An Evening With Leon Fleisher, July 25, Benedict Music Tent: Schubert
"Fantasie in F Minor," Hindemith "Kammermusic No. 1," Brahms "Piano
Trio No. 2," with Kyoko Takezawa, violin; Thomas Grossenbacher, cello.
Aspen Chamber Orchestra, Alan Gilbert, conductor, July 26, Benedict
Music Tent. Shreker "Kammersymphonie," Brahms "Concerto for Violin,
Cello and Orchestra," Alexander Kerr, violin; Eric Kim, cello; Haydn
"Symphony No. 104 (London)."
Susanne Mentzer, mezzo soprano; Kenneth Merrill, piano; Harris Concert
Hall, July 27. Korngold "Four Shakespeare Songs."
"Gloria: A Pigtale," an opera by H.K. Gruber (U.S. Premiere), Wheeler
Opera House, July 27.
Aspen Festival Orchestra, James De Preist, conductor, July 28, Benedict
Music Tent. Adams "Short Ride in a Fast Machine," Szymanowski "Violin
Concerto," Takezawa, violin; Mahler "Symphony No. 1."
Aspen Percussion Ensemble, Jonathan Haas, director, Harris Concert
Hall, July 28. Program including Varese "Ionisation," Harrison "Concerto
for Organ and Percussion."
It was one of those busy weekends at Aspen, when the
usual orchestral programs bump headlong into American premieres of opera,
the odd vocal recital and the much-anticipated annual show by the percussion
ensemble. If that sounds like a roller coaster ride, the variable level
of performance only reinforced the feeling.
The highlights, to my ears, boiled down to anything
involving the violinists. Takezawa brought her glistening, silvery sound
and rock solid musicianship to bear on both the Brahms trio and the
Szymanowski concerto, and Kerr found an amazing rapport with Kim in
the double concerto. Finally, the percussion concert was more fun than
a barrel of timpani players. The rest had its ups and downs.
Most of the Fleisher evening was on the up side. He
opened by sharing the keyboard with his wife, Kathrine Jacobson, in
a tender performance of the Schubert F minor Fantasie, with its famous
lilting tune. Then he conducted a lively ensemble of Aspen music school
faculty in a rousing performance of Hindemith's youthful (1922) Kammermusic
No. 1, with its cabaret gestures, impish rhythms and distinctive harmonies.
The Brahms Trio No. 2 in C Major started off with a level of tension
that never flagged. Grossenbacher, principal cellist of the Zurich Tonhalle
Orchestra, matched Takezawa in stylish playing, all of it held together
with Fleisher's consummate understanding of Brahms' music.
The Aspen Chamber Symphony program opened with the
seldom-heard 1916 Kammersymphonie of Franz Shreker, an overstuffed sofa
of a piece that uses pure Viennese plushness and sweetness to seduce
the ear and give the audience something to sink into. It's a long piece,
rather like a Strauss tone poem in structure, and American Alan Gilbert,
chief conductor of the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic, got a committed
Then came the Brahms double concerto, notable for the
sixth-sense communication among Kerr, concertmaster of the Amsterdam
Concertgebouw, Kim, principal cellist of the Cincinnati Symphony, and
Gilbert. They're good friends off the stage, and it showed in their
warm, devoted approached to the music, tossing the melodic ball around
like a basketball team on a well-tuned fast break.
These two long pieces made from an unbalanced program,
with the relatively quick London Symphony of Haydn the only item on
the post-intermission agenda. Also, being the lightest of the three
pieces, it came almost as an afterthought. It was like finishing dinner
with the appetizer. Whatever the reason, Gilbert and the orchestra galumphed
through the piece, never finding that Haydn sparkle.
The Saturday afternoon chamber music potpourri at Harris
Hall had one item of special interest, mezzo soprano Susanne Mentzer
singing Erich Korngold's settings of four Shakespeare songs. With Kenneth
Merrill the able accompanist, Mentzer sang the songs with care, but
the naturalness that characterizes her lieder singing deserted her and
her voice sounded forced. In these songs, Korngold uses lots of modal
writing to try to sound English, but it never quite jells. There's a
reason we hear these so seldom.
Gruber's opera, "Gloria: A Pigtale," was completed
in 1993 and is just getting its American premiere. The Austrian composer,
who favors cabaret structures and tart, often dense harmonies, sets
a children's story of a blonde-haried pig's rejection by her dark-haired
peers, her narrow escape from the butcher's knife and eventually a curdled
happy ending with marriage to a wild boar.
