Aspen (10): Jackiw in Mendelssohn, Koh in Saariaho


United StatesUnited States Aspen (10) – Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Tchaikovsky, J.S. Bach, Saariaho, Chausson, Shostakovich: Soloists, Aspen Philharmonic, Aspen Contemporary Ensemble, Stephen Mulligan (conductor), Harris Hall, Benedict Music Tent, Aspen, CO. 2-4.8.2016. (BH)

Recital, Harris Hall, August 2 – Jonathan Biss (piano)

Beethoven: Piano Sonata No. 1 in F minor, op. 2, no. 1; No. 9 in E major, op. 14, no. 1; No. 13 in E-flat major, op. 27, no. 1, “Quasi una fantasia”; No. 12 in A-flat major, op. 26, “Funeral March”; No. 21 in C major, op. 53, “Waldstein”

Aspen Philharmonic, Benedict Music Tent, August 3 – Stephen Mulligan (conductor), Stefan Jackiw (violin)

Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto in E minor

Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 6 in B minor “Pathétique”

Recital, Harris Hall, August 3 – Jennifer Koh (violin), Aspen Contemporary Ensemble

J.S. Bach: Partita No. 2 for unaccompanied violin in D minor

Saariaho: Frises; Graal théâtre

Pacifica Quartet, Harris Hall, August 4 – Simin Ganatra, Sibbi Bernhardsson (violins), Massumi Per Rostad (viola), Brandon Vamos (cello); Esther Heinemann (soprano), Julian Martin (piano)

Chausson: Chanson perpétuelle

Shostakovich: String Quartet No. 12 in D-flat major

Beethoven: String Quartet in A minor, Op. 132

Last Thursday night in Harris Hall, the Pacifica Quartet raised the bar to a high level in quartets by Shostakovich and Beethoven that make intense demands on the musicians, and deliver extraordinary rewards to listeners. This was the quartet’s last Aspen recital with its present personnel, and they made the most it.

First violinist Simin Ganatra announced in June that she is leaving the ensemble this fall to devote more time to expanded duties at the University of Indiana’s Jacobs School of Music and to her two children. She founded the quartet 20 years ago with her husband, the quartet’s cellist Brandon Vamos.

Ganatra and Vamos were the linchpins in stunningly executed traversals of Shostakovich’s Quartet No. 12 and Beethoven’s late Op. 132. The group’s strengths as an ensemble were in evidence throughout—unanimity of phrasing, seamless transitions, a warm sound that can shift to edgy when required. But as this recital confirmed, visually and musically Ganatra is the vivid extrovert that carries the emotional ball. Her expressive face and body movements signal to an audience what the music is all about. Though the other members of the quartet do their part musically, they do it stone-faced.

Pairing these two towering quartets emphasized how they both deal, in their own ways, with contrasting music. Shostakovich’s transitions are so gradual we hardly realize that a moment ago we were listening to spectral knockings in the dark and now the lights have come on when we weren’t aware of it. Unfurling naturally, shadings of color, tempo and dynamics flowed smoothly.

In the Beethoven, each of the five movements is in contrast to the ones around it. Even in the opening, the slow introduction sets up the Allegro that follows with hidden connections. A gentle country-style second movement separates this intensity from the sustained, mostly quiet glory of the plainsong-infused long Adagio at the center of this work. Here’s where this ensemble’s ability to create colors and moods paid big dividends. The fourth movement march dissolved almost imperceptibly into a recitative-like rumination by Ganatra that emerged into a superbly paced and momentum-building finale.

The concert opened with a romantically sad Chanson perpétuelle, beautifully sung by soprano Esther Heinemann against the quartet’s subtle accompaniment.

Wednesday evening Stefan Jackiw showed a rapt audience in the music tent how Mendelssohn’s popular violin concerto should be done. He favored quick tempos in the outer movements just short of breakneck, and took the audience on a luxurious spin that seemed intent on pointing out elements of the scenery only the great ones can bring out. It made the overly familiar music fresh and vital.

The capper was a gloriously silky, long-breathed and sigh-worthy slow movement that sang with deceptive simplicity. Nuances were there, but he did not call extra attention to them. Conductor Stephen Mulligan’s work melded beautifully with the soloist’s, although some of the musicians in the all-student Aspen Philharmonic couldn’t keep up in the fleet finale.

Jennifer Koh offered violin playing of a different stripe in her recital later that evening in Harris Hall, part of the festival’s current residency of Kaija Saariaho. The Finnish-French composer creates unique sound worlds that seem to flit in and out of reality, weaving in subtle, ambient dissonances as well as crushingly powerful punches.

In Frises, a series of fantastic duets written in 2011 for violin and electronics (the latter managed by sound designer Mark Grey), the player initiates prerecorded ambient sounds and computerized transformations of the violin’s own voice to create an endless soundscape. Fascinating and remarkably expressive, it is inspired by J.S. Bach’s D minor Partita, which concludes with the Chaconne, one of the pinnacles of violin literature.

Koh played the entire Bach work first, with engaging simplicity and restraint, her feet planted, her body hardly moving. In Frises she removed her blue heels to access the foot switch that activates the electronics.

Graal Théâtre, a concerto in all but name, dates from 1994, and was a world apart. The music grates with harsher dissonances and seldom lets the violin play with pure tone. To accommodate the gruff bowings, scratchy articulations and such, Koh moved with almost manic ferocity. It starts and ends quietly, and intersperses a few moments of beauty within the dissonances. The Aspen Contemporary Ensemble and a dozen additional players ripped into the music with gusto, as did Koh, but ultimately I preferred the more recent work.

In Monday’s faculty chamber recital in Harris Hall, Saariaho’s Jardin Secret II used sound design similar to Frises to electronically enhance a solo harpsichord, here played with precision by Mahan Esfahani. The highlight of the program, however, came with Techno-Parade, a 5-minute tour de force of boogie-woogie and bebop-tinged rapid-fire music from the French composer Guillaume Connesson. Flutist Nadine Asin, clarinetist Joaquin Valdepeñas, and pianist Rita Sloan nailed it.

Tuesday in Harris Hall pianist Jonathan Biss embarked on a three-year exploration of Beethoven’s piano sonatas. He’s scheduled three recitals here in August, more next summer and the following year, as he records (in a studio elsewhere) all 32 sonatas over several years. The first installment was not promising. Despite moments of clarity and elegance, especially in the slow movements, the busier the music got the more he rushed phrases, trivialized some critical moments, and threw Beethoven’s rhythms into a blur. More than a few clunkers marred exposed passages. One hopes rounds two and three will be better.

Harvey Steiman

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