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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.