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Zinman & Conlon in Concert, Aspen Festival, 2 & 4 August 2002 (HS)

Aspen Chamber Orchestra, David Zinman, conductor; Stravinsky "Danses concertantes"; Mozart "Violin Concerto No. 3 in G major," Alexander Kerr, violin; Stravinsky "Symphony in C"; August 2, 2002, Benedict Music Tent, Aspen

Aspen Festival Orchestra, James Conlon, conductor; Wagner "Prelude to Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg"; Boulez: "Notations"; Dvorak "Symphony No. 9 in E minor (From the New World); August 4, 2002, Benedict Music Tent, Aspen

Two American conductors familiar to European audiences put an exclamation point on Week 7 of the Aspen Music Festival by leading a pair of first-rate programs. On Friday the festival's music director, David Zinman, conductor of the Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra, paired Mozart with Stravinsky in his neo-classic mode. And on Sunday James Conlon, principal conductor of the Paris Opera and general music director of the city of Cologne, offered three examples of composers trying to create new music in their times: Wagner, Boulez and Dvorak.

Intellectually, these programs offered plenty to chew on. More importantly, they also resulted in some fine music making.

The Mozart violin concerto was, quite rightly, the centerpiece of the Friday concert. Alexander Kerr, concertmaster of the Amsterdam Concertgebouw, stepped in at the last minute, replacing pianist Andres Haefliger, who was ill. He was to play the B-flat major piano concerto, but Kerr kept the programming valid by staying with Mozart. He responded with elegant playing, pinpoint intonation and fine attention to the long Mozartean line.

The performance was a delight from start to finish, with Zinman drawing lively, refined playing from the orchestra. Especially memorable was the slow movement, which unfolded with grace. Kerr has come a long way as a soloist since I first heard him, sounding tentative, a couple of years ago. This time he sounded confident, communicating so well with Zinman that they seemed, figuratively, to be dancing as the piece unfurled.

Stravinsky's "Danses concertantes," written without commission in 1942, eventually found its way to the dance stage with several key ballet companies, including Ballet Russes de Monte Carlo, Sadler's Wells and San Francisco. It plays like a ballet, complete with pas de deux and opening and closing marches. Zinman led a jaunty performance that, except for the pungent harmonies and springy rhythms Stravinksy couldn't resist, could have suited a Mozart overture.

The Symphony in C, which predates the danses by about two years, follows a Haydnesque model. At times it's easy to be reminded of Prokofiev's Symphony No. 1, but this is pure Stravinsky, with all his trademark wit, jazzy ostinatos and pungent dissonances when you least expect them. Zinman has a great feel for this music, making it totally natural and joyous.

As light and graceful as that concert was, Sunday's amalgam of Wagner, Boulez and Dvorak came on like a herd of buffalo. The programming shows remarkable intelligence, giving us three examples of composers stretching the boundaries of their existing musical world in search of something new. "Die Meistersinger," after all, is about respecting new ideas in music and reconciling them with the old.

Boulez, for all his usual austerity, never could give up on tonality and admired Wagner especially for the counterpoint in his music, of which the overture to Meistersinger is a prime example. Late in his career as a conductor, Boulez has emerged as a strong interpreter of Wagner, Mahler and Bruckner, going for crystalline clarity instead of the heavy sweep more often heard.

The orchestral "Notations," which emerged from a series of miniatures Boulez wrote for piano while studying with Messiaen, look back in a way to the sort of orchestral colors one could hear from Ravel, packaged in a tart salad of musical idioms, all of them dissonant, most of them highly rhythmic. It takes eight percussionists to play.

Finally, Dvorak in the "New World" symphony incorporated the tunes and sounds he absorbed in his stay in the United States, which lasted several years. Quite correctly, it's called "From the New World," because Dvorak was physically in America when he wrote it, thought musically it sounds more like his head was in his Czech homeland.

Under Conlon, all these of these pieces got full-bore treatment, with extra musicians in the orchestra, energetic performances and big climaxes. That may have pleased the crowd, but both the Wagner and Dvorak pieces suffered from dense, muddy inner textures which, despite Conlon's unflagging energy, kept the pieces from flying quite the way they can.

As a result, clearly the best performance of the day was the Boulez, which was striking in its clarity of sound and rhythm. Conlon got the mostly student orchestra believing in the piece. The result was nothing short of exhilarating. Of the dozen original miniatures, Boulez has now developed five for orchestra: Nos. 1-4 and 7. Conlon played all five. No. 7, only recently completed, was the most compelling for me, relying as it does on shimmering strings.

Harvey Steiman


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