Violinist Gil Shaham launched into the opening measures of the J.S. Bach "Violin Concerto in A minor" with refreshing vigor; he brought what was already a splendid pair of concerts by the International Sejong Soloists, a 14-piece conductorless string ensemble, to another level of music making. Shaham, who several years ago wowed Aspen Music Festival audiences by making fresh, vivid music out of Vivaldi's evergreen "Four Seasons" with the Sejong, never let up in intensity through the A minor concerto and Bach's "Concerto for Two Violins in D minor."
Like the Vivaldi, the concerto for two violins is an overly familiar piece that often receives reverential treatment from players. Shaham and Adele Anthony, his wife, who is also the concertmaster of the Sejong, would have none of that. They blazed into the music and it took off like a jet. Their performance put a fitting cap on two evenings that showed off the ensemble's wide range.
The Saturday night program opened with excerpts from two film scores by Toro Takemitsu: "Jose Torres" and "Face of Another." Unlike his art music, which often consciously weaves in Japanese elements, Takemitsu makes these scores sound very western. The waltz could have been by Tchaikovsky, a factor that may have played into their choice for this program, which ended with a piece containing a famous Tchaikovsky waltz. By contrast, Vaughan Williams' 1925 "Concerto accademico," which featured Anthony, relies so thoroughly on pentatonic scales that it almost feels Oriental. To finish off the first half of that concert, Ani Aznavoorian, one of three cellists in the ensemble, took the solo role in Italian-born Argentinian composer Jose Bragato's dramatic 1971 tango, "Graciela y Buenos Aires." The sensuous piece owes much to the innovations in tango music by Astor Piazzola. It opens and finishes with delicacy, but gives the cello plenty of scope in between.
The ensemble played all three of these pieces with characteristic rhythmic spring, clarity and unanimity of style. This group, formed by ex-Julliard students, achieves the sort of tight playing you might expect from a quartet. They are remarkable to hear, as they demonstrated with a thrilling performance of the Tchaikovsky Serenade in C. They filled Harris Hall with rich sound when needed and played as one without a conductor. With all the rhythmic and dynamic shifts in the Serenade, they lilted charmingly in the waltz, rocked emphatically in the finale's Russian dance, and tied it all together with a clear sense of the piece's musical architecture.
Tuesday evening began with a lovely performance of the famous Albinoni Adagio, dedicated to the late violin teacher Dorothy DeLay, who worked with many of the members of the ensemble at Julliard. Then came a pleasant run-through of Josef Suk's Serenade, and, after intermission, the two Bach concertos.
Communication between soloists and ensemble was so complete, the performances sang with unanimity. Shaham brought such depth and sparkle to these pieces that one could forgive his occasional use of overly romantic portamento in the slow movements. Anthony used a much faster and more appropriate portamento in her repeats of the same phrases.
As an encore, Shaham and Anthony played a delicious arrangement of "Sweet Georgia Brown," with all sorts of romantic violin flourishes in the introduction before they settled into a lilting jazz style. That -- and the Bach -- sent the audience (which overflowed onto seats arranged at the back and sides of the stage) smiling into a clear, fresh Aspen night.