Filed under: Reviews | Tags: Jacquet de Mantua, Palestrina, parody mass, Repleatur os meum, St. Martin's Chamber Choir, Timothy J. Krueger
Maestro Timothy Krueger and St. Martin’s Chamber Choir gave a wonderful performance Saturday evening, November 8, at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church. In this instance, this concert was really more of a lecture recital than an out and out performance with no commentary at all. Maestro Krueger entitled this concert The Art of Imitation: Palestrina. His explanation of Palestrina’s predominant compositional style was excellent, and I’m sure that everyone in the audience learned a great deal about music, and the value of Palestrina as a composer.
Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina was born in 1525, or perhaps 1526, in a small town near Rome which was named Palestrina. He received his musical education in Rome through the church, and was appointed organist and choirmaster in his native town in 1554. He eventually became choirmaster in churches in Rome, and, in 1554, he published his first book of masses. Palestrina is known for his style of imitation in music, and it is difficult to think of another composer who lived before J. S. Bach (1685-1750) who used imitation so successfully.
If you readers are aware of imitation, you will realize that it is the restatement of a theme or motif in relatively close succession in the different parts of a contrapuntal texture. Do not let that jargon confuse you. Counterpoint, or contrapuntal texture, is simply two or more voices occurring at the same time. As Dr. Krueger pointed out, the old campfire song, Row, Row, Row Your Boat is counterpoint. If you think of that song, each entrance of the new voice is imitation.
The work of Palestrina that Maestro Krueger discussed Saturday evening is Palestrina’s mass entitled Repleatur os meum. The translation of the Latin is, Let my mouth be filled…[with your praise]. To make things more interesting, the title of that mass, and its musical theme, comes from a motet written by Jacquet de Mantua (1483-1559). This composer was a French composer who spent almost his entire life living in Italy. As Dr. Krueger pointed out, the composition by Jacquet de Mantua was a five voice motet, and it appealed to Palestrina so he used it for the basis of his parody mass. The term parody refers strictly to a method of composition and has absolutely no pejorative meaning whatsoever. As Maestro Krueger pointed out, when one composer borrowed a theme from another composer, it was considered a tribute. As a matter of fact, Palestrina wrote at least 50 parody masses.
At the concert Friday evening, St. Martin’s Chamber Choir sang the motet from which the mass was derived, and then, at Maestro Krueger’s direction, sang examples from the mass to show how they were related to the motet theme. This is certainly a wonderful way to show how Renaissance composers arrived at decisions in their composition, and how they used relatively popular thematic material upon which to base a mass. The advantage in using popular material is, of course, the fact that the choir would be familiar with that the tune even though it may go through some changes. One of the reasons that a choir might recognize the tune of a motet is because it was the most important form of early polyphonic (more than two melodic voices sung at one time – do you see how this could lead to counterpoint?). The motet went through many different forms from the Medieval period to the Renaissance, and even the Baroque period.
This kind of explanation of a piece of music from the Renaissance was truly welcomed by the audience. Maestro Krueger has a knack for explaining all of this detail in such a straightforward way that it was clear to everyone in the audience. In addition, I might add the fact that the choir that evening was a little smaller than usual. When one does a Renaissance mass, one does not need a huge choir, and one of the reasons is that not all of the churches or cathedrals had large choirs. Another aspect of a small choir is that it makes the text more audible. Maestro Krueger has always been extremely careful in making sure that the choir he is conducting can be understood, and he has the ability as a conductor to make sure that that is the case.
The performance that the choir gave is one of the most serene performances I have heard St. Martin’s Chamber Choir give. It was incredibly expressive, as everything that Palestrina wrote is, but it certainly reflected the peace of the text of the ordinary of the mass. You readers who may not be Catholic, must know that the Roman mass consists of two large parts: the sung part and the spoken part. In addition, those two sections are divided into the Proper and the Ordinary. Therefore the sung parts that everyone is familiar with, i.e., the Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei, are from the sung parts of the Ordinary of the mass. And the Ordinary of the mass is that portion of the mass which employs texts that remain the same at all times. The Proper of the mass contains items which are changeable, according to the season of the church year.
St. Martin’s Chamber Choir has proven itself to be one of the most delightful choirs in the region. Every member has great experience, and every member has an absolutely marvelous voice. Maestro Krueger has a knack for placing the members in the choir so that a perfect blend of sound is achieved. There has never been any shortcomings that other choirs may face. For example, some choirs seem to do liturgical music more competently than a 21st century work by a minimalist composer. The versatility of this choir is always impressive, and that is certainly why they are such a joy to hear.
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: Andrew Converse, Bahman Saless, Boulder Chamber Orchestra, Christen Adler, Cobus Du Toit, Devon Park, Friedrich Gulda, Heidi Mendenhall, Igor Stravinsky, Inbal Segev, J. S. Bach, John King, Kaori Uno-Jack, Kellan Toohey, Kent Hurd, Kiel Lauer, Kimberly Brody, Max Soto, Mozart, Reid Johnson
Friday evening, November 7, I attended a concert by the Boulder Chamber Orchestra under the direction of Maestro Bahman Saless. This excellent program was comprised of Igor Stravinsky’s Octet for Winds, Mozart’s Serenade Nr. 12 for Winds in C minor, K. 388, and a work that I was totally unfamiliar with, the Concerto for Cello and Wind Orchestra, by pianist and composer Friedrich Gulda. The cellist who performed the Gulda Concerto was absolutely marvelous: Inbal Segev.
Maestro Seles opened the concert with the Stravinsky Octet which is scored for flute, two clarinets: one in B-flat and one in A; two bassoons, trumpets in C and A, tenor trombone, and bass trombone. According to some scholars, Stravinsky began composing this work in 1922; however, there is a sketch of 12 bars that were to become part of the waltz variation in the second movement. It is fairly certain that Stravinsky wrote those 12 measures as early as 1919.
The first movement is written in a straightforward sonata allegro form with a slow introduction. The second movement is a theme and variations, which, like the first movement, harkens back to traditional form. It even makes use of a fugue, but perhaps, the most startling variation, is the waltz, which is arrived at with no warning whatsoever. As the program notes state, the third movement is based on a Russian circle dance called a “Khorrod,” or occasionally spelled Khorovod. This is a syncopated dance in which Stravinsky almost begins to emulate a fugue once more.
This Stravinsky Octet is a difficult piece. In fact, and this is a point that needs to be made strongly, everything on Fridays program was difficult, but wonderfully done, because the musicians on stage were all excellent. I have previously written that the quality of musicians in the Boulder Chamber Orchestra is extremely high, and that sentiment was brought home with force Friday evening. Stravinsky certainly enjoyed using woodwinds in his compositions, and his use and difficulty of rhythm is truly pronounced in this work. There was a remarkable sense of energy and rhythmic precision that made the performance truly exceptional. As often as I have heard the Boulder Chamber Orchestra perform, I have come to know many of the musicians by name; however, there are some musicians whose names I do not know. Therefore, I ask forgiveness if I have misnamed any of the musicians, but I believe them to have been Cobus du Toit, flute; Kellan Toohey, B Flat and A clarinet; Kaori Uno-Jack and Kent Hurd, bassoon; Andrew Converse and Kiel Lauer, trombone; and John King and Reid Johnson, trumpet. These musicians made the march, which appears in the first movement, a wonderful, an almost caricature, of a march, wherein Stravinsky seems to be enjoying himself immensely. It was delightfully done, and the virtuosity of the musicians was remarkable.
