Dvořák quintet and Beethoven triple concerto highlight the weekend at Aspen

United StatesUnited States Aspen Music Festival [3]: Aspen, Colorado, 9-11.7.2021. (HS)

Stefan Jackiw (violin), Alisa Weilerstein (cello), Inon Barnatan (piano) and Ludovic Morlot (conductor) with the Aspen Chamber Orchestra play Beethoven’s Triple Concerto. Photo Credit: Carlin Ma.

Program 7: Aspen Chamber Orchestra / Nicholas McGegan (conductor), Stephen Waarts (violin), Julia Bullock (classical singer), Benedict Music Tent, 9.7.2021.
BologneL’armant anonyme, Overture
Mozart – Violin Concerto No.3 in G major K.216, ‘Strassburg’
DelageQuatre poèmes hindous
Haydn – Symphony No.82 in C major, ‘The Bear’

Program 8: Chamber music, Harris Hall, 10.7.2021.
Dvořák – Piano Quintet in A major B.155 Op.81: Anton Nel (piano), Bing Wang & Espen Lilleslåtten (violins), James Dunham (viola), Desmond Hoebig (cello)
Coleridge-Taylor – Clarinet Quintet in F-sharp minor Op.10: Robert Chen & Laura Park Chen (violins), Victoria Chiang (viola), Eric Kim (cello), Michael Rusinek (clarinet)

Program 9: Aspen Festival Orchestra / Ludovic Morlot (conductor), Stefan Jackiw (violin), Alisa Weilerstein (cello), Inon Barnatan (piano), Benedict Music Tent, 11.7.2021.
Hannah Kendall – The Spark Catchers
Stravinsky – Symphony in Three Movements
Beethoven – Concerto for Violin, Cello and Piano in C major Op.56, ‘Triple’

All was right with the world this past weekend: a trio of longtime Aspen Music Festival favorites breathed soulful life into Beethoven’s triple concerto before the biggest audience of the season in the Benedict Music Tent, and chamber music returned to Harris Hall, albeit briefly.

The triple concerto essentially puts a chamber trio – in this case violinist Stefan Jackiw, cellist Alisa Weilerstein and pianist Inon Barnatan – before a full orchestra with the sort of extroverted music that can fill a big space like the 2050-seat tent. It was a thoroughly satisfying performance, the communication among the soloists ebullient and joyful in a chamber music way.

Weilerstein was the key: her playing set the trio’s statement in motion time and again. She got the ball rolling with a tender utterance of the theme which Jackiw picked up with his own graceful version; Barnatan completed the picture with his trademark delicate touch. As the level of intensity waxed and waned, with and without the orchestra, their virtuosity and dynamic range kept pace with conductor Ludovic Morlot’s on-point conducting, and the concerto was as smooth as the polished wood on Jackiw’s violin. The sense of unity and purpose played out through the gorgeous Largo and into the bouncy finale.

The concert began with ‘The Spark Catchers’, a nervous nine-minute tone poem by English composer Hannah Kendall that is based on an evocative 2012 poem about an 1888 strike in a London match factory. It is part of the festival’s heightened effort to showcase music by Black artists (in this case both poet and composer), and the orchestra executed the jagged rhythms and bright flashes of harmony to create a mood of terror against a backdrop of beauty.

In between, Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements (1946) reveled in its own punchy rhythms, and it got a vivid performance. Pianist Noah Sonderling in the first movement and harpist Nancy Allen in the second contributed virtuosic solos (the movements originally cast for concertos that were never completed), and the group effort in the finale hit all the right marks.

Over in Harris Hall on Saturday afternoon, a group of longtime Aspen Music Festival professionals delivered a Dvořák Piano Quintet in A major for the ages, a revelation as every nuance emerged with startling clarity and presence in the 500-seat auditorium.

At its best, chamber music relies on communication that goes far beyond synchronized timing, dynamics and all the other elements of music making. After practicing together for years, members of great string quartets develop a sixth sense of what their colleagues are going to do, thus lifting a performance into something unexpected and marvelous.

In the first faculty chamber music program of this season, something like that got into Bing Wang, Espen Lilleslåtten, James Dunham, Desmond Hoebig and Anton Nel, who have played together here in the summer for decades. After nearly two years since they last performed together, their musical nuances were breathtaking, beginning with cellist Hoebig’s warm, generous statement of the sweet major theme. First violin Wang’s response spun out the tune with even more tenderness, and pianist Nel provided soft chords, perfectly timed. The gentle pulse of the first movement’s Allegro ma non tanto framed masterly interweaving of Dvořák’s musical material, Lilleslåtten’s violin and Dunham’s viola, moving the flow with a sense of inevitability.

These details wafted effortlessly from the stage in the perfect acoustics of the theater, a marked difference from chamber music in the big tent next door. The contrast between the second movement’s aching melodic gestures and the third movement’s molto vivace Czech dance shifted the colors from gloom to joy, a sense of utter unity marking an Allegro finale that threatened to burst its seams yet kept it all pointing in the same direction.

The group that played Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Clarinet Quintet in F-sharp minor had a difficult act to follow. Moments of rough intonation in ensemble passages aside, the individual talents of first violin Robert Chen, cellist Eric Kim and, most of all, the supple playing of clarinetist Michael Rusinek carried the day. Coleridge-Taylor, England’s most prominent Black composer in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, was inspired by Brahms’s clarinet quintet, and the intricacy of his work is well worth appreciating.

The ghost of Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, another European Black composer and a pioneer in his day, infused the program for Friday’s Chamber Symphony, conducted by Nicholas McGegan with his usual verve. A contemporary of Mozart’s and often compared with him, Bologne wrote the brief three-movement overture to his 1780 opera L’armant anonyme (‘The Anonymous Lover’) that opened the program. He also led the French orchestra that commissioned Josef Haydn’s six ‘Paris’ symphonies, including No.82 which concluded the program. In between, Stephen Waarts played Mozart’s Violin Concerto No.3, providing us with another chance to compare Bologne to his most famous contemporaries.

Waarts, who has developed quite the reputation for his range of repertoire and effortless technique, offered a restrained version of the Mozart concerto, emphasizing sweetness and simplicity, even in solo moments when he could have shown off. Despite McGegan’s best efforts, the opening overture, though lively, was much more predictable than the Mozart concerto or the Haydn symphony, which bounced along like a friendly bear jogging down one of Aspen’s mountains.

In that company, the Aspen debut of Julia Bullock, who bills herself as a classical singer instead of soprano, was an exotic outlier with ‘Quatre poèmes hindous’. Besotted with Indian music, twentieth-century French composer Maurice Delage employed winds and a string quartet to emulate the sounds of Indian instruments accompanying four songs based on florid romantic poems.

Bullock sang with gorgeous tone and careful attention to the French poetry (which she herself translated brilliantly for the program sheet), her sound rising effortlessly above the wind instruments. Especially beguiling were the extravagant curlicues of melisma at the end of the longest song at the center of the piece.

Harvey Steiman

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