Opus Colorado

In praise of Daffy Duck
February 25, 2010, 1:27 am
Filed under: Commentary | Tags: ,

On February 5, 2010, I posted a review on this site of a performance by the Playground Ensemble. Remember that they are the avant-garde music group at the Lamont School of Music at the University of Denver. I said, and it was absolutely true, that the performance which they gave on February 4 was a very good performance. Their conductor is Conrad Kehn and he has always struck me as being a very good musician, as well as someone who is dedicated to the art of music.

However, I just saw an article in Westword which was posted on the Internet written by Dave Herrera. He interviews Kehn concerning the Mile High Voltage Festival which took place on February 19 and February 20. Dave Herrera begins his article with a question and the type of paragraph which displays his disdain for the art of music. I will quote it now:

“Quick: When you think of classical music, what are the first things that come to mind? Okay, time’s up. We’re gonna guess you conjured up images of stoic academicians playing stodgy, archaic music by dead guys for a roomful of well-heeled intellectuals within the impeccable confines of a sterile music hall. You probably didn’t dial up words like young, hip or progressive. Are we close?

Thought so. And that’s exactly the mindset that the folks at the Newman Center are aiming to change with the inaugural Mile High Voltage Festival, an event geared toward making classical music accessible to the mainstream.”

So you see, Herrera begins his article with a loaded question and statement from the outset. It typifies the current conceit of those who believe that serious music is for old people because it was written by “dead guys” and therefore can have no appeal to the younger set. He also talks about those in society who are “well-heeled” as if that was also some kind of stigma. The same applies to his use of the word “intellectuals.” I never knew that being rich and being smart was something to be avoided. Of course, he never mentions the fact that there are many composers alive today who are writing serious music and who are very much appreciated by the concert audience – and some of them nay be financially embarrassed.

His interview continues:

“Westword: Most folks only know the classic composers. How do you think this concept is going to alter their perception of classical music?

“Conrad Kehn: There’s a lot of pop crossover here, trying to break down stereotypes. The two nights of the festival, Friday and Saturday night, people are allowed to wander in and out of the concert hall, get up, talk. There will be a lounge where audio and video will be piped in. They can buy drinks and food and still watch the concert — things that don’t normally happen in a classical concert hall.

“It appeals to a younger audience. It’s just a lot more interesting and live and exciting than going to see the symphony. The experience is different, too. It’s not such a “sit down and be quiet or we’re going to beat you” kind of thing, so I think that’s part of it. And I think the fact that these artists so readily embrace elements of pop music — whether that’s repeated grooves or even just a little bit of hipness factor in the way they present themselves.”

I, for one, would find it very difficult to go to a concert while people were milling around, getting up-and-down, and chewing noisily. But then, it is no secret that most young people today, since music is no longer in the public schools, have no tolerance for the thought process to understand serious music. Indeed, it’s much easier to receive instant gratification from Jay-Z or Eminem. They require very little thought. So, the thrust here seems to be to cheapen good music so everyone can understand and like it. Please note that I did not use the word “appreciate.” I used the word “like.” Many young people today understand “like” more quickly than they do “appreciate.”

My question is this: should we make a special effort for these young people, who want something to like because understanding and appreciating seems to be too difficult – according to Herrera and Kehn – so that they will like any form of art? And I agree, sometimes educating and teaching people to appreciate art and music is more difficult than just making everything easy. It makes me wonder if Picasso should have put a small image of Daffy Duck in his painting “Guernica” just so people would find something easy to like about it and have something to relate to.

I also hasten to point out that there are adults – yes, it’s true – who in some ways behave in the same manner. How, you may ask? Well, there are some “well-heeled intellectuals” who support the arts by giving away decent sized sums of money or buying tickets for four to six people (for example), and then do not show up to the performance. And neither do they give their tickets away to someone who is truly anxious to use them. And neither do they give music and art lip service.

An incomparable Beauty and The Beast

I truly hope that everyone who reads this will have a chance to go see the Colorado Ballet’s production of “Beauty and The Beast.” It is one of the most original productions of the ballet that I have seen for several years. It has a marvelous and modern musical score by the gifted Hong Kong composer, Seen-yee Lam, and absolutely stunning choreography by the gifted Israeli artist, Domy Reiter-Soffer.

