In Aspen, a Theofanidis Premiere, Guitarist Sharon Isbin, and Erik Nielsen in His Debut

United States Aspen Music Festival [8]: Aspen (HS)9 August, Benedict Music Tent
Midori (violin), Elaine Douvas (oboe), Nancy Allen (harp), Aspen Chamber Orchestra, Erik Nielsen (conductor)
Schumann — Violin Concerto in D minor
Martin — Three Dances for Oboe, Harp and Strings
Mozart — Symphony No.39 in E-flat major

10 August, Harris Hall
Bernstein — Arias and Barcarolles (Megan Mikailovna Samarin, mezzo-soprano; Samson McCrady, baritone; Vivian Hornik Weilerstein, Robert Spano, pianos)
Mozart — Trio for Clarinet, Viola, and Piano in E-flat major, ‘Kegelstatt’ (Joaquin Valdepeñas, clarinet; James Dunham, viola; Anton Nel, piano)
AlbertInto Eclipse (Spencer Lang, tenor; Aspen Contemporary Ensemble/Timothy Weiss, conductor)

10 August, Harris Hall
Sharon Isbin (guitar), Jessica Rivera (soprano)
BrittenNocturnal after Dowland
Richard DanielpourOf Love and Longing
Rodrigo Aranjuez, ma pensée (Brinton Smith, cello)
Villa-Lobos — Aria (from Bachiananas Brasilieras No.5)
Monsalvatge/Sharon Isbin — from Canciones Negras
Falla/Llobet/PujolSiete canciones populares españolas

11 August, Benedict Music Tent
The Percussion Collective, Jan Lisiecki (piano), Aspen Festival Orchestra/Michael Stern (conductor)
Christopher Theofanidis Drum Circles
GershwinCuban Overture
Mendelssohn — Piano Concerto No.1 in G minor
BartókThe Miraculous Mandarin Suite

Drum Circle, a splashy new work for four percussion soloists and orchestra by composer-in-residence Christopher Theofanidis, opened Sunday’s penultimate Festival Orchestra concert Sunday with a bang. Four members of The Percussion Collective roamed among marimbas, vibes, chimes, bells, conga drums—and a few office equipment odds and ends—wielded claves and triangles, and delivered Theofanidis’ score with consummate musicianship and more than a little showmanship.

Jonathan Allen, Ji Hye Jung, Ji Su Jung and Matthew Gordon Keown attacked their array of instruments without benefit of written scores, adding gestures for panache. Theofanidis made endlessly fascinating use of their precision abilities, each picking up a phrase from another before tossing it to the next player.

Over 25 minutes, each of the five movements explores a different aspect of percussion. The first wove together phrases from the pitched mallet instruments playing against punchy commentary from the big orchestra. The second focused on the clicks and clacks of woodblocks and claves against the soft texture of strings.

The third movement, the concerto’s short scherzo, found the players huddled over a typewriter and various office supplies extracted from two briefcases (here’s where showmanship played a role). In the fourth movement centerpiece, ‘Spirits and Drums,’ a call-and-response between the soloists and the orchestra’s percussion section, at one point created a sonic wave encircling the stage. The finale softened the tone with lyrical melodies and harmonies from the mallet instruments, bringing back the opening gestures to complete the circle.

Conductor Michael Stern energized the orchestra to keep up with these phenomenal soloists, with memorable results. As an encore, Astor Piazzolla’s Grand Tango—originally for cello and dedicated to Mstislav Rostropovich—emerged as a mallet frenzy worthy of Gary Burton’s classic artistry on vibes.

Stern kept the energy high, starting the second half with a rousing if somewhat overexcited Cuban Overture by Gershwin. The extra juice spilled over into the first movement of Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto No. 1, but soloist Jan Lisiecki adjusted his sights for more elegance in the last two movements. A colorful and rhythmically invigorating Miraculous Mandarin Suite by Bartók concluded on a high note.

At her recital on Saturday night in Harris Hall, guitarist Sharon Isbin found a worthy substitute for mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard in a collection of exotic songs—soprano Jessica Rivera. (Though Leonard recorded these with Isbin in 2017, the last two years she canceled her Aspen appearances.) Rivera will record some of these later this month, and proved a worthy musical partner.

Her sound and style may not be as elegant as Leonard’s, but Rivera floated a gorgeous pianissimo second verse of Villa-Lobos’ aria from Bachianas Brasilieros No. 5, and lent a Latina charge of her own to the Siete canciones populares españolas by Falla. Isbin clearly likes these works. Last year, she enlisted faculty cellist Brinton Smith for Falla’s own arrangement of the canciones populares for guitar and cello. This time, Rivera found clarity, injected with tons of personality.

Smith made a welcome return, this time for Rodrigo’s cello-guitar arrangement of ‘Aranjuez, ma pensée,’ the famous Adagio from his Concierto de Aranjuez. With Isbin’s gently amplified guitar, his soulfulness created another sublime moment.

In her only solo, Isbin traced Benjamin Brittten’s Nocturnal, a 20th-century set of variations on John Dowland’s 16th-century ‘Come Heavy Sleep,’ for lute. In 18 mesmerizing minutes, Isbin matched the score’s psychological angles of sleep and death with keen insight. In Richard Danielpour’s Love and Longing, a setting of three Rumi texts, Rivera and Isbin created sheer beauty.

Earlier on Saturday, in Harris Hall, songs played a big role in a faculty chamber music program. Leonard Bernstein’s sardonic ragging of love and life came through in Arias and Barcarolles, his 1988 song cycle for mezzo-soprano, baritone and two pianists (on one piano). Megan Mikailovna Samarin and Samson McCrady acted the roles well, but heavy-handed work by Vivian Hornik Weilerstein and Robert Spano didn’t help. Another cycle, Stephen Albert’s Into Eclipse, was a grating version of the Oedipus story, though tenor Spencer Lang did his best with Albert’s random interval skips. Though the enhanced Aspen Contemporary Ensemble sounded raspy at first, a few moments of loveliness appeared in the second half.

In between—sublime as one could ask—Joaquin Valdepeñas shaped supple clarinet lines, James Dunham wove in spicy viola comments, and Anton Nel anchored with shapely piano lines in Mozart’s Kegelstatt trio.

On Friday, conductor Erik Nielsen in his Aspen debut with the Aspen Chamber Orchestra, led a jewel-like Mozart Symphony No. 39. Other than occasional stridence from the trumpets, Nielsen drew sprightly style and sonic clarity from the smallish orchestra, paid attention to subtle dynamics and tempo changes, and produced one of the most satisfying half-hours of the ensemble’s season. He didn’t shy away from emphasizing dissonances—just enough so that their resolution felt like a balm. Overall, the performance was a model in celebrating Mozart’s harmonic ingenuity.

A harpist himself, Nielsen seemed to relish the roles of soloist Nancy Allen and Elaine Douvas on oboe in Frank Martin’s succulent little ode to flamenco, Three Dances for Oboe, Harp and Strings, which preceded the Mozart symphony. Both Aspen veterans acquitted themselves admirably, especially Douvas, who channeled a flamenco singer’s wails in her moments in the sunshine.

If the rhythmic vitality sometimes came up short, Martin’s tart splashes of unexpected color made a better showcase for Allen and Douvas than the Schumann violin concerto did with Midori in the first half. The violinist’s reticence of demeanor and painfully slender sound did her no favors, no matter how much Nielsen worked to tamp down the orchestra’s volume. A dash of Bach made a gentle encore.

Harvey Steiman

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