What’s classical music? All of this, says the Aspen Music Festival

United StatesUnited States Aspen Music Festival 2023 [12]: Benedict Music Tent, Harris Hall, Aspen, Colorado. (HS)

One of the groups of wind instruments for John Luther Adams’s An Atlas of Deep Time © Diego Redel

Over the past few days, concert goers at the Aspen Music Festival heard a Chinese composer’s piece for piano and orchestra that swerved from celestial beauty to agonizing noise; a saxophonist who delineated music by composers from Baroque to Björk with a pop artist’s flair; a delightful, jazz-infused version of a Stravinsky classic by Wynton Marsalis; and a 45-minute rumination on the history of time that placed sections of the orchestra around the perimeter of the music tent.

One cannot say the music festival is doing the same-old, same-old. And most of it delivered the goods with ear-pleasing virtuosity.

The marquee event was John Luther Adams’s An Atlas of Deep Time, which opened Sunday’s Festival Orchestra program with a re-definition of ‘world music’. The composer literally intended to immerse the audience in the earth’s history from the planet’s formation to now. Like his Crossing Open Ground, which took place outside the music tent before the previous Sunday’s concert, it bypassed the usual hierarchy of melody/harmony/rhythm, instead using the sonic elements of music to create an immersive experience.

A sort of rumbling, sound-shifting meditation, it stacked clusters of chords, played with dynamics and situated separate sections around the space to resonate with surround sound. Messiaen, a twentieth-century composer who famously derived his music from bird song and representations of vastness (I kept thinking of his From the Canyons to the Sky), would have loved it. The musicians I talked with at intermission did not. ‘I tried, but after ten minutes of the same chord I couldn’t’, one said. Some civilians loved the hypnotic aspects of it. It’s all in what you expect from music.

The second half gave conductor David Robertson more traditional music to work with. Listeners could appreciate the lush melodies of Chausson’s Poème, played with silvery precision by Luna Choi (winner of last year’s violin competition), and revel in Debussy’s vivid scene-painting in La mer, both conducted with Robertson’s clearly delineated approach and expressive body language.

Saturday’s recitals in Harris Hall challenged performers to venture into more music at the edges of what we usually think of as ‘classical’, and they rose to the demands brilliantly.

In her evening program, British saxophonist Jess Gillam proved she can meet the virtuosic demands of a Baroque oboe concerto transcribed note-for-note for soprano sax and apply the same techniques to modern music written or arranged for her. The ad hoc ensemble of student musicians that backed her – a string quintet plus piano and percussion – executed pieces that relied on reels and other dance music with apparent ease.

Composer Nico Muhly and saxophonist Jess Gillam after the U..S. premiere of ‘Pressure of Speech’ © Blake Nelson

Clad in a bright blue pantsuit and rhinestone-adorned shoes, Gillam connected with the audience with welcoming energy and dazzled with her playing. Fast-moving acrobatic lines and soft, long-breathed melodies emerged gracefully, with sweet tone. Highlights included a new piece, ‘Pressure of Speech’ by American composer Nico Muhly, co-commissioned by the festival. He conducted the lively nine-minute work which juggled several genres for Gillam on alto sax.

‘Venus as a Boy’ by Björk got a jazz overlay in an arrangement by John Metcalfe, who also arranged film composer Riu Sakamoto’s serene ‘Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence’. Even better were rhythmically vital pieces such as ‘Shine You No More’ (an up-tempo version of a slow song by the sixteenth-century composer John Dowland), and the evening’s rousing closer, ‘RANT!’ by John Harle (who has collaborated with Paul McCartney).

The Saturday afternoon recital usually starts with a prickly contemporary work and moves on to a string quartet or piano trio, but this time it opened a few eyes with another piece by John Luther Adams and a remarkable theatrical work by Wynton Marsalis.

Adams’s serene there is no one, not even the wind (2017) filled the hall with sustained sonorities from strings, a clarinet and percussion, played with infinite patience and delicacy.

A trumpet virtuoso and composer who excels in both jazz and classic idioms, Marsalis adapted Stravinsky’s groundbreaking Histoire du soldat for his 1998 A Fiddler’s Tale: original music using the same instrumentation as Stravinsky’s to go with a new script by Stanley Crouch, the renowned jazz commentator (in a decidedly Black idiom). Stravinsky’s soldier battling the Devil for his violin is replaced with a cautionary tale about a musician hankering for fame, in which the Devil, posing as a music mogul, obliges.