Do not expect a traditional ballet where members of the corps de ballet stand upstage in pastel tutus in the first position while the lead dancers perform a grand Pas de deux downstage. Beauty and The Beast is a fairy tale of the first order. It is a meaty ballet of great substance. It was written by Charles Perrault in 1697. Perrault also wrote Sleeping Beauty, Puss in Boots, and Cinderella. What could I possibly mean by a fairy tale of the first order? I stress that Beauty and The Beast is not all that frightening, and I certainly think that young children should go see it. But it is darker, and certainly more emotional than any production of Beauty and The Beast that I have seen. This is because of the amazing and wonderful choreography by Domy Reiter-Soffer. And we certainly need to thank Gil Boggs, the Artistic Director of the Colorado Ballet, for inviting him to stage the choreography. The New York Times said “Domy Reiter-Soffer is particularly noted for his brilliant translation of words into movement, dealing with the very essence of the subject creating sheer theatre”. I have never seen a ballet, except for those choreographed by the late Merce Cunningham, where the dancing and intense personal expression of the dancers truly tell the story.

Domy Reiter-Soffer is a kind of modern Renaissance man, with a great range of interests and achievements which to date have included dance, drama, music and the graphic arts as well as teaching.

His production of Equus for Dance Theatre of Harlem at the Met. New York won him the Best Ballet of the Year Award from New York Daily News. Lady of the Camellias was voted Best production at the Finland festival 1990. His play Mary Makebelieve for the Abbey Theatre, Dublin was nominated as one of the Best Plays in the Dublin Theatre Festival. He has created a large repertory of successful works, among others the deeply moving Yerma for La Scala Milan and Irish National Ballet, and House of Bernarda Alba, both based on Lorca. The full length Paradise Gained about the French woman of letters Colette won him a special award for the best creation of 1991. Chariots of Fire (Phaedra), The Turn Of The Screw, the pop Time Trip Orpheus, Medea, La Mer, La Valse, Oscar (on the life of Oscar Wilde) and a multi-media production of A Time to Remember for the commemoration of the 2nd World war and the Holocaust won him great acclaim using over 300 performers on the stage. These productions have been successfully staged for American and European companies, including Dance Theatre of Harlem, The Australian Ballet, Finnish National Ballet, Pittsburg Ballet Theatre, Ohio Ballet Louisville Ballet, La Scala and Bat-Dor Dance Company with which he has created over twenty-five ballets.

For the last three years he has created three full-length works for the Hong Kong Ballet, The Emperor and The Nightingale, which toured Germany, Switzerland then closing the Salzburg Festival in Austria, with critical success, also Beauty and the Beast and the multi media production of White Snake, which is based on a Chinese legend. He also restaged his award winning ballet Lady of the Camellias with great success. He was Artistic Advisor of Irish National Ballet from 1975 to 1989.

He has created many multimedia productions using different facets of the arts, involving singers, dancers and actors. As well as dance he has directed theatre productions, plays, musicals and opera. Domy Reiter-Soffer is a serious painter with seventeen one-man shows and has exhibited at the Royal Academy of Art’s summer exhibition in London.

He has created over thirty designs for a wide range of dance and drama productions with much success. Reiter-Soffer has had a long dancing career, he has directed many plays and musicals, has been a staged rector for opera, and has designed more than 30 productions for both dance and drama at theatres including La Scala Milan, Australian Ballet, Dance Theatre of Harlem, the Carmiel Dance Festival, the Finnish National, Bat-Dor Dance Company and Hong Kong Ballet, and the Ohio Ballet.

As I mentioned above, the score for this Ballet was written by Hong Kong composer Seen-yee Lam. She is a very gifted composer who has won many awards for her film scores, her popular music scores, her television drama scores, and her scores for ballet. Beauty and The Beast was scored for orchestra and tape.

The scenery for Beauty and The Beast was designed by Ivan Cheng and the costumes were designed by Domy Reiter-Soffer.