Following the Stravinsky, the Boulder Chamber Orchestra performed Mozart’s Serenade Nr. 12 for Winds in C minor, K. 388. This Serenade was written in 1782, the same year as the Haffner Symphony, K. 385, and while Mozart was also writing his opera, Abduction From the Seraglio. This was a rare period in Mozart’s life when he was not receiving regular commissions, and many of the works composed during this time were not finished. However, this Wind Serenade, the Haffner Symphony, and, of course, the Abduction From the Seraglio are among his finest works.
This work is scored for two oboes, two bassoons, two French horns, and two clarinets. At the risk of sounding as if I am repeating myself, it was the skill and virtuosity of these performers (and of course Mozart’s ability) that truly brought this work to life. But I cannot state strongly enough how fine this evening’s concert was. Max Soto, Kimberly Brody, Kaori Uno-Jack, Kent Hurd, Kellan Toohey, Heidi Mendenhall, Christen Adler, and Devon Park are outstanding musicians. I hasten to point out that from where I was sitting, I could not see who the other French horn player was.
This particular Wind Serenade, unlike the Serenade For Winds in E Flat Major, K. 375, is quite a serious work. The E Flat Serenade has five movements, and is quite cheerful and outgoing in character. However, K. 388 has only four movements, and truly takes on the strength of a symphony complete with an introduction to the first movement. In this work, the musicians were so attuned to each other in their precision of phrasing, dynamics, and precision of note values. For example, if the oboes were playing portato notes (portato is a note value shorter than legato, but longer than staccato), and the oboes were followed by the bassoons who also played portato, the bassoon portato was exactly the same length as the oboe’s. That makes a big difference in the way any piece of music sounds to an audience: there are no ragged edges, and the Viennese charm with which Mozart writes is clearly evident. It was pure Mozart. The oboe, wonderfully performed by Max Soto, has the dominant melodic interest, while the bassoons supply the forward momentum. In so many ways, Mozart has scored this work as he would a symphonic work: the horns provide the harmonic support for the oboe, and occasionally there are wonderful, shared solos between the horn and oboe. Maestro Saless truly seemed to understand that the musicians he was conducting were excellent, as he did not seem to be forcing any kind of interpretive conducting upon them. And there is no question that he knew precisely what Mozart intended.
Following the intermission, the cellist Inbal Segev joined the Boulder Chamber Orchestra for the performance of Friedrich Gulda’s Concerto for Cello and Wind Orchestra. Before I begin to discuss Friedrich Gulda, I will quote from Inbal Segev’s bio statement on the web:
“Inbal Segev’s playing has been described as ‘characterized by a strong and warm tone . . . delivered with impressive fluency and style,’ by The Strad and ‘first class,’ ‘richly inspired,’ and ‘very moving indeed,’ by Gramophone. Equally committed to new repertoire for the cello and known masterworks, Segev brings interpretations that are both unreservedly natural and insightful to the vast range of solo and chamber music that she performs.
“Segev’s repertoire includes all of the standard concerti and solo works for cello, as well as new pieces and rarely performed gems. In June 2012, she gave the U.S. premiere of Maximo Flugelman’s Cello Concerto led by Lorin Maazel at the Castleton Festival, in Virginia near Washington DC. In February 2013, she gave the world premiere of Avner Dorman’s Cello Concerto with the Anchorage Symphony Orchestra, and then performed the work with the Hudson Valley, the Orquesta Sinfónica Nacional de Colombia in Bogota, and the Youngstown Symphony. …Composer Gity Razaz is currently at work on a new multimedia piece for Segev, which will premiere in spring 2015 and explores the themes of birth, transformation and death through the retelling of an Azerbaijani folktale.
“Inbal Segev is currently recording all of Bach’s works for solo cello for commercial release in summer 2015. Her recording sessions are taking place at the Academy of Arts and Letters in New York City. Audiences will have the opportunity to look behind the scenes at the making of this album through Inbal Segev’s PledgeMusic campaign, launching in November 2014. Segev’s new album will be released with a companion documentary about her journey through the music of Bach. Segev’s discography includes two previous solo albums – Sonatas by Beethoven and Boccherini (Opus One) and Nigun, a compilation of Jewish music (Vox). She has also recorded Max Schubel’s Concerto for Cello (Opus One). With the Amerigo Trio, she has recorded serenades by Dohnányi for Navona Records.
“…She made debuts with the Berlin Philharmonic and Israel Philharmonic, led by Zubin Mehta, at age 17.
“Segev’s many honors include the America-Israel Cultural Foundation Scholarship (which she began receiving at the age of seven), and top prizes at the Pablo Casals International Competition, the Paulo International Competition, and the Washington International Competition. She began playing the cello in Israel at age five and at 16 was invited by Isaac Stern to come to the U.S. to continue her studies.
“Segev earned a Bachelor’s degree from The Juilliard School and a Master’s degree from Yale University, studying with noted masters Joel Krosnick, Harvey Shapiro, Aldo Parisot, and Bernhard Greenhouse, cellist and founder of the Beaux Arts Trio.
“Inbal Segev (pronounced Inn-BAHL SEH-gehv) lives in New York with her husband, and three young children – twins Joseph and Shira, and Ariel. Segev performs on a cello made by Francesco Rugeri in 1673. She is managed by Barrett Vantage Artists.”
Without exaggeration, I will say that Inbal Segev is one of the finest cellists that I have heard. Her musicianship and prodigious technique remind me very much of the late Janos Starker, whom I had the great good fortune of hearing on many occasions because he taught at my undergraduate school. Every note that she plays is clear, and is done with the obvious conviction that it must relate to an overall scheme. That may sound like an obvious thing to say about a musician, but there are many musicians that I have heard where that simply is not the case.
Friedrich Gulda (1930-2000), whose Cello Concerto was performed by Segev, was a pianist (who can forget his Beethoven and Mozart recordings?) who became a composer as well. He courted controversy almost all of his life because he combined jazz with classical music, often dressed in a bizarre fashion, interrupted his concerts to improvise for the audience, and sometimes tapped his feet while he was performing, which annoyed the audience endlessly. In his compositions, as I mentioned above, he often combined jazz and other influences which annoyed the critics, and drove jazz musicians to distrust him because it was not pure jazz. However, he did study jazz piano with Chick Corea, and he performed with Miles Davis. In his effort to combine so many different aspects of music, he began to alienate the public, and it was almost as if he became bored with being the “traditional concert pianist.” He tried, valiantly to combine many arts into one pianistic expression. It clearly seemed as though the critics did not want, and therefore refused, to understand what he was trying to accomplish. It reminds me, quite seriously, of some of the rejections that the American composer John Cage suffered: the music world at large seemed disinterested in what he was trying to accomplish.
The Concerto for Cello and Wind Orchestra is a wonderful piece that combines jazz, blues, and some Eastern European jazz elements. It certainly sounds almost like beer hall music.
