized by the Haydn in ways he was not during the rest of the program. Big gestures drew spongy articulation from the orchestra in Chopin’s First Piano Concerto. Pianist Nikolai Lugansky, who triumphed last year in an deftly crafted Rachmaninov Concerto No. 3, focused mainly on creating delicate strings of pearls, seldom stretching dynamics broader than mezzopiano to mezzoforte. Similar rhythmic sogginess took the edge off Brahms—the opening Hungarian Dance No. 1 and the Haydn Variations that concluded the concert.

Barber’s Mélodies passagères, a song cycle delivered with rich tone and loving attention to text by soprano Laurel Weir, was among the highlights of Saturday’s delectable chamber music folio. Renata Arado (violin), Espen Lilleslåtten (viola), Brinton Smith (cello) and Rita Sloan (piano) enlivened Spanish composer Joaquin Turina’s Piano Quartet in A minor with a colorful performance, and Smith joined visiting artist Adele Anthony (violin) for a sinuous Sonata for Violin and Cello by Ravel. In between, Edgar Meyer offered five minutes of soulful, rhythmically and technically challenging work on his bass in Thanks (for Marty), an original piece honoring departed festival supporter Marty Flug.

Persistent rain drummed on the music tent and obscured all but the broad strokes of Sunday’s Festival Orchestra program conducted by Michael Stern. Whole sections of Ravel’s Albarado del gracioso and Debussy’s Iberia were hardly audible. But despite the rain noise, the essence of Bernstein’s Serenade came through. Violinist Robert McDuffie dialed up every color imaginable in articulating Bernstein’s impressions of the philosophers in Plato’s Symposium. The rain let up in the central Adagio just enough to hear a soulful duet with principal cellist Eric Kim.

The strutting brass-band opening and closing movements of Hindemith’s Symphonic Metamorphosis after Themes of Carl Maria von Weber overpowered the rain and brought the concert to a positive finish.

Harvey Steiman

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