Filed under: Reviews | Tags: Abby Raymond, Andrew Litton, George Gershwin, Gregory Harper, Ira Gershwin, Justin Bartels, Kent Fenner, Nicole Abissi, Paul Naslund, Steve Hearn
The Colorado Symphony Orchestra, and Maestro Andrew Litton, gave one of their most exciting concerts of the season Saturday evening, May 18. It was an all Gershwin program that evinced all of the enthusiasm, drive, and transparent love for musical art, which has filled the “New Era” of the Colorado Symphony Orchestra since Maestro Andrew Litton has become its conductor. I was anxious to hear this program, because I have long felt, along with several friends who are true musicians, that George Gershwin is one of the most underrated composers.
It seems to me that music lovers in America have always had a little bit of difficulty in trying to classify the music of George Gershwin (1898-1937). His popular songs are so finely crafted, his harmonies so sophisticated when compared to other popular music of the day (and certainly, when compared to popular music of today), and his melodies so outstanding, that the artistry of his output is astoundingly high, and cannot be ignored. Because of the popularity of his songs, the American public has always seemed reluctant, even though his artistry has been recognized, to make the crossover observation that his popular music contains the same artistry as his “serious” music. It took years for the public to stop calling Porgy and Bess a musical, and identify it for what it is: an opera. When Walter Damrosch conducted the Concerto in F by Gershwin, he said, “Various composers have been walking around jazz like a cat around the plate of hot soup, waiting for it to cool off, so they could enjoy it without burning their tongues, hitherto accustomed only to the more tepid liquid distilled by cooks of the classical school.… she [Lady Jazz] has encountered no knight who could lift her to a level that would enable her to be received as a respectable member in musical circles. George Gershwin seems to have accomplished this miracle. He has done it boldly by dressing this extremely independent and up-to-date young lady in the classic garb of a concerto. Yet he has not detracted one whit from her fascinating personality… He is the Prince who has taken Cinderella by the hand and openly proclaimed her a princess to the astonished world, no doubt to the fury of her envious sisters.”
Saturday evening, the enthusiasm with which Maestro Litton approached the Overture to Crazy for You, seemed to delight and surprise everyone in the audience (I might add that it has been a while since I have been to a CSO concert which was as well attended as this one). Before the concert, Litton explained that Gershwin was one of the greatest melodists in music history, along with Mozart and Schubert. It was abundantly clear that Litton has a very special appreciation for George Gershwin. Again, it was clear that his skill in communicating with the orchestra is exceptional, and that there is an obvious mutual admiration between conductor and orchestra. The overture was infused with excitement, liveliness, and passion. After this overture was finished, and the natural and fervent applause had subsided, Maestro Litton swept his arm to the orchestra, and said to the audience, “How about this Colorado Symphony Orchestra?” The audience burst into applause again at his spontaneous pronouncement of his affection and admiration for the CSO.
Following the overture, the CSO and Maestro Litton performed Day Full of Song, which is a medley arrangement for piano and orchestra made by Sid Ramin of seven Gershwin songs that had been discovered in Ira Gershwin’s (1896- 1983) closet upon his death. Litton performed as piano soloist and conducted from the bench in this medley. Immediately, it was apparent that Litton is a pianist as well as a conductor. I stress that he is not a conductor who plays the piano, or a pianist who just happens to conduct. He is a virtuoso at both. I sat, spellbound, wondering at the CSO’s good fortune in having Maestro Litton in Denver. He infused Gershwin’s songs in Day Full of Song with incredible musicianship, and, again, displaying the art that is so inherent in everything that George Gershwin wrote. Please understand that there is a big difference between playing through a work by George Gershwin, and presenting it in such a way that Gershwin’s own mastery is obvious. It also became apparent that Andrew Litton’s ability in conducting and performing Gershwin’s music comes from a deep appreciation and experience with jazz. I do not know how vast that experience is, but it would seem to be considerable. I have never seen a conductor revel in giving not just the audience a rare treat, but giving a treat to the orchestra itself. I was sitting in an excellent seat, but it was a little to the side for I could fully witness the faces of half of the orchestra. None of them stopped smiling during the entire performance: it was obvious they were enjoying the music as much as Maestro Litton was. Litton and the orchestra gave the rhythms an extra emphasis, the melodic lines an extra poignancy, and the harmonic changes an extra emphasis through remarkable dynamic changes.
Understand that this entire concert was an unbelievable treat because of the enthusiasm of the performance. I suspect, however, that the treat for everyone in the audience was Gershwin’s most famous composition, Rhapsody in Blue. This is a remarkably difficult piece not only for the pianist, but for the orchestra as well, because of its rhythms and abrupt changes. It is, as Maestro Litton emphasized in his short talk before he performed it, quite rhapsodic; meaning that it follows no specific form. As everyone knows, it was written in three weeks and orchestrated by Ferde Grofé. It was commissioned by Paul Whiteman, who wanted a concerto, and, in some respects, and this is not a gross exaggeration, this composition is a one movement concerto with three cadenzas.
I was amazed at the tempo that Maestro Litton took: the tempo and the musicianship he displayed while performing at the keyboard certainly demonstrated to the audience that he is a true conductor and a true pianist. It was one of the best performances of Rhapsody in Blue that I have heard, and I assure you that I have heard many. About two thirds of the way through, where the main theme comes back in long mellifluous notes from the full orchestra without the piano, I swear I saw Maestro Litton wiped the tear from his eye because the beauty of the music simply got to him. That would not surprise me, as it is the spot where many people who listen to this piece feel the full impact of Gershwin’s melodic lines. The performance of this famous work displayed so many emotions that I think the audience was taken aback by its depth. In addition, I think it was the performance of Rhapsody in Blue at the concert, that made the audience realize that Gershwin was an incredibly fine composer. Distinctive performances, such as this one, can drive that point home more than just a repeated hearing of a fine piece.