I am quite sure that everyone is familiar with the plot of this story, so I will not dwell too much on that. From the outset, Igor Vassine, who danced Belle’s father, and Belle herself, danced by Sharon Wehner, were absolutely incredible. This also applies to Ruby and Opal, Belle’s sisters, danced by Maria Mosina, and Sayaka Karasugi respectively. I had the great good fortune of being invited to a rehearsal, and I was struck, then, by the intensity of these dancers, and I wondered if this intensity would be transmitted to the audience at the performance. It certainly was. Again, I must point out, that I have never seen such intense dancing with all of its powerful emotions in any ballet. The dance movements, even though it was classical ballet, were so descriptive that one could understand the story without ever having heard of it before. When Alexi Tyukov entered the stage as Belle’s egotistical admirer, one immediately knew his personality because of the way he danced.

Even the costumes reflected the attention to detail by Reiter-Soffer. For example, Janelle Cook, who danced two roles, that of the Sorceress, and that of the Goddess of the Forest, had, of course, two different costumes. Her costume for the Sorceress was all black except for two red slashes on the top of each long sleeve. The stage was relatively dark as she danced, but the lighting emphasized the red slashes, so that when she changed the handsome prince into the Beast, it seemed that the red slashes were producing the energy. Her dance movements emphasized the evilness of her character. When she was the Goddess of the Forest, her costume was light and airy, and that is precisely how she danced that role.

It truly seemed to me that everyone in the Colorado Ballet was totally infected by their own imagination. And after watching them at the rehearsal, it is clear that they had the highest respect for Domy Reiter-Soffer and Gil Boggs, as well as Ballet Mistresses Lorita Travaglia, and Sandra Brown. It truly seemed as if the entire company was anxious to try something new and that they found this avant-garde music and demanding choreography truly exhilarating and exciting.

One of the most poignant duets I have ever seen danced in any ballet was in the second act when Belle, the Beauty, realizes that the Beast, danced by the remarkable and expressive Dimitry Trubchanov, is not so evil after all. They danced with their hands only inches apart, but they never touched each other. It was clear that the Beast was falling in love with her, as it was equally clear that she was beginning and yearning to understand him. As I stated above, this was classical ballet, but it was like nothing I have ever seen, because the movements were so very subtly different. Domy Reiter-Soffer told me that he referred to this duet as the “No Touch Duet.”

I must also point out that the Colorado Ballet Orchestra under the direction of Maestro Adam Flatt performed superlatively. There are only three violins and three violas, two cellos, two bass, one flute, one oboe, one bassoon, one clarinet, and one French horn. They are never out of tune, and they are always exciting to listen to. Since this production was for orchestra and tape recording, I don’t know for sure if Maestro Flatt also ran the tape (really a CD). I would imagine that he had to be responsible for that, though I forgot to ask him when I spoke to him after the performance.

I might also add that I had the opportunity to speak briefly with two of the dancers after the performance; Janelle Cook and Dmitry Trubchanov. It was almost a shock because they were normal human beings without any magic whatsoever. Such was their amazing dramatic ability on stage and their tremendous gift to their art. But I must say that the entire company is that way, because once they took the floor at the rehearsal, all of them transformed themselves into magical beings.

Exciting young artists with the Denver Phil.
February 20, 2010, 9:58 pm
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: , , , , ,

Friday night, February 19, the Denver Philharmonic Orchestra gave a special concert featuring the winners of its concerto competition which was held a few months ago. The winners of this competition ranged in age from 14 years to 19 years of age. Needless to say, they are all outstanding young musicians. The guest conductor for the night’s performance was Dr. Russell Guyver, currently the Director of Orchestras at the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley.

The next performance of the Denver Philharmonic will be Friday, March 26, and will be at the King Center on the Auraria Campus and will feature Katie Mahan performing Chopin’s First Piano Concerto.

Originally from London, England, Dr. Guyver has followed a varied career as conductor, violist, composer and educator. As a violist, he has played in many orchestras including the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, English National Opera, Royal Ballet and the Orquesta Sinfonica de Venezuela. He has appeared as conductor, soloist and chamber musician on four continents and is a guest artist at several annual music festivals in the United States and in Rio de Janeiro.

In 1984 Russell Guyver co-founded the String Orchestra of the Rockies, now a flourishing professional chamber orchestra based in Missoula, Montana. Also active as a composer, he received an Emmy for his score of a PBS docudrama.

Guyver is Director of Orchestras at the University of Northern Colorado. Under his direction, the UNC Symphony Orchestra has been awarded “Best US College Orchestra” by Down Beat magazine five times and was selected to represent the USA in the International Cycle of University Orchestras in Zaragoza, Spain in 2003 and 2006.