Guitarist Patrick Sutton, tuba player, Michael Dunn, Paul Mullikin, percussion, and bassist, Kevin Sylves, joined the Boulder Chamber Orchestra for this performance, make no mistake about it: this is a very difficult piece. This work contains a movement entitled Cadenza, in which the cellist improvises for the entire movement. Remember that cadenzas in concertos were almost always improvised, but often, some composers began to compose cadenzas in order to make sure that a relationship between the main themes and the cadenza was preserved. Nonetheless, the composers usually gave the performer the option of playing his own improvised cadenza.
Inbal Segev’s technique is one of the most formidable that I have heard, but like Janos Starker’s technique, it is always used to display the music and what the composer wished, rather than to impress the audience. Nothing was left to the imagination. I can remember a chamber literature class, wherein Janos Starker, after hearing a student perform the first movement of the César Franck Violin Concerto, said, “They say that a picture is worth 1000 words. You have just increased our vocabulary by 750 words. You must always aim for 1000.” There is no doubt that Inbal Segev is always complete. The portion of the first movement that sounded like jazz blues was done with total conviction. The portion of the last movement that sounded like “German beer hall” music sounded like German beer hall music without any hint of apology. She had the stamina and skill to do exactly what Friedrich Gulda wanted done in his composition. It was a wonderful performance and wonderful to listen to, and I hasten to point out that she received a very well deserved standing ovation. Some will say that this concerto was a carefree work, but I would disagree. I think that it was a very serious work that had cheerful moments, but it also had some moments that were incredibly moving. Inbal Segev showed that it was a serious work by delving into it, and producing some absolutely wonderful music. By demand, she performed an encore: the Gigue from the Unaccomapnied Suite for Cello, Nr. 1, by J.S. Bach.
This concert was one of the best I have ever heard from the Boulder Chamber Orchestra. Maestro Bahman Saless has surrounded himself with truly fine musicians, which, it would seem, is very easy to do when one is such a skilled musician himself.
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: Adam Flatt, Chandra Kuykendall, Colorado Ballet, David Grill, Domenico Luciano, Gil Boggs, Gregory K. Gonzales, Jesse Marks, Lorita Travaglia, Maria Mosina, Michael Pink, Morgan Buchanan, Philip Feeney, Viacheslav Buchkovskiy
Halloween night, Friday, I attended the opening performance of the Colorado Ballet production of Dracula. As artistic director, Gil Boggs, states in the program, this is one of the most “theatrical ballets ever performed by the Colorado Ballet.” It certainly is, and you readers must understand that this is not a ballet for young children. The reason for that is that the dancers are so expressive in their presentation of fear, mystery, loathing, and gruesome characterizations that it would give them nightmares for months. This is not just a fun, scary night. It is an adult ballet done in all seriousness, and presented in a very serious way.
I have seen this ballet performed by this fine organization previously to this performance, but this was, by far, the best performance of Dracula that the Colorado Ballet has given. It was completely driven by energy: not just the dancing, but the musical score as well. The Colorado Ballet Orchestra, under the direction of Maestro Adam Flatt, was just as driven as were the dancers.
The choreography for this ballet was done by Michael Pink who certainly has to be one of the finest choreographers today. I will quote briefly from the bio statement on his website:
“Michael Pink is an internationally acclaimed Choreographer and Artistic Director.
“Michael began his tenure as Artistic Director of Milwaukee Ballet Company in December of 2002. Since that time, he has established himself as a prominent member of the Milwaukee arts community, demonstrating his commitment to the future of dance through new work, education and collaboration. He is perhaps best known for his creation of full-length narrative dance works Dracula, The Nutcracker, Swan Lake, Giselle 1943, Don Quixote, The Sleeping Beauty, Coppelia, Cinderella, Romeo & Juliet, Peter Pan and La Bohème. His love of the theatre and music is evident in all his work, he believes in exploring the theatrical values of his work through all elements of the production. His work has a wide audience appeal and helps foster a greater understanding and appreciation of dance.
“His talent for choreography was first noted and encouraged by Dame Ninette de Valois and Sir Frederick Ashton. His early choreographic work won him first place in the inaugural Ursula Moreton Choreographic Competition He was invited by Sir Frederick Ashton to assist in choreographing the Anacat Fashion Show for HRH Princess Margaret. He left the Royal Ballet School in 1975 after being invited to attend the first Gulbenkian Choreographic Summer Program as one of eight choreographers and composers, lead by Glen Tetley, Mary Hicks and Dame Peggy van Praggh.
“Michael has established himself as an International Teacher with, amongst other companies the Norwegian National Ballet, Aterballetto, Balleto di Toscanna Italy, The Hartford Ballet U.S.A. Rozas Dance Company, London Contemporary Dance Company, Ballet Rambert, The White Oaks Dance Project, English National Ballet, Phoenix Dance Company and London City Ballet.”
The program notes state that Michael Pink often relies upon the English composer, Philip Feeney, to provide the musical score for his ballets. The production of Dracula certainly makes that clear simply because the choreography and the music fit so closely together that they seem to be inseparable. It is difficult to imagine which came first: the energy of the choreography, or the energy of the musical score.
I will quote briefly from Feeney’s biography:
“Composer and Pianist, Philip Feeney (b.1954), studied composition at the University of Cambridge with Robin Holloway and Hugh Wood, and later with Franco Donatoni in Rome at the Accademia di Santa Cecilia. He is best known for his work in dance, which he first encountered in Italy and has since worked with many companies, including Northern Ballet Theatre, Rambert Dance Company, the White Oak Project and the Martha Graham Company. He has collaborated with many choreographers including Michael Pink, Didy Veldman, Michael Keegan-Dolan, Derek Williams, David Nixon, Adam Cooper and Sara Matthews, and his works have been performed by dance companies as diverse as Northern Ballet Theatre, Rambert Dance Company, Cullberg Ballet, Boston Ballet, Fabulous Beast, Scottish Dance Theatre, in addition to more than forty works for Ballet Central.
“Clearly inspired by image and movement, Feeney’s output is remarkable, apart from anything else, for its range and scope. Extending from full-length orchestral ballet scores to electro-acoustic soundscapes, even to jazz and hip hop scores, his works exhibit a capacity for making style work for him, by reinventing past styles in a post-modern way. For him, the crucial thing is that music for dance needs to make sense as pure music at all times. It needs to have that kinetic musicality and parallel logic that makes one feel that the music is right, and that it is the only possible music that could work for that particular choreography.
“From 1991-95 he lectured in composition at Reading University. He is currently composer in residence for Ballet Central and has been a longstanding accompanist at the London Contemporary Dance School.”
The momentum that is provided by Feeney’s musical score simply must be heard to be believed. It is extremely difficult for the orchestra, and that difficulty never goes away. The orchestra successfully conveys the impression that they are consumed by the energy of the choreography, and it is remarkable to watch the mutual support that the dancers and orchestra share. This kind of interchange is only possible if both the dancers and the orchestra share a common artistic goal, and that is possible only if everyone concerned is an artist. And, that is but one of the features that places this dance company at such a very high level.
