“Switzerland in America”

By Sedgwick Clark

That’s how Werner Klemperer described Aspen to me when he was performing at the town’s noted music festival in the early ’80s. When I arrived in Aspen to cover the Music Festival’s 1977 summer season for Musical America (December ’77), the town’s first stoplights had been installed recently, riling old timers who saw their community threatened by traffic and chain stores. Much had changed in Aspen when I dropped in for an all-too-short stay a few weeks ago. Stop lights are everywhere now, and dire warnings of “charging moose” dot the local papers. So we set out at dusk for the Maroon Bells mountain range, one of their favorite spots. One walked past us nonchalantly about 30 feet away to frolic in Maroon Lake. Seemed less dangerous than the bear my sister chased out of her kitchen down by the Roaring Fork River last year.

The festival had built a new chamber-music hall in 1993 and renovated its music tent in 1999 since I was last there. I attended a concert in each venue and was pleased to find that the solo artists were all Musical America honorees.

At first glance the programming seemed awfully tame compared with the more adventurous seasons of yore. But upon perusal of the program booklet I saw that the 2014 theme is “New Romanticism.” Fair enough—I have nothing against Romanticism, and there’s a reason it’s such an audience pleaser.

Pianist Wu Han and cellist David Finckel (MA Musicians of the Year, 2012) have been concertizing as a piano trio with Emerson String Quartet (MA Ensemble of the Year, 2000) violinist Philip Setzer for many years, but it took a visit to Aspen to hear them at last. Their performances of Beethoven’s Op. 1, No. 2, Shostakovich’s Second Piano Trio, and Dvořák’s Dumky Trio were up to snuff for these fine musicians, bathed in the 500-seat Harris Concert Hall’s well-nigh ideal balance of spaciousness and presence. Wu Han’s tone, in particular, had a pearly warmth not always evident in New York’s dryer Alice Tully Hall acoustic, where she often plays as co-director, with husband Finckel, of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. Perhaps the difference also reflects Rocky Mountain mellow vs. Manhattan edge.

It’s hard to imagine that such excellent acoustics would be clothed in such an unappealing edifice, however. Whatever architect Harry Teague had in mind—blending into the mountains, rusticity, or the obvious, a half-sunken garage—it’s just perplexing. Start with the entrance: It’s a garage door! (Read that sentence in the exasperated tones of The Daily Show’s Lewis Black.) One descends two sets of stairs lined with gray fabric to a cramped, rectangular lobby, painted a queasy shade of yellow. Yuck. We’ll just call the building Nouveau Garage and be happy with the blissful acoustics.

The sound in the main music tent used to be distant and dessicated, so I always tried to find a seat down front. It’s still a mite distant from the middle of row P, but the sound is clear, warm, and tonally refulgent. Those Aspen Chamber Symphony double basses really projected. And the tent is pretty too. Bravo!

Festival Music Director Robert Spano (MA Conductor of the Year, 2008) led fine, well played, if a bit impersonal, performances of Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture and the Fifth Symphony. More crackling electricity in the overture and rhetorical tightening of tempo in the symphony’s coda would have been welcome. But there were many insightful touches along the way, including the positively spooky winds in the bridge passage connecting the third and fourth movements—perfect! In Bartók’s Second Violin Concerto, Gil Shaham (MA’s Instrumentalist of the Year, 2012) made much of the glissandos and, with Spano’s superb collaboration, coaxed innumerable fresh details and ravishing pianissimos from the piece. A great performance.

Okay, guys, how about plying your magic next season on the Hindemith Violin Concerto?

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