Barber Concertos Bring Out the Best in Aspen Soloists

United StatesUnited States Aspen Musical Festival [6]: Aspen, Colorado (HS)

26 July, Benedict Music Tent
Inon Barnatan (piano), Aspen Chamber Orchestra / Johannes Zahn (conductor)

Arturo Márquez Danzón No.2
Barber — Piano Concerto
Bernstein West Side Story Symphonic Dances

27 July, Harris Hall
Vijay Iyer Radghe Radhe: Rites of Holi (Aspen Contemporary Ensemble, Vijay Iyer [piano], Ches Smith [drum set])

Schulhoff — Concertino for Flute, Viola, and Bass (Brook Ferguson [flute], Choong-Jin Choong [viola], Timothy Pitts [bass])
Kodály — Serenade Op.12 (Paul Kantor, Laurie Carney, Daniel Avshalamov)
Steve Reich Mallet Quartet

27 July, Harris Hall
Jeremy Denk (piano)

Beethoven — Five Variations on ‘Rule Britannia’
John Adams I Still Play
Mendelssohn Variations sérieuses in D minor
Beethoven — ‘Eroica’ Variations
Schumann — Fantasy in C major

28 July, Benedict Music Tent
Alisa Weilerstein (cello), Aspen Festival Orchestra / Robert Spano (conductor)

Barber — Cello Concerto
Mahler — Symphony No.7 in E minor

Samuel Barber’s three mid-century concertos — for violin, piano and cello  —were highlights of this summer’s Aspen Music Festival Theme, ‘Being American’. The final two were featured this past weekend.

The concertos present huge challenges for the soloists and, no less, for the conductors and orchestras. The festival’s music director, Robert Spano, led two, and Sunday’s cello concerto was in many ways the most satisfying of the three. Alisa Weilerstein brought everything in her arsenal to bear, from brilliant technique to soulful execution of Barber’s lyrical writing for the cello’s highest register. An artist in total command of her instrument and the musical line, Weilerstein carried the day.

Spano kept the orchestra in balance for most of it. The Andante — in which the cello, flute and oboe pass around the melody against soft flowing harmonies — was a suave, delicious gem. The more rambunctious outer movements moved with purpose, and mostly highlighted the soloist.

At Friday’s Aspen Chamber Orchestra concert, Johannes Zahn stepped in for Alondra de la Parra, who canceled for medical reasons the week before, in Barber’s complex piano concerto, one of the trickiest in the repertoire. Winner of the 2018 Aspen Conducting Prize, Zahn’s reward was to serve as assistant conductor for the festival this season. Usually that means working behind the scenes, but he navigated the concerto’s rhythms and give-and-take with the soloist, and controlled the orchestra’s role with presence.

Even if the density of sound could have benefited from more transparency in the outer movements, the central slow Canzone melded smoothly with the piano, and the byplay with the woodwinds revealed its charm.

Pianist Inon Barnatan’s playing in that movement had a jewel-like sheen, and his work throughout was dashing and mostly precise. He shaped the roiling outer movements with real expressiveness, not just propulsion, and the nonstop rush of the finale was exhilarating. For an encore Barnatan attacked the finger-busting finale of Barber’s piano sonata with similar gusto, not letting up until the final gestures.

The second halves of both concerts brought mixed results, however.

Zahn caught the Latin sway and idiomatic Mexican intensity in the opening Danzón No.2 by Arturo Márquez, and kept the Barber concerto firmly on the rails. But Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story Symphonic Dances was another matter.

The familiar jazzy gestures fell flat, although yeoman efforts from the percussion section came close to compensating for the orchestra’s stodgy syncopations. Whenever a jazz feel was needed the group just didn’t swing, and its attempts at Bernstein’s Latin dances paled next to the Márquez earlier. Much better was the sweet, romantic excerpt derived from the song ‘Somewhere’, so at least the piece ended nicely.

Sunday’s second half, Mahler’s Symphony No.7, had its moments. Spano steadily kept  up the momentum, except in the mercurial central Scherzo, which tended to plod. And the sprawling work’s repetitiveness required a defter touch to bring out the composer’s subtle tweaks when familiar phrases returned. Each climax seemed to reach the same intensity.

The unalloyed highlight was Edward Stephan’s jaw-dropping gymnastics on timpani. Principal horn John Zirbel was consistently golden, even when brass fanfares didn’t always achieve a silvery sheen. But the jubilant final pages sent everyone out into the clear, sunny evening with fanfares and chimes ringing in their ears.

In between those programs Saturday night’s recital in Harris Hall featured Jeremy Denk, literally a genius, a title he earned with a MacArthur Fellowship in 2013. Another descriptor might be ‘mercurial’, for both his presentation and late switches to the program.

His lineup focused on Schumann’s Fantasy in C major, a half-hour rumination inspired by Beethoven. But a week before the concert Denk decided to replace the rest of the program. A savory mix of a Bach English Suite and pieces by Ligeti, Liszt and Berg disappeared, replaced by a collection of offbeat variations by Beethoven, John Adams and Mendelssohn.

With the program notes moot, Denk extemporized oral introductions, more personal than anything written. His depth of knowledge and casual wit emerged, and these same attributes underlaid his performance — less than virtuosity, more about his mind. Moment-to-moment impulses seemed to inspire him to unique interpretations as the music unfolded. The audience could feel that sense of improvisation, and the Schumann Fantasy was Exhibit A.

If the crashing chords of the second movement did not ring with clarity, as they do under the fingers of prodigies, Denk matched the twists and turns of Schumann’s feverish mind with his own unique approach. The slow final movement, invoking Beethoven’s own sonorous, heartfelt andantes and adagios, sang with unexpected power.

An opening set, variations on ‘Rule Britannia’, nodded to Beethoven as the marketing man, refreshing for its lightweight jokiness. A short set of jazz waltz variations by John Adams, alluding to Bill Evans, had a winsome charm. After an earnest walk through Mendelssohn’s Variations sérieuses, Denk then pulled and twisted, putting his own stamp on Beethoven’s own variations on a tune the composer used most famously in the ‘Eroica’ symphony.

For an encore Denk offered a transcription of mid-20th-century jazz artist Donald Lambert’s brash, stride piano version of the Pilgrim’s Chorus from Wagner’s Tannhaüser. Though Denk played it with less transparency than Lambert did, it produced a mercurial, three-minute-long grin that came out of left field.

How folk music gets interpreted by ‘serious’ composers was the underlying theme to Saturday afternoon’s chamber music. Vijay Iyer’s elaborate Rahde Rahde: Rites of Holi, from 2013, used elements of Indian music against an impressionist film by Prashant Bhargava. Filtered through the colors of western instruments — there wasn’t a sitar or tabla in sight — its repetitions packed plenty of flavor.

Flautist Brook Ferguson ran with Edwin Schulhoff’s 1925 glosses on tuneful folk music in the composer’s Concertino for Flute, Viola, and Bass. Violinists Paul Kantor and Laurie Carney teamed with Daniel Avshalamov (Carney’s seatmate in the American String Quartet) for a tangy romp through Kodály’s Hungarian-inflected Serenade (1920). The ‘folk music’ in Steve Reich’s Mallet Quartet might have been the jazz harmonies the composer injected into his complex minimalist energy. Colin Courie’s green mallets made the vibes he was playing awfully clangy, but the red mallets in the softer middle section produced more soul.

Harvey Steiman

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