As Maestro Litton explained to the audience, the famed choreographer, George Balanchine, was an excellent pianist. As Balanchine was playing through the original George Gershwin songbook, it seemed to him that many of the Gershwin songs would make a fine ballet. The orchestration of the songs was done by Hershy Kay, and the premiere was given in February of 1970. Balanchine and Gershwin had made arrangements to collaborate, however their plans were destroyed when Gershwin died unexpectedly in 1937. Thirty-three years were to lapse before Balanchine’s efforts materialized.
Throughout Saturday’s performance, all of the musicians in the orchestra excelled; however, in the performance of this ballet there were several that, to my way of thinking, deserve mentioning. Justin Bartels, Principal Trumpet, brought some of those sitting next to me to tears, especially when he switched to flugelhorn. Abby Raymond, Acting Principal Clarinet, accomplished exactly the same response. Kent Fenner, Principal Base; Steve Hearn, Jazz Drummer; all of the trombone section, Nicole Abissi, Paul Naslund, and Gregory Harper were all superb.
I shall remember this performance for a very long time for many reasons. Maestro Andrew Litton took the time to show the audience a composer that they already were familiar with in a new light. He did so by displaying incredible musicianship as a conductor and as a pianist, and by exposing to the audience, through that musicianship, George Gershwin’s artistic depth. The joy that Litton displayed truly inspired the orchestra, and it was readily apparent that the members of the Colorado Symphony Orchestra are delighted to have Andrew Litton as their conductor. I know that I have said as much before, but it has been such a long time since this orchestra has had someone at the helm who they truly admire, that I am still becoming accustomed to the “New Era.” It is as if they have found a conductor who, instead of saying, “Musicians! You must make something of your life in this composition!” he is saying, “Let’s experience the life of music together in this composition.”
It was thrilling.
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: Bahman Saless, Boulder Chamber Orchestra, Cobus Du Toit, Ginger Hedrick, Hsing-ay Hsu, Jerome Flegg, Kaori Uno, Kellen Toohey, Kent Hurd, Kim Brody, Max Soto
I have attended three or four concerts this concert season where the musicians involved in the performance truly seemed totally energized and excited by the music they were going to perform. Such was the case Saturday evening, May 11th, with the Boulder Chamber Orchestra under the direction of Maestro Bahman Saless. They performed an all-Beethoven program at the Broomfield Auditorium in front of a full house.
The Boulder Chamber Orchestra opened the program with the overture to Beethoven’s only ballet, The Creatures of Prometheus. A result of an association with the choreographer Salvatore Viganò in 1800, it was first performed on March 28, 1801. At the time, it was quite popular, and received twelve performances, but even so, it was eventually criticized as being far too serious for a ballet. This work carries the number Opus 43, which is quite challenging, because it indicates that the work was written quite a bit later than it actually was. We know, for example, that there was a piano arrangement of the score published as Opus 24. It was the publisher, Hoffmeister, who published the score of the overture under the incorrect number Opus 43, which, of course, leads one to believe an incorrect composition date. Beethoven also used the theme from the ballet in his Twelve Contradanses (without opus number), the Variations and Fugue for Piano, Opus 35, and the connection for Saturday evening’s performance, as a major theme in the last movement of his Symphony Nr. 3.
This Beethoven overture is a relatively short work, but it is quite an exciting one, and was well-chosen to begin this program. The work opens with forte chords separated by a considerable space between them. The attacks on each of the chords were perfect, followed by lyrical sections of the full orchestra with the weight of the melodic line carried by the woodwinds. This short introduction is then followed by the theme of the opening chords with an underlayment of sixteenth notes in the strings. This is a very exciting piece of music, and it only works if there is true precision from the violins. That precision was in abundance throughout the whole concert Saturday evening. That sounds like a very obvious thing to say, especially considering the fact that these are all professional musicians, but I assure you there was a very special “edge” to the performance on Saturday. It was full of tension and excitement. The other aspect that I noticed about the performance was that all of the musicians on stage were not only watching Maestro Saless, they were very carefully watching each other. The sforzandos (a marked and sudden emphasis) were as perfectly together as the entrances, and that comes from eye contact with each other, as well as the conductor. Beethoven’s ballet, The Creatures of Prometheus, has fallen by the wayside as far as its popularity is concerned. That, in my opinion, has led many conductors to treat the overture to the ballet as a “filler” piece of music, to be used only when a short work is needed for the program. It was great to hear Maestro Bahman Saless and the Boulder Chamber Orchestra treat it like the genuine piece of music, which it is.
Following the Beethoven overture, Boulder (and world) pianist Hsing-ay Hsu joined the Boulder Chamber Orchestra in the performance of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto Nr. 5 in E Flat Major, Opus 73, known as the “Emperor.”
Surely, everyone in Colorado must, by now, know who Hsing-ay Hsu is; however, I will quote from her bio statement which is on the web:
“Since making her stage debut at age 4, Chinese pianist Hsing-ay Hsu (“Sing-I Shoo”) has performed at such notable venues as Carnegie Hall, the Kennedy Center, Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center, and abroad in Asia and Europe.
“Upon entering her freshman year at Juilliard, she won the William Kapell International Piano Competition silver medal. Hsu was also winner of the Ima Hogg National Competition First Prize, the prestigious Juilliard William Petschek Recital Award, a McCrane Foundation Artist Grant, a Paul & Daisy Soros Graduate Fellowship Award, and a Gilmore Young Artist Award. She was also named a US Presidential Scholar of the Arts by President Clinton at the White House.
“A versatile concerto soloist performing Bach to Barber, she is described by the Washington Post as full of ‘power, authority, and self-assurance.’ Concerto collaborations include the Houston Symphony Orchestra as first-prize winner of the 2003 Ima Hogg National Competition, the Baltimore Symphony, the Colorado Symphony, Pacific Symphony (CA), Colorado Springs, Florida West Coast, Fort Collins, New Jersey, Waterbury (CT), China National, Shanghai, Shenzhen, and Xiamen orchestras. Television and radio feature broadcasts include Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion Live from Tanglewood (for a 10,000+ live audience members and 3.9 million broadcast audience), NPR’s Performance Today with Martin Goldsmith, TCI cablevision’s Grand Piano Recital (CA), CPR’s Colorado Spotlight, China Central National TV, Hong Kong Phoenix TV, and Danish National Radio. She has recorded CD/DVD’s for Pacific Records, Albany Records, and Nutmeg Press labels.
