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Field Report #1 from the Aspen Music Festival: Ligeti and Eötvös, among others

“Magical” is a pretty cheesy way to describe anything, particularly one’s time at a music festival. Yet, something – at least – special happened during yesterday’s Aspen Festival Orchestra performance of Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto and Gustav Mahler’s Symphony no. 5. Gentle rolls of thunder began to accompany violinist Robert McDuffie’s dramatic journey through the first two movements of the Barber, growing louder as the orchestra approached the thrilling conclusion of the work. It seemed as if the weather was a presage to the ominous clamor of the Mahler, and more amazing was its harmonious transition from thunder clouds to a soothing light rain right as Festival Music Director Robert Spano reached the downbeat of the symphony’s yearning Adagietto movement.

I’ve seen many such examples of concert music and nature coming together in my first week as a student at the Aspen Music Festival. It is an honor for me to be among the accomplished, ambitious and talented musicians – professionals and students – who, every year, congregate in this mountain town to showcase and expand their abilities in music performance, conducting and composition. Though I won’t bore you all with grandiloquent, Thoreau-esque meditations on the “vibratory hum” uniting music and nature, I am excited to report on the many wonderful performances of contemporary music I will attend over the next four weeks.

The first event I went to was a recital by the superb pianist Jeremy Denk, which featured an unusual pairing of Ligeti’s Etudes for Piano and Bach’s Goldberg Variations, in that order. Almost all the other student composers here came to the concert, and we wondered if these two heavy, complex and extremely contrasting works could complement each other. Mr. Denk’s reasoning behind the program was clear enough: he said he wanted to feature what he thought were the earliest and latest “titanic” masterpieces for solo piano. Yet, we were still a little intimidated by what lay before us. To his credit, Mr. Denk’s charisma was infectious and he did a wonderful job warming up the audience to the material he was about to present.

The same energy and personality – summated by a mischievous glance Mr. Denk shot the audience after a crunchy moment in the Ligeti – filled the performance and made experiencing these massive works more approachable. However, I feel like Mr. Denk’s decision to play the Bach on the second half was the most powerful element of the evening because it illustrated the masterful integrity of the Etudes. The works melded together and became a huge meditation at the piano, which Mr. Denk’s affable virtuosity presented to the audience with great success.

I’ve learned quickly that excellent performances like last Tuesday’s are not limited to the festival’s accomplished guests. Friday night, the Aspen Chamber Symphony beautifully performed Mahler’s Symphony no. 4 and, afterwards, I attended a recital by the two resident student string quartets. The program began with Beethoven’s String Quartet in B-flat, op. 18, no. 6, which is a personal favorite of mine thanks to its adorable themes. I am a particular sucker for the ‘cute’ melodies and textures of classical-period chamber music from Mozart through early Beethoven, and the members of the Aiana String Quartet delivered the work with just the right level of charm.

The highlight of the evening, though, was the second piece – Shostakovich’s String Quartet no. 9 in E-flat major from 1964 – which was performed adroitly and compellingly by the members of the Ars Nova String Quartet. I had never heard this piece before, though I do have a fondness for Shostakovich’s later works because they seem to illustrate the composer’s dark sense of humor. I was happy to find many parallels between this quartet and Shostakovich’s final symphony, such as a capricious violin theme that resembles the famous tune of the “William Tell Overture”, a melody he quotes in the fifteenth symphony. My only wish was that the work had ended with the dramatic, pizzicato chords the quartet plays in unison towards the end of the closing movement. Certainly, an ending like that would have been too severe for Shostakovich’s style, but I thought the work’s straightforward termination paled against the stunning severity of those strummed sonorities.

The final piece of recently composed music I heard in concert this week was Snatches of a Conversation (2001) by Hungarian composer Peter Eötvös. Humorously programmed against Dvorcak and Dohnayni on a chamber recital, the work was the week’s repertoire for the crack Aspen Chamber Ensemble (ACE), conducted by Sydney Hodkinson, one of the Festival’s famed composers-in-residence. Dr. Hodkinson encouraged us composition students to attend ACE rehearsals this week, and I was fascinated to see this complex, convivial piece of music come together.

The first unusual thing about Snatches of a Conversation is its use of a double-belled trumpet soloist. I learned there are only four such instruments in the world and they are very challenging to play. Eövös uses it to create a schizophrenic trumpet line that jumps from one muted bell to another instantly, yielding rapid shifts in the instrument’s color. Additionally, there was a dramatic, rhythmicized speaking part, which accounted for the disjunct conversational fragments alluded to in the work’s title.

The piece is spawned from Eötvös’ experience as a child listening to jazz music through jammed radio signals in Hungary. The music is very gestural and impulsive at first, with choppy phrases and a constantly shifting color palette thanks to varied brass mutes and special wind and string techniques such as half tone and scratch tone sounds and playing behind the bridge. This faster music returns as the final section of the piece but is transformed by a middle section with a greatly slowed down harmonic rhythm. This slower music is a wonderful contrat the work’s opening, but it is also here that the piece’s jazz references begin to take control in the form of two keyboard solos that have the character of a jazz tune’s solo piano introduction. When the opening returns after this slower music, it takes on the persona of these two keyboard melodies, eventually developing the jazzy material into a legitimately swinging groove.

The transient colors, uneven flow and textual subject matter of Snatches of a Conversation make the work rather humorous, which I believe is a deliberate part of Eötvös’. The piece ends on a pentatonic ‘button’ played by the bass, marimba and vibraphone. To me, it is cute and frivolous and certainly sarcastic in its role as the final gesture in such a chaotic and convivial piece of music.

If you are interested in a more detailed description of my time at the Aspen Music Festival, check out the observations page of my web site where I report on all my activities as a composition student here.