A fine weekend for concertos at the Aspen Music Festival

United StatesUnited States Aspen Music Festival 2024 [2]: Aspen, Colorado. (HS)

A tribute to Peter Schickele: Victoria Chiang and James Dunham play P.D.Q. Bach’s Sonata for Viola Four Hands © Diego Redel

It was a great weekend for Shostakovich and Prokofiev concertos at the Aspen Music Festival, with a fine smattering of other concerto-like pieces to liven up the proceedings.

Augustin Hadelich never seems to disappoint. The marquee soloist played the Prokofiev Violin Concerto No.2 with the Festival Orchestra on Sunday. Also at the top of his game was pianist Inon Barnatan on Friday night with the Chamber Symphony in Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No.1.

In the Friday concert, conducted by Nicholas McGegan, the husband-wife team of Michael Rusinek (clarinet) and Nancy Goeres (bassoon), both principals in the Chamber Symphony, teamed up for a charming performance of Richard Strauss’s Duet-Concertino.

Saturday afternoon in Harris Hall, Hadelich and Barnatan combined forces for a rousing performance of Chausson’s long-limbed, high-Romantic Concert. A quasi-concerto for the compact forces of solo violin, piano and string quartet, its big finale always gets audiences jumping out of their seats.

Featuring longtime regulars is a key element of programming all summer to celebrate the festival’s 75th year. That would include Hadelich, who has been coming to Aspen annually since 2011. Sunday in the music tent, the violinist spun out the gorgeous, sweet, unaccompanied G minor melody that opens the Prokofiev concerto, the simplicity of it eventually playing deftly against the orchestra’s rhythms.

Augustin Hadelich gets applause from conductor Dima Slobodeniouk after the Prokofiev © Diego Redel

Conductor Dima Slobodeniouk, making his Aspen debut, connected seamlessly with Hadelich. One of a phalanx of impressive conductors coming out of Finland, he kept the 25-minute piece moving briskly without pushing the subtly shifting meters and moods – here militaristic, there bouncy – with Hadelich executing tricky double-stops, pungent harmonic clashes and high-lying melodic lines with ease. As an encore, Hadelich’s own arrangement of ‘Orange Blossom Special’ got the train moving at a jaw-dropping pace, its violin acrobatics sometimes overshadowing the bluegrass feel.

The Sunday program started with Chinese-American composer Wang Lu’s ‘Surge’, a six-minute tone poem of relentless crescendos and tough dissonances. In contrast, the hour-long Rachmaninoff Symphony No.2 concluded the program with lavish servings of the composer’s plush, densely packed, overtly expressive writing. Even as Slobodeniouk pulled it together with precision, the music kept spilling over anyway.

Friday in the music tent, Barnatan jumped into Shostakovich’s lively, often puckish music with gusto, leavening the performance with graceful lyrical stretches. After the ominous opening phrases, he and McGegan relished the resulting contrasts. Barnatan gave the exuberant outer movements a virtuosic touch, and the slow movement’s sly takeoff on a vintage waltz had just the right combination of sweet and sour. Principal trumpet Stuart Stephenson delivered Shostakovich’s sardonic interjections in the piano concerto with panache.

In the Strauss Duet-Concertino, Rusinek’s clarinet curlicued around the orchestra’s long legato lines, and Goeres’s intentionally galumphing bassoon responses never lost the underlying sweetness. When the instruments finally reached similar music to play together in the finale, everything fell into place nicely.

The two Haydn symphonies on the program lie in McGegan’s wheelhouse. The early Symphony No.31 (‘Hornsignal’) did not always get the crisp French horn playing that is at its heart, but the more familiar Symphony No.100 (‘Military’) caught the light-footed elegance that balances the composer’s wry humor.

Leading up to the big Chausson piece on Saturday afternoon, a strong lineup of chamber music produced some jewels. An expanded Aspen Contemporary Ensemble, with high-level solo violin work from Laura Gamboa, danced smoothly through ‘Concerto Grosso’, a 10-minute ear-beguiler that composer Jesse Montgomery debuted in 2023. Then violinists Bing Wang, Cornelia Heard, Naoko Tanaka and Renata Arado with pianist Anton Nel – Aspen regulars all – delivered charm in Baroque composer Leonardo Leo’s by-the-book, pint-size Concerto for Four Violins.

