Matthew Aucoin, Alisa Weilerstein and Renée Fleming highlight a piquant first week in Aspen

United StatesUnited States Aspen Music Festival 2024 [1]: Aspen, Colorado. (HS)

Bold lighting enhances Matthew Aucoin’s Music for New Bodies at Aspen Music Festival © Diego Redel

The marquee concert of the first weekend at the Aspen Music Festival 2024 unleashed what seemed to be every brass player on the festival’s roster to enhance the Festival Orchestra in the big-boned opening fanfare of Richard Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra and the climactic final pages of Ottorino Respighi’s Pines of Rome. The sheer sonic power of those moments made for jaw-dropping thrills, but for music connoisseurs the highlight was a bit quieter – the rich, flexible soprano of Renée Fleming who demonstrated how well she knows her way around Strauss’s vocal writing.

Now celebrating its 75th year, the festival boasts an impressive range of talent. Principals from A-list orchestras and chamber groups sit in the first chairs of both the Festival and Chamber orchestras, side-by-side with young musicians from the festival’s school. The hundreds enrolled this year keep to a high standard for all the ensembles in the eight-week program and the multiple performances per day.

Fleming shares artistic directorship with conductor Patrick Summers of the Aspen Opera Theater and VocalARTS program, which gives young singers the chance to study with them and perform with conductors such as Summers, Jane Glover and Matthew Aucoin. Monday evening at the jewel-box Wheeler Opera House, a cast of five from VocalARTS and an expanded Aspen Contemporary Ensemble presented audiences with a new vocal composition by Aucoin.

And then, for two evenings just before the Fourth-of-July holiday, cellist Alisa Weilerstein (who literally grew up at the festival where her parents taught chamber music for decades) brought her own personal take on J. S. Bach’s unaccompanied cello suites to Aspen. FRAGMENTS mixes and matches Bach with short pieces that Weilerstein commissioned from 27 contemporary composers (a years-long project that she tested out in Aspen two summers ago before taking it to Carnegie Hall).

There is a lot to unpack in all that.

Let us start with the Sunday event, which used the extra brass to add oomph to the traditional opener of Walter Damrosch’s orchestration of the national anthem. They were already in place on the choir balcony above the Klein Music Tent stage to provide additional decibels for the familiar Zarathustra fanfare. Music director Robert Spano found a pace that balanced motion with majesty.

As the 35-minute tone poem unfolded, however, I missed the contrasts in tempo, dynamics and mood, which range from light-hearted to threatening, that are vital to the musical storytelling. Solos were all well played, but the ominous aura of the final pages felt understated.

Alan Fletcher, CEO of the festival and school, keeps his hand in composing. His Three American Songs, written for Fleming, got its world premiere next. Inspired by Aaron Copland’s two sets of Old American Songs, it leans gently into a softer emotional disposition than Copland’s ten settings which inject several jaunty tunes to balance hymns and lullabies.

Fletcher seemed to be nodding to Copland’s sound in his orchestration of the first song, the shape-note hymn ‘Wondrous Love’. Stephen Foster’s ‘Slumber, My Darling’ got simple chords to underline its lullaby aspects. The accompaniment to ‘The Cuckoo’ harked to its Old English roots. Fleming made the most of the lyrical melodies and opportunities to show off beautifully placed high notes.

It is unfair to follow these modestly crafted songs with Strauss, a master of writing for soprano, but the lovely if seldom-heard ‘Muttertändelei’ seemed to counter the lullaby in the previous set. The wonders came with the Marschallin’s touching reflections on the passing of time, an excerpt from the opera Der Rosenkavalier. Befitting a role Fleming has triumphed in at opera houses around the world, she brought out details and made it mesmerizing. ‘Cäcilie’, one of the most exuberant art songs by Strauss, topped things off gratifyingly.

Pines of Rome, musical schlock of the highest order, gets its thrills from the composer’s willingness to let the orchestration show all its colors, a reminder that Respighi studied with Rimsky-Korsakov. Spano’s relatively quick tempos may not have provided as much spaciousness as most conductors do, but the extra brass arrayed around the sides and back of the audience created a sonic thrill that is hard to argue with.

In the opera house on Monday evening, Aucoin, a composer whose work has won over audiences at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, aimed for complexity in contrast to the Sunday concert. A co-commission by the festival, Music for New Bodies shows Aucoin’s restless compositional mind at its most curious.

The piece, a sort of twenty-first century cantata, debuted earlier this year in Houston. It expands vocally upon five poems by Pulitzer Prize-winner Jorie Graham, ruminating on how we might find our humanity in a world in which science has affected our lives both positively and negatively. It is a heavy load to grapple with, and the composer and his collaborator, director Peter Sellars, made a point of avoiding any sort of narrative, leaving the audience to parse the messages.

