an unusual mountain town. Founded on silver mining in the 19th century,
it reinvented itself as a posh ski resort and became an intellectual center
with the founding of the Aspen Institute, a place where physicists, philosophers
and world leaders come together. Sited at the end of a striking valley
in Colorado, the town is surrounded with mountains dotted with multi-million-dollar
homes inhabited by the rich and famous. For all that, it's a rebelliously
this milieu, the Aspen Music Festival runs for nine weeks every summer,
creating an international mix of famous soloists, professional musicians
and some 750 students into various ensembles. David Zinman, conductor
of the Zurich Tonhalle has been the music director since 1998. This
year's festival started June 19. I arrived this past weekend, just in
time to watch the ebullient small-town parade for America's Independence
Day July 4 (no bands, unless you count the music school's ad hoc percussion
group on the back of a lorry).
weekend's programs leaned strongly on American music, including music
of George Gershwin, Ned Rorem and that quintessential American composer
Aaron Copland (who spent several summers in Aspen in the 1960s and 70s).
There was also a bit of Britten (a nod to the country from which America
won its independence?) and a new concerto for two guitars and violin
by the Brazilian composer and guitarist Sergio Assad.
the program that best reflected Aspen (the town, as opposed to the music
festival per se) was a Saturday night event featuring the Taiwan-born
American violinist Cio-Lang Lin and the New York Times' world
affairs columnist Thomas Friedman, a regular visitor to Aspen whose
wife happens to be the daughter of the festival's chair. A fund-raiser
for support of international students, the first half featured Lin playing
several duos by Bela Bartok with a student from Thailand and the Mendelssohn
Trio No. 2 with a young woman pianist from Georgia (the one in the Caucasus)
and a cellist from Switzerland. In the second half Friedman, who has
been writing extensively about the war in Iraq, spoke for nearly an
hour, explaining why he was for the war but fearful that the Bush administration
is losing the peace.
not a program one is likely to find anywhere else, mixing exemplary
music with thoughtful political commentary. The audience filled the
2,050-seat Benedict Music Tent to capacity.
were more only a few vacant seats the next afternoon when Murry Sidlin,
a conductor who actually worked extensively with Copland, led the Aspen
Festival Orchestra in a satisfyingly jaunty program that included the
composer's El Salón México, the guitar and violin
concerto by Assad, a 1963 tone poem by Rorem, and capped it off with
a slightly messy but rousing performance of Gershwin's An American
surprisingly, the Copland proved the most completely articulated in
performance, which Sidlin introduced by reminding the audience of some
of the Mexican folk music quoted in the piece, playing them on an out-of-tune
upright piano (that seemed plucked from another Copland ballet, Billy
Latin American influence led nicely into the Assad concerto, a 2002
piece that featured violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg and the duo guitarists
Sergio and Odair Assad. Despite a severly reduced instrumentation and
Sergio's pre-concert comment that he had reworked the piece to improve
the balance between the orchestra and soloists, there were still many
moments when the guitars were either inaudible or registered as undifferentiated
strumming. When the music did shine through, however, it had the power
to charm, especially in the fourth of the five movements. In that, Salerno-Sonnenberg
spun out a gorgeous song-like line against intricate guitar patterns
in the soulfully melodic cantiga e modinha, based on Brazilian
song and dance forms.
forms inspired the first two movements, a tarantella and a canzona.
Brazilian forms inspired the next two, a choro and the modinha. The
finale weaves all four ideas into a rondo. The guitarists have recorded
with Yo-Yo Ma and Gidon Kremer, and recorded on Nonesuch with Salerno-Sonnenberg.
who is better known for his art songs, owes much to the maverick American
composer of the early 20th century, Charles Ives, in the way Lions
(A Dream), juxtaposes traditional harmonies and evocative orchestrations
with sudden dissonances and arrhythmic episodes. Premiered in 1965 by
the Detroit Symphony, it's a colorful piece that needs more than one
hearing (and perhaps a more thoroughly rehearsed performance) to make
sense of, but the lasting impression is one of gorgeous music being
overtaken by something sinister and evil.
launched into An American in Paris at a faster clip than one
usually hears, which took away some of the swagger inherent in the best
renditions. It kept the orchestra on its toes, however, and resulted
in a responsive performance that made up in verve and intensity for
moments that edged toward muddy. The big finish got the audience's hearty
Saturday in the 600-seat Harris Hall, the chamber music program opened
with Copland's Sonata for Violin and Piano. Earl Carlyss of the
American String Quartet and his wife, pianist Ann Schein, caught the
wide-open textures and purity of the music, which is less a showpiece
than a meditation on Copland's thoroughly American musical language.
It made a nice contrast with Britten's Lachrymae: Reflections on
a Song by John Dowland for viola and piano, which followed with
much more complex musical language, exploring the possibilities in a
mournful 16th-century song. Baritone W. Stephen Smith first sang the
original song (and another that Britten quotes briefly in the piece),
which helped because Britten delays the appearance of the song in its
original form until the very end of the piece.
intermission, Sidlin led a lovely and moving performance of Copland's
Appalachian Spring in the original 13-piece chamber version.
I've come to prefer this to more often-heard orchestral version. The
power of this music is in the slow and quiet sections, anyway, and the
famous "Simple Gifts" Shaker dance loses nothing in the smaller forces
of the chamber orchestra.
of the music Americans associate with the Fourth of July involves marching
bands and big bombastic orchestral utterances, but for me there was
something terribly moving about experiencing this deceptively simple,
thoroughly American music on the country's big celebratory weekend.
A recurring idea in the piece is a chord, built up in a slow arpeggio
of different instruments, basically a triad with an added ninth, but
when a single violin topped it off with an aching major seventh. Given
America's role in what's happening in the world, articulated by Friedman
the night before, that chord cast a wonderful balm over the whole weekend.
Steiman will be writing regularly from the Aspen Music Festival through
its conclusion in mid August.