“An advocate of new music, she has given numerous world premieres including Ezra Laderman’s Piano Sonata No. and Beshert; Ned Rorem’s Aftermath (2002) for baritone and piano trio; Daniel Kellogg’s scarlet thread at the Guggenheim Museum in New York and his Momentum, which she commissioned for the 1998 Gilmore International Keyboard Festival; as well as Du MingXin’s Piano Concerto No.3 at the Gulangyu International Piano Festival and National Tour. Chamber music appearances include Carnegie Weill Hall, Bargemusic in New York, the Aspen Music Festival, Tanglewood, the Great Lakes Chamber Music Festival, the Gardner Museum in Boston, the Detroit Art Museum, Denmark’s Viborg Hall, Taiwan’s Novel Hall, and a 2007 all-stars gala in Hong Kong for the 10th anniversary of the reunification. Recent projects include the ongoing multi-media recital China through the Lens of Piano Music, co-directing/performing in the George Crumb at 80 Music Festival, and producing/performing the Olivier Messiaen Centennial series.”
I suppose that it is not without reason that Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto is nicknamed the “Emperor,” though I hasten to point out that nickname did not come from Beethoven. The name arises from the fact that it is a very forceful piece, akin to the “Eroica” Symphony Nr.3, also in E Flat Major (and also performed at Saturday’s concert). Beethoven, perhaps, more than any other composer, has had so much written about him which is full of nonsense by the early romantically-inclined critics, that today, one must realize that listening to a single page of his music is far more instructive than reading a hundred pages of the early literary effusion. The Fifth Piano Concerto is full of sharp forte-piano shadings, and incredible bravura eruptions, but the second movement also contains some of the most idyllic writing to come from Beethoven.
As stated above in her biography, Hsing-ay Hsu takes charge of the piano the moment she sits down. Her playing is full of confidence, and why shouldn’t it be? Consider all of her awards and concert experience. However, she also exudes true musicianship, and understanding of the composer that she is playing. I also hasten to interrupt myself here, to explain that Maestro Saless, in speaking to the audience, clarified that all of works on Saturday’s concert were going to be taken at tempos that were consistent with those of Beethoven’s era. They were faster than the tempos of today. As Hsing-ay Hsu began to play, it was clear that she was comfortable, and in full agreement with the tempos that were no doubt discussed with Maestro Bahman Saless. Her arpeggios ascending the keyboard from the opening chords of the introduction were crystal clear because of her very careful pedal use. She certainly used less pedal on the ascending arpeggios and the accompanying trills at the top than, for example, Claudio Arrau. Yet, it was wonderfully musical. I was also immediately struck with the impression that she was enjoying the Sauter piano because of its clarity of tone, though there were spots in certain registers of the keyboard that seemed a little out of tune, unlike other performances that I have heard on this particular piano. Her playing is so clean that it boggles the mind, and she has such power that it seems there is no chance that the orchestra could cover her. Her playing in the second movement was positively ethereal and dream-like. And, indeed, it is one of Beethoven’s most expressive statements in his entire output. I have often stated that it is sometimes more difficult to play slowly, concentrating on tone production and dynamic shadings, then it is to play fast and loud. Hsing-ay Hsu allowed the second movement to radiate emotion without being overly sentimental, and never once did she leave Beethoven’s style behind. The second movement has a slow transition which gets faster as it progresses, and the third movement of the concerto begins attacca (begin what follows without pausing). The tempo of the third movement was very quick indeed, but Hsing-ay Hsu filled it with the jubilance that I have not heard for some time. Once again, the members of the orchestra were watching each other carefully. The violins and cellos, which could easily see the piano keyboard, were also keeping a sharp eye on Ms. Hsu. It was a perfect example of an orchestra determined to allow the soloist and the conductor to lead them in this piece and offer both individuals all the support they could muster. It was clear that the members of this orchestra truly enjoyed playing with Hsing-ay Hsu because she is such an incredibly reliable musician.
Allow me to explain precisely what I mean by reliable. It means that the soloist not only knows where every note and rest and dynamic marking is, but is able to communicate that with eye contact and gestures with the conductor. In the third movement of this concerto, Ms. Hsu had a miniscule memory slip, and came in a beat late. This is not an extreme criticism by any stretch: it is part of the price of admission of being a soloist. I am confident that no one in the audience spotted this slip because I doubt that anyone in the audience knows the score well enough to spot such a small error, but it did result in an amused smile from Hsing-ay Hsu. Her reliability as a performing musician allowed her great confidence to keep going as if nothing had happened without losing a secondary beat, and it also gave Maestro Saless the confidence to know that she was going to continue without a stumble. She knew the piece so well that her tempo never changed, her eyes never got wide with shock, and she never lost her breath. That is mental and musical reliability, and total knowledge of the work at hand. It is the mark of experience, which is something that is difficult for the audience to understand unless they do it themselves in their own field of endeavor. Hsing-ay Hsu gave a wonderfully exciting performance of this very difficult piece, and her artistry and musical excellence were in a sphere obtained by only a few.
Following Hsing-ay Hsu’s remarkable performance, Maestro Saless and the Boulder Chamber Orchestra performed Beethoven’s revolutionary Symphony Nr. 3 in E flat Major, Opus 55. Note that I used the word “revolutionary.” In truth, all of Beethoven’s symphonies are revolutionary, because he did so many things other composers would not do, as in his first symphony (which is in C major). He starts on the wrong chord, travels through a minor, then F major, and at the beginning of the exposition section, finally settles in C major. Just that aspect startled critics of the day. Of course, being a revolutionary meant that his thinking was in advance of his contemporaries, and that he was misunderstood because his contemporaries refused to look forward. It was due only to later generations to award Beethoven their honor with their enlightenment.
