Opus Colorado


Pianist Aldo Ragone to perform this weekend
March 29, 2011, 9:42 am
Filed under: News | Tags: , ,

Good news! The concert pianist, Dr. Aldo Ragone, is back in Denver to perform with the Denver Philharmonic Orchestra on Friday, April 1, at 7:30 PM, and he will also give a special benefit concert for the Denver Philharmonic on Sunday, April 3, at 2:00 PM. Both of these performances will take place at the KPOF Hall, 1340 Sherman Street, Denver, which is the home base for the Denver Philharmonic. 

At the Friday night concert, Dr. Ragone will perform the Rachmaninoff Concerto Nr. 2, which helped to establish Rachmaninoff as a composer of great merit. The Denver Philharmonic Orchestra will also perform Mussorgsky’s Prelude to Khovanshchina, and one of the 20th century’s great symphonies, the Symphony Nr. 6, by Dmitri Shostakovich. The Denver Philharmonic Orchestra is led by Maestro Adam Flatt, who also conducts the fine Colorado Ballet Orchestra. 

The Sunday, April 3, concert, will be a solo performance by Dr. Ragone, and this concert promises to be very interesting indeed, because Dr. Ragone is going to play two Bach transcriptions. The first transcription is based on a chorale by Bach, Jesu, bleibet meine Freude, and was transcribed by a student of Franz Liszt, Ferrucio Busoni. The second transcription on the program was done by Harold Bauer, an English concert pianist. It is based on the well-known chorale melody by Bach, Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland. At the turn-of-the-century, it was common practice for pianists to write transcriptions of other composer’s pieces. They could be symphonic themes, opera overtures, or incidental music to plays. The practice eventually died out, but for a time lingered on at the hands (pardon the expression) of Vladimir Horowitz and Sergei Rachmaninoff. Bauer and Busoni were quite skilled at their transcriptions, and it will be a rare treat to hear these performed. 

Also on the program will be the Chromatic Fantasy & Fugue in D minor, by J.S. Bach, the Third Sonata Opus 23, by Alexander Scriabin, Three Preludes by George Gershwin, and the Bachianas Brasileiras Nr. 4, by Villa-Lobos. 

Aldo Ragone received an Artist Diploma from DU in the fall of 2008. He has also taught at Regis University in Denver. I have heard Ragone play several times, and in one of my previous reviews, I said that we here in Denver were very fortunate to have a true concert pianist of his stature living in Denver. He is a remarkable pianist who has performed throughout Europe and much of the eastern half of the United States. He has a very solid reputation in his home country of Italy and throughout Europe, and he, once again, comes from Italy to give this particular performance. 

The last time Aldo Ragone performed in Denver, he amazed his audience by performing the set of variations based on Paganini’s 24th Caprice for violin. It was written by the Turkish composer and pianist, Fazil Say. This is a prodigious work that only very accomplished pianists attempt, but then, that is exactly the kind of pianist that Aldo Ragone is. Aldo Ragone is a superior musician and pianist who brings a great deal of artistic ability and musicianship to everything he performs.

Information on tickets for both of these performances can be found on the website of the Denver Philharmonic Orchestra which is: www.denverphilharmonic.org, or you may phone 303-836-7445.



The Mendelssohn Trio: Beauty with aplomb

I must admit that it has been a shamefully long time since I have heard the Mendelssohn Trio perform, so it was with real pleasure that I attended their performance Sunday, March 27, in Hamilton Hall at the Newman Center for the Performing Arts on the DU campus. It was doubly a pleasure because they were performing a composer who has occupied the majority of my research time for the last 15 years, and that is the French composer Théodore Gouvy. In addition to the Gouvy trio, they also performed a one movement trio by the composer Suzanne Sorkin, and the huge Trio in A minor (1914) by Maurice Ravel. 

This was an absolutely marvelous chamber performance. The Mendelssohn Trio possesses something extremely rare, and that is a wonderful sense of ensemble and knowledge of each other’s playing that borders on the uncanny. In fact, the way they reacted to each other, and gave each other freedom of individual expression and musicianship, demonstrated a musical respect for one another that I have not seen for many years. It was a real joy to watch their interactions. But after all, that is the result of playing together for 23 years. Their sense of ensemble reminded me very much of the old Budapest Quartet (Joseph Roisman, Jac Gorodetzky, Boris Kroyt, and Mischa Schneider). 

In case there are any of you who are new to the performances of The Mendelssohn Trio, the the violinist is Dr. Ronald François. I quote from the CSU website, where he is chairman of the string department. 

“Dr. Ron Francois’ performances as a soloist, recitalist and chamber musician has consistently won the acclaim of notable musicians. “…a big talent…” said Abram Shtern concertmaster of the Kiev state Opera and professor at the Kiev Conservatory. Others proclaim Francois’ playing as “…extremely musical…Francois plays with great sensitivity and warmth…” said concert violinist Daniel Heifetz”…A wonderful musician…sensitive ensemble player and a brilliant violinist” said Michael Tree from the Guarneri String Quartet. 

“A recipient of the Quebec Arts Council Grant, Francois began his career under the tutelage of concert violinist Daniel Heifetz and members of the Guarneri String Quartet. Francois concertized all over the USA and abroad with Heifetz as soloist, and as a member of his “Classical Band”. Consequently, Francois has performed several major solo works with orchestras in Canada and throughout the United States. He has also studied with David Salness of the Audubon Quartet, Elizabeth Adkins, Zvi Zeitlin and taken masterclasses with Charles Castleman. 

“As a Chamber musician Ron Francois’ experience is far reaching. As a former member of the internationally acclaimed chamber Ensemble, I Musici de Montreal, Francois toured extensively and recorded two CD’s with this ensemble on the Naxos Label.” 

The cellist for The Mendelssohn Trio is Barbara Thiem. 

