Aspen Music Festival (12): Khachatryan Makes Aspen Debut, Fairouz Premiere With a Broadway Baritone


United StatesUnited States Aspen Music Festival [12] – Beethoven, Lash, Salzédo, Mohammed Fairouz, Schubert, R. Strauss: Soloists, Aspen Chamber Orchestra / Hans Graf (conductor), Aspen Contemporary Ensemble / Stephen Burns (conductor), Aspen Festival Orchestra/Rafael Payare (conductor). Benedict Music Tent, Harris Hall. Aspen, CO. 11-13.8.2017. (HS)

Aspen Chamber Orchestra, Benedict Music Tent, 11 August
Hans Graf conductor), Martin Helmchen (piano)
Beethoven —Coriolan OverturePiano Concerto No. 4 In G Major; Symphony No. 6 in F Major “Pastoral”

Chamber Music, Harris Hall, 12 August
Hannah Lash Moth Sketches [Aspen Contemporary Ensemble, Stephen Burns (conductor)]
Salzédo — Ballade, Op. 28 from 3 Morceaux [Adam Phan (harp)]
Mohammed Fairouz — Evermore (World Premiere) [American String Quartet, George Abud (oud and baritone)]
Schubert — Piano Quintet In A Major, D. 667 “Trout” [Bing Wang (violin), James Dunham (viola), Brinton Smith (cello), Bruce Bransby (double bass), Joyce Yang (piano)]

Aspen Festival Orchestra, Benedict Music Tent, 13 August
Rafael Payare (conductor), Sergey Khachatryan (violin)
Beethoven — Violin Concerto in D major
Strauss — Ein Heldenleben

Two great Beethoven concertos anchored the Aspen Music Festival’s weekend proceedings in the Benedict Music Tent, both with soloists new to the festival. The Violin Concerto with the Aspen Festival Orchestra Sunday afternoon provided more substantial pleasures.

Violinist Sergey Khachatryan’s tender approach to Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D major produced one sigh-inducing phrase after another, making the violin sound dance deftly and gracefully whether the music was fast or slow.

And what a sound! Playing the same Guarneri instrument that once belonged to Eugène Ysaÿe, the great violinist of the early 20th century, Khachatryan brought out startling richness and boldness that could winnow to a wisp yet still be heard in all corners of the 2,000-seat music tent. His sense of phrasing – here hesitating for a split second, there letting a phrase race to its conclusion – always stayed within bounds, and brought freshness to the familiar.

As majestic as the outer movements were, the slow movement was most special. A stately tempo made time float. Conductor Rafael Payare, making his debut with this orchestra, employs an emphatic, demonstrative style. He’s the chief conductor of the Ulster Orchestra and, incidentally, since 2013 the husband of cellist Alisa Weilerstein. Rail-thin, with a shock of curly black hair, he went along with Khachatryan’s delicately etched approach, although his body language said otherwise.

Khachatryan’s encore, a sweet, unaccompanied folk tune from his native Armenia, “Apricot Tree,” put his quiet command of the instrument on display.

In the second half, Payare, a product of Venezuela’s La Sistema (which gave us Gustavo Dudamel), led a tempestuous performance of Richard Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben, storming the battlements in the big, loud sections but finding a semblance of suppleness in the quieter moments. Concertmaster Bing Wang handled the prominent violin solo with panache.

Friday’s all-Beethoven program in the tent introduced the German pianist Martin Helmchen to Aspen audiences, with a sharply drawn if somewhat un-idiomatic traversal of the Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major. Helmchen fashioned moments of poetry, taking a cue from the piano’s quiet, hesitant opening measures to avoid any sense of bombast. He played with restraint and clarity, even when the score unleashes itself into broad, fully Romantic gestures.

The result had its moments of brilliance, though oddly robotic at times, especially in the many long runs of sixteenth notes that pepper the score. They were so even and precise that I felt no discernible pulse within each gesture. Better was Helmchen’s encore, Max Reger’s piano transcription of Bach’s Chorale Prelude “Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ,” played with subtlety and poise.

Conductor Hans Graf opted for solid, conventionally shaped work throughout the whole concert, avoiding any creative interpretation. The Austrian conductor, associated with the Houston Symphony since 2000, conjured a relaxed and pleasant atmosphere in the “Pastoral” Symphony. The Coriolan overture, which opened the concert, had a fine aura of portent. Graf’s conducting clipped off the highs and lows of tempo and texture in both the concerto and the symphony, leading to well played but not memorable performances.

Saturday afternoon’s chamber music recital offered a compelling mix: a world premiere for baritone and string quartet that turned three Edgar Allan Poe poems into a sort of classical rap, an atmospheric piece by an alumna of the festival and school’s composing program, and a lushly Romantic piece for solo harp, whih preceded the final work, Schubert’s “Trout” Quintet.

The pick of this grab-bag was the premiere, Evermore, from the pen of the busy composer Mohammed Fairouz. George Abud, who has appeared with Tony Shaloub and Chita Rivera, injected drama into Poe’s “Israfel,” “Annabel Lee” and “The Raven” with a combination of spoken, semi-voiced and dramatic singing.

Fairouz’s writing for the quartet served mainly as accompaniment, painted with polish and grateful harmonies. No doubt the piece would have had more depth if the composer had developed some of his musical ideas. But as a vehicle for Abud it was a hit.

The music in Hannah Lash’s Moth Sketches (which debuted in 2013, two years after her stint in Aspen) fluttered, vibrated and skittered until a gorgeous violin solo emerged from the fretful gestures. Seohee Min played the tune with warm tone and lovely legato. And then it disappeared into more nervous music.

In more conventional pieces, harp competition winner Adam Phan brought a firm touch and careful attention to dynamics with Salzédo’s Ballade, an early 20th-century piece that bloomed with French Impressionism and hints of Spanish music. To complete the afternoon’s proceedings Joyce Yang (piano), Bing Wang (violin), James Dunham (viola), Brinton Smith (cello) and Bruce Bransby (double bass) invested solid musicianship and plenty of energy in Schubert’s familiar quintet.

Harvey Steiman

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