Aspen Music Festival (7): A Shaham Soiree, and DeYoung Does Mahler Proud


United StatesUnited States Aspen Music Festival [7] – Collins, Prokofiev, Duparc, Mahler, Mendelssohn, Schönberg, Shostakovich, Leclair, Bartók, Moszkowski, Brahms/Ricci, Wieniawski, Milone: Soloists, Altius Quartet, Gloucester String Quartet. Harris Hall, Aspen, CO. 25-27.7.2017. (HS)

Recital, Harris Hall, 25 July
Michelle DeYoung (mezzo soprano), William Billingham (piano), Altius Quartet, Gloucester String Quartet

Collins — Desdemona
Prokofiev — String Quartet No. 1 in B minor
Duparc — L’invitation au voyage: Extase, Elégie
Mahler — Rückert-Lieder

Pacifica Quartet, Harris Hall, 26 July
Simin Ganatra (violin), Alexander Kerr (violin), Masumi Per Rostad (viola), Brandon Vamos (cello), Esther Heideman (soprano)

Mendelssohn — String Quartet No. 2 in A minor
Schönberg — String Quartet No. 2 in F-sharp minor
Shostakovich — Quartet No. 3 in F major

Recital, Harris Hall, 27 July
Adele Anthony, Gil Shaham (violins), Anton Nel (piano)

Leclair — Duo Sonata in E minor
Bartók — from 44 Duos for Two Violins
Moszkowski — Suite for Two Violins and Piano
Brahms/Ricci — Presto after J.S. Bach
Wieniawski — from Etudes-caprices, op. 18
Prokofiev — Sonata in C major for Two Violins, op. 56
Milone — En Coulissses

Husband-and-wife violinists Gil Shaham and Adele Anthony threw a sort of musical party — a fun soiree, if you will — for 550 of their Aspen friends Thursday night in Harris Hall. Their light-hearted program delved into no deep corners of the musical world, but it delivered one delight after another.

Both are true masters of the fiddle. Shaham has the big international career, and every bowing across the strings of his Stradivarius creates another magical moment. Anthony, who also plays a Strad, can keep pace. She had her moments of lyrical beauty and rapid-fire technical brilliance.

They applied technical skills and high spirits to charming duos by Leclair, Bartók, Brahms (channeling Bach), Prokofiev, Wieniawski and Moszkowski. The meatiest music, Prokofiev’s Sonata in C major for Two Violins, still traded in the composer’s jaunty rhythms and spicy harmonic shifts. And the broadest piece, Moszkowski’s romp of a Suite for Two Violins and Piano, got a properly grandiose performance with pianist Anton Nel.

Before playing a series of show-off études by Wieniawski, Gil gave a deadpan introduction to the audience, “When we come to Aspen every summer we bring our skis—Moszkowski, Wieniawski…” Folk song-inspired miniatures by Bartók, a composer who can draw frowns from Aspen audiences, also sparked smiles and actual laughter.

More fun came in the finale, En coulisses, a witty ensemble piece by Julien Milone, who plays violin in London’s Philharmonia Orchestra. The title translates to “behind the scenes,” and the music for 12 violins (remarkably able student violinists completed the group) weaves together the sort of exercises and snatches of familiar phrases violinists play while warming up. Phrases from concertos by Sibelius, Bruch, and Mendelssohn drew chuckles from the knowledgeable audience, and sent everyone out with smiles.

Michelle DeYoung’s recital Tuesday night in Harris Hall offered intimacy and transparency in its second half. In songs by Duparc and Mahler, ably supported by pianist William Billingham, DeYoung got her voice to float gorgeously. Duparc’s “Extase” and the bittersweet “Elegie” created heart-stopping moments.

Best, though, was Mahler’s Rückert-Lieder, where DeYoung found just the right combination of sweetness and weariness in the tone, her voice retaining a lightness, even delicacy. The order of these songs is subject to interpretation, since they were not meant to convey a narrative, and DeYoung’s choices described a compelling musical arc.

That arc was utterly riveting in its communicative power, beginning in an almost wispy vein with “Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft.” She placed the magnificent simplicity of “Liebst du um Schönheit” at the center, and, after an austere hymn-like detour to “Um Mitternacht,” finished with the quiet acceptance and resignation of “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen.”

With the Altius String Quartet, DeYoung sang a glacially slow but disarmingly sumptuous encore: an arrangement (and subtle transposition down) of the soprano aria “Marrietta’s Lied” from Korngold’s opera Die Tote Stadt.

The first half did not always flatter her gloriously rich voice. Seamless from its dark, creamy lower range to its glistening top, it’s a formidable presence. The music, however, wanted delicacy, especially Australian composer Timothy Collins’ Desdemona, a setting of the “Willow Song” and “Ave Maria” scene in Boito’s libretto for Verdi’s Otello.

If it weren’t for inevitable comparisons to one of the great opera scenes ever written, the 14-minute work, written for DeYoung, would be notable for Collins’ writing for the string quartet accompanying her—lacy and refined, with complex interactions and a lyrical sound. The vocal writing flatters DeYoung’s voice, and although the melodic line could not match Verdi’s genius it reflected the character’s nervousness and dread.

Unfortunately, the singer’s impassioned delivery overwhelmed the string sound. The result was an imbalance musically and emotionally, creating too much space between the singer and the audience. Then inexplicably, this was followed by Prokofiev’s String Quartet No. 1 in B minor, though the Gloucester String Quartet played it with brusque precision.

Wednesday evening’s annual Aspen recital by the Pacifica Quartet was supposed to be a sort of victory lap for the lineup that has won over audiences here for more than a decade. Behind-the-scenes drama aside, the results in Harris Hall Wednesday night were as satisfying as always.

Violinist Sibbi Bernhardsson and violist Masumi Per Rostad announced in May that they are leaving the Quartet in September. In a late switch, Alexander Kerr, concertmaster of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, pinch-hit for Bernhardsson. And two-thirds of the program was changed as well.

Kerr has served as concertmaster for both weekend orchestras here at different times, and excelled at a busy chamber music schedule. Yet no adverse effect was audible.  Mendelssohn’s youthful String Quartet No. 2 in A minor was ravishing. Schönberg’s late-Romantic harmonies and gravely serious mood were palpable in his String Quartet in F-sharp minor, soprano Esther Heideman carrying the melodic ball in its two songs. And the Shostakovich Quartet No. 3 sprung to life, all of its vigorous rhythms and puckish music intact.

First violin Simi Ganatra, whose facial expressions and body language are as entertaining to watch as the music-making is to hear, was a fiddle chameleon. She brought sweetness and grace to Mendelssohn’s lines, firm focus to Schönberg’s interweavings, and kick-in-the-pants crispness to Shostakovich’s dry wit. (She also had announced her departure from the quartet last year, but reconsidered.)

The contributions of cellist Brandon Vamos (Ganatra’s husband) sailed smoothly and Rostad made the most of his viola solos. For his part, Kerr made an agile fit, even though he says he’s never publicly played any of this music. Then again, these musicians are all colleagues at Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music.

Harvey Steiman

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