“Barbara Thiem is an internationally acclaimed cellist who combines teaching cello and coaching chamber music with her active schedule of performances in Europe and the United States, playing recitals, solo with orchestra, and chamber music. She is a member of the Mendelssohn Trio and in the summers administers the International Summer Academy of Schloss Ort, Austria. She holds degrees from Cologne, Germany, where she studied with avant-garde cellist Siegfried Palm, and from Indiana University where she was assistant to Janos Starker and was awarded the coveted Performer’s Certificate. In addition to concertizing, she has recorded for many radio stations and has produced several cds among them a set of Bach Suites for cello solo, Complete Works by Felix Draeseke for cello and piano with pianist Wolfgang Mueller-Steinbach, Works for Cello and Organ with organist Robert Cavarra, and Cello/Bass duets with Gary Karr. She has published the translation of Gerhard Mantel’s Cello Technique as well as a number of articles on good postural and practicing habits which appeared in the ASTA and Suzuki Journals. She has also been involved in research as part of the Center for Biomedical Research in Music Therapy at CSU. 

“Presently she is teaching and performing at Colorado State University. In addition to studio teaching of cello and chamber music, she is teaching a three semester course of cello pedagogy, as well as organizing the Pre-College Chamber Music Program and the biennial Rocky Mountain Contemporary Music Festival.” 

Surely everyone in Denver knows that the pianist for the group is Professor Emeritus Theodore Lichtmann at the Lamont School of Music, where he was also Chairman of the Piano Division. And, how many of you knew that he had a degree in Classical Greek and Latin? And, like his colleagues in the Trio, he has an outstanding international reputation and career. 

Much to my delight, the first piece on the program was the Trio Nr. 2 in a minor, Opus 18, composed by the almost totally unknown – in the Unitred States – French composer, Théodore Gouvy (1819 to 1898). Théodore Gouvy, who was a close friend of Berlioz, Liszt, and Brahms, was the youngest of four brothers who were born to a very wealthy family in the Lorraine region of France who owned four steel mills. Their great-grandfather had emigrated to France in 1738 from Belgium, and had helped the Lorraine region build its industrial reputation. Theodore’s second oldest brother Charles, emigrated to the United States, most likely to avoid employment at the steel mills, which was expected by his family. He died the same year as Théodore, 1898. Henri Gouvy, who was the oldest, and Alexander, who was the third-born, became civil engineers and eventually took over the steel mills after the death of their father who died in 1829 (one can find their engineering papers in the National Library in Paris). The family had wanted Théodore to become an attorney to help with the legal matters of the steel mills. Though he showed a talent for music at an early age, he was sent off to Paris to law school. After Théodore graduated, he failed the French equivalent of the bar exam three times, much to his delight. As a matter of fact, he wrote a very breezy and lighthearted letter to his mother, after his third failure, explaining that “… My professors have jammed so much law into my head that my brain became constipated, and I could not remove the answers to all of those questions.” 

And now, an interruption. Théodore’s three older brothers were clearly born in France, where the family residences were. However, when Théodore was born, the border between France and Germany had moved about twenty miles south of their house due to all the squabbles between the two governments. Thus, and this is important, Théodore Gouvy (only – not his brothers) was considered German, and had to reapply for French citizenship. When he went to Paris to enroll in the Paris Conservatory, the composer Luigi Cherubini, who was the director of the Paris Conservatory at that time, refused to admit Gouvy because he said he was German (keep in mind that Cherubini was Italian, and had emigrated to France, and truthfully became more French than French). The Berlin Academy refused Gouvy entrance, because they considered him French. It was Théodore Gouvy’s good fortune to be so very wealthy. He simply stayed in Paris, paid all of the professors “under the table” for almost five years, and got a very good education in composition, piano, and violin. In addition, he also helped several other students with their tuition. 

As a composer, Gouvy quickly established himself as the creator of wonderful melodic lines, as well as the supreme ability to handle large choirs. This second piano trio that was performed on Sunday, as the program notes make clear, displays a freshness and remarkable energy that can easily be heard. Not only did Gouvy write incredible melodic lines, but his works reflect surprising harmonic twists that makes them absolutely sparkle. However, before one decides to perform this piece, be aware that it is difficult. Gouvy was a virtuoso pianist, and this is in clear evidence when watching this piece be performed and upon its hearing. Ted Lichtmann made this work soar, as did the violinist and the cellist. But I must say, that Lichtmann possesses a remarkable depth of tone and romantic nuance which is so necessary in the performance of Gouvy’s works. All three musicians seemed to be exhilarated in performing a piece that has surprised them upon its discovery. It was absolutely wonderful to hear. In addition, I am quite sure that this was the United States premiere of this particular trio. I assure you that the members of the audience (who were far too few) got a rare treat in hearing some terrific musicians perform this wonderful music. 

The next work on the program was a one movement Piano Trio (2006) by composer Suzanne Sorkin. Frankly, though I had heard of Sorkin’s name as a composer, this was the first time I had heard any of her compositions. And I must tell you, that I was very impressed with this piece. Quoting directly from the St. Joseph’s University website where she teaches: 

“… Suzanne is active as a composer and educator.  She has received awards and commissions from the Fromm Music Foundation at Harvard University, Chamber Music Now, Violin Futura, Third Millennium Ensemble, counter-induction, ASCAP, and others.  Her work has been programmed on Piano Spheres in Los Angeles, Washington Square Contemporary Music Society in New York City, Denison University New Music Festival, Chamber Music Quad Cities, Florida State University Festival of New Music, and Vassar Modfest.  She has written for ensembles including the Mannes Trio, Cleveland Chamber Symphony, Third Angle, and Aspen Contemporary Ensemble.  She has been a composition fellow at the Wellesley Composers Conference, the Ernest Bloch Composers Symposium, the Advanced Masterclasses in Composition at the Aspen Music Festival, and the Oregon Bach Composers Symposium.  Residencies awarded to her include Millay Colony for the Arts, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Ragdale Foundation, Artists’ Enclave at I-Park, ART342, Kimmel Harding Nelson Center, and Atlantic Center for the Arts.  She received her Ph.D. in composition from the University of Chicago through the support of a four-year Century Fellowship in the Humanities.   In Fall 2005, Suzanne Sorkin joined the faculty at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia as Assistant Professor of Music where she teaches music composition and theory.” 

