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Seen and Heard International Concert Review

ASPEN FESTIVAL 2005 (VI) Chamber music outshines the big orchestra, Aspen, Colorado, 21 July 2005 (HS)


Cellist David Finckel and his pianist wife Wu Han have provided some memorable moments in past years at the Aspen Music Festival. Add their recital Saturday evening in Harris Hall to the list. The first half sandwiched Beethoven's Cello Sonata in F, Op. 5 No. 1, and Prokofiev's colorful Cello Sonata in C major around a contrasting group of short pieces by Anton Webern, two from 1899 while he was still in his lush Romantic mode, and three from 1914 when he was full-on atonal. (Lynn Harrell, who played these at a recital a few years ago, commented afterwards, "That was a tart little sorbet, wasn't it?")


The duo's playing, as you might expect, reflects a real unanimity of approach. They understand a musical work's arch and revel in the details along the way. Always technically accurate, Finckel's playing these days seems more inclined to get at the meat of the music, even if means making less than beautiful sounds. Han's rhythmic drive even the most delicate phrases was especially appealing in the Prokofiev.

The highlight of the concert, though, was Smetana's heart-on-sleeve Piano Trio in G minor. Violinist Cho-Liang Lin joined the party for an energetic, beautifully realized performance.


Earlier, the regular Saturday afternoon chamber music concert became a tribute to the late Phil West, who spent many summers in Aspen playing and teaching oboe. The program reflected West's talent as an arranger, especially adept and reducing big orchestrations to small chamber ensembles, and a champion of new music.


One highlight was mezzo-soprano Susanne Mentzer's direct, un-mannered performance of Berlioz's song cycle Les nuits d'été, suffused with the feeling of a warm summer's night, in West's canny reduction of the orchestral score for 15 musicians. While it missed some of the more colorful effects, it got the spirit. Elvind Gullberg Jensen conducted with restraint. Another was West's reduction for 12 instruments, of Fauré's melancholy incidental music for the Maeterlink play Pelléas et Mélisande, which closed the concert. With West's widow, Carole Cowan, playing first violin, Murry Sidlin conducted with admirable delicacy and just enough forward thrust to keep the music breathing.


There were also two world premieres on the program, which would have pleased West. Sydney Hodkinson's Bricks: Concerto Fantasia for violin and chamber sextet took a while to come into focus, but when it did it had a fascinating swagger. John Harbison scribbled Crossing, for Phil West, seemingly on the back of a napkin. It took about a minute for English hornist Adam Dinitz and bassoonist Nancy Goeres to play it. I wanted to hear it again.


Sunday's concert in the tent was an exercise in excess. James DePreist conducted the Aspen Festival Orchestra in a high-calorie program that included a wayward performance of Barber's violin concerto by Nadia Salerno-Sonnenburg and the rich textures and decadent melodies of Rachmaninoff's Symphony No. 2.


Even though her tone seemed a bit thin, Salerno-Sonnenburg lathered on way too much schmaltz in the first two movements of the Barber concerto. Those who think of this concerto as Romantic music, in the sense that Tchaikovsky and Brahms are Romantic, get it wrong. This is American music. Barber wrote deceptively simple melodies and warm, consonant harmonies. This is direct story-telling. Salerno-Sonnenburg was pushing and pulling on it like it was taffy. The finale whizzed by a fast clip, some of which felt like a blur rather than the spinning cogs of a perpetual motion machine.

For an encore she played Rachmaninoff's lovely "Vocalise." It's an indication of how uninspired she seemed to be by it that Joaquin Valdepeñas' turn at the melody on its final appearance offered much more expression.

The opening piece, Christopher Rouse's "Bump," written in 1985, was much more fun. The composer describes it as a nightmare scenario, a sort of conga line in Hell. The eight-minute piece felt just like that, well larded with humorous turns. But what it had to do with the rest of the program eluded me.


Even Rachmaninoff was ambivalent about his second symphony, and except for the lavish and well-loved slow movement, the third, the rest of the symphony is lush, densely orchestrated, filled with one plush moment after another. It's rather like sitting down to as four-course menu of rich desserts. One feels the need to run 10 miles to make up for it. DePreist did little to clarify the thick orchestration.


Harvey Steiman



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