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Aspen Music Festival (V) Pianos and Fiddles and Scots, Oh My ... and a Brass world premiere (HS)
The sounds of a summer evening can interfere with live music, but sometimes they add to the atmosphere. Friday night at the Benedict Music Tent, distant thunder mingled with the rumble of a bass drum, and the squawking of a lone magpie meshed perfectly with the rustling of plucked strings in James MacMillan's Symphony No. 2, which opened the Aspen Chamber Symphony program Friday.
That's part of the magic of music in Aspen. In a venue open to the outdoors, an utterly silent background won't happen. Distant wailing sirens, airplanes banking into or out of Sardy Field and the occasional barking dog can intrude on the moment. But this time, when Mother Nature decided to get into the swing of things, she helped MacMillan's already colorful and atmospheric piece
The result was not so happy when she decided to drop a full-blown thunderstorm on Robert McDuffie. Well, not literally. The tent kept the precipitation outside, but the drumbeat of raindrops on the canvas above echoed through the tent just as the violin soloist was playing the extended cadenza that opens Ravel's Tzigane. McDuffie, who had already dazzled a three-quarters-full audience with the Bartok Rhapsody No. 2, persevered. The rain stopped as he was making his fiddle dance to the gypsy music of the Ravel showpiece's finale. And by the time conductor Hugh Wolff had completed a lovely traversal of the Brahms Symphony No. 3, the setting sun was lighting up puffy clouds Down Valley.
You don't get that in a regular old concert hall.
MacMillan, a Scot and composer in residence at this year's festival, wrote his symphony in 1999. It was its first Aspen performance. In preliminary remarks, the composer/conductor of the BBC Philharmonic said he infused the piece with Scottish melancholy for a culture lost. The music goes so far as to use Wagner's famous "Tristan chord" and the theme of longing that goes with it. Masterfully, MacMillan never quite quotes it completely, but uses subtle references to it as insidious intrusions on his own music as it reaches its climax.
The symphony begins with tolling chimes, which quickly develop into highly chromatic, mildly dissonant episodes that alternate between elegiac and angry. The long second movement outweighs by a wide margin the prelude-like first movement and quiet resolution of the third and final movement. The piece develops in a series of ingenious and harmonically arresting episodes, now playing off the texture of a whole string sections seemingly improvising in quick pizzicato, there weaving hazy woodwind harmonies with outbursts from the brass. It ends with marvelously quiet harmonic and sonic effects.
In his many appearances in previous summers in Aspen, McDuffie has displayed the heart of a gypsy fiddler, even as he often concentrated on 20th-century music. The Bartok and the Ravel play to that combination perfectly. In different ways, both pieces celebrate an Eastern European flair for minor-key harmonies and hopped-up rhythms. Even if there were times Wolff and the orchestra weren't quite in synch with the soloist, the net result was a happy one. On their own with the Brahms, Wolff and the orchestra gave it a real feeling of nobility and grace.
On Thursday, a gang of pianists on the faculty of the music school got together for an uneven concert of music for two pianos (and sometimes more). In easily the most riveting performance of an evening larded with oddities, Ann Schein and Anton Nel caught the rhythmic bite in Bartok's unique Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion. Except for one unfortunately dropped cymbal, Jonathan Haas and Douglas Howard contributed sensitive work on various drums, timpani, xylophone, triangles and cymbals, which Bartok weaves seamlessly with the pianos in the three-movement work. Schein, who dazzled the Monday night chamber music audience with sublime playing in the complete book of Chopin preludes, gave this odd music a welcome sense of proportion, and Nel was right with her.
Opera provided material for the opening and closing pieces. Antoinette Perry and Virginia Weckstrom began with Busoni's well-intentioned two-piano transcription of Mozart's overture to The Magic Flute, which charmed much more than Mack Wilberg's strange 1990 fantasy on music from Bizet's Carmen, the last piece on the program. For some reason, Wilberg thought it witty to throw in a bunch of wrong notes for the four pianists to play on two pianos. It just sounded like amateur night at the piano center.
Somewhat better was Rachmaninov's Suite No. 2 for two pianos, four hands. In a tag-team approach, Jean-David Coen and Robert Koenig played the first and third movements reasonably well. John Nauman and Brian Zeger took the other two, but their second-movement waltz had four left feet and their tarantella finale sounded more like a Russian gezatski, and a clumsy one at that.
An encore rounded up all eight pianists for a rousing four-piano, 16-hand transcription of Wagner's "The Ride of the Valkyries." It was great fun. I only found myself wishing they had dragooned some sopranos from the opera department into singing the ho-yo-to-ho's.
Finally, Saturday night's concert in the intimate Harris Hall found the American Brass Quintet in fine form, offering the world premiere of a perky, jazzy Brass Quintet by Steven Christopher Sacco. It's highly listenable music, but it often struck me as one step removed from Broadway, and finished with a "mambo fantasy" that seemed like an extension of the previous movement. The piece has a lot of energy, but the same tunes recur often, insufficiently developed.
The quintet opened with one of lead trumpet Raymond Mase's charming arrangements of Elizabethan songs and finished with three of Gabrieli's Canzoni, making for a varied and delightful program. In between, two recent pieces nearly stole the show. Robert Dennis' Blackbird Variations offered a juicy series of atmospheric turns on a simple figure and trumpeter Anthony Plog's Music for Brass Octet (performed with members of the student Urban Quintet) applied fanfare techniques to what sounded like upscale movie music.