Inside the Benedict Music Tent this evening the Aspen Festival Orchestra, all in white to match the walls of the tent, began to warm up for their penultimate concert of the season. A great number of older guests (presumably season ticket holders and donors) began to stream into the middle of the part-hall part-amphitheater, students of the festival and younger audience members poured excitedly into the wings, and a great number of more casual listeners arranged themselves on the lawn encircling the tent, which is outfitted with slats on the walls allowing both the sound of music to flow out, and the that of the Rocky Mountains’ flora and fauna in.

David Robertson conducting at Aspen
David Robertson conducting at Aspen

For decades, the Aspen Festival and School has been an idyllic haven for the world’s top music students, professors and guest artists. The Aspen Festival Orchestra is the crown jewel of the orchestral program, and is made up of principal players who are faculty members with major orchestral posts worldwide, and top students selected by those faculty members. Thus, the age of the group can vary a great deal, sometimes dipping as low as fourteen years old, though you wouldn’t know from the sound and maturity of the orchestra. These musicians are rising fast, many of them already having won major orchestral posts before the completion of their respective music degrees.

Tonight’s performance featured no less than four esteemed guest artists. The conductor David Robertson, current Music Director of the St Louis Symphony, was the helm for a performance of Beethoven’s “Triple” Concerto for violin, cello and piano in C major, and The Rite of Spring by Stravinsky.

Three young soloists entered the stage with Mr Robertson: Stefan Jackiw on violin, Narek Hakhnazaryan on cello, and Inon Barnatan on piano, each at the beginning of impressive solo careers. The concerto begins gently and softly with a unison statement of the theme in cello and bass, who are soon joined by the other strings, and a grand Beethovenian crescendo brings the first movement into its lofty exposition. Despite Robertson’s confidence and joy, the orchestra struggled a little to stay together at first, though quickly righted themselves. When cellist Narek Hakhnazaryan began to play the theme with just the lightest of accompaniment in the strings, all uncertainty was forgotten. At once the confidence of his artistry put the listener at ease, and, knowing well right away that he possessed an impeccable refinement of technique, one could then shift attention to his wonderful phrasing and musical ideas. After a deft trill, Jackiw’s violin entered with the same melody and matched the phrasing, bow technique and musical ideas of his colleague perfectly. Barnatan followed on piano, glancing at an iPad for musical reference, and as the three musicians began to weave Beethoven’s rich three-part counterpoint, we were aware that an impressive uniformity of sound, style and conception was about to unfold.

Throughout the concerto, which is almost uncharacteristic in its multitude of contrasting styles and ideas, David Robertson was rippling with energy. During many of the orchestral interludes both his feet left the ground, and he utilized every inch of the podium, though never exceeding the energy of the music itself. When the final chords were struck, the audience didn’t wait a moment to show their appreciation.

There is something truly special about hearing The Rite of Spring in a semi-outdoor environment. During the performance, we were aware of the mountain wind in the trees, bird songs, and even thunder from an approaching storm – all natural elements which added a great deal to this ballet which depicts Pagan rituals in old Russia.

Robertson’s conducting was even more full of character in the Rite this evening, and after a wonderful fluid opening by bassoonist Per Hannevold, Robertson urged the group forward into a savagely brisk “Harbingers of Spring”, the famous section of the piece which utilizes fierce, repeating rhythm and bitonality, shocking the impresario Diaghilev at first hearing. It was clear both from the performance and from speaking with musicians afterwards that Roberson was influenced by a great number of sources for his interpretations. Many of the tempi were very close to Stravinsky’s own recordings, which the composer remarked were sound, and there was also a great number of details such as articulation and voicing which were unusual, and which I later learned stem from his close study of all of Stravinsky’s manuscripts.

Although due to the varying age of the orchestra some of the intricacies of Stravinsky’s rhythms were occasionally stumbled over, the performance had distinct character, brimmed with energy, and as the sacrificial dance came to a wild close with a thunderstorm brewing above us, the audience rose immediately to their feet.