Aspen (11): Gypsies, Paganini, and Saariaho Inspire Vivid Programs


United StatesUnited States Sibelius, Saariaho, Vivaldi, Tan Dun, Boccherini, Montaña, Shore, Rodrigo, Granados, Falla, Chabrier, Rachmaninoff, Lutoslawski, Brahms/Schoenberg: Soloists, Aspen Chamber Orchestra, Pacifica Quartet, Aspen Festival Orchestra, Robert Spano and Miguel Harth-Bedoya (conductors). Benedict Music Tent and Harris Hall, Aspen, CO. 5-7.8.2016. (BH)

Aspen Chamber Orchestra, Benedict Music Tent, August 5 – Robert Spano (conductor), Jennifer Check (soprano), Matthew Worth (baritone), Camilla Hoitenga (flute)

Sibelius: Pohjola’s Daughter; Symphony No. 3 in C major
Saariaho: Cinq reflets; Aile de songe

Recital, Harris Hall, August 6 – Sharon Isbin (guitar), Colin Davin (guitar), Pacifica Quartet

Vivaldi/Pujol/Isbin: Guitar Concerto in D major
Tan Dun: Seven Desires for Guitar
Boccherini: Quintet No. 4 for Guitar and Strings in D major
Montaña: “Porro” from Suite Colombian No. 4
Shore: The Departed, three pieces for two guitars
Rodrigo: Aranjuez, ma pansée
Granados/Wilson-McCallister: Orientale
Falla: “Danza española” from La vida breve

Aspen Festival Orchestra, Benedict Music Tent, August 7 – Miguel Harth-Bedoya (conductor), Stephen Hough (piano)

Chabrier: España
Rachmaninoff: Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini
Lutoslawski: Paganini Variations for Solo Piano and Orchestra
Brahms/Schoenberg: Piano Quartet No. 1 in G minor

Programming has taken a step up at the Aspen Music Festival this year. The musical triumvirate of festival president Alan Fletcher, music director Robert Spano, and artistic administrator Asadour Santourian have chosen, for the most part, thought-provoking selections and smartly juxtaposed them to add extra dimensions and a welcome underlying structure to the schedule. That’s always the goal, but this year they’ve been hitting the target more consistently.

The season’s general theme, “Invitation to Dance,” has invigorated many afternoons and evenings in the Benedict Music Tent and Harris Hall—at one point with two entire evenings of Astor Piazzolla tangos.

On Sunday, driving gypsy rhythms opened and closed the Festival Orchestra program. In between, a pair of piano and orchestra works spun variations on the same Paganini violin tune. The opener, Chabrier’s pop-concert staple España—the main tune is familiar to many Americans of a certain age as “Hot Diggity (Dog Ziggity Boom)”—made a tasty appetizer. And to conclude, a Hungarian gypsy dance ended the final piece, Schoenberg’s orchestration of Brahms’ Piano Quartet No. 1.

In between, pianist Stephen Hough lent a stylish touch and impressive technical prowess to Rachmaninoff’s familiar Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini and jazzy expertise to Lutoslawski’s more irreverent (and compact) Paganini Variations for Solo Piano and Orchestra. Both works riff on Paganini’s Caprice No. 24, but with twists that range far afield from the original tune, creating their own little musical neighborhoods.

If conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya sometimes allowed the orchestra to overwhelm Hough’s diligent work, the spirit was there and the pieces made their impressions. More problematic was the lack of dynamics and tonal color in the Schoenberg orchestration. Schoenberg arranged the quartet for full orchestra as he believed Brahms might have done if he were expanding it into a symphony. What came out Sunday was more brash and brassy than rich and rotund, the polyphony often ponderous rather than crystal-clear—more circus than Brahms. It’s a better piece than that.

Aspen’s programming has always embraced “mini-festivals” within the eight-week season, often focusing on a single composer. Kaija Saariaho’s oeuvre explores a sonic world of often delicate sonorities and dissonances. On Friday evening, the week celebrating the Finnish-French composer concluded with two works from 2001 by the Aspen Chamber Orchestra, contrasting with two lesser known items by Sibelius. Saariaho has said that the great Finnish composer was such a strong early influence that she had to move to France to find her own voice.

A certain granite-like, Nordic feel to Sibelius’ harmonic choices can also be heard in hers, but what was most noticeable was how the very definition of music expanded in the century separating these works. Where Sibelius used traditional means, Saariaho seeks the unique—most evident in her flute concerto, Aile de songe (“wing of dreams”). Camilla Hoitenga, for whom it was written, executed the bird song and a long list of breathy, sometimes screechy effects, all in pursuit of something that doesn’t sound like anything else.

If that was a difficult listen, the soft dissonances and dreamy contemplativeness of Cinq reflets, five vocal selections from her magnificent opera L’amour de loin, reached a gloriously higher plane. Soprano Jennifer Cheek and baritone Matthew Worth wove their floating-in-air vocal lines through a dream world of refined sounds. This was Saariaho at her acme, and the orchestra, under Robert Spano, created a half-hour of sheer magic.

Sibelius’ tone poem Pohjola’s Daughter, a rousing opener, reflected the composer’s scene painting with vivid colors. Spano’s conducting also made a strong case for the Symphony No. 3 as a brash little brother to the more familiar Second: the Third has a similar outline but a more compact style.

Guitarist Sharon Isbin’s annual recital seems to draw a different crowd from those who usually populate Harris Hall for classical recitals. As with most of her programs, this one relied heavily on a second half of Spanish music, here played in duet with Colin Davin, a former student now making a solid career of his own. They played familiar works by Montaña, Granados, Rodrigo and Falla with consummate stylishness. Isbin’s one solo—a reflective, inner soul-seeking effort by Tan Dun— awkwardly combined elements of flamenco and Chinese pipa music.

The highlights came in the first half, when the Pacifica Quartet joined Isbin for two 18th-century works—a lovely transcription of Vivaldi’s guitar concerto, which started life as a lute piece, and a delicious quintet by Boccherini. Both were brilliantly played, with percussionist Jonathan Haas riffling castanets on the fandango finale of the Boccherini, and thus returning, full circle, to the “Invitation to Dance.”

Harvey Steiman

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