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Seen and Heard International Festival Review

ASPEN FESTIVAL 2005 (I): Evelyn Glennie gets the Spirit and Marin Alsop muscles up on Brahms; Aspen, Colorado, 3 July 2005 (HS)



The Aspen Music Festival runs for nine weeks, from late June to mid August, and I am usually here for a six-week stretch. This year's visit is limited to four weeks plus a couple of days, and it seemed worth it to get here in time for a concert featuring the formidable Scottish percussionist Evelyn Glennie. And it was.


Sunday afternoon (July 3) Glennie gave the U.S. premiere of Spirit Voices, written by the American composer Steven Stucky in 2003 on a commission partly underwritten by the Aspen Festival. Marin Alsop, conductor of the Bournemouth Symphony, led the Aspen Festival Orchestra in a vital performance.


Glennie on stage is a marvel to watch. For this performance, she wore spangly red trousers and a black midriff-baring top. She wears no shoes, the better to sense the vibrations of the music. Profoundly deaf, she gets the sound through her feet and any other way she can feel it.


The music world has long past gotten over the novelty of a deaf musician being so good. Now we can just marvel at how many nuances she can draw from a single drum or gong, how a rhythmic flourish in her hands takes on a life of its own, how the textures of the sounds she produces meld seamlessly with the other musicians'. It is simply musicality of the highest order.


Spirit Voices is one of the many pieces commissioned for Glennie to take advantage of her musical skills and undeniable stage presence. It does exactly that, and it does so with beautifully focused musical means. As the composer said in pre-concert remarks, "I needed to devise ways for her to move and be dramatic." He does so by stringing together seven miniature tone poems in a 30-minute span, each with a distinct flavor of its own, both for the full orchestra (minus any other percussion, of course) and for Glennie's array of drums, gongs, mallet instruments and cymbals.


The Singapore Symphony, the other co-commissioner, gave its world premiere with Glennie in 2003. Stucky takes his inspiration for the music from supernatural forces associated with several cultures. Stucky takes pains to note that he does not try to imitate the music of those cultures, but on a first hearing the sources are not hard to relate to the titles of the various sections.


The first section, for example, opens with an extended introduction featuring Glennie. It puts rather a limit on it to call this a cadenza. She begins with a shout, which she answers with a tattoo on a row of tuned drum heads. Another shout, answered on another set of drums. The shouts have a wild, Asian flair, inspired by the Jiu haung ye, the deities of a Taoist spirit medium cult in Singapore. This is music of abandon, appropriately loud and percussive both on the soloist's part and the orchestra's.


The next section, titled Bean nighe, after the spirit that is the Scottish counterpart to the Irish banshee, slows the tempo and takes its musical cue from Glennie bowing on the vibraphone. Using a fiddle bow on the metal keyboard produces a ghostly hum, which Stucky intersperses with quiet, sustained dissonances in the orchestra. It's as if the orchestra is picking up Glennie's, um, vibe.


Elyllon, the tiny Welsh spirits ruled over by Queen Mab, inspire a quick, skittering section strongly reminiscent of Britten's music for the faeries in his opera Midsummer Night's Dream with Glennie concentrating on bells. Te Mangoroa is a Maori spirit, accompanied by a great deal of whooshing in the percussion and imitative effects in the orchestra. Coyote, the Navajo spirit known as a trickster, starts out with a vaguely Latin rhythm and morphs into something more general, Glennie focusing on the big five-octave concert marimba.


The final sections -- Tengu, a Japanese spirit known to drive people insane, and Wah'Kon-Tah, a supreme being in many Native American cultures -- culminates in a meditation for three different-sized tuned gongs and an amazingly rich-sounding tam-tam, the final resonating sound of which Glennie lets die away to nothing at the very end.


This is highly charged, dramatic music that ebbs and flows in pace and dynamics. Stucky's approach is compact, packing what he has to say into fairly brief segments. There are dissonances, but it's not harsh music. It has enough interest that it could easily be opened up with more extensive solo breaks from Glennie. It leaves us wanting more.


Alsop, who has conducted often at Aspen since her days as music director of the Denver-based Colorado Symphony, opened the concert with Ragomania, a lively overture of ragtime music by William Bolcom. A long-time rag exponent who has written many pieces in this turn-of-the- (twentieth) -century musical genre, Bolcom penned this jaunty work in 1982 for the Boston Pops Orchestra, which gave the premiere under conductor John Williams. Programming this work was an appropriate gesture for the Fourth of July weekend, but it could have used another couple of rehearsals to get the syncopated rhythms in sync. Articulation was sufficiently sloppy that in spots it devolved into a sonic blur, but it occasionally came together nicely, particularly for the big finish.


Brahms' Symphony No. 4 concluded the afternoon with Alsop fashioning a taut, muscular account. Although her tempos were not fast, this was not an especially spacious performance. What it lacked in warmth it made up for in propulsion and richness of sound. It had gravitas. The one exception was the gorgeous second movement, which hovered in a sort of time-suspension that let principal horn David Wakefield's statement of the theme unfold naturally. Principal clarinet Joaquin Valdepeńas added some wonderful turns of his own.


In the end, this was solid, no-nonsense Brahms, a bracing finish to an eclectic Sunday afternoon's music.



Harvey Steiman


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