The July 20 performance in Aspen’s Benedict Music Tent began at 4 PM, so did the show produced by Mother Nature. Both ended at 6 PM. The music tent is so constructed that a heavy rain may all but obliterate the sound of a symphony orchestra; add thunder to the equation and music is hors de combat. The afternoon began with Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimentales. A soft rain did not interfere with a splendid performance, led by Thierry Fischer, of Ravel’s transparently orchestrated dances originally written for solo piano.

Next up was Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto. Robert McDuffie was the soloist. He filled in for Midori who had to cancel because of issues related to pregnancy. The show outside of the tent became progressively louder until Mr McDuffie had to stop playing during the second movement. He left the stage shortly followed by Maestro Fischer. He said, “I’ll be back.” And a few minutes later he was. The soloist and maestro decided that the noise was too loud to allow any further attempt at the quiet slow movement, so they went straight into the third. Of course, the rain immediately stopped, but not for long.

McDuffie is a violinist given to full bodied music making. I wondered if he had a choreographer as he moved about the stage stamping his feet while using at least 650 of his skeletal muscles. He is capable of very fast and virtuosic playing. He ran through the first movement marked Allegro moderato so fast that the third marked Allegro vivacissimo wasn’t any faster. I don’t think anyone can play faster than McDuffie did in the first movement. His tone tends to thin at these almost super sonic velocities. It’s too bad that the second movement was extinguished by the storm as McDuffie might have displayed a richer sound during the beautiful Canzonetta. The audience was fully taken with McDuffie’s efforts giving him standing ovations after both the first and third movements.

A lot of people left their seats during the intermission and were lost to my view. I can’t imagine where they went as the deluge had assumed mythic proportions. But they returned to their seats after the interval dry as an old man’s eyes.

Australian composer Brett Dean’s Three Memorials received its American premiere under Maestro Fischer now batonless leadership. The three movements were conceived as individual works.  They are titled Dispersal, Ceremonial, and Komarov’s Fall. The first refers to the treatment of the Australian Aborigines, the second was prompted by the terror bombings in Bali in 2002 which killed more than 200 people almost half of whom were Australians. The final movement marks the death of the Soviet cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov. He died in 1964 when his space vehicle failed on re-entry. The composer apparently now intends each the three compositions to be performed together as part of a new whole.

Much has been made about the lack of melody in modern music. But just as noteworthy is the lack of rhythmic drive and a sense of forward motion in much new music. Though there were a lot of fast passages in Dean’s music it lacked the visceral feeling of propulsion that characterizes great music.

Dean’s music is brilliantly orchestrated. The percussion section was the size of Aspen’s off season population. There were more pots and pans than could be found in 10 IKEAs. There a number of instruments that I had never seen before and thus cannot name. Three percussionists were shaking large sheets of aluminum foil at a couple of spots in the music. The effect of all this banging and shaking  was spectacular. Whether there was much musical content embedded in the orchestral tsunami I cannot say after just one hearing. But it was definitely a piece that one could not sleep through. There was a second rain delay between the second and third movements, but to no avail. The rain persisted as long as did the music.

The program  concluded with Ravel’s hallucinogenic evocation of the waltz – La Valse.  “We are dancing on the edge of a volcano,” Ravel wrote in his notes on La Valse, quoting the Comte de Salvandy. Maestro Fischer, back in possession of his baton, lead the Aspen orchestra in gorgeous reading of Ravel’s almost sadistic dissection of 3/4 time. Under his direction Ravel’s volcano exploded, but it was a controlled explosion perfectly rendered by Fisher’s gifted musicians.

The concert over, the rain ended, we emerged from the tent into brilliant sunshine.