Aspen Music Festival (6): Ravel’s L’enfant and Zemlinsky’s Mermaid


United StatesUnited States Aspen Music Festival [6] – Ravel, Leshnoff, Norman, Fauré, Schoenberg, Enescu, Elgar, Franck, Hillborg, Liszt, Zemlinsky: Soloists, Aspen Chamber Symphony / Robert Spano (conductor), Aspen Contemporary Ensemble / Timothy Weiss (conductor), Aspen Festival Orchestra / Andrey Boreyko (conductor). Benedict Music Tent, Harris Hall. 21-23.7.2017. (HS)

Aspen Chamber Symphony, Benedict Music Tent, 21 July
Robert Spano (conductor), Gil Shaham (violin), singers from the Aspen Opera Center

Ravel — Mother Goose Suite
Leshnoff — Chamber Concerto for Violin and Orchestra
Ravel — L’enfant et les sortilèges

Chamber Music, Harris Hall, 22 July

Norman — Try – Aspen Contemporary Ensemble/Timothy Weiss (conductor)
Fauré — Impromptu in D-flat major – Anneleen Lenaerts (harp)
Schoenberg — The Book of the Hanging Gardens – Spencer Lang (tenor), Dan K. Kurland (piano)
Ravel — Sonata for Violin and Cello – Alexander Kerr (violin), Desmond Hoebig (cello)

Recital, Harris Hall, 22 July
Daniel Hope (violin), Anton Nel (piano)

Enescu — Impromptu concertant
Elgar — Violin Sonata in E minor
Ravel/Garban — Kaddisch
Franck — Violin Sonata in A major

Aspen Festival Orchestra, Benedict Music Tent, 23 July
Andrey Boreyko (conductor), Jean-Yves Thibaudet (piano)

Hillborg — Cold Heat
Liszt — Piano Concerto No.2 in A major
Zemlinsky — Die Seejungfrau

If this year’s Aspen Music Festival theme of “enchantment” needed any validation, two masterpieces from the early 20th century provided the proof in extraordinary orchestra concerts Friday and Sunday in the Benedict Music Tent.

Ravel’s one-act opera L’enfant et les sortilèges would be the very definition of enchantment, with toys and furniture coming to life with magical music, to teach an unruly child a little humility. Festival music director Robert Spano led the Aspen Chamber Orchestra in a performance of agility and a rainbow of sonic colors, while members of the Aspen Opera Center turned a bare stage and a few chairs into an irresistible six-year-old’s world, singing and acting with consummate charm.

At first I missed seeing an easy chair or a clock turn into a singer, but these young artists’ creative stances and physical attitudes triggered my imagination even more so. And isn’t that what theater can do, especially with Ravel’s marvelous score?

The center’s director, Edward Berkeley, corralled an ever-delighting range of physical moments, as simple as baritone Jarrod Lee’s Grandfather Clock – his arms askew to suggest the broken face – and as humorous as mezzo-soprano Zaray Rodriguez’s Cat (and Lee as an accomplice cat) rubbing up against Spano to annoy the conductor. At one point a whole army of sprightly singers, one at a time, hopped up like frogs from the depths of the orchestra. The chorus, arrayed across the back of the stage, was in constant motion, at one point pairing off to parade like sheep for the pastoral duet of soprano Dorothy Gal (Shepherdess) and mezzo-soprano Isabel Signoret (Shepherd).

As The Child, mezzo-soprano Siena Licht Miller, acting pouty and stubborn, laid a strong foundation vocally for the music to come. Soprano Zoe Cristina Bates Johnson displayed a dazzling coloratura soprano as Fire, The Princess and the Nightingale. Tenor Matt Pearce used vocal effects to create a great fussy professor (Arithmetic) and Nicholas Newton used his bulk and resonant bass-baritone to make a menacing Armchair and later, a Tree.

It takes a lot to overshadow a Gil Shaham performance, and this was another good one. The violinist invested soul and phenomenal technique in Jonathan Leshnoff’s heartfelt and generously communicative Chamber Concerto for Violin and Orchestra. It was an enormously worthwhile two-part piece, the first slow and contemplative, the second exuberant and dancelike. Leshnoff’s music combined a freshness and crowd-pleasing consonance with unexpected turns of melodic and harmonic direction.

Though a thunderstorm intruded upon the opener, Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite, what I could hear sounded fine and atmospheric.

Sunday’s Aspen Festival Orchestra concert centered on Jean-Yves Thibaudet and Liszt’s showy Piano Concerto No. 2 in A major, which the French pianist and conductor Andrey Boreyko dispatched with plenty of portent and flair. But the rest of the concert had more to chew on.

Especially welcome was the return of Die Seejungfrau (The Little Mermaid), Alexander Zemlinsky’s technicolor tone poem on the Hans Christian Anderson story. An extravaganza of orchestral romanticism, it starts off dutifully with descriptive scenes, evocative and consciously pretty. But then, rather than story-telling as in Richard Strauss’ tone poems, Zemlinsky develops the piece more and more along purely musical lines, like an extended classical overture.

It made for a rewarding second half, contrasting nicely with the opener, Anders Hillborg’s Cold Heat, an exploration of orchestral sonorities and overtones in dissonant harmonies. A lithe frame and penchant for “look what I found” moments, wherein groups of instruments create unique and strangely pleasing sounds, softened the edges. All this circulated around pulsing rhythms, often playing slow subterranean movement against bright colors up top.

Saturday in Harris Hall violinist Daniel Hope paid tribute to his teacher and mentor, Yehudi Menuhin, one of the true giants of the violin, in a most profound and majestically played recital.  All of the music on the program was close to Menuhin’s heart.

Where Menuhin could inject grace and intimacy to the salon music of violinist-composer Georges Enescu, Hope took a broader and more genial approach to the Impromptu Concertant, which started the evening. Elgar’s Violin Sonata, which followed — Elgar wrote his violin concerto for Menuhin — took on a stateliness and sumptuousness under Hope’s fingers, abetted beautifully by pianist Anton Nel’s own velvety touch.

The highlight of the concert was an eight-minute meditation, Kaddisch, a transcription for violin and piano of Ravel’s original combination of voice and piano. The setting of the Jewish prayer for the dead allows sinuous, exotically filigreed melody to emerge with quiet power and soul. It was Hope’s most delicate playing of the evening.

Franck’s outsized Violin Sonata in A major casts the piano in the role of a symphony orchestra and builds momentum over a half-hour inexorably to a thrilling finish, especially in the hands of two musical partners who clearly were channeling the same muscular spirits. Elgar’s disarmingly simple “Salut d’Amour” was the calming encore.

In Saturday afternoon’s chamber music program, two recent alumni of the festival’s school brought out the beauty in Schoenberg’s harmonically expressionist (but not atonal) song cycle, The Book of the Hanging Gardens, nicely weaving in the sad, romantic subtext. Tenor Spencer Lang and pianist Dan K. Kurland were clearly on the same page philosophically, focusing on the harmonic richness, emphasizing any suppleness they could find when the composer’s melodies skewed. It was a riveting performance.

The Aspen Contemporary Ensemble’s raucous go at Andrew Norman’s 2011 Try had two percussionists rapidly juggling a dozen instruments each, but then harpist Anneleen Lenaerts made a Fauré showpiece glow with just her two hands. Violinist Alexander Kerr and cellist Desmond Hoebig brought out the latent harmonic richness in Ravel’s spare Sonata for Violin and Cello, putting a lovely cap on the afternoon.

Harvey Steiman

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