Aspen Music Festival Review: A confounding debut by the Van Cliburn winner
The Aspen Music Festival has a long and rich connection with the Van Cliburn Piano Competition, offering a prime-time showcase of winners every four years. This year’s winner, 18-year-old Korean Yunchan Lim, raised a storm of anticipation with performances in Texas that impressed both the judges and other pianists. As expected, every seat in Harris Hall was occupied with listeners on the edges of their seats when he took the stage Thursday, took a seat in a straight-backed chair and began paying tribute to Brahms.
I was ready to experience the excitement of a new genius in this, his first concert in the United States. What came out, however, both excited and puzzled me.
I didn’t hear the complete command and clarity that characterized his work on Cliburn (which can be streamed for free on medici.tv). From my seat in Row M in Harris Hall, loud passages clattered, in contrast to the pristine and thoughtful work I heard in the live videos. The delicate blooms here were softly engaging at one point, mushy as they picked up. Balances between busier passages in the left hand lacked the clarity that can be enjoyed on video. Contrasts in both dynamics and texture felt exaggerated.
He chose a challenging program of lesser-known works by well-known composers, beginning with Brahms’ Four Ballades and ending with Beethoven’s 15 Variations and a Fugue in E-flat major, the “Eroica Variations.” In between came Mendelssohn’s Fantasia in F minor and Skryabin’s Piano Sonata No.2, also called “Fantasia”. The pianistic storytelling in each of these works, so mature and impressive at the Cliburn, appeared only sporadically in the Aspen recital.
While most of the audience rose in enthusiasm at the end, including many pianists, a significant percentage moved out as soon as the program ended, their numbers increasing between the first encore (Rachmaninoff) and the second (Liszt). I overheard conversations outside murmuring, and others fainting.
I don’t know what to do with all that. Was I on the wrong side of the crowd? What was I missing? No doubt we will have more chances to experience Lim’s talent. He is the buzz in the classical music world right now.
Earlier in a relatively quiet week, a concert production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s latest Broadway musical, “The Sound of Music,” a collaboration between the music festival and Theater Aspen, scored a hit in a rare live performance of the popular score. Andy Einhorn conducted the Monday and Tuesday night performances in the Benedict Music Tent.
Like a very good “South Pacific” in 2019 and a disappointing revue of Rodgers’ music in 2021, “The Sound of Music” utility from Broadway stars and an operatic soprano star. The theater side filled secondary roles and members of the Opera Theater and VocalARTS program lent their heavenly voices to the returning chorus of nuns.
Seen and heard Monday, Einhorn’s exuberant conducting produced joyous music from the entire orchestra and cast, underscored by a pared-down script. There were no weak links, not even among the seven youngsters who played the Von Trapp children or among the theater roles.
Director Marc Bruni, who directed “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical” worldwide, showed an ability to use the concert set wisely for simple scene changes and make the cast aim for a certain level of realism.
Christy Altomore, who has now led all three concert productions here, brought her silvery voice and bouncy personality to the role of Maria, the unconventional would-be nun who ends up as governess to the children and eventually becomes the wife of Captain Georg Von Trapp. Brandon Victor Dixon, who played Aaron Burr on Broadway in “Hamilton,” brought a sense of gravitas and a polished baritone to the role.
Altomore’s focus was on character, with a fine sense of modesty that kept her famous songs (“The Sound of Music,” “Do-Re-Mi,” “My Favorite Things”) from going over the top. They were almost conversational, which is just right for a score that can easily slip into the sugary.
Dixon’s sweet but unaffected “Edelweiss” was also a rewardingly beautiful moment. Tall and handsome, he became an attractive partner for Altomore.
Ashley Blanchet, the first black woman to play Elsa – the lead role in Broadway’s “Frozen” — sashay admirably as another Elsa, Elsa Schraeder in this play, conveying both seduction and privilege with her voice and body language. Brad Oscar captured the ambiguity of Max, the talent agent who recognizes the family’s musical potential and has mysterious ties to Berlin. He excelled as another Max (Bialistok in “The Producers”), which he performed more than 1,400 times on Broadway and on tour.
However, the best voice of all belonged to Ana Maria Martinez. The veteran opera lyric spinto brought the big tune—”Climb Ev’ry Mountain”—to life with disarming intensity. She also played scenes with Maria and the nuns with a sense of reserved warmth.
The seven Von Trapp children range from tots to teenage Liesl (her “Fifteen Going On Sixteen” was as charming as can be). They all made the quick turnaround from brats to delightful children, each with an individual personality and a special talent for their voices that made clear their destiny as a world-renowned singing family.
Everything necessary to give credibility to the musical’s interpretation of the Von Trapp story was set in the years just before World War II. Their father absent as a submarine captain in the Austrian navy, the children warm to Maria, a novice sent from the convent to be their governess, when she shares her love of music with them, and they prove to be naturals. Their talent loosens up their strict father, who also finds a kindred spirit in Maria – but not before he agrees to marry another wealthy woman, only to reject Elsa when she supports the Nazis.
He is in a bind when the Germans, having taken over Austria, want him to command a submarine, but the situation leads to a clever escape in the final scenes. The tempo and the song hit the right notes. As a political angle, this works less well than Emile Lebeque’s plot line in “South Pacific,” but the point of “The Sound of Music” is more personal. The characters learn to be true to themselves, and that was beautifully explained by the Abbess in the last issue, a touching reprise of “Climb Ev’ry Mountain.”
NOT TO BE MISSED IN THE COMING DAYS
In piano recitals, Paul Lewis focuses on Schubert Tuesday and Max Lando draws on his jazz experience with his own arrangement of music by Duke Ellington Wednesday. The Percussion Ensemble, in previous years a fixture on a Monday night, plays its annual concert at 4:30pm on Thursday. Later, Lawrence Brownlee applies his polished lyrical tenor to works ranging from Scarlatti to Weil on Thursday.
Harvey Steiman has been writing about the Aspen Music Festival for 29 years. His reviews appear on Tuesdays and Saturdays in Aspen Times.