Aspen Music Festival (4): Orchestras Outshine Chang, Luganski


United KingdomUnited Kingdom Aspen Music Festival [4] – Hartke, Vitali/Charlier, Ravel, Wagner, Prokofiev, Knussen, Beethoven, Brahms, Debussy, Lutoslawski: Soloists, Aspen Chamber Symphony/Patrick Summers (conductor), Aspen Contemporary Ensemble/Donald Crockett (conductor), Aspen Festival Orchestra / Larry Rachleff (conductor). Benedict Music Tent and Harris Hall, Aspen, CO. 14-16.7.2017. (HS)

Aspen Chamber Symphony, Benedict Music Tent, 14 July
Patrick Summers (conductor), Sarah Chang (violin)

Hartke — Pacific Rim
Vitali/Charlier — Chaconne in G minor
Ravel — Tzigane, rapsodie de concert
Wagner — Prelude to Act I from Lohengrin
Prokofiev — Symphonic Suite from The Love for Three Oranges

Chamber music, Harris Hall, 15 July
Faculty artists

Knussen — Ophelia Dances, Book I [Aspen Contemporary Ensemble, Donald Crockett (conductor)]
Beethoven — Cello Sonata in A major, op. 69 [Darrett Adkins (cello), Robert Spano (piano)]
Brahms — Piano Quartet No. 3 in C minor [Sylvia Rosenberg (violin), James Dunham (viola), Michael Mermagen (cello), Anton Nel (piano)]

Aspen Festival Orchestra, Benedict Music Tent, 16 July
Larry Rachleff (conductor), Nikolai Lugansky (piano)

Debussy — Prélude à l’après midi d’un faune
Lutoslawski — Concerto for Orchestra
Beethoven — Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat major “Emperor”

In the Aspen Music Festival’s third week, both of the prime-time orchestras – the ones with professionals in the principal chairs – found their footing in a refreshingly wide range of music.

On Sunday afternoon, the Aspen Festival Orchestra in the Benedict Music Tent was especially beguiling, in part because of the contrasts between the shimmering pastels of Prélude to the Afternoon of a Faun, which opened the concert, and Lutoslawski’s edgy and rhythmically slashing Concerto for Orchestra. The afternoon finished off with a vital and deftly played Beethoven “Emperor” Piano Concerto. The assurance of Larry Rachleff’s conducting and the responsiveness of the players made it all the more impressive.

The highlight of the weekend was the boisterous Lutoslawski, brimming with contributions from soloists and combinations of instruments, some mixed and matched from different sections. All were dispatched brilliantly, but the standouts included a lithe turn by Michelle Pan on English horn, and a growly mix of lower brass, woodwinds and strings that preceded a passacaglia in the finale. The musicians seemed to relish all of it.

As in Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra (his model), Lutoslawski transformed folk idioms with edgy harmonies and injected his signature droll wit. A strong pulse of tantalizing rhythms kept the engine humming – thanks to a big percussion section and especially timpanist Edward Stephan – all of whom provided plenty of momentum.

The concerto couldn’t have been more different than the diaphanous textures of Debussy’s 10-minute prelude, which preceded it. Flutist Nadine Asin rendered the familiar opening flute solo with a gloriously warm tone, and Summers caught the score’s languid sexiness.

Although the “Emperor” Concerto has its grandiose moments, pianist Nikolai Lugansky focused on the small turns of phrase, savoring moments of clarity and the extra texture that comes from adroitly executed trills and crystalline tone. If the sustain pedal blurred some of Beethoven’s cascades into a general wash of sound (particularly in the opening measures of the finale), the rapid run up to the final chord was a marvel, like sprinkling stars.

Friday’s Aspen Chamber Orchestra program, also in the tent, began with a piece inspired by Japanese, Brazilian, and American jazz, followed by two violin showpieces that touched on Baroque Italy and 19th-century Hungary. The second half used an ethereal Wagner prelude to set up a satirical romp by Prokofiev. It was also one of the shortest orchestral concerts in years, clocking in at less than 90 minutes. Conductor Patrick Summers coaxed well-defined individual colors from the orchestra in every bar.

The Friday soloist, violinist Sarah Chang, seemed to have toned down some of her stagey histrionics and found an accuracy and roundness of sound in the lower register that had been missing in previous engagements here. This was especially welcome during the Chaconne in G minor, a favorite of Jascha Heifitz, essentially a series of increasingly fanciful variations for the violinist over a steady accompaniment from the orchestra.

Ravel’s Tzigane, a French composer’s rhapsody on Gypsy elements in Hungarian music, is mother’s milk for an extrovert like Chang. Thankfully she stopped short of going over the top, and simply played the hell out of it. Professional that he is, Summers dutifully kept up with her constantly shifting pulse (even though the soloist hardly ever looked at him).

The Friday opener, Stephen Hartke’s 1997 Pacific Rim, played winningly with timbres of Japanese music, jazz gestures and orchestral colors in a snappy overture-like package. Summers, a mainstay in opera pits internationally, was in his element with selections from two very different operas. He got the strings to capture the high harmonic magic in the Prelude to Act I of Wagner’s Lohengrin, then ripped away all sense of propriety with Prokofiev’s rollicking The Love for Three Oranges.

 The highlight of Saturday afternoon’s faculty chamber recital, Brahms Piano Quartet No. 3 in C minor, brought together longtime collaborators Sylvia Rosenberg (violin), James Dunham (viola), Michael Mermagen (cello), and Anton Nel (piano). All executed with vim, clearly listening carefully for each other’s cues, big and little, to create extraordinary unity. That’s the essence of fine chamber music.

Harvey Steiman

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