Youthful pianists shine; Upshaw glows brighter

07.28.09
James Conlon
The Aspen Times

By Harvey Steiman

ASPEN - Pianists took the spotlight for the second consecutive weekend, with the two winners of the recent Van Cliburn competition playing recitals on Thursday and Saturday, and Joyce Yang burning up the Benedict Music Tent with a phenomenal Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No. 1 on Sunday. The most memorable solo turn, however, came from a singer. Soprano Dawn Upshaw mesmerized with melancholy Schubert songs in a serene setting by contemporary composer Osvaldo Golijov.

Upshaw's moment, in Golijov's She was here, a treatment of four songs by Schubert, highlighted an unusual program Friday night in the tent. Originally for voice and piano, they might have been depressing, but Upshaw's transcendent performance and the orchestration's many subtle colors made them emotionally uplifting. David Zinman led the Aspen Chamber Symphony in an elegant rendition.

That was nicely set up by Schubert's Symphony No. 3, written when the composer was 13. Reflecting Schubert's youth, the first half sounded a bit too much like "Country Gardens," but the rest called to mind the Schubert we know. Following intermission, Beethoven's rarely heard complete incidental music to the play "Egmont" pretty much proved why we usually hear only the famous overture. It's definitely Beethoven, but not his Class A stuff. Michael York's dramatic narration, meant to set the scene for the music, more or less overshadowed it, except for Upshaw's contribution, singing the two charming songs from the score. Throughout, Zinman drew many layers from the orchestra.

For sheer electricity, however, Sunday's concert would be hard to beat. James Conlon lit some kind of fire under the Aspen Festival Orchestra, which has been playing exceptionally well all season. Even a steady rain drumming on the tent could not dampen the firepower of Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 6 "Pathetique." It was a rip-snortin' performance all around, but the whole back row covered themselves in glory. The brass, from trumpet to tuba, punched without overdoing it, and shaped gorgeous chorales. Timpanist David Herbert, a superb addition this year from the San Francisco Symphony, demonstrated how critical that instrument can be.

Rachmaninov wrote his Concerto No. 1 while he was still a student (among his teachers was Tchaikovsky), and revised it 25 years later, tightening the structure and making the orchestration less density. It may lack the depth of his more oft-heard second and third concertos that pianists often use to show off. Yang pointedly avoided that, tackling it with just enough weight to keep it driving forward and plenty of finesse to keep it from becoming maudlin. She created spaciousness in the short slow movement, and managed the rapid contrasts in the fast outer movements by just playing them beautifully instead of trying to find profundity. It worked.

Four years ago, at the age of 19, Yang won the silver medal at the Van Cliburn competition, and has already developed a much-celebrated career. This year's Cliburn winners, who tied for the top prize, gave us ready points of comparison with each other in their recitals. They both opened with sets of Chopin miniatures, and chose additional works with dramatic fugues in them.

For me, Zhang came off as the more musical, more accomplished, more poetic pianist of the two, by a wide margin. He made each of the 24 short Chopin Preludes into a gem of slightly different hue and shape. Chopin's style came through clearly, with its delicate roulades and surging emotionalism. His sense of discipline never let things get out of hand, but he didn't hold back on the climaxes either.

In lesser hands Brahms' Variations and Fugue on a Theme by G.F. Handel can seem endless, but Zhang teased out one subtle nuance after another. The virtuoso variations stopped short of overpowering, and the grand fugue finale pulsed with vigor and clarity. The 19-year-old finished the program with a dazzling account of Liszt's Rhapsodie Espagnole. His encore was an expansion of a Chinese theme, rather like what Liszt might have done with it.

Tsujii, who has been blind since birth, presents a unique figure at the piano. As he plays his head bobs and weaves, swiveling right and left, often tucking itself into his right shoulder. At times he moves like Stevie Wonder. Rather than take time to settle in, as most pianists do, he plows from one movement to the next without a break. With every note in place, and little pedal, he favors quick tempos, often very fast. But it's muscular not fleet. Clearly, he has been coached well. But much of music came out mechanical and lacking in depth.

His Chopin, the 12 Études, did not surge. His Beethoven, the "Hammerklavier" Sonata, did not thunder, and the fugue got a bit smudgy. His best moments, to my ears, were the most delicate - particularly the grace of Chopin's Berceuse in D-flat major, the simplicity of the third etude, and his encore, the first movement of Beethoven's "Moonlight" Sonata, tender and yearning.