I would really like to see the score for this piece. Sorkin uses tone clusters, and the extreme ranges of the instruments to produce an absolutely ethereal sound. Sorkin, in discussing one of her other compositions, explains that she is always concerned with tone color. In her composition, Night Watch, she states that she actually tried to create a counterpoint with tone color as well as the notes. In this trio, I would not be at all surprised if that was one of her goals as well. And it was most unusual, upon hearing the Ravel Trio that followed the intermission, that I considered the fact that Sorkin’s tone color, was in some ways similar, but of course different, to the use of tone color in the Ravel. That may be heresy to some, since Ravel was one of the great tone colorists of all time. And I am quite sure that I saw the page turner assist Ted Lichtmann by muting one of the strings in the bass register of the piano with her hand. The program notes, written by Professor Emeritus Lichtmann, state that “the cello takes on the role of harbinger of loss, longing, and ultimately release.” It was very emotional. This was a very good piece performed exceptionally well, and I truly hope to hear it again. 

The third and last work on the program was the enormous Trio in A minor, (1914) by Maurice Ravel, which he completed shortly before he joined the French army as an ambulance driver. There is no question that it is organized around the classical sonata-allegro form, but the above-mentioned tone colors and startlingly textural innovations set it aside. The second movement is a wonderful scherzo, cheerful and playful in tone, followed by a passacaglia of eight measures and length and it moves into the fourth movement without a break. Filled with typical Ravel-ian glissandos from the piano, and trills from the strings, this very difficult piece is not heard often enough. This group of performers were so excellent in this work, that it sounded as though they had played it, and played together, for at least 100 years. 

I came away from this performance convinced that The Mendelssohn Trio can play anything they choose with equal aplomb and musicianship. They know how Ravel should be performed, how Sorkin should be performed, and how Gouvy should be performed. It is very easy to say, “Well, yes, but that’s what they do.” Doing it is another matter indeed. 

The Mendelssohn Trio is preparing for their third European tour, the trio – Ron Francois, violin; Barbara Thiem, cello; and Theodor Lichtmann, piano – formed in 1988, and is named for Thiem’s great-grandfather, Franz von Mendelssohn, a nephew of Felix Mendelssohn. Think of that!



Bullying the SCFD
March 26, 2011, 11:05 am
Filed under: Commentary

I ran across an article yesterday written by Pete Vriesenga. For those of you who do not know who he is, he is the president of the Denver Musicians Association (DMA), which is a branch of the AFL-CIO, and insures that union members, who are also members of local orchestras and bands, are paid a fair wage for their services. A necessary service, indeed. The article that I refer to is published on the DMA web site. 

In his most recent article, he attacks the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District (SCFD) for being responsible for “bad policy that is dragging our local industry down.” Precisely what he is talking about is unclear until one gets to the third paragraph of his article, wherein he states that because the SCFD has no quality standards for the arts groups that it funds, they are guilty of lowering the wages of orchestra members. He eventually makes it clear in his article that if the SCFD had quality standards, musicians in the area would be making much higher salaries. He also says they have no accountability and no standards for education. He also makes a careless statement that the administration of the SCFD could “care less.” He continues, saying that the SCFD supports organizations that “… pirate professional engagements, and only for ignorant and selfish reasons.” I’m not quite sure what he means by that – it might be that he thinks that if the Colorado Symphony Orchestra performs Brahms First Symphony, that no other community orchestra has the right to perform the same work in the same year. That is utter nonsense, but I caution you readers, it was unclear to me what he was getting at, so that is only a guess. But since Mr. Vriesenga considers this a very important point, one would think he would outline his thoughts a little more carefully. 

He goes on to praise the Colorado Chamber Orchestra, because, as he says, and I quote: “… in its three years of operation, the CCO has shown an unprecedented 300% growth in budget, despite the economic downturn. In addition to scale wages, CCO makes pension contributions for their musicians under a collective bargaining agreement with the DMA. CCO is one of the few organizations that is truly qualified to serve the public in a manner that the SCFD statute demands.” Certainly, the Colorado Chamber Orchestra does deserve praise on many fronts, including the fact that they make pension contributions for their musicians. Their growth is indicative of a good Executive Director and an active board. But the point Mr. Vriesenga is missing is the fact that the SCFD gives many arts organizations a chance to flourish. He is also missing the point that many arts organizations take longer to establish their base than others. The SCFD has to give everybody an equal chance: they are promoting the arts, not the salaries of the organizations that they support. In addition, there are many “professional” arts organizations who have active boards and aggressive executive directors who still produce low-quality results. 

Mr. Vriesenga also needs to realize that the community orchestras in the seven county metro area that is served by SCFD are made up by volunteers, school teachers, plumbers, hairdressers, attorneys, and that their members may not be individually capable for producing a performance equal to that of the members of the Colorado Symphony Orchestra. However, when they are in the group, the result is often quite satisfactory. Mr. Vriesenga has often expressed dissatisfaction and frustration with the fact that these orchestras do not pay their members at union rates. He fails to understand that not every person or organization concerned with supporting the arts, and that’s what the community orchestra members do, have budgets large enough to pay union scale. That does not mean that what they produce is of poor quality. Mr. Vriesenga says in his article that there are now 30 community orchestras in the seven county funding district, and they “… collectively pull prevailing wage downward more than any other factor.” What Mr. Vriesenga seems to be saying is that he is sorry that they are not members of the union, and therefore the union doesn’t make much money from these community orchestras. He refuses to believe that he has no control over community orchestras made up of volunteers who are not union members, even though he often tries to exert influence over them, and even writes articles about them as if he does control them. 

Mr. Vriesenga does not understand that just because one promotes music and the arts, one does not have to be a member of the union. It is a shame that he does not congratulate the SCFD for giving many community orchestras the chance to promote music, because in his own way, he is promoting what the musically illiterate wags say when they proclaim that serious music is a dying art. If I were Mr. Vriesenga, I would certainly promote all of the orchestras in the Denver Metro area. If he did that, he would gain more respect and be listened to a little more carefully. As a matter of fact, I called the DMA in December of 2010 to find out what the union pay scale was for orchestra members. I was told that information could not be given over the phone because it was proprietary (see my blog of December 10, 2010 entitled, “The dispensation of proprietary information.”). I stress that I eventually did get the information that I was seeking, but it would seem to me that Mr. Vriesenga needs to investigate the efficiency of his organization, rather than inefficiently trying to ascribe his own goals to others. But then, he has always been efficient at doing that. 

