At Aspen, Slatkin Returns and Courtney Lewis Debuts Far-Ranging Orchestral Fare

United StatesUnited States Aspen Music Festival [5]: Aspen, Colorado (HS)

19 July, Benedict Music Tent

Jory Vinikour (harpsichord), Anneleen Lenaerts (Harp), Anton Nel (piano), Aspen Chamber Orchestra / Courtney Lewis (conductor)

IvesThe Unanswered Question
Martin Petite symphonie concertante
Beethoven — Symphony No.2 in D major

21 July, Benedict Music Tent

Seong-Jin Cho (piano), Aspen Festival Orchestra / Leonard Slatkin (conductor)

Conor Abbott BrownHow to Relax with Origami
Rachmaninoff — Piano Concerto No.2 in C minor
Elgar — Variations on an Original Theme, ‘Enigma’

Artists new to Aspen are making a splash this year, and the list keeps growing. Conductor Courtney Lewis led the Aspen Chamber Orchestra in persuasive performances of Ives, Beethoven, and a charming rarity by the Swiss composer Frank Martin. The next day Seong-Jin Cho, the Korean pianist who has been creating buzz since he won the Chopin International Competition in 2015, executed the piano role of the familiar Rachmaninoff Concerto No.2 with precision and restraint.

Both concerts were among the best of the season so far, and both Aspen newbies had help from regulars — most notably from conductor Leonard Slatkin, whose history with Aspen goes back to 1964, as a student. His regular appearances here have been memorable, and this one demonstrated how a conductor can bring things together for memorable music-making.

First Slatkin spoke of his long history with this festival, the diversity represented in the participants, and how their focus can give us refuge from the challenges facing the world. He then opened with Colorado-born composer Conor Abbott Brown’s How to Relax With Origami, a deceptively carefree title for a piece bubbling with dark undertones and sharp humor.

After conducting the 2017 world premiere in Detroit, where Slatkin was the orchestra’s music director, he brought Brown’s cheeky seven short scenes to life with swagger. Dissonance contrasted with skippy little tunes (and a brief but funny sledgehammer war in the percussion section).

In the concerto Cho started out strong, building intensity and power with ringing chords in the opening pages, then settled into carefully shaped playing for the rest. He avoided the excess flamboyance of traditional interpretations — as the composer did in his performances — but Cho’s efforts to reign things in came at the expense of diminishing Rachmaninoff’s Russian flavor. Some of the many piano details went missing.

The slow movement was best, when Cho’s interplay with Brook Ferguson (principal flute of the Colorado Symphony) and Joaquin Valdepeñas (principal clarinet of the Toronto Symphony) flowed smoothly. In the turmoil of the outer movements, Cho’s unwillingness to ‘let ‘er rip’ seemed to spur Slatkin to encourage the orchestra to cut loose at climaxes. He usually avoided covering Cho’s careful workings, and if sometimes the result overshadowed the piano, the overall effect was uplifting, followed by a standing ovation.

Cho seemed more at home in his encore, Chopin’s Nocturne in C sharp minor. The minor-key tune emerged through exquisitely balanced filigrees and trills, creating four minutes of sheer beauty.

Slatkin with a magnificent reading of one of his signatures, Elgar’s ‘Enigma’ Variations. A depth of understanding from all hands combined with clarity and expressiveness. Slatkin brought out details not always heard live — overlapping lines, counter-melodies, unexpected balances — for a fresh and vital half-hour. Crisp playing triumphed, with standout solo moments from Choong-Jin Chang (principal viola of the Philadelphia Orchestra), Eric Kim (cello professor at Indiana University), and Valdepeñas.

The centerpiece was, as always, the noble ‘Nimrod.’ The quiet slowing down at the end of the preceding graceful variation allowed a moment to breathe before the Adagio began at a whisper. Slatkin and the orchestra let the sound blossom and the nobility intensify to a sumptuous climax before gently subsiding. It’s hard to avoid a catch in the throat when played that beautifully.

For the previous concert, the outstanding veterans were Anneleen Lenaerts (principal harp of the Vienna Philharmonic), pianist Anton Nel, and harpsichordist Jory Vinikour (both in demand as soloists), in Martin’s Petite symphonie concertante, essentially a triple concerto for those instruments, plus strings.

Here, the composer softens the harmonies of twelve-tone music and uses the unusual combination of keyboard instruments to create textures that might have inspired the soundtrack for The Addams Family TV show. The harpsichord rattles against a string orchestra and the richer sound of piano and harp. Some of the segments pick up a jaunty rhythm, and the swirling never lost its fascination. In the central slow section the three keyboards have a long moment all to themselves, and they seemed to enjoy reinventing chamber music right before our ears — their unanimity of approach created finely intertwined lines.

Lewis, once assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic and currently music director of the fast-rising Jacksonville Symphony, opened Friday’s concert with subtle shaping in Charles Ives’s short, moody The Unanswered Question. He laid down a bare murmur of strings, a backdrop for the offstage trumpet ‘question’ (played by Edward Stephenson, principal trumpet of the Atlanta Symphony). A quartet of flutists in the chorus wing above the stage chattered their quarreling responses.

After intermission, the relatively brief 90 minutes concluded with a juicy reading of Beethoven’s Symphony No.2. Lewis kept the rhythms light on their feet and the phrasing cogent. The opening movement made its point without fuss or bombast, the slow movement kept momentum alive without rushing, and the Scherzo tossed the ball back and forth among the sections with welcome cohesiveness and purpose.

The finale took off at a rapid clip — vibrant and spicy — with no apparent dropped notes in maintaining the pace and clarity. Even shifts into greater lyricism kept things moving forward, completing a refreshingly zippy concert.

Harvey Steiman

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