Audra McDonald wows with show tunes at Aspen – and there was plenty of other notable singing this week

United StatesUnited States Aspen Music Festival 2023 [9]: Harris Hall, Benedict Music Tent, Aspen, Colorado. (HS)

Audra McDonald © Allison Michael Orenstein

Broadway headliner Audra McDonald knocked ‘em dead on Thursday night in a concert that drew extensively from the Great American Songbook. In more ways than one, it was the obvious high note of the week, but plenty of impressive singing marked other performances.

Backed by her own jazz trio and a big orchestra made up of students (plus concertmaster Renata Arado) and conducted by the irrepressible Andy Einhorn, McDonald charmed an enthusiastic audience with personal reflections. She used her classically trained voice to make her own mark on a wide range of songs, some familiar and some not.

The only person to win Tony Awards in all four acting categories (both plays and musicals), she fashioned a program of vocal numbers that included a smart medley linking two songs into a comment about prejudice – Rodgers and Hammerstein’s ‘You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught’ and Sondheim’s ‘Children Will Listen’ – and sung as lullabies. Another medley tellingly matched two sumptuously sung, if seemingly unrelated Bernstein, songs: ‘Some Other Time’ and ‘Somewhere’, both about love that circumstance would prevent.

There were familiar tunes, such as Duke Ellington’s ‘It Don’t Mean a Thing’ in a clever arrangement that began with the slow explanatory verse before it broke into an impressively played (and sung) jazz rhythm. Lerner and Loewe’s ‘I Could Have Danced All Night’ morphed into a singalong (not a bad idea when actual opera singers populated the audience).

Less-familiar fare included ‘Cornet Man’, a sexy faux-blues from Jule Styne’s Funny Girl, and ‘Being Good Isn’t Good Enough’ from Hallelujah Baby. McDonald found a way to personalize the stories and pump plenty of life into them.

Andy Einhorn conducting in Aspen in 2021 © Carlin Ma

Most striking was an incendiary ‘Rose’s Turn’ from Gypsy, which closed the first half. (She would make a great Mama Rose, hint, hint.) The encore layered ‘Happy Days Are Here Again’ with ‘Get Happy’ (with credit to Mel Tormé for the idea). Andy Einhorn’s surprisingly good singing voice resulted in a joyful duet.

The singing was very different Wednesday in Harris Hall. Mezzo-soprano Kelley O’Connor had raised expectations with her fervent singing in Sunday’s miraculous Mahler Third. As the program notes framed it, the recital of art songs explored ‘the gamut of the human spirit’.

Of special interest was Sonnets to Orpheus, set to five poems (in German) by Rainer Maria Rilke. Robert Spano, the festival’s music director, wrote the music expressly for O’Connor in 2020 as a project during the pandemic, and he played the piano for this recital with sensitivity and taste. His writing took full advantage of O’Connor’s richly endowed lower range, which never tipped over into stridency as with some mezzos. She found a lovely range of expressiveness in these sonnets, which can be seen as pondering the meaning of music in a world where we were set adrift by isolation.

The rest of the program made for lovely listening, from Debussy’s exotic, deftly erotic Chansons de Bilitis to Robert Schumann’s Frauenliebe und -leben, which grafts a male perspective on the love arc of a young woman. Early songs by George Crumb and Elliott Carter, before either composer veered into unrelenting dissonance in their later works, were particularly charming.

Best of all was the encore, ‘Ich bin der welt abhanden gekommen’, from Mahler’s Rückert-Lieder, played and sung with lofty serenity.

Singing was also part of Thursday afternoon’s Percussion Ensemble recital, a must-hear for some of us. For the featured work, the ensemble’s longtime director, Jonathan Haas, chose Cantata para América mágica by Alberto Ginastera, the twentieth-century Argentine composer, enlisting three treble singers from the voice program to share the singing role. Although they occasionally needed to compete with a battery of fifteen percussionists, they found sublime moments when the percussion took on a softer texture. This was especially so in ‘Nocturne and Love Song’, sung by countertenor Chuanyuan Liu, and the emotionally-rewarding finale, ‘Song of Prophesy’, sung by soprano Anna Thompson.

