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Seen and Heard International Festival Review
ASPEN FESTIVAL 2005 (II): Strings attached: International Sejong Soloists, Cio-Lang LIn, Kronos Quartet, Aspen, Colorado, 9 July 2005 (HS)
It was a busy week for string aficionados at the Aspen Music Festival. In a three-day span, the conductorless 22-member International Sejong Soloists played in two concerts, the second night backing up the American violinist Cio-Lang Lin in a remarkably lucid account of Vivaldi's The Four Seasons, and finally the Kronos Quartet made an electric (literally) appearance, offering an international potpourri of new works and composer Steve Reich's intensely moving Different Trains.
The Sejong is a remarkable group. Based in New York, sponsored by a Korean company, the original members met in Aspen in the early 1990s as students at the music school associated with this festival. They do concerts here every year and they are audience favorites. It is easy to understand why. Even with 15 or 20 musicians on stage, they play in preternatural synch, with the unanimity of style of a string quartet.
It also doesn't hurt that Tasmanian-born Adele Anthony, the concert master (mistress?), is married to the international fiddle star Gil Shaham. He has played in front of this group himself, and no doubt his association and their Aspen associations helped attract some of the big stars who have appeared with them.
Anthony is a strong soloist herself, as she showed in the first half of Wednesday's recital at the 500-seat Harris Hall, taking the solo turn in Hartmann's Concerto funčbre. A heart-on-sleeve reflection of what things were like in 1930s Nazi Germany, the thorny piece has tremendous emotional impact. It also makes formidable demands on the soloist, who must produce rich, lush sounds in the low register, lovely cantilena in the middle and ascend into the highest reaches of the violin's range with accuracy and purity. Anthony was more than equal to the task.
That concert opened with Telemann's pleasant suite, Don Quixote, which indulges the early Baroque's penchant for programmatic music. You can hear the clumping of Sancho Panza's donkey in the galloping finale.
After intermission, the ensemble did justice to Gustav Mahler's transcription for string orchestra of Schubert's string quartet "Death and the Maiden." Some critics at the time assailed Mahler for destroying the intimacy of Schubert's quartet, and it's true that the sound of four violins playing a single part has more richness and depth than one. Mahler is smart enough, however, to vary the amount of doubling, creating extra layers of contrast, and he uses the added string bass judiciously so the sound does not become constantly weighty. There is a wonderful moment in the next-to-last variation in the slow movement when the forces are reduced to an actual string quartet, deepened only here and there by the bass.
In general, the Sejong did better with this slow movement (which has some pretty speedy passages nonetheless) than the stop-and-go of the first movement, which never quite caught the propulsiveness Schubert wanted. The finale, however, rocked along and came to a smashing finish.
Thursday night's concert in the 2,000-seat Benedict Music Tent featured Lin in one of the festival's "An Evening With ..." formats. The soloist chooses his own program and the collaborators he wants, usually in ensembles rather than solo works. Lin opened with a solo work by Esa Pekka Salonen and then played sonatas by Stravinsky and Debussy before giving over the second half to The Four Seasons.
Salonen's Lachen Verlent, a chaconne based on a theme he wrote in 2002 for his orchestral piece Insomia, gave Lin plenty of technical challenges but the musical rewards were slim. Much better were the two sonatas in which pianist Joseph Kalichstein accompanied with delicious delicacy. The highlight of Stravinsky's Duo Concertant was the slow, lapidary gleam of the fourth movement (of five. Debussy's Violin Sonata found the pianist and violinist in delightful parallel throughout.
It's rare to hear a Four Seasons done with the freshness and vitality that Lin and Sejong lavished on it. It's such a familiar work, and with the penchant of so many classical radio stations these days to specialize in Vivaldi and Mozart, dangerously overexposed. But these musicians played as if they were discovering it for the first time. Delicate accompaniments in the ensemble violins had an expectant hush that let Lin's solo line emerge naturally. The string playing followed the Baroque style, minimizing vibrato, in some cases dispensing with it altogether, for a bracing effect, despite an occasional difference of opinion on pitch. Cascades of unison scales ripped by in a flash, every note enunciated as the whirlwind whipped past, the pulse rock solid. Anthony Newman's harpsichord and cellist Ani Aznavoorian's colorful continuo added further life.