Russell Guyver received his musical training at the Guildhall School of Music in London, and, more recently he earned a doctor of musical arts degree in conducting at the University of Kansas under the guidance of Brian Priestman.

The first of the competition winners to appear on the night’s program was Miss Abigail Travers, who performed the first movement of the Haydn Cello Concerto in D Major (whoever prepared the program for Friday: please learn how to spell Haydn). The authenticity of this concerto as a work by Haydn was not confirmed until 1954, when the original autograph was discovered. Haydn’s output was so huge there can often be problems discovering a work’s authenticity, especially as some of his students’ work resemble their teacher’s compositions. In addition, there was at least one instance where Haydn sent a music merchant one trio of his and two trios by Ignaz Pleyel, his student, for publication. Surprisingly, we are still not sure if this was accidental. The merchant’s name was Forster, and he was quite startled to see two of the three pieces published by Longman and Broderip, a competitor – they had been submitted by Pleyel. Needless to say a lawsuit was threatened, but avoided, after Haydn apologized to everyone concerned (see “Haydn, Chronicle and Works” Vol. 2, by H.C. Robbins Landon, page 378-379.).

It is always a wonderful thing to see a young musician stride out on stage with such great confidence, and that is exactly what Abigail Travers did. And the orchestra began its introduction, the second violins were a little out of tune, but that did not seem to bother Ms. Travers, who, when her entrance came, dug in to the opening theme with great authority. She plays with great emotion and excellent finger work for one so young. She has wonderful tone on her instrument, but there were a few instances where her eighth and 16th notes might have been a little more articulate. In addition, and I could be wrong about this, she seemed to play almost her entire performance with her eyes closed, only opening them to make sure some of her entrances were precisely with Dr. Guyver’s. This says volumes about her memory ability and her confidence in finger position, but occasionally she did play out of tune. I think if she had kept her eyes open, she could have double checked her finger position so that playing in tune could have been a little easier. Nonetheless, it is very easy to see why she was a winner in this competition. And by the way, she studies with Prof. Richard Slavich, who is on the faculty at the Lamont School of Music.

Next on the program, was Miss Emily Switzer, violinist, who performed the first movement of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 35. I am sure that all of you will recognize her last name, because both of her parents play in the Colorado Symphony Orchestra. This concerto is extremely difficult, not only technically, but musically as well. There is a story about another Tchaikovsky concerto, wherein a young woman came to audition for lessons with Paul Wittgenstein, the famous pianist who had only a left arm following World War I. In fact, it was he for whom Ravel and Prokofiev had written their left-hand concertos. He was also famous for having an incredibly acerbic tongue. He asked the young woman what she intended to play for him, and she responded that she would play the Tchaikovsky piano concerto, one of the most difficult in piano literature. He asked how old she was, and she responded that she was fourteen years of age. He responded, “Well my dear, you are much too old for that concerto!” Today, that seems a humorous story, but the young lady must have withered under the remark. I hasten to point out that this story certainly does not apply to Emily Switzer, for she proved beyond a doubt that she was “old enough.” I have never heard a 14-year-old play the violin as she did on Friday night. She has remarkable technique which seems totally effortless, and she was always in tune. But what truly amazed me, was the conviction and emotion with which she played. It reflected a very mature understanding of the music, as well as a very mature love for what she does which was deeply personal. Her attacks and entrances also demonstrated the fact that she is a very dependable performer when playing with an orchestra. There was constant eye contact with Dr. Guyver, letting him know just where she was going to take a subtle nuance or a slight agogic. She also knew exactly when to take the lead and when to follow him. Ms. Switzer’s concentration was something to behold, and there was absolutely no doubt that she knew every single note, fingering, and bowing that was necessary. Her performance of this concerto was truly astounding, and I do not think there is any doubt that we will hear from this young lady in the future, in fact, the near future. When her performance was over, she received a well-deserved standing ovation, and she finally, finally smiled. She studies with James Maurer who is on the faculty at the Lamont School of Music

