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S & H Festival Review

Aspen Festival 2003: Final Concerts, Berlioz Requiem, A Bassoon Premiere and a Flute Concerto, Aspen, Colorado, August 2003 (HS)


Whoever had the inspiration to close the 2003 Aspen Music Festival with Berlioz' Grande messe des morts (Requiem) deserves a pat on the back. Four brass choirs stationed strategically around the outer edge of the 2,050-seat Benedict Music Tent and the visiting Colorado Symphony Orchestra Chorus arrayed behind an outsized orchestra gave conductor David Zinman the necessary elements to whip up plenty of drama. Even Mother Nature conspired with the massed musical forces, opening up a thunderous rain shower as the chorus sang the first words of the "Lacrymosa." The sun did not come out again until, as if on cue, it emerged as the chorus intoned the final "amens."

The Music Tent is a permanent round structure with padded louvers around the side allowing those inside some ventilation and those seated on the lawn outside access to the music. It's a testament to the intensity of the music that most of the lawn crowd stayed put, sprouting bumbershoots but remaining to the soggy finish. The music making was worth it.

The Berlioz Requiem has some breathtaking moments, the most famous of which arrives when all those brass choirs get going all at once. It comes in the "Dies irae," the second of 10 sections, when Berlioz introduces the "Tuba mirum" with an extended fanfare that rockets around the four brass choirs. At a festival where the associated music school has 750 students, gathering up the necessary musicians was not difficult. They made a glorious sound.

But the most powerful moments, for my ears, were the quieter ones. Berlioz probably intended just that, the contrast with the big moments being all the more dramatic. The warm, almost homely orchestral music weaving around the chorus' chant-like line in "Offertorium" was one high point. And the soft sound of trombones alone coming from the four corners of the concert space was almost heartbreaking as it underlined the final quiet "amens." The gentle purity of sustained chords behind tenor Matthew Polanzani as he softly floated the "Sanctus" created another fine moment, segueing into a beautifully legato choral fugue on "Hosanna in excelsis." (And then both repeat.) The chorus also distinguished itself on the a capella fugue on "Quaerems me."

For all that, the opening "Requiem et Kyrie" came off as bland, the "Rex tremendae" more pompous than majestic, and the odd orchestration in "Hostias" just sounded, well, odd, not special.

But in the end, as the sun emerged on those final, trombone-textured "amens," it was hard to shake the feeling that all was right with the world, after all.

The Requiem put an exclamation mark on a strong final weekend of music, which included a world premiere of a piece for bassoon and string quartet that ought to get more hearings and a lovely performance of Christopher Rouse's 1993 flute concerto, which is getting to be a favorite of flutists.

Steven Dibner, associate principal bassoon for the San Francisco Symphony, commissioned The Wind Won't Listen, Fantasy for Bassoon and String Quartet by composer Dan Welcher, whose opera, Della's Gift, was performed this year by New York City Opera. Welcher wrote the piece in 2001, inspired by a poem, Split, by Beth Gylys, about dealing with divorce. The titles of the two movements are from the poem and quote those lines from the song.

The haunting work is in two sections. The first, Romanza: Everyone I Know Is Crying, opens with broken sustained chords in the string quartet. The cello carries the seventh, which makes the music hang in the air suspended, ungrounded, a perfect setup for the long, almost conversational line of the bassoon, mostly playing in its highest register. At first, the effect is more like a lament for tenor, but as the music picks up rhythmic steam in the second part, Recitative and Variations: Life Makes Itself Without Us, the bassoon uses all of its range and plenty of its idiomatic turns, including staccato runs. But mainly, the bassoon's line is long and languid. Dibner, whose sound is sweet and his musicianship impeccable, carried it off winningly, even soulfully.

The Euclid String Quartet, one of three young professional quartets holding fellowships at the Aspen Festival this year, brought a stylish flair for rhythm and delicate sound to the strings' role in Welcher's piece. The musical language is only mildly dissonant, although its tonality is often ambiguous. (At one point Welcher quotes, appropriately enough, Wagner's "Tristan" chord.)

At another, the rhythm settles into alternating 5/8 and 3/4 measures, which leads to another section that scurries like some familiar moments in the Bartok quartets, and there's even a section reminiscent of repeated, insistent chords of "Rite of Spring." For all that, the piece does not sound derivative, more like a series of knowing, passing references. The bassoon's line carries the day the way a singer might in an operatic recitative, aria and cabaletta.

Following the Welcher piece on the Saturday afternoon chamber music program was a real rarity, Hindemith's Die Serenaden, a 1924 cantata for mezzo-soprano and an unusual chamber ensemble. Susanne Mentzer, who has sung brilliantly this summer, brought her rich sound and solid musicianship to bear on Hindemith's stubbornly un-Romantic music for Romantic poetry. Joining her were veteran oboist Philip West, now at the Eastman School of Music; violist Lynn Ramsey, who plays in the Cleveland Orchestra, and cellist William Grubb, who directs the string chamber music program at Aspen.

In Die Serenaden Hindemith purposely set out to show that Romantic poetry didn't require heart-on-the-sleeve music. As a result, the soloist hardly ever soars, becoming instead just another line in the counterpoint. Mentzer, however, has far too much distinctiveness in her voice not to stand out, even when she is diligently trying to be just one of the instruments.

In the Rouse Flute Concerto the soloist was Martha Aarons, a flutist with the Cleveland Orchestra. She brought a soulful sound to the slow outer movements of the five-movement work, both of which, with their long, modal lines against sustained, open chords, call to mind Irish or Scots ballads. (The American-born composer has both strains in his ancestry.) The second movement is a march that keeps tripping over itself and the fourth keeps trying to be a jig, but the long central movement, "Elegia," is the one into which Rouse poured the most emotion. He wrote it as a elegy for James Bulger, the two-year-old who was murdered by two 10-year-olds in England in 1993, the year the piece was written.

To my ears, the keen sense of tragedy in the mostly quiet music doesn't need the violent, dissonant orchestral outburst just before the end (representing Rouse's own howl of anger). It's just too obvious. But the rest, especially the eloquent, complex flute line, is worth hearing many times. Conductor Marin Alsop, who leads the Bournemouth Symphony these days, refused to indulge in too much sentiment. Rouse's music has plenty on its own.

Harvey Steiman



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