There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all.



A tribute to a fine violin teacher
March 23, 2011, 8:20 am
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: , , , , ,

I found a very nice surprise the other day in a CD that I had never heard before, and one of the surprises was that it is not all that new. This is a CD which was released in 1997 and recorded by Dr. Lawrence Golan who, of course, is the conductor of the Lamont School of Music’s Symphony Orchestra, and who just happens to be (I’m sure, to no one’s surprise) a truly fine violinist. The collaborative pianist is Martin Perry. The name of the CD is Indian Summer, and it features the music of the late George Perlman who was one of the country’s finest violin teachers. Make no mistake about it: George Perlman was of the same ilk as Joseph Gingold and Yuval Yaron. Mr. Perlman taught in Chicago, and Yaron and Gingold taught at the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University. As a matter of fact, Lawrence Golan, who received his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in performance from the Jacobs School of Music studied with both Gingold and Yaron. And, how many of you knew that Lawrence Golan’s father, Joseph Golan, was the Principal Second violinist with the Chicago Symphony? Both father and son studied with George Perlman. 

As I said above, this CD was recorded by Lawrence Golan and pianist Martin Perry, who is a graduate of the Juilliard School. He is a resident of Maine, and he has performed all of the works of Charles Griffis and Alan Hovhaness. He has appeared with the Portland Symphony Orchestra and chamber music performances throughout New England. 

I had no idea what to expect from this CD, but what a surprise. The music is very fresh, and all of it is enlivening. I might add that much of the music has a very intriguing story that provides the music’s foundation. 

Before I begin discussing the music, let me tell you a little bit about George Perlman. He was a violinist and composer, and dwell on this: he taught for seventy-four years. Amazing! Mr. Perlman died on June 23, 2000, at the age of 103. The other astonishing fact that you must understand is that he retired from teaching on April 15 of the year 2000. What a legacy he has left. He was born May 15, 1897, in Ukraine, and many generations of his family were rabbis. When he was four years old, his family left Ukraine and arrived in Chicago. He attended Northwestern University and DePaul University, and received his Doctorate of Jurisprudence (Can anyone count the number of composers and performers who were encouraged to practice law?), but abandoned the practice of law in order to perform and teach. And I state straight away, that we are all the better for his decision. 

The music on this CD, as stated in the program notes, is a celebration of Perlman’s Jewish heritage which gave him pride, and helped to cultivate in him a great interest in his Jewish faith. Indeed, the very first composition on the CD entitled Israeli Concertino, has that Israeli flare that is so typical of music that one hears in Israel. What am I talking about, and how can that be recognized? When you listen to Western music, one is almost automatically and subconsciously aware of the major and minor scale, both of which have pronounced tonal centers. But think of this: major and minor were “invented” by Gioseffo Zarlino in 1558 in his monumental treatise, Istitutioni Harmoniche. Before this treatise, the medieval church modes were used. However, that applies only to Western music. Modes continue to be used in Israeli music, especially for prayers and folk music. Much of the music in the Jewish tradition is based upon the Ahava Raba mode, which does not have a leading tone that “leads” our ear back to a specific tone. If any of you readers know the order of half steps and whole steps in the harmonic minor scale, you might hear a resemblance between it and the Ahava Raba mode. The harmonic minor scale has eight notes in it. There is a half step between two and three, five and six, a step and a half between six and seven, and a half step between seven and eight. All the rest are whole steps. However, in the Ahava Raba mode, there is a step and a half between two and three, a half step between six and seven, and a whole step between seven and eight. This gives the Ahava Raba mode a certain unsettled feeling to the Western ear. Most of the music on this wonderful CD uses the Ahava Raba mode. 

The first work on this CD is entitled Israeli Concertino. This is a three movement work, the first movement of which is entitled Hora-Hatikvah. The Hora is a type of circle dance which came from the Balkans, and eventually became the national dance of Israel. It is often danced at bar mitzvahs, for example. Hatikvah is the name of the Israeli national anthem, and it is translated as The Hope because the text emphasizes the hope of the Jewish people to be a free people in the land of Israel. The spirit of this opening movement is certainly that of a dance, and is absolutely captivating. The middle movement entitled Nocturne, is lush and romantic, and Golan’s performance is very passionate indeed. Golan is one of the most accurate violinists that I have heard for some time. He never scoops pitches, and his phrases are always well defined dynamically. Martin Perry and Golan work very well together, and they are very compatible with their sense of how each piece should be played. It reminds me of the old Gerald Moore/Fischer-Dieskau recordings. 

Here is an interesting point, which is mentioned in the liner notes, but, I think, needs emphasis. The first three pieces on this CD, Israeli Concertino, Elegy and Habañera, and Indian Concertino, are relatively easy pieces, albeit with good violin writing, which I think would be quite suitable for younger violin students. Even the piano score is somewhat simple, but nonetheless very effective. And this led me to wonder if these pieces were written by Perlman for pedagogical purposes. For example, one can easily recognize that the Six Sonatinas, Opus 36, by Muzio Clementi, were written for pedagogical purposes, and they also happen to be, in my opinion, the six best pieces that Clementi wrote. They are absolute gems. I was very impressed with the first three pieces on this CD: they are terrific pieces that are approachable by younger students, both violinists and pianists. 

After the first three compositions, there is an enormous change. The fourth piece on the CD, entitled Suite Hébraïque, is a very serious work, substantially more difficult in both the violin and the piano parts. The first movement which Perlman calls Yiskor: Hebrew Prayer, is full of double stops and notes in the extreme higher register of the violin. A Yiskor (should the spelling be Yizkor?) is a memorial prayer for the dead which is said four times year, and Golan and Perry impart an incredible sense of conviction and urgency to the performance of this work. This particular movement is dedicated to the composer’s father. It is absolutely beautiful. The middle movement is a light and airy dance which has an exciting accelerando, wherein Golan and Perry are so perfectly together that it sounds like one musician playing both piano and violin at the same time. The last movement is entitled Chassidish, and its definition and explanation are somewhat more subjective. It means enhancement, improvement, or a betterment of the status quo. Golan’s tone in this movement is incredibly sweet, and the depth of his sound is full of emotion. 

