Cliburn competition winner’s puzzling debut at Aspen, and a Sound of Music that scores

United StatesUnited States Aspen Music Festival 2022 [8]: (HS)

Yunchan Lim

25.7.2022: Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music: soloists, chorus and orchestra of Aspen Opera Theater and VocalARTS / Andy Einhorn (conductor). Benedict Music Tent, Aspen, Colorado.

Director – Marc Bruni
Choreographer – Denis Jones
Sound designer – Jon Weston
Sound engineer – John Millard
Lighting – Josh Hemmo

Maria Rainer – Christy Altomare
Captain Georg von Trapp – Brandon Victor Dixon
Elsa von Schraeder – Ashley Blanchet
Mother Abbess – Ana María Martínez
Max – Brad Oscar

28.7.2022: Recital: Yunchan Lim (piano). Harris Hall.

BrahmsFour Ballades, Op.10
MendelssohnFantasia in F-sharp minor, Op.28
Scriabin – Piano Sonata No.2 in G-sharp minor, Op.19, ’Sonata-Fantasy’
BeethovenEroica Variations in E-flat major, Op.35

The Aspen Music Festival has a long and rich connection with the Van Cliburn piano competition and offers a prime-time recital by winners every four years. This year’s winner, 18-year-old Korean Yunchan Lim, stirred up a storm of anticipation with performances in Texas that wowed the judges and fellow pianists alike. As expected, every seat in Harris Hall was occupied with listeners on the edges of their seats when he strode on stage Thursday, took a seat in a straight-backed chair and started playing Brahms.

I was primed to experience the thrill of a new genius in this, his first recital in the United States. What came out, however, both thrilled and puzzled me.

I did not hear the utter command and clarity that characterized his work at the Cliburn (which can be streamed for free on From my seat in Row M in Harris Hall, loud passages clanged, unlike the pristine and thoughtful work I heard in the live videos. Delicate flourishes here were softly engaging at one point, mushy when they sped up. Balances between busier passages in the left hand lacked the clarity that can be relished on video. Contrasts in both dynamics and texture felt exaggerated.

He chose a challenging program of less-famous works by familiar composers, beginning with Brahms’ Four Ballades and ending with Beethoven’s 15 Variations and a Fugue in E-flat major, the Eroica Variations. In between came Mendelssohn’s Fantasia in F-sharp minor and Scriabin’s Piano Sonata No.2. The pianistic story-telling in each of these works, so mature and impressive at the Cliburn, showed up only sporadically in the Aspen recital.

While most of the audience rose in enthusiasm at the end, including many pianists, a significant percentage hustled out as soon as the program ended, and their numbers increased between the first encore (Rachmaninoff) and the second (Liszt). I overheard conversations outside that grumbled and others that swooned.

I don’t know what to make of all that. Was I on the wrong side of the audience? What was I missing? No doubt we will have more chances to experience Lim’s talent – he is the buzz of the classical music world right now.

Christy Altadore (Maria) and the von Trapp kids © Tessa Nojaim

Earlier in a relatively quiet week, a concert staging of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s last Broadway musical, The Sound of Music, a collaboration between the music festival and Theatre Aspen, scored a hit in a rare live concert performance of the popular score. Andy Einhorn conducted the performances Monday and Tuesday evenings in the Benedict Music Tent.

Like a very good South Pacific in 2019 and a disappointing revue of Rodgers’ music in 2021, this Sound of Music benefited from Broadway stars and one operatic soprano in the lead roles. The theater side filled secondary roles, and members of the Opera Theater and VocalARTS program lent their heavenly voices to the recurring chorus of nuns.

On Monday, Einhorn’s exuberant conducting produced joyful music from the full orchestra and the entire cast, emphasized by a trimmed-down script. There weren’t any weak links, not even among the seven youngsters playing the von Trapp children or among the theatrical cast.

Marc Bruni, who directed Beautiful: The Carole King Musical all over the world, showed a knack both for using the concert set-up wisely for simple scene changes, and for getting the cast to aim for a certain level of realism.

Christy Altomare, who has now headlined all three concert productions here, brought her silvery voice and bouncy personality to the role of Maria, the unconventional nun-to-be who ends up as the governess for the children and eventually becomes the wife of Captain Georg von Trapp. Brandon Victor Dixon, who played Aaron Burr on Broadway in Hamilton, brought a sense of gravitas and a polished baritone to the role.

