Steiman: a mix of crowd pleasers during the weekend at the music festival

Aspen Music Festival and School

A generous helping of crowd-pleasing pieces, snazzy piano playing on multiple gigs, and stellar work from the principals of Sunday’s Festival Orchestra program provided satisfying musical treats this past weekend.

On the solo stage, the star was Joyce Yang, who worked her way through Prokofiev’s highly energetic and dissonant C Major Piano Concerto No. 3 with an incredible level of lyricism and joy in the sunny parts. A regular visitor to the Aspen Festival even before her career took off, Yang always brings it. To his credit, guest conductor Thomas Wilkins went on, rarely letting the orchestra dominate the piano (an impressive feat in this busy score), and they all brought things to an uplifting climax at the end.

His encore turned to another Russian composer for a lyrical balm, a fiery and heartfelt rendition of Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in D Major, Op.23 No.4.

In a way, Symphony No. 9 in E minor by Dvořák From the New World wrapped around the concerto. The opening, “American”, was composer James Lee III’s response to the Czech composer’s piece. Dvořák was inspired by music he heard while visiting the United States in the late 19th century, which he attributed (with some curious overlap) to Native Americans and Blacks.

Lee’s piece opened with a long flute solo that mimicked Native American tropes, played hauntingly by lead flute Nadine Asin. Later, he quoted a few bars from the symphony and, weaving a Negro spiritual into the final bars, asked questions about how the music of these cultures actually plays against each other.

Wilkins, who conducts the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra in Los Angeles, made Lee’s piece quietly ruminate and reach several moving highs, even if the elements didn’t always mesh. In the symphony he imposed fast tempos in the outer movements but let the famous Largo unfold at a relaxed pace. The English horn solo, played by Wentao Jiang, went off gracefully. The small choir of first rank stringed instruments added beautiful colors.

Throughout the symphony the dynamic contrasts were particularly pleasing and there was resounding work from the entire brass section. Edward Stephan’s timpani held the pulse. Concertmaster Alexander Kerr was particularly active, bringing the rest of the orchestra together.

At the Saturday afternoon chamber music concert, the renowned pianist was Anton Nel, who anchored a golden moment when a quintet of artist teachers breathed freshness and delight into the Piano Quintet in A major. by Schubert. It is colloquially referred to as “The Trout”, since Schubert used his song of the same name as a springboard for a series of ever more complex variations.

The instrumentation uses just one violin instead of the traditional two, and adds extra depth with a double bass, played by Timothy Pitts. He, Kathleen Winkler (violin) and Brinton Smith (cello) all teach at Rice University in Houston, and Anton Nel directs the piano program at the University of Texas. Stephen Wyrczynski teaches viola at Indiana University, and they all perform as soloists as well.

This band did what chamber music is supposed to do, create an amiable back and forth while throwing in the tough parts without batting an eyelid. Also on this program, violinist Naoko Tanaka and pianist Hung-Kuan Chen found serenity in Takemitsu’s delicate yet harmonically piquant duet, Hika (elegy).

Unfortunately, this kind of high-level musical creation was missing from Friday’s Aspen Chamber Orchestra program. The program had the makings of a perfect summer evening – a certified crowd pleaser in Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 4 Italian, a local debut for a singer who enjoyed resounding success last season at the Metropolitan Opera, and a new piece by Gabriel Kahane written for his father, pianist and conductor Jeffrey Kahane. Alas, nagging details bogged him down.

by Mahler Songs of a Traveler got a sensitive reading from the orchestra, but Will Liverman sang most of it with a sharp stentorian edge that went against the lyrical music (which is, after all, about nature and regret). The baritone, who was brilliant at the Met’s Fire locked in my bones last season in New York, strained against the melodies of Mahler. (The song cycle was the source for Mahler’s Symphony No. 1, which fared much better under Robert Spano a few weeks ago.)

Legacy, essentially a 30-minute piano concerto, got a suitably lively performance from orchestra and pianist, but the piece itself lacked cohesion. It was like digging through a collection of private musical references with no apparent structure to form a message.

All hands had the right idea in Mendelssohn’s familiar symphony, but the execution was spotty. The very first phrase took a few rehearsals before it fell into place. The finale never got all the fast notes articulated.

Conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya, one of the first graduates of Aspen’s conducting academy when David Zinman and Murry Sidlin founded it in 2000, gave it his all with demonstrative physical gestures, but the music never really gelled.


Two of the most anticipated concerts of the season take place this week. Opera fans certainly have Thursday circled on their calendars for Mozart’s Don Giovanni in a semi-staged performance in the Music Tent. Jane Glover, who knows Mozart’s operas like no one else, conducts. And on Friday night, cellist Alisa Weilerstein returns to Aspen to play Saint-Saëns’ cello concerto.

Harvey Steiman has been writing about the Aspen Music Festival for 29 years. His reviews appear Tuesdays and Saturdays in The Aspen Times.