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Aspen Music Festival (X) Shostakovich revealed, Vänskä conducts Sibelius and Mentzer sings with Isbin (HS)


In a panel discussion earlier this summer, conductor Murry Sidlin and music director David Zinman tossed around ideas for opening up the classical music experience, without dumbing down the music, for those who might have some trepidation about it. Sidlin likes to create a dramatic scenario around the music, and he did recently with the Oregon Symphony and Chorus in a moving performance (available on video) of the Verdi Requiem that reenacted an actual incident at the Nazi concentration camp at Terezin. Their captors let the prisoners perform the work in an attempt to show the world that they were being treated humanely.


For Sunday's Aspen Festival Orchestra concert (8 August 2004), Sidlin preceded a wonderfully raw performance of Dmitri Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5 with a dramatic set-up that cast actors Michael York and John Rubinstein as Shostakovich and Stalin, respectively. Excerpts from the symphony and (mostly) other music by the Russian composer illuminated the text, based on Shostakovich's memoir, Testimony.


Sidlin focused on Shostakovich's cat-and-mouse game with the Soviet dictator. After the premiere of Lady Macbeth of Mtsenk, Stalin wrote a screed in Pravda denouncing the music and threatening the composer with his life if he did not hew to the Soviet line. The Fifth Symphony was presented publicly as Shostakovich's apology, but the composer confirmed in his memoirs that in it he let his music vent the anger and desperation he felt


The program opened with a recording of the composer playing two children's songs he wrote for piano, segueing into soprano Angela Fout stage right singing the composer's "Rescue Me" (1951). As the Jasper String Quartet played the Allegro molto from the Eighth Quartet, the actors walked on stage, Stalin scowling at the music and shaking his head, Shostakovich nodding with the raw accents.


The script eventually arrives at an account of the New York Philharmonic's appearance in Moscow in 1959, when conductor Leonard Bernstein led a performance of the Symphony No. 5. In rehearsal, according to Shostakovich's memoir, Bernstein stopped the orchestra at the coda. He turned to the darkened hall and called to the composer. "Dmitri," he shouted. "Your metronome markings are all wrong." Playing it at that tempo, the conductor said, makes the music sound like a parody, sarcastic. Bernstein then played it at a faster clip, and it sounded triumphant. Shostakovich acquiesced to Bernstein's tempo, which he regretted when it was preserved on a recording that became -- at least for a while -- standard.


The drama also explores Shostakovich's fascination with the tune, "I'm off to Chez Maxim," from Lehar's operetta, The Merry Widow. The reference is to Dmitri's son, Maxim, and it shows up repeatedly in the composer's music, representing the plight of the Russian people, most famously when the orchestra hammers away at it in the Symphony No. 7 "Leningrad". The opening movement of it got a muscular performance from this orchestra before intermission. Bartok mocked Shostakovich's use of the tune in his Concerto for Orchestra, a fact that the character of Stalin gleefully points out.


"I was an eyewitness," the composer says early in this performance, to which Stalin responds, "We have a wonderful expression among the Russian people that he lies like an eyewitness." After the quartet played the Allegretto of the Eighth Quartet and baritone Craig Verm sang Hymn of Ellas, a war march, the two actors repeated the exchange just before Sidlin launched into the symphony itself.


Even if you read program notes or already know something about the context of the Fifth Symphony, Sidlin's presentation powerfully sets up what's going on in the music. You can't help but listen to the performance with fresh ears.


And this was a ripper of a performance. Sidlin got the oversized orchestra to throw itself into the music. If entrances and balances were sometimes ragged, the overall effect was overwhelming. The opening movement, with its martial feel, constantly whacked at the sarcasm surrounding it without missing the beauty of the lyrical sections. And when those last pages arrived, Sidlin took the slower "Shostakovich" tempo. There was no doubt of the parody and sarcasm in the music.


But there was more to come. After the cast bow, Sidlin picked up his baton and led the coda again, this time at Bernstein's tempo. The difference was palpable. It sounded almost like Beethoven, and it ended the afternoon on an "up" note. Actor Jack Nicholson, who listened raptly to the whole thing, walked up to the stage to congratulate the cast, leaving with a big thumbs-up. Jack got it right.


You couldn't ask for a bigger contrast between the bombast of the Shostakovich symphony and the simple delicacy of the previous evening's recital in Harris Hall. Folk songs (and a little pop) provided the material for Guitarist Sharon Isbin and mezzo-soprano Susanne Mentzer. They have performed together often, and recorded many of the pieces. They have a tangible rapport, and the music flowed easily through Isbin's arrangements of four 18th-century French folk songs, Laurindo Almeida's setting of Martini's Plaisir d'Amour, and the like.


Isbin was captivating in a suite by John Duarte of music associated with Joan Baez, but the highlight was the final set of American folk songs, especially "Wayfaring Stranger," which closed the program. For an encore, Mentzer got straighter of backbone for a gorgeous, flowing performance of Joaquin Rodrigo's own guitar-and-voice setting of the slow movement from his Concierto de Aranjuez.


Friday night (6 August) in the Benedict Music Tent, Finnish conductor Osmo Vänskä showed he is not the understated type. Leading the Aspen Chamber Orchestra in Sibelius, Mozart and Haydn, Vänskä conducted without a baton but plenty of body language. He crouched low for quiet passages, flung his arms wide for climaxes, punched the air for emphasis. Although he never seemed to consider it necessary to show the musicians a steady beat, they kept it anyway (mostly.) There was no mistaking what he wanted, and surprisingly, despite the broad gestures, the music had real subtlety.


The Finnish conductor lavished generous details on the opening piece, Sibelius' suite from Pelleas et Melisande, as if it were a matter of pride that his countryman's music get the hearing it deserves. It's a colorful work, despite its mournful character, and the young musicians caught the surge of the sea interlude and the lilt of "By a Spring in the Park." English horn soloist Andrea Overturf, a fellowship student in the music school, was a standout in her three long moments in the spotlight.


Pianist Andreas Haefliger displayed a crystalline technique and lively tough in Mozart's Concerto in C major, K. 503. Maybe too lively, as he rushed many of the fast runs, consistently finishing a half beat ahead of the orchestra. But mostly it was lithe, well-sprung Mozart, and the orchestra was right with him.


Haydn's Symphony No. 101 completed the program, the inner movements showing an especially fine touch. The famous "clock" movement and the wry minuet both moved with dance-like effortlessness. The outer movements carried their weight swiftly, and it all ended with panache.


The gem from Sunday evening's lightly attended chamber music concert of seldom-heard Czech music was Smetana's emotionally wrought Piano Trio in G minor, given a powerful reading by pianist Ann Schein, violinist Laurie Carney and cellist William Grubb. This is heart-on-the-sleeve music, and they managed to get all the juice without slopping into sentimentality.


Harvey Steiman


Harvey Steiman will be writing from the Aspen Festival until its close in mid-August.


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