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S & H Festival Review

Aspen Festival 2003: opera in Zemlinsky’s A Florentine Tragedy, plus concerts from Chang and Zinman, 3rd August 2003 (HS)

In three separate concerts, Sarah Chang, David Zinman and James Conlon lifted the level of music making at the Aspen Music Festival several notches this past weekend. Chang contributed stunning performances of Handel, Franck and Dvorak in her chamber music concert on Thursday and, later, of the Bruch violin concerto on Sunday. Zinman demonstrated on Friday that the same orchestra that stumbled through Beethoven's Symphony No. 5 a week earlier could make the Beethoven Symphony No. 4 come alive. That would have provided generous enough musical rewards, but Conlon trumped them with a concert performance Sunday of a seldom heard one-act opera by Alexander von Zemlinksy, the turn-of-the-century composer he has taken it upon himself to champion.

All the concerts were in the 2,050-seat Benedict Music Tent.

In Thursday's concert, Chang led an ad-hoc group that included violinist Alexander Kerr (concertmaster of the Concertgebouw), violist Masao Kawasaki, cellist Mark Votapek (a principal with the St. Louis Symphony) and pianist Joseph Kalichstein in a dazzling performance of the Dvorak Piano Quintet in A Major. The first movement got off to a rocky start, but something happened in the second movement with its gently rocking rhythms, that got them on track and everything clicked for the final two movements.

Even better was what Chang and Kalichstein did with the Franck Violin Sonata in A Major. Kalichstein's soft-edged playing and Chang's warm, refined playing made it clear where Debussy and Ravel got their inspirations. I'm usually not a big fan of Kalichstein's, but he won me over with his work with Chang. Votapek also matched Chang flourish for flourish in a 19th-century arrangement for violin and cello of a Passacaglia in G minor by Handel, which opened the concert.

Ever since her debut as a precocious 8-year-old, Chang has displayed eye-popping technique. Until recently, however, I never heard a musical soul behind it. She looks like a fully-grown woman now, in body-hugging evening gowns instead of fluffy prom dresses, and her music has a sensuousness and richness to match. This musical maturity was fully in evidence as she lavished gorgeous tone with long, soaring line and unerring intonation on the Bruch concerto, which opened Sunday's main-event concert with the Aspen Festival Orchestra under Conlon. It was a pleasure to sit back and revel in the sure-handedness of their music making.

Conlon is maybe the best conductor in the world currently without an orchestra to call his own, having left the city of Cologne in 2002 after 13 years (although he is still music director of the Paris Opera and takes over the Chicago Symphony's Ravinia Festival in 2005). He drew extraordinary playing from this orchestra in the semi-staged Tosca July 24, and again here in Zemlinsky's A Florentine Tragedy, a one-act opera based on a posthumous play by Oscar Wilde.

Conlon is clearly fascinated with Zemlinsky, whose personal life intersected with Mahler's, Schoenberg's and that whole Viennese crowd at the turn of the 20th century. Alma Schindler threw him over for Mahler and, Conlon says, Zemlinsky spent the next couple of decades working out the psychological wounds with some terrific music. I'm not sure I see the same level of profundity in Zemlinsky's music that Conlon does, however. The musical language of A Florentine Tragedy sounded to me a lot like the Richard Strauss of Salome (a story also based on a Wilde play) and Elektra, only without the wonderful extended solo scenes and musical set-pieces that make those scores such compelling theater. Most of the interesting stuff goes on in the orchestra, the voices seldom rising beyond a sort of elevated parlando. The cumulative effect whipped up a storm, but I'm not certain that it signified much.

Bass baritone James Johnson brought a solid vocal presence to the cuckolded and eventually triumphant husband in the opera. With Conlon, Johnson has sung Wotan in Paris and the same role in A Florentine Tragedy at La Scala, and his experience shows in the clarity of his vocal portrayal. It's a killer part, covering easily two-thirds of the vocal writing in the 50-minute work, but Johnson never flagged. Tenor Robert Brubaker as the thwarted suitor and soprano Christine Brewer as the unfaithful wife contributed less positively engaged singing.

In the Friday concert with the Aspen Chamber Symphony Zinman, the festival's music director, infused the Beethoven Fourth with all the bubbly energy one could want. He captured all the rhythmic precision and momentum that was missing from Jaime Laredo's leadership of the Fifth only a week earlier. True, the orchestra is made up of orchestra principals and professional soloists in the first chairs, filled out with students, but it's capable of top-shelf music making, as this performance showed.

Zinman opened the Friday concert with Octandre, written for eight musicians by Edgard Varèse in 1923 when he was experimenting with new sounds and unusual forms after his gargantuan Ameriques. It has a certain antique quality for music that still jars the ear, but what it had to do with the rest of the program puzzles me. The Sibelius Violin Concerto, which followed, got plenty of energy from Zinman and the orchestra, but soloist Kyoko Takezawa, playing with admirable refinement, never quite managed the grand gestures that this towering concerto requires. It got a standing ovation anyway.

Fortunately, the Beethoven Fourth brought together everything that might have been missing in the first half, and sent the near-capacity audience home musically fulfilled.

Harvey Steiman

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



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