Aspen (9): A Weekend of Crowd-Pleasers, and Bolcom’s A Wedding

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United StatesUnited States Debussy/Ravel, Lalo, Beethoven, Bolcom, J. Strauss Jr., R. Strauss, Brahms: Soloists; Aspen Chamber Orchestra and Aspen Festival Orchestra; Pietro Inkinen, Scott Terrell, and Tomáš Netopil (conductors). Benedict Music Tent and Wheeler Opera House. 29-31.7.2016. (HS)

Aspen Chamber Orchestra, Benedict Music Tent, 29 July – Pietro Inkinen (conductor), Ray Chen (violin)

Debussy/Ravel: Danse
Lalo: Symphonie Espagnol
Beethoven: Symphony No. 2 in D major

Bolcom, A Wedding, Wheeler Opera House, 30 July – Soloists, orchestra and chorus of Aspen Opera Center, Scott Terrell (conductor), David Schweizer (director)

Aspen Festival Orchestra, Benedict Music Tent, 31 July – Tomáš Netopil (conductor), Noah Bendix-Balgley (violin), Alisa Weilerstein (cello)

J Strauss II: On the Blue Danube
R Strauss: Der Rosenkavalier SuiteTill Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks
Brahms: Concerto for Violin and Cello in A minor

Brahms’ double concerto for violin and cello was at the center of a crowd-pleasing Aspen Festival Orchestra program on Sunday in the Benedict Music Tent, where two magnificent soloists contributed incisive and gorgeously phrased playing. Two highly descriptive and popular works by Richard Strauss surrounded it, and for a sweet opener, Johann Strauss II’s serene “On the Beautiful Blue Danube” waltz. Conductor Tomáš Netopil, an alumnus of the festival conducting academy, painted colorfully with a broad brush and drew richness of sound and transparency when required.

The stars of the show, however, were violinist Noah Bendix-Balgley, first concertmaster of the Berlin Philharmonic, and cellist Alisa Weilerstein, who has been wowing festival attendees since she was a pre-teen. The two musicians were on the same page from the first bowings—in sync and unfurling the music with point, precision and passion, as if they had been performing as a duo for years. The music soared, and this performance will be remembered as one of the highlights of this summer’s festival.

In the Strauss works Netopil seemed intent on getting all the pieces to fit together, leaving it to the individual musicians to make something special out of them. That’s not a bad thing, because the notes on the page carry enough oomph to make the waltzes of “Danube” and a suite from the opera Der Rosenkavalier sashay past happily. Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks benefited from a series of terrific solos by the principals, notably Bing Wang’s elegant violin solo, John Zirbel’s punchy French horn enunciations and the whole clarinet section’s voicings of the title character’s moods.

Friday’s Aspen Chamber Orchestra concert revealed just how good Ray Chen has become since he was a student here nearly a decade ago. He looks good on stage and sounds even better. He deployed pinpoint articulation and sleek tone to great advantage in Lalo’s showpiece Symphonie Espagnol, digging deep for rich sound when called for, favoring shimmering resonance on the silkier phrases.

To be sure, the Lalo is all about whipped cream, Iberian rhythms and showoff technique. In his jaw-dropping encore, Paganini’s Caprice No. 21, he executed double stops and rapid-fire up bow staccatos with technique that made their difficulties seem trivial. I’m guessing the entire audience hopes Chen will return. Next time will be an opportunity for something with more red meat.

Finnish conductor Pietari Inkinin, recently of the New Zealand Symphony, led a fluid accompaniment for the concerto, and after intermission aimed for sprightly tempos in Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2. Dense textures, however, kept the music from dancing as deftly as it might have done.

But deftness and comedic timing were the order of the day in A Wedding, the second consecutive hit this summer by the Aspen Opera Center. Puccini’s La bohème opened the season with a stage full of youthful, passionate singers that lent a layer of reality to the story of penniless artists in 19th-century Paris. Since singers are available in big numbers, operas that require large casts are more feasible here than in professional companies that need to contract with a crowd.

In composer William Bolcom’s adaptation of Robert Altman’s sprawling 1978 film comedy, the cast was reduced from 48 in the film to 18 in the opera (which debuted at Lyric Opera of Chicago in 2004), but Bolcom plays so many characters against each other that after the two-hour show there is still much for the audience left to figure out.

The cast not only inhabited distinct characters, but their timing made the jokes crackle. The reduced orchestra (Bolcom made the adaption in 2008 for a Music Academy of the West staging) carried the ball effectively for the score. Typically eclectic, Bolcom plays no favorites among influences as diverse as Rossini, country and western music, Broadway, jazz, and Italian popular song.

It’s a romp from start to finish, but a romp with heart. The libretto, co-written by Altman and Arnold Weinstein for the 2004 premiere at Lyric Opera of Chicago, delves into family, extended family, and personal relationships. The story not only has its fun with them, but presents characters with temptations, moral choices and other conflicts that have to be (and were) taken seriously. I counted three major seductions (plus a few fleeting ones), an interracial romance (big stuff in the 1970s), sibling rivalries, friendships gone awry, and countless oversteppings of social strata.

More tightly constructed than the film, the opera feels more focused, and Bolcom’s music adds color and shadings, using operatic set pieces to bring the conflicts to life. There’s no better example than the seduction at the heart of the opera’s spinning wheels, the attraction between mother of the bride Tulip (soprano Julia Walcott in a tour de force) and Jules (baritone Michael Aiello), an uncle by marriage of the groom. The mother waffles in a series of arias, duets and scenes, all of which are perfectly pitched, while Jules, a retired doctor, supplies his addict wife Victoria (soprano Ashley Yvonne Wheat in a well-sung but perhaps too-ratcheted-up performance).

Other strong cast members included soprano Jessica Johnson Brock, both as Nettie, the head of the groom’s family who dies in Scene I, and as her twin sister Aunt Bea, a socialist and hippie who aims to scandalize. The magic of makeup made tenor Jubal Joslyn believable as Luigi, the Italian immigrant father of the groom, and his pliable lyric voice stood out for its ease and expressiveness, especially in a duet with his estranged brother, Donato (tenor Conner McCreary), all in Italian (and not translated in the supertitles).

Worth noting were the steady baritone Cody Montá as Randolph, the family butler from the Caribbean who may be the sanest character, and sleek baritone Jacob Ingbar as William Williamson, the heavily made up and spangly-costumed “professional guest” who somehow gets involved with several subplots.

Among all these folks, accents may have been intermittent, but the juicy singing and comedy paved the way for an evening that kept a near-capacity audience in its seats to the end—which doesn’t always happen with contemporary opera.

Harvey Steiman

4 thoughts on “Aspen (9): A Weekend of Crowd-Pleasers, and Bolcom’s <i>A Wedding</i>”

  1. Are you quite sure that Liugi was played by KyuYoung Lee. I believe that he was indeed played by Jubal Joslyn.

    Reply
  2. Thank you Jane for contacting Seen and Heard. The answer took some research it seems and I have just received this from Harvey and have corrected the review.

    ‘I usually hear from musicians immediately in the rare instance I get something wrong in a review. In this I did not. Just heard back from Ed Berkeley, who confirmed there was a switch involving Luigi and his brother. Jubal Joslyn played Luigi and KyuYoung Lee played Donato. The commenter was correct on that.’

    Reply
    • I’ll accept this further correction but it would help to know in what way you were connected with the show. These one-liners are rather cryptic to say the least …

      Thanks for caring and contacting Seen and Heard.

      Reply

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