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Seen and Heard International Festival Review


ASPEN FESTIVAL 2005 (IV): Gil Shaham goes eclectic with friends; Chamber music favors Beethoven, Aspen, Colorado, 15 July, 2005 (HS)



Violinist Gil Shaham, a regular at the Aspen Music Festival since his student days, took his "Evening with..." program in a very different direction from that of most musicians featured on these regular Thursday evening concerts in the Benedict Music Tent. He did not simply enlist some of the other outstanding musicians in residence at this nine-week festival to play a few things from the solo and chamber repertoire with him. Instead, Shaham got composer-arranger Julian Milone to write new arrangements of a wide variety of music for him and three fiddle-playing colleagues.


Shaham's fiddle gang included Cho-Lang Lin, like Shaham an international solo violinist, David Halen, concert master of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, and Shaham's wife, Adele Anthony, concert master of the International Sejong Soloists. Christopher Hanulik, longtime principal bass for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, provided some musical foundation. As Shaham put it, "the thumb to our four fingers."


Milone, a violinist in London’s Philharmonia Orchestra whose arrangements have been performed by many orchestras, put a lot of wit in the potpourri of music Shaham picked, adding characteristic fiddle gestures to such diverse fare as selections from Mozart's Don Giovanni and "It Ain't Necessarily So" from Gershwin's Porgy and Bess. For their part, the five musicians played the music with high spirits and impressive dexterity. They even managed to swing on "Sweet Georgia Brown."


The evening started conventionally enough, with Mr. and Mrs. Shaham etching a vivid Sonata in C major for Two Violins by Prokofiev. Lin and Halen then joined them in a four-violin arrangement of the Paganini Caprice No. 9, trading virtuosic phrases with panache. That made a nice segue to "Sweet Georgia Brown," which added the bass but started out as if it were going to be another show-off classical violin piece before settling into the familiar rhythm.


"Next we have just what Aspen needs, another Carmen fantasy," Shaham joked, as they launched into a lively arrangement that hit most of the opera's highlights. It was every bit as much fun as the famous Waxman opus, a pops staple for violin and orchestra.


The Don Giovanni selections were done as a sort of four-movement suite, played without pause. It begins with parts of the overture (and wasn't that a quote from "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik" interpolated in there?), then the Don's serenade "Deh vieni alla finestra" as the slow movement, the stormy music to the Don's encounter with the statue, and for the finale an arrangement of the vocal ensemble that ends the opera. This is a terrific piece and should find its way onto pops programs in years to come.


The other highlight was a four-movement suite of tangos by Astor Piazzola. They gave it a characteristic reading, especially the slow tango which served as the third movement. I am afraid I missed the bandoneon on the others. For an encore, they raced through Shostakovich's galop from Cheryomushki.


A lot of expensive Strads and Guarnieris, high-powered talent and serious musicianship went into what was essentially a pops program. The musicians seemed to enjoy themselves immensely, and the audience left with big grins on their faces.


Earlier in the week, Beethoven was the thread that linked two chamber music concerts. The big draw was the Brentano Quartet, an exciting ensemble of young musicians, who played the funereal, all-adagio all the time Shostakovich Quartet No. 15 on a Wednesday program with the Beethoven String Quartet in A minor Op. 132. It sold out the 500-seat Harris Hall.


The Shostakovich was impressively played. They made no attempt to pretty up the harsh moments, which made the beautiful phrases sound all the more so. The Beethoven, one of the late quartets, came off as mannered. In an effort to inject their own interpretation, the members of the quartet played around with tonal contrasts, rhythmic inflections and other musical elements, but if there was a cohesive approach to all of this it was lost on me. One could admire their musical chops, but it was hard to see what they were going for.


There were empty seats in Harris Hall for a much more satisfying evening that featured a series of strong, thoughtful performances, both in terms of virtuosity and musical approach, from members of the festival's school faculty. Violinist Laurie Carney, who plays in the American String Quartet, joined her cellist husband, Bill Grubb, who plays a lot of chamber music at the top level, and pianist Anton Nel, to put all the sparkle you could want into Beethoven's Piano Trio in G major Op. 1, no. 2. The dance-like scherzo and the galloping finale were especially fine.


Halen and pianist Rita Sloan opened the program with a suave, witty traversal of the Poulenc Violin Sonata, and composer David Maslanka's endlessly inventive glosses on Bach chorales, his 1999 Wind Quintet No. 3, got a vibrant performance from flutist Mark Sparks, oboist Richard Woodhams, clarinetist Ted Oien, hornist John Zirbel and bassoonist Per Hannevold. But the show-stopper was cellist Yehuda Hanani, who teamed with pianist Jean-David Coen for Beethoven's Cello Sonata in A, Op. 69. Hanani may not have the most dazzling technique, but he can shape a phrase and build a musical argument with the best of them. Hanani and Coen created a dialogue in which each one seemed to be pushing the other with one valid music question after another. They made the music come to life.



Harvey Steiman




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