Steiman: Busy Aspen Music Festival weekend sings convincingly

todayJuly 24, 2023 3

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Mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke sings Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde with the Festival Orchestra on Sunday, James Conlon conducting.
Diego Redel/Courtesy photo

Judging by what we have seen and heard about halfway through the Aspen Music Festival this year, the programming, level of performances and a fine balance of familiar and unfamiliar music are on track to be the richest we’ve heard here.

Changes in the opera and voice program, rebranded as Aspen Opera Theater and VocalARTS with the arrival in 2019 of star soprano Renée Fleming and conductor Patrick Summers as co-artistic directors, have much to do with that assessment. Talent level is up significantly among the four dozen singers and pianists on the cusp of opera careers. They seem to have been integrated more generally than before into the festival’s programming.

Voices played a role in all three major performances the past weekend, including majestic singing from mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke in Mahler’s “Das Lied von der Erde” (conducted by James Conlon in a return from several years’ absence from Aspen), two impressive “student” voices in a ravishing new work on Saturday afternoon’s chamber music, and an exciting semi-staged presentation of “Bel Canto,” Jimmy López Bellido’s big-boned opera based on the best-selling book by Ann Patchett.

Fleming championed the opera in her role as adviser to Lyric Opera of Chicago, and spearheaded efforts for Aspen to mount it for the first time since its debut in 2015.

With so many well-trained singers on hand, casting the many solo roles is also more feasible here than with professional opera companies. George Manahan, who is no stranger to operas here, conducted the Chamber Symphony (expanded with extra brass and woodwinds) to fill the music tent with the score’s expansive sound. There’s no way all this could fit into the tiny Wheeler Opera House.

It all came to fruition with a bang Friday in a performance with many positive aspects.

The story centers on a notorious 1996 incident in Lima, Peru, in which self-styled revolutionaries invaded a large party in the Japanese embassy and held dozens of dignitaries hostage, demanding justice for the poor, for 126 days before Peruvian forces intervened. Patchett’s novel tweaked the location to the vice president’s residence and introduced a visiting Japanese dignitary whose favorite opera singer is present to sing a song to him.

In Patchett’s story, and Nilo Cruz’s libretto, the thrown-together characters find a way to co-exist as they discover their adversaries are actually human. Friendships, even love, blossom. The fictional story is more heart-warming than the reality in 1996.

Soprano Katherine Henry portrays Roxane Coss, an opera diva caught in a hostage situation in “Bel Canto” Friday.
Blake Nelson/Courtesy photo

The second act pays off on the obvious operatic potential of a diva and a range of characters thrown together from various levels of society. After several weeks in the same space, there are love duets and a revealing series of solo arias that highlight individual personalities. López’s music differentiated a wide array of characters, aided by director Kevin Newbury, who also shaped the original production in Chicago.

A Russian diplomat awkwardly declares his love for the opera singer. One of the terrorists, Carmen, delivers a lovely prayer, and another, César, sings a touching soliloquy that realizes this situation can only end badly. One tangy sequence details simultaneous liaisons between the opera singer and the Japanese dignitary and another between his translator and the revolutionary soldier who sang the prayer. Eventually things come to a violent end for the terrorists and one of the hostages.

To get to that second half, however, López’s first act bombards the audience with the full power of the brass- and woodwind-heavy orchestra in music that seemed designed to make us feel like the hostages. It worked, but the dense orchestration also overbalanced the voices in conversational scenes, duets and arias.

Without supertitles all the Spanish, Japanese, Russian, German, French, Latin, Italian and Quechua sung (and occasionally spoken) by the characters would have been lost, but at least we should have heard their voices singing. Would the same orchestra have balanced better in an opera house pit instead of on-stage with the singers? Maybe, but someone dropped the ball getting things to work here in Aspen.

In the second half we could appreciate the rich soprano of Kathryn Henry as the opera diva Roxane Coss, the resonant bass-baritone of Yue Wu as the Japanese dignitary Katsumi Hosakawa, the commanding bass-baritone of Joseph Park as one of the two insurgent generals and the liquid elegance of countertenor Chuanyan Liu as César. Other standouts included tenor César Andrés Perreño as the translator Gen Watanabe, mezzo-soprano Ruby Dibble as Carmen, and baritone José Luis Maldonado as Father Arguedas, the jolly and often wise cleric.

Sunday’s concert in the tent included a lively, full-speed-ahead Mendelssohn Piano Concerto No. 2 by Lise de la Salle. Conlon kept the orchestra jumping, and nicely balanced with the pianist’s charming playing, in the composer’s lesser-performed concerto.

That was just a warmup for the Mahler’s massive song cycle, which Conlon reminded the audience he had conducted for the first time in his career 40 summers ago in Aspen. His experience and musicality yielded a superb pace and expressive phrasing from the orchestra. If its enthusiasm sometimes covered tenor Rodrick Dixon, who isn’t quite the heldentenor we usually hear in these songs, the three songs for mezzo-soprano were absolute jewels, especially the long, languid “Abschied” that finished the work on a note of breathtaking poignancy.

Saturday afternoon the Aspen Contemporary Ensemble delivered its most rewarding performance of the summer so far, first with Sarah Kirkland Snider’s “If you bring forth what is within you,” an orchestral suite of songs she wrote for “Blue Hour,” a collaboration of five women composers. The program concluded with “A Forest Unfolding,” a paean to forests and how they connect with each other, and us, written by David Kirkland Garner, Stephen Jaffe, Eric Moe and Melinda Wagner.

In its 30 minutes, “Forest” included three songs sung effortlessly by soprano Grace Lerew and baritone Dante Mireles, and four spoken sections quoting Thoreau to the Book of Job, voiced articulately by Fleming and novelist Richard Powers, underscored by the instrumental ensemble. The final section, from Power’s “Overstory,” finished with a sublime, ethereal musical summation penned by Garner.

Finally, Saturday night in Harris Hall bassists Edgar Meyer and Christian McBride completed a virtuoso trifecta for Aspen. Within one week we had incandescent performances from artists who are top-of-the-list in their fields — soprano Renée Fleming in recital with pianist Inon Barnatan, violinist Augustin Hadelich unaccompanied. Saturday’s concert brought together classical music’s leading bass player with jazz’s ace for 90 minutes of delicious collaboration.

Both of these musicians are more than mere bass players, of course. Both are composers, and their practiced improvisations reflect that sense of form and musical storytelling. Meyer’s roots in bluegrass made a smile-worthy match with McBride’s rhythmic foundation, so reminiscent of the jazz great Ray Brown, in Meyer tunes such “Green Slime,” “FRB,” and “Thanks” (the latter written for longtime Aspenite Marty Flug’s memorial).

McBride’s jazz chops settling into Bill Monroe’s “Tennessee Blues” with Meyer was especially delicious.

Their ventures into jazz standards produced some of the best moments. Meyer on piano accompanied McBride in a slyly slow “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” and both basses made a breathless race of “Solar,” made famous by Miles Davis. The stunning encore, a cool and slinky version of Davis’ “All Blues,” put a sensational cap on the evening.

They both can range high up the fingerboard to play in treble-clef range with ease. Where Meyer tended to bow his improvised solos, McBride played his pizzicato with jaw-dropping rapidity. If McBride’s bass lines tended toward the muscular, Meyer’s aimed for fluidity. It never got dull. Just bass heaven.

McBride also let slip that he and Meyer have recorded tracks for an upcoming album that will include some of the pieces they played Saturday.

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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Written by: Soft FM Radio Staff

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