United States Stucky, R. Strauss, Rachmaninoff: Aspen Festival Orchestra, Robert Spano (conductor), Renée Fleming (soprano), Benedict Music Tent, Aspen, Colorado. 3.4.2016 (HS)
Stucky: Dreamwaltzes (1986)
R. Strauss: Four Last Songs
Songs by Donaudy, Leoncavallo, Gershwin, Lowe, and Leonard Cohen
Rachmaninoff: Symphonic Dances
For most of the Aspen Music Festival’s seven-week run in the Rocky Mountain resort town of Aspen, Colorado, the big-orchestra highlight of the week is usually the Festival Orchestra’s Sunday afternoon program. The group’s full complement of around 100 musicians (depending on repertoire) includes students, mostly in their teens and twenties, playing alongside principals from major orchestras, with A-list soloists and high-profile conductors for extra sheen.
The students are from Aspen’s eight-week music school, which trains hopeful violin soloists, percussionists, vocalists, composers, recording engineers, and young music librarians. The principals are from orchestras as diverse as New York, Los Angeles, and Oslo, and other members of the faculty are touring artists. All are assembled in the thin but pure air of what started out as a silver mining town, and morphed into one of the world’s top ski resorts.
For the first Sunday concert of the season soprano Renée Fleming entranced a full house at the 2,100-seat Benedict Music Tent with a gorgeously sung and soulfully expressed traversal of Richard Strauss’ autumnal Four Last Songs. Then, in the second half, she ended a set of love songs with a Spanish pop song of 1939, finished the program with three selections from The King and I, and her three encores included “Hallelujah,” Leonard Cohen’s quiet and heartfelt blend of folk rock and gospel music.
Mostly, the beauty of this music dodged waves of showers that occasionally pelted the tent like a drum, a fact of life at an elevation of 7,908 feet in the mountains.
Under conductor Robert Spano, the Festival Orchestra, together for less than a week, lavished lush and vibrant work on Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances. (Dance is one of this year’s festival themes.)
The program opened with another dance, a colorful, if sometimes awkwardly shifting, performance of Dreamwaltzes (1986), Steven Stucky’s glance back at the waltz from a 20th-century perspective. It was fitting to feature Stucky on the first Sunday concert of the season: for years a much-loved member of the festival’s faculty, he died in February of brain cancer.
Stucky’s nervous waltz contrasted nicely with the serenity of Strauss’ songs. Spano drew supple playing from the initial scene-setting of “Frühling” (“Spring”) and caught a wistfulness in “September.” Fleming achieved a youthful tone in the first and an appropriate tinge of sadness in the second. The last two songs upped the ante further. The soprano tugged at the heart with the sweet curlicue phrases of “Beim Schlafengehen” (“Before Sleeping”) and without indulging in sentiment, made the final song, “Im Abendrot” (“At Sunset”), a quiet paean to resignation and noble acceptance of death.
Notable among many wonderful orchestral contributions were concertmaster Robert Chen’s tastefully spun violin solo in “Beim Schlafengehen,” hornist John Zirbel’s subtly placed reiteration of the theme in “September,” and the fluttering piccolos at the very end.
In the second half, the first two songs are more closely associated with tenors—Donaudy’s “O del bio amato ben,” a favorite of Pavarotti’s, and Leoncavallo’s “Mattinata,” made popular by Enrico Caruso, but Fleming rendered them with poise and lush tone. Ponce’s “Estrellita” livened things up a bit, the set finishing with “La morena de mi copla,” a 1939 pasodoble that was once the most popular song in Spain.
If Fleming’s Spanish flair came off a bit cooler than she might have wanted, her lifelong affinity to jazz came through movingly in Gershwin’s “Summertime,” the first encore. Stretching the phrases, sliding tastefully to high notes and low, she brought richness of detail to Clara’s lullaby from Porgy and Bess.
Once a student herself at this festival back in the 1980s, Fleming encouraged all the singers in the audience to sing alone with one refrain of Lowe’s “I Could Have Danced All Night,” her second encore. For a quieter finale, she displayed a remarkable low range (with the aid of a microphone) to make “Hallelujah” into a heart-tugger, despite it having been written for the baritone range of its composer, Leonard Cohen.