Friday evening, Domenico Luciano danced Dracula. In this role, he was icy and cold and so dreadfully menacing that one never knew what was coming next. He toyed with his victims in the ballet, pretending to give them freedom, but always pulling them back into the hell that he created. He was very convincing as he slithered through the railing of a staircase and across the stage. He provided a palpable conflict between his own evil world, and the world of Harker and Mina which was one of purity and innocence.
Chandra Kuykendall, one of his victims, generated one of her finest roles as Lucy, and her dancing Friday evening was one of the finest performances I have seen her give. Anguished and lost to Dracula’s power, eternally doomed because of Dracula’s bite, she was constantly torn between wishing to escape from him and always being pulled back to him by his magnetic force. In a terrifying scene, she is covered with blood as she lures a small child to her death.
Jesse Marks danced the role of Renfield, a character whose complete insanity drives him to lick blood from the floor and consume flies and spiders. As long as he maintains his allegiance to Dracula, Dracula will keep him fed with the insects he constantly devours. Marks was incredibly and horrifyingly convincing in this role. He danced a beautiful pas de deux with Maria Mosina, while he was in a straitjacket, rolling Mina off his back and around his body without the use of his arms. He tries so desperately hard to warn Mina of the evils of Dracula, and yet he is tied by Dracula’s spell.
Maria Mosina danced the role of Mina, and her dramatic skill and acting ability gave this character a wonderful sympathetic and compassionate persona, which emphasized the evilness of Domenico Luciano’s portrayal of Dracula. Luciano and Mosina both displayed an incredible strength as well as grace in their performance. Viacheslav Buchkovskiy, as Harker, created the same persona of innocence in the role of Mina’s husband.
I have described these characters in this way, because the dancers in this company were so skilled in portraying the essence of each of them. It was terrifying to see Chandra Kuykendall crawling backwards on the stage to hide under rocks with smoke billowing from them. It was terrifying to see how Dracula toyed constantly with his victims. And the remarkable acting ability of Gregory K. Gonzales made it appear that he was the only clearheaded individual on the stage. He knew, without a doubt, how to defeat Dracula, and that knowledge kept him from being consumed by Dracula’s power.
In Act III, there is a terrifying scene in which the doors of the burial vaults of the Undead open at the sound of Dracula’s beating heart, and they crawl from their crypts, covered with the blood of Renfield who has been sacrificed by Dracula. I might add, that during the curtain call at the end of the ballet, the Undead adhered to their persona.
Lorita Travaglia directed this production and David Grill provided the lighting. It is clear that both of these individuals shared an obvious agreement as to how this production should be done. And I must say that Gil Boggs, the Artistic Director of the Colorado Ballet, has expanded (demanded?) the dancers dramatic and theatrical ability which has resulted in a ballet company whose dancers are the most expressive I have seen. And again, I feel stymied by the fact that there is simply not room enough to list every dancer by name. But the Villagers, both male and female, were absolutely astounding in the first act as they danced their sacrificial dance that would protect them from the dangers of All Souls Night. It always astounds me that many of the dancers in this ballet company can dance more than one role in one performance, for example Morgan Buchanan dances the role of a Female Villager, a Distraught Woman, a Well-To-Do Lady, and one of the Female Undead. To me, that seems like running from section to section in an orchestra, and playing a different instrument in each movement of, for example, a Mozart Symphony.
As I mentioned above, the Colorado Ballet Orchestra was sensational. Adam Flatt demands such perfection from the orchestra, and the orchestra seems to be so eager to provide that for the dancers. Of course, that’s what a ballet orchestra supposed do, but, in this case, it seems to be done so unhesitatingly and so thoroughly that in the performance, I have never been overly conscious of orchestral entrances: the support is always there for the dancers; it is never misplaced, and it is supremely expressive.
I might add that the sets in this ballet were extremely well done. I could not find in the program if the sets were owned by the Colorado Ballet or not, but I hope they are, for this ballet company now has the room in their new building to store and maintain sets.
Dracula will be performed tonight, Saturday, and tomorrow on Sunday. You must to go see this performance. You will be amazed at how expressive a ballet can be, and how your attention will be held by these wonderful dancers who possess such incredible acting ability.
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: Amanda Balestrieri, Bruce Barrie, Cynthia Katsarelis, David Schwartz, Heidi Mendenhall, Kaori Uno, Lisa Martin, Michelle Orman, Michelle Stanley, Pro Musica Coloardo Chamber Orchestra, Tonya Jilling
Friday evening, the Pro Musica Colorado Chamber Orchestra under the direction of Maestra Cynthia Katsarelis presented an absolutely sensational program at the Montview Presbyterian Church in Denver. I use the word sensational because that is precisely what this concert was. It has taken a while for the Pro Musica Colorado Chamber Orchestra to establish a reputation, but if any of you readers doubt that they have done so, I urge you to attend their next concert which will be Saturday, October 18, at the First United Methodist Church in Boulder. You will have another chance to hear them, but you will have to wait until February 6, 2015. There is no doubt in my mind that this is a professional orchestra. It has the incredible precision and musicianship that sets it firmly in place, and Maestra Katsarelis has most certainly guided them to that position. She has conducted in Europe and the United States. Not only has she conducted chamber orchestras, but symphony orchestras as well. In addition she has considerable experience conducting opera.
Katsarelis opened the program with Rakastava (The Lover), a rarely heard work by Jean Sibelius (1865-1957). Sibelius wrote this work in 1894, and it was originally conceived as a suite of four songs for male choir. The text tells the story of a tryst which ends at dawn. It was written for a competition which Sibelius did not win; however, he valued the pieces a great deal, so he set them aside, and, 18 years later he arranged the work for a string orchestra. The writing is extremely effective for strings, and, I believe, generally reflects the fact that he was an accomplished violinist. As a matter of fact, he began life aspiring to become a violinist, but, eventually, he became a composer after reluctantly admitting that he began his violin studies too late in life to become a virtuoso.
There is no doubt in my mind that the Pro Musica Colorado Chamber Orchestra and Maestra Katsarelis were aware of the fact that Sibelius was a violinist. The orchestra seemed to be making a very special effort in its sound for this work: it had a remarkable plaintive and introspective sound that, in most cases, only a solo violinist could produce. It was surprising to hear the entire violin section create that aura. Maestra Katsarelis led them in this union of thought. Though Sibelius seems often to have been influenced by Wagner, the atmosphere created in this work by the orchestra was quite ephemeral. That may seem like an odd juxtaposition, but it was wonderful to listen to. It certainly made one lament the fact that even though Sibelius lived a very long life, he did not publish any truly significant works after 1925.
After the marvelous performance of the Sibelius, Amanda Balestrieri performed Samuel Barber’s wonderful Knoxville: Summer of 1915. I have heard her sing this work before with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra, and I will quote from the introductory remarks from that review:
“…There were times when it seemed that Samuel Barber was the only twentieth century American composer who still believed in lyricism, but this work, plus his Violin Concerto, his Piano Concerto, Adagio for Strings, and his Piano Sonata, will forever stand the test of time. Knoxville: Summer of 1915 is the setting of James Agee’s work, and reflects the unerring taste in Barber’s literary interest. Both Samuel Barber and James Agee were five years old in 1915, and both became good friends after they met.”
