Virtuosity from Steven Banks and Gil Shaham in a thoughtful Aspen Music Festival weekend

United StatesUnited States Aspen Music Festival 2023 [10]: Benedict Music Tent, Harris Hall, Meadows Campus, Aspen, Colorado. (HS)

Saxophonist Steve Banks and conductor Xian Zhang in Billy Childs’s Saxophone Concerto © Diego Redel

There is nothing like sheer virtuosity in instantly relatable music to enliven the proceedings. In the weekend’s Benedict Music Tent highlights, saxophonist Steven Banks brought a high-voltage jolt to Friday’s Chamber Symphony with a new, crowd-pleasing concerto written for him. And on Sunday, violinist Gil Shaham and the Festival Orchestra reveled in Eric Korngold’s ear-soothing, frankly Romantic concerto, which Jascha Heifetz debuted in 1947.

Billy Childs wrote the saxophone concerto, a co-commission by the festival and eight symphony orchestras. He is well known for his jazz piano work with big-name artists and, as a composer, he produces exciting classical music with barely concealed roots in jazz. His classical pieces have debuted at the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Detroit Symphony.

Over its 20 minutes, the magnificent music reflects an unblinking perspective on Black history with emotional validity. It traveled through sometimes harrowing and ultimately soul-soothing scene-painting by both the orchestra and the soloist. Programmatic, it opened with an expansive solo call from the soprano sax, picturing life in Africa before the slave traders arrived, moving through the ugly process of the middle passage and slavery, and coming to rest with rich references to Black church music.

Banks considers himself a 100% classical saxophonist. Demonstrating complete command of his instruments, he found polished tone and executed complex roulades, runs and other classically based figures. Extensive cadenzas that link the first movement with the second and the second with the third soared into the highest elevations of the range and required the highest discipline to bring off smoothly, and he did it like the champ he is.

In one particularly striking moment, he relocated from the solo spot next to the conductor to the piano on the third tier of risers to deliver a gospel-tinged hymn – tellingly employing the alto sax for the rougher parts of the journey and returning to the soprano, associated with the original African scenes. Pianist Ashly Zhang also caught just the right feel.

The encore took a stately pace to ‘The Lord’s Prayer’, placed in the highest range of the instrument, soulful without being overtly jazzy. Banks’s extraordinary command of the instrument made this unforgettable.

Xian Zhang, music director of the Newark Symphony and occasional conductor at the Metropolitan Opera, brought a high level of enthusiasm and energy to this work and the others on the program. Her big gestures with the baton and her body seemed to have weighed down the lightness of Rossini’s overture to L’italiana in Algieri and the finale of Mozart’s Symphony No.39, but her brisk tempos kept things moving smartly.

Sunday’s Korngold concerto did not pretend to be anything other than flashy entertainment, but in Shaham’s hands it became an eloquent showcase for his ability to fashion expressive Romantic melodies and dazzling articulation in intricate fast passages. Conductor Patrick Summers, who co-runs the vocal side of the festival and school, knows a thing or two about bringing this kind of music to life. He made the orchestra into a willing collaborator.

Both the concerto and Shaham’s seemingly innocuous encore – Scott Wheeler’s cheeky ‘Isolation Rag’ – fit into two themes in Sunday’s program. Musically, the concerto harked back to the opening work, Charles Mackerras’s suite from Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen. Korngold used already-familiar themes from his theatrical film music as a basis for the concerto’s score.

The drama of opera ran through the entire program. Richard Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks, which Summers characterized as a ‘mini-opera without words’, came from a composer whose later operas rate among the greatest.

All the music was written in response to injustice. Korngold, an accomplished composer in Europe before fleeing the Nazi regime, made his name in the United States as a Golden-Age film composer, and refused to write music for the concert hall until World War II was over. It was this concerto that he wrote first.

The second piece on the program was Houston composer Joel Thompson’s response (written while a composition student here in Aspen) to what he saw as a ‘severe deficiency of empathy’ in incidents of unarmed Black men being killed by police. His answer? Love. His simple yet emotionally powerful seven-minute ‘An Act of Resistance’ begins with heavy military music until an expression of love ultimately prevails, with the whole orchestra ultimately rising to sing, not play, the three-note theme at the end.

