Aspen Music Festival review: Tenor, violinist hit the right notes in midweek concerts

Two, highly satisfying recitals highlighted the midweek concerts at the Aspen Music Festival this week. Tuesday-night tenor Nicholas Phan delivered thoughtful and eloquent songs that reflected universal aspects of immigration, from the thrill of anticipation to the vagaries of reality. Thursday-night Melissa White introduced herself to Aspen by making her violin sing elegantly in Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons.”

To create one of the more arresting recitals in this summer’s Aspen Music Festival lineup, Phan built his entire evening around composer Nico Muhly’s “Strangers,” a song cycle that focuses on difficulties of immigration. Muhly introduced his song cycle in person by noting that the text came from oral histories, quotations and letters addressing 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 spare, created an apt halo of sound 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) played with apt refinement.



This program trimmed down playlists from a three-day event that Phan put together in Chicago last fall titled “Strangers in a Strange Land.” Ten of the pieces from Chicago were included on Tuesday’s program in Harris Hall. Most of them were in collaboration with pianist Myra Huang, head coach of the opera program in Aspen and the new head of music for the Metropolitan Opera’s young artist program.

Huang has a 21-year history as Phan’s recital partner. She was an especially able and alert colleague, especially in classics from Franz Schubert and Kurt Weill, which also played to Phan’s vocal flexibility, tonal beauty and spot-on pronunciation in German and French. Her playing — expressive, yet understated — matched his almost conversational approach to the songs, exercising his full voice only for effect.



This connection made the first part of the recital special, pairing Schubert songs with more recently composed and different takes on aspects of immigration.

It’s not difficult to find Schubert songs on the topic, as his output brims with wanderers, travelers and shelter seekers. Particularly strong were “Der Wanderer,” hopefully celebrating the moon’s inspiration for his travels, and its companion song, “Up-Hill,” by Rebecca Clarke, whose traveler frets about possible difficulties. Ruth Crawford Seeger’s “Chinaman! Landryman!” gave voice to a recently arrived Chinese immigrant’s anger over the racism he’s encountered, nicely paired with Schubert’s “Pilgerweise,” in which a pilgrim appreciates welcomes from those he meets.

Among the 20th-century takes, the standouts were a sensitively rendered “Whither Must I Wander?” from Ralph Vaughn Williams’ Songs of Travel, Florence Price’s “Sympathy,” which explored the frustrations of a caged bird and, most of all, the heartfelt dream of a mythical paradise in Weill’s bittersweet “Youkali” (to a delicious tango beat).

An encore changed the tone. Phan sang Caroline Shaw’s tongue-in-cheek — but ultimately wistful — “Is A Rose: No.2, And So” straight-faced but with charm, while the quartet rendered Shaw’s slinky music deftly in support.

White, whose résumé includes playing the violin solos in the film “Us,” has been wowing audiences with a warm presence and technical agility. In welcoming remarks, she seemed to warn a full house to expect a different approach to Vivaldi’s piece (perhaps the most popular Baroque music not written by JS Bach). But, aside from occasional flourishes that fit perfectly in Baroque performance, she played all of it straight, and well.

With the exceptional violinist Alexander Kerr leading a small ensemble as concertmaster, things came together seamlessly. Each mini-concerto drew a distinctive picture of spring, summer, autumn and winter, and the byplay between the soloist and individual players in the orchestra emerged clearly and comfortably; same with Bach’s Violin Concerto in A minor, which opened the program.

For her part, White clearly connected with the audience and did it without pandering.

Wednesday, in the Benedict Music Tent, a student wind orchestra played music from Mozart to Varèse at a high level — the concert postponed from early July after a surge of positive COVID tests. Conductor Joaquin Valdepeñas, the principal clarinet of the Toronto Symphony and longtime artist-faculty member at Aspen, led strong readings of Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments and Dvořák’s Wind Serenade in D minor.

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

NOT TO MISS

Crowd-pleasers abound 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 pianist John O’Conor’s recital, both in Harris Hall. Sunday’s Festival Orchestra concert in the tent features pianist Joyce Yang in Prokofiev’s whirlwind Concerto No. 3 before the program concludes with Dvořák’s popular “New World” Symphony.

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