REVIEW: Alan Fletcher's Complete Aspen Music Festival and School @ SubCulture...Abridged

By Logan K. Young on Apr 24, 2014 05:36 PM EDT

It's hard to imagine any great American classical summerstock taking its show on the road to New York City.

Brevard Music Center is stationed in the gentle, rolling hills of western North Carolina. Tanglewood? She's nestled in the Berkshire town of Lenox, Massachusetts. 

Even "Banglewood" (the Bang on a Can Summer Music Institute, that is) has a permanent home at MASSMoCA.

Pearched atop Elk Mountain in the Centennial State, Colorado's Aspen Music Festival and School, going strong for nearly seven decades now, announced its travels plans almost a month ago--truly, the first concert of its kind. 

With snow on the ground the morning of in lower Manhattan, Alan Fletcher, Aspen's president and CEO (and, full disclosure, Classicalite guest blogger), brought a star-studded roster--Aspen and Atlanta music director Robert Spano, soprano alumna Dawn Upshaw, St. Louis concertmaster David Halen, noted violinist and chamber music coach Sylvia Rosenberg--to SubCulture on Bleecker St. for a one-night-only gig.

Featuring Aspen's idiomatic blend of new music, master class, panel discussion and a glorious rendition of Brahms' Piano Quintet in F minor, Op. 34 (1862), Fletcher, himself, remarked that this evening was, indeed, an "experiment." Could Aspen really condense some 300 events into one 90-minute evening at a downstairs club in NoHo? 

For the most part, Fletcher's brave experiment did not fail...though, as Anthony Tommasini noted, it did run closer to two hours. 

2014 Druckman Prize winner Luke Carlson's 12-minute, single-movement string quartet, Edges, could prove a welcome addition to the modern repertoire if it gets played with any regularity. Relying on a simple C#-A-G motive throughout, the student performers (violinists Fabiola Kim and Julia Choi, violist Alexander Knecht and cellist Patrick Hopkins, all coached by Rosenberg) ably brought out the work's subtle timbral shifts and rhythmic economy of means, learned traits not often heard in today's more totalist composers. Presently a Ph.D. candidate at UPenn, apropos of long-time Aspen composer Jacob Druckman, Carlson's got a big orchestral commission on this summer's "New Romantics" program. 

Upshaw's masterclass with Juilliard's Pureum Jo and accommpanist Kenneth Merrill in Poulenc's "Violon" and Mozart's "Ach, ich fühl" from Die Zauberflöte, K. 620 was a lesson worth taking again. Having given several high-profle masterclasses in public recently, not surprisingly for a singer who was so sensitive in her own right, Dawn Upshaw has become quite the pedagogue. President Leon Botstein tapped her to lead his vocal arts program at Bard's conservatory, and she showed everyone at the underground venue a thing or two about diction, phrasing and overall expression. 

After intermission, Fletcher, Spano, Halen and Aspen Opera Theater's Edward Berkeley sat down for a talk. Again, a bit longer than the program's advertised 15 minutes, discerning minds could listen to this quartet chat about Britten (in fact, Aspen performed more "Britten at 100" works than Aldeburgh did last summer), Samuel Barber, John Corigliano, Kaija Saariaho and, yes, the stupid notion that classical music is dead in America for at least an hour.

"At Aspen," Spano told Fletcher, "there is no aesthetic hegemony."

Likewise, there was little segue into what should be considered the evening's highlight: Brahms' constantly revised piano quintet performed by Halen, violinist William Hagen, violist Masao Kawasaki, Benjamin Lash on cello and maestro Robert Spano at the piano. It's a rare treat these days to hear a great orchestral conductor play chamber music, and Spano held tight on all of Brahms' developing variations. The andante, which could have been just a tick faster, was nonetheless beautifully wrought; the scherzo was light, playful and played at the perfect tempo.

As for the finale? Suffice it to say it was well worth the wait. To wit, here's hoping that Alan Fletcher's "abridged" experiment becomes an annual tradition here in Gotham.   

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TagsAspen Music Festival and School, Alan Fletcher, Robert Spano, SubCulture

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