Aspen Music Festival review: A flying start for Esther Yoo; saxophone concerts to spice up the weekend

American violinist Esther Yoo made her memorable Aspen recital debut Tuesday at Harris Hall, finding new interpretations in sonatas by Debussy and Grieg, introducing the captivating music of Korean composer Jeong Kyu Park and, along the way, applying the technique of bravery with the clear purpose of delivering the message of the music rather than boasting.

The music seemed to go straight from Yoo’s heart to the audience’s.

Debussy’s Violin Sonata was brimming with interpretive ideas that brought out both the French flavor of the lyrical melodies and the juicy spiciness of some of the harmonies, all in one piece. Soloist and pianist Zee Zee (both members of ZEN Trio) clicked smoothly at every turn of the music.

Grieg’s Violin Sonata No. 3 in C minor was equally lovely. Yoo and Zee captured the northern aspects of the music saturated with folksongs, made it dance nimbly in the softer sections, draw long lines in the slow movements and reach impressive heights in the upbeat finale.

Although Yoo playing on the opening work, Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No. 8 in G major, was fine, this interpretation seemed studied, at least compared to the others. (Zee’s soft touch in this music didn’t help).

“Toad,” Park’s six-minute essay on a mournful children’s song, found Yoo and Zee exploring the expressive range of both instruments. It was a dazzling. Yoo’s ability to seamlessly transition from lyrical smoothness to stunning technical brilliance, especially in the instrument’s high-end music, paid off here. This combination was particularly evident in the final piece, Vieuxtemps’s finger take on “Yankee Doodle”. The late replacement of a scherzo by Tchaikovsky ended the program with humor and flair.

The encore was Park’s sensitive arrangement of the tender Korean folk song “Miyang Arirang” which turned into a jazzy dazzle. It made a lovely dessert.

Wednesday’s special event at Harris Hall featured soprano Renée Fleming and baritone Rod Gilfry, who did so well on Sunday in a George O’Keeffe-inspired song cycle with the Aspen Festival Orchestra. This time they delivered an hour of Broadway songs with panache.

Opera and Broadway singers are no strangers to each other. Fleming starred in “Carousel” for five months on Broadway in 2018. Gilfry portrayed Emile de Becque in Lincoln Center Theater’s touring production of “South Pacific” from 2009 to 2011, a role originated by bass Ezio Pinza in 1949 .

With Fleming and Gilfry already in town to sing with the Aspen Chamber Symphony on Friday, it was a no-brainer for the festival to force them to play an evening of Broadway classics (and some choice rarities) for the fundraiser. And indeed, they seemed as thrilled to do it as the entire audience was to hear it.

As Fleming noted in his welcome, unlike today’s Broadway composers who write for amplified voices, mid-twentieth-century composers including Richard Rodgers, Frederick Loewe, George Gershwin, and Frank Loesser, ” have written for voices like ours.

Early on, Gilfry struck the balance between crooning and full lyrical climaxes in Lerner and Loewe’s “Almost Like Being in Love,” and when Fleming joined in the duo’s second half, she was on the same page. . Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Some Enchanted Evening” showed the nuances and depth of understanding Gilfry gained while singing the role it was written for. He was just as confident and suave in the Gershwin Brothers’ “Embraceable You.”

Gilfry sang his solo numbers – “Joey, Joey, Joey” by Loesser and “By Strauss” by the Gershwins – with magnificent tone and understanding. For his part, Fleming delivered a nice mix pairing “Winter” with “Love and Love Alone”, songs written by John Kander for Chita Rivera in “The Visit” (2018), and a wry, self-deprecating piece by Andrew Lippa. , who wrote “Diva” for her to sing at a women’s support concert in 2020.

Rodgers’ Ageless Duos are even better. “People Will Say We’re In Love” received sly reading from the singers, and “Climb Every Mountain” managed to avoid declamatory excesses in the program’s finale.

The festival’s musical director, Robert Spano, showed a real affinity for the rhythms and ebbs and flows of these songs, even punctuating the first encore with juicy interpolations. The singers dropped laugh-worthy asides as they practiced Irving Berlin’s “Anything You Can Do.” For a final encore, they sang the waltz scene from Lehar’s operetta “The Merry Widow” (in the German original, not the many English translations). After all, it was an opera audience, and they responded enthusiastically to the heightened musical style.

Thursday’s Pacifica Quartet recital was a weird one, centering on Jennifer Higdon’s “1993 Voices for String Quartet,” a weird duck that the Pacifica has championed over the years. They sandwiched this piece with relatively rarely heard works by Haydn and Dvořák. The set, usually exemplary in its technical realization, stumbled a few times along the way. They also seemed to overemphasize musical gestures, creating an unsettling evening.

Highlights include the second movement of the Haydn Quartet in C major op. 20 no. 2, with its grand monophonic statement leading into a broad Adagio. It happened with a freshness that the busy first move didn’t quite get. The second movement of the quartet in A-flat major Dvořák (the last that the composer completed), a furious Czech dance at a breakneck pace, came to life with great zest.

The Higdon began with an all-out onslaught of biting dissonance and pounding rhythm, which faded into softer, more musical language in the second movement, turning into a long moment of serenity in the finale. It had the effect of going to a destination, something that too many compositions in the 1990s were hesitant to do, but, for me, the payoff wasn’t quite enough.

The encore, however, hit all the right notes. The simple, exquisite Andante Moderato from the String Quartet in G major by mid-20th-century black composer Florence Price was played with a sense of calm and emotional clarity, fashioned from simple fabric rather than elegance of the classical era or an angular modernity. It was good.


A few world premieres by saxophonists spice up this weekend. Today’s chamber music concert at Harris Hall features ‘Cries, Sighs and Dreams’, written and performed by saxophonist Steven Banks, and Sunday’s Festival Orchestra program in the tent opens with ‘Back’ , by Shelley Washington. Pianist Inon Barnatan appears in both programs, playing Schumann’s Piano Quartet in E flat today and Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini tomorrow, conducted by Ludovic Morlot. Pianist Lise de la Salle’s tasty program on Monday stretches from Ravel to Art Tatum with stops along the way for Falla, Piazzolla and Ginastera.

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

Gerald R. Schneider