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Seen and Heard Festival Review

 

Aspen Music Festival (III) Leon Fleisher plays Beethoven, Gil Shaham plays Williams and Zinman conducts Bernstein (HS)

 

Leon Fleisher took a full house at the 2,050-seat Benedict Music Tent on a remarkable journey through Beethoven's final piano concerto Friday evening, one that not only rode the grand arc of the music's momentum but stopped to relish every detail along the way. Time after time, Fleisher gave us magical moments. The opening cadenza emerged from the orchestra's first chord organically, like sunlight piercing a dissipating cloud. He sprinkled pianissimo triplets that seemed to pop out of the air like twinkling stars over the orchestra's quiet restatement of the opening themes.

 

It wasn't an immaculate performance. It's impossible not to be reminded of Fleisher’s 30-year battle with a debilitating illness that robbed him of the use of his right hand. Since 1995, however, he has played music for both hands, and the right hand seems to be getting stronger. Still, the technical challenges of this concerto require some compromises in moments such as sustained trills in the right hand. Fleisher understands the internal architecture of this piece so well that he can mine the rhythmic and harmonic currents that flow through it, grabbing the music's momentum with a sure hand (either one) and pulling us along with it.

 

Even if every note is not articulated perfectly, there is a shape and depth to the music that few pianists can achieve. Fleisher has music coming out of every pore. After playing the opening cadenza, he didn't just sit there staring at the instrument as most pianists do, waiting for his reentrance. He turned his body toward the orchestra, listening so intently that his elbow flicked rhythmically in time with the music

 

Miguel Harth-Bedoya led the Aspen Chamber Orchestra in a performance that matched well with Fleisher's approach. The Peruvian conductor, who has been guest conducting many of the world’s top orchestras, didn't try to impose the sort of personal ideas on Beethoven that so many conductors can't seem to resist. Before intermission, the conductor led similarly unaffected readings of ballet music from France and Spain, which lent a lightness to the program to balance the weight of the Beethoven. Ravel's marvelous music from Ma mére l'oye (Mother Goose) emerged in all its pointillist colors, and Falla's energetic suite from El amor brujo (The Love Wizard) must have played to Harth-Bedoya's Latin roots because he caught its rhythmic vitality, especially in the famous Ritual Fire Dance that closes it.

 

Like Fleisher, Gil Shaham is an artist whom Aspen audiences have learned to anticipate with relish. Sunday, the Israeli-born violinist played two pieces by John Williams, best known for his film scores but an experienced conductor as well, having led the Boston Pops for 13 years. Anyone expecting rousing "Star Wars" music or the sad, lovely melodies of "Schindler's List" would certainly be surprised by the denseness and hard edges of the violin concerto. It dates from 1976, when composers still believed they had to make dissonances to be taken seriously.

 

I have heard this piece twice in concert and several more times on the CD Shaham and Williams made in 2001. I think I understand it better, and I appreciate how carefully crafted it is. The violin, for example, can always be heard clearly despite the enormous orchestra. It still sounds to me like a film composer saying to the musical establishment, "So you think I can only write movie music, huh?" Shaham lavished all his warm tone and pinpoint intonation on the piece, but it's hard to warm up to this music.

 

Treesong, Williams' other piece on the program, was much more welcoming. Written for Shaham, it evokes a particular metasequoia tree Williams saw on his daily walks in Boston Public Garden. Maybe it's the nature connection as opposed to be abstract format of a concerto. Maybe it's just 24 years later and Williams is a more mature composer. But the shimmering sounds, the growls and rumblings in the low winds, and the delicate use of percussion make Treesong a special experience for the orchestral music alone. Shaham gets long, soaring, serene melodies to spin out, which plays to his strength.

 

To complete the Sunday program, Williams sandwiched two popular programmatic early-20th century English pieces around his music. He opened with William Walton's The Wasps overture, wit buzzing strings doing an uncanny imitation of a swarm of the insects and the woodwinds bouncing through the bucolic folk tunes. He finished with three of Holst's Planets. Anyone missing "Star Wars" got the antecedent to the Storm Troopers march in "Mars, the Bringer of War" followed by the floating woodwinds of "Venus, the Bringer of Peace" and Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity." Williams the conductor let the rollicking music tip into vulgarity in Jupiter and never caught the nobility of the big tune, rushing through it.

 

The best conducting of the weekend occurred Saturday night, as Aspen Festival music director David Zinman led a benefit concert of Leonard Bernstein's theater music. At $75 to $500 a ticket, the tent was not quite sold out, but the audience responded enthusiastically to songs from four of his Broadway shows -- On the Town, Wonderful Town, West Side Story and Candide, and the one-act mini opera Trouble in Tahiti.

 

Zinman not only proved himself adept at coaxing reasonably jazzy sounds from an ad hoc orchestra largely composed of students, but he made a warm and witty host. Introducing the music from a stool on his conductor's podium, using a handheld mike, Zinman gave us a quick summary of the show and some insights into their back stories that one seldom hears from a symphony orchestra conductor. Conductor Murry Sidlin wrote much of the script, but it's hard to tell how much is true. Sidlin later admitted, for example, that Lenny's friends did not kid him about his upcoming Trouble in Tahiti by calling it "Tsuris in Honduras."

 

The tent's anemic sound system did no favors for the singers. Soloists Judy Kaye, a true broadway star, and Esther Heidemann, a lyric-coloratura soprano singing major roles in the big opera houses, wore head mikes, which helped the audience hear the words better. Most of the 16 singers from the music school's opera and voice programs, had to get themselves in front of five mikes on stands, and their words were often lost in the electronic fuzz. Amplification was necessary but the sound system also distorted the vocal quality.

 

The singers managed to triumph over that with the power of Bernstein's paean to a simple life, "Make Our Garden Grow," the finale. Other ensembles fared less well. The words were hard to decipher in "New York, New York" (from On the Town). Rhythmic rigidity robbed "Jet Song" and the "Tonight" quintet (from West Side Story) of their full swagger.

 

Kaye, the Broadway veteran who has been starring in Mamma Mia, caught the double entendres in "I Can Cook Too" and "Ya Got Me" (from On the Town) and seemed to be channeling Molly Picon in a hilarious "I Am Easily Assimilated" (from Candide). Heidemann nailed the coloratura dazzle of that show's "Glitter and Be Gay" much better than the comedic scene "What a Movie!" (from Trouble in Tahiti).

 

In the end, for all the quibbles, the sheer high energy of the cast and orchestra carried the evening. The standing ovation, obligatory though it may be these days, was well deserved.

 

For all that, the best music making of the weekend occurred in the Saturday afternoon chamber music concert in Harris Hall. Dvorak's Piano Quintet in A major is really a symphony in miniature, refining the composer's signature folk-like melodies and dances to remarkable effect. An ad hoc quintet made the music sing, with strong contributions from violinists Alexander Kerr, concertmaster of the Concertgebouw, and Laurie Carney, of the American String Quartet, cellist Eric Kim, principal cello of the Cincinnati Symphony and touring concertizer. Pianist Anton Nel and violist Sabina Thatcher completed the strong ensemble.

 

On the same program, the American Brass Quintet brought real delicacy to Adam's Rib, an atmospheric, mesmerizing 10-minute piece by james MacMillan (composer-conductor of the BBC Philharmonic) and flutist Nadine Asine created a serene mood with Takemitsu's haunting Air.

 

Harvey Steiman

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

The Festival’s website is at www.aspenmusicfestival.com
Harvey Steiman’s 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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