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Seen and Heard International Concert Review
ASPEN FESTIVAL 2005 (V): Corigliano Violin Concerto
"The Red Violin", Berlioz Le corsaire
Overture, Elgar Variations on an Original Theme "Enigma",
Aspen Concert Orchestra, Michael Stern, Joshua Bell, violin, Benedict
Music Tent, Aspen, Colorado, 15 July, 2005 (HS)
ASPEN FESTIVAL 2005 (V): Corigliano Violin Concerto "The Red Violin", Berlioz Le corsaire Overture, Elgar Variations on an Original Theme "Enigma", Aspen Concert Orchestra, Michael Stern, Joshua Bell, violin, Benedict Music Tent, Aspen, Colorado, 15 July, 2005 (HS)
For the film "The Red Violin" (1998), composer John Corigliano wrote a wealth of music for Joshua Bell, representing a series of musicians who play a fictional violin through history. Most of a film score is short cues, but there was one extended piece, a Chaconne for violin and orchestra, that Corigliano wrote in advance of the film score. Material from it found its way into the film.
Now, in slightly different form, it's the first movement of a full-scale concerto, which debuted in 2003 in Baltimore. It made its Aspen debut Friday in the Benedict Music Tent with Bell again in the solo role. Michael Stern conducted an outsized Aspen Concert Orchestra.
The Chaconne alone was a 17-minute tour de force for Bell and the orchestra. It felt spacious and lyrical, and left plenty of room for solo ruminations. In adapting it for the concerto, Corigliano seems to have amped it up (at least from what I remember from its San Francisco debut under the baton of Robert Spano in 1997). The orchestral interruptions intrude more on the soloist and the movement feels more densely packed. At times it leaves Bell sawing away on his fiddle while an orchestral uprising drowns out the ends of his phrases.
What we could hear from Bell was exactly the sort of high-personality musicality we have come to expect from this onetime wunderkind. As a mature artist he has lost none of his technical brilliance but there is much less exhibitionism in his work. He makes every phrase feel natural.
That's no easy task, especially in the concerto's fast second movement "Pianissimo Scherzo." The notes fly by like the spray of raindrops in a spring shower, seldom getting beyond mezzo-piano in volume, as the violinist skims lightly over them. The third movement, "Andante flautando," starts off as a sort of recitative for the violinist, mostly playing in the low register, creating a warm interlude between the skittering scherzo and the skyrocket of a finale to come.
In the "Accelerando Finale," as the orchestra holds the tempo steady, the violinist begins to speed up, gradually doubling the meter of the orchestra, which then begins its accelerando to "catch up" with the violin. It is an amazing effect, as if everyone were trying to keep their footing as a big wave rocks the boat. After several episodes of this, the movement comes to a rousing finish. Rhythm is the driving force here, not melody or harmony, the soloist and the orchestra often simply grabbing at their strings with their bows, producing a sort of percussive grunt, rather than playing notes that sound a true pitch.
A contrasting melody provides a breather between these rhythmic episodes, a melancholy theme used in the film to identify the violin expert played by Samuel L. Jackson. The chaconne makes a brief appearance as the finish gathers steam and ends with a satisfying ka-pow.
There is probably more to this work that we heard in this performance. The all-student Concert Orchestra, which usually plays the bargain programs on Wednesday afternoons, seemed overstretched by the technical demands of Corigliano's music. At least, they were concentrating so hard on getting the notes in place that any chance of putting some finesse into the phrasing or dynamics went by the wayside. Stern did his best to keep everyone together, and for the most part he did, but when I heard the chaconne by itself in 1997 I found much more nuance than I heard from this orchestra.
Presumably this orchestra was drafted for this role because Corigliano's score needs a bigger orchestra than the much smaller Aspen Chamber Symphony, which usually plays on Friday evenings. The Chamber Symphony positions professional musicians, mainly principals from major symphony orchestras, on the first desks. It might have made a big difference.
These shortcomings certainly showed in the ragged utterances from the woodwinds and high strings in Le corsaire, Berlioz' dazzling concert overture, which opened the program. It also took some of the gloss off Elgar's Enigma Variations, which concluded the concert. They made some rich and lovely sounds, especially in the noble "Nimrod" variation, and Stern's tempos were expertly judged, but time after time phrases begged for more interpretive panache than the rudimentary articulation they got.