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S & H Festival Review

Aspen Festival 2003: Joshua Bell, Emerson Quartet, Jamie Laredo, Midori, 26th July, 2003 (HS)


It 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.

There 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.

(It got a standing ovation anyway. I asked one standee if he really liked the performance. "I'm standing for Beethoven," he said.)

Richard 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.

I've 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 this year.

Two 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.

The 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.

Fortunately, 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.

Aside 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.

The 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.

Conlon 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 Zemlinksy.

Schulhoff's 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.

In 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, that.

Harvey Steiman

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



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