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Aspen Music Festival (1): Golijov's "Azul," Julia Fischer, Gil Shaham, and others. 7. 7.2008 (HS)

This is the first in a series of periodic reports by correspondent Harvey Steiman from the Aspen Music Festival.

It takes a lot to upstage a couple of star violinists like Gil Shaham and Julia Fischer, but "Azul," a new piece from composer Osvaldo Golijov, written for Yo-Yo Ma and premiered in 2006 by the Boston Symphony, did exactly that. Golijov revised it for cellist Alisa Weilerstein, who performed it Saturday night in the Benedict Music Tent with the Chamber Symphony and conductor David Robertson.

The 27-minute piece creates a massive soundscape, enhancing the standard orchestra with amplification on the cello, a hyper-accordion and two percussionists playing a toy-box array of shakers, clackers, bells and jingles. Weilerstein, for her part, seemed to relish the role of protagonist, intoning a contemplative minor-key melody against spacious, slow-moving harmonies in the strings. Occasionally the brass and woodwinds interject a comment and something like chorales in big buildups to climaxes.

In the middle section, the cellist creates an earthy rhythmic pulse with broad arpeggios, the rhythms picked up by percussionists Cyro Baptista and Keita Ogawa and enhanced by the swooping portamento of the hyper-accordion, here played by Michael Ward-Bergeman. The piece ends in a peaceful statis.

There is tremendous excitement to this music, which strives to create new musical worlds with strange sonorities. These and the use of amplification seemed to leave some of the more conservative concert goers cold, but most of the audience, which filled about two-thirds of the tent, responded with enthusiasm.

Robertson led a vital and nuanced reading of Schubert's Symphony No. 9 in the second half, and to a thinned-out audience. Tempos never flagged, every phrase had a definite shape to it, and it moved toward its own big climax with a sense of inevitability.

Fischer's performance of Dvorak's melodious violin concerto Sunday, and recital Thursday, proved to be highlights in a week that was otherwise a virtual Shaham family reunion, as Gil, his wife, Adele Anthony, his sister, Orli, and her husband, Robertson, covered the key concerts on Tuesday, Wednesday and Saturday.

Watching Fischer at work is a treat, and not just because she fills out her form-fitting gowns admirably and moves with the music. She may strike poses for effect, but she collaborates with the other musicians as intensely as she expresses her own violin lines. You can see it in the way she meets their eyes and you can hear it in the way her performance fits seamlessly into the whole.

In the Dvorak, it was as if she, conductor Alan Gilbert and the orchestra had been playing this music for years together. She tossed off brilliant turns as if they were child's play, but always within Dvorak's framework, not a star's turn with it. For his part, a highly animated Gilbert conducted Ravel's Alborada del gracioso and Daphnis et Chloe Suite No. 2 with great panache, completing a satisfying Sunday concert.

Fischer opened her recital Thursday in Harris Hall with a remarkably fluid and technically flawless performance of Bach's G minor sonata for unaccompanied violin. But this wasn't just well-manicured music. She drew out the inner voices so well it really did sound at times like two or three violins playing, especially in the second-movement fuga. If her sense of rhythm couldn't quite maintain the lilt in the third-movement Siciliano, the rapid-fire finale Presto took off like a jet.

Even better were two rarely heard octets, performed with a virtual all-star cast of faculty artists. The first, Shostakovich's Two Pieces for String Octet, opens with a haunting prelude that mines an extraordinary range of sound color from the four violins, two violas and two cellos. The second, Bruch's lush, romantic String Octet in B-flat, nods to Mendelssohn for its style and reaches for some rewarding climaxes.

Fischer could have dominated the proceedings, but proved to be a generous leader. Both pieces hit high on the excitement meter, largely on the strength of the individuals in the ensemble. Or perhaps it was the unfamiliarity of the music. In any event, violinist David Halen, violist James Dunham and, especially, cellist Eric Kim took their turns in the sun with great expressivity. Conductor Gilbert, playing viola, more than held his own. Bassist Edgar Meyer joined in on the Bruch, and that didn't hurt.

As for the extended Shaham family, Gil and Adele teamed up with three faculty artists for a lovely stroll through Brahms' two string quintets on Tuesday at Harris Hall. When a star like Shaham carries the melody his tone and phrasing sets him apart from other very good musicians. That's not to take anything away from Anthony, who does plenty of leading of her own in the first chair of the International Sejong Soloists, or from violists Masao Kawasaki and Catherine Carroll or cellist Michael Mermagen. But Shaham's presence overshadowed them. Maybe it needed a bit more rehearsal for the kind of cohesion this kind of intricate chamber playing demands.

In Orli's evening at Harris Hall Wednesday, a potentially charming program of story-telling music that fits this year's festival theme ("Once Upon a Time...") foundered on the pianist's lack of star presence. But thanks to some fine work by faculty artists such as violinists Alexander Kerr and Laurie Carney, Kawasaki and bassoonist Nancy Goeres, Prokofiev's Overture on Hebrew Themes and Janacek's Concertino came off well. In her solo work, Shaham captured little of the sly wit in Debussy's Children's Corner suite, found only intermittent charm in Schumann's Fantasiest├╝cke, and never quite brought out the details in a pedal-heavy performance of Skryabin's Piano Sonata No. 2 "Sonata-Fantasy."

Harvey Steiman

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