This Third Symphony is so well-known that it really needs no movement by movement explanation. But I must point out that in the first movement the entire cello section was absolutely marvelous. In the second movement the oboes, Max Soto and Kimberly Brody excelled, as did Cobus du Toit and Ginger Hedrick, flute. In fact, the entire woodwind section including Jerome Fleg and Kellen Toohey, clarinet; and Kent Hurd and Kaori Uno, bassoon, were all exceptional. I have never heard the horn section of the Boulder Chamber Orchestra play as well as they did in this Third Symphony. As I said in the opening paragraph of this article, this was a wonderful concert by everyone on stage. It clearly was the best performance I have ever heard the Boulder Chamber Orchestra give. Everyone on stage, guided by Maestro Bahman Saless, had a knowledge of Beethoven that allowed them to present Beethoven in his purist sense. What more could one ask for?
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: Christina Pier, Duain Wolfe, Elijah, Felix Mendelssohn, Lawrence Wiliford, Matthew Halls, Meg Bragle, Nathan Berg, Samuel Meyer
Friday evening, May 10, the Colorado Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Maestro Matthew Halls, conducted Felix Mendelssohn’s Elijah. This work, which Mendelssohn completed in 1846, became as well-known as Handel’s Messiah. However, it could be argued that its popularity caused it to be performed by organizations that did not have the talent, or artistic sense, to perform it well. During the early twentieth century, it was even performed by numerous church choirs who were well-intentioned, but lacked the skill to present such a huge undertaking. The performance of the Colorado Symphony Orchestra and Chorus was absolutely breathtaking.
We all know, of course, that Mendelssohn was one of the creative geniuses of the first half of the nineteenth century, but it is still amazing to me, at least, that an individual in his 30s could compose such a work as Elijah. The other composers who also deserve a space at the top of Mount Parnassus with Mendelssohn, are few and far between.
Mendelssohn conducted the premiere of this oratorio on August 26, 1846, in Birmingham, England. It underwent a few revisions, and Mendelssohn conducted the final version in London on April 16, 1847. On May 14, 1847, Mendelssohn’s sister, Fanny, died of a stroke in Berlin. Both of Mendelssohn’s parents had died of strokes as well, demonstrating that there was a genetic trait in the family for this medical condition. At the beginning of October, 1847, Mendelssohn himself began to feel ill. In a letter to the King of Prussia, Mendelssohn addresses this issue. It is an interesting letter, and I am sure, one of his last. It is short, and therefore I will enclose it in its entirety below:
To Friedrich Wilhelm IV, King of Prussia
Leipzig. October 17, 1847
Most Serene and Powerful King,
Most Gracious Lord and Sovereign,
Your Royal Majesty,
I am taking the liberty of laying with the utmost Reverence the enclosed first copy of the score to my Elijah at your feet. It seems to me as if it were not only the deepest and innermost gratitude which makes this my duty, but as if I had no other means of proving to Your Majesty how continually I strive to be more and more worthy of all the generosity Your Majesty has shown me. May these strivings be visible in the present work.
It was my hope to find an opportunity to hand this work to Your Majesty myself while in Berlin. But having been detained here by illness I would not like to wait until the score is placed before the public, and am thus making so bold as to address these lines to Your Majesty. With deepest reverence
Your Majesty’s most humble servant,
Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy
On October 28, a few days after this letter was written, Mendelssohn suffered his first stroke. On November 3, he had a second stroke. He died the following day, November 4, at the age of 38.
The guest conductor Friday evening was Matthew Halls.
“Halls has made significant debuts with orchestras such as Rundfunk Sinfonieorchester Berlin, Hessischer Rundfunk Sinfonie Orchester, Orchestre Philharmonique de Monte Carlo, Iceland Symphony, Het Residentie Orkest and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. His 2010/11 season included amongst others debut appearances with the Bach Collegium Stuttgart, Colorado Symphony, Houston Symphony, Oregon Bach Festival and Tonkünstler Orchestra with re-invitations arising from all these. This season’s highlights include debuts with the BBC Scottish Symphony, Bergen Philharmonic, Detroit Symphony, National Symphony Orchestra Washington, Netherlands Radio Philharmonic and Salzburg Mozarteum Orchestras.
“In the opera house, Halls has made recent debuts with companies such as the Handelfestspiele Halle, the Korean National Opera, Salzburg Landestheater and Central City Opera Colorado. All resulted in immediate reinvitations; Halls returned to Central City in summer 2011, having already conducted Handel’s Rinaldo and Puccini’s Madama Butterfly with the company, for a well-received production of Handel’s Amadigi and this season returns to Salzburg with Handel’s Imeneo. His operatic repertoire naturally covers Renaissance, Baroque and Classical works, but also extends to a wide range of later repertoire, with a particular focus on the Italian Bel Canto and the Britten operas. His association with both The Netherlands Opera and Nationale Reisopera Holland have included productions of Verdi Luisa Miller, Britten Peter Grimes and Bellini Norma, as well as Handel’s Hercules, Samson, Solomon and Saul.”
Maestro Halls’ conducting is very energetic, and reflects great confidence in demanding precisely what he wants from the orchestra and from the choir. I have often thought that by closely observing a conductor, one could determine if the conductor was primarily a choral conductor or a symphonic conductor. I say that because choral conductors sometimes have to spend so much time on every word and syllable; but, on the other hand, symphonic conductors have to spend a great deal of time on every dynamic, attack, release, and nuance. However, Halls can clearly do both incredibly well.
