Review: Shaham goes deep for emotional jolt in concerto

07.23.11
Gil Shaham
The Aspen Times

By Harvey Steiman

ASPEN — Violinist Gil Shaham has done some phenomenal playing here in Aspen, including recent concerts involving concertos by Walton, Bartók and Stravinsky, but Thursday night's performance of K.A. Hartmann's 1939 Concerto funèbre in Harris Hall topped them all. It was an anguished cry from the depth of his soul, the violin a ideal vehicle for expressing its eloquence.

The concerto was written in Germany as Hitler began to run roughshod over Europe by annexing Czechoslovakia. Those first melodic lines quote a Czech hymn, and one could feel the tears as Shaham played them, gradually broadening and shaping the line into something infinitely moving. With conductor Vasily Petrenko urging an ad hoc student string orchestra into a richly detailed background, Shaham delivered playing over the concerto's 22 minutes that was as expressive as it was impeccably played, throughout the entire range of the instrument.

After that, Haydn's Violin Concerto in G Major provided a welcome lift. Playing it with a conductor-less orchestra, Shaham supplied 20 minutes of pure happiness, the musicians appearing to enjoy it every bit as much as he did. For a finale, Petrenko led a full-throated, broad-beamed performance of Tchaikovsky's Serenade for Strings. Perhaps it could have used a bit more grace and a bit less emphasis, but it wore its heart on its sleeve and filled Harris Hall with rich sound. It brought a smile like a warm, eager-to-please golden retriever. The students played like champions. And yes, that was Julia Fischer playing in the second chair, turning the pages for concertmaster Ben Ohdner.

Tuesday night's Baroque Evening, hosted by violinist Daniel Hope, came perilously close to a pops concert — Pachelbel's Canon in D and Bach's “air for G string”? — but enthusiastic and often virtuosic music-making made for a vivid and smile-worthy concert. Much of the virtuosity came from violinist Stefan Jackiw, who proved himself as adept at Vivaldi and Bach as he was at Copland and Brahms in his recital last Saturday. Mostly, he played second fiddle to Hope, who did some especially beautiful playing in a Telemann concerto. A mostly student ensemble kept the momentum flying.

On Wednesday, the Concert Orchestra gave the first Aspen performance of “After a Reading of King Lear,” by the festival's president, Alan Fletcher. It begins with a chord played by three string basses in their highest range, which provides a haunting signature moment that recurs several times, including at the very end. The music in between veers between stridency, calm and silence. It did not flow seamlessly, and it was hard to tell if that was intentional or if there were problems with performance.

Later that evening, the Jupiter Quartet began its odyssey through all 16 of Beethoven's string quartets. Their performance of Op. 18 No. 1, Op 59 No. 3 and Op. 127 was long on zeal and short on accuracy. They really went for it, creating an exciting buzz, but missing many details. The quest continues tonight.

For its first offering of the summer, the Opera Theater Center mounted an intelligently conceived production of Britten's “A Midsummer Night's Dream,” impressive for some of the best playing by a pit orchestra here in recent memory. Under the baton of Jane Glover (who knew Britten personally), the instrumental music emerged distinctly and connected with every moment in the opera. The ensemble (all students except for concertmaster David Halen) played idiomatically, colorfully and executed with precision. Worthy of special mention are the hellishly difficult solo trumpet fanfares associated with the character of Puck, played by Douglas Lindsay.

Onstage, the bamboo-studded set evoked the mystery, magic and timelessness of Shakespeare's forest. Some costumes were clever, including a Hippolyta done up like Kate Middleton and a set of lovers looking like they wandered in from a lawn party in the Hamptons. The rustics wore tool belts, which worked just fine. But Oberon (counter tenor Biraj Barkakaty) and Tytania (soprano Teiya Kasahara) were clad mostly in black and the fairies in long, dark coats. Tytania and the four lead fairies balanced enormously tall and wide hairpieces. With her long metal nails Tytania (the queen of the fairies) looked like an unholy amalgam of Turandot, the Queen of the Night and the Bride of Frankenstein.

There were some strong voices in the cast, heard in Monday's second and final performance, most notably Adrian Rosas, who wielded a focused, colorful baritone as Bottom; Alexey Sayapin, whose bright and piercing tenor made for a compelling Lysander, and Kasahara as a steely-voiced Tytania who had no trouble with the fierce coloratura. Oberon's music seemed to lie a bit low for Barkakaty, but he sounded fine when the line rose.

Taylor Walsh, a tenor in the program, cavorted and scampered, climbing all over the set in the speaking role of Puck, whose lines often serve as narrative. Britten's perfectly tuned music is an equal narrator. At the end of brilliantly played and sung Act III, all the characters complete their arcs and the rustics present their woebegone play to the composer's sharp parody of bel canto opera music. And then, as the fairies' final chorus caresses our ears with a calming balm, there was a sense that it couldn't have been better.

Not to miss in the coming days
Sunday's Festival Orchestra Concert in the tent features Christopher Rouse's wild and woolly percussion concerto, “Der Geritte Alberich,” played by Scottish sensation Colin Currie and conducted by Aspen regular Marin Alsop. As long as we're thinking big, why not begin with Wagner's “Ride of the Valkyries” and finish with Prokofiev's Fifth Symphony? Done. Monday's chamber music concert in Harris Hall features Michelle DeYoung, perhaps the world's leading dramatic mezzo-soprano, in a series of Brahms songs, Elizabeth Buccheri on piano.