Altomare’s focus was on the character, with a nice sense of modesty that kept her familiar songs (‘The Sound of Music’, ‘Do-Re-Mi’, ‘My Favorite Things’) from going over the top. They were almost conversational, which is exactly right for a score that can easily slip into the sugary. Dixon’s sweet but unaffected ‘Edelweiss’ was also a rewarding moment. Tall and handsome, he made an attractive partner for Altomare.

Ashley Blanchet, the first Black woman to play Elsa – the lead in Broadway’s Frozen – sashayed here admirably as another Elsa, Baroness Elsa von Schraeder, conveying both seduction and privilege with her voice and body language. Brad Oscar caught the ambiguity of Max, the talent agent who recognizes the family’s musical possibilities and has mysterious dealings with Berlin. He excelled as another Max (Bialistok in The Producers), which he played more than 1,400 times on Broadway and on tour.

The best voice of all, though, belonged to Ana María Martínez. The veteran operatic lyrico-spinto brought the big tune – ‘Climb Ev’ry Mountain’ – to life with disarming intensity. She also played scenes with Maria and the nuns with a sense of reserved warmth.

The seven von Trapp children range from tots to the teenage Liesl (her ‘Fifteen Going on Sixteen’ was as charming as could be). They made the quick turnaround from brats to lovely kids nicely, each with an individual personality and a special vocal talent that made clear their destiny as a world-renowned singing family.

All of this was necessary to lend credence to the musical’s interpretation of the von Trapp story, set in the years just before World War II. With their father absent as a submarine captain in the Austrian navy, the children warm to Maria, a novice sent from the abbey to be their governess. She shares her love for music with them, and they turn out to be naturals. Their talent loosens up their strict father, who also finds a kindred soul in Maria – but not before he agrees to marry the wealthy Elsa, whom he rejects when she supports the Nazis.

He is in a bind when the Germans, having taken over Austria, want him to command a submarine, but the situation leads to a clever getaway in the final scenes. The pacing and singing hit the right notes. As a political angle, this works less well than the Emile Lebeque plot line in South Pacific, but the point of The Sound of Music is more personal. The characters learn to be true to themselves, and that was beautifully enunciated by the Mother Abbess in the final number, a stirring reprise of ‘Climb Ev’ry Mountain’.

Harvey Steiman

1 thought on “Cliburn competition winner’s puzzling debut at Aspen, and a <i>Sound of Music</i> that scores”

  1. This is an interesting perspective on Yunchan Lim, I suspect a much more balanced one than one is likely to come across at the moment with this pianist. His Cliburn performances were unquestionably remarkable – but it’s possible to look back on them now with fresher eyes. The Rachmaninoff Nr.3 – a very different interpretation from that of his teacher, Minsoo Sohn – fascinated me at the time, and still does, because of how backward-looking it sounded; it could have come from the middle of the last century. It’s been mentioned rather frequently how his bass notes are quite like Horowitz’s, although I can think of other pianists that he resembles more closely. His Bach will tell us.

    I imagine his sound is massive live – his Liszt suggests it is – and probably doesn’t always take account of the acoustic – but he wouldn’t be the only pianist to have this problem. And he is going to have to make many judgments and compensations for all those recital halls around the world he is going to have play in. They are all unique and won’t fit his style of playing just as it is. The Wigmore Hall can be unforgiving of inexperienced pianists.

    Assuming, of course, that is where his career is heading. He’s 18-years old, is apparently a bit Byronic in his thinking, would probably prefer making music alone rather than in front of audiences, in the mountains rather than concert halls. He wants to sink his teeth into Bach – and he has a superb teacher for that since Minsoo Sohn is a wonderful Bach player (listen to his Goldberg Variations). I’ve heard it suggested he might even prefer recordings over concerts.

    The history of piano competitions is full of winners who have sunk into oblivion. I don’t think Yunchan Lim will do that, but I don’t think his will be a conventional career. It wouldn’t surprise me one bit if we were making comparisons with Glenn Gould eventually. And I wouldn’t mind that one bit.


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