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Seen and Heard International Festival Report




ASPEN FESTIVAL 2005 (X): Opera with Lucia di Lammermoor and Postcards from Latin America, Aspen, Colorado, 31 July, 2005 (HS)



Whoever thought of the week-long "Postcards from Latin America," a week-long mini-festival of Latin American music at this year's Aspen Music Festival, gets a standing ovation from this corner. Sunday's concert launched the week with big orchestral pieces by the mid-20th century Mexican composers Silvestre Revueltas and Carlos Chávez, and it turned out to be one of the most exciting of the nine-week season.


Credit conductor David Robertson for his high-voltage approach to the music and sharp playing from the Aspen Festival Orchestra. But it also helped that the programming played the two Latin pieces against important works by Stravinsky and Prokofiev, both of whom revel in rhythm as much as the Mexican music does. Hearing Revueltas and Chávez alongside these certified masterpieces proves they belong.


You can hear echoes of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring in Revueltas' Sensemayá, a seven-minute tone poem that opened the program, and in Prokofiev's early blockbuster Scythian Suite, which ended it. So to include the Stravinsky Violin Concerto makes perfect sense. Even if it comes from another period in the composer's life, the concerto has plenty of his signature ostinatos. Like Sensemayá, Chavez' Sinfonia india employs a huge battery of percussion. It also ends with an irresistibly wild finale.


Sensemayá makes you want to dance despite its irregular rhythms. Most of the piece is in 7/8, but there are also some tricky digressions. Robertson and the orchestra made them feel totally natural. Sinfonia india feels simpler on the surface, based on Mexican Indian rhythms, chants and melodies. But it too has tricky rhythms and a variety of sound colors. Ginastera might have been inspired by its headlong final pages when he wrote "Estancia" five years later.


Violinist Kyoko Takezawa gave the Stravinsky concerto all the bite its  rhythms could want, but she managed to make it all sound beautiful at the same time. The open chord that launches each movement rang distinctively each time. The lyrical arias that make up the middle two movements (and keep breaking into a strong rhythm despite themselves) were especially beguiling.


The Scythian is probably Prokofiev's thorniest music. Dense, dissonant chords pile up on themselves as they enunciate the rugged rhythms in the opening section. This is muscular, epic music and it's not for the faint of heart, player or listener. The Festival Orchestra made a huge sound without ever losing articulation. Robertson and the orchestra made this music thrilling.


Friday's concert sandwiched two very familiar pieces by Mozart around two unfamiliar works by Erwin Schulhoff, one of the composers championed by conductor James Conlon. It was a mixed bag.


A Czech native, Schulhoff was considered something of a wunderkind in German-speaking musical circles in the 1920s, but then the Third Reich banned his music along with that of other Jews. In the 1930s he became a Marxist and flirted with the Soviet Union, which was actively condemning the Nazis. That got him sent to a concentration camp, where he died of tuberculosis in 1942.


It's easy to see why his story attracts Conlon, but less apparent why the music exerts such a pull that he programmed not one but two of Schulhoff's symphonies (especially since he admitted they were not his best). Conlon gave both pieces all the energy they should have needed. One could appreciate the composer's orchestration skills and his ear for a good tune. But his tendency to repeat, and then repeat some more, with little apparent development, can wear a person down.


The Symphony No. 1 dates from 1924 and reflects Schulhoff's desire to work with Czech material, but it came off as second-rate Janacek. The Symphony No. 3 is from 1935, when he was already had a Soviet passport, and sounds like road-company Shostakovich. That would be OK if there were other compensations, but the musical rewards were slim.


Mozart's Symphony No. 38 "Prague" got a straightforward, modestly stylish reading. Its endless invention and lovely sense of proportion made Schulhoff seem clumsy by comparison. The ragged performance of the overture to Don Giovanni, which opened the program, however, is best ignored. They needed a mulligan on that one.


There were plenty of bright spots in the Opera Center's all-student Lucia di Lammermoor, heard Saturday in its opening night at Wheeler Opera House. The familiar bel canto classic creaked around the edges, but the young, inexperienced cast pulled itself together for most of the big moments. Conductor George Manahan got sporadically idiomatic playing from the orchestra, and the chorus distinguished itself in all its scenes.


In the title role, Korean soprano Jung-a Lee made some beautiful sounds, hit all the notes and made the most of Lucia's delicate moments, but she seemed to recede when the drama and the music wanted her to soar. She's a tiny thing, and she acted the mad scene believably. Much more impressive, and more red-blooded as singers, were St. Lucia-born tenor Blaise Claudio Pascal as Edgardo, her beleaguered lover, and Korean bass Young-Bok Kim as Raimondo, the chaplain. When those two held the stage we heard some emotional bel canto singing. As Enrico, Lucia's brother, Japanese baritone Masanori Takahashi displayed a lovely lyric voice but lacked the heft to seem menacing.


When Pascal and Kim were not involved, the dramatic effect lost much of its oomph. Staged on a raised, raked triangle surrounding by figures that could remind some viewers of twisted Easter Island statues, the best thing that can be said about the sets is that they didn't get in the way. Director Pat Diamond seemed content to keep the standard operatic posing to a minimum, but it was there.



Harvey Steiman

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