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Seen and Heard International Festival Review


Aspen Music Festival (I): Janacek, Brahms and Chin, July 11th 2004 (HS)


The blazing opening to Leos Janacek's Sinfonietta, with its massed trumpets and pounding timpani, provides a dazzling musical jolt. It seemed like an appropriate welcome to the first concert of my annual six-week visit to the Aspen Music Festival. Already in progress for three weeks, the festival continues through August 22.


There will be a lot of music over the next month and a half, made by an international mix of famous soloists and ensembles, and a mix of ad hoc orchestras made up of professional musicians and some 750 students who mix and match in various ways. David Zinman, conductor of the Zurich Tonhalle has been the music director since 1998.


The schedule is a busy one, with at least one major concert per day in the 2,050-seat Benedict Music Tent, a permanent structure that arrays the audience in a semi-round, or the 600-seat, acoustically perfect Harris Hall -- sometimes both. Mornings and afternoons are filled with master classes open to the public, vocal performances at the jewel-box Wheeler Opera House, lectures and other special programs. I like to say it's wall-to-wall music surrounded by some of the most stunning alpine scenery in America.


Aspen is an unusual mountain town. Founded on silver mining in the 19th century, it reinvented itself as a posh ski resort and became an intellectual center with the founding of the Aspen Institute, a place where physicists, philosophers and world leaders come together. Sited at the end of a striking valley in Colorado, the town is surrounded with mountains dotted with multi-million-dollar homes inhabited by the rich and famous. For all that, it's a rebelliously casual place.


And it loves its music festival. The tent was overflowing when conductor James dePreist brought down his baton for the downbeat of the Janacek Sinfonietta. He made no attempt to pretty up the loud, brash nature of this music, letting the brass have their way, even arranging seven of the trumpet players along the choir seating that wraps around the stage. There is more contrast in this music that dePreist let us hear, but it sure was rousing. Having just completed the 1,200 milejourney by car from my home in San Francisco, it was just what I needed.


Actually, the multitudes filling the tent were probably not there for Janacek but for violinist Joshua Bell, whose account of the Brahms Violin Concerto in D major filled the second half of the Sunday afternoon program. Bell, a regular visitor to the festival, delivered his usual thoughtful, elegant music making, tone and phrasing pure as a mountain stream. He brushed aside the formidable technical demands of Brahms' weighty concerto, finding a kind of simplicity and clarity that few can match. There was special warmth in the Adagio and real Hungarian dance feeling in the Allegro finale.


Bell played cadenzas in the outer movements that I hadn't heard before. I don't know if they are his, but they struck a knowing balance between the musical language of Brahms' high Romanticism without making things too complicated.


The Brahms concerto wants the orchestra to be more than an accompanist, but dePreist seemed content to let Bell carry the lead. He did push the sound volume of the orchestra to its maximum but never lost a sense of balance with Bell's sweet tone.


Sweet sounds were not what the International Sejong Soloists had in mind for a concert that evening. The program seemed tailor-made for them, especially Grieg's Holberg Suite, the opening piece, and the Mendelssohn Octet in E flat, which finished the program. The middle piece, Taiwanese-American composer Gordon Chin's violin concerto Formosa Seasons, written in 2000, has its gentler moments but the conductorless ensemble of 14 reveled in the scrapes and whistles of the composer's musical language.


That's something new and refreshing for this group, known for the accuracy of its intonation and unanimity of approach. Beauty of sound has always been a major part of its appeal. This time the music had an edge. Even in the gentle Grieg suite they can make a IV-V-I cadence sound fresh. But in the concerto and the octet they sounded unbuttoned. They also performed with everyone standing except the cellists, an approach designed to allow the players to play more freely than they would if they were seated.


Chin wrote Formosa Seasons for Cio-Lang Lin, the Taiwan-born violinist, who asked for a work to perform in Taipei with a string ensemble without a conductor. Lin played the piece and seemed to revel in the kaleidoscopic effects called for -- bowings, tappings, and whistle-stops included. Chin's melodies are angular, not exactly Chinese-sounding but they have a flavor of Chinese music without actually copying it. Phrases end unexpectedly.


Chin opens with summer so he can finish on a lighter note with spring. Lin begins with a violin cadenza that segues into hazy chords and hesitant rhythms that do capture the languor of a hot afternoon. Autumn has a bittersweet feel, with sustained chords supporting a long-spun melody in the violin. There's a moment when the violin's cadenza skitters off into the violins and basses in the ensemble. The movement ends with a pianissimo whistle on the violin. Winter makes a nod toward Vivaldi's Four Seasons with pizzicato strings interrupting the soloist, who persists with a singing melody. The piece if filled with bowing effects and rattling taps by the performers on their instruments. Spring is a short, almost frivolous piece that zips by with irregular rhythms.


It's a fascinating work, one that bears rehearing.


Lin joined the Sejong in the Mendelssohn octet in a performance that was not the well-manicured genteel style one usually hears. This was Mendelssohn by way of Schumann. Bowing sometimes turned rough to kick up an accented phrase and the slow movement was heart-on-sleeve, swelling like a Tchaikovsky love song. Lin stepped forward as very much the soloist, his soloist's presence adding a veneer that served the music well.


Harvey Steiman


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


The Festivalís website is at


Harvey Steimanís reviews from the 2002 festival are available here and his reviews from the 2003 here. In both instances, please scroll down the page to the International Concerts and Festival section of the index page.


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