Aspen 11: Bewitching Britten, French Chamber Music, and Märkl


United StatesUnited States Various composers, Aspen Music Festival (HS)

Benedict Music Tent, 10 August

Ben Bliss (tenor), Andrew Bain (horn), Sarah Chang (violin), Aspen Chamber Orchestra/Johannes Debus (conductor)
BrittenSerenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings
SarasateCarmen Fantasy
R. StraussLe bourgeois gentilhomme

Harris Hall, 11 August

Esther Heideman (soprano), Aspen Contemporary Ensemble/Timothy Weiss (conductor)
RavelTrois poèmes de Stéphane Mallarmé; Introduction and Allegro [Deanna Cirielli (harp)]
StravinskyTrois poésies de la lyrique japonaise
DelageQuatre poèmes hindous
PoulencTrio for Oboe, Bassoon, and Piano [Alex Klein (oboe), Nancy Goeres (bassoon), Vivian Hornik Weilerstein (piano)]; Sextet [Anton Nel (piano), Alison Fierst (flute), Tamara Winston (oboe), Eddie Sundra (clarinet), Brenton Foster (bassoon), Alec Michaud-Cheney (horn)]

Benedict Music Tent, 12 August

Vladimir Feltsman (piano), Aspen Festival Orchestra/Jun Märkl (conductor)
GriegPeer Gynt Suite No.1; Piano Concerto in A minor
RavelUne barque sur l’océan
DebussyLa Mer

Atmosphere dominated these concerts at the Aspen Music Festival — in large part French pieces that fit into the season’s Paris theme — culminating in a beautifully expansive reading of Debussy’s evocative La Mer in the Benedict Music Tent.

But the award for ‘most bewitching of the weekend’ had to be Britten’s ravishing Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings, which led off Friday evening’s Aspen Chamber Orchestra program. Tenor Ben Bliss and French horn master Andrew Bain delivered sensitive contributions and conductor Johannes Debus wove the orchestra’s strings into a shapely carpet of sound.

Bliss, who was a student here only a few years ago and now sings principal roles at the Metropolitan Opera and Santa Fe Opera, articulated the poetry of Tennyson, Blake and Keats with clarity in a sweet tenor that had no trouble ascending to the high range the score requires. Bain, principal horn of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, played a valveless instrument with aplomb for the solo Prologue and Epilogue (the latter from outside the tent, combining sustained beauty with an appropriate edge of wildness). But during the six songs, he switched to a modern French horn to soften the sound and make it match with Bliss.

Debus also led a delicious traversal of Richard Strauss’ Bourgeois gentilhomme suite in the second half, acknowledging the contributions of each member of the chamber-sized orchestra with individual bows. Well deserved, as it all came together with charm and spice.

Violinist Sarah Chang, also an Aspen alum, followed the Serenade with a dramatic, if uneven, account of Sarasate’s showpiece Carmen Fantasy. Once past a rough opening minute of wobbly intonation in her instrument’s low range, she coaxed some lovely delicacy in the upper end, especially a rapid passage of all high harmonics. The piece finished with multiple flourishes.

More elegance was evident in Saturday afternoon’s chamber music program in Harris Hall, saturated with woodwinds and French finesse. The creamy soprano of Esther Heideman caressed the gentle vocal lines of Ravel, Stravinsky and Delage, contemporaries in a 1912-1914 effort to bring more color to modern French music using more than a piano but less than a full orchestra. Conductor Weiss and an expanded Aspen Contemporary Ensemble provided watercolor backgrounds.

If that weren’t delicious enough, faculty members Alex Klein (oboe) and Nancy Goeres (bassoon) joined pianist Vivian Hornik Weilerstein for an exuberant romp through a Poulenc trio, before harp competition winner Deanna Cirielli contributed the needed virtuosity and flair to Ravel’s Introduction and Allegro. An impressive group of woodwind students flanked pianist Anton Nel in a vibrant, pungent and utterly delightful Poulenc Sextet to complete a splendid afternoon.

Jun Märkl, who made a strong impression leading the all-student Philharmonic the previous Wednesday, underlined his compelling conductor talent with Sunday’s Festival Orchestra program. The opening work, Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite No.1, made the familiar feel fresh and nuanced, ending with a ‘Hall of the Mountain King’ that ratcheted up intensity to a ringing climax. One of the larger audiences in the tent this summer gave a standing ovation to pianist Vladimir Feltsman’s error-laden, unsubtle work on Grieg’s popular Piano Concerto. The orchestra did fine.

After a dappled, painterly performance of Ravel’s Une barque sur l’océan began the second half, Debussy’s La Mer closed the concert admirably. The episodic opening movement shifted seamlessly from one aspect of the sea to another. The second movement was a study in orchestral subtlety, and the finale found all hands on deck for a triumphant finish.

Harvey Steiman

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