Aspen (5): A Tale of Contrasting Violins: Joshua Bell and Midori


United StatesUnited States Saint-Saëns, Mahler, Crockett, Mozart, Fletcher, Brahms, J.S. Bach, Beethoven, Schubert, Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich: Soloists; Aspen Chamber Orchestra, Aspen Contemporary Music Ensemble, Aspen Festival Orchestra Robert Spano, Donald Crocker, Arie Vardi, and Vasily Petrenko (conductors); Benedict Music Tent and Harris Hall, Aspen, Colorado. 15-17.7.2016. (HS)

Aspen Chamber Orchestra, 15 July, Benedict Music Tent

Joshua Bell (violin), Sarah Shafer (soprano), Robert Spano (conductor)

Saint-Saëns: Violin Concerto No. 3 in B minor
Mahler: Symphony No. 4 in G major

Chamber music, 16 July, Harris Hall

Donald Crockett: to airy thinness beat
Andrew Stock (viola), Aspen Contemporary Ensemble, Donald Crockett (conductor)
Mozart: Six Nocturnes for three voices and three clarinets
Fletcher: Romance for Clarinet, Bassoon and Piano
Michael Rosinek (clarinet), Nancy Goeres (bassoon), Anton Nel (piano)
Brahms: Piano Trio No. 1 in B major
Alexander Kerr (violin), Desmond Hoebig (cello), Anton Nel (piano)

Arie Vardi, Yeol Eum Son, 16 July, Harris Hall

Arie Vardi (piano and conductor), Yeol Eum Son (piano)

J.S. Bach: Concerto for Two Pianos in C minor, BWV 1060
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major (Yeol Eum Son)
Schubert: Symphony No. 5 in B-flat major, D. 485

Aspen Festival Orchestra, 17 July, Benedict Music Tent

Midori (violin), Vasily Petrenko (conductor)

Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto in D major
Shostakovich: Symphony No. 8 in C minor

Saint-Saëns’ Third Violin Concerto requires rock-solid technique and the ability to make the instrument sing beautifully during long-spun melodies. Large doses of elegance help too. As it happens, Joshua Bell fulfills those requirements, as he demonstrated Friday night in a nearly full Benedict Music Tent.

Behind Bell, conductor and festival music director Robert Spano kept the chamber-size orchestra on its toes and dancing deftly. The result was an incandescent performance, colorful and seductive.

The piece fits neatly into the standard format of a late 19th-century concerto—broad strokes in the opening movement, a languid slow movement, and a lively finale—and challenges the soloist with rapid scales, lightning arpeggios, double stops and complex phrases on high harmonics.

But Saint-Saëns weaves in enough delightful turns to keep the virtuosity fresh. The violin’s first appearance, for example, keeps the soloist playing on the lowest string as the theme expands ever upward, before rocketing up an arpeggio into the highest notes on the instrument. Bell nailed it without working up a sweat.

For each virtuoso turn by the soloist, something interesting pops up in the orchestra. Sometimes the melody gets tossed back and forth between the violinist and portions of the orchestra, even within the same phrase. This was especially beguiling in the central Andante quasi allegretto. One by one, the principal woodwind players played catch with Bell as the theme ping-ponged seamlessly, notably in the final measures. Bell played delicate arpeggios in the highest harmonics, doubled by a clarinet several octaves below, against a soft bed of string chords—magical stuff. The finale zipped along as the orchestra carried the melodic load, while Bell fluttered around it all like a butterfly.

That music seemed to fit perfectly against a sunny, early evening that allowed those listening from the lawn to hear every nuance. Mother Nature also must be a Mahler fan, because she wrapped the composer’s Symphony No. 4 in same blanket of silence.

This allowed the beauty of the gentlest of Mahler’s symphonies to float easily through the air. The score is not without its edgy moments, but Spano opted for as much loveliness as possible. A little more angst in the first three movements, gorgeous as they were, would have provided more contrast with the transcendental finale. As the voice of the angel, soprano Sarah Schafer offered liquid tone and sweetness, the symphony finishing like one of the white clouds dotting the blue skies above.

Sunday’s Aspen Festival Orchestra concert delivered some of the best conducting of the year (so far). Vasily Petrenko applied a welcome native  accent, plus precision and communication, in big Russian works.

Petrenko got Shostakovich’s dark and brooding Symphony No. 8 to rumble and agonize, turning from angst to cries of despair, often voiced by some of the less featured instruments in the orchestra. Superb work on piccolo by Johanna Ruskin and on English horn by Michelle Pan made their moments as vivid as the regular woodwind principals were in theirs. The brass contributed incisive playing. The full orchestra found unique colors for each movement, eventually finishing with glimmers of quiet, subtle, autumnal and—most welcome—beautiful hues.

In the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, Midori kept her had bowed so low she seemed to be holding the chin rest with her left cheek. She seemed to turn inward, physically melding with her instrument. Though visually this excluded the audience, her playing spilled out with presence, if not all of the potential fireworks and dazzle. Petrenko coaxed idiomatic playing from the orchestra, and synched in tempo with the soloist with every shift in speed. The result was sense of perfection, albeit without a wild edge.

Saturday’s events in Harris Hall included works by two living composers in the afternoon faculty chamber music program, and an evening performance notable for a take-no-prisoners Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 4 by Yeol Eum Son.

Alan Fletcher, president and CEO of the festival, was one of the living composers. Michael Rosinek (clarinet), Nancy Goeres (bassoon) and Anton Nel (piano) brought out the charm in Fletcher’s 10-minute Romance, which owes more than a little to Schubert’s grace in Gretchen’s spinning wheel. Earlier, Donald Crockett conducted the Aspen Contemporary Ensemble in his to airy thinness beat (2009), featuring the solo viola of Andrew Stock. Though his program note speaks of seeking tonal beauty, restlessness was the music’s primary effect.

In between, three singers from the Aspen Opera Theater Center and three clarinetists combined for Mozart’s Six Nocturnes, delightful examples of the composer in a casual mood. To finish, violinist Alexander Kerr and cellist Desmond Hoebig joined Nel for an athletic romp through Brahms’ Piano Trio No. 1.

With her Berlin-based teacher Arie Vardi conducting an ad hoc student orchestra, Yeol Eum Son applied impressive technique and command of piano tone to the Beethoven concerto. And with the orchestra, Vardi and Son played two pianos with the orchestra in J.S. Bach’s Concerto for Two Pianos in C minor (BWV 1060), in a reading that was far removed from the modern “historically informed” style. A little more brightness would have helped.

Harvey Steiman

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