In Aspen, a Sondheim Classic, Brass Favorites, and American Cabaret

United StatesUnited States Aspen Music Festival [4]: Aspen, Colorado (HS)

15 July, Wheeler Opera House

Stephen SondheimA Little Night Music, soloists, members of the Aspen Opera Center, Paul Einhorn (conductor)

17 July, American Brass Quintet, Harris Hall

Joan TowerCopperwave
Jessica MeyerLuminosity
Adam SchoenbergReflecting Light
Trevor GureckisFixated Nights
Hall/NeaveEver of Thee
HartwellDouble Quickstep
Herold — ‘Aux Pieds de la Madonne’ from Zampa
AnonymousWaltz, Grand Confederate Quickstep

18 July, Harris Hall

Red, Hot, and BlueA Cabaret Evening from American Song to Broadway, members of the Aspen Opera Center, Kenneth Merrill (piano)

Foster — ‘Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair’ (Jan DeGaetani, Gilbert Kalish—recording), ‘Come where my love lies dreaming’ (ensemble), ‘Ring, Ring the Banjo’ (Korin Gregory Thomas-Smith, baritone)
Sousa — ‘Sweetheart, I’m waiting to hold thee’ from El Capitan (Jose Simerilla Romero, tenor)
Joplin — ‘We’re Goin’ Around’ from Treemonisha (Thomas-Smith)
Romberg — ‘Deep in my heart, my dear’ from The Student Prince (Romero; Juliet Powar, soprano)
Berlin — from Call me Madam: ‘It’s a lovely day today’ (Romero; Madeleine Lyon, mezzo-soprano), ‘You’re just in love’ (Romero; Katherine Menke, mezzo-soprano), ‘Something to Dance About’ (Menke)
Duke — ‘April in Paris’ (Merrill, piano), ‘I like the likes of you’ (Thomas-Smith)
Porter — ‘So In Love’ (Menke), ‘It’s De-Lovely’ (Thomas-Smith, Lyon), ‘Red, Hot and Blue’ (Menke)
Loewe — ‘If Ever I Would Leave You’ (Thomas-Smith)
Arlen — ‘Stormy Weather’ (Powar)
Ellington — ‘Solitude’ (Merrill, piano)
Arlen  — Medley from Wizard of Oz (ensemble)
Rodgers — ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ (ensemble)

American music enlivened several programs this past week, some in unexpected ways. The final performance of Aspen Opera Center’s A Little Night Music presented one of Stephen Sondheim’s most treasured and accessible scores. Later in the week student singers explored American song from Stephen Foster to Broadway in a one-hour ‘cabaret’. And the American Brass Quintet finished its all-American Aspen recital with the music of a North Carolina Civil War band.

At Wheeler Opera House, the opera company got to the heart of Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music. Veteran Broadway and Sondheim conductor Paul Einhorn carefully navigated the composer’s 1973 score, which sets Ingmar Bergman’s classic film comedy, Smiles of a Summer Night, to wittily written waltzes and other three-beat rhythms. After a few missteps, Edward Berkeley’s minimal staging came together with the first-act’s ensemble finale, ‘Weekend in the Country’ and built sure-footedly to a warm and touching ending.

The singers in the central roles, both in their 30s, used their maturity to bring depth to their characters. As Desiree Armfeldt, Kelly Birch carried herself with the glamor of a stage star and delivered a perfectly pitched ‘Send In The Clowns’, the score’s most popular song. Michael Aiello, who was a virile Sam in last year’s Trouble in Tahiti, cannily underplayed Frederik Egerman, Desiree’s on-and-off lover, to make their relationship feel real.

That, and a nicely placed baritone voice, gave Aiello the edge over baritone Geoffrey Hahn, who overplayed Carl-Magnus, the pretentious army office and Desiree’s current paramour. But the two baritones’ Act II duet, ‘It Would Have Been Wonderful’ contrasted styles nicely.

Also on the plus side, the quintet of ‘Greek chorus’ singers, especially soprano Charlotte Bagwell and tenor Jehú Otero, roamed the stage and set up and transitioned between scenes with flair. Mezzo-soprano Katherine Menke delivered all of the maid Petra’s uninhibited scenes; her song, ‘The Miller’s Son’, got pretty close to controlled abandon. And 17-year-old soprano Ashley Grace Chen combined charm and spot-on singing as Frederika, Desiree’s inquisitive (and smart) daughter.

