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Review: Solo efforts stand out in a final weekend of theatrics

August 22, 2016

The final weekend of the Aspen Music Festival demonstrated some of the unique resources that make this musical event what it is. There was plenty going on before Sunday’s grand finale in the Benedict Music Tent of an outsized orchestra, visiting choruses and vocal soloists doing Carl Orff’s “Carmina Burana.”

A theatrical and exciting orchestral concert Friday climaxed with a flamenco-rich performance of Manuel de Falla’s “El Amor Brujo” after an enthusiastic audience welcomed a world premiere with smiles instead of grimaces.

Splendid guest artists delivered a thoughtful piano recital with dazzling artistry. And the festival’s faculty artists were on display, and not only in the orchestral concerts, where professionals from orchestras, ensembles and conservatories play alongside students. A chamber-music program Saturday afternoon in Harris Hall included a touching new piece in tribute of a former colleague. And a special event Saturday night paired star bassist and composer Edgar Meyer with jazz giant Christian McBride in a magnificent display of crosscurrent musical artistry.

Inon Barnatan’s program applied his dynamic pianism to pieces paired with the works that inspired them. First came a demonstration of contrapuntal complexity over two centuries with George Frideric Handel’s “Chaconne” in G major followed by Johannes Brahms’ Variations and Handel’s Fugue on a Theme, which layers Romantic-era broadness with Handel’s crispness.

To finish, Maurice Ravel’s “Gaspard de la Nuit” got a superbly painted performance, in which the pianist focused on shaping the finger-busting technique into finely drawn emotional darts. In “Glow,” the piece Barnatan commissioned to precede it, composer Sebastian Currier created miniature musical evocations of light emerging from darkness. The slower, quieter parts - especially the opening “Moonlight” and the closing “Embers” - came together more solidly than the faster, louder, jerkier music of “Strobe” or “Fireworks.”

Pianist Marc-Andre Hamelin delivered jaw-dropping performances Saturday evening of Skryabin’s Piano Sonata No. 7 “White Mass” and Frederic Chopin’s Sonata in B minor, putting his technical command in service of expressive music.

Theatricality was the order of the day in Friday’s chamber-orchestra concert. Conductor Cristian Macelaru opened with the Argentine composer Alberto Ginastera’s “Variaciones Concertantes,” bringing out the subtle colors and gentle rhythms. The premiere, “Typhoid Mary,” a set of songs on poems by Paul Muldoon, cast the rich-voiced mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsey as a balladeer telling the story from the unfortunate Mary Mallon’s point of view.

Composer Mohammed Fairouz channeled Irish musical tropes for simple melodies and harmonies with steady rhythms that follow the pulse of the simple poetry. As accompaniment for the mezzo-soprano’s lines, the music had grace and the sort of rough-and-tumble color that Kurt Weill applied to his “Threepenny Opera.” Except for brief introductions and endings, however, he chose not to use the orchestra to comment further on the protagonist’s tale. A few extended passages would have been welcome. In sum, though, this is a serious work that alludes to the fallout from contagious diseases today, and it’s a crowd-pleaser.

For sheer theatricality, however, nothing this season can top the staging of “El Amor Brujo.” Combining the familiar ballet with material Falla wrote for an early version, including more songs, the expanded production uses the Siudy Flamenco Dance Theater not only for a prelude to introduce the main characters (accompanied by guitarist Jose Luis de la Paz, who wrote the introductory music, and percussionist Diego Alvarez) but to add true flamenco flavor to the entire dance-story. Flamenco singer Argentina voiced the songs with a combination of raw power and finesse.

The orchestra joined in when Falla’s music kicked in, executing with Iberian charm and rhythmic vitality. The final sequence, starting with the famous “Ritual Dance of Fire,” the plaintive song “Will-o-the-Wisp” and the “Dance of the Game of Love,” cranked up the excitement level right through to the rousing finish.

It has been nine years since Edgar Meyer, a festival favorite, first shared a stage with Christian McBride nine years ago, revealing a mutual technical brilliance and a synergy of their individual musical languages that was utterly magical. This time, in a joint presentation Saturday by the festival and Jazz Aspen Snowmass at the Aspen Art Museum, was more of the same, the comfort level between the two even higher.

The playlist was a melange of jazz standards, tunes from the American songbook and a few original pieces by both. Meyer’s predilection for high-flying melodic gestures that could sound like someone let a violin into the mix played against McBride’s solid walking-bass foundation, creating a broader range of sound that you might expect from two basses. When Meyer was providing the low-end foundation, it created a more delicate texture, with McBride favoring midrange, jazz-flavored solo lines.

To change things up, Meyer laid down his bass and played subtle chords with a gentle pulse for McBride on “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered.” McBride returned the favor for his own ballad, “Lullaby for a Ladybug,” with Meyer intoning the charming tune and expanding upon it. The solo of the night (at least in the first of two sets) was McBride, who developed the harmonic progressions of “Fly Me to the Moon” against a juicy groove for eight minutes before he finally finished with the melody.

The final faculty chamber-music recital of the season Saturday afternoon included “Of Deborah, for Deborah,” a piece by Joel Hoffman for string trio and harp. He wrote it after the 2014 death after a lingering lung ailment of his sister, Deborah Hoffman, longtime harpist for the Metropolitan Opera orchestra, who played regularly in Aspen. Heartfelt, it also had an edge, outlining the arc of Deborah’s life in music, unblinking as breathing becomes more labored and single-noted at the end. Bing Wang (violin), James Dunham (viola), Brinton Smith (cello) and Nancy Allen (harp) did their late colleague proud.

NOT TO MISS IN THE COMING DAYS

Music lovers who remain in town this week can enjoy three concerts by the Pittsburgh Symphony on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday evenings in the music tent, a sort of lagniappe for the festival’s season. My pick of the three programs would be Wednesday’s, with Michael Rusinek playing Wolfgang Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto in A major and conductor Manfred Honeck putting down the pedal for Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 in C-sharp minor.

Harvey Steiman has been writing about the Aspen Music Festival for 22 years.