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Aspen Music Festival 2009 (5):
Puccini’s La Bohème, Trpceski and Kahane do Saint-Saëns, Kalichstein recital, and Rouse’s oboe concerto. 20.7.2009 (HS)

There’s more than one way to coax fully realized music from a piano, as three pianists demonstrated over the weekend at the Aspen Music Festival. Simon Trpceski, Joseph Kalichstein and Orli Shaham took different approaches and gave us individual performances of Romantic Era piano music well worth hearing.

Of the three, the most technically brilliant was Trpceski. The Macedonian-born pianist played Saint-Saëns’ colorful Piano Concerto No. 2 Friday in the tent with the Aspen Chamber Symphony under Jeffrey Kahane. He was so proficient that he made the daunting virtuosic demands of the piece sound like child’s play, reeling off the complex runs and thundering chords easily. The clarity of his playing and lightly held emotions made this a warm rendition, especially with the help of Kahane. The conductor, no mean pianist himself, had the orchestra paced perfectly with the soloist.

For encores, Trpceski played “In Struga,” by Pande Sakov, a captivating dance in an odd time signature from Macedonia, and cooled things off with Mendelssohn’s Song Without Words “Venetian Gondolier.”

Kahane opened the program with Kodály’s sinuous and colorful Dances of Galanta, which featured some soulful clarinet playing by Bil Jackson, and finished with a vital and nicely contoured Symphony No. 4 by Beethoven. The conductor got a lithe and athletic spirit out of the orchestra.

Kalichstein, who first appeared as a music festival soloist 40 years ago, tackled a formidable solo recital program Saturday evening in Harris Hall. He began (began!) with Schumann’s Kreisleriana, a monumental piece that spins on a dime from bravura to simplicity, from lightness to darkness.

The pianist introduced each work with insights that you might not read in program notes, the sort of thing musicians talk to each other about over dinner. For the Schumann, his introductory remarks explained the dark yet whimsical story behind the music. And then he sat down and made it happen. Kalichstein has the chops to play all the notes, maybe not with perfect clarity but with enough assurance that the meaning can come through. This was especially so in two Chopin Ballades. No. 2, with its quiet ending, brought a distinct sense of resignation. No. 4, with its flash and blazing finish, gathered some extra momentum from Kalichstein’s mercurial approach.

But the most pleasant surprises were two beautifully rendered Mendelssohn pieces. After suggesting that we dismiss this composer too easily, he backed up the case with a Fantasia in F-sharp minor (Scottish) that carried plenty of import, and split the two Chopin works with a set of three Songs Without Words that couldn’t have been more charming.

For his encore, Kalichstein cooled off the heat after the big finish of the Ballade No. 4 with a delicate, yearning Chopin waltz.

Orli Shaham (Gil’s sister) took a studied approach to Rachmaninoff’s Variations on a Theme of Paganini in Sunday’s concert, the Festival Orchestra conducted by her husband, David Robertson, music director of the St. Louis Orchestra. Though one could want more bite and power in Rachmaninoff, she achieved impressive control over phrasing and dynamics. Passages bloomed effectively, and with Robertson leading a red-blooded performance, it all came together satisfyingly.

Sunday’s program included another good solo turn. Richard Woodhams, principal oboe of the Philadelphia Orchestra and a regular at Aspen, took the lead in Christopher Rouse’s Oboe Concerto, debuted earlier this year by the Minnesota Orchestra. In an especially beguiling long, slow, meditative stretch, his oboe curlicued freely over a soft bed of string harmonies, then debated civilly with Mark Spark’s alto flute. Rouse’s signature eclectic style played wah-wah muted brass against tinkling celestas and harps, and the fast sections gave Woodhams a chance to show his virtuoso ability.

Respighi’s Pines of Rome can easily descend into kitsch, but Robertson was at his energetic best in drawing out all the colors and power in this music to conclude the afternoon on a high note.

On Saturday’s strong chamber music program, an all-star cast of violinists Alex Kerr and Laurie Carney, violists Sabina Thatcher and James Dunham and cellist Eric Kim kicked Mendelssohn’s String Quintet No. 2 into high gear. Trpceski joined clarinetist Krista Weiss, violinist Cornelia Heard and cellist Aleisha Verner for a shapely account of Hindemith’s Quartet for Clarinet and Piano Trio.

Later Saturday, Gil Shaham and his violinist wife Adele Anthony bade farewell to Aspen for the season with a short program that got even shorter due to an injury. In obvious left shoulder and arm pain, violist Masao Kawasaki valiantly completed five of the Beethoven Septet’s six movements before calling it a night. He spent Sunday at Aspen Hospital undergoing tests, a festival representative said.

Finally, Puccini’s La Bohème opened Opera Theater Center’s season Thursday in a staging that made the most of the singers’ youth. Unlike most performances, when veteran singers try to impersonate starving artists decades their junior, the six leads were mostly the very age of their roles. The briefly seen older characters, not so much, but the protagonists? No problem, especially soprano Tharange Goonetilleke as Mimí. Her assured presence, creamy voice and delicious vulnerability mark her as someone on the threshold of stardom. As Rodolfo, tenor Ernest Alvarez had some sensational moments and other times seemed to be struggling to keep things in focus, but as his sidekick Marcello, baritone David Williams inhabited the role dramatically and vocally. Conductor George Manahan drew idiomatic playing from the orchestra, while director Edward Berkeley made the scenes believable and gave the singers the chance to make their efforts touching. It worked.

Harvey Steiman

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