Opus Colorado

The Colorado Ballet: Enthusiasm, Joy and Artistry

Colorado Ballet opened its season this Saturday, August 22, with its usual performance entitled An Evening Under The Stars at the Arvada Center. It is always an exciting performance because it is so obvious that the dancers have been looking forward to the new season, and their enthusiasm for their art is supremely in evidence. There seems to be no question that they missed dancing in front of a Denver audience during the summer break. The performance at the Arvada Center is always a preview usually comprised of several short works and perhaps a movement or two from larger ballets.

The Saturday performance opened with a work entitled Pirates of the Caribbean which was choreographed by Colorado Ballet’s own Ballet Mistress, Sandra Brown. The choreography in this work was absolutely superb, and it seemed very difficult because of the energy required to perform it. It was a pas de deux which was danced by Asuka Sasaki and Francisco Estevez. It was fast-paced, and the rhythms were very difficult, but Sasaki and Estevez certainly used it to demonstrate their incredible dancing ability. It may be my enthusiasm for the opening season, but it seemed that everyone in the Colorado Ballet, no matter whether they were Principles, Soloists, or members of the Corps, just keep getting better and better. And believe me, by making that comment, I do not mean to say that they needed the improvement. Artistic Director Gil Boggs has wrought so many changes in this organization since he has been in his present position that it is astounding, and one of his accomplishments can certainly be codified as inspiring the already excellent dancers to new heights. He has made sure that the dancers hired are of the ilk that constantly work on self-improvement, and it is astounding to me to have such a fine ballet company in Colorado.

One of the performances Saturday evening that literally took my breath away was the pas de deux from La Sylphide which will be the official season opener of the Colorado Ballet at the Ellie Caulkins Theater from October 2 to October 11. The pas de deux was danced by Maria Mosina and Alexei Tyukov, and again, the choreography, which was done by August Bournonville was remarkably difficult. It required that Maria Mosina dance using a step known as the bourée. This is where the dancer is on her toes and takes a “stuttering” step across the stage. To me, this has always been one of the most difficult steps that a solo dancer can do because it is incredibly rapid. In this instance, Mosina had to make use of this step for a great length of time, and I was totally convinced that if the choreographer had asked her, she could dance that step for at least six hours without a break. Mosina and Tyukov danced incredibly well together, and they are such artists, and possessed of such great skill, that their grace as a duo is absolutely enthralling.

Another performance Saturday evening that must be mentioned was an excerpt from the ballet Don Quixote. The music is by Ludwig Minkus, and the choreography was composed by Marius Petipa. There was a pas de deux which was danced by the ever graceful Sharon Wehner, and a new face in Colorado Ballet, Yosvani Ramos. In addition to Wehner and Ramos, Shelby Dyer and Asuka Sasaki danced the roles of flower girls. All four of these individuals are absolutely superb artists, and Yosvani Ramos will certainly be an exciting addition to Colorado Ballet. His agility and strength were something to behold, and even though he is new to the organization, it was obvious that Sharon Wehner felt extremely comfortable because she was able to rely on his ability and artistry as a partner. They made incredible partners on the stage. And, of course, Shelby Dyer and Asuka Sasaki were beautiful to watch.

Before the excerpt from Don Quixote, there was a three-part “suite” entitled Piazzolla, after the Argentine composer Astor Piazzolla (1921-1992). It was Piazzolla who helped to establish the tango as a major artistic dance in the 20th century. This marvelous work was choreographed by another of Colorado Ballet’s marvelous Ballet Mistresses, Lorita Travaglia. There were three sections to this sweet: Friendship, Love, and Passion. The dancers in this suite were Emily Speed and Kevin Gaël Thomas, Morgan Buchanan and Francisco Estevez, and another new face, Mackenzie Dessens and Kevin Wilson, and Sean Omandam was linked with Sarah Tryon who is yet another new face. I might add that Francisco Estevez has been elevated to the rank of Soloist. In this performance of the first portion of the three-part Suite, these “new faces” clearly demonstrated why Gil Boggs added them to the company. They are remarkable dancers, and another factor that is most important, at least to my observation, these new dancers fit so well in the company because they easily demonstrated their artistry. Tracy Jones and Kevin Hale danced together in Love and Dana Benton and Christopher Moulton were paired in the third part of the suite, Passion. The choreography by Lorita Travaglia seemed to me to be incredibly difficult, however, keep in mind that she is closely connected with all the dancers in the company because she is a Ballet Mistress. Therefore, she knows their abilities and the abilities of ballet artists in general. This knowledge, and her closeness with the dancers on stage allowed her to create an incredibly appealing dance suite. In addition, it was clear that those who danced Piazzolla were reveling in its inherent artistic choreography.

