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Aspen Music Festival review: Tenor and violinist hit the right notes at midweek gigs

Two very satisfying recitals highlighted the midweek gigs at the Aspen Music Festival this week. Tuesday night tenor Nicholas Phan delivered thoughtful and eloquent songs that reflected the universal aspects of immigration, from the thrill of anticipation to the vagaries of reality. On Thursday night, Melissa White showed up in Aspen elegantly singing her violin to Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons.”

To create one of the most gripping recitals in the Aspen Music Festival lineup this summer, Phan built his entire evening around composer Nico Muhly’s “Strangers,” a song cycle that focuses on the hardships of immigration. Muhly presented his song cycle in person noting that the text came from oral histories, quotes and letters dealing with the difficulties of migration. Sources range from Leviticus to two letters from American women at home during World War II.

Muhly’s music, so touching and stripped down, created an appropriate sonic halo for Phan’s poignant singing of these letters. Regulars from the Aspen Contemporary Ensemble (Natalie Hsieh and Gabriel Esperon, violins; Daniel Moore, viola; and Sameer Apte, cello) performed with appropriate refinement.

This program whittled down the playlists of a three-day event Phan hosted in Chicago last fall called “Strangers in a Strange Land.” Ten of the Chicago plays were included in Tuesday’s program at Harris Hall. Most of them were in collaboration with pianist Myra Huang, head coach of the opera program in Aspen and new musical director of the Metropolitan Opera’s young artists program.

Huang has a 21-year history as Phan’s recital partner. She was a particularly competent and alert colleague, especially in the classics of Franz Schubert and Kurt Weill, which also played on Phan’s vocal flexibility, tonal beauty and perfect pronunciation in German and French. His playing – expressive, yet understated – matched his almost conversational approach to songs, exercising his full voice purely for effect.

This connection made the first part of the recital special, combining songs by Schubert with newer and different interpretations of aspects of immigration.

It’s not hard to find Schubert songs on the subject, as his output is full of wanderers, travelers, and shelter seekers. “Der Wanderer,” hopefully celebrating the moon’s inspiration for his travels, and its accompanying song, “Up-Hill,” by Rebecca Clarke, whose traveler worries about possible hardships, were particularly strong. The Chinese ! by Ruth Crawford Seeger! Landryman!” gave voice to a recently arrived Chinese immigrant’s anger at the racism he encountered, paired nicely with Schubert’s “Pilgerweise,” in which a pilgrim enjoys the welcome of those he meets.

Of the 20th century takes, the most notable was a “Whither Must I Wander?” from Songs of Travel by Ralph Vaughn Williams, “Sympathy” by Florence Price, which explored the frustrations of a caged bird and, above all, the heartfelt dream of a mythical paradise in Weill’s bittersweet “Youkali” (on a delicious rhythm of tango).

An encore changed the tone. Phan sang Caroline Shaw’s wry – but ultimately wistful – “Is A Rose: No.2, And So” straightforwardly yet charmingly, while the quartet delivered Shaw’s slinky music deftly in support.

White, whose resume includes playing the violin solos in the movie “Us,” wowed audiences with a warm presence and technical agility. In her welcoming remarks, she seemed to warn a packed house to expect a different take on Vivaldi’s piece (perhaps the most popular baroque music not written by JS Bach). But, aside from occasional flourishes that fit right into the baroque performance, she played it all straight and well.

With the exceptional violinist Alexander Kerr leading a small ensemble as first violin, things went perfectly. Each mini concerto drew a distinct image of spring, summer, autumn and winter, and the secondary play between the soloist and the individual musicians of the orchestra emerged clearly and comfortably; the same with Bach’s Violin Concerto in A minor, which opened the program.

For her part, White clearly connected with the audience and did so without complacency.

In the Benedict Music Tent on Wednesday, a student wind orchestra played music from Mozart to Varese at a high level — the concert postponed from early July after a wave of positive COVID tests. Conductor Joaquin Valdepeñas, principal clarinet of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and longtime member of the Aspen Artist Faculty, conducted strong readings of Stravinsky’s Wind Symphonies and Serenade Wind in D minor by Dvořák.

The only issue might be that the lively acoustics of the music tent tended to blur articulation. A bandshell might have helped direct the sound more clearly.


There’s no shortage of crowds this weekend, starting with Schubert’s Trout Quintet (anchored by pianist Anton Nel and cellist Brinton Smith) this afternoon and three of Beethoven’s most popular sonatas tonight in the recital of the pianist John O’Conor, both at Harris Hall. The Festival Orchestra’s Sunday concert in the tent features pianist Joyce Yang in Prokofiev’s Flash Concerto No. 3 before the program ends with Dvořák’s popular New World Symphony.