Besides charming works by Cage and Takemitsu, the most arresting piece was Reflections on the Nature of Water. The suite for marimba by Jacob Druckman explores the delicate sounds of water, and four percussionists took turns on the six short movements.

Tuesday’s concert in Harris Hall, billed as ‘An American Evening’, was built around a performance of Copland’s ‘Appalachian Spring’, in the original thirteen-piece ensemble version. A one-two punch of more recent works outshone it, and they could not have been more different.

Christopher Theofanidis, who currently leads the festival’s composition program, employed welcoming textures and harmonies in his eight-minute scene-painting, ‘If falling is a leaf’. Inspired by a David Hockney painting and a companion Melissa Studdard poem, the composer aptly portrayed the swirling winds and dazzling leaf colors of fall with concision, beauty and lively music. Maurice Cohn, who did such a great job last week with John Williams’s film music, conducted a vital performance.

Augusta Read Thomas’s The Auditions was written as a dance piece that debuted in early 2020. Its strong rhythmic component livened up the composer’s signature dense textures and tendency toward pungent dissonances. The contrast between slow, dreamy segments and faster, wilder sections of the twenty-seven-minute piece made for compelling listening.

The concert opened with Ives’s classic moment in time, ‘The Unanswered Question’, in an effective, soft-hued performance, totally offstage. Appalachian Spring, written for the dancer-choreographer Martha Graham, stumbled from the beginning when conductor Jacob Bass started with a tempo so rushed that Copland’s sense of music coming out of the ether was completely missing. Graham might have broken a leg if she tried to dance to this pace. Things did not calm down until well past the mid-point, and by then it was too late.

Harvey Steiman

1.8.2023: An American Evening: Aspen Contemporary Ensemble / Timothy Weiss (conductor). Harris Hall
Ives – ‘The Unanswered Question’
Augusta Read ThomasThe Auditions
Christopher Theofanidis – ‘If falling is a leaf’, Maurice Cohn (conductor)
CoplandAppalachian Spring, Jacob Bass (conductor)

2.8.2023: Recital: Kelley O’Connor (mezzo-soprano), Robert Spano (piano). Harris Hall
DebussyChansons de Bilitis
SpanoSonnets to Orpheus
CrumbThree Early Songs
Carter – from Three Poems of Robert Frost
R. SchumannFrauenliebe und -leben

3.8.2023: Recital: Chuanyuan Liu (countertenor), Anna Thompson (soprano), Maria Vasilevskaya (soprano), Aspen Percussion Ensemble / Jonathan Haas (conductor). Harris Hall
David Lang – from the so-called laws of nature
TakemitsuAme no ki (Rain Tree)
CageLiving Room Music
DruckmanReflections on the Nature of Water
GinasteraCantata para América mágica

3.8.2023: Recital: Audra McDonald (soprano), Jeremy Jordan (piano), Mark Vanderpoel (bass), Gene Lewin (drums), Aspen Festival Ensemble / Andy Einhorn (conductor). Benedict Music Tent
RodgersCarousel Waltz
Herman – ‘I am what I am’ from La Cage aux Folles; ‘Before the Parade Passes By’ from Hello Dolly
Newley/Bricusse – ‘Pure imagination’ from Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory
Styne – ‘Cornet Man’ from Funny Girl; ‘Rose’s Turn’ from Gypsy; ‘Being Good Isn’t Good Enough’ from Hallelujah Baby
Ellington – ‘It Don’t Mean a Thing’
Loewe – ‘I Could Have Danced All Night’ from My Fair Lady
Gershwin – ‘Summertime’ from Porgy and Bess
Arlen – ‘I Had Myself a True Love’ from St Louis Woman
Raposo – ‘Bein’ Green’ from Sesame Street
Rodgers/Sondheim – ‘You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught’ from South Pacific; ‘Children Will Listen’ from Into the Woods
Loesser – ‘Can’t Stop Talking’ from Let’s Dance
Bernstein – ‘Some Other Time’ from On the Town; ‘Somewhere’ from West Side Story
Kander – ‘Cabaret’ from Cabaret

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