A leader in opera conducting, Summers brought telling detail to the Vixen suite, and found dramatic balance in the piece by Thompson (who is at work on a new opera for Summers’s Houston Grand Opera). There was plenty of verve in the concerto, and perhaps too much in Till Eulenspiegel. Its breakneck tempos seldom allowed the music to breathe between dramatic episodes.

Adams’s Crossing Open Ground on the lawn outside the Benedict Music Tent © Carol Steiman

A third element in Sunday’s musical menu was the summer’s theme, ‘Adoration of the Earth’, evident in the animal-focused story of The Cunning Little Vixen and the event that preceded the concert. An expanded Aspen Contemporary Ensemble spread out over the lawn around the music tent to play Crossing Open Ground, a hour-long new work by John Luther Adams, who specializes in music designed for specific open spaces.

As the musicians moved around slowly, the music created a gigantic crescendo: from barely audible tinkles of jingle bracelets and breath through instruments all the way up to crashing thunder from drums placed around the lawn and between the trees. Bird-like cries from oboes and clarinets and wind sounds from percussion finally recede into silence at the end. Within each segment, shorter crescendos reflected the bigger structure. A scattered but rapt (and patient) audience seemed blissed out by the experience.

The recital on Saturday evening in Harris Hall explored various composers’ short takes on ‘America the Beautiful’, familiar as an alternative national anthem. Pianist Min Kwon spent eight summers in Aspen as a student before earning a doctorate in music and teaching at Rutgers University. Her current project made for a fascinating, if musically uneven, evening.

So far she has commissioned 70 pieces. In performance, she likes to pick 15 or so, based on the location and audience reaction. Her Aspen choices favored Aspen connections. Two obvious ones were premieres by Augusta Read Thomas and the festival’s CEO, Alan Fletcher, but the list included Nico Muhly, who was in attendance, and several others who have appeared here in previous years.

Rather than limit composers to writing variations on the tune, she asked them to use any link they liked within the song. Some latched onto a lyric, including a reluctant Vijay Iyer’s moody ‘Crown Thy Good’; or a snippet of the tune, as Avner Dorman did with his ‘23 Variations’, the first 22 of which were like false starts on the few opening notes before finally taking on the whole song. John Harbison developed a single phrase into Bach-like counterpoint for right hand only, one of the most appealing efforts of the evening.

Augusta Read Thomas’s piece turned parts of the tune into a wacky cakewalk. Alan Fletcher surrounded flickers of the tune with hazy harmonies and piano flourishes, as if viewing it through a fog. Both were among my favorites in the wide, wide range of musical styles and emotions. Much of it was informed by the turbulence of the pandemic and politics, but all of it was well-crafted pianism, which Kwon dispatched with proficiency and flair.

I can see other pianists finding juicy material for encores in this collection. For hers, she offered John Musto’s ‘Habañera’, which hides the ‘America’ tune in the left hand. I liked that take too.

Harvey Steiman

4.8.2023: Various: Steven Banks (soprano and alto saxophones), Aspen Chamber Symphony / Xian Zhang (conductor). Benedict Music Tent
Rossini — Overture to L’italiana in Algeri
Billy Childs — Saxophone Concerto (Aspen Music Festival co-commission)
Mozart — Symphony No.39 in E-flat major

5.8.2023: ‘America/Beautiful’: Min Kwon (piano). Harris Hall
Ward (arr. Samuel Adler) — ‘America the Beautiful’
Individual short pieces by Adler, Huang Ruo, Victoria Bond, Richard Danielpour, Nico Muhly, Shulamit Ran, Trevor Weston, Vijay Iyer, John Harbison, Stephen Hartke, Libby Larsen, Augusta Read Thomas, Alan Fletcher, Sebastian Currier, Avner Dorman

6.8.2023: John Luther Adams, Aspen Festival Ensemble / Maurice Cohn (conductor). Meadows Campus
John Luther AdamsCrossing Open Ground

6.8.2023: Various: Gil Shaham (violin), Aspen Festival Orchestra / Patrick Summers (conductor). Benedict Music Tent
Janáček (arr. Mackerras)The Cunning Little Vixen Suite
Joel Thompson — ‘An Act of Resistance’
Korngold — Violin Concerto in D major, Op.35
R. StraussTill Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks, Op.28

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