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Weekend’s programming, performances score big

07.22.08
Yefim Bronfman, Cho-Liang Lin, Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg
Aspen Times

Over the span of its nine weeks, the Aspen Music Festival comprises an enormous range of music. It’s hard enough to balance musical eras, the familiar vs. unfamiliar, challenging vs. easy-to-take, programmatic vs. abstract, broad vs. delicate, but matching the music with ensembles, conductors and soloists, and getting an interesting mix from day to day, seldom plays out as nicely as it has recently.

Festival president Alan Fletcher and artistic administrator Asadour Santourian, who programmed the satisfying events at the Aspen Music Festival over this past weekend, deserve as much credit as the performers who made the music. Not only were there links between the musical elements, but they related to this year’s theme of national storytelling in music.

Thursday evening we got the extraordinary young pianist Joyce Yang, who opened her program in the Tent with a virtuosic display on Lowell Liebermann’s 1989 finger-buster, Gargoyles, a modern piece that’s eminently listenable and lively. She followed that with Schumann’s 1835 Carnaval, a quirky collection of musical portraits all based on a single four-note cell. And after intermission, two redoubtable string players, violinist Cho-Liang Lin and cellist Andrew Shulman, joined her for Mendelssohn’s energetic Piano Trio No. 1, written in the same era but totally different in style.

Yang, a festival school alumna, has phenomenal technique but she seems more interested in delving into what the music has to say. Her body language as she got into the rhythms of the Liebermann piece and the balances of the Mendelssohn were telling. The clear-eyed, vivid and graceful music that emerged confirmed it. Too bad the tent was only sparsely occupied.

Conductor David Zinman opened the Chamber Symphony concert in the Tent Friday with a rough-edged rendition of the 1941 suite from Gianstera’s ballet Estancia, then segued into Peter Lieberson’s gorgeously melodic Neruda Songs, written in 2005 for his late wife, the mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, the Latin exuberance of the Ginastera giving way to lush Latin romanticism. After intermission, Balikirev’s brief but tuneful Overture on Themes of Three Russian Songs preceded Prokofiev’s high-intensity Piano Concerto No. 3.

Yefim Bronfman
was the piano soloist in the Prokofiev, and it was his best work of the past two weeks. Lacking nothing in energy, he spun out the fast, swirling parts of the music with deadly accuracy, panache and actual delicacy, then digging into the climax with enough power to light up the tent. There was plenty of delicacy to Kelley O’Connor’s singing in the Lieberson, although a little more attention to the words would have been welcome. After some flailing around trying to find unanimity in the rhythms of the Ginastera, the orchestra rose to the occasion for the rest of the program.

The Ying Quartet’s program Saturday night in Harris Hall opened with Haydn and closed with Mendelssohn, but in between they offered three delicacies that fold Chinese sounds into Western music. They called the segment “Musical Dim Sum” and it offered a range of fascinating music, including their playing pizzicato with guitar picks to emulate the sound of Chinese instruments. Gobi Gloria, written by Lei Lang in 2006, was especially arresting for its simplicity, soulfulness and sheer beauty.

The Haydn Quartet in G major, Op. 77 No. 1, had all the bounce and thrust one could want without losing the nimbleness and poise that are so important in Haydn. The members of the quartet play with astonishing accuracy and attention to detail without losing the vital energy of the music. That continued when violist Sabina Thatcher joined them in the Mendelssohn Quintet No. 2 in B flat. Programming the Mendelssohn here was a nice echo of the trio in Yang’s evening.

The connections among the pieces in Sunday’s Festival Orchestra concert in the Tent were less obvious, but conductor Murry Sidlin nailed it when he introduced Copland’s Billy the Kid suite by showing how the composer adapted western American folk music to the symphonic form. Along the way he made a reference to Tchaikovsky’s borrowing of folk music for his Symphony No. 1, which concluded the concert.

Both pieces got rousing performances, but the centerpiece of the day was the Argentinian tango composer Astor Piazzola’s Cuatro estaciones porteñas (The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires). In it, Piazzola borrowed some of his own superb tunes, and in his arrangement for solo violin and string orchestra, the same instrumentation as Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, Leonid Desyatnikov slipped in references to the familiar Baroque work. But this is rhythmic tango music first and foremost, and soloist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg threw herself into the fray for a memorable performance. Sidlin coaxed mostly idiomatic playing from the string orchestra.

On these programs, as with others this year, each piece had some reference point to others on the menu, something that did not hold true for programming in recent seasons. Also, last year the length of the music combined with chronically late starts often extended programs well beyond the two-hour mark. Although Sidlin’s talk pushed Sunday’s finish to 6:10, his demonstration was well worth it. This year, most programs have started within five minutes of the hour and consistently finished in two hours.