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  Aspen Music Festival 2009 (10): Deborah Voigt, Sarah Chang, a gang of cellos and a world premiere double violin concerto. 10.8.2009 (HS)

She joked that she needed oxygen. Indeed, the long, arching melodic lines required exquisite breath control, but Deborah Voigt was doing just fine Thursday in a special event in the music tent. Even at Aspen’s 8,000-foot elevation the soprano tore through dramatic arias by Wagner and Beethoven, and finished with four magnificent Strauss songs. The concert was easily the highlight of the weekend.

For an encore, she switched gears for a romp through Lerner and Loewe’s “I Could Have Danced All Night,” from My Fair Lady, in an arrangement designed for a singer using a microphone. She didn’t need it. Did I mention she displayed a huge voice? The Aspen Chamber Symphony could not drown her out, even playing at full throttle at the peaks of Wagner’s “Dich teure halle,” the ecstatic aria from Tannhaüser, and Beethoven’s “Abschuelicher,” the crowning climax of Fidelio. Singing with utter assurance and impeccable diction, she could caress phrases even as she filled the tent with ringing sound.

As thrilling as those arias were, she achieved even more with the Strauss songs, where the drama of her opera experience lifted the long-spun melodies into something rich and ravishing. Of the four songs, the most breathtaking (in more ways than one) was “Frühlingsfeier,” with its cries of “Adonis, Adonis!” cutting through the swirling orchestra. (After that one she wondered aloud if she could have an oxygen tank.)

David Zinman revved up the orchestra into a roiling, surging band worthy of any opera pit. They opened the program with a beautifully paced Overture to Tannhaüser, which featured perfect horn work by the section led by Julie Landsman (a veteran of the Metropolitan Opera orchestra), and kicked off the second half with a competent but less inspired Invitation to the Dance by Weber (and caught a large portion of the audience clapping before the quiet coda).

Sunday’s Aspen Festival Orchestra concert found violinist Sarah Chang in better musical form for the Brahms Concerto in D major than in her assault on the Brahms sonata in an earlier concert. She was best in the delicate moments, especially in the the lovely Adagio. The interplay with the woodwinds, in particular oboist Elaine Douvas, couldn’t have been more charming. In the faster music, flinging her bow like a rapier and almost losing her balance when her tight pink dress interfered with her demonstrative body language, she showed a tendency to dig too hard on lower strings, robbing louder moments of finesse. She got straightforward, if uninflected, support from conductor James DePreist.

The conductor got more juice out of Nielsen’s glorious, life-affirming Symphony No. 4 “Inextinguishable,” which occupied the second half of the program. Early on, some of it slogged when it should have felt like it was gradually revving up, but the orchestra made up for that in the finale. The lengthy, superbly articulated perorations by the brass and a rousing duel between timpanists David Herbert and Thomas Stubbs, deployed across the stage from each other, created a uplifting finish.

In Friday’s concert, usually the purview of the Chamber Orchestra, the all-student Sinfonia got its moment in the spotlight. It did well with the main attraction, Unforgettable, a new concerto for two violins by George Tsontakis, longtime composer in residence at the festival. Sister violinists Angela and Jennifer Chun gave close attention to Tsontakis’ interweaving melodic lines and the orchestra responded to conductor Peter Oundjian with plush, sensitive playing behind them.

Tsontakis employs a soft-edged sound for this work, the harmonies reminiscent at times of a jazz ballad. The piece ambles along in a misty woods vein, the violins intertwining attractively, often immersed in the overall texture. One could want more contrast, however. Tempos vary only subtlely, and neither the melodic lines nor dynamics stretch much beyond the middle range.

The concert started off great with Verdi’s La forza del destino Overture, the orchestra catching much of the operatic flair. In Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7, which concluded the program, for some reason Oundjian adopted ultra-fast tempos. As a result, what should have been telling details flew by without inflection. Hardly a ritard could be felt. By the end, horns were bobbling left and right.

Students in the cello department delivered a big treat Saturday night. With 37 of them arrayed around the Harris Hall stage, “A Recital With Cellos” hit several highlights. Most compelling were three songs by Astor Piazzolla arranged by Derek Snyder, cellist in the tango band called The Oblivion Project. Conductor Eric Jacobsen, who played the Golijov piece on the percussion ensemble program earlier in the week, brought out the essential sway and color of the tango-infused music, especially in the slow “Canto de Octubre” and the gentle waltz “Chiquilín de Bachín.” Jacobsen also conducted Hymnus, a lovely chorale by Julius Klengel.

Villa-Lobos’ Bachianas Brasileiras No. 1 and No. 5, both written for an ensemble of eight cellos, got expanded to the full group for nicely articulated performances, especially the popular No. 5, which featured soprano Carla Janzen. Mezzo-soprano Jazimina MacNeil got saddled with a spiky, thorny piece for a smaller ensemble by George Benjamin. The dissonant music fit poorly with the rest of the program. Another contemporary work for a smaller group of cellos, Lament (In memory of Matthew Shepard), fared much better. I would love to hear that one again, and soon.

Harvey Steiman


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