Gil Shaham scores with Jonathan Leshnoff’s emotionally resonant new sonata in Aspen

United StatesUnited States Aspen Music Festival 2023 [11]: Harris Hall, Aspen, Colorado. (HS)

Pianist Michelle Cann plays music of the Chicago Black Renaissance © Diego Redel

Violinist Gil Shaham, always a welcome visitor to the Aspen Music Festival, debuted a new sonata by Jonathan Leshnoff on Wednesday in his Harris Hall recital. The world premiere of the heart-on-sleeve, unabashedly melodic, lushly expressive piece made for a memorable occasion.

Shaham has history with Leshnoff, having premiered his Yiddish Dance Suite in 2011 and chamber concerto in 2015. Leshnoff, with a few Grammy nominations to his name, knows how to communicate with audiences.

Alternately melancholy and wistful, the four movements over 20 minutes occasionally burst into a lively dance, even though the piece reflects the composer’s preoccupation with his dying father as he wrote the piece. A strain of Yiddish music ran through the tuneful first movement, reminiscent of John Williams’s Schindler’s List theme but not at all a copy.

The second-movement Adagio was especially touching, and the two final movements felt like someone shaking off morose moods for something more positive. Festival music director Robert Spano at the piano shaped a kaleidoscope of harmonies with a soft touch.

Especially striking was a long cadenza in the finale that at times seemed to be channeling the Chaconne from Bach’s Partita No.2 for unaccompanied violin. It developed into a frenzied climax before receding into the piece’s sigh of a finish. This, of course, was catnip for Shaham, who can make his instrument sing like few others.

Gil Shaham at the Aspen Music Festival © Diego Redel

The duo opened with Bach’s Violin Sonata in F minor, which mirrored the new piece: it also begins with a long, winding melody in slow motion against a gently twisting counterpoint in the piano. Shaham often takes a more Romantic approach to Bach’s music, and Spano went along with a softer-edged, if heavier, touch on the piano than we usually hear. The closer, Brahms’s Violin Sonata No.3 in D minor, found its direction in the gorgeous Adagio, and finished strong with flair in the Presto agitato finale.

The encore, ‘Meditation’ from Massenet’s Thaïs, brought things to a gorgeously peaceful close, both musicians letting the music unfurl in unhurried fashion.

The rest of the week had its ups and downs.

In Thursday’s recital, guitarist Sharon Isbin, a longtime Aspen favorite, joined the Pacifica Quartet’s recital to carry the familiar tunes of Vivaldi’s Guitar Concerto in D major with panache. She topped off the first half leading a lively and fun ‘Fandango’ from Boccherini’s Quintet No.4 for Guitar and Strings in D major.

In between came a new work, The Song of a Dreaming Sparrow, by composer Joseph Schwantner for Isbin and the quartet. The piece meandered aimlessly through impressions of life in rural nineteenth-century New England and never seemed to find footing.

The second half was devoted to Beethoven’s String Quartet in A minor. As if the composer had not notated every page with his own continual dynamic changes, crescendos and diminuendos, the quartet added more of their own, creating an extra-fussy version that only found glory in the magnificent Molto Adagio at the center of the quartet.

In Harris Hall on Monday evening, Michelle Cann, who holds the piano chair at Curtis Institute, brought enthusiasm and dynamic pianism to a program that celebrated the women of the Chicago Black Renaissance. In the music realm, the better-known Harlem Renaissance – the emergence of African-American artists to be reckoned with – leaned more heavily on jazz, while the group of Chicago-based women presented here took on the classical world.

Florence Price is still the best-known composer of the group, but Cann demonstrated why the music of Margaret Bonds, Irene Britton Smith and Betty Jackson King deserves more attention.

Applying a formidable piano technique and a deep understanding of the music’s roots, she spoke from a lectern to describe how they all moved to Chicago when they could make no headway with classical music in their hometowns in the Deep South. They supported each other and created a Black classical music community with music steeped in spirituals and the pianism of a range of classical composers.

To help us hear the references to spirituals, Cann sang portions of a few of them in a well-trained voice that movingly carried all the colors the songs needed.

Smith’s Variations on a Theme by MacDowell made a fine start, as the variations echoed keyboard styles from Bach to Brahms, with a touch of Mozart and Beethoven, before delving into her own more modern style in the later variations. Bonds’s Spiritual Suite got even more explicit, developing delicious glosses on such familiar tunes as ‘Dem Bones’ and ‘Wade in the Water’. King’s Four Seasonal Sketches took a very different approach to music of the seasons than Vivaldi did, a tinge of sadness seeping into the holiday and spring movements.

Cann played all those with intensity, sometimes with more weight than was necessary but always on point with the references and decorative touches. Best of all were the two Price Fantasies, which reflected the composer’s more elegant style, open textures and seamless structure. The encore, a transcription of the incomparable Hazel Scott’s boogie-woogie version of Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C-sharp minor, brought things to a juicy high point.

This recital was the fourth concert in four days offering music from African-American composers. The works reflected the culture from a variety of perspectives.

Billy Childs’s saxophone concerto, played brilliantly by Steven Banks in Friday’s Chamber Symphony, painted musical pictures from Africa to slavery and ended in the Black church on a positive note. Joel Thompson’s An Act of Resistance condensed today’s racial turbulence into the need for love to triumph over a national lack of empathy. There was no sense of hope in Kyle Rivera’s raw Black Body Collage, however, played by the Aspen Contemporary Ensemble on Saturday’s Chamber Music recital. Its harsh expressions of anguish and anger lingered in repelling dissonances and blats from the orchestra.

Message received, but now I know which of these pieces I want to hear again.

Harvey Steiman

7.8.2023: Recital: Michelle Cann (piano). Harris Hall
Smith Variations on a Theme by MacDowell
King – Four Seasonal Sketches
BondsSpiritual Suite
PriceFantasie nègre No.2 in G minor; Fantasie nègre No.1 in E minor

9.8.2023: Recital: Gil Shaham (violin), Robert Spano (piano). Harris Hall
J. S. Bach – Violin Sonata in F minor
Jonathan Leshnoff – Violin Sonata (world premiere)
Brahms – Violin Sonata No.3 in D minor

10.8.2023: Recital: Pacifica Quartet (Simin Ganatra, Austin Hartmann [violins], Mark Holloway [viola], Brandon Vamos [cello]), Sharon Isbin (guitar). Harris Hall
Vivaldi/Pujol (edited Sharon Isbin) – Guitar Concerto in D major
Joseph SchwartnerThe Song of a Dreaming Sparrow
Boccherini – ‘Fandango’ from Quintet No.4 for Guitar and Strings in D major
Beethoven – String Quartet in A minor Op.132

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