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S & H Festival Report

Aspen Festival 2003 the first weekend, Aspen, Colorado (HS)

Aspen is 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 casual place.

Against 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).

The 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.

But 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.

That's 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.

There 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 in Paris.

Not 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 the Kid).

The 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.

Italian 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.

Rorem, 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.

Sidlin 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 approval.

On 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.

After 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.

Most 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.

Harvey Steiman

Aspen Music Festival

Note: Harvey Steiman will be writing regularly from the Aspen Music Festival through its conclusion in mid August.



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