In short, this was a Four Seasons that sounded like it ought to, vivid and finely detailed without losing the essential pulse. Lin played with clarity and style, avoiding any unnecessary flourishes but reveling in those that Vivaldi put there.
The Kronos Quartet takes string music in a whole other direction from any of the above. The San Francisco-based group, making only its second appearance at this festival, drew a lamentably small crowd in the cavernous tent for its special event (season pass holders had to pay extra for it), but those were there left vivified by a bracing program.
First of all, there's the look. No white jackets and standard-issue music stands for these guys. They wear non-matching street clothes, sit on their own dais bathed in colored lights, extra projections changing the mood with colors and patterns around them. They are miked and amplified, which makes things possible such as the multi-layering of Reich's Different Trains, in which they play against three pre-recorded quartet tracks they have already laid down, mixed with spoken words and other sound effects. It also distorts the sound somewhat, which is bothersome when they play either softly or when the sound reverberates too much when they play loud.
But the overall effect is exciting. Kronos' members--David Harrington and John Sherba on violins, Hank Dutt on viola and Jeffrey Zeigler subbing for Jennifer Culp on cello--seem open to all contemporary musical possibilities. They commission works at the rate of one every three weeks, and their concerts consist mostly of these works.
The first half of this program included highly atmospheric music from an Icelandic rock band, a sinuous melody from Turkey featuring the viola, a raga-like piece of Indian music featuring the cello, an evocative visit to a cooling oasis from Azerbaijan, a relentlessly rhythmic chant from an Ethiopian saxophonist, and a bizarrely episodic romp from the eclectic American composer John Zorn.
For me, the highlight was the opening strains of "Oasis," heard on their most recent CD. Composer Frangis Ali-Zedeh begins with the prerecorded sound of water dripping. The quartet enters one by one, playing pizzicato, an amazing effect. The composer extends the mood, interrupting it with a more energetic episode, before reposing into the dripping at the end. Zeigler's distinctive cello solo had the nasal sound of the Indian shenai, the double-reed instrument, in Rahul Dev Burman's "Smoke rises across the river," which will be heard in the quartet's next CD. The pre-recorded sound of tablas gave the piece a strong ethnic identification.
Reich's piece is a modern classic, one of the shining gems of the minimalist movement. Kronos commissioned it, debuted it in 1988, and the piece won a Grammy award the following year. In it, the composer uses snippets of voices reminiscing about two different kinds of trains in the late 1930s and early 1940s -- porters and conductors speaking of the silver streaks that traversed the vast open spaces of the United States, and Holocaust survivors on the cattle cars that took Jews to the extermination camps in Nazi Germany. Reich's music picks up and responds to the rhythm and inflection of their words, creating a kaleidoscopic feel as the music progresses.
Minimalist music has been criticized for its "chug-chug" quality, the rhythmic ostinato phrases morphing gradually as the pieces progress. Reich's idea of using this to portray the sound of a train is brilliant. Sound effects of train whistles are doubled by the viola and then the two violins playing in open fourths and fifths. The various inflections from the bits of speech provide the seeds for the next ostinato. The piece unfolds with an energy that reflects the American trains and sense of inevitability that provides a sense of dread to the European cattle cars. It plays powerfully.
Kronos' energetic performance drew an immediate and well-deserved standing ovation. The audience's enthusiasm led to three encores. The first, a sort of Kronos gloss on the famous Jimi Hendrix performance on electric guitar of "The Star-Spangled Banner," was the wildest. Harrington noted laconically that it had been performance at "another summer festival" in 1969. The second encore, a delicate and sad song by the Lebanese popular singer Fairuz, drew sighs, and they finished with a lively impression of a Mariachi song from their CD "Huevos."
In the end, what Kronos does is a lot more than fancy up a concert with pretty lights and sound effects. It makes music of a different order, rooted firmly in classical ideas but open to eclectic possibilities. It reaches across the footlights.