In Friday’s performance, Halls’ ability to demand and receive so much from the choir was certainly a reflection on the choirs’ preparation which was done by the Colorado Symphony Orchestra Chorus Director, Duain Wolfe. It is been a few years since I have heard a choir be so precise in their exclamatory entrances: they were absolutely together every single time. Their phrase endings were just as excellent. However, the big, pleasant surprise was their diction. It goes without saying that when one is working with the choir that is so large (there were 183 Friday evening) diction will suffer simply because it is so difficult to get them to enunciate syllables precisely together so that they can be heard above the orchestra, let alone be distinct among so many voices. I hasten to point out that at least seventy percent of the time, I could understand the choir. That was amazing to me, and Maestro Wolfe and the Choir deserve much credit and praise. I have heard performances of Elijah, as well as other oratorios, where I couldn’t understand a single word. The Colorado Symphony Chorus was clearly working hard and devoted to what it does.
One other outstanding aspect of Friday’s performance was the rhythmic drive and accentuation that Maestro Halls demanded from the orchestra and the choir. It was conducted in such a way as to illustrate Mendelssohn’s amalgamation of chorus and orchestra. I can think of no other way to phrase it. It was a true combination and meeting of the human voice and the voices of the instruments. The orchestra never simply “accompanied” the choir, and that demonstrates not only Maestro Halls’ skill as conductor, but it demonstrates Mendelssohn’s incredible ability to write for a choir.
The soloists were quite remarkable as well. Nathan Berg, bass-baritone, sang the role of Elijah. He has an enormous voice and his diction was absolutely consistent and superb. He has sung operas from Mozart to Wagner, and has also sung the difficult bass-baritone solo in the Rachmaninoff The Bells, a huge four movement choral symphony.
Meg Bragle was the mezzo-soprano Friday evening, and like Nathan Berg, she has an enormous voice and excellent diction which is so important in a work like Elijah. She has enormous worldwide experience as well, but she and Nathan Berg shared one outstanding characteristic: both of them have the ability to change the quality of their voice to emphasize the drama and the emotion of the particular verse they are singing. Both of them had seemingly infinite control over dynamics.
Lawrence Wiliford was the tenor Friday evening, who has an amazing range. He also has particular experience in singing oratorios and passions, and his vast experience was demonstrated in the confidence in which she performed Friday evening.
There was a change in the program, and Christina Pier was the soprano in place of Monica Whicher. Like her partners on stage, Christina Pier has a terrific voice that is full, and she is also a very sensitive musician. It struck me, however, that her diction was not at the level as the other three soloists, which was a bit of a surprise because she did her undergraduate work at Indiana University, where they stress diction above all. But, realize that I am criticizing at a very high level, and diction is something that can always be improved and worked on.
In addition to the above soloists was the young Samuel Meyer, who sang the role of The Youth. He was from the Colorado Children’s Chorale. My guess is that he is around ten years of age, and the music world needs more young people such as him. He did a great job, and it was terrific to see Maestro Halls congratulate him as he left the stage.
This was a beautiful performance. Maestro Halls is a remarkable conductor who uses no baton, and who exposed so many things in this oratorio that I have never heard before. In the beginning of Part II, the chorus sings Be not afraid…, and the rhythmic drive was unmistakable, and something that I have never heard in this section. Another chorus was She shall perish… and the entrances of this chorus were absolutely astounding in their tightness and accuracy. Everything was extremely concise. In the aria sung by Elijah entitled It is enough, the cello section of the orchestra was absolutely wonderful. Their tone was warm and their playing was completely mellifluous.
The chorus, He, watching over Israel which is the most famous chorus in this oratorio, really caught my attention. This is a beautiful and serene chorus and the choir was everything one could ask for, but, what caught my attention was the underlying interest to the rhythm in the strings, which gave an almost “charged atmosphere” to the serenity of the melodic line. It was very effective. In Elijah’s arioso, For the mountains shall depart, the woodwind section, particularly the oboes and bassoon, were sensational.
This work of Mendelssohn’s is two hours and twenty minutes long, but it was two hours and twenty minutes of such a marvelous performance, that I never wanted it to end. When it did end, the audience literally sprang to its feet. The only disturbing thing about Friday evening, was the fact that the hall was not packed to the ceiling. We in Denver must somehow figure out a way to educate the public about music such as this. I hasten to point out that there were many young people in the audience. Perhaps they were from the Colorado Children’s Chorale, but all of us share the responsibility to draw audience members to performances such as this. One of the solutions seems to be that many of the parents need to take their children to concerts of serious music, and some of the parents need to realize that serious music can give one an absolutely breathtaking experience.
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: Aaron Copland, Astor Piazzolla, Benjamin Hochman, Colorado Symphony Orchestra, Dan Silver, Edward Dusinberre, George Gershwin, Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, Scott O'Neil, Sensemayá, Silver Ainomäe, Silvestre Revueltas
Friday evening, the Colorado Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of Maestro Scott O’Neil, presented a program entitled Masters of the Americas. The concert featured the music of infrequently performed Mexican composer, Silvestre Revueltas, Astor Piazzolla, George Gershwin, and Aaron Copland. The guest artist of the evening’s concert was Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, a violinist who is always exciting to hear.
The CSO opened the program with a work by Silvestre Revueltas, entitled Sensemayá (from a Cuban poem by Nicolás Guillén). Silvestre Revueltas (1899-1940) began studying the violin at the age of eight, and when he was fourteen, he moved to Mexico City where he studied violin and composition. During his short life, he moved back and forth between Mexico and the United States, studying in Texas at St. Edward College in Austin, Texas, and also the Chicago Musical College. Eventually, he returned to Mexico to teach violin at the National Conservatory, and to become assistant conductor with famed Mexican composer and conductor, Carlos Chávez, at the Orquesta Sinfónica de Mexico. Revueltas developed a very negligent lifestyle which was quite self-destructive. This led to a falling out with Chavez, and, for a time, Revueltas toured Spain as a violinist, eventually returning to Mexico to teach. He eventually drank himself to death, and died October 5, 1940.
