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
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.