Aspen 3: Delights from Anton Nel, and Morlot in a Vivid La Valse


United KingdomUnited Kingdom C.P.E. Bach, Bruch, Mozart Beethoven, Debussy, Brahms, Dvořák, Stravinsky, Ravel: Soloists, Nicholas McGegan and Ludovic Morlot (conductors), Benedict Music Tent and Harris Hall, Aspen, Colorado. 8-10.7.2016. (HS)

Aspen Chamber Orchestra, Benedict Music Tent, 8 July

Emmanuel Pahud (flute), Simone Porter (violin), Nicholas McGegan (conductor)
C.P.E. Bach: Flute Concerto in D minor
Bruch: Violin Concerto No. 1 in G minor
Mozart: Andante for Flute and Orchestra in C major, K. 315
Beethoven: Symphony No. 7 in A major

Chamber Music with Anton Nel (piano), Harris Hall, 9 July

Mozart: Piano Quintet in E-flat major, K. 452
Elaine Douvas (oboe), Joaquin Valdepeñas (clarinet), Per Hannevold (bassoon), John Zirbel (French horn)
Debussy: from Preludes, Book II
Brahms: Piano Quartet in G minor
Sylvia Rosenberg (violin), James Dunham (viola), Michael Mermagen (cello)

Aspen Festival Orchestra, Benedict Music Tent, 10 July

Augustin Hadelich (violin), Ludovic Morlot (conductor)
Berlioz: Le corsaire overture
Dvořák: Violin Concerto in A minor
Stravinsky: Symphony in C
Ravel: La valse

There was a lot going beneath the surface of the music in Sunday’s canny Festival Orchestra program. Conductor Ludovic Morlot started with an overture, then a concerto and a short symphony, and finished with an orchestral waltz. Nothing unusual there, but nothing was exactly what it seemed.

Dvořák’s Violin Concerto plays with traditional forms and omits a show-off cadenza. Stravinsky’s Symphony in C messes with traditional structures even more, spicing things up with pungent harmonies and jagged rhythms. And Ravel’s La valse twists the oh-so-familiar 19th-century dance form to comment on social rot lurking underneath, but from a 20th-century perspective.

Even the overture, Berlioz’s broad-beamed Le corsaire, not written for an opera or theatrical work, but dashing enough to call to mind an adventurous pirate brandishing a cutlass, and the orchestra was running on high-octane fuel. Some details might have been blurred, but the broad strokes were true.

Augustin Hadelich was the soloist in the concerto, spinning out the composer’s Slavic melodic lines and rhythms with a certain insouciance. Morlot held the orchestra back just enough to let the violin sound peek through, at least most of the time, and Hadelich seemed to relish the Czech flavors. (As an encore he offered Paganini’s Caprice No. 9, a brief exercise in covering the violin’s entire range, often within a single measure.)

The Stravinsky had its ragged moments. When it did get on track it reveled in the composer’s unexpected changes of direction, but the density of the ensemble texture made it difficult to achieve the rhythmic spring that the piece needs.

The capper was La valse. Ravel’s colorful orchestration and increasingly dense harmonies make it perhaps the most frightening waltz ever written. Morlot brought its teasing, waltz-like gestures; just when the rhythm seems to find a groove it lurches on to something else. At the end, that “something else” portrayed not only disintegration of the musical form but the collapse of a society that paid too little attention to its excesses. Overall, the concert had plenty of rewards, but a little more finesse might have made it great.

On the other hand, Saturday’s chamber music evening with pianist Anton Nel had enough delights for several concerts. Nel’s name often comes up when soloists here are asked which pianist they want to work with, according to Aspen Music Festival president and CEO Alan Fletcher, at a small gathering prior to that concert. Nel travels the world as a piano soloist, and here surrounds himself with musicians he knows personally.

Brahms’ Piano Quartet No. 1, on the second half of the program, exuded the sort of unity heard only from touring trios and quartets. Like Nel, the other musicians—violinist Sylvia Rosenberg, violist James Dunham and cellist Michael Mermagen—often work with those they know well. Details and nuances emerged that can only happen when musicians breathe with each other.

The Brahms spans a range of musical expression, from subtly phrased unisons to broad chorales, complex polyphony and a full-on gypsy dance, all of which emerged with presence. At the center was Nel, his velvety touch backed up by a steely rhythmic sense, seamlessly transitioning from soloist to accompanist in a blink.

Oboist Elaine Douvas, clarinetist Joaquin Valadepeñas and French hornist John Zirbel (principals from the Festival Orchestra) and bassoonist Per Hannevold (first chair of the Chamber Orchestra) have worked together here for years. Their experience showed in a charming and diverting Mozart quintet that opened the program.

Nel alone provided the meat of the first half, however, with five scene-painting miniatures from Debussy’s Preludes Book II. Aside from the jolly cakewalk-infused “General Lavine—eccentric,” the selections highlighted Nel’s ability to caress phrases and create liquid tones, especially in the watery “Ondine” and the wispy final prelude, “Feux d’artifice.”

In Friday evening’s Aspen Chamber Orchestra program flutist Emmanuel Pahud made the biggest impression. With the energetic Nicholas McGegan conducting, Pahud lavished burnished tone, supple phrasing and brilliant articulation on C.P.E. Bach’s Flute Concerto in D minor, upping the ante with extra-fast fireworks in the Allegro di molto finale. His legato playing and expressiveness in the slow movement (Un poco andante) kept the pulse moving while making the music hover, all the while unfurling gorgeous tone. Pahud returned for another lovely Andante, this by C.P.E.’s contemporary Wolfgang (Mozart), a piece meant for a flute concerto never completed.

In between, the fast-rising star violinist Simone Porter applied sleek tone and articulation to Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1. Her most effective playing came in the meandering Adagio, a hushed respite after a rambunctious (and somewhat underpowered) opening movement.

Though the rhythmic vitality of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 fits right into McGegan’s wheelhouse, the orchestra only occasionally responded to his vigorous encouragement with the requisite dance-like spring. A few botched entrances included an exposed stumble by the full orchestra at the start of the Scherzo. Woodwind and brass sections overwhelmed the strings far too often. The result was a performance stronger on enthusiasm than in execution.

Harvey Steiman

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