Even Covid-19 cannot stop Aspen from celebrating Robert Spano, albeit virtually

United StatesUnited States Aspen’s 2020 Virtual Festival Opening: Renée Fleming (soprano), Michelle DeYoung (mezzo-soprano), Kelley O’Connor (mezzo-soprano), Yefim Bronfman (piano), Robert McDuffie (violin), Nancy Goeres (bassoon), Michael Rusinek (clarinet), Elizabeth Pridgeon (piano), Brian Locke (piano), Robert Ainsley (piano). Various locations, 5.7.2020. (HS)

Renée Fleming at the Aspen season virtual opening

R. Strauss — ‘Traum durch die Dämmerung’; ‘Heimliche Aufforderung’; ‘Befreit’ — DeYoung, Bronfman
Alan Fletcher — Romance for Clarinet, Bassoon and Piano — Rusinek, Goeres, Bronfman
Brahms — Violin Sonata No.1 in G major, first movement — McDuffie, Pridgeon
KreislerSchön Rosmarin — McDuffie, Pridgeon
Chopin — Nocturne in D-flat Major Op.27, Etude in F Major Op.8 — Bronfman
Peter Lieberson — ‘Amor mio si muero y tù no mueres’ from Neruda Songs — O’Connor, Locke
Oswaldo Golijov — ‘Desde mi ventana’ from Ainadamar — O’Connor, Locke
Mahler — ‘Liebst du um Schönheit’ — Fleming, Ainsley
Lowry — ‘How Can I Keep From Singing’ — Fleming, Ainsley

The Aspen Music Festival launched a virtual summer season Sunday by streaming a two-hour celebration of music director Robert Spano’s tenth season. Among the starry list of performers, soprano Renée Fleming — the newly minted co-director of the festival and school’s Opera Theater — and pianist Yefim Bronfman, an Aspen regular, emerged as the most memorable.

From her living room on the east coast, Fleming delivered the afternoon’s pinnacle with a ravishing reading of ‘Liebst du um Schönheit’ from Mahler’s Rückert-Lieder, a gorgeously flowing paean to love of beauty, with Robert Ainsley providing sensitive support on piano. Fleming topped off the proceedings with a heartfelt and fluent ‘How Can I Keep From Singing,’ a 19th-century hymn made popular by the likes of Pete Seeger and Enya.

Not that the rest of the music was lacking, but many of the performances felt subdued compared with Fleming’s lush vocalism, framed with pure and easily understood intentions.

Bronfman was the star of the first half, commanding the Steinway piano in Harris Hall. (With his usual busy touring schedule canceled, he is spending the entire summer in Aspen.) Hearing an artist of Bronfman’s stature work in a relative supporting role was a rare treat. With mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung, he lent deft playing to three Richard Strauss songs, and similar expertise to a languid piece by festival CEO Alan Fletcher, with Aspen faculty artists Michael Rusinek (clarinet) and Nancy Goeres (bassoon). DeYoung’s approach was more stentorian Wagner than sleek Strauss, but the last of the three songs, ‘Befreit’, found a lyric sound to fit the music. Rusinek and Goeres articulated Fletcher’s evocative scene-setting clarinet flourishes and bassoon melodies.

On his own, Bronfman offered a dry-eyed Chopin Nocturne in D-flat major, Op.27, No.2, and followed with a magical combination of precise articulation and rhythmic fluidity in the breakneck Étude in F major, Op.10, No.8.

At the Center for Strings in Macon, Georgia — in a resonant, slightly echo-y acoustic — violinist Robert McDuffie (who has been at Aspen nearly every summer for 40 years) applied his signature singing qualities to the opening movement of Brahms’ Violin Sonata No.1 in G major, with pianist Elizabeth Pridgeon. She also provided the bounce for one of McDuffie’s favorite encores, Kreisler’s ‘Rosmarin’.

Mezzo-soprano Kelley O’Connor followed from Harris Hall with two songs in Spanish. The first, ‘Amor mio si muero y tù no mueres’ from Peter Lieberson’s Neruda Songs, flowed nicely but fell short on Spanish intensity. Better was an aria from Ainadamar, Oswaldo Golijov’s 2003 opera about Garcia Lorca. A more passionate, wistful, ‘Desde mi ventana’ reflected O’Connor’s familiarity with the song — she originated the role — with Brian Locke at the piano.

In between came a parade of festival officials (past and present), and prime donors such as Kay Buchsbaum, who offered personal praises of Spano. At the end, the conductor responded with gracious thank-yous and expressed disappointment that he could not share the summer with students and professional musicians as usual. Fletcher and artistic advisor Asadour Santourian had a split-screen conversation with Spano about his enthusiasm for teaching. The conductor confided that the teaching bug bit him when he needed to make money to pay for his own music lessons.

When he was appointed music director in 2011, Spano took the reins of the festival and school’s conducting academy, originated by his predecessor, David Zinman. In what was billed as a surprise for Spano, all 10 winners of the academy’s conducting prize were present virtually — each in individual homes or gardens — for a Zoom reading of German composer Rüdiger Ruppert’s ‘If You’ve Lost Your Drums…’. Ruppert’s clapping and slapping added genuine laughs of delight to the afternoon.

From a technical perspective, the performances came off near flawlessly, with the exception of those untamed echos in Macon. There was an unexplained false start at the very beginning, and minor video-audio sync issues in some of the pre-recorded commentary.

The digital event kicked off a lineup of livestreams spread over the full eight weeks of the festival’s usual summer schedule. Unlike Aspen’s normal calendar — usually jam-packed with orchestral, chamber and vocal concerts, masterclasses, lectures and panel discussions — these 2020 events will be streaming only a few times per week.

Sundays at 2pm. (Mountain Daylight Time) are reserved for each week’s major concert. But instead of the Aspen Festival Orchestra in the 2,000-seat Benedict Music Tent, the offerings will be chamber music concerts from the 550-seat Harris Hall next door — some new for this season, others recorded from previous years. Audiences can watch and listen free at the festival’s website and Facebook page.

Among the upcoming events, James Ehnes (violin) and Andrew Armstrong (piano) play Beethoven sonatas on 12 July, Daniil Trifonov (piano) includes works by J.S. Bach on 19 July, and Behzod Abduraimov (piano) concludes his 2 August recital with Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. Recorded performances include a memorable evening with Alisa Weilerstein (cello) and Inon Barnatan (piano), Ives sonatas from 2016 with Stefan Jackiw (violin) and Jeremy Denk (piano), and Augustin Hadelich playing unaccompanied works by Bach and Ysaÿe, also from 2016.

These Sunday concerts will be rebroadcast only one time on the following Tuesday evenings at 7pm. MDT. They won’t be available on demand, as the festival hopes they will encourage a similar sense of community that the concerts usually provide.

Also of note, panel discussions on women composers (15 July) and on Beethoven (12 August) highlight midweek offerings. Midweek showcases involving faculty and students will include a 12 August panel on how to forge a career today, with opera singers Renée Fleming, Julia Bullock, and Ryan McKinny. A dozen more showcases are scheduled, and all of these are to be made available on demand through 25 August.

Harvey Steiman

For more about the 2020 Virtual Festival click here.

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