Alexander Raab, who is a sophomore at the Lamont School of Music, was the third winner of the Denver Philharmonic Orchestra Concerto Competition. He performed the third movement of Edouard Lalo’s “Symphonie Espagnole.” And yes, it is called a symphony even though it is a concerto. This is a very demanding piece technically, but Mr. Raab, who studies with Prof. Linda Wang at DU, was most certainly up to its demands. As a matter of fact, this piece seemed ideally suited to him because it is so flamboyant and exuberant. Like the violinist and cellist that preceded him in Friday’s performance, he displayed dazzling finger work and great dependability in playing with the orchestra. What do I mean? Dependability means that he was musician enough to be able to keep a steady beat, and that he knew the score and all of its intricacies extremely well, all while under pressure. That may seem like a strange thing to say, but remember that even a university sophomore (with apologies to Mr. Raab) can be considered a young musician, and young musicians often need a lot of experience performing with an orchestra. That kind of experience however, is exactly what Alexander Raab has, because he has won many concerto competitions including Aspen’s Symphony in the Valley competition. He has also performed with the Colorado Young Sinfonia since 2003. His performance was exhilarating and wonderful to listen to.

And at this time, I would like to make the point that Conductor Russell Guyver was a very sympathetic conductor with these young artists. He watched all three very carefully, and gave them the support that they needed in order to feel comfortable performing with an orchestra. That may seem an unnecessary thing to say, but until one has, say, twenty performances with an orchestra, it is often difficult to become comfortable with one’s own ability. Example: the first time I performed with an orchestra, at the rehearsal things were going along quite smoothly, and I could hear, for example, the oboe cueing my next entrance. Or the cellos making their entrance three measures before my entrance. I was having a ball. And then I came to the cadenza and –good grief! – I was all by myself. That is when a friendly conductor can help prepare the new soloist for what is to come. Friday night, Dr. Guyver was very willing in his assistance to these young performers.

After the intermission the Denver Philharmonic performed Hector Berlioz’ massive “Symphonie Fantastique.” This is one of the best-known and most difficult symphonies in the literature. It has a very quiet opening in winds, and when the violins entered they were in tune. And I must point out that the violins, especially the second violins, began to be inconsistent. I think I have asked this before, but why, if they can play in tune sometimes, can’t they do it all the time? The violas, the cellos, the bass, and the woodwinds were really exceptional in this piece, as well as the brass. And I sincerely hope that they are very proud of the job they did. The second movement was really quite good. There was a fine clarinet solo in the third movement, as well as some very good performances by the flutes. In the fourth movement the violins were pretty much in tune and the whole orchestra played some very precise dotted rhythms. I must say, that the percussion writing in this symphony always seemed very difficult to me, but the percussion section excelled. And in the fifth movement of this gigantic symphony, the woodwinds again showed their strong ability.

It is always amazing, even though one understands that young artists begin at a young age, to hear just how good they can really be. And it is always amazing to see the concentration that is so well established in young minds. I suppose it is very easy to say, “Well, that is after all, what they are supposed to do.” But a casual comment such as that hides the intense work and the intense devotion to the art. How superior they were!

A Valentine from The Ars Nova Singers

Saturday, February 13th, the Ars Nova Singers presented what was truly a pre-Valentine’s Day concert at the Bethany Lutheran Church here in Denver. The title of the program was Chanson d’Amour, and of course everything on the program had to do with love or unrequited love. There were several solos as well as duets, so the full ensemble was not used. There was a special guest artist, Jean Browne, who was the collaborative accompanist throughout the entire program.

It just so happens that Jean Browne is the sister of Evanne Browne, the Director of Music at the First United Methodist Church in Boulder. She is a fine pianist as well as a conductor. Jean Browne began piano lessons at age three and by the age of 16 debuted as a soloist with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. Jean received her Performer’s Certificate in Vocal Accompanying from the Music Conservatory in Freiburg, Germany, and her Master’s Degree in Piano from Southern Methodist University. She was a staff accompanist for the Summer Vocal Institute in Graz, Austria, for two summers and worked as a vocal coach for the opera house in Osnabrück, Germany, for three years.

As a conductor, Jean spent seven summers as the Associate Music Director for the Dallas Summer Musicals and two years as the Associate Music Director for San Francisco Opera’s Western Opera Theater. She was the Associate Music Director & Conductor for the Broadway production and national tour of Peter Pan starring Sandy Duncan, thus becoming the first woman to conduct a hit Broadway show (and participating in 954 performances of the show). Jean is currently artistic advisor to concert pianist Robert DeGaetano and business manager to jazz drummer Joe Piazza. Jean has lived in or around New York City for the past 30 years.