To that paragraph I will also add that Barber and James Agee seemed to share so many coincidences. Barber wrote that:
“… We both had backyards where our families use to lie in the long summer evenings, we each had an aunt who was a musician. I remember well my parents sitting on the porch, talking quietly as they rocked. And there was the trolley car with straw seats and a clanging bell called ‘The Dinky’ that traveled up and down the main street… Agee’s poem was vivid and moved me deeply, and my musical response that summer of 1947 [when he read Agee’s poem] was immediate and intense. I think I must’ve composed Knoxville within a few days.”
Amanda Balestrieri performs this piece as though she had experienced the same summers, and I must say, in the same place that are mentioned in Agee’s poem:
“… People go by; things go by.
A horse, drawing a buggy,
breaking his hollow iron music on the asphalt;
a loud auto; a quiet auto;
people in pairs, not in a hurry,
scuffling, switching their weight of aestival body,
talking casually, the taste hovering over them
of vanilla, strawberry, pasteboard and starched milk…”
She brought to this piece the same intimacy that we all feel when we think of past summer days that were warm from the sun, as well as warm in our hearts, when everything was green, and when it was the custom to seek refuge in simple relaxation. There was most certainly a mutual understanding between Balestrieri and Maestra Katsarelis and the orchestra. It was wonderful, and it made me wonder why this composition of Barber’s is not performed more often. I would have loved to have heard them perform this piece twice. There was some wonderful woodwind work that emphasized how well-rounded this orchestra is. Michelle Orman, clarinet, Heidi Mendenhall, clarinet, David Schwartz and Kaori Uno, bassoon, Michelle Stanly, flute, and Lisa Martin oboe, were absolutely terrific. Their playing was warm and emotional. Tonya Jilling, harp, was superb.
After the intermission Cynthia Katsarelis and the Pro Musica Colorado Chamber Orchestra performed Mozart’s Symphony Nr. 39 in E flat Major, K. 543. I must say that I have long had a weakness for Mozart’s 39th Symphony, and it seems almost inconceivable that even Mozart could write his three greatest symphonies (39, 40 in G minor, and 41 in C major) in such a short space of time during the summer of 1788. All three were written in less than nine weeks, but one must remember that Mozart could write a piece of chamber music or concerto for an intimate friend in a matter of a few hours. Of course, he considered symphonic writing more serious and would spend a lot of time revising and changing the instrumentation.
This symphony begins with a slow introduction which reflects the borrowing that went on between Haydn and Mozart, for Mozart borrowed the slow introduction from Haydn, and Haydn borrowed a more melodic line from Mozart. The slow introduction for this work is conceived in the style of a pre-classic French overture, and some conductors make too much out of this by conducting it in a very heavy and overly serious manner, forgetting all about the clarity that Mozart demands. Maestra Katsarelis is well aware of how to meld the combination of seriousness and lightness, and communicate it to the orchestra. In bar 26, where the exposition section of this symphony begins, it was wonderful and light, with the violins’ answered by the French horns in the next measure. It was quite noticeable, and I am serious when I say this, that there does not seem to be any weakness in the musicians of this orchestra. I wish there were space here to list every one of them by name, for they all deserve mention. I must mention Bruce Barrie, Principal Trumpet, who was absolutely superb in this first movement. And that brings me to another very minor point: the program notes, which were otherwise excellent, omitted the names of the cellos and the contrabass player.
The second movement, marked Andante con moto, is, perhaps, one of Mozart’s most beautiful, slow movements, and it is interesting to note that the audience was at their most silent when this movement was being played. The dynamic range that Maestra Katsarelis demanded was extreme in this movement, and it was amazing to listen to the orchestra so easily fulfill her wishes. The third movement is a minuet, and Mozart has clearly marked it Menuetto: Allegretto; however, it is quick enough that it has lost its staid, courtly dance feeling, and becomes similar to the future scherzo which Beethoven would make famous. There is a marvelous clarinet solo in this movement, but I must admit that I could not see the clarinet players from where I was sitting; however, I assume that this solo was given to the Principal Clarinet, Michelle Orman.
As the fourth movement of this wonderful Symphony began. I was quite surprised at the fast tempo that Maestra Katsarelis demanded. It was perfect, but it was truly fast, and the orchestra simply got down to business and played it perfectly. I emphasize again that this is a professional orchestra, and, Friday evening, it seemed they could do anything they wished without any problem whatsoever. This was a wonderful performance of this Mozart Symphony and the tempos that Katsarelis took, along with the dynamically shaped phrases and rhythmic accents, heightened Mozart’s mastery of the symphonic form. It is interesting to note that the program notes correctly state that there is no precise record of his performance for this symphony; however in the Estates Theater in Prague, where his Symphony Nr. 38 were premiered in 1786, there is a small plaque that states that this symphony was premiered in Prague as well. However, I must say, that I can find no reference to validate what that plaque says.
The Pro Musica Colorado Chamber Orchestra gave a performance Friday evening that any chamber Orchestra in the United States would be proud of. This was one of the most exciting programs I have heard simply because everything on the program was so excellent. It was also exciting because the orchestra made such wonderful music and clearly enjoyed the effort that it took to do so. You must go hear them.
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: Colorado Symphony Orchestra, Gustav Mahler, James Judd, Joseph Haydn, Justin Bartels, Olga Kern, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Yumi Hwang-Williams
Saturday, October 11, I attended the Colorado Symphony concert with great eagerness. There were several reasons for that frame of mind: 1) I always enjoy the Colorado Symphony concerts, 2) Olga Kern was performing the Rachmaninoff Third Piano Concerto, 3) the CSO was performing the Haydn Symphony Nr. 103, and I have always had a weakness for Haydn symphonies. In addition, this performance was to be conducted by James Judd, an English conductor whose reputation is rapidly growing in the USA.
I will quote a couple of paragraphs from Maestro Judd’s biographical statement:
“An artist of outstanding versatility, British born conductor James Judd is sought after for his passionate musicianship and his charismatic presence both on and off the podium. Known for his extraordinarily communicative style and bold, imaginative programming, repeat engagements in concert halls from Prague to Tokyo attest to his rapport with audiences and musicians alike. In his distinguished career, James Judd has conducted the Berlin Philharmonic, Rotterdam Philharmonic, Orchestre National de France, Gewandhaus Orchestra of Leipzig, Royal Philharmonic, London Symphony, the English Chamber Orchestra, BBC Symphony, Baltimore Symphony, Indianappolis Symphony, Cincinnatti Symphony and St. Louis Symphony. Performance highlights from this past season include engagements with the Hungarian National Philharmonic, the NHK Symphony, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, the Orchestra of Santa Cecilia Rome, performances of Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius with the Vienna Symphony and a tour of China, Japan and Taiwan performing Mahler’s Symphony No. 9 with the Asian Youth Orchestra.
“Considered one of the pre-eminent interpreters of British orchestral music, Judd’s recording of Elgar’s Symphony No. 1 with the Halle Orchestra is still a highly regarded reference standard among conductors today. He has amassed an extensive discography on the Naxos label, including an unprecedented number in partnership with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, where he is Music Director Emeritus. Recordings of works by Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Bernstein, Copland, Gershwin and many others received critical acclaim. A champion of the works of Gustav Mahler, Judd’s performances of this monumental composer have been praised the world over. His recording of Mahler’s Symphony No.1 was awarded the Gold Medal by France’s Diapason as well as the Toblacher Komponierhauschen for the best Mahler recording of the year. Judd’s orchestral recordings are also featured on the Decca, EMI and Philips labels.”