Another work on this CD is entitled Ghetto Sketches. Like every single piece on this CD, it is extremely evocative, suggesting many stories. It is enchanting. The performance from both of these artists is superb, though I must say that in this work, it sounded as though it had been recorded in a very small room, and that the piano could have used a little voicing. It was noticeably different from the excellent recording quality of the rest of this CD. 

The final work on the CD, Indian Summer, was inspired by a cartoon in which a grandfather is seated under a tree with his grandson. And here, I will quote from the program notes: “… The grandfather explains that Indian summer is when homesick Indians come back to play. He says that the distant colorful haze and the sky is actually the spirits of Indian warriors dancing around. When they get tired and rest in the trees, he says, their war paint sometimes rubs off on the leaves and that’s why they change colors.” The cartoon was drawn by John T. McCutcheon, and it appeared in the Chicago Sunday Tribune. After George Perlman composed this piece, he took one of his students, a child prodigy, to McCutcheon’s home, and the prodigy performed Perlman’s composition, Indian Summer. The child prodigy was seven years old, and he was one of the most gifted students that Perlman had. The prodigy’s name was Joseph Golan, who later became the Principal Second Violinist in the Chicago Symphony. This is a beautiful piece of music, and I cannot help but wonder at the thoughts that went through the head of Lawrence Golan as he played this piece which was dedicated to his father by the composer. 

The music on this CD is totally appealing, and the performances by Golan and Perry are as excellent as one would expect from such artists. The music is not at all cutting-edge avant-garde. Rather, it is a very personal and romantic style, and one almost has the feeling that one is sitting in a living room on an overstuffed couch listening to a live performance. Some of it is reminiscent of Rachmaninoff, but mind you, only reminiscent. Another work on this CD which is full of humor and good nature, A Clown’s Greeting to a Dummy, is reminiscent of Erik Satie, or perhaps early Debussy. But I draw these comparisons only to illustrate how some of this music sounds. Perlman has his own style, perhaps not overly sophisticated, but it is  thoroughly enjoyable. I truly believe that much of this music would be excellent for young violinists and pianists, and I truly believe that other works have a rightful place on a concert program. There is no question that they would make marvelous encore pieces. All of them are quite infectious and the musicians are beyond compare.

This CD is on the Albany label and its catalogue number is TROY239.



The Boulder Bach Festival: the Mass in B minor

There are, of course, so many reasons to consider Johan Sebastian Bach one of the greatest composers of all time. To consider him such is nothing new because everyone is familiar with the complexities of his music: his counterpoint, which raised an almost defunct art to unheard-of levels, not to mention all of the religious symbolism in his music which often presents puzzles, almost ciphers that still hold our attention in a most riveting way. But remember, that during his lifetime he was known primarily as an organ virtuoso. Because of that, he sometimes felt that he was not receiving enough respect from the ruling powers in Leipzig. After his move from Cöthen to Leipzig, things seemed to not go well at all. Bach was sternly criticized, in print, by 23-year-old student, Johann Adolf Scheibe, because he had apparently criticized Scheibe’s compositions too strongly, Anna Magdalena had lost her income as a singer, and Bach’s duties in Leipzig took a great deal of time. The members of the town council reminded him often that they did not want a composer, they wanted the schoolmaster. Is this not the ultimate in shortsightedness and narrow minds? He finally wrote a letter to Friedrich August II who was the Catholic Elector of Saxony, and asked him for some kind of title that would encourage the town council to give him more respect. He thought that the Catholic Elector would be more responsive to his plea if he included proof that he could be a diligent composer of liturgical music. With his letter, and the date was 1733, he included the Kyrie and the Gloria of the Mass in B minor, which he did not even finish until sometime in 1748, two years before his death. Can you imagine being so humble that you would enclose the Kyrie and Gloria of one of the most incredible compositions of all time with a letter requesting approval? Such humbleness almost brings tears to my eyes. 

Friday evening, March 11, the Boulder Bach Festival performed this giant work, the Mass in B minor, at St. John’s Episcopal Cathedral here in Denver. Conducting the performance was Emeritus Music Director, Robert Spillman. The vocal soloists for this performance were Jennifer Bird-Arvidsson, soprano, who is on the CU faculty; Julie Simson, soprano, CU faculty member; Björn Arvidsson, tenor; and Christopher Burchett, bass-baritone. 

Every time I have heard the Boulder Bach Festival perform, I have always been delighted. Of course, since they largely deal with one composer, Johann Sebastian Bach, one would expect them to adhere to his demands in the score, as well as his limitations of the size of ensemble. I only draw attention to this because it is easy, today, to hear such a large work as the Mass in B minor suffer from those who think that since it is such a large work, that it should have a correspondingly large orchestra. The Boulder Bach Festival would never consider giving an extravagant performance. One can count on them to always give accurate performances. 

Even though Friday’s performance was excellent in so many ways, there was still something missing throughout the performance. Though the choir was excellent, and the melding of their voices was superb, it was often difficult to understand the words that they were singing. Granted, it was in Latin, but often the diction just was not there. One characteristic of Bach is a well-defined rhythmic pulse. It keeps the work moving forward and gives his compositions, whether they are choral or keyboard or instrumental, a buoyancy that is unmistakable. For the most part, the choir lacked any rhythmic pulse. For a choir it is not difficult to do. One just has to give a little extra breath on the beginning of each syllable which helps the enunciation. I watched Maestro Spillman very closely, and it seemed to me that his conducting style lacked the vigorousness that would provide that kind of rhythmic pulse. In fact, more often than not, his conducting style seemed to be almost tender. This struck me as being a little unusual, because the orchestra was playing Bach beautifully, and seemed to have the necessary drive. The joyfulness at the beginning of the Gloria was extremely well done by the orchestra, but the choir sounded not so joyful; there seemed to be no excitement. But I hasten to point out, that the Qui tollis was beautiful and extremely well done by both orchestra and chorus. 