The first set of four songs on the program was sung by Evanne Brown. In fact one of them, “Lullaby” was written by her sister Jean Browne. There is no doubt that both of these women are fine musicians. But as the program opened, it became apparent that either I was sitting in an acoustic dead spot in the Bethany Church, or that the Brownes had not sought anyone’s advice on balance between the piano and soprano. The piano was quite loud and Evanne Browne’s voice was quite soft – not only could I not hear her well; I certainly could not understand her words. Both women are such experienced performers, it is difficult to imagine that they did not “try out the hall” before the performance just to check the acoustics of the sanctuary. Following Evanne Browne’s group of songs, baritone Brian Du Fresne sang a group of three songs by Rico Gerber. Mr. Du Fresne has a voice that will carry just about anywhere, but in this instance he was covered by the piano. After his group of songs, I moved from where I was sitting about eight or nine rows forward. Things improved considerably, so I am quite sure that my original seat was in some kind of acoustic anomaly. Frustrating to be sure, but I will certainly remember never to sit in that location again.

Next on the program were four Majo Songs by Enrique Granados and the Habanera from Bizet’s “Carmen.” These were sung by Ars Nova’s remarkable mezzo-soprano, Tara U‘Ren. There is no question that she has one of the finest voices in the Ars Nova Singers, and because of her stage experience in several opera groups, she also has a marvelous dramatic sense, which last night, concealed the fact that I was not watching the actual opera by Bizet. Her voice is full and rich and her diction is well-nigh perfect. Following her outstanding performance was the famous Barcarole from the Tales of Hoffmann. Ms. U’Ren was joined by Tana Cochran who is another “best reason” to go hear the Ars Nova singers. For good diction, proper vocal production, and projection, nothing beats operatic experience. The duet they sang from Offenbach’s famous opera was absolutely scintillating.

After the intermission the duet, Lippen Schweigen from “The Merry Widow” was sung by Tana Cochran and Brian Du Fresne. This was perhaps, one of the best selections for this pre-Valentine program. Both Du Fresne and Cochran have voices that match in quality, and their innate dramatic sense – they danced this famous waltz as they sang – lent genuine poignancy to their performance.

And, delightfully, after this duet, the audience got to hear Tana Cochran again singing two Fauré songs (he is one of the most ignored, but still well known, composers) and the aria, Chi il bel Sogno, from Puccini’s “La Rondine.” The Fauré songs were magnificent and again, her diction was excellent. Why should that be so unusual? – but it is.

The Ars Nova tenor, Louis Warshawsky, sang Ungeduld from Schubert’s “Die schöne Müllerin. This is the moment in the song cycle for the young man declares his love and dedication for the Beautiful Maid of The Mill. Mr. Warshawsky has a very light and lyrical voice – and I am beginning to believe that no one in Ars Nova as bad diction – which seemed quite suitable for Schubert. I mention this only because I don’t think I have ever heard such a light voice sing Schubert before. He sang a marvelous performance, and a nice touch was the use of an enormous red valentine to hold the lyrics.

And now, it is time for an exam. How many of you remember Tom Lehrer? I’ll give you a hint: he taught mathematics at MIT, Harvard, and Wellesley. He also sang and wrote songs that led one New York critic to write, and I quote, “Mr. Lehrer’s muse is not fettered by such inhibiting factors as taste.” He certainly had a sense of the macabre. Do you remember this song, “Poisoning Pigeons in the Park”? Well, Mr. Warshawsky delighted the audience with one of Tom Lehrer’s songs, “She’s My Girl,” in which he describes a girl with every fault that you can think of, including ‘diseased’ hair, but it just doesn’t matter because she’s my girl. Wow.

Mr. Warshawsky then joined the Ars Nova quintet for a performance of Chanson d’Amour by Wayne Shanklin and arranged by Paul Hart.

That was followed by the entire ensemble singing Waltz For Debby by the ever great and sadly missed Bill Evans which was arranged by Peter Carlson. The final performance was It’s a Grand Night For Singing by Rodgers and Hammerstein.