Maestro Judd opened the program with Mahler’s Blumine. Originally, this work was the andante movement from Mahler’s Symphony Nr. 1 in D Major. In November of 1889, Mahler conducted this symphony in Budapest, where he revised the symphony even during its rehearsal because he finally had the opportunity of hearing just how his orchestration of this work sounded. The symphony was quite long (even now this work takes almost an hour to perform) and the reaction of the critics was strong indeed: one critic said that its endless length infuriated him. The result was that Mahler discarded the second movement from the work which he had entitled Blumine.
It is an absolutely beautiful piece of music with an incredibly lyrical trumpet solo wonderfully performed by Justin Bartels, who is Principal Trumpet with the CSO. Maestro Judd, as his above bio statement reveals, is a champion of Mahler and his conducting of this short movement clearly displayed his sensitivity for this composer. It also seemed apparent to me that the orchestra respected his conducting ability, for there was absolutely no hesitation in following his every movement and demand.
In 1791, Haydn arrived in England, and he wrote his first of the London Symphonies (93, 94, 95 and 96) in that year. He was persuaded to stay in London for the following year wherein he wrote Symphonies 97and 98. In June 1792, Haydn had to return to Vienna where he introduced his early London Symphonies. But by the end of 1793, Haydn had once again received permission from Prince Anton Esterházy, his employer, to resume his travels, and he returned to London on February 5 of 1794. His 103rd Symphony was written in London in 1795. As always, his symphonies were very well received.
Maestro Judd’s performance of the Symphony was enthusiastic indeed, and he relished explaining the opening drumroll to the audience. When Haydn premiered his symphonies, it was the custom for the audience to be milling about somewhat, and perhaps, even eating as they waited for the concert to start. Haydn decided that he would open his movement with a few measures of forte solo tympani in order to attract the audience’s attention so that they would sit down and listen attentively to his composition.
Following the opening drumroll, admirably played by Steve Hearn, a slow introduction follows that makes use of the low strings and bassoons. However, it did not seem to have the dark and brooding quality under the baton of Maestro Judd that so many other conductors give this slow introduction. It is the longest of Haydn’s slow introductions, and you readers must understand that it was Haydn who initiated introductions to the first movement of his symphonies. Following the introduction was the allegro section of the first movement and its spirited 6/8 meter was light and airy and pure Haydn. The andante second movement is a theme and variations, which truly uses two separate themes one: in C Major and one in C minor. This movement has a wonderful violin solo which was beautifully done by Yumi Hwang-Williams. The third movement is, of course, a minuet and Trio form; however, by this time in his creative output, Haydn had increased the tempo of the minuet. This was no longer a rather staid court dance, but neither was it the rapid scherzo movement originated by Beethoven. The woodwinds were certainly prominent in the Trio, and their delightful playing provided a contrast to the rather dark theme of the Minuet. I have not heard this symphony for quite some time, and the last movement of this work, marked Allegro con spirito, reminded me very much of Haydn’s use of folk material. The first five notes of the theme return almost constantly, surfacing from one section of the orchestra after another. James Judd filled this entire Haydn Symphony with a kind of charm that is so typical of Haydn’s work, and yet there was a certain overtone of seriousness that comes from Haydn’s mastery of the sonata form and his remarkable innovations.
After the intermission the pianist, Olga Kern, performed the very well-known Piano Concerto Nr. 3 by Rachmaninoff. Olga Kern has always been a startlingly fine pianist possessed of a very sincere musicianship and absolutely remarkable technique. It has been two years since I have heard her perform, but I have heard her many times. Saturday evening, to put it simply, she took my breath away. Her incredible ability at keyboard has matured and become even better in the two years since I have heard her. As I say this, keep in mind that Rachmaninoff was no doubt the finest pianist since Franz Liszt, and, since his death in 1943, there have been very few pianists who have come close to his intelligent performances, superior musicianship, and unfailingly ferocious technique. Keep in mind that he was 6’6” tall, and had hands that could reach almost 2 octaves – C to A (and that was demonstrated backstage to my mother by Rachmaninoff on a backstage piano after one of his concerts in 1936). The kind of murderous figurations in his compositions, which create terror in the hearts of modern pianists, he could simply do all day with seemingly little or no effort. And, there was never any blurring, or confusion of melodic direction and musical expression.
The reason I discuss all of this is that, as I said above, there have been many pianists today who come close to Rachmaninoff’s ability at the keyboard, but, perhaps, some of them don’t have his musicianship. And sometimes, those who have his musicianship do not have his ability at the keyboard.
I am firmly convinced that Olga Kern has his ability as a musician and as a pianist. Her performance of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto Nr. 3 was absolutely astounding. Certainly, she does not have Rachmaninoff’s reach at the keyboard, but she certainly has remarkable power, not only in her strength, but in her ability to reach into a piece of music and display its essence. Yes, one could occasionally see that she was working hard, but her phrasing, her accuracy, and the clarity of musical thought was equal to that of Rachmaninoff. Olga Kern, like Rachmaninoff, displayed her ability to match what Rachmaninoff does on his recordings: supreme accuracy and supreme musicianship, while all the time thinking of the music and not worrying about making an impression on the audience. It was abundantly clear Saturday night that music always comes first with Kern, and that is what spurs her to play. In addition, she most certainly demonstrated that she is capable of playing the aforementioned “murderous figurations” while shaping them, so that they made musical sense rather than sounding like just a series of fast notes. She grasps Rachmaninoff’s huge chords with ease.
I was also struck by the conducting of Maestro James Judd and the performance of the Colorado Symphony in the Rachmaninoff. Judd and Kern perform together as if they had been musical partners for years. There was a wonderful rhythmic thrust throughout the entire work, and in the second movement, the oboe, violas, and cellos were outstanding.
She received a very long standing ovation from an almost full Boettcher Hall. For an encore, Olga Kern played Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumblebee, which was arranged by Rachmaninoff. Needless to say, it was also outstanding.
As I left the concert hall Saturday evening, I was still in wonderment over Olga Kern’s ability at the keyboard and with music. Like Rachmaninoff, she can play any composer. Unlike many pianists today, she can play Rachmaninoff with ease and a very deep musicality. It would seem that Olga Kern has inherited the mantle of Rachmaninoff’s musicianship, intelligence, and keyboard ability. There was nothing missing in her art.
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: Ana Spadoni, Blake Nawa'a, Camille Jasensky, Catherine Sailer, David Farwig, Donna Wickham, Heidi Schmidt, Jeff Ayres, Joseph Galema, Katie Lushman, Kevin Gwinn, Kevin Padworski, Miranda Whitesides, Petite Messe Solennelle, Steven Taylor, Taylor Martin
Friday evening, October 10, I attended a concert in Hamilton Hall at DU. It was a performance of one of the least known compositions by Gioachino Rossini: his Petite Messe Solennelle, or Little Solemn Mass. Notice that I omitted one of the Cs in his first name. Gioacchino is usually spelled with two Cs, however Rossini always used one C in his name, and so did most of his acquaintances who wrote letters to him. It has only been recently, in this modern age, that the second C has been added.
