United States Aspen Music Festival : Benedict Music Tent, Aspen, Colorado, 6-8.8.2021. (HS)
Program 30: Golda Schultz (soprano), Aspen Chamber Orchestra / Benjamin Manis (conductor), 6.8.2021.
Stravinsky – Anne Truelove’s aria from The Rake’s Progress
Clarice Assad – ‘Sin fronteras’
Barber – Knoxville: Summer of 1915
Ravel – Mother Goose Suite
Program 31: Various, Remembrance Concert for Edward Berkeley: soloists and pianists of Aspen Opera Theater and VocalARTS, 7.8.2021.
Program 32: Zlatomir Fung (cello), Aspen Festival Orchestra / Hugh Wolff (conductor), 8.8.2021.
Jessie Montgomery – ‘Coincident Dances’
Tchaikovsky – Variations on a Rococo Theme
Schumann – Symphony No.2 in C major
Wouldn’t you know that the most magical moment at the Aspen Music Festival so far this summer would involve a piece about summer? At Friday’s Aspen Chamber Orchestra concert, soprano Golda Schultz caressed the vocal line of Samuel Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915 with such ease and attention to James Agee’s deceptively powerful words that it could bring tears to a receptive listener.
Her creamy soprano and pinpoint articulation combined with a sense of freedom that let the music float serenely and with deceptive simplicity. The setting – a warm, calm evening that could have matched the scene in Agee’s poem – also made its impact. The poem’s words, narrated by a child reflecting on a languid family gathering, sneak up on us and take on extra depth. The music only enhanced that aspect as Schultz’s voice embraced this combination of nostalgia and human insight.
Benjamin Manis (resident conductor of Houston Grand Opera) could have shaved a decibel or two off the orchestral backup at a few points, but he led a fluid performance that paid off again and again. In the final pages of the score, the orchestra framed Schultz’s serenely floating high notes. Throughout, the South African soprano’s delivery channeled the flavors of small-town America beautifully.
To open the concert Schultz shaped the offbeat musical lines of The Rake’s Progress, Stravinsky’s delicious neo-classical opera, into a masterful performance of Anne Truelove’s aria. She traced the piece’s emotional path and finished with a radiant, brilliantly held high C – not easy to do at a 7900-feet elevation.
Manis led the orchestra capably through all this, and also with a finely shaded Mother Goose Suite by Ravel that capped the concert of easy-to-grasp music written since the dawn of the twentieth century. The most recent work on the program, Brazilian Clarice Assad’s ‘Sin fronteras’, blurs the distinction among music of various cultures in the Americas. The mashup of various types of syncopated dance music had its charms, even if Manis and the orchestra couldn’t quite corral all of its rhythmic energy.
Sunday’s Aspen Festival Orchestra concert featured the mainstage debut here of cellist Zlatomir Fung. Once a member of the Aspen Contemporary Ensemble, he went on to score a big victory in the International Tchaikovsky Competition, the first American in four decades to win the cello division.
His performance of the composer’s Variations on a Rococo Theme revealed refined playing of the dancing theme and the first few variations. Singing tone, pinpoint pitch and phrasing shaped the slower middle sections, and he finished with brilliantly rapid playing in the finale. A virtuoso encore written by a friend was also a reminder of his time with the contemporary ensemble here.
The opener on Sunday was a fresh piece from New York composer Jessie Montgomery. Her twelve-minute ‘Coincident Dances’ pinballed happily from one style to another, a feast for ears attuned to tricky syncopated Latin, African and jazz rhythms, punchy tunes and hell-bent energy.
Conductor Hugh Wolff, whose regular appearances in Aspen are often standouts, got the orchestral challenges coordinated well in Montgomery’s and Tchaikovsky’s works. The Schumann Symphony No.2 that followed also hit the right spots. Only the novelty of a zingy new piece and a bright new cellist made the other two pieces more memorable.
On Saturday night a special free concert saluted Edward Berkeley, the longtime mainstay of the voice and opera program here, who died July 17. The young artists studying with experienced professionals this summer organized it themselves.
Each item in the touching, memorable lineup of 14 individual performances had meaning for Berkeley’s time in Aspen. In a nod to the rivers that converge around the town and the music school’s campus, mezzo-soprano Lauren Decker opened the proceedings by giving rich depth to Aaron Copland’s arrangement of ‘At the River’ (from his Old American Songs).
Soprano Anne Wright delivered a pure and delicious ‘Liebst du um Schönheit’, Mahler’s radiant paean to light and love. Soprano Amani Cole-Felder made ‘This Little Light of Mine’ into a soulful prayer, and soprano Yaritz Véliz invested Richard Strauss’s ‘Allerseelen’, about rekindling a lost love of someone departed, with vocal sheen and touching delicacy. On the male side, countertenor Key’mon Murrah took us to church for a rousing, soulful ‘My Father Watches Over Me’, his soprano-pitched voice rising to a thrilling finish. Berkeley’s brother had asked for ‘A Simple Song’ from Leonard Bernstein’s Mass, as it had been used at their mother’s funeral. Baritone Ricard José Rivera delivered it unpretentiously and made it resonate. Pianists Mahour Arabian, Manuel Arellano and Richard Fu added well-wrought accompaniments.
Berkeley may have liked a few up-tempo numbers, but he would have loved the finale. The entire class handed off phrases from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18 (‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?’), and then cleared the stage for tenor Ricardo Garcia and soprano Sarah Vatour, with Berkeley’s longtime colleague Kenneth Merrill on piano. They began ‘Make Our Garden Grow’, Bernstein’s uplifting finale to Candide. Then, one by one, the rest of the cast walked on stage, and the piece ‘grew’ into a roaring, heartfelt, tear-inducing climax.
The concert was streamed live. The video, now available on the festival’s YouTube channel, includes a prerecorded performance of Richard Strauss’s ‘Morgen!’, performed by the two opera stars now running the voice program – Renée Fleming and Patrick Summers.