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S & H Festival Review

Aspen Festival 2003: Modern and More Modern, Aspen, 6th August 2003 (HS)


By a quirk of scheduling, a recent five-day span at the Aspen Music Festival featured a whole lot of modern chamber music. In four concerts from Saturday to Wednesday, the oldest piece I heard was Walton's Façade, written in 1922. Even that was in the 1951 revision. The menu included one whole evening of percussion music and another devoted entirely to Elliott Carter.

The Carter program on Wednesday celebrated the 25th anniversary of Chamber Music America, a nonprofit organization devoted to nurturing the art form. I'm not certain that a whole evening of music from one of America's thorniest composers got too many members of audience in a celebratory mood, however. A fairly full Harris Hall was nearly empty by the time pianist Ann Schein concluded the concert with Carter's 1946 Piano Sonata, by far the most compelling performance in an evening full of sincerely committed work.

Carter's music is as difficult to perform as it is challenging to hear, and it was clear the musicians involved, including the American Brass Quintet, cellist Darrett Adkins and flutist Nadine Asin, approached their daunting assignments with great respect. The concert had its moments, especially the two concluding movements of the 1952 Sonata for Flute, Oboe, Cello and Harpsichord and the fleet, flittering filigree of the six-minute Enchanted Preludes (played by Adkins and Asin). The chorale that concludes the often-raucous 1974 Brass Quintet came as a gulp of pure water after a lot of strong, harsh drink, and the piano sonata came to rest on surprisingly lovely final pages.

Most of the music, however, like much of Carter's oeuvre, relied on dense, prickly harmonies and metrical legerdemain, which can be provocative and even appealing as part of a program with contrasting music. One after the other, it's wearing.

The same sort of programming overzealousness kept Sunday's annual Harris Hall concert by the Aspen Percussion Ensemble, led by Jonathan Haas, from being quite the joy it has been in the past. There were too few pitched instruments, such as marimbas and xylophones, in favor of drums, drums, timpani and more drums. Pieces like last year's delicious concoction using cactuses of various sizes (when closely miked they sound like tuned dripping water) were not in evidence. Instead we got a clever but overly long piece for 12 typewriters, Symphony 1.0 by Moritz Eggert.

I also could have done without several numbers that involved shouting by the drummers, including Drama by Guo Wenjing, written for three pairs of Chinese cymbals, and Devil's Dance from Drawings, Set No. 9, by Sidney Hodkinson.

The real highlights were Song of Quetzalcoatl, written in 1940 by the late California maverick composer Lou Harrison, still fascinating for its sonorities and delicate rhythms, and Concerto Fantasy by Philip Glass, who wrote a two-piano version for this concert of his original orchestration that debuted in 2000. In the bravura piece, Haas and Steven Weiser each played seven timpani and made thunder into real music.

The final piece, Pulsemus tympanum (Let Us Beat the Drum), by John Zaretzke, employed a 72-inch timpani, billed as the largest ever, used in one section with haunting softness and in the finale to drive a large ensemble with impressive power.

In Tuesday's annual concert of the Aspen Contemporary Ensemble, also at Harris Hall, the results were similarly hit-and-miss, but it will be a long time before I forget the haunting performance of flutist Jennifer Grim and percussionists Weiser and Yuri Yamashita in George Crumb's 1986 An Idyll for the Misbegotten. One of America's true musical mavericks, Crumb created an eloquent improvisation-like cry for the flute, peppered with kaleidoscopic interruptions from two widely spaced sets of percussion. Hodkinson's Requiescant: Elegy for Chamber Sextet, written in the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, created a quiet sound world that was all the more powerful for its restraint.

Façade, on the Saturday chamber music program, featured the spirited narration of tenor Paul Sperry. An accomplished lieder singer, Sperry brought the right jaunty spirit to Walton's surreal piece, based on the abstract poetry of Edith Sitwell. In its juxtaposition of sea shanties with pastiches of pop music and English country dances, Walton's piece is great fun and contains much wit, which conductor Murry Sidlin caught nicely.

Violinists Paul Kantor and Jennifer John opened the program with a brilliant performance of Prokofiev's Sonata for Two Violins in C Major, and just before intermission soprano Jennifer Ringo joined the Euclid Quartet and clarinetist Robert Woolfrey in three songs by the Jewish Argentinian composer Osvaldo Golijov, the most arresting of which was Lullaby and Doina, based on a Yiddish lullaby. I also liked How Slow The Wind, based on a poem by Emily Dickinson.

Harvey Steiman

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