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S & H Festival Report

Aspen Festival 2003: Wagner’s ‘Ring: An Orchestral Adventure’ and recitals by Christopher Taylor & the International Sejong Soloists, Aspen, 27th July 2003 (HS)


A few years ago, a group of American actors came up with a rollicking play called "The Complete Works of Wm. Shakespeare, Abridged," which managed to shoehorn all of the bard's plays into about two hours. A theatre troupe performed it a few years ago here in Aspen (not part of the music festival). Although they spent extended time on some of the plays, for most a line or two was enough. It was all in good fun.

I couldn't help thinking about that that experience last Sunday afternoon (July 27) in the Benedict Music Tent as Edo De Waart conducted The Ring: An Orchestral Adventure, which strings together, in about an hour, most of the orchestral highlights of Wagner's Ring of the Nibelungen. De Waart commissioned the arrangement in 1991 by Henk de Vlieger, a member of the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic, which De Waart has conducted since 1989. The chief conductor of the Netherlands Opera and, until recently, Sydney Symphony, wanted to bring the music of the Ring to the concert hall in something of a whole piece, rather than the set-piece excerpts usually heard, such as "The Ride of the Valkyries" and "Siegfried's Funeral Music."

Unlike "Wm. Shakespeare, Abridged," the object here is not comedy but to being into the concert hall a taste of the sweep and power of Wagner's music for The Ring. To a surprising extent, it works. "I didn't want it to end," I overheard one awed music student say to another after the concert. "There's a lot more where that came from," I thought to myself.

The "musical adventure" strings together 14 sections of Wagner's 15 or 16 hours (depending on who's conducting) of music. They appear in the same order as they do in the four operas, some in virtually complete form, starting with the long prelude to Das Rhinegold that stays on an E-flat chord for minutes on end. "The Ride of the Valkyries," "Siegfried's Death" and "Siegfried's Funeral Music" also come through intact. We hear extended sections of the Niebelungs hammering on their anvils from Das Rheingold, the "Magic Fire" music from the end of Die Walküre, "Forest Murmurs" and "Brünnhilde's awakening" from Siegfried, the "Rhine Journey" and the closing pages of Brünnhilde's "Immolation Scene," the final bars of Gotterdämmerung.

De Waart and the Festival Orchestra handled the music with a great deal of enthusiasm, emphasizing powerful sweep and massive sound more than the details. The rich string sound that could bring warmth to the closing pages didn't quite emerge, and the attacks were distressingly ragged in the opening chords of "Brünnhilde's awakening". Still, the power of the music, played by more than 100 professionals and students, was irresistible.

Topping a long list of soloists who made standout contributions was John Zirbel, principal horn of the Montreal Symphony, who brought magnificent aplomb to Siegfried's horn calls. Clarinetist Joaquin Valdepeñas also was wonderful with Brünnhilde's love music.

The same could not be said of pianist Joseph Kalichstein, who opened the concert by lumbering through Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 4 with playing of minimal refinement.

They should have given the assignment to Christopher Taylor, who brought tremendous insight to Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 7 in D Major in a recital in Harris Hall Tuesday. The Colorado-born pianist, who is also a mathematician, performed with precision and plenty of personal style, injecting dramatic (if unnecessary) hesitations in the first movement and finding an upwelling of rhythmic spring in the finale of the sonata.

He was even better in Turning, a fascinating theme and variations written in 1995 by American composer Derek Bermel. Taylor played the premiere in Paris, and if it was anything like the stunning performance in Aspen, it must have wowed 'em. Bermel begins with a hymn-like tune, which picks up strange echoes in the high end of the piano that eventually develop into a sort of counter-theme of their own, offset just enough to sound softly dissonant. The variations explore jazz, African and South American influences, but they never quite became copies of those forms of music.

Taylor also conquered Leonard Bernstein's 1981 test piece, Touches, also a theme-and-variations, before launching into a ravishing performances of six of the 12 Transcendental Etudes by Liszt. It's hard to say which he did best, but the ones that had the most profound effect were Harmonies du Soir in D flat major and Chasse Neige in B minor, with which he concluded. The encore was "Through the Gates of Eden," a lovely nod to ragtime by William Bolcom, which Taylor played so beautifully I found myself wishing he would do a whole evening of rags.

A recital Sunday evening in Harris Hall of the International Sejong Soloists, a conductor-less ensemble of 14 young musicians, brought similarly rich musical rewards in music from Penderecki to Haydn. The Polish composer's 1991 Sinfonietta for Strings set up wonderful contrasts between harshly dissonant edgy chords and sweet lyrical playing that overlaps intriguingly.

More contrasts followed with delicate performances of Berceuse by Fauré and Clair de Lune by Debussy, both in recent arrangements for strings by Michael Luther, and a lively performance of the Haydn Cello Concerto in C major featuring cellist Ole Akahoshi. The first cellist in the ensemble, Akahoshi displayed a lovely way with legato playing, making the slow movement a gorgeous dream, but less ability to make the rapid-fire fioratura of the outer movements sound out without scratchiness. The concert ended with a warm performance of the Serenade in E Major by Dvorak, compromised only by recurring intonation problems.

Harvey Steiman


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