Wonderfully modulated Mendelssohn is star of CMF opening night

Festival premieres a work for our times, gives a driven Beethoven performance

By Peter Alexander July 2 at 12:40 a.m.

The 2021 Colorado Music Festival got off to a splendid start last night (June 1).

After the two-year pause from the pandemic, both the audience and the players on the Chautauqua Auditorium stage were clearly thrilled to be sharing music together again. That joy was briefly expressed by CMF executive director Elizabeth McGuire, and then music director Peter Oundjian strode out to get back to business.

Peter Oundjian and the CMF Orchestra.

The concert opened with the world premiere of the strings, harp and timpani version of Aaron Jay Kernis’s Elegy (to those we’ve lost). Originally written for piano, the music came from a deep well of personal experience on the part of the composer, who contracted COVID-19 himself and lost several friends. (You may hear the piano version together with a film by Esther Shubinski here.)

Aaron Jay Kernis

Elegy is music of relative simplicity and comfort, one that recalls other pieces played for memorial occasions. It is consoling throughout except for a brief moment just before the end, when a tumultuous passage briefly evokes the anguish of the pandemic. Oundjian elicited a sweet and flexible performance that captured well the consoling nature of Kernis’s score which has all the ingredients of a work for these times. 

After Kernis took a bow with Oundjian, the conductor introduced violinist Augustin Hadelich for a performance of the Mendelssohn Concerto in E minor. An increasingly celebrated soloist, Hadelich does not overwhelm with volume or sheer flash, but rather with the beauty, precision and delicacy of his playing.

In a wonderfully modulated performance, Hadelich took an overtly Romantic approach to the concerto. He used tempo, dynamics and tone quality to evoke all the kaleidoscopic moods of the score, and he gave the most dramatic and magically captivating reading of the first movement cadenza I have heard. Throughout the concerto, he brought out the sweetness and delicacy of the solo part to an extraordinary degree. 

Augustin Hadelich

In the lyrical second movement, Hadelich showed his ability to sustain attention and the tension of the longest melodic lines. The finale was quite fast, with no loss of accuracy on the soloist’s part. There was one moment of imprecision with the wind players at the very beginning, but otherwise the movement was exceptionally brilliant, as is intended.

For an encore, Hadelich showed that his skills extend well beyond the Classical/Romantic repertoire, playing the “Louisiana Blues Strut” by Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson with an idiomatic and raucous sense of fun that was well appreciated by the CMF orchestra as well as the audience.

The concert concluded with a driven performance of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony—a holdover from the planned 2020 festival that would have coincided with the 250th anniversary of the composer’s birth. Wagner called the Seventh “the apotheosis of the dance,” and indeed every movement is based on strongly rhythmic ideas. Oundjian—conducting without a score—and the CMF orchestra gave a performance that was always bustling, even if it did not always quite dance.

The pace was brisk from the beginning of the slow introduction, which was precise and efficient, leading to a rushing allegro movement that happily observed the repeats Beethoven expected to hear, but that are often omitted today. Changes of volume or dynamics were used to great effect in the slow movement, although for my taste it has more suspense and pays off better at a slower tempo.

The same was true of the Scherzo and Finale, where the very fast tempos contributed to a loss of detail. Both would dance better with a slightly slower tempo and cleaner texture. The massive ritard in the middle of the Scherzo only emphasized how fast the rest of the movement was. The dynamics were well handled in these movements as well, with one exception. 

Near the end of the finale, for the first time ever Beethoven calls for three f’s in the orchestra, a moment underlined by the full brass section. Clearly intended as the climax of the entire symphony, this moment should startle with its impact. But Oundjian had driven the entire movement so powerfully that Beethoven’s triple-f was just more of the same.

This was an early-summer performance—great players coming together for the first time in nearly two years, playing with great skill and precision, but not yet quite coalescing into a totally polished product. Clearly, the audience caught the excitement of the fast tempos and the joy the players felt at being back on stage. With a little more time together, I expect even more.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article stated that the “Louisiana Blues Strut” is by the Black English composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. That is incorrect. The composer is American Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson.

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