The music of Silvestre Revueltas is quite different than other Mexican composers. When one hears it for the first time, it gives the impression of being incredibly concentrated and dense. The work performed Friday evening, Sensemayá, has great rhythmic intensity and is completely mesmerizing in its dynamic force. Revueltas excelled in orchestration, and that aspect alone gave this piece remarkable primeval impact. The “new” Colorado Symphony Orchestra was absolutely sensational in the performance of this work. Their rhythmic jabs and force gave the piece an air of mysteriousness and strength. It opens with low bassoon, followed by French horn. As the rest of the orchestra enters, there is a very definite sense of foreboding. This was an exciting piece, and it kept me sitting on the edge of my seat, because the percussion, driving rhythm, and the almost contrapuntal overlapping of the two main themes became almost pitiless in character.
Following the Revueltas, Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg joined the Colorado Symphony Orchestra and performed Astor Piazzolla’s The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires. I am sure that everyone is familiar with Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg; however, I will quote very briefly from her website:
“Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg’s professional career began in 1981 when she won the Walter W. Naumburg International Violin Competition. In 1983 she was recognized with an Avery Fisher Career Grant, and in 1988 was Ovations Debut Recording Artist of the Year. In 1999 she was honored with the prestigious Avery Fisher Prize, awarded to instrumentalists who have demonstrated “outstanding achievement and excellence in music.” In May of that same year, Ms. Salerno-Sonnenberg was awarded an honorary Masters of Musical Arts from the New Mexico State University, the first honorary degree the University has ever awarded. An American citizen, Ms. Salerno-Sonnenberg was born in Rome and emigrated to the United States at the age of eight to study at The Curtis Institute of Music. She later studied with Dorothy DeLay at The Juilliard School.”
Performances of Astor Piazzolla’s (1921-1992) music have become more frequent in the last few years. The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires, of course, brings to mind Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, but Piazzolla’s work was originally intended to be just four pieces written for violin, piano, electric guitar, double bass, and bandoneón. Piazzolla’s four pieces are just that – for individual pieces, while Vivaldi’s individual “seasons” all have three movements. It is very interesting to note that Piazzolla did not require a solo violin until the Russian composer Leonid Desyatnikov completely rearranged the works for chamber orchestra. And, it was Desyatnikov who added the Vivaldi quotes to the different movements by Piazzolla, sometimes with humorous intent, because, if one listens carefully, one can hear a motive from Vivaldi’s “Summer” in Piazzolla’s “Winter.”
The Colorado Symphony opened the Piazzolla Spring with great vigor and cheerfulness. The B theme was extremely lyrical and lush in contrast to the exciting A theme. Again, I must say that the attitude of the Colorado Symphony has changed so much for the better: even though this concert season is almost over, one can still hear the excitement in their playing that, I think, has been brought about by so many new beginnings. Their sound was warm and full, and they played with an earnestness that clearly showed their concern for demonstrating to the audience what this music is all about. I must say that the Vivaldi quotes were unmistakable, and, even though I was expecting them, they came as quite a surprise. Sonnenberg’s playing was absolutely gorgeous. She is a remarkable violinist who plays with the intelligence of a true musician first, and a violinist second, and it truly sets her apart from many other violinists who are prominent in this day and age. She is exceptional, and her concern for the music shows over and over again.
The two movements that followed, Summer and Winter were beautifully done with great passion. I became so involved in just listening, that it was difficult to take any notes about the performance of these two movements. They were done so well that I just wanted to sit and listen. It seemed to me that Salerno-Sonnenberg’s musicianship gave her remarkable on-stage confidence. Her naturalness and poise on stage reminded me very much of Benjamin Hochman, pianist, and Colorado’s own violinist, Edward Dusinberre.
The last movement, Autumn, was beautifully done. It contains an almost cadenza/duet with (in this case) Silver Ainomäe, the CSO’s Principal Cellist. Every time I hear him play, I am amazed that he has chosen Colorado and the CSO to be his home. He is a fine cellist who is of the same ilk as Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg: every time he plays one simply has to listen. It was also quite clear that Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg enjoyed performing with him.
After the Piazzolla, Ms. Salerno-Sonnenberg and the CSO performed Gershwin’s Bess, You Is My Woman Now. This, of course, needs no introduction. It was performed with a sensitivity that brought tears to the eyes. It was also done in such a manner as to remind everybody in the audience that in spite of Gershwin’s popularity, he is still one of the most underrated American composers.
Following the intermission, the CSO performed Aaron Copland’s massive Symphony Nr. 3. I have heard this performed live perhaps four or five times, and I am always surprised at how difficult this symphony is. It was commissioned by the great conductor Sergei Koussevitzky, and it was dedicated to his wife, Natalie. The first movement can only be described as expansive, particularly the way it evolves from the very quiet opening theme. The second movement is marked Allegro molto, and is quite cheerful. It also contains a figuration in the brass section that, in the Romantic Period, would be called a “Mannheim Rocket,” which is a rapidly ascending section of the melodic line. The third movement begins with something akin to a dialogue in the string section. This leads to some very expressive writing in the winds which becomes a chorale. The fourth movement makes use of the theme that is to become a separate work: Copland’s well-known Fanfare For the Common Man. However, here that theme is taken over by the entire orchestra, and is developed into an equally noble character.
The performance of this symphony was excellent. It is incredible to listen to because Copland was so very skilled at orchestration, and, it is my opinion, that he was more skilled than any American composer at writing for woodwinds. I could not help but notice that one of Colorado’s preeminent clarinetists was sitting in the woodwind section Friday evening, and that individual is Dan Silver. I am sure he was filling in for Erin Svoboda. In any case, if I had to pick a section of the Colorado Symphony in Friday’s performance (and that is very difficult, because the entire symphony is so excellent), I would have to choose the clarinets and piccolos. They were beyond compare.
Friday evening’s performance was, again, exceptional. There were a few places where I thought Maestro O’Neil’s cues were a little overbearing, and there were a couple that may have been late. Nonetheless, the orchestra demonstrated that it is a remarkable organization of exceptional ability. This entire season, they have also demonstrated a wonderful enthusiasm that I have been almost coerced into mentioning because it is so infectious. Bravo!
