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S & H Festival Review

Aspen Festival 2003: Berlioz and Beethoven to the Fore, Aspen Festival, 10th August 2003 (HS)


The theme for this year's Aspen Music Festival is "Musical Visionaries: Beethoven, Berlioz and Beyond," though, like the themes of many festivals, not much has been made of it. Beethoven always seems to be generously represented here, and it's hard to discern any extra interest in his works this year. Berlioz does seem a bit more conspicuous than usual on the concert programs of the nine-week festival, not surprising given that lots of musical organizations are celebrating this, his bicentenary year.

Not until this past weekend did works by the two composers have some kind of cumulative impact on concertgoers. The relevant performances, on three separate programs, found mezzo-soprano Susanne Mentzer in splendid voice, lavishing beautiful sound and delicious French subtlety on Berlioz' Les nuits d'été, violist Lawrence Dutton bringing soulful playing to the same composer's Harold in Italy, and violinist Robert McDuffie teaming with pianist Charles Abramovic in a thoroughly satisfying reading of Beethoven's titanic Violin Sonata in C minor.

Hugh Wolff, chief conductor of the Frankfurt Radio Orchestra, had the Aspen Chamber Orchestra breathing with Mentzer Friday night in Les nuits d'été, which wafted through the Benedict Music Tent like a melancholy breeze. Mentzer, an accomplished operatic actor, found a different personality for each song, capturing especially the innocence of the first one, "Villanelle," the bittersweet longing of "Absence," and the subtly tinged bravado of the finale, "L'île inconnue." She sounds like a native singing French. None of the songs taxed her range, which let her focus on the text, to strong effect.

Wolff opened the concert with another piece suffused of summer, but as intrinsically American as the Berlioz was French. Three Places in New England, Charles Ives' three-part tone poem, depicts three locations near and dear to the maverick composer. Wolff caught the dreamy quality of "The Saint Gaudens in Boston Common," the boisterous nature of "Putnam's Camp, Redding, Connecticut" and the gauzy vapors rising off "The Housatonic at Stockbridge," but he missed that last measure of detail that distinguishes great performances of these pieces.

The concert concluded with a lively, generous performance of Mozart's Serenade in D major "Posthorn." David Mase, who plays trumpet in the American Brass Quintet, took the posthorn solo and made it sound as if the Kentucky Derby was about to be run.

On Sunday afternoon's concert with the Aspen Festival Orchestra, Dutton invested the wandering viola part of Berlioz' Harold in Italy with tonal beauty, rhythmic clarity and complete musicianship. Dutton plays viola in the Emerson Quartet, and those qualities define the Emerson as well. German-born Andreas Delfs, musical director of the Milwaukee Symphony and St. Paul Chamber Orchestra in the U.S., led an orchestra performance long on rhythmic vitality, yet nicely tuned to the viola's soft, warm sound where needed.

While it features the viola, Harold in Italy is not a concerto and does not put the viola front and center. Dutton, in fact, started the piece and played his first and last iterations of the recurring theme at the back of the orchestra, alongside the harp, moving down to the usual soloist position next to the conductor for the rest. The move nicely underlined the viola's role as a sort of musical observer commenting on and sometimes participating in the scenes described by Berlioz in his program, which depict experiences in Italy. The third movement, a serenade, was especially fine.

Delfs opened the program with another piece inspired by a stay in Italy. Mendelssohn wrote his Symphony No. 4 "Italian" only a year before Berlioz finished his nod to the Mediterranean peninsula. Like Berlioz, Mendelssohn seems to have digested the Italian music he heard and let it percolate through his own piece, rather than trying to write something purely Italian. The comparisons are fascinating, Berlioz' bold thrusts and rainbow sonic palette vs. Mendelssohn's grace and clarity. It made for an inspired program.

Sunday evening in Harris Hall, McDuffie, who started at Aspen as a student and has been returning for more than 25 years, and Abramovic, a Pennsylvania-resident pianist much in demand with soloists, seemed to be doing everything right in the first half of an all-Beethoven program, but nothing clicked. There was unanimity of tempo, rhythm, intonation and style in the Violin Sonata in A Minor and the Violin Sonata in F Major "Spring," but they seemed to be working a bit too hard to get there. The performances were fine, but they didn't catch the wind like the Violin Sonata in C Minor did from the first phrases.

The C minor sonata, written about the same time as the more famous "Apassionata" sonata for piano, has much of the same fire and gravitas. The piano part is as strong as the violinís, and a powerful pianist mining the music for all its depth can outshine the fiddle player. No chance of that with McDuffie, whose poise, power and sense of timing are perfectly suited to this heroic work. Even the short, snappy scherzo had the right sense of foreboding lurking in the background, which came through with plenty of fire in the fast finale.

One more performance worth noting this past weekend was in Saturday afternoon's chamber music concert: Schoenberg's heart-on-the-sleeve pre-serial tone poem Verklärte Nacht, played in the original sextet version by a group led by violinist David Halen, concertmaster of the St. Louis Symphony. With notable contributions from violist Christian Woehr, also with St. Louis, and cellist Thomas Grossenbacher, principal of the Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra, the musicians played one of the least sentimental performances of this work I've heard. It was all the more beautiful for its understatement.

Harvey Steiman

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