Rossini was, of course, one of the most famous figures of the 19th century, and many of his 37 operas which were written between 1810 and 1829 are still being performed. However, the Little Solemn Mass was written in 1863 after many years of inactivity. Musicologists are still unsure of what caused such a hiatus. True, he did write a few works during that period of time: his Stabat Mater in 1832 and a Missa di Gloria which was written for the city of Naples. We also know, that, while he spent most of his time in Paris, he did return to Bologna every now and then. During this period of hiatus, his health began to suffer, and while staying in Bologna he returned to Paris in 1843 for an operation to remove his gallstones. He returned to Paris permanently in 1855.
His Little Solemn Mass is really neither little nor is it solemn. It is full of immense charm as well as more than a little humor, and some musicologists speculate that the dedication of this work to the Countess Louise Pillet-Will (commissioned by her for the dedication of her private chapel) that many people saw in the dedication, “Pillet,” and that somehow transformed the name to “petite.” If that is the case, Rossini, who had a very sly sense of humor, probably enjoyed the confusion. He is known to have written a short letter to God asking if his poor little mass… “is really a mass, or just a mess?” That will give you an idea of his sense of humor. But, humor aside, this is an incredibly sincere religious and personal composition. It was premiered March 14, 1864. Among those in the audience were the composers Auber, Ambroise Thomas, and Meyerbeer. They were dumbfounded by the originality and the beauty of what they heard, and Meyerbeer stood during most of the performance.
The performance Friday evening was truly spectacular. It was led by Maestra Catherine Sailer, who, as you all know by now, is the Director of Choral Studies at the University of Denver. She is also the Associate Conductor of the Colorado Ballet. She led the Evans Choir Friday evening, which is a group of professional singers from the Denver area and selected students from the University of Denver Lamont School of Music. The choir is named after Evans Chapel, where members of the choir performed together in Catherine Sailer’s undergraduate conducting recital.
The Little Solemn Mass does not require an orchestra. Instead, it relies on a piano (the original score required two pianos) and an organ. The pianist was Kevin Padworski, who is the Director of Music and Organist of the Calvary Baptist Church in Denver. His degrees are from the Duke Divinity School and a Master of Music degree in conducting from the University of Denver.
The organist Friday evening was Joseph Galema. And I am sure that all of you readers know that he recently retired as organist and Director of Music at the United States Air Force Academy. He joined the Lamont School of Music in 2008.
From the outset of this performance, it was clear that Maestra Sailer was very firm in her knowledge of how this piece should be performed. Clearly, she was able to communicate that to the pianist, as the ever present compelling humor combined with the compelling emotion arises in the piano preludes to each section of the mass. Indeed, many might find that the meter signatures themselves may be humorous and incongruous for a mass setting, but the depth of emotion that Rossini expresses is undeniable. It is as if he really enjoys his relationship with God. The high point of this mass seems to be the Agnus Dei which is beautifully romantic, and was perfectly done by soprano soloist, Gracie Carr.
There were so many fine soloists in Friday evening’s performance, and Maestra Sailer changed them for each section of the mass. In the opening Gloria, Ana Spadoni, soprano, Miranda Whitesides, mezzo, Blake Nawa’a, tenor, and David Farwig, baritone, were the soloists. The Domine Deus was sung by Kevin Gwinn, a lyric tenor who has one of the most crystal-clear voices I have heard for a long time. Steven Taylor was the bass soloist in the Quoniam. All of these soloists have superb voices, and I have heard some of them sing prior to this performance. I do not know if it was a certain freedom of expression that Rossini allows by virtue of his operatic style of writing, or if it was a mutual appreciation of this particular, rare work, but these voices were exceptional as was their musicianship. The choir sang the Cum Sancto Spiritu with such unbelievable ease, and yet it has a remarkable and rousing rhythm: it is a double fugue that demands a great deal of virtuosity from the choir, but their ease and grace and cheerfulness belied the difficulties.
I must say that Rossini treats the piano in this work as a partner to the choir and soloists, rather than an instrument which is playing something intended for an orchestra. It is abundantly clear that the pianist is playing music specifically written for that instrument, and there is never any insinuation on Rossini’s part that he would have preferred an orchestra. It is very skillfully done – and why not – Rossini was a fine composer. I also hasten to point out that the piano score is very difficult. There are so many small gestures that interrupt the melodic idea, but add to the mood, that pianist Padworski had to work very hard indeed. And often Rossini demands an abrupt change of mood from the pianist, which also crosses to the choir. Of course, that causes Maestra Sailer to work hard as well. But it was wonderful to see such artistic agreement between the piano, organ, choir, and conductor.
The Credo of this Little Solemn Mass made use of the voices of Camille Jasensky, soprano, Heidi Schmidt, mezzo, Blake Nawa’a, tenor, and Jeff Ayres, baritone. It was, again very clear that Catherine Sailer was selective indeed when she chose these soloists. It is very exciting to hear a performance with local musicians who are so gifted, and one wonders where they all come from.
The soloists in the Sanctus were Katie Lushman, soprano, Donna Wickham, mezzo, Taylor Martin, tenor, and David Farwig, baritone. Everyone knows that soloists are supposed to follow the conductor but all of the soloists reflected much more than a willingness to do what Maestra Sailer asked. They clearly demonstrated their enthusiasm for what Rossini wrote. Keep in mind that this composition encompasses a wide range of styles. The Christe eleison sounds almost as if it could come from the 16th century. The Domine Deus seemed almost operatic, and as I stated before, the Agnus Dei is incredibly romantic. But this group of singers, choir and soloists, switched back and forth with great ease, verve, and excitement. Those who do not listen carefully might come to the unwarranted conclusion that this piece is a hodge-podge of styles, but I assure you this is not the case. It is held together by a wonderful melodic line, which returns, and which is sometimes interrupted, for example, by the gusto of the aforementioned double fugue.
This Little Solemn Mass by Gioachino Rossini is as delightful to listen to as it is rare. Everyone in the audience gave this a standing ovation, and I am convinced that it was due not only to the wonderful performance, but as a thank you to being exposed to such a delightful and artful work. As a footnote, the only time I have heard this piece prior to Friday’s performance, was in 1959, when I was put in the choir at my undergraduate school, and it was then conducted by Maestra Fiora Contino. Catherine Sailer’s performance Friday evening made me realize how much I missed this piece, and, while there was a decent audience Friday evening, it made me wish the hall had been full. I can assure you that after hearing this piece of music, the audience responded with the same enthusiasm the musicians demonstrated in performing it. Fifty-five years is a very long time to wait for the next performance of such a wonderful piece. Maestra Sailer, please do it again.
