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S & H Festival Review

Aspen Festival 2003: Gil Shaham and friends, 12th 14th July 2003 (HS)

A festival has an advantage over your usual symphony series because, when a star performer falls ill, there's usually someone hanging about who can jump in. Yefim Bronfman, an Aspen Music Festival favorite for years, was scheduled to play the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 Friday evening (July 11) but canceled when he couldn't recover quick enough from an undisclosed illness. The 2,050-seat Benedict Music Tent was sold out.

Fortunately, violinist Gil Shaham was in town to play a few concerts of his own. In remarks from the podium, conductor Michael Stern lauded Shaham's graciousness in stepping in at the last minute, noting, "We couldn't get him to play the piano, but he's agreed to do the fiddle concerto."

And boy, did he ever. Shaham lit up the tent with a dazzling performance of the Tchaikovsky concerto, a showpiece in the classic Romantic style. And this was Shaham's performance, from his 1699 Countess Polignac Stradivarius' very first utterance. Shaham showed no shame in stepping forward to lead the way. Stern, and the Festival Orchestra, the A band of the festival's five main orchestras, managed to stay with Shaham's rapid tempo changes as if they had been playing the work together for years, triumph enough on such short notice.

Never one to phone in a performance, Shaham found plenty of wonderful details to bring out, from the quiet, almost simple introductory measures, adding an extra lilt to the first movement's themes, ratcheting up the intensity with every stretto and accelerando, until the melodies broadened out with an almost audible sigh. This was very special fiddle-playing.

The audience knew it, and they broke protocol with a boisterous response to the first movement. This was, I believe, the first time I have seen a multi-movement work interrupted by a standing ovation. Momentarily befuddled, Stern stepped down off the podium and milled around with Shaham. At one point it looked as if they were going to leave the stage. When the applause had subsided, Stern mounted the podium again and turned to the audience. "We have a lot more to play," he said, "if you want to stay."

A lovely canzonetta led seamlessly into a fast-paced finale, which never lost that sense of Russian dance that imbues the rhythms, even as it raced recklessly to its several climaxes. Shaham has as solid a sense of rhythm as any violinist out there today, and this movement was simply mother's milk for him. The final standing ovation, when it inevitably came, was well deserved.

Debussy occupied the second half of the program, with Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune and La mer. Stern gave the two ultra-familiar works a straightforward reading, and flutist Nadine Asin gave the opening moments of the Prélude a special je ne sais quoi. Several wary moments made it clear that the rehearsal effort went more into the first half of the program, which opened with Janacek's The Fiddler's Child, a 1913 tone poem that is not heard often enough. It has all the composer's trademark color and emotional verve, and it gives the concertmaster a chance to show off. In this case it was the young American Alexander Kerr, concertmaster of the Amsterdam Concertgebouw, who carried off the honors.

Kerr played a major role in highlights of the rest of the weekend, in particular his participation in the Franck Piano Quintet in F Minor on Saturday afternoon and the Chausson Concert in D major on Monday evening. He also delivered a gorgeous account of the Schubert Fantasy in C major. Anton Nel was the pianist in the Franck and the Schubert and proved a worthy co-conspirator.

The jewel was the Chausson. The vibrant pianist Wu Han, who manages to combine a soloist's sparkle with a collaborator's sensitivity and support, teamed with Shaham as the violin soloist and the quartet led by Kerr.

New music fared less well in the weekend's programs. On Saturday, Violist Masao Kawasaki gave London-born Sally Beamish's 2003 anti-war piece, That Recent Earth, an impassioned reading, but it never seemed to get past the harsh anger that it began with. Danish composer Paul Ruders' 1984 Tattoo, a sort of modern toccata for clarinet, cello and piano, leaped and pranced but never came to much on Sunday. And the 2002 Calico Dances, written for computer-generated percussive sounds and electric viola by Canadian composer Michael Scherzinger, found John Graham sawing away Monday at his frame of a viola, but it never got beyond percussive scraping.

But the most aggravating concert was Sunday afternoon's program conducted by Stanislaw Skrowaczewski, the Polish-born conductor who led the Hallé Orchestra from 1984 to 1991. The program opened with his arrangement for string orchestra of an Adagio written by Bruckner for string quintet. That, as it turned out, was the highlight of the day. Stephen Hough's fleet but uninflected account of Mendelssohn's Piano Concerto No. 1 in G minor and Weber's Concert-Stück in F minor, meant to be the centerpieces, never got off the ground, and the conductor's leaden, undifferentiated approach to Beethoven's Symphony No. 8 seemed like it would never end.

Fortunately, there were other highlights, including Susanne Mentzer singing two wonderful French songs written to be sung with piano and cello, beautifully executed by pianist Ann Schein and cellist Michael Mermagen. Berlioz's La captive, orientale found the mezzo-soprano in a sultry mood, beautifully reflecting the protagonist's appreciation of her luxurious surroundings while lamenting her captivity, all with warm chest tones and creamy high notes. Even more ravishing was Élégie, a lovely lament by Massenet, which found Mermagen singing the tune first like a world-class tenor, then harmonizing seductively with Mentzer's voice.

Harvey Steiman



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