The bass aria, Quoniam to solus sanctus, was beautifully done by Christopher Burchett who has a fine bass-baritone voice, as well as genuinely clear diction. In fact all four soloists were superb in this performance. Julie Simson has such a remarkably beautiful voice, and it is so well suited for Bach. And, like Burchett, her diction Friday night left absolutely nothing to be desired. Every single word could be understood. Soprano Jennifer Bird-Arvidsson was also an excellent choice for this particular work because her voice quality is just a little lighter than one would normally expect. It was more difficult to categorize Björn Arvidsson tenor voice only because it seemed to change a little from light Italian to dark and moody, but he was excellent as well, and his duet in the Domine Deus was superb. 

The transition between the bass solo, Quoniam tu solus, and the chorus’ Cum sancto Spiritu, was noticeably ragged but when they began the fugue, things improved markedly except again, there was still no pulse. And this fugue is normally incredibly exciting: it never seems to end. 

After the intermission, came the Credo. It was here, that the choir was simply out of sync. They were a nano second behind the bass of the orchestra. Things did gradually improve, and the duet between soprano and alto and the Et in unum Dominum certainly did have some pulse, thanks to the efforts of the soloists. 

Perhaps the most beautiful moments of the entire evening came in the Et incarnates est and Crucifixus, where the chorus in the orchestra were absolutely beautiful. Yes, the diction of the chorus could have been a little better, but their sound and mood were absolutely perfect. 

Finally, in the Et resurrexit tertia, there was some genuine rhythmic pulse and forward movement. The chorus sang with true joy, and followed the lead of the fine Boulder Bach Festival Orchestra. 

The remainder of the program was very good, as was the entire program. So why am I nitpicking this concert if the entire program was very good? Because, it is my belief that when Bach is conducted, there should be a special effort made to impart his vitality. And if Bach was anything, he was vital, and his conviction and dedication to God, which were vital to him, meant everything to him. Realize that he signed every composition that he wrote “To the dedication of God, from his most humble servant, Johann Sebastian Bach.” 

I state again, this was a very good performance, but when one undertakes such a well-known and overwhelming composition, it needs to be exceptional, not just very good. Not for one moment do I doubt the motivation and desire of the Boulder Bach Festival chorus, orchestra, or conductor. But it truly seemed to me that the soloists were the only ones who fulfilled their goal. Was it enjoyable? Of course, it was. And the audience is indeed fortunate to hear this work performed live, which is an all too rare occurrence, because this incredible composition can never be performed too often. With all of the deficiencies which I have mentioned in this article, I still offer my congratulations, humble as they may be.



The Lamont Symphony + Madoka Asari + Janis Sakai: Incredible Artistry

The Lamont Symphony Orchestra consistently presents outstanding programs which bear little resemblance to the concerts given by other university orchestras that I am familiar with. The concerts are so good that they encroach on performances given by professional orchestras. If any of you readers doubt that statement, start attending some of the Lamont Symphony Orchestra concerts. Thursday night’s concert, March 10, was an exception only because it was the best I have heard them do, and that is saying quite a bit. It is easy to dismiss this orchestra by saying, “Well, sure, they should be good because they are all music majors.” Yes, they are all music majors are, and yes, they practice all the time as music majors do. Nonetheless, these are students. They are not consummate concert level professionals, but mark my words, there are some who certainly will become that. 

Thursday night, they presented another performance of Silouan’s Song (the work was written in 1991, and this was the Colorado premiere) by the Estonian composer, Arvo Pärt. I have written about Arvo Pärt in previous articles, but please be reminded that Arvo Pärt is widely known as a minimalist composer, and his work between the years 1977 to 1992 can be described as “holy minimalism” because of his immersion in Gregorian chant and early liturgical music. He further describes this sound as “tintinnabuli” because it often sounds like the ringing of bells. Some critics have gone so far as to describe Pärt as a Western Confucius because of his mysticism and liturgical leanings. In Silouans Song there is not so much tintinnabuli, but there is certainly an influence of religious mysticism. Pärt found much inspiration in the Russian Orthodox Church, and was specifically influenced by his acquaintance with Archimandrite Sophrony, who was a disciple and biographer of St. Silouan. As a matter of fact, it was Father Sophrony who advised Pärt to stay the course and become a composer. Silouan’s Song is really Pärt’s orchestral interpretation based on words of St. Silouan, and some say that Pärt tried to create the mood of the words in the violins and the cellos. 

This work certainly is among the most serene that Pärt has composed. It is for string orchestra, and is in long phrases, really sections, that are separated by periods of silence. Most of the sections are subdued and positively shimmered under the hands of Travis Jürgens, who truly is a superior conductor. It seems to me that the difficulty with this piece are the entrances of each section. Almost all of them began at a piano or pianissimo dynamic level, and trying to get an orchestra to enter precisely, and I do mean everyone, takes a lot of attention on the part of all the orchestra members, and I would think much rehearsal time. The entrances were perfect. That confirmed the control that not only Maestro Juergens is able to make use of over the orchestra, but it also confirms the control that the orchestra members have in their own performance ability. As I have said before, this orchestra, and it seems this year alone, just keeps getting better and better. One of the reasons simply has to be that they have a great deal of respect for Travis Jürgens, and it is always easier to do well when you are cooperating with someone that you respect. I am always struck by how hard every single musician in this orchestra works for their conductor. I have seen and heard a lot of university orchestras in my life, and the Lamont Symphony makes many of them appear to be totally unconcerned. I know that this is an old cliché, but my hat is off to Travis Jürgens and the Lamont Symphony Orchestra. 

The next work on the program was the Beethoven Piano Concerto Nr. 2 in B flat Major, Opus 19. I would like to point out that somehow it was listed in the program as Opus 10, and that is incorrect. This Concerto is Opus 19, and it had its origins in Bonn before Beethoven moved to Vienna. There are sketches from this concerto that are from the year 1785, and it was first published in 1801. The publication dates of Beethoven’s first two piano concertos long confused the issue of when each one was written, but we have also known for a time now, that what is known as his Concerto Nr.1 in C Major, and carries the opus number 15, was written by 1798. This Concerto was also published and 1801, but one of the aspects of this work which indicates it was later than the B flat Concerto, is that the orchestration is much more advanced, and is for full orchestra. Beethoven was not completely satisfied with either concerto, and both are sometimes mentioned as extensions of Mozart’s piano concertos by several scholars. 