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: Aniel Cabán, Bahmann Saless, Boulder Chamber Orchestra, César Franck, Cobus Du Toit, Georges Bizet, Gynögyvér Petheö, Joseph Howe, Manuel de Falla, Max Soto, Veronica Pigeon, Victoria Aja
Saturday evening, October 4th, I attended the performance of the Boulder Chamber Orchestra at the Broomfield Auditorium. Their season has been titled Mystique, and Saturday’s performance featured the pianist, Victoria Aja, performing two rarely heard works: Manuel de Falla’s Nights in the Gardens of Spain, and the Symphonic Variations by Belgian composer César Franck. There were two other works on the concert that night, and, as a matter of fact, they are rarely done as well: Ritual Fire Dance, by Manuel de Falla and the delightful Symphony in C by Georges Bizet.
Maestro Bahman Saless opened the program with the Ritual Fire Dance, which is one Falla’s most popular works. This is a short section from an original ballet, El Amor Brujo, which had been commissioned in 1915 by a dancer named Pastora Imperio. The scene in the ballet where Ritual Fire Dance occurs is a dance done by the character Candela, who is being haunted by the ghost of her dead husband. Candela is encouraged by Gypsies to dance the ritual fire dance in order to get rid of the ghost. As they all dance faster and faster, the ghost appears, is drawn into the flames, and then vanishes forever. This piece became so popular that Manuel de Falla arranged it for piano, and it rapidly became used by several pianists as an encore as well as a programmed work.
The Boulder Chamber Orchestra was absolutely superb in capturing the rhythms, melodic mannerisms, and the complete atmosphere of Manuel de Falla’s popular composition. Linda Wilkin is the pianist with the Boulder Chamber Orchestra, and she was excellent. There were some marvelous flute work and oboe work done by Cobus du Toit, flute, and Max Soto, oboe. The BCO seemed very excited with the performance of this piece, and it was so successful because of this excitement that I wondered why more orchestras do not perform this. It could be that for a while it was extremely popular, and that its popularity rose to the level of a cliché during the 1930s. But I was certainly glad to hear it again. I can remember hearing Arthur Rubenstein perform this years ago, and it always brought the audience to its feet.
The Spanish pianist, Victoria Aja, then joined the Boulder Chamber Orchestra to perform Nights in the Gardens of Spain. Manuel de Falla, who wrote this work, lived in Paris for a while where he befriended Claude Debussy, Paul Dukas, and Maurice Ravel. All three of these composers were very appreciative of the values they found in Spanish music, and all three of those composers responded with great enthusiasm to Falla’s music. In addition the Spanish composer, Issac Albéniz, was living in Paris as well, and there was much interchange among all of these composers. For example, Falla, through informal tutelage, learned much about Impressionism, and the French composers learned much about the Spanish model harmonies.
I will briefly quote from Victoria Aja’s bio statement:
“The Spanish Victoria Aja began her musical studies in Bilbao and continued at the Conservatory of Music in Madrid with Manuel Carra (a former student of Manuel de Falla). She then moved to London to perfect her performance. At 18, she won the Luis Coleman contest in Spain followed by the Frank Marshall Academy Competition in Barcelona and obtained the “Rosa Sabater” diploma of the Musica in Compostela. She was invited to play and hold conferences on numerous occasions by the Instituto Cervantes. She recorded an album for EMI devoted to Albéniz, Falla, Turina, Donostia and the pieces by the composer Jesus Guridi for the Naxos label, a record ranking among the American magazine Fanfare’s top records.”
Victoria Aja’s performance of this piece was exhilarating. She has great strength when she plays, and, as one would expect, she is totally at home with this composer. This is not an easy piece to play. The rhythms are extremely demanding, and there are many glissandos (on the piano, a rapid scale effect obtained by sliding the thumb, or thumb and one finger, over the keys) which must end precisely with the orchestra. As a matter of fact, she made use of a fabric pad when she performed some of the glissandos, presumably to protect her hands from being abraded as she slid the backs of her fingers across the keys. Though I have never seen this done before, in this particular composition it might be advisable because there are so many glissandos. There is no question that the audience was in love with this piece. The response to her performance was enthusiastic indeed.
Following the intermission, Victoria Aja performed César Franck’s Symphonic Variations. This is not necessarily a straightforward or simple set of variations: it is a three movement concerto form without interruption, which sometimes seems to use the word “variations” as a catchword. The number of variations, as the program notes point out is still a matter of debate, but many agreed that there are six large variations: 1) a tête-à-tête between piano and orchestra; 2) the theme stated by the cello; 3) a statement of the theme with the piano with strings and woodwinds; 4) and elaboration by the piano with harmonic changes; 5) an expansion of the former; 6) stronger variations in the piano with cello accompaniment.
César Franck (1822-1890) was born in Belgium, however, he spent most of his life in Paris. He was not a terribly prolific composer, but what he wrote is excellent music indeed. He was primarily an organist and composer, but he was also an excellent pianist. He taught at the Paris Conservatory, and his young student, Claude Debussy, studied improvisation with him, though they did not often see eye to eye. César Franck wrote this marvelous piece at the age of 63.
I am extremely familiar with this work, and I found Victoria Aja’s performance to be excellent, but at the same time a little puzzling. For example, I found her tempo to be a little bit on the slow side, and in addition, it seemed that in the lush center section where there is a two-handed arpeggio figuration, she could have been a little bit more legato in her approach. It would be interesting to know what edition of this work she was using, and that might go a long way to explaining her approach. Nonetheless, it was a beautiful performance of a work that is seldom heard. There is no question that she exposed César Franck for the creative master that he was. It is my hope that she performs this piece quite often, as the public needs to know this beautiful work.
The Boulder Chamber Orchestra closed their concert with an absolutely masterful performance of Georges Bizet’s Symphony in C Major. The Symphony was written when Bizet (1838-1875) was only 17 years old, presumably as an assignment while he was studying at the Paris Conservatory. Curiously, the work was not discovered until 1933, and it was not performed, as the program notes point out, until 1935.
Maestro Saless and the BCO gave an absolutely delightful performance of this piece. It demonstrates the influence that Mozart had on Bizet, with its transparency and refined textures. Perhaps more than any other work performed on Saturday’s program, the orchestra played this with a marvelous enthusiasm and accuracy of phrasing which accentuated Mozart’s influence. There was no denying that the entire woodwind section and the Boulder Chamber Orchestra is absolutely superb. Their performance was so exact that it could not be missed. The enthusiasm with which certain members played was easily noticeable as well. Gynögyvér Petheö and Veronica Pigeon seemed really to be enjoying this symphony, and their enthusiasm was truly hard to miss. Joseph Howe, Principal Cello; Aniel Cabán, Principal Viola, also reflected great enthusiasm. There is a fugue in the second movement of the Symphony, and that can sometimes keep the performers on their toes with dynamics and accents that keep each entrance similar. It was flawless. The entire orchestra made this work light and airy, and it made me think that Georges Bizet must have felt somewhat isolated in Paris because instrumental music was not incredibly popular in the city when he wrote this piece.
The Boulder Chamber Orchestra under the direction of Bahman Saless maintains their effortless reputation for excellent and exciting performances. And this season, the music they have programmed is truly exceptional and rarely heard: Stravinsky’s Octet for Winds; Vivaldi’s Gloria; Brahms Haydn Variations; Nielsen’s Flute Concerto; and in May, Chopin’s Concerto nr. 2 in f minor. These are all programs that you cannot miss.