Arriving at noon in the spectacular environs of Aspen, Colorado, directly from appearances at Portland’s Chamber Music Northwest festival, David and Wu Han met and auditioned the four piano trios of their new-inaugurated chamber music program at the Aspen Music Festival. David writes about this new program, the intense musical work, and the trios’ triumphant marathon concert – the culmination of their studies with the duo and Aspen faculty.
In David’s words
In the more than thirty years that Wu Han and I have participated at the Aspen Music Festival and School, we have longed to contribute more than our performances to the immense musical life of the festival. Gradually over time, Wu Han developed a private piano class, and this summer – my first at Aspen as the ex-Emerson Quartet cellist – I finally had some time to devote to cellists and the school’s chamber music program.
With the full support of the festival administration, headed by President and CEO Alan Fletcher, and Vice President and Dean of Students Jennifer Johnston, Wu Han and I mounted an immersive chamber music program for twelve students: four from each of our studios, and four violinists. We combined them into four piano trios, assigning their repertoire well in advance of the festival. Many of them had never met each other, but our years of experience running chamber programs helped us to match players and repertoire successfully.
A welcome dinner of Chinese food gathered us all together for the first time.
Our wonderful trios consisted of: violinist Angela Wee, cellist Julia Rosenbaum, and pianist Agata Sorotokin (Shostakovich Trio in e minor); violinist Haruno Sato, cellist Jean Kim, and pianist Adria Ye (Mendelssohn Trio in d minor); violinist Will Hagen, cellist Austin Huntington, and pianist Sarina Zhang (Dvorak “Dumky” Trio); and violinist Fabiola Kim, cellist Hsiao-Hsuan Huang, and pianist Steven Lin (Beethoven “Archduke” Trio).
We, alongside the AMFS faculty, coached the groups every few days during the program. Joining us in the coachings were the teachers of our violinists: Robert Lipsett (Will Hagen), Sylvia Rosenberg (Fabiola Kim) and Masao Kawasaki (Angela Wee). Unfortunately, Paul Kantor’s class of forty-four students took so much of his time he was unable to participate, but he will hopefully join us in future summers.
Robert Lipsett, arguably one of the world’s most influential and successful violin teachers, joined us for a marathon session.
Master cello teacher Richard Aaron (here with Sarina Zhang) was an enthusiastic supporter of the program.
And violinist Sylvia Rosenberg contributed an enormous amount of time, enthusiasm and wisdom. We were also so fortunate as to have the wonderful violinist, violist and pedagogue Masao Kawasaki available to share his vast skill with our students.
We formed a marketing committee which included members of each trio, who met with Aspen’s PR and Marketing director Laura Smith to design and distribute posters around town. Aspen is a very competitive place in which to present a concert, with many events happening daily.
Each work presented offers distinct, musical and technical challenges. The students arrive already very accomplished, so bringing them to the next level takes very thoughtful work during which we utilize every ounce of experience, wisdom and knowledge we possess. The experience for all of us was one of discovery and excitement, and the Aspen Music Festival community awaited the program’s final concert with great anticipation.
Beginning with Beethoven’s great, final piano trio, subtitled the “Archduke”, we worked to find the kind of stability of tempi which would allow the music’s monumental grandeur to emerge on its own. Composed in 1811 and dedicated to Archduke Rudolf of Austria, it is a piece that bridges Beethoven’s “middle” or “heroic” style period with his “late” period, combining the symphonic proportions of the former with the mysticism and modernity of the latter. The pianist is afforded the lion’s share of the difficulties and responsibilities, and Juilliard student Steven Lin gamely absorbed the heavy demands laid on him by the coaching teams. Violinist Fabiola Kim, also from the Juilliard School and a student of Sylvia Rosenberg, contributed passion and dedication to the process, not to mention her naturally sweet sound and solid technique. Cellist Hsaio-Hsuan “Sharen” Huang proved herself a highly communicative chamber artist, making the most of the cello part and proving her talent to us for the second time (she had participated in our now-legendary workshop in Taiwan in 2009, sadly abandoned after one year due to a pullback in Taiwanese government support). Although the Archduke trio looks relatively simple on the page, to play it well takes consummate musicianship, and this young trio matured by leaps and bounds, giving a performance in the final concert that stood among the finest performances we have heard in Aspen, by anyone.
