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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 performance.

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 off.

Harvey Steiman

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