All that aside, be rest assured that the young lady who performed this Beethoven Piano Concerto, Madoka Asari, is absolutely breathtaking. She is the winner of the 2011 Lamont Solo Honors Competition, and she studies with Professor Stephen Mayer. Her playing is extremely clean and precise, and she shapes each phrase, making sure that there is a subtle highpoint. When there is a small two note phrase, which is such a cliché of the classical period, particularly in Haydn (Beethoven’s teacher) and Beethoven, she has a perfect wrist drop on the first note of each phrase, and plays the second note as she is coming off the keyboard. This consistency carried through to so many other details. I was a little surprised at how far back she sat from the piano, because her arms were comparatively outstretched. If she sat just a little closer, she might be able to relax her arms just a little more, which in turn will relax her hands. I did notice in a few places that her left hand was a little more tense than her right. I mention this only because she is young, and she has a whole lifetime of performing before her, and she must take care not to damage anything. And I assure you, she really does have a whole lifetime of performing in her future. The minute she began to play the first movement, her artistic concentration seemed to kick in, and she knew the piece so well that she could think about it to the exclusion of everything around her except the orchestra and Maestro Golan. That makes her an incredibly reliable musician: she knew the score, and she knew her entrances, and she clearly allowed the orchestra to help her with these aspects of performing. What do I mean? When you perform with another group of musicians, whether it is a chamber work or a concerto, you have to know every single note mentally. One does not learn a piece by practicing it so much that one’s hands can just “do it.” One has to listen to the other musicians, and be able to say to themselves, “Oh, yes. There’s the bassoon making his entrance, and I come in three measures later.” All of this means that one is reliable as a musician and can be counted on by the conductor. Madoka Asari is that kind of musician, reliable, and consummately musical. The last movement of this concerto has one thing in common with the C Major Concerto, Opus 15. Both are almost playful, and both begin to show Beethoven’s development away from Mozart and his teacher, Haydn. The second movements of both concertos are much deeper musically, and Ms. Asari excelled. And, guess what? She has ten more performances scheduled for the year. Keep in mind that she is only a junior at the Lamont School, and will play her junior recital this coming May. Ladies and gentlemen, that is impressive. 

The next performer on the program was equally impressive, and here I speak of the Lamont Symphony Orchestra as a single performer, under the direction of Maestro Lawrence Golan. I truly think this is the first time I have ever heard a student performance of Richard Strauss’symphonic tone poem, Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life). Of course such a huge work is possible because the Lamont Symphony is itself very large. Nonetheless several instruments were added to fill out the orchestra, for example, four harps. Not only is a large orchestra required for this work, but the members of the orchestra must be skilled: this work, like all Strauss orchestral pieces, is extremely difficult. That is why student orchestras seldom attempt such a piece. But Maestro Golan is so adept at pulling musicianship and skill out of this orchestra, that I am willing to bet that all he had to do was calmly tell them, “You can play this piece, its reputation for difficulty is exaggerated. Here we go!” Now it probably didn’t happen quite that easily, because every measure of this performance reflected intense work and intense joy of performing. 

The performance of this difficult piece has to be one of the finest performances I have ever heard the Lamont Symphony Orchestra give. 

Ein Heldenleben can often give conductors fits because of its difficulty, but you have to understand that the performance Thursday night again made obvious how much the orchestra members admire and respect Maestro Golan. I can remember when the great Hungarian conductor, Fritz Reiner, fired the entire brass section of the Pittsburgh (Was it the Philadelphia?) Symphony. My mother showed me the newspaper headlines. He was conducting a Strauss tone poem and became dissatisfied with the brass section, so he simply fired all of them: horns, trumpets, trombones, and tuba. The next day, the headlines said that he had hired them all back, because the Symphony Society threatened to fire him. But be aware that in those days conductors were often tyrants, and I am quite sure that the members of the Chicago Symphony, which he conducted for 10 years, considered Reiner to resemble Dracula. He led the Chicago Symphony from 1953 until his death in 1963, and many of the orchestra members predicted that he might even fire some of his pallbearers. 

I hasten to add that Maestro Golan would never suffer from comments such as these! The performance of Ein Heldenleben was spectacular. The opening is remarkably difficult. There is no time to collect your thoughts, or to even think, Yes, it gets hard in a few measures. It gets hard from the very first note, and the entire orchestra was ready to go and they did it. Maestro Golan took a perfect tempo, which is to say it was the tempo that would have suited the composer very nicely. Golan did not, obviously, think I’d better go slower. These are students. There is extensive violin solo work in this piece that the first chair violin, or concertmaster, performs. I was truly flabbergasted by the mature and artistic performance given by Janis Sakai. Her performance was as professional as any that I have heard, and when I say that, I am including performances done by professional orchestras, not only student orchestras. This young woman possesses remarkable talent (how I hate that word talent, because it does not begin to encompass what gifted individuals do). Janis Sakai is stellar. It was wonderful idiomatic Strauss. Golan conducted this work with the swagger that Strauss requires, especially since “the hero” that Strauss is referring to is himself, even as he takes a poke at his critics in this work. And it was clear that Janis Sakai played this work so brilliantly because she has the maturity to believe in every single measure. Her playing was opulent, and when it needed to be brooding, it was brooding. Those of you who were in the audience not only know what I am talking about, but I am sure that you consider yourselves fortunate for having heard this performance. 

Think of this: you audience members got to hear two young musicians who will make their mark on the world, and you got to hear a student orchestra led by Maestro Lawrence Golan support these young artists in a very professional way.



The Colorado Ballet creates a transcendental Romeo and Juliet

Once in a while, and it is rare, I have seen performances that were so wonderfully incredible that I simply could not take any notes. These are performances where I have simply been drawn into whatever event is in progress on the stage, whether it is a ballet, symphony, chamber music, or a solo artist. At events like these, I find it impossible to think about what I will write concerning the performance, and I simply wallow in the artistry that is on stage. I have had considerable performance experience myself during my concertising lifetime, and I always hoped that any critic reviewing one of my performances would become as awestruck as I was at the Saturday matinee performance of the Colorado Ballet’s Romeo and Juliet. 