Mendelssohn’s famous d minor trio is the first of his two often-heard works in the genre. It epitomizes the German Romantic style, and is Mendelssohnian through and through, from its stormy outer movements to its song-without-words Andante and its quicksilver Scherzo, in the Midsummer Night’s Dream tradition. Pianist Adria Ye – at fifteen, among the youngest of our students – showed herself equal to the virtuosic challenges that Mendelssohn left us, adding as well a naturally beautiful sound and lyric instinct. Violinist Haruno Sato, a student of Paul Kantor, endured endless requests from the faculty for altered fingerings and bowings to maximize the music’s vocal qualities. Unfazed, she sailed through in the end, offering a truly heated performance that was tender and gripping as required. And cellist Jean Kim, an extremely gifted player on her way to the Curtis Institute in the fall, showed maturity and poise in the midst of one of chamber music’s stormiest works.
Shostakovich’s Trio in e minor is one of chamber music’s most popular and often played pieces. Tackling its unusual difficulties were pianist Agata Sorotokin, cellist Julia Rosenbaum (both Music@Menlo alumnae) and violinist Angela Wee, a student of Masao Kawasaki. Emerging from the dark depths of Soviet Russia under Stalin, Shostakovich’s music takes listeners to different sound worlds, and the drama, irony, wit, intensity and sometimes sheer beauty of his music calls upon extremes from its interpreters. Together, we experimented to discover sounds that were expressive but not necessarily sweet; ways to increase volume to orchestral proportions; Jewish folk music style (we all watched a YouTube video of Zero Mostel singing “If I Were a Rich Man”); and the special kind of technical accuracy that the often-bare textures demand. All in all, these three very young musicians accomplished everything they set out to do, and their powerful performance garnered a standing ovation in middle of the concert – for a work that ends pianissimo, no less. We were proud and our audience was amazed.
Concluding the marathon concert (over two-and-a-half hours long) was Dvorak’s beloved “Dumky” Trio, composed by him on the eve of his journey from Bohemia to the new world in 1891. It is a unique work without anything resembling classical structure: its six movements, each labeled Dumka, are essays in Bohemian nostalgia, filled with music sometimes joyful but often melancholy. It is some of the most personal and beautiful music ever composed, and our trio, consisting of violinist Will Hagen (a Colburn student of Robert Lipsett), cellist Austin Huntington (also from Colburn), and pianist Sarina Zhang (headed to Juilliard this fall), found themselves pressed to extremes of expression, communication and imagination that sometimes left them looking a bit in shock.
Wu Han worked intensively with Sarina to enlarge her sound palette, spending a lot of time on pedaling and touch. Will and Austin, both possessing naturally rich sounds and fine technique, worked hard to match each other and piano, and to enable the work to come across as freely and naturally as if it were improvised. The folk spirit, in the end, was the group’s biggest challenge, as our rigorous training often restricts our ability to play with freedom, spontaneity, and daring. As they concluded the long concert, though, we had the feeling that this trio of remarkable talents had reached a new level in their performance, and we were enormously proud to have played a part in their artistic development.
The program’s closing concert took place in Aspen’s jewel of a venue: The Joan and Irving Harris Concert Hall, this year celebrating its 20th anniversary.
Having recorded our Beethoven Sonatas cycle in Harris Hall for ArtistLed, Wu Han and I have always had a special affection for this sublime space. Our close friendship with Joan Harris and her late husband further cemented our relationship to the hall, but if anything really connected me to if for life, it was the famed acoustical testing of the hall – the first by live musicians – that the Emerson String Quartet performed in the summer of 1993.
After the concert, the happy and relieved young musicians gathered on the lawn for a formal photo, each looking their very best. It was a moment to remember.
Though we have departed for Music@Menlo, we have heard from many sources that the buzz about this program is still continuing around the festival. And our students have become fast friends, and something of a star crowd, having received an invitation post-concert to a gracious meal in the home of Aspen board member Arlene Solomon, pictured here with her husband Chester and the young musicians.
Plans are already under way for next summer’s workshop. Stay tuned for a much-anticipated announcement as this newest addition to the festival grows its roots deeper in the Aspen musical community.