Bartók at His Most Majestic, Sleekness and Subtlety from the Pacifica, and a Rocky Outing for Bell

United States Aspen Music Festival (13): Barber, Bartók, Beethoven, Ligeti, Ran, Schubert, Vivaldi. Soloists, Joshua Bell and David Robertson (conductors). Aspen, Colorado. 14-16.8.2015 (HS)

Chamber Symphony, August 14|
Benedict Music Tent
Joshua Bell (violin and conductor)

Vivaldi: The Four Seasons
Beethoven: Symphony No. 7 in A major

Pacifica Quartet, August 15
Harris Hall
Sibbi Bernhardsson, Simin Ganatra (violins), Masumi Per Rostad (viola), Brandon Vamos (cello), with guest Lynn Harrell (cello)

Ligeti: String Quartet No. 1, “Métamorphoses nocturnes”
Ran: String Quartet No. 3, “Glitter, Doom, Shards, Memory”
Schubert: String Quintet in C major

Festival Orchestra, August 16
Benedict Music Tent
Simone Porter (violin), David Robertson (conductor)

Rouse: Symphony No. 3
Barber: Violin Concerto
Bartók: Concerto for Orchestra

Commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Bartók wrote his Concerto for Orchestra (1943) to display the virtuosity of the BSO principal players. The Concerto has become his most popular work, and it’s a great test of an orchestra’s mettle. Not only does it give every first-stand player a chance in the spotlight, but it puts the full ensemble through its paces. A great performance should be thrilling, and the Aspen Festival Orchestra met the challenge. Every musician in every section—109 players in all—rose to the occasion, and the result was keen balance, coupled with a rich, glorious sheen. This is how a big-ass orchestra should sound.

Conductor David Robertson set a pace that felt exactly right, shifted tempos smoothly, and then basically let the orchestra do its thing. At one point in the galloping finale Robertson dropped his arms to his side and picked them up only when a shift was imminent. That’s trust.

The principal players, all from top ensembles, had something individual to say every time their turn arrived, and the students who completed the group kept up impressively. The brass, which plays a huge role in the climax, distinguished themselves with ideal balance and unified execution. Principal trumpet Karen Bliznik, who heads the St. Louis Symphony’s trumpet section, rode above the whole orchestra in a breathtaking top line while the remaining 14 trumpet, trombone, horn and tuba players—11 of them students—completed the sonority brilliantly.

So it went throughout. The players in the second movement’s duets (bassoons, oboes, clarinets, flutes and muted trumpets) caught the composer’s sashaying dance rhythms, and the  central “night music” wove sinuous lines into a haunting texture. The fourth movement intermezzo brimmed with jocularity, including some ideally rude slides from the trombones.

In Barber’s Violin Concerto, Simone Porter unfurled the homespun solo line in the first two movements with enviable precision and grace, but little warmth. Oboist Elaine Douvas provided the sense of generosity needed in the slow movement, and most of the excitement came from the orchestra as Porter nailed every note of the finger-busting perpetual-motion finale.

The program opened with the Symphony No. 3 of Christopher Rouse, who taught composition in Aspen for years. Like much of his music, the 2011 piece takes no prisoners, opening with 10 minutes of jagged lines, dissonances and pounding rhythms. The second and final movement applies inventive variations to a theme, some of them actually gentle and ingratiating.

Saturday night in Harris Hall the Pacifica Quartet’s varied program demonstrated why it has become one of the world’s premier string quartets. They began with Ligeti’s String Quartet No. 1, “Metamorphoses nocturnes” (1954), a spiky and spicy homage to Bartók, then turned to Shulamit Ran’s String Quartet No. 3 “Glitter, Doom, Shards, Memory” (2013), a heart-wrenching memoir of the Holocaust. In both, the players burnished their sound with a dark-hued glow, along with a natural feel for the interchange of lines—the chamber music ideal of four playing as one. A wide range of unusual bowing effects added to the expressiveness.

Lynn Harrell, a longtime Aspen favorite, provided the additional cello in Schubert’s String Quintet in C major. The quartet’s playing was exquisite in the composer’s harmonic explorations, though Harrell’s low notes boomed annoyingly out of balance. But in the higher register his sound knit smoothly, with mesmerizing results.

In Friday’s Chamber Symphony concert, Joshua Bell’s Aspen debut as a conductor was long on showmanship but short on nuance. Leading a baroque-sized string orchestra through Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, his exaggerated body movements drove a breathless performance, but sometimes at the expense of his execution of the solo part. He articulated much of it with his usual panache, but the atmosphere hardly changed from one season to the next, and there were more than a few uncharacteristic slips in intonation.

The orchestra managed to keep up with Bell’s tempos but pretty much drowned out the harpsichord (its lid down.) The continuo sections (violin, harpsichord and cello, deftly played by Michael Mermagen) emerged as soulful violin-cello duets.

Conducting Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony without a score, baton or podium, Bell set a pedal-to-the-metal pace that left little time for the music to breathe. The slow opening pages kept pushing forward, with no sense of anticipation. Once the lilting main theme arrived, it felt more like dashing than dancing.

Bell allowed woodwinds and trumpets to dominate the balance, obscuring this magnificent score’s rich detail. The result was all about rhythm and thrust, reaching climax after climax at maximum magnitude. The fast pace nearly derailed the Presto third movement, and reduced the strings’ intricate fingerwork in the Allegro con brio finale to an “Allegro con blur.” Everyone seemed to be looking to concertmaster Bing Wang to hold things together.

Bell is no stranger to this music, nor is he a novice conductor. In 2012, the first recording he made as music director of London’s famed Academy of St. Martin in the Fields included the Beethoven, and The Four Seasons is on an older CD with that orchestra. Recordings, of course, use retakes and engineers’ re-balances to tweak excellent performances. This one might have benefited from another go.

Harvey Steiman

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