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: Beethoven, Colin Hill, Eric Ewazen, Evergreen Chamber Orchestra, Larry Beck, Marylin Hof, Michael Maracek, Nadya Hill, Nancy Thayer, Natalie Hill, Paul Creston, Peggy Lyon, Shirley Maracek, Stephen Weidner, Voice of the Wood Cello Quartet, William Bolcom, William Hill
Sunday afternoon, April 21, I attended a concert given by the Evergreen Chamber Orchestra. This is their thirty-first season, and I had never heard them perform before. It turned out to be quite an eye opening experience – this orchestra is a real gem, and I can assure you that on Sunday, they sounded better than some of the local community orchestras in the Denver/Boulder metro area. The orchestra was founded thirty-one years ago by Larry and Wanda Beck among others, and it is my sincere hope that the orchestra will continue performing for a another thirty years.
Sunday’s performance was Guest Conducted by William Hill, who should be no stranger to anyone in the country, as he is a prominent composer, and also Principle Timpanist with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra.
I will quote from the program notes:
“William Hill has performed as Principal Timpanist with the Colorado Symphony since 1980. He has served as a featured soloist on numerous occasions and the orchestra has performed his compositions more than fifty times. Mr. Hill is an instructor of Composition and Counterpoint at the University of Denver’s Lamont School of Music. His Symphony Nr. 3, commissioned by the Colorado Symphony Orchestra was premiered by the CSO with Larry Rachleff conducting in January 2012 to long standing ovations and critical acclaim. Symphony Nr. 3 is available for digital download on iTunes and Amazon. In September, 2011, a two CD set, Bill Hill and Friends Jazz/Latin/Fusion was released to high acclaim and a sold-out concert. Hill’s Symphony Nr. 2 with Lawrence Golan conducting the Lamont Symphony was released on Albany Records in December of 2011. The Grand Rapids Symphony opened their 2010 Classical Series with Hill’s tone poem Aurora Borealis which drew standing ovations and excellent reviews.”
Maestro Hill and the Evergreen Chamber Orchestra opened Sunday’s program with the second movement, entitled and sorrows, from a Concerto for Oboe and Cello Quartet, composed by Eric Ewazen. The entire concerto is entitled Down a River of Time. This work was originally scored for a chamber orchestra, and I am sure, but not positive, that the transcription may have been done by Mike Marecak who is one of the cellists in the quartet. This work has also been performed, and I think recorded, with a violinist and not an oboist. There is a good reason for its popularity: it is an excellent piece.
Quoting again, this time from various websites:
“Ewazen’s [born 1954] ‘Down a River of Time’ was written in 1999, commissioned by oboist Linda Strommen as a memorial to her father. The title of this piece, taken from an essay by Richard Feagler, relates to the poignant stories of long gone relatives and friends.
“He received his Bachelors of Music Degree from the Eastman School of Music and Masters and Doctorate Degrees from The Juilliard School, where he has been a member of the faculty since 1980. His teachers have included Samuel Adler, Milton Babbitt, Warren Benson, Eugene Kurtz, Gunther Schuller and Joseph Schwantner.”
The oboe soloist in this work was none other than Larry Beck. He has been Principle Oboist with the Evergreen Chamber Orchestra since 1983. He is also in his forty-fourth season as principal oboist with the Jefferson Symphony Orchestra. Larry is a featured recital in concert soloist in the Denver Metro area and in Hawaii, where he performs regularly with the Kamuela Philharmonic and the Voice of the Wood Chamber Players.
Eric Ewazen is a composer who does not seem to be influenced by some of the techniques the twentieth century music. He certainly is not minimalist, and he does not seem to be using any kind of twelve-tone serial technique. His music sounds to me like a cross between Frank Bridge and Aaron Copland. This was a “pastorale” piece, and it certainly had its elements of melancholy. Larry Beck produces a very warm sound on his oboe, and his lyricism certainly described the mood of this piece. The Voice of the Wood Cello Quartet (Even their title suggests a pastorale) was absolutely marvelous in their ensemble and creation of a melancholy spirit with Beck. This is a beautiful piece. And it was played superbly by these five musicians, none of whom are professionals. They perform in the quartet and in the Evergreen Chamber Orchestra because music is a part of their life. It truly shows. The members of the quartet are Shirley Maracek, Michael Maracek, Marilyn Hof, and Stephen Weidner.
Following the movement from Down a River of Time, the Evergreen Chamber Orchestra was joined by Peggy Lyon on the piano for a performance of Paul Creston’s Fantasy for Piano and Orchestra, Opus 32. Once again, I will quote the program notes:
“Peggy Lyon is a concert pianist whose playing has been described as ‘radiating beauty and an inner intensity of feeling which is simply overwhelming.’ She has performed solo recitals in Austria, Peru, and the major cities in the Western United States, and has given world premieres of works by David Baker, Eugene Kurz, and Istvan Hornyak. She has also performed concertos with orchestras in Los Angeles, Las Vegas, in Pullman, Washington, and in Denver, Golden, and Evergreen, Colorado. She has recorded ten solo CDs. Peggy studied piano and voice at the Oberlin College Conservatory of Music, and at the Mozarteum in Salzburg. She has a Masters in Piano Performance from Washington State University, and a Masters in Voice Performance from the University of Denver. Peggy’s award winning specialty is giving concerts with commentary about the music and the composers. Her talks are informative and humorous, and they are unique for including outrageous pronouncements of critics.”
Paul Creston [1906-1985] is probably the epitome of a self-made composer. He was born to an Italian immigrant family in 1906 with the name Giuseppe Guttoveggio. He chose the name Paul Creston from a play that he had participated in while he was in high school. His family was far from wealthy, and he was forced to leave high school after two years in order to make money with a variety of jobs, including helping his father who was a house painter. He taught himself to read music, and truly educated himself by studying the works of Beethoven, Mozart, Chopin, Debussy, and Stravinsky. Since he had no formal music education, recognition was a long time in coming, but he was eventually championed by the composer Henry Cowell, and conductors such as Toscanini, Ormandy, and Stokowski. However, it should be pointed out that since he had no formal training in music theory, there are often mistakes in his scores which often drive conductors and performers to seriously doubt if his music is worth studying.
