Aspen Music Festival (5): Lugansky Conquers Rachmaninoff, Premieres by Anna Clyne and Steven Franklin


United StatesUnited States Aspen Music Festival [5] – Verdi, Tchaikovsky, Chopin, Rachmaninoff, R. Strauss, Anna Clyne Prokofiev, Hillborg, Franklin, Gabrieli/Hanzlik: Soloists, Aspen Opera Center Singers and Orchestra, Aspen Philharmonic / George Manahan (conductor), American Brass Quintet. Wheeler Opera House, Harris Hall, Benedict Music Tent. Aspen, Colorado. 17-20.7.2017. (HS)

17 July 2017
Aspen Opera Center Singers and Orchestra, George Manahan (conductor)
Verdi — La traviata

Recital, Harris Hall, 18 July 2017
Nikolai Luganski (piano)

Tchaikovsky — from Les Saisons
Chopin — Four Mazurkas; Polonaise-Fantasie in A flat
Rachmaninoff — Ten Preludes Op.23; from Thirteen Preludes Op.32

Aspen Philharmonic, Benedict Music Tent, 19 July 2017
Jennifer Koh (violin), George Manahan (conductor)

Strauss — Death and Transfiguration
Anna Clyne — The Seamstress
Prokofiev — Scythian Suite

American Brass Quintet, Harris Hall, 20 July 2017
Kevin Cobb, Louis Hanzlik (trumpets), Eric Reed (French horn), Michael Powell (trombone), John D. Rojak (bass trombone)

(Ed. Hanzlik) — Elizabethan and Jacobean consort music
(Ed. Cobb) — Suite from 19th-century Russia
Hillborg — Brass Quintet
Franklin — Three Romances (world premiere)
Gabrieli/Hanzlik — Two Sacred Motets (with the Castle Five Quintet)

Russian piano music is definitely in Nikolai Lugansky’s wheelhouse. His recital Tuesday evening in Harris Hall opened with six charming miniatures by Tchaikovsky, and finished with 13 of Rachmaninoff’s technically terrifying Preludes, executed with consummate assurance and coloristic tone.

It was the highlight of a week in which the Aspen Music Festival offered a world premiere and another new work that engaged audiences, and the resident opera company did well with a certified crowd-pleasing classic.

From the first wistful notes of “Janvier” from Tchaikovsky’s Les Saisons, Lugansky spun a web of light and shade in six snapshots of Russian life. But it was with Rachmaninoff—all 10 of the Op. 23 Preludes and three from Op. 32—that the pianist reached the heights. Each one emerged with its own distinct personality and different flurries of pianistic flourishes.

As the technical challenges mounted, his command of the instrument and innate musicality brought out the essence, no matter how much embroidery surrounded it. One could hear every note in the melodic line among the ripples, cascades and whitewater rapids. Powerful outbursts created dark clouds of richness, never devolving into clanging. Quieter passages benefited from fine control of texture and tone, all rendered with shapely phrasing.

In between, a set of four Chopin Mazurkas and the Polonaise-Fantasie in A-flat were controlled and finely wrought, even if the composer’s outbursts could have benefited from a wilder edge. The encore, one of Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words, brought a sense of calm after the stormy Rachmaninoff.

At Wednesday evening’s Aspen Philharmonic concert in the Benedict Music Tent, a sparse but attentive audience heard Anna Clyne’s faux-ballet The Seamstress through the patter of raindrops and a few well-timed thunderclaps outside. Nature’s intrusions seemed to enhance the episodic nature of this one-movement violin concerto, played evocatively by Jennifer Koh, for whom it was written and premiered in 2015 by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

English by birth, Irish by descent, Clyne builds the work around an original Celtic-steeped theme. Over its 22 minutes the beguiling pentatonic language undergoes swoops of glissandos by Koh and a range of embellishments in the orchestra, making for a dreamlike work that’s easy on the ears and prods the imagination. This is a composer I’d want to hear more of.

George Manahan led the all-student orchestra in an assured performance, as well as the bigger, broader canvases—Richard Strauss’ ennobling Death and Transfiguration and Prokofiev’s rough-and-ready Scythian Suite. Big sounds, ably produced.

The American Brass Quintet almost always offers a world premiere at its annual recital, and Thursday night was no exception. A trumpet player and composer based in Philadelphia, Steven Franklin, all of 22 years old, wrote an unabashedly lush and romantic tone poem in three movements. The rich consonance, an unusual thing to find in a contemporary work, made things warm and cuddly. it may have been a bit too much of the same for its 17 minutes, but it was appealing to the ears.

Anders Hillborg’s Brass Quintet, which debuted here 10 years ago, still impresses with its playfulness and vigor. To complete the concert, sets of Elizabethan, mid-19th-century Russian, and Gabrieli works, arranged by members of the quintet, offered varying colors and crackling execution.

Earlier this week, Aspen Opera Center did a lot of things right in its three-performance run of Verdi’s familiar classic La traviata, which concluded Tuesday. The set framed a portion of the Wheeler Opera House stage with a second story of green faux-iron balustrades, lending a mid-19th-century feel to a traditional staging, nicely managed by Edward Berkeley, director of the opera program.

In Monday’s performance the all-student orchestra under conductor George Manahan hit the right notes with professionalism. Intonation and balances were better than some orchestras heard in major opera houses. The chorus sang and moved about the stage with purpose. In the second of two casts, a range of distinctive voices both looked their parts and sang with conviction and musicality.

As Violetta, the “fallen woman” of the title, soprano Katherine Weber conveyed a level of dignity and vulnerability with her acting and a voice that hit high notes with a steely edge. She caressed the mid-range with welcome warmth, even if in louder passages her Italian vowels went askew. Alexander McKissick could not quite match her in volume, but as her lover Alfredo he positioned his voice to express the music with the right ideas.

Vocally the most impressive performance came from baritone Sol Jin as Alfredo’s father, Giorgio Germont. With seamless vocal presence up and down his range, especially ping-y at the high end, he rendered the music with accuracy and expressed the character’s initial haughtiness.

In other roles, the standouts were mezzo-soprano Gloria Palermo (as Flora, Violetta’s society friend) and soprano Mane Galoyan (as Annina, Violetta’s maid).

If the results didn’t quite make the audience feel the emotional release in Act IV, it might be because the characters all seemed to be in their own worlds. As this story plays out we need to feel their impact on each other so we can weep along with them. Without these established connections, even Manahan’s efforts to draw all the juice from Verdi’s music left too many dry eyes in the house.

Harvey Steiman

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