This was another enjoyable performance by the Ars Nova Singers, and one that was not nearly so serious, though it did have its moments of thoughtfulness and poignancy, and above all, the sheer musicianship that typifies everything they do.

Lamont Symphony Orchestra program outstanding!
February 12, 2010, 8:50 pm
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: , , , , , ,

Thursday night, February 11, I attended a concert given by the Lamont Symphony Orchestra in Gates Hall. It was truly an outstanding program, comprised not only of concert favorites, but also a double percussion concerto by the Israeli composer, Avner Dorman, performed by John Kinszie and Steve Hearn.

The concert opened with the Overture to “The Bartered Bride,” by Bedrich Smetana. The Bartered Bride was by far Smetana’s most popular opera, and during his life it received 117 performances, which is quite something, when you consider that he was constantly being compared to Wagner and Liszt. Smetana was a very strong-willed individual in spite of the fact that he was physically frail. When one of his operas (Dalibor) was criticized for being too Wagnerian, he countered by writing another opera, Libuse, which was quite obviously based on Wagnerian concepts. But The Bartered Bride was a success beyond his wildest dreams, and, along with his other operas, he is responsible for creating a repertoire in Czech music literature where none had previously existed.

This overture was conducted by the Lamont Symphony’s Assistant Conductor, Ace Edwards. The overture begins with large chords, and Edwards used expansive motions to encourage the orchestra. However, after those chords, his movements became very small so that from the audience they were sometimes hard to observe. I could see his elbows moving, but that was about it. In addition, he seemed to not keep eye contact with the orchestra much of the time. In many ways, one can certainly respond with “so what?” But it did seem to me that many in the orchestra were not keeping a very close eye on him, and I say that because the orchestra never really got soft. I don’t know if the LSO has performed this work in the last two or three years (during the tenure of most of the students in the orchestra), but it seemed as if they were playing – and mind you, they were playing very well – because they knew the piece. I have seen Edwards conduct before, and this evening he seemed to be quite rigid on the podium. But it was hard to tell if he was actually leading them, even though, with the exception of dynamics, they played very well.

Michael Jacko is also an assistant conductor of the Lamont Symphony, and he conducted the second work on the program: Jean Sibelius’ “Finlandia.” This piece was commissioned for the Press Celebrations of 1899, and it became very close to a protest piece against the censorship of the Russian Empire. I can remember hearing this piece for the first time I was in the third grade, and the music teacher told the class that the serene ”Finlandia Hymn,“ which comes toward the end of this work, was a Finnish folk tune used by Sibelius. This is simply not true, even though that idea persists today. This entire work is entirely Sibelius’ creation. The Lamont Symphony performed this work quite well and they seemed to respond to Mr. Jacko more willingly; however, to my ear there were still instances where sections of the orchestra never did get very soft. And I must say that Jacko did not seem to ask the orchestra to play softly or to completely end the phrase. It was similar to a pianist holding the pedal down between phrases. In some ways, this is an unusual piece because the first two thirds of it are extremely turbulent, presumably describing political struggles. It then settles down to the famous ‘Finlandia Hymn’, but even here, the orchestra could have been softer.

