South Pacific in Aspen, with Outstanding Chamber Music Bookends

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

22 July, Harris Hall

Mozart —String Quintet in E-flat major (Masao Kawasaki, Inori Sakai, violins; Choong-Jin Chang, Megan Wei, violas; Michael Mermagen, cello)
Mendelssohn — Piano Trio No.1 in D minor (William Hagen, violin; Andrei Ioniță, cello; Anton Nel, piano)

22 July, Benedict Music Tent

Rogers and Hammerstein, South Pacific (in concert): Soloists, with chorus and orchestra of Aspen Music Festival students/Andy Einhorn (conductor)

24 July, Harris Hall

American String Quartet (Peter Winograd, Laurie Carney, violins; Daniel Avshalomov, viola; Wolfram Koessel, cello)

Dvořák — String Quartet in F major ‘American’
Vivian Fung —String Quartet No.4 ‘Insects and Machines’
Franck — Piano Quintet in F minor (with Anton Nel, piano)

25 July, Harris Hall

Beethoven — Piano Trio in D major ‘Ghost’ (Philippe Quint, violin; Alisa Weilerstein, cello; Inon Barnatan, piano)
Rolf WallinRealismos Mágicos (Colin Currie, marimba)
Shostakovich (arr. Viktor Derevianko) — Symphony No.15 in A major (Quint, violin; Weilserstein, cello; Barnatan, piano and celesta; Currie, Jonathan Haas, Douglas Howard, percussion)

Transcriptions in classical music live in a sort of limbo. Sniffed at by some purists, chamber music re-castings of symphonies, concertos, tone poems, and songs may not be what the composer wrote, but they can let us hear the original ideas with different ears.

Pianist Inon Barnatan, cellist Alisa Weilerstein and percussionist Colin Currie demonstrated exactly that in a remarkably effective metamorphosis of Shostakovich’s Symphony No.15, which topped off a quirky recital in Harris Hall.

The composer’s final symphony, which debuted in 1972, trades in its own brand of eccentricity, a riot of biting dissonances cheek-by-jowl with heart-on-sleeve emotional gestures — all brilliantly orchestrated and leavened by the composer’s snarky humor (including direct quotations of Rossini and Wagner).

Viktor Derevianko’s arrangement, which dates from the 1990s and recorded memorably in 2005 by Gidon Kremer’s Kremerata Baltica, puts the spotlight on percussion. Some of the most memorable moments owe to pings of the glockenspiel, rattlings of the snare drum, and thrums of timpani to accompany the finale’s sly reference to Wagner’s music for Siegfried’s Death. A battery of wood block, whips and gong finished the 45 minutes with clarity rarely achieved in an orchestral setting.

All this was executed with refinement by visiting artist Colin Currie, a soloist famous for championing the music of Steve Reich, and artist faculty stalwarts Jonathan Haas and Douglas Howard. The percussion made its presence felt more often as seasoning for the melodic and harmonic efforts of Barnatan, Weilerstein and Russian-American violinist Philippe Quint (stepping in at the last moment for Sergey Khachatryan).

Barnatan did most of the heavy lifting, with an impressive ability to coax a range of touches from slender to grand, from bitingly crisp to achingly supple. To approximate the full panoply of Shostakovich’s orchestral color, Barnatan compensated with brilliant pianism. For her part, Weilerstein carried the cello line, which in the first movement wittily drops in references to ‘William Tell’. She opened up moments of expressive lyricism in the slow movement, and generally applied her own star quality. Quint overcame some early intonation issues to declaim the top line effectively.

To open the program, Barnatan provided the requisite thrust to make Beethoven’s ‘Ghost’ Piano Trio spring to life, with Weilerstein and Quint sharing the pianist’s vision. In between, anticipating the thread of humor than would run through the Shostakovich, Currie drew on a diversity of tone with mallets from hard to soft, and jaw-dropping articulation in Norwegian composer Rolf Wallin’s surrealist marimba showpiece, Realismos Mágicos.

The day before, the American String Quartet’s annual recital yielded a particularly extroverted performance of big, broad music, impeccably played.

Dvořák’s ‘American’ String Quartet started things off, as the foursome relished the pentatonic gestures and folk-like melodies, and struck a canny balance between Americanisms and the composer’s solidly European form and style.

Canadian-born Californian Vivian Fung tested the musicians’ concentration with her new String Quartet No. 4, ‘Insects and Machines’, in its second performance after the musicians gave its debut in May. Inspired by the creatures that buzzed around her on a walk in Cambodia, Fung merged those sounds with ambient city noise to create a tapestry of restless tremolos, shifting rhythms and swooping dynamics — a stream of consciousness that should repay rehearing.

Pianist Anton Nel — whose longtime friendship with the quartet was cemented by years of playing, teaching and walking with them in Aspen — provided a different sort of glue for a rousing Franck Piano Quintet in F minor. The pianist, who must be the festival’s busiest performer this year, melded his tone and style to blend seamlessly with the others.

The 22 July chamber music program in Harris Hall included one of the most invigorating half-hours of the season. A thrilling traversal of the Mendelssohn Piano Trio No.1 showcased three brilliant musicians who clearly enjoyed themselves. Nel, who always seems to be involved when magic like this happens, took off at a fast trot with violinist Will Hagen and cellist Andrei Ioniță. The excitement never flagged as they spun out Mendelssohn’s endless skein of intricacies.

But beyond three guys showing off their chops  — even if Ioniță writhed and gestured with his cello like an inspired rock bassist — their contributions wove together with secure articulation and intensity through the increasingly embroidered lines of the first two movements, and a finale that brimmed with energy. The purest treasure was the brief Scherzo, a sparkling example of Mendelssohn’s signature ‘fairy music’.

Later, a new collaboration paid big dividends. With a 2,000-seat tent, chorus and orchestra — led by Broadway veteran Andy Einhorn — a packed audience relished an idiomatic, heartfelt concert performance of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific. A cast of Broadway-quality singer-actors (and one noted operatic baritone) did the score full justice.

Concerts celebrating great Broadway scores have become a staple of symphony orchestras in recent years, from New York to San Francisco. With minimal sets, costumes and props, the spotlight shines on the music. Played here by 50 able musicians, Robert Russell Bennett’s brilliant orchestrations — shaped by Einhorn’s sensitive conducting, coupled with Rodgers’s tunes and evocative underscoring of dramatic scenes — framed a full evening of terrific singing and acting.

Nathan Gunn was Emile de Becque, the plantation owner, a role written for opera star Ezio Pinza and traditionally played by an operatic bass-baritone, to which Gunn added a respectable French accent and gravitas. His colleague, Broadway star Christy Altomare, fresh off a two-year run in the title role of Anastasia, made a darling spitfire of Nellie Forbush. Both sang Rodgers’s lines as beautifully as one could ask.

The whole cast was first-rate, including members of the Aspen Opera Center. The men made a big impression as a flock of seabees in ‘Bloody Mary’ and ‘There Is Nothing Like a Dame’. And as the nurses, the women created notable individual personalities to support Altomore in the big ensembles.

Lonny Price cannily directed playwright David Ives’s cogent concert adaptation of the original Broadway book by Oscar Hammerstein II and Joshua Logan. But the glue that held it all together was the orchestra, led by Einhorn, and the two leads, attractive in every way. Who needs sets when the score comes with such intensity and savvy?

Harvey Steiman

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