Saturday, August 01, 2009

Aspen Chamber Symphony

Last night we were lucky enough to see a great concert here in Aspen. The orchestra here is made up of students from the high-profile summer school hare where many of the world's best music students spend their summers. Principal chairs in the orchestra are taken by the teachers.

The venue is called a "tent," but it's not at all what I expected. As part of an AES group, we got a nice backstage tour (photos to follow in a few days). It's a permanent building now, with an outstanding stage and backstage area. The acoustics are excellent.

The roof is indeed a tent, and the back walls are open for people who want to sit on the lawn for free. This allows in some exterior sound, most noticeably crows in the Britten, and kids yelling, and some airplanes landing at the nearby airport towards the end of the Mendelssohn.

The orchestra sounded excellent for the most part, especially the strings, which was great for Britten's Variations on a Theme by Frank Bridge, a wonderful piece I had only heard a few times before. Conductor James Conlon gave an excellent introduction that taught me about the piece and made me notice some things (especially humor in the piece) that I had never heard before. He did an excellent job conducting, and the strings sounded great, even though some of them looked like they were still in grade school! (Side note, I noticed for the first time a section where the violins are strumming like banjos, which I had seen earlier this year on Gershwin's Piano Concerto.)

The second piece was really the best of the evening, an expanded orchestra joined soloist Lise de la Salle on the Prokofiev Piano Concerto #1, a somewhat brief but extremely challenging piece that at times sounds like Charles Ives. The soloist was really outstanding, and the orchestra played wonderfully. Probably my only negative comment about the acoustics was that the piano sounded a bit muddy and might have benefited from some sound reinforcement. Backstage we had spoken to the audio crew, who said they normally avoid any reinforcement unless absolutely necessary. If they were doing any on the piano, I didn't notice it.

After intermission the orchestra returned for the Mendelssohn Scottish Symphony, leaping backwards from the two 20th-century pieces of the first half, and guaranteed to be a crowd-pleaser. This was the weakest performance of the night, strangely, for music that should in theory be easier. However, the conductor took a blindingly fast tempo on the scherzo, and the young clarinetist and horn players simply could not keep up. Otherwise, they played well, particularly in the finale.

I am very, very impressed with music in Colorado.

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