“Spices, Perfumes, Toxins!” is the title of a three-movement concerto for two percussionists that was written by Israeli composer, Avner Dorman. According to the program notes, “The title, “Spices, Perfumes, Toxins!” refers to three substances that are extremely appealing, yet filled with danger. Spices delight the palate, but can, cause illness; perfumes seduce, but can also betray; toxins bring ecstasy, but are deadly. The concerto combines Middle-Eastern drums, orchestral percussion, and rock drums with orchestral forces – a unique sound both enticing and dangerous.” This duo concerto is a result of a joint commission by the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, its conductor Zubin Mehta and PercaDu which is a percussion duo, founded by Adi Morag and Tomer Yariv. And trust me; this incredible work is both enticing and dangerous. It has incredible rhythms, as one would expect, which are carried over into the orchestra as they play against each other, and it is enticing because of the thematic use of percussion instruments. Audiences have grown more sophisticated, especially here in Denver, so one should not be surprised that percussion instruments can be used to such melodious effect. In addition, a percussion ensemble is no longer unusual at all. What made this performance so outstanding were the two performers, John Kinzie, who is on the faculty as Director of Percussion Studies at the University of Denver, as well as being Principal Percussionist with the Colorado Symphony, and Steve Hearn who is the Assistant Principal Timpanist with the Colorado Symphony. Mr. Hearn is also the Principal Timpanist of the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music where he has performed this duo concerto. Dr. Lawrence Golan conducted this work as well as the remainder of the program. It opens with a fast first movement which resembles perpetual motion. It evolves into a truly frenzied dance – there is no other word for it – as melodic and rhythmic gestures are answered back and forth between the soloists and the orchestra. The second movement, which is introverted, emotional, and thoughtful, reminded me very much of Gil Evans arrangement (for Miles Davis) of the slow movement from Rodrigo’s “Conceirto de Aranjuez” because of the orchestration and the harmonies. There were many dissonances that resolved in a way that kept Gil Evans fresh in my mind. It was extremely passionate and under Golan’s conducting, it absolutely shimmered. I’d also like to point out, that under Golan’s slightest urging, the orchestra played quite softly and had exquisite control of phrasing. The last movement of this concerto had incredibly primitive rhythms and was very fast indeed. It sounded very ritualistic, and the two performers and the conductor were in constant eye contact. In all three movements, the performers actually looked at each other and smiled, thus letting the audience know their love of what they were doing. The Lamont Symphony and the soloists gave a really fine performance. Every section in this orchestra, woodwinds and brass in particular, were spectacular, and they received a well deserved standing ovation.

Avner Dorman holds a Doctorate in Music Composition from the Juilliard School where he studied as a C.V. Starr Fellow with John Corigliano. He completed his Master’s degree at Tel Aviv University where he majored in music, musicology, and physics studying with former Soviet composer Josef Bardanashvili.

The woodwind section and the brass section performed remarkably well after the intermission when the orchestra performed Brahms’ stunning “Variations on a Theme of Joseph Haydn.” The theme is Haydn’s “Chorale St. Antoni”, which many consider to be written by Ignaz Pleyel, Haydn’s student. There is, however, no direct evidence that Pleyel wrote this theme which Haydn used in a wind quintet. And I may add that there is no doubt whatsoever that the instrumentation of this quintet is Haydn’s. At any rate, Brahms used this theme to write a set of ten variations and a finale for two pianos, and this became known as Opus 56a. Brahms then orchestrated it and that is known as Opus 56b. Both versions are immensely satisfying. I am sometimes very “set in my ways,” and the performance that I have admired down through the years is that if the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Paul Kletzki. This was originally recorded in 1959 on the Angel Record label (does anyone remember them?). I hasten to add that Lawrence Golan and the Lamont Symphony did not disappoint. The tempos were perfect, and the nuance with which Golan and the orchestra provided each phrase was remarkable. The theme has two halves followed by a coda which ends with a full chord repeated five times. The first variation is built upon those five chords. The second variation is built on the dotted rhythm from the opening theme; in the third variation, the theme is presented as a mellifluous melody; the fourth variation is contrapuntal; the fifth and sixth variations seem to be paired together; the seventh has a pronounced down sweeping motion; then comes a Presto section which leads to the finale in which the theme is treated as a ground base. This orchestra gave a very mature performance of this work which, I believe, is not heard often enough.

The last work on the program was Paul Hindemith’s “Symphonic Metamorphoses of themes by Carl Maria von Weber.” This work began as a ballet, but when Hindemith heard the first movement of it he did not like it, so he rewrote the score for four movements using little-known pieces by Weber, particularly material from his piano duets, and from his incidental music for the play “Turandot” by Carlo Gozzi. Again, the bassoon and oboe were remarkable. This is a difficult piece, and there is no question that the orchestra was genuinely inspired by it. The first movement was spirited and energetic and the hard work of the woodwinds made it very exciting. The second movement was pure Hindemith as it had a final chord which was tonal and, therefore, a little out of character with the rest of the movement. The third movement was wonderfully lyrical, and that’s the way it should be, but it is seldom heard. The last movement was a march that had incredibly precise dotted rhythms.

The Lamont Symphony Orchestra presented an absolutely terrific concert. It amazes me every time I hear them how professional they sound. They are in tune, they play with conviction and excitement, and they communicate the fact that they are very pleased to be on stage showing the audience what music is about.


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