With the singers in front of an 18-piece orchestra, all of it amplified to balance with electronic instruments, the music shimmered with Aucoin’s ability to create sound sculptures of both transparency and density. Most of it is accessible, but it can get thorny when it needs to. There were plenty of vocal gymnastics for high soprano Sofia Gotch-Caruana and lyrical lines for soprano Maria Vasilevskaya, even if much of the vocalization amounts to choral punctuations from the singers together, often fitting into the orchestral texture.

It is a piece that needs repeated hearings to grasp. But on the first go, I found much to chew on.

Cellist Alisa Weilerstein in FRAGMENTS 1 at Aspen Music Festival © Diego Redel

Equally innovative, in its way, was Weilerstein’s reimagining of a cello recital on Tuesday and Wednesday in Harris Hall. FRAGMENTS aims to capture the magic of hearing new music for the first time by presenting contemporary pieces without the usual explanations. Adding a visual tang, sets composed of long boxes of various sizes were arrayed in different patterns for each hour-long program, along with lighting and clothing tied to each presentation.

Weilerstein’s eye-opening virtuosity and uncanny ability can shape any music with her own take, all without losing the original meaning. Though audiences and critics may find themselves at sea in FRAGMENTS, I let the music flow over me, trying not to be analytical.

Shuffling pieces of Bach’s unaccompanied cello suites with the new music provided jumping-off points, creating a mosaic in which the new pieces, only a few minutes each, gave each of Bach’s Allemandes, Menuets and Sarabandes a different feeling than usual. Or maybe it was the way these other pieces framed Weilerstein’s playing of them. Either way, the journey became, for me, like a page-turner book.

In FRAGMENTS 1, centered around the Suite No.1, Chen Yi’s elegantly Chinese-inflected ‘Mountain Tune’ made the graceful rhythms and turns of Bach’s Courante flow with similar grace. Then the Bach made Reinaldo Moya’s guitar-like ‘Cerrero de medianoche’ feel absolutely right.

For FRAGMENTS 2, Weilerstein dressed up like an Emo-besotted teenager, complete with fishnet stockings and boots. She fired dizzying opening salvos of scratchy dissonances in music from Ana Sokolovic and Gity Razaz, which made Bach’s Allemande jumpier than usual. That set the stage for what was to come, not the way I might have wanted to hear it in a pure recital, but it created a whole new mixtape that had its own merits.

A hauntingly lovely Caroline Shaw ‘Microfiction’ that was entirely plucked on the cello (with Weilerstein singing a few plain notes) led to Bach’s finale Gigue, and made it feel like emerging into a beautiful mountain valley after a hike. And if that ain’t Aspen, what is?

Harvey Steiman

30.6.2024: R. Strauss, Fletcher, Respighi: Renée Fleming (soprano), Aspen Festival Orchestra / Robert Spano (conductor). Klein Music Tent

R. StraussAlso sprach Zarathustra; ‘Muttertändelei’; ‘Die Zeit, die ist ein Sonderbar Ding’ from Der Rosenkavalier; ‘Cäcilie’
Alan Fletcher – ‘Three American Songs’ (World Premiere, AMFS Co-Commission)
RespighiPines of Rome

1.7.2024: Aucoin, Music for New Bodies: Sofia Gotch-Caruana, Maria Vasilevskaya, Elana Bell (sopranos), Alejandro Luévanos (tenor), Peter Barber (bass), Aspen Contemporary Ensemble / Timothy Weiss (conductor). Wheeler Opera House

2.7.2024: FRAGMENTS 1, Alisa Weilerstein (cello). Harris Hall

J. S. Bach– Cello Suite No.1 in G major
Joan Tower – ‘For Alisa’
Reinaldo Moya – ‘Guayoyo Sketches’
Allison Loggins-Hull – ‘Chasing Balance’
Chen Yi – ‘Ancient Song’; ‘Spin Dance’; ‘Mountain Tune’
Gili Schwarzman – ‘Preludium’

2.7.2024: FRAGMENTS 2, Alisa Weilerstein (cello). Harris Hall

J.S. Bach – Cello Suite No.2 in D minor
Ana Sokolovic – ‘Fragments I, II, III’
Gity Razaz – ‘Secrets, Invocations’
Daniel Kidane – ‘Sarabande I, II, III’
Alan Fletcher – ‘Allemande’
Caroline Shaw – ‘Microfiction’

Leave a Comment