The Fantasy for Piano and Orchestra, which was performed by Ms. Lyon, is an invigorating piece which reflects the rhythmic vitality of nearly everything that Paul Creston wrote. Peggy Lyon’s playing of this piece was excellent, and her rhythmic impulse and accents gave great life to this work. While Creston did not particularly agree with atonality, which was looming on the horizon during much of his creative life, the counterpoint in this work certainly produced some dissonances. The Evergreen Chamber Orchestra allowed his melodic lines to absolutely soar after the flashy and attention grabbing opening of the work. I would also like to point out that the piano that Ms. Lyon was performing on was prepared very well for this concert. Ms. Lyon is a fine pianist, and her sharp rhythmic jabs kept the piece moving forward. I also point out that Maestro Hill, who I have never seen conduct before this performance, was totally at home on the podium. I would certainly go so far as to say that he was really enjoying himself, and enjoying the partnership with Peggy Lyon. He conducts in a very authoritative manner, while imparting a very definite sense of encouragement to the orchestra. And I must say that everyone in the orchestra, including Ms. Lyon and Maestro Hill, really seemed to be enjoying the music. And in this work they made some wonderful music. There was a fughetta in the middle of this piece which led to a march, and Lyon and the orchestra played it with great vigor and confidence. I have never heard this work before, but years ago I saw some scores for other Creston works, and came to the conclusion that there were so many mistakes in the scores (because of his lack of formal training) that it would take an eternity to learn the music. This is a shame, because those works that I have heard of his – and they are few – were quite interesting.
The Evergreen Chamber Orchestra was then joined by another Guest Artist, Ms. Nadya Hill. I would think that it is easy to notice that her last name is the same as the Guest Conductor’s last name, and, it is also the same as one of the violinists in the orchestra, Natalie Hill. They are all, including Colin Hill from an incredibly musical family.
“Nadya [Maestro Hill’s daughter] has degrees in Violin Performance and Voice Performance of from the University of Michigan, both summa cum laude. She has been playing violin as long as she can remember, and has performed in public since the age of four. While studying violin at the University, Nadya became aware of her passion for the vocal repertoire, began her vocal studies at age 19, and was accepted to the University of Michigan’s Vocal Department nine months later. Hill has performed in recitals and with orchestras across the United States and in numerous European countries. She is comfortable in a wide range of musical styles from classical to jazz and ethnically-influenced music. Nadya currently teaches violin classes into Denver schools, is the concertmaster for the Parker Symphony Orchestra, and is the Assistant to the Executive Director for the Colorado Youth Symphony Orchestra.”
Ms. Hill and the Evergreen Chamber Orchestra performed four songs by American composer William Bolcom. If you readers have not become familiar with William Bolcom, you must do so as soon as possible. He is one of the most versatile composers America has produced and has written chamber music, piano works, song cycles, opera, and symphonies, and as the works on this program demonstrated, he certainly knows jazz and the cabaret style. The four songs that were sung by Ms. Hill were Song of the Black Max (as told by the de Kooning boys), Amor, At the Last Lousy Moments of Love, and George. All of these songs are cabaret songs, which means there is entertaining, dramatic motion, and a rather sultry style. Everyone knows what a cabaret is, but these songs came from the cabaret district in Paris which is near Montmartre, and provided opportunities for performance by Edith Piaf and Toulouse-Lautrec, who painted many of the cabaret singers. Ms. Hill certainly understands that style. I have written about her before, and she has an absolutely marvelous voice. Her sense of drama and comedy, which at times can be very subtle, except where it needs to be bold, is an absolute delight to watch. She understands that her operatic vocal mechanism can be perfectly suited to the cabaret style. She made a wonderful entrance into the hall to the accompaniment of the orchestra, and once again it was clear that all of the performers were truly enjoying themselves. While the songs that Ms. Hill performed are rare on a program of “classical music,” there is no question that Nadya Hill performed them with a great deal of class.
Following the four songs by Bolcom, there was an added treat: George Gershwin’s spectacular aria from his opera, “Porgy and Bess,” Summertime. At this concert, Maestro Hill arranged the version of this aria for his daughter to sing. I truly don’t think Gershwin would have minded, because William Hill is an equally gifted composer. Nadya Hill imbued Summertime with a poignancy that I have rarely heard in this aria. It was absolutely terrific, as was the orchestra.
Following the intermission, Maestro Hill and the Evergreen Chamber Orchestra performed one of the all-time symphonic favorites: Symphony Nr. 1 in C Major by Beethoven (1770-1827). This Symphony is a favorite because while it is so deeply ingrained in the vocabulary of the classical period, it literally sparkles with innovation from the opening dominant seventh chord to the incredibly dense counterpoint at the end of the fourth movement. The tempos that Maestro Hill chose were absolutely perfect. And, because he is a composer, as well as a conductor, the orchestra was immensely well prepared at bringing out all of the themes in a very artistic emphasis in order to clarify the structure of each movement. There were a few times when there were some out of tune burbles from the horn section, and the flutes. But, there are only two professional musicians in this orchestra: the terrific Concertmaster, Kathy Thayer, and violinist Natalie Hill. Everyone else is an amateur musician who clearly worked very hard for this performance. Entrances were together, everyone’s eyes were glued to Maestro Hill, and everyone worked very hard to show the good-sized audience that they could perform extremely well under the direction of Maestro Hill.
I was left with the impression, judged by the evident pleasure on all of the orchestra members faces following the concert, that Hill had worked them quite hard but without an ounce of tyranny. It demonstrates how hard individuals can work when they have such a deep appreciation of music, and it also demonstrates that the conductor does not have to be the typical evil taskmaster that is often portrayed in Hollywood movies, as well as true life. I do not know if Maestro William Hill is going to continue conducting this orchestra, but there were so many things in his conducting that so obviously pleased the orchestra members, that this will be a performance they will remember for some time.