Aspen recitals touch upon Bach, blues and a ghost

United StatesUnited States Aspen Music Festival [4]: Aspen, Colorado, 13-15.7.2021. (HS)

Programm 11: (l-r) Simone Porter, Robert Chen, Isaac Jeffrey Kay (violins), Nadine Asin (flute), Jacob Dassa (harpsichord) and Nicholas McGegan (conductor) (c) Calin Ma

Program 10: Julia Bullock (classical singer), John Arida (piano), Harris Hall, 13.7.2021.

Schubert – ‘Suleika I’; ‘Rastlose Liebe’
Wolf – from Spanisches Liederbuch: ‘In dem Schatten meiner Locken’; ‘Bedeckt mich mit Blumen’
Converse – ‘There is a Vine’; ‘One by One’
Weill – ‘Lost in the Stars’; ‘Denn wie man sich bettet so liegt man’; ‘Wie lange noch?’; ‘The Princess of Pure Delight’
Berio – from Quattro canzoni popolari: ‘Dolce cominciamento’; ‘La donna ideale’; ‘Ballo’; ‘La donna ideale’
Rossini – from Mi lagnerò tacendo: ‘Stabat Mater’; ‘Sorzico’
Castleton – ‘Driftin’ Tide’
Austin, Hunter – ‘Downhearted Blues’
Austin – Lovie Austin Tribute (for piano)
Fagan – ‘Our Love is Different’
Simone – ‘Revolution’; Four Women’
Taylor – ‘I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free’

Program 11: A Baroque Evening with Nicolas McGegan: Nadine Asin, Alejando Lombo (flutes), Elaine Douvas, Rachel Ahn, Rachel Domingue (oboes), Erik Ralske, Tanner West (French horns), Stuart Stephenson (trumpet), Stephen Waarts, Simone Porter (violins), Jacob Dassa (harpsichord), Nicholas McGegan / conductor, Benedict Music Tent, 14.7.2021.

J. S. Bach – Brandenburg Concertos No.1 in F major; No.5 in D major; No.4 in G major; No.2 in F major

Program 12: Stefan Jackiw (violin), Alisa Weilerstein (cello), Inon Barnatan (piano), Benedict Music Tent, 15.7.2021.

Beethoven – Violin Sonata No.1 in D major; Piano Sonata No.8 in C minor Pathétique; Cello Sonata No.2 in D major; Piano Trio Op.70 No.1 in D major ‘Ghost’

When it comes to Beethoven, Stefan Jackiw, Alisa Weilerstein and Inon Barnatan make a good team. On Thursday evening in the Benedict Music Tent with the composer’s ‘Ghost’ Trio, they took things up a notch or two from last Sunday’s triple concerto performance.

The Piano Trio Op.70 No.1 got the nickname ‘Ghost’ because of all the spooky tremolos in the expansive slow movement. Today’s audiences may not find it all that sinister, but the shifting textures and stop-and-start gestures make it one of the composer’s most distinctive works. Freed from coordinating with an orchestra, the trio was mesmerizing, a case study in concentration and unity.

The livelier outer movements were just as cohesive. The furious opening flurry emerged with precision, just hair-raising enough to make a startling contrast with the slower, gentler phrases that followed, the first movement gaining momentum and ending with snap. The finale left the restlessness of the first two movements behind in favor of a lively flow of melody and rhythm.

The ‘Ghost’ set things right after an uneven series of sonatas. Jackiw’s approach to the Violin Sonata No.1 in D major was more dutiful that celebratory. Barnatan’s dry-eyed go at the familiar ‘Pathétique’ piano sonata found beauty in the noble Andante and excelled in the quieter moments of the outer movements. In the Cello Sonata No.2 in D major, Barnatan and Weilerstein drew out wonderful details on every page, creating serenity in the Adagio at the piece’s center and launching an exciting Allegro finale with a vibrant take on the intricate fugue.

The concert began at 5pm., unusually early in order to accommodate the dress rehearsal for Mozart’s The Magic Flute, which was to be given its single performance.

On Tuesday evening, Julia Bullock’s Aspen debut was an adventure on other levels. When a rainstorm that pounded the tent threatened to drown out her singing, the concert – and the audience, relatively sparse thanks to the rain – were moved into Harris Hall next door. That smart decision paid dividends immediately, when Schubert’s rarely heard ‘Suleika I’ emerged in finer detail than the tent could allow.

The ‘classical singer’, as she bills herself, offered songs that ranged from Schubert and Hugo Wolf to Alberta Hunter and Nina Simone. One set successfully mixed Gioachino Rossini with Luciano Berio. Along the way we heard from composers who ranged from the obscure Connie Converse to the well-known Kurt Weill.

Bullock’s voice, lovely as it is, is not her strongest point. It is what she does with it. She can deliver German art songs with a conversational fluency that frees the words and music. She can also take blues classics by Hunter and Civil Rights-era anthems by Simone and Billy Taylor and shape them as art songs without losing their funky power. It is all driven by a fierce intelligence and a vocal range that can dive below the staff and hit high notes with assurance.

She has a knack for combining songs of different eras and styles into revelatory sets. Four Weill songs included the sardonic ‘Denn wie man sich bettet so liegt man’ (‘How you put yourself to bed is how you lie’) from The Rise and Fall of Mahagonny, and the sly fairy tale of ‘The Princess of Pure Delight’ (lyrics by Ira Gershwin) from Lady in the Dark. The thread connecting the nineteenth-century Rossini and the twentieth-century Berio was their wit: Rossini’s irony dovetailed nicely with Berio’s popular songs, which show this usually thorny composer in a lighter vein.

The highlight for me was Nina Simone’s ‘Four Women’, which unflinchingly contrasts the harsh reality of Black women’s lives against their sunny names. Bullock’s approach, almost analytical until the end, was mesmerizing. Her encore, Schubert’s ‘Seligkeit’ (‘Bliss’), was delivered buoyantly and sent the audience home with hearts lifted.

The rains stopped Wednesday evening in time to hear Nicholas McGegan’s bouncy rides through four of Bach’s six Brandenburg Concertos. Despite chilly conditions, the audience, bundled up as for night baseball in April, was treated to especially good renditions of No.5 (the one with the big harpsichord cadenza) and No.4 (the one with two flutes chasing around the violin line).

Jacob Dassa, fresh out of Juilliard, triumphed with the virtuosic harpsichord solo and provided lively continuo to underline the work of soloists in the other works. Flutist Nadine Asin and violinist Simone Porter completed a star-quality trio of soloists for No.5, which danced deftly in the outer movements and flowed with feeling in the central slow movement.

Asin returned for yeoman work in No.4, joined by flutist Alejandro Lumbo (also a Juilliard student) to deliver refreshingly lively harmony and counterpoint. Violinist Stephen Waarts completed the front-line trio and took the violin lead in No.1, where horn soloists Erik Ralske, principal horn of the Metropolitan Opera orchestra, and Tanner West (still a student at University of Southern California) distinguished themselves with bravado.

Porter had the solo role in No.2 in which Stuart Stephenson (principal trumpet of the Atlanta Symphony) wrangled a piccolo trumpet with flair in the brisk finale to end the concert on (literally) a high note.

Harvey Steiman

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