Theatrics and Dazzling Stars in the Music Festival’s Final Weekend


United StatesUnited States Aspen (14) – Handel, Brahms, Currier, Ravel, Ginastera, Mohammed Fairouz, Falla, Haydn, Schubert, Feinberg, Skryabin, Chopin: Inon Barnatan (piano), Kate Lindsey (mezzo-soprano), Aspen Chamber Symphony, Siudy Flamenco Dance Theater, Edgar Meyer and Christian McBride (bass), Marc-André Hamelin (piano). Harris Hall, Benedict Music Tent, Aspen Art Museum. Aspen, Colorado, 18-20.8.2016. (HS)

Piano Recital, 18 August, Harris Hall

Inon Barnatan (piano)

Handel: Chaconne in G major
Brahms: Variations and Fugue on a Theme by G.F. Handel in B-flat major
Currier: Glow
Ravel: Gaspard de la nuit

Aspen Chamber Symphony, 19 August, Benedict Music Tent

Cristian Măcelaru (conductor), Kate Lindsey (mezzo-soprano), Siudy Flamenco Dance Theater

Ginastera: Variaciones concertantes, op. 23
Mohammed Fairouz: Typhoid Mary (World Premiere)
Falla: El amor brujo

Recital, 20 August, Aspen Art Museum

Edgar Meyer (bass), Christian McBride (bass)

Recital, 20 August, Harris Hall

Marc-André Hamelin (piano)

Haydn: Piano Sonata in C major
Schubert: Impromptus No. 2 and No. 3
Feinberg: Piano Sonata No. 2 in A minor; Piano Sonata No. 1 in A major
Skryabin: Piano Sonata No. 7 “White Mass”
Chopin: Piano Sonata in B-flat minor

The final weekend of the Aspen Music Festival demonstrated some of the unique resources that make this musical event what it is. There was plenty going on before Sunday’s grand finale in the Benedict Music Tent with an outsized orchestra, visiting choruses and vocal soloists doing Carl Orff’s Carmina burana.

On Friday, a theatrical and exciting orchestral concert climaxed with a flamenco-rich performance of Falla’s El Amor Brujo after an enthusiastic audience welcomed a world premiere with smiles instead of grimaces. Splendid guest artists dazzled with thoughtful piano recitals. And the festival’s faculty were on display—and not only in the orchestral concerts, where professionals from orchestras, ensembles and conservatories play alongside students. On Saturday afternoon in Harris Hall, a chamber music program included a touching new piece in tribute of a former colleague. And a special event Saturday night paired star bassist and composer Edgar Meyer with jazz giant Christian McBride in a magnificent display of musical crosscurrents.

On Thursday, Inon Barnatan applied his dynamic pianism to works paired with those that inspired them. First came a demonstration of contrapuntal complexity over two centuries with Handel’s Chaconne in G major, followed by Brahms’ Variations and Fugue on a Theme by G.F. Handel, which layers Romantic-era broadness with Handel’s crispness.

To finish, Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit was superbly painted, as the pianist focused on shaping the finger-busting technique into finely drawn emotional darts. In Glow, which Barnatan commissioned to precede the Ravel, composer Sebastian Currier created miniature musical evocations of light emerging from darkness. The slower, quieter parts—especially the opening “Moonlight” and the closing “Embers”—came together more solidly than the faster, louder, jerkier music of “Strobe” or “Fireworks.”

And on Saturday evening, pianist Marc-André Hamelin delivered jaw-dropping performances of Skryabin’s Piano Sonata No. 7 and Chopin’s Sonata in B-flat minor, putting put his technical command in service of expressivity.

Theatricality was the order of the day in Friday’s Chamber Orchestra concert, which conductor Cristian Măcelaru opened with Ginastera’s Variaciones concertantes, bringing out the subtle colors and gentle Argentine rhythms. The premiere, Typhoid Mary, a set of songs on poems by Paul Muldoon, cast the rich-voiced mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsey as a balladeer telling the story from the unfortunate Mary Mallon’s point of view. Composer Mohammed Fairouz channeled Irish musical tropes for melodies and harmonies with steady rhythms that followed the pulse of the simple poetry. As accompaniment for the mezzo-soprano’s lines, the music had grace and the sort of rough-and-tumble color that Kurt Weill applied to his Threepenny Opera. Except for brief introductions and endings, however, Fairouz chose not to use the orchestra to comment further on the protagonist’s tale. A few extended passages would have been welcome. But this is a serious work that alludes to the fallout from contagious diseases today, and it’s a crowd-pleaser.

For sheer theatricality, however, nothing this season topped the staging of El Amor Brujo, which combined the familiar ballet with material Falla wrote for an earlier version, including more songs. This expanded production used the Siudy Flamenco Dance Theater not only as a prelude to introduce the main characters (accompanied by guitarist José Luis de la Paz, who wrote the introductory music, and percussionist Diego Álvarez) but to add true flamenco flavor to the entire dance-story. Flamenco singer Argentina voiced the songs with a combination of raw power and finesse.

The orchestra joined when Falla’s music kicked in, executing with Iberian charm and rhythmic vitality. The final sequence, starting with the famous Ritual Dance of Fire, the plaintive song “Will-o-the-wisp” and the Dance of the Game of Love, cranked up the excitement level right through to the rousing finish.

It has been nine years since Meyer, a festival favorite, first shared a stage with McBride and revealed mutual technical brilliance as well as synergy in their musical languages—utterly magical. This time, in a joint presentation Saturday by the festival and JAS Aspen at the Aspen Art Museum, was more of the same, the comfort level between the two even higher.

The playlist was a melange of jazz standards, tunes from the American songbook, and a few original pieces by both. Meyer’s predilection for high-flying melodic gestures—as if someone let a violin into the mix—played against McBride’s solid walking-bass foundation, creating a broader range of sound that one might expect from two basses. When Meyer was providing the low-end foundation it created a more delicate texture, with McBride favoring mid-range jazzy solo lines.

To change things up, Meyer played subtle chords with a gentle pulse for McBride on “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered.” McBride returned the favor for his own ballad, “Lullaby for a Ladybug,” with Meyer intoning the charming tune and expanding upon it. The solo of the night (at least in the first of two sets) was McBride, who developed the harmonic progressions of “Fly Me to the Moon” against a juicy groove for eight minutes before he finally finished with the melody.

On Saturday afternoon, the final faculty chamber music recital of the season included of Deborah, for Deborah, a piece by Joel Hoffman for string trio and harp. He wrote it after the 2014 death after a lingering lung ailment of his sister, Deborah Hoffman, longtime harpist for the Metropolitan Opera orchestra who played regularly in Aspen. Heartfelt, it also had an edge, outlining the arc of Deborah’s life in music, and turning unblinking as breathing became more labored and single-noted at the end. Bing Wang (violin), James Dunham (viola), Brinton Smith (cello), and Nancy Allen (harp) did their late colleague proud.

Harvey Steiman

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