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Seen and Heard International Festival Review


Aspen Festival 2005 (VIII): Thunderous Prokofiev, problematic Strauss in Intermezzo, Aspen, Colorado, 24 July 2005 (HS)


The most satisfying parts of the weekend's Aspen Music Festival concerts came on Sunday, with Leonard Slatkin leading a rousing Prokofiev Symphony No. 5, and Friday, with David Zinman taking a bold stab at Strauss’ problematic domestic opera, Intermezzo.


For Sunday's main event, Leonard Slatkin led a vigorous traversal of the Prokofiev Symphony No. 5. One of the 20th century's most enduring and crowd-pleasing big works, it got a rousing performance that put the cap on concert balanced with some less familiar works.


Slatkin got everyone moving in the same direction. Attacks and releases had a sense of unanimity and phrases developed distinct shapes, which generated enough energy to overcome the wrath of a thunderstorm. The heavens opened just before the downbeat, which scattered the lawn crowd and provided a drumbeat on the tent's roof.


The broad strains of the first movement opened with something resembling nobility, and the climaxes were just over-the-top enough to convey a sense of ambiguity about whether Prokofiev really meant this to be a symphony of triumph. The scherzo zipped by with deftness and a feeling almost of glee, but the long Adagio that followed had a sense of agony and impending defeat. The finale, opening with an ambiguously reharmonized restatement of the symphony's first theme, conveyed a sense of growing panic as the lower brass thundered against the jocular main theme. It was an epic performance.


Nicholas Maw's sprightly Spring Music, which opened the concert, dates from 1982, one of the composers simpler and more direct pieces. At times it calls to mind the easy-going overtures of Vaughan-Williams or Holst, but with a bit more harmonic spice. It has plenty of sharp, accented chords, which the orchestra nailed.


Orli Shaham followed with a graceful, pleasant account of Dvorak's Piano Concerto in G minor. The concerto is an early effort, but it shows Dvorak's melodic flair and begins to weave in the Czech colors that would distinguish his later work. If Shaham missed some of those colors in her piano sound or rhythmic approach, she got the amiability of the score. Slatkin had the orchestra in perfect synch with her.


Friday's concert performance of Strauss' mid-career opera Intermezzo was not well attended, which must have been a disappointment to music director David Zinman. The conductor was enthusiastic about mounting a concert production of this offbeat opera, as much as anything else, he admits, because it fit so perfectly into the Aspen Music Festival's 2005 theme, "composer self portraits." Strauss wrote a lot of autobiographical music, and this opera goes well beyond Sinfonia Domestica (already heard) and Ein Heldenleben (which Zinman will conduct August 14) in revealing the details of the composer's private life.


There were strong performances from the three principal singers and a supporting cast from the Aspen Opera Theater Center. Zinman's passionate, idiomatic conducting drew rich orchestral sounds from the Aspen Chamber Symphony in the 15 intermezzos. But the audience was leaking out of the tent even before intermission, and attrition thinned the crowd further for the second act.


Told in 13 scenes preceded and separated by 15 well-crafted intermezzos, the opera is a thinly veiled tale of a misunderstanding that almost broke up Strauss' marriage. (Strauss becomes Storch in the opera, and his wife Pauline becomes Christine.) It is so plot-driven that the singing has little time to soar in the first act, which has eight of the scenes.


Those who struck around were rewarded by several marvelous moments in the second act. In the act's colorful opening scene, Storch/Strauss and his pals are gambling at cards when he receives a telegram out of the blue from Christine demanding divorce. As Storch, Robert Gardner stamped himself as a baritone worth watching, singing seamlessly and beautifully. The pals, played by student singers, distinguished themselves, especially Jonathan Taylor as Stroh (another conductor) and David Salsbery Fry as an opera singer. This scene was played vividly, musically and dramatically, and a got a well-deserved ovation that cut into the ensuing intermezzo.


The final scene concludes on a long duet between Storch and the now mostly reconciled Christine. It begins with a quarrel and ends in an irresistible Straussian climax. Soprano Pamela Armstrong, who had seemingly been singing all night already, still had plenty of silvery tone left to make this a highlight. Raymond Very handled with aplomb Strauss' ungrateful music for the tenor, Baron Lummer, the young con artist who becomes Christine's platonic companion in Storch's absence.


The production for this soap opera plot was minimal but effective. Two low risers, stage front, each held several music stands so the singers could read their scores but still move around on the stage. Behind them was the orchestra, clad in black, in the dark with lighted music stands. A rear-projection screen in back of the orchestra displayed images that fit the story -- Vienna, the Austrian countryside, and a series of colorful Gustav Klimt prints.


Saturday's recital by the Brentano Quartet was notable for the rare treat of hearing them with bassist Edgar Meyer in Dvorak's early String Quintet in G major. The quartet alone also brought a full measure of drama and color to Mario Davidovsky's String Quartet No. 5, a brief one-movement work with plenty of modern effects.


The Brentano might be the fidgety-est quartet out there. After a while I took off my glasses so I didn't have to watch them. First violin Mark Steinberg holds his fiddle at a low angle and tends to rock back and forth, bringing his foot down to coincide with a big accent. Second violin Serena Canin twists and leans with the music. Cellist Nina Maria Lee might be the most active of them all. In one agitated passage her ponytail became a blur. Violist Misha Amory apparently didn't get the memo. He plays normally.


Does it affect the music? All I can say is that every sound, every phrase, every gesture seems to emerge with extra emphasis. This is perfect for Davidovsky, acceptable for Dvorak, but death to poor Haydn, whose Quartet in B flat major Op. 64 No. 3 came off as grotesquely exaggerated. On the other hand, the straight tone and pure intonation they brought to Bruce Adolphe's arrangement of five Gesualdo madrigals from 1611 was impressive.


Harvey Steiman




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