There is no doubt in my mind that this performance by the Colorado Ballet was the finest that I have ever seen them give. What was so amazing was the companionship (there is no other word for it) between the dancers and the orchestra. Maestro Adam Flatt was clearly moved by the music and his love for it, and not only did he communicate that to the orchestra, but to the dancers as well, and the dancers in turn, communicated their love for their art and for the music back to Maestro Flatt. The result, quite literally, was the melding of artistic purpose and joy, the likes of which I have not seen for several years. 

Gil Boggs, the Artistic Director of the Colorado Ballet, deserves unlimited credit for holding together such a remarkable dance company. In past reviews of the Colorado Ballet, I have said that every single dancer in the entire company could be a soloist. But in this performance, the company did not simply “dance” there respective roles. Caitlin Valentine-Ellis did not dance Juliet. She was Juliet. Viacheslav Buchkovskiy did not “dance” Romeo. He became Romeo. Sayaka Karasugi and Gregory K. Gonzales were Lord and Lady Capulet, complete with their arrogance and expectation that things should go their way, and yet they often displayed kindness as well. Every person on the stage, whether it was Jesse Marks, Igor Vassine, Christopher Ellis, Elizabeth Shipiatsky, Ron Marriott, Kevin Aydelotte, Eric Cedarlund, Sonja Davenport, or any of the other soloists or corps members were remarkable in their portrayal of intense emotion, joyful or sad, as well as the character that Shakespeare and the composer, Sergei Prokofiev, were presenting. And there are so many names that I did not mention: Faith Madison, Sally Turkel, Cara Cooper, Casey Dalton, Asuka Sasaki, Dana Benton, Sean Omandam, Greg DeSantis, Morgan Schifano, and you see, there are just too many to name. But you must understand how excellent every single one of this company is. 

The only possible criticism that I could have has nothing to do with the performance. It just seems to me, that the Choreographer, in this case the illustrious Alun Jones, and the repetiteur, Helen Starr, should be listed in the front of the program with everyone else. Alun Jones was born in Wales and made his debut as a dancer with the Welsh National Opera, dancing in La Traviata, Faust, and May Night. After several positions as Associate Artistic Director, he was named Artistic Director to the Louisville Ballet in 1978, a position he held until 2002. He has choreographed over 30 ballets, including two of Prokofiev’s: Cinderella and Romeo and Juliet

And now it is time for a quiz! How many of you know what a repetiteur is? You know that the choreographer is the person who writes – composes – the steps that the dancers dance, and the repetiteur is the individual responsible for rehearsing and staging the ballets. But, the repetiteur also makes sure that the dancers are dancing exactly what the choreographer composed. Can you imagine how well that individual must know the choreography? Ms. Helen Starr, the repetiteur for Romeo and Juliet, was trained at the Royal Academy of Dance in England, and she has toured extensively with them throughout the entire world. And after joining the London Festival Ballet she was made the principal dancer and has danced the lead roles in several ballets since then. 

And one other very small quibble. The program misspelled repetiteur. Personally, I would be thrilled to death to be hired by the Colorado Ballet just to teach French! 

There are so many moments in this performance that stand out in my mind. In the opening act, the dislike shared by the Capulets and the Montagues did not resemble acting. It seemed to be absolutely genuine. Eric Cedurlund appeared to be accustomed to having his orders obeyed when, as Prince of Verona, he commanded that the feud between the two families must end. 

And of course, the famous balcony scene where Romeo and Juliet meet in secret and declare their love for each other was full of astonishing emotion. The Colorado Ballet, and I mean this most sincerely, is the only company that I have ever seen that is so successful in portraying so many different kinds of emotion by so many different members of the company. There were members of the audience sitting around me who had tears flowing down their cheeks just from the sheer joy of seeing Romeo and Juliet declare their love for each other. And I assure you, there were many scenes in this ballet where the audience had tears flowing down their cheeks. And there is one other thing that all you readers need to understand. That is that the music written by Sergei Prokofiev is one of the best scores, in my opinion, that he ever composed. The music surrounds the dancers and the audience with its emotional fragrance, and it leaves nothing to the imagination. For example, as the guests arrive for the ball in the first act the music reflects that the Capulets are very rich indeed, and also very aware of their place in the society of Verona. And Alun Jones made sure that as the family members proceeded, their arrogance and knowledge of their station in life was made clear to all of those less advantaged, and to the audience as well. 

In Act Two, when the young lovers approach Friar Lawrence to ask him to marry them, one can easily sense through Ron Marriott ‘s acting ability, that he is not sure that he should grant their request, but eventually does so because he recognizes their love, and because he hopes that their union will bring about an end to the rivalry between the two families. 

At the end of Act Two, when the good natured Mercutio is killed, in the agonies of his death, he is convincing, as he tries to pretend for the benefit of his friends, that nothing is amiss and that he is not really hurt. What an incredibly heartrending scene this is. 

But over all, in the second act, one is so strongly moved by the consummate acting ability of Caitlin Valentine-Ellis and Viacheslav Buchkovskiy. One becomes pulled into their lives; their dancing ability was as incredible as their acting. And I don’t understand to this day how a dancer can do a bouree step as fast as Caitlin Valentine-Ellis did on Saturday, either forwards or backwards, while she smiles all the time. 

In Act Three, both Romeo and Juliet understand that he has been banished from Verona and he must leave. The duet that they dance is one of the most poignant in the entire ballet. Juliet realizes Romeo must leave her, but she tries to delay it for as long as she can. And once again, tears flowed in the audience. 

Even if one does not know the story of Romeo and Juliet, when Friar Lawrence gives the sleeping potion to Juliet, one can begin to visualize the outcome of this tragic story, where a deep sleep is mistaken for death. Romeo, believing Juliet is dead, drinks poison and dies. Juliet awakens and finds Romeo dead beside her. She takes his dagger and stabs herself, and in one of the most tragic and effective scenes of any ballet that I have seen, she tries to reach his hand, stretched out in death, but dies before she can grasp it.

For so many reasons, this ballet is one of the most beautiful ever written. It seems a little redundant to make that statement because Shakespeare’s play and Prokofiev’s music have been addressed before. The Colorado Ballet presented a perfect performance, where dance, music, and drama were astoundingly well combined and presented. The company, Gil Boggs, and Maestro Adam Flatt, are here in Denver, and that is astounding as well.




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