Conducted by veteran percussionist Jonathan Haas with appropriate sass, the mixture of faculty and students delivered Marsalis’s jazz-infused score brilliantly. Formidable violinist Alex Kerr soloed with style, Stuart Stephenson got funky on his trumpet solos and Edward Stephan kept the rhythm going smartly on drums. Students, especially bass player Michael Zogaib, kept up marvelously.

Two members of the Aspen Opera Theater and VocalARTS – mezzo-soprano Adja Thomas as the narrator and tenor Justin E. Bell as the Devil – carried the extensive spoken parts, portraying several characters effectively.

Friday’s Chamber Symphony concert was a mixed bag, from an exotic first half to a crisply shaped Brahms Symphony No.2. The only fully realized piece was a 1918 bonbon of nature-painting by Lili Boulanger, a French composer who died young in the shadow of her much more famous sister, Nadia, a mentor to great composers. ‘D’un matin de printemps’, a seven-minute tone poem, describes a spring morning in beautifully orchestrated, evocative music. Maurice Cohn, assistant conductor for the festival who led the other evening of John Williams’s film music, caught the breeze perfectly.

An odd duck of a piano and orchestra piece by the one-time child prodigy Peng-Peng Gong followed. Now 31, he has created a stately stage presence and can still attack the piano formidably. His own composition, Late Bells Concertante, started enticingly, with a single note tolling and flourishes growing around it, first on the piano, eventually with the full orchestra. It ended with a meditative, restful variation on the tolling, different enough to reflect a good composer’s sensibilities.

But there was a vastly different middle part. The program note said it represented a prodigy’s frustrations and pressures. The orchestra exploded into dizzying layers of dissonance, so loud that an apparently complex piano part disappeared into the storm clouds. Thankfully, it all ebbed into a lovely finish. With a re-written middle section, this could be a heck of a piece.

Brahms Symphony No.2 occupied the second half of the program. Cohn delineated the composer’s individual episodes with an impressive array of tonal colors and clearly defined rhythms. If the various gestures didn’t quite flow smoothly from one to the next, there was much to appreciate in the clarity of these episodes.

Harvey Steiman

11.8.2023: Chamber Symphony: Peng-Peng Gong (piano), Aspen Chamber Symphony / Maurice Cohn (conductor). Benedict Music Tent
Lili Boulanger – ‘D’un matin de printemps’
Peng-Peng GongLate Bells Concertante for Piano and Orchestra (U.S. premiere)
Brahms – Symphony No.2 in D major

12.8.2023: Chamber Music: Vocalists, Soloists, Aspen Contemporary Ensemble. Harris Hall
John Luther Adams – there is no one, not even the wind (Timothy Weiss, conductor)
Wynton Marsalis – A Fiddler’s Tale (Alex Kerr, violin, Jonathan Haas, conductor)

12.8.2023: Recital: Jess Gillam (saxophones), John Hale (piano), student ensemble. Harris Hall
Marcello – Oboe Concerto in D minor
Meredith Monk – ‘Early Morning Melody
Philip Glass – ‘Melody No.10 for Saxophone’
Ayanna Witter-Johnson – ‘Lumina’
C. P. E. Bach (arr. Simon Parkin)Allegro Assai from Flute Concerto in A minor
Thom Yorke (arr. Benjamin Rimmer) – ‘Suspirium’
Björk (arr, John Metcalfe) – ‘Venus as a Boy’
Nico Muhly – ‘Pressure of Speech’ (U.S. premiere, Nico Muhly, conductor)
Sakamoto (arr. Metcalfe) – ‘Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence’
Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen (arr. Parkin) – ‘Shine You No More’
B. Thompson – ‘The Unseen Way’
John Harle – ‘RANT!’

13.8.2023: Various: Luna Choi (violin), Aspen Festival Orchestra / David Robertson (conductor). Benedict Music Tent
John Luther AdamsAn Atlas of Deep Time
Chausson – Poème for Violin and Orchestra
DebussyLa mer

Leave a Comment