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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Concert Review: A Postcard from the Rockies

The Complete Aspen Music Festival and School (abridged) at Subculture.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Star, wood in Aspen. Conductor Robert Spano in the Rockies.
Photo by Michael Brands © 2013 Aspen Music Festival.
It is no mean feat to pack the entire intent and purpose of a major summer music and educational festival into an entertaining four-part program lasting just two hours, but that was the feat attempted Wednesday night as The Complete Aspen Music Festival (Abridged) arrived at Subculture.

With its intimate atmosphere, barrel-arched ceiling and warm vibe, this funky downtown downstairs performing arts space was an ideal venue for this concert, which combined Romantic and modern chamber music with a short masterclass given by former Metropolitan Opera star (and current professor at Bard College) Dawn Upshaw. Stressing the importance of music and education, the 65-year old Aspen Festival showed itself at its very best as one of this country's most important breeding grounds for young musicians.

The concert opened with the New York premiere of Edges by Luke Carlson. Written for string quartet (here: Fabiola Kim and Julia Choi, violins, Alexander Knecht, viola and cellist Patrick Hopkins)  this single-movement work is constructed around a descending three-note motif, the work uses unconventional bowing styles, snapped and plucked strings and a strong sense of rhythm to carry its message across. The work moves from a tense beginning to a gentle, surprisingly lyric central section, before ramping the pressure back up in its final pages.

For the "master class" portion of the evening, Ms. Upshaw worked with Pureum Jo, a promising young soprano at Juilliard. They started with a performance of "Violon", a sighing chanson by François Poulenc, with a slinky, sensual vocal line. Following the song, Ms. Upshaw recommended that Ms. Jo take a more intimate, soulful approach to the material, and to get out of the stiff "concert" mindset and focus her energies on her accompanist for the benefit of the audience, not just on the listeners present. This advice seemed to enhance the second performance of the song.

Ms. Jo followed with a lovely "Ach' ich fuls" with accompanist Kenneth Merrill playing the simple. elegant orchestration in piano transcription. Pamina was a trademark of Ms. Upshaw's early performing career, and her advice was to focus on the text and drive home the descending, sighing motif that holds the aria together. With no time left for a complete second performance, Ms. Jo repeated the last section of the aria, focusing on certain key details with Ms. Upshaw's help.

Following a brief panel discussion it was time for the Brahms Piano Quintet in F, played an ad hoc ensemble featuring Robert Spano at the piano with  David Halen, William Hagen, Benjamin Lash and Masao Kawasaki,. This is one of Brahms' richest chamber pieces, with four complex, symphonic movements. Melodic lines are tossed  from instrument to instrument as with a large orchestra. Mr Spano's piano provided both flights of lyric instrumentation and crucial rhythmic support. Eloquent phrasing in the violas and cellos are essential here, with short musical motifs forming the building blocks of the larger movements.

The evening started with new music and ended with new music. The piece, Delirious Distortion by Sayo Kosugi  was a workout for solo violin, a swirling bit of instrumental turbulence played with fire and energy by Ms. Kim. Following this brief, entertaining encore, the assembled audience, press and musicians made for the bar to mingle and discuss matters musical, but that's not material for publication.

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