Joyce Yang’s Prokofiev concerto stands out in a weekend of crowd-pleasers

United StatesUnited States Aspen Music Festival 2022  [11]: (HS)

Pianist Joyce Yang and conductor Thomas Wilkins © Tessa Nojaim

12.8.2022: Will Liverman (baritone), Jeffrey Kahane (piano), Aspen Chamber Orchestra / Miguel Harth-Bedoya (conductor), Benedict Music Tent.

MahlerSongs of a Wayfarer
Gabriel KahaneHeirloom
Mendelssohn – Symphony No.4 in A major ‘Italian’

13.8.2022: Chamber music, Harris Hall.

BirtwistleCarmen arcadiae mechanicae perpetuum (Aspen Contemporary Ensemble)
TakemitsuHika  (Nakao Tanaka [violin], Hung-Kuan Chen [piano])
Schubert – Piano Quintet in A major ‘Trout’ (Kathleen Winkler [violin], Stephen Wyrczynski [viola], Brinton Smith [cello], Timothy Pitts [bass], Anton Nel [piano])

14.8.2022: Joyce Yang (piano), Aspen Festival Orchestra / Thomas Wilkins (conductor), Benedict Music Tent.

James Lee III – ‘Amer’ican’
Prokofiev – Piano Concerto No.3 in C major
Dvořák – Symphony No.9 in E minor ‘From the New World’

A generous helping of crowd-pleasing pieces, some snazzy piano playing on several concerts and yeoman work by the principals in Sunday’s Festival Orchestra program provided satisfying musical treats this past weekend.

On the solo stage, the standout was Joyce Yang, who blazed her way on Sunday through Prokofiev’s highly energetic, pungently dissonant Piano Concerto No.3 with an amazing level of lyricism and joy in the sunny parts. A regular visitor to the Aspen Music Festival since before her career took off, Yang always brings it. To his credit, guest conductor Thomas Wilkins kept up and seldom let the orchestra overpower the piano (an impressive feat in this busy score). They all brought things to a soul-lifting climax in the end.

Her encore turned to another Russian composer for lyric balm, a yearning and heartfelt performance of Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in D major Op.23 No.4.

In a way, Dvořák’s Symphony No.9 ‘From the New World’ wrapped around the concerto. The opener, ‘Amer’ican’, was composer James Lee III’s response to the Czech composer’s piece.  Dvořák was inspired by music he heard on a late-nineteenth-century visit to the United States, which he credited (with some curious overlap) to native Americans and Black people.

Lee’s piece opened with an extended flute solo that emulated native American tropes, hauntingly played by principal flute Nadine Asin. It later quoted a few measures from the symphony and, weaving a Negro spiritual into the final measures, asked questions about how the music of those cultures actually play against each other. Wilkins, who conducts the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra in Los Angeles, made Lee’s piece brood quietly and rise to several stirring climaxes, even if the elements didn’t always mesh.

In the Dvořák symphony, Wilkins set brisk tempos in the outer movements but let the famous Largo unfold at a relaxed pace. The English horn solo, played by Wentao Jiang, unfolded gracefully. The small choir of first-stand string instruments added lovely colors.

Throughout the symphony, the dynamic contrasts were especially nice, with resounding work from the whole brass section. Edward Stephan’s timpani kept the pulse, and concertmaster Alexander Kerr was particularly active, pulling together the rest of the orchestra.

At Saturday afternoon’s chamber music concert, the pianist of note was Anton Nel, who anchored a golden moment when a quintet of artist faculty breathed freshness and delight into Schubert’s Piano Quintet in A major. It’s familiarly known as ‘The Trout’ because Schubert used his song by that name as a springboard for a series of ever-more-complex variations.

The instrumentation employs only one violin instead of the traditional two, and adds extra depth with a double bass, played by Timothy Pitts. He, Kathleen Winkler (violin) and Brinton Smith (cello) all teach at Rice University in Houston, and Anton Nel runs the piano program at the University of Texas. Stephen Wyrczynski teaches viola at Indiana University, and they all also perform as soloists.

This group did what chamber music is supposed to do: create an amiable give-and-take while tossing off the difficult parts without blinking. Also on that program, violinist Naoko Tanaka and pianist Hung-Kuan Chen found the serenity in Takemitsu’s Hika (elegy), a delicate, if harmonically spiky, duo.

Unfortunately, that sort of high-level music-making was missing from Friday’s Aspen Chamber Orchestra program. The program had the makings of a perfect summer evening – a certified crowd-pleaser in Mendelssohn’s Symphony No.4, a local debut for a singer who was a smash hit this past season at the Metropolitan Opera and a fresh piece by Gabriel Kahane written for his father, the pianist and conductor Jeffrey Kahane. Alas, nagging details bogged it down.

Mahler’s Songs of a Wayfarer got a sensitive reading from the orchestra, but Will Liverman sang most of it with a hard, stentorian edge that ran counter to the lyrical music (which is, after all, about nature and regret). The baritone, who was brilliant in the Met’s Fire Shut Up in My Bones last season in New York, strained against Mahler’s melodies. (The song cycle was the wellspring for Mahler’s Symphony No.1, which fared much better conducted by Robert Spano a couple of weeks back.)

Heirloom, essentially a 30-minute piano concerto, got an appropriately lively performance from the orchestra and pianist, but the piece itself lacked cohesiveness. It was like rummaging through a collection of private musical references with no apparent structure to form a message.

All hands had the right idea in Mendelssohn’s oh-so-familiar symphony, but the execution was ragged. The very first phrase needed a couple of repeats before it fell into place. The finale never did articulate all the rapid notes.

Conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya, one of the earliest graduates of Aspen’s conducting academy when David Zinman and Murry Sidlin founded it in 2000, gave it all he could with demonstrative physical gestures, but the music never quite jelled.

Harvey Steiman

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