A weekend of stretching classical music boundaries


John Luther Adams applauds a performance of his ‘An Atlas of Deep Time’ Sunday at the music tent
Diego Redel/Courtesy photo

Over the past few days, concert goers at the Aspen Music Festival heard a Chinese composer’s piece for piano and orchestra that swerved from celestial beauty to agonizing noise, a saxophonist who delineated music by composers from Baroque to Björk with a pop artist’s flair, Wynton Marsalis’ delightful jazz-infused version of a Stravinsky classic, and a 45-minute rumination of the history of time that spread sections of the orchestra around the perimeter of the music tent.

Can’t say the music festival is doing the same-old, same-old. And most of it delivered the goods with ear-pleasing virtuosity.

The marquee event was John Luther Adams’ “An Atlas of Deep Time,” which opened Sunday’s Festival Orchestra program with a redefinition of “world music.” Literally, the composer intended to immerse the audience in the earth’s history, from the planet’s formation to now. Like his “Crossing Open Ground,” which took place outside the music tent before the previous Sunday’s concert, it bypassed the usual hierarchy of melody-harmony-rhythm, instead using the sonic elements of music to create an immersive experience.

A sort of rumbling, sound-shifting meditation, it stacked clusters of chords, played with dynamics and situated separate sections to resonating around the space with surround sound. Messiaen, a 20th century composer who famously derived his music from bird song and representations of vastness (I kept thinking of his “From the Canyons to the Sky”), would have loved it. Musicians I talked with at intermission did not. “I tried, but after 10 minutes of the same chord I couldn’t,” one said. Some civilians loved the hypnotic aspects of it. It’s all in what you expect from music.

The second half gave conductor David Robertson more traditional music to work with. Listeners could appreciate the lush melodies of Chausson’s “Poème,” played with silvery precision by Luna Choi, winner of last year’s vioin competition, and revel in Debussy’s vivid scene-painting in “La Mer,” both conducted with Robertson’s clearly delineated approach and expressive body language.

Saturday’s recitals in Harris Hall challenged performers to venture into more music at the edges of what we usually think of as “classical,” and they rose to the demands brilliantly.

Composer Nico Muhly and saxophonist Jess Gillam bask in applause for their U.S. debut of his ‘Pressure of Speech’ in Harris Hall Saturday
Blake Nelson/Courtesy photo

In her evening program British saxophonist Jess Gillam proved she can meet the virtuosic demands of a Baroque oboe concerto transcribed note-for-note for soprano sax, and apply the same techniques to modern music written or arranged for her. The ad hoc ensemble of student musicians that backed her—a string quintet plus piano and percussion—executed pieces that relied on reels and other dance music with apparent ease.

Clad in a bright blue pants suit and rhinestone-adorned shoes, Gillam connected with the audience with a welcoming energy and dazzled with her playing. Fast-moving acrobatic lines and soft, long-breathed soft melodies emerged gracefully, with sweet tone. Highlights included a new piece, “Pressure of Speech” by American composer Nico Muhly, co-commissioned by the festival. He conducted the lively nine-minute piece that juggled several genres for Gillam on alto sax.

The Björk song “Venus as a Boy” got a jazz overlay in an arrangement by John Metcalfe, who also arranged film composer Riu Sakamoto’s serene “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence.” Even better were rhythmically vital pieces such as “Shine You No More” (an up-tempo version of a slow song by the 16th century composer John Dowland) and the evening’s rousing closer, “Rant!” by John Harle (who has collaborated with Paul McCartney).

The Saturday afternoon recital usually starts with a prickly contemporary work and moves on to a string quartet or piano trio, but this time opened a few eyes with another piece by John Luther Adams and a remarkable theatrical work by Wynton Marsalis.

Adams’ serene “there is no one, not even the wind” (from 2017) filled the hall with gentle sounds of sustained sonorities from strings, a clarinet, and percussion, played with infinite patience and delicacy.

A trumpet virtuoso and composer who excels in both jazz and classic idioms Marsalis adapted Stravinsky’s groundbreaking “Histoire du soldat” for his 1998 “A Fiddler’s Tale,” using the same instrumentation as Stravinsky’s to go with a new script by the renowned jazz commentator Stanley Crouch (in a decidedly Black idiom). Stravinsky’s soldier battling the Devil for his violin is replaced with a cautionary tale about a musician hankering for fame, which the Devil, posing as a music mogul, obliges.

Conducted by veteran percussionist Jonathan Haas with appropriate sass, the mixture of faculty and students delivered Marsalis’ jazz-infused score brilliantly. Formidable violinist Alex Kerr soloed with style, Stuart Stephenson got funky on his trumpet solos and Edward Stephan kept the rhythm going smartly on drums. Students, especially bass player Michael Zogaib, kept up marvelously.

Two members of the Aspen Opera Theater and VocalARTS — mezzo-soprano Adja Thomas as the narrator and tenor Justin E. Bell as the Devil — carried the extensive spoken parts, portraying several characters effectively.

Friday’s Chamber Symphony Concert was a mixed bag, from an exotic first half to a crisply shaped Brahms Symphony No. 2. The only fully realized piece was a 1918 bonbon of nature-painting by Lili Boulanger, a French composer who died young in the shadow of her much more famous sister, Nadia, a mentor to great composers. “D’un matin de printemps,” a seven-minute tone poem, describes a spring morning in beautifully orchestrated, evocative music. Maurice Cohn, assistant conductor for the festival who led that juicy evening of John Williams’ film music, caught the breeze perfectly.

An odd duck of a piano and orchestra piece, from the onetime child prodigy Peng-Peng Gong, followed. Now 31 years old, he has created a stately stage presence and still can attack the piano formidably. His own composition, “Late Bells Concertante,” started enticingly, with a single note tolling and flourishes growing around it, first on the piano, eventually with the full orchestra. It ended with a meditative, restful variation on the tolling, similar to, yet different enough, to reflect a good composer’s sensibilities.

But then there was a vastly different middle part. The program note said it represented a prodigy’s frustrations and pressures. The orchestra exploded into dizzying layers of dissonance so loud that an apparently complex piano part disappeared into the storm clouds. Thankfully, it all ebbed into a lovely finish. With a re-written middle section, this could be a heck of a piece.

Brahms Symphony No. 2 occupied the second half, Cohn delineating the composer’s individual episodes with an impressive array of tonal colors and clearly defined rhythms. If the various gestures didn’t quite flow smoothly from one to the next, there was much to appreciate in the clarity of these episodes.

Harvey Steiman has been writing about the Aspen Music Festival for 30 years. His reviews appear Tuesdays and Saturdays in The Aspen Times.

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