The charmer of the day was Debussy’s Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp, ripe with the composer’s penchant for pungent yet sexy harmonies. The Dallas Symphony’s harpist, Emily Levin, was flanked by violist Victoria Chiang (also an Aspen faculty stalwart) and flutist Alexander ‘Sasha’ Ishov, who holds a fellowship with the festival.

Finally, the death earlier this year of Peter Schickele, a master of classical music satire, prompted an evening to honor his history with Aspen where he studied composition with Darius Milhaud in the 1960s. He also gave some of the earliest performances of his humorous work here before it took off later in the decade.

Nodding to Schickele’s alter-ego P.D.Q. Bach, the program included the droll Toot Suite, written for calliope but played on an electronic keyboard by festival music director Robert Spano and CEO Alan Fletcher (who also deployed some unexpected deadpan humor as the evening’s emcee). At one point in P.D.Q,’s sonata for viola and four hands, Chiang handled the fingering as James Dunham bowed with a hacksaw (its ‘blade’ made of bowstrings).

The highlight, though, was a full-orchestra performance of Schickele’s Unbegun Symphony, a fantasy of familiar classical melodies and snippets spinning off into unexpected other tunes.

Harvey Steiman

5.7.2024, Haydn, Shostakovich, R. Strauss: Inon Barnatan (piano), Stuart Stephenson (trumpet), Michael Rusinek (clarinet), Nancy Goeres (bassoon), Aspen Chamber Orchestra / Andrew McGegan (conductor). Klein Music Tent

Haydn – Symphony No.31 in D major, ‘Hornsignal’; Symphony No.100 in G major, ‘Military’
Shostakovich – Piano Concerto No.1 in C minor
R. StraussDuet-Concertino

6.7.2024, Chamber Music: Harris Hall

Jessie Montgomery – ‘Concerto Grosso’ [Aspen Contemporary Ensemble]

Leo – Concerto for Four Violins and Continuo [Bing Wang, Cornelia Heard, Naoko Tanaka, Renata Arado (violins), Anton Nel (piano)]
Debussy – Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp [Alexander ‘Sasha’ Ishov (flute), Victoria Chiang (viola), Emily Levin (harp)]
ChaussonConcert [Augustin Hadelich (solo violin), Inon Barnatan (piano), Yvette Kraft, Eunice Lee (violins), Hope Hyink (viola), William Suh (cello)]

6.7.2024, An Evening of P.D.Q. Bach: Harris Hall

P.D.Q. BachToot Suite for Calliope Four Hands, S.212 [Alan Fletcher (piano), Robert Spano (piano); Sonata for Viola Four Hands and Harpsichord, S.440 [Victoria Chiang, James Dunham (viola), Anton Nel (harpsichord)]; Echo Sonata for Two Unfriendly Groups of Instruments, S.9999999…. [Nadine Asin (flute), Elaine Douvas (oboe), Andrew Brady (bassoon), Abel Pereira (horn), Billy Hunter (trumpet), James Miller (trombone)]; Goldbrick Variations, S.14 [Anton Nel (piano)]; ‘Donna, Donna, Listen to My Plea,’ from The Abduction of Figaro, S.384, 492 [Sarah Fleiss (soprano), Sunghoon Han (bass), Anna Gershtein (piano)]
Peter Schickele – ‘Unbegun’ Symphony [Aspen Festival Ensemble / Piotr Wacławik (conductor)]

7.7.2024, Wang Lu, Prokofiev, Rachmaninoff: Augustin Hadelich (violin), Aspen Festival Orchestra / Dima Slobodeniouk (conductor). Klein Music Tent

Wang Lu – ‘Surge’
Prokofiev – Violin Concerto No.2 in G minor
Rachmaninoff – Symphony No.2 in E minor

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