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Aspen Music Festival 2002

Beethoven Violin Concerto, Varese Ameriques, Aspen Festival Orchestra, David Robertson, conductor; Joshua Bell, violin; Benedict Music Tent, Aspen, Colorado, July 14th 2002 (HS)


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 disparate works.

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.

Harvey Steiman


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