However, some of the cast missed the wry charm of their characters. Soprano Dorothy Gal and tenor Spencer Boyd — Anne Egerman, Frederik’s flibbertigibbet young new wife, and Henrik Egerman, Frederik’s seminary son, respectively — created caricatures. As well as she sang, mezzo-soprano Emily Treigle never captured the world-weary wisdom of Madame Armfeldt in her potentially show-stopping ‘Liaisons’. But Erin Theodorakis not only nailed the sneaky wit in Charlotte, Carl-Magnus’s resourceful wife, but found shadings of meaning in ‘Every Day a Little Death’, and her duets with Anne and Desiree.

If Act I felt a little underwhelming, maybe the projected titles telegraphed the jokes, when Sondheim’s lyrics aimed for a laugh with the last words of a line. Also, performing without props — probably necessary given the space limits of the Wheeler — left some of the elements of farce in the dust. But Act II, which plays out the characters’ myriad romantic choices, achieved a satisfying finish.

Billed as a ‘cabaret evening’ in Harris Hall, the Opera Center’s ‘Red, Hot and Blue’ fielded a quirky mix of familiar and obscure songs. The singers, all terrific, possessed varying degrees of chops to sing them in the vernacular. Only mezzo-soprano Menke (Night Music’s Petra earlier) and baritone Korin Gregory Thomas-Smith got the sound and the rhythm of the music. The others sounded, well, operatic.

Setting the tone first was the recorded voice of Jan DeGaetani (with Gilbert Kalish on piano), a beloved mid-20th-century mezzo-soprano who sang in the great opera houses, and taught and performed at the Aspen Music Festival, in Stephen Foster’s ‘Jeanie with the light brown hair’. Her unforced tone and graceful phrasing would prove hard to match.

But Thomas-Smith bounded onstage and sang Foster’s ‘Ring, ring the banjo’ with flair, throwing in a few dance steps, even clicking his heels athletically. He also brought luster to Scott Joplin’s ‘We’re going around’ (from the ragtime opera Treemonisha), and equally gracefully, played the roles in Irving Berlin’s ‘It’s a lovely day’, Vernon Duke’s ‘I like the likes of you’, and Lerner and Loewe’s ‘If ever I would leave you’.

On her part, Menke lent sassy swing to Berlin’s ‘Something to dance about’ and sweetness to Berlin’s ‘You’re just in love’. She dazzled with two Cole Porter tunes — ‘Red, Hot and Blue’, and a soulful rendering of ‘So in love’.

Longtime faculty member Kenneth Merrill underlined the music nicely with his piano work, and his two solos (Vernon Duke’s ‘April in Paris’ and Duke Ellington’s ‘Solitude’) alluded nicely to their jazz-standard status.

Other songs fell short, with relatively stiff singing in works by John Philip Sousa, Sigmund Romberg and Harold Arlen, but as an ensemble the singers romped cheerfully through a medley of Arlen’s songs for the film The Wizard of Oz, especially the women on ‘Optimistic Voices’. The ensemble encore, ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel, made good use of all the rich tones.

The American Brass Quartet recital filled the Harris Hall stage for the final set with all 36 brass students in the quintet’s seminar project playing pieces the quintet unearthed between 2001 and 2006, attributed to a Moravian brass band in Salem, North Carolina (enlisted in 1862 as the 26th NC Regimental Band). The rich sound of trumpets, horns, trombones, bass trombones and tubas made lively stuff of such tunes as ‘Ever of Thee’ — a sonorous arrangement of the chorale – like ‘Aux pieds de la Madonne’ from Herold’s Zampa — and a rousing ‘Grand Confederate Quickstep’ to finish.

The meat of the program presented works written for the quintet between 2006 and 2016. Highlights were Joan Tower’s undulating and brilliant Copperwave, now a staple of the quintet’s concerts, and Adam Schoenberg’s emotionally resonant Reflecting Light. Both were examples of how varied and complex brass music can be.

Harvey Steiman

Leave a Comment