There's way too much heavy-handed moralizing, leavened
with elbow-in-the-ribs gags -- the boar actually sings "I saved your
bacon" -- but worth it for the music. Gruber's dance-hall band, made
up of winds, brass, percussion and one (1) violin, zigs, zags, bounces
and growls through complex rhythms that also keep the young singers
on their toes. Diego Masson conducted and Kaewon Moon, from South Korea,
put a lovely and agile coloratura soprano in service of the title role,
which mocks most of the operatic conventions, including requisite high
C's in the romantic arias and duets.
The problem is that the first act starts out with a
strong statement about fascism, but just when you think that's going
to be the point of the opera, it disappears and the story focuses on
the love affair between Gloria and Rodrigo, the boar. Following the
prophecy of two scat-singing oven (their first words are "moo-be-doo-be-doo"),
Gloria believes she is going to her wedding when it's actually the butcher
taking her to slaughter, even when she is warned by two singing sausages
(don't ask). Rodrigo saves her, and in the final scene, a postlude three
years later, she's deliriously happy and he's feeling trapped. It's
a downer of an ending, and what it has to do with the fascism stuff
in the first act eludes me.
The costumes are great fun, especially pig hats with
wiggly ears and Rodrigo in his Spanish cape, otherwise it might have
been better to do this in concert form.
On Sunday, conductor James De Preist, music director
of the Oregon Symphony, gave Takezawa plenty of support in the Szymanowski
violin concerto. Takezawa's sound is perfect for this work, which alternates
between long, sweet, arcing melodies and tough sections that wonder
freely into more dissonant territory. De Preist brought out much of
the orchestral color, which makes the one-movement symphony a feast
for the ears.
It was also a pleasure to hear John Adams' 1986 minimalist
fanfare, "Short Ride in a Fast Machine," get such a high-octane reading.
The less said about De Preist's foray into Mahler the
better. This was about the fastest Mahler First I've ever heard, clocking
in at about 53 minutes. Everything felt rushed, which didn't allow the
music to breathe. Poor articulation in the horns didn't help. Worse,
the pace softened the jarring contrasts that make Mahler so exciting.
The second movement, with its acerbic landler, lacked acid; it might
as well have been Beethoven. The minor-key round on "Bruder Martin"
in the third movement was fine, but the klezmer-like music that followed
sounded almost the same, instead of being the biting satire Mahler intended.
Still, when the piece roared to its conclusion and
finished together, it got the obligatory standing ovation.
Which brings us to the percussion concert, at which
director Jonathan Haas allows his charges to flaunt the eccentricities
of drummers. The program included a piece for amplified cactus, another
piece for a set of fantastical metal sculptures played as musical instruments,
and a hilarious showpiece called "Martian Tribes."
The last alludes to percussionists' reputation among
other musician as being from another planet, and it's as good a place
to start in describing this concert. From a cloud of vapor, a vehicle
crudely painted to look like a flying saucer emerges from the wings.
A drummer wearing an alien mask (the kind with the huge almond-shaped
eyes) arises and starts playing on the UFO, which hides several marimbas
tied together. More aliens arise and the piece develops into several
sections, the aliens circling the instruments. The music by Emmanuel
Sejourné of Strasbourg is terrific, there are plenty sight gags,
and the audience emerged into intermission grinning with delight.
The cactus piece, "Degrees of Separation," involves
about 10 potted cactuses, each fitted with a contact microphone. When
the players pluck, tap or rub the needles of the cactuses with various
tools (combs, pencils, pieces of cloth), they create a distinctive sound
rather like a water drop. The aleatoric piece mixes these sounds into
a fascinating texture.
Varese's 1931 classic "Ionasation" opened the concert
with one of the clearest, liveliest performance I've heard. Then came
an arrangement for four vibraphones of the grand chorale from Stravinsky's
"L'histoire du soldat," with a new text extolling the imporance of music
in a post-Sept. 11 world. The vibe chorus made a haunting sound, especially
in the final, pianissimo repetition of the chorale, played only with
fingers, no mallets.
Alchemy, the piece for metal sculptures by Javier Diaz,
might have been more interesting if the sculptures had not sounded so
much alike. Except for three pyramid shaped bells, it all sounded rather
like, well, metallic clanging, and went on far too long. It's a good
thing they had Lou Harrison's swaggering organ concerto to finish things