Programming at the Aspen Music Festival
weaves in generous doses of adventurous music, but Sunday's featured
concert at the Benedict Music Tent has to be one of the strangest. Somehow,
Beethoven's violin concerto, an icon of the symphonic literature, wound
up sharing the afternoon with Edgard Varese's iconoclastic, bombastic,
dissonant Ameriques. It's rather like having a meal that includes
both wiener schnitzel and barbecued spareribs. Fortunately, an intermission
separated what turned out to be remarkable performances of both of these
David Robertson, the American-born conductor
of the Orchestre National de Lyon, found a common thread in the Beethoven
with violinist Joshua Bell, shaping the music with uncommon grace and
elegance. Wherever Bell could play softer, more sweetly, he did. Taking
his cue from the quiet opening, Bell concentrated on spinning out long
arcs of melody, seeking the beauty within the sometimes restless surface
of this work. This was Beethoven by way of Mendelssohn, and if that
wasn't clear enough from his approach to the written music, Bell's own
inventive cadenzas contained several telltale gestures that were more
reminiscent of Mendelssohn than Beethoven. Robertson kept the orchestral
forces at bay just enough to support Bell's approach without losing
the essential power of the music.
The result was a Beethoven violin concerto
that focused on the music rather than how brilliantly the violinist
can play it. Not that Bell lacks brilliance. He can dazzle with the
best of them. But this performance goes down as one of the most graceful
imaginable, well deserving of the immediate standing ovation it got
from the near-capacity audience.
A good 30 to 40 percent of that audience
fled the scene before the Varese, but those who stayed were rewarded
with a powerful, committed performance of this work, written between
1918 and 1921 and yet, as Robertson noted in pre-performance remarks,
often sounding as modern as anything written today. Sometimes you can
tell when orchestras are skeptical of music they don't know. But the
142 musicians, including 11 percussionists, of the Aspen Festival Orchestra,
launched into it like they believed in every note, including the siren
that repeatedly rises out of the musical texture.
For those who know Varese mainly for
his delicate percussion piece, Ionisation, hearing Ameriques
must come as something of a shock. There are delicate moments, such
as the opening measures with singing flutes and harpists tapping on
the wooden frames of their instruments to set the pulse. This recurs
at moments of transition throughout the 25-minute work, as does a little
percussion sequence that sounds for all the world like it emerged from
an Oriental bazaar. And then there are the massive, dissonant climaxes,
one of which makes reference to Berg's Five Pieces for Orchestra.
Robertson conducted with so much enthusiasm
he inadvertently cast his baton into the orchestra at one point. He
continued without missing a beat, drawing remarkable cohesion and surprisingly
clarity from Varese's multi-layered score. The violins, usually drowned
out by the cacophony, managed to sing clearly in their few exposed moments.
The brass section particularly distinguished itself in this performance,
especially in the huge, climactic final bars. This was exciting stuff.
Not so much can be said for the program's
opening work, Palimpsest I by British composer George Benjamin.
Written in 2000, it begins with a brief reference to early polyphony,
which is promptly drowned out by stabbing chords from the full orchestra,
operating with reduced strings, no cellos and enhanced woodwind and
brass forces. To my ears, it never seems to get anywhere, but those
few measures of sweet polyphony come back at the end of the 10-minute
work to remind us how it started.