was a hit-and-miss week at the Aspen Music Festival. The Emerson Quartet
played two concerts, one transcendental and the other surprisingly ordinary.
Violinist Joshua Bell assembled two different chamber ensembles to play
a Brahms sextet and Beethoven septet at another concert, and Jaime Laredo
proved himself a better violinist than a conductor of Beethoven.
were some good, some bad and a few ugly moments. Last Sunday's concert
in the Benedict Music Tent, which featured the Bolivian-born Laredo
in three distinctly different roles with the Aspen Chamber Orchestra,
had them all. The "good" found the violinist teaming with his wife,
cellist Sharon Robinson, oboist Jeannete Bittar (who tours with Yo-Yo
Ma's Silk Road Ensemble) and bassoonist Nancy Goeres (principal of the
Pittsburgh Symphony) in a lively and idiomatic performance of Haydn's
Sinfonia Concertante in B flat. The "bad" and the "ugly" were
contained in Laredo's rapid-fire, un-nuanced conducting of Beethoven's
Symphony No. 5 in C minor, an ill-conceived fast-paced run that
narrowly avoided several train wrecks and completely missed the monumental
sweep of the work.
got a standing ovation anyway. I asked one standee if he really liked
the performance. "I'm standing for Beethoven," he said.)
Danielpour's In the Arms of the Beloved (Concerto for Violin, Cello
and Orchestra) requires the invention of a new category: maybe "exceptional,"
or just "sumptuous." For this one, Laredo relinquished the baton to
Michael Stern (the American-born former conductor of the Saarbrücken
Radio Symphony in Germany), who led a seductive performance of Danielpour's
highly perfumed 2001 work, written for Laredo and Robinson on the occasion
of their 25th wedding anniversary. The composer infused the music with
echoes of his Persian ancestry, creating plush textures and marvelous
opportunities for Laredo and Robinson to soar.
been critical of the contemporary music programmed at Aspen, too often
of the plinky-plunky school of hard-edged intellectuality. But this
one communicates, using euphonious, aromatic harmonies and long melodic
lines to achieve a decidedly erotic feeling. Stern, Laredo and Robinson
recorded the work with Stern's IRIS chamber orchestra for release later
days later Bell showed how Beethoven should be done in a special concert
in the tent. The Septet in E flat got an exquisite performance
from Bell and the Emerson Quartet's Lawrence Dutton on viola and David
Finckel on cello, with notable contributions from Bil Jackson on clarinet
and William VanMeulen on horn. The Brahms Sextet No. 1 in B flat
got equally refined playing from, most appealingly, Alexander Kerr as
the second fiddle, and Dutton on viola.
Emerson's concert in the tent on Thursday found them laboring a bit
to inject more than the basic spirit to Smetana, Janacek and Mendelssohn
quartets. Smetana's String Quartet No. 1 in E minor, "From My Life,"
had one shining moment, the slow movement. Janacek's String Quartet
No. 1 also seemed like an early reading, not a fully formed performance.
Strangely, the same happened with the Mendelssohn String Quartet
in D major, played with accuracy but lacking in presence. The encore
found the quartet playing at a much higher level, the intermezzo from
the Mendelssohn A-minor quartet springing to life with magic.
that magic carried over into their all-Haydn recital Saturday in Harris
Hall, which climaxed with a superbly intense performance of The Seven
Last Words of Christ on the Cross. Haydn wrote the music as interludes
for a Passion in Cadiz, later transcribing it for string quartet. It
comes off as a series of seven slow movements sandwiched between a majestic
introduction and a lively epilogue. There are several things to marvel
at. One is Haydn's inventiveness within the classical form, which makes
the seven pieces so richly different that one never becomes bored. He
keeps a strong pulse going, which finally subsides on Christ's death
in the final Largo.
from their rock-solid intonation and clarity of sound, one of the Emersons'
strengths is their rhythmic vitality, which served them well in Haydn.
Even at slow tempi, that pulse never flagged, creating a balance of
intense emotion and grace. In the first half of the concert, the later
D Major Quartet Op 76, No.5 fared better than the earlier,
less complex G Minor Quartet Op. 20 No. 3, in both cases the
delicate Menuetto movements making the most vivid impressions.
Friday night concert with the Aspen Chamber Symphony featured the violinist
Midori in a strangely un-Romantic performance of the Dvorak Violin
Concerto in A Minor but it found the orchestra playing under conductor
James Conlon with considerably more authority than it had the previous
week under Laredo.
opened with Three Dances from ‘The Bartered Bride’, the
Polka, Furiant and Dance of the Comedians getting things
off to a rollocking start. Conlon likes to use his appearances in Aspen
to present what he feels are neglected works. This year's are a symphony
by Erwin Schulhoff, who was sent to a concentration camp by the Nazis
to die in World War II, and next week's A Florentine Tragedy, by
Symphony No. 5, written in 1938 but not performed in the composer's
lifetime, sounded to me a lot like Shostakovich without the sardonic
scherzos. It was relentless music, relying on repeated motifs and big
brass statements for its power.
her performance of the Dvorak concerto, Midori leaned this way and that,
acting out emotional content that didn't register in the music. With
wiry, steely, surprisingly cold sound, she did not bring much life to
the piece; a crowd pleaser nonetheless. She seemed more interested in
making the smallest pianissimo sounds possible in the quiet moments
than she did in bringing warmth to the big tunes. Not a satisfying moment,
Note: Harvey Steiman will be writing regularly from the Aspen Music
Festival through its conclusion in mid August.