In this article, I have mentioned the word “artistry” several times. That is only easy to do when those involved possess so much of it as evidenced by their performances. Another example of excellent choreography comes, again, from within the organization, and that was demonstrated Saturday evening by the work entitled Lost in Dreamland, with choreography by Kevin Gaël Thomas. The music by William Hill seemed to be a slow tango which was complicated and distorted by the self-same slowness of the tempo. It was danced by Dana Benton and Kevin Gaël Thomas and it was absolutely thrilling to watch. The costumes were done by Colorado Ballet’s own Shirin Lankarani. This was a very forceful piece because of its difficult choreography. It left me wondering how dancers can memorize the incredibly complicated movements that they must complete. Musicians have notes in front of them that they can rely upon and which they learn. They play – or sing – those notes on their instrument. But those in ballet, while they have charts sketching out the choreography, must then translate the charts into movements in the air. That has always seemed immensely difficult to me. Benton and Thomas are enormously skilled artists, and they are breathtaking when they dance together.

The last work on the program was premiered by the Colorado Ballet on February 22, 2013. The music was by Poul Ruders who is a Danish composer (born in 1949) who wrote a concerto for several instruments, so that one can almost sectional-ize his Concerto in Pieces by the instruments that are playing in each section. The choreography was done by Val Caniparoli. I have written about this ballet in the past, and I stated that not only was the rhythm incredibly complicated, but the tempo seemed very fast. Two of the dancers that appeared Saturday night, Asuka Sasaki and Domenico Luciano, have danced this before. New to me in this ballet on Saturday were Morgan Buchanan, Luis Valdes, Shelby Dyer, and Kevin Hale. It requires great ability from the dancers, and I was left wondering who recorded the music by Ruders. The choreography by Caniparoli was specifically done for the Colorado Ballet, so I don’t know if the Colorado Ballet Orchestra recorded the music for the Saturday performance or not, but it was exceedingly well done.

All of the use of the word “artistry” in the above paragraphs lead to one conclusion: the Colorado Ballet – and by that, I mean the entire organization – is an exceptional congregation of artists and staff. The enthusiasm and the dedication displayed in this amalgam of sections from ballets at Saturday’s preview concert simply made one look forward to their coming season with excitement. To you readers who have never attended the Colorado Ballet, I promise you that my use of the word “artistry” was not flippant or used in exaggeration. To those of you who have attended at least one of their performances, you know that I do not aggrandize the standing of this organization.

Zikr Dance Ensemble: Art abounds with mysticism

Sunday afternoon I attended Invocation, the performance of the Zikr Dance Ensemble led by David Taylor. It was entitled Invocation because of its repertoire which depict religious thought and prayers. The program was comprised of seven short dances representing sacred ritual, mystical experience, and the impact of these rituals on the conscious mind.

The first work on the program, a World Premiere, was entitled The Lady of the Lake, and depicts a Knight (the Seeker) who is seeking the sword, Excalibur, which, after King Arthur’s death, was thrown into a lake by Sir Bedivere. The Lady of the Lake helps the seeker attain the first degree of spiritual initiation through the gift of Excalibur.

The story becomes a little complex at this point. Realize (and here I refer to the program notes) that the Zikr in the title of the Zikr Dance Ensemble is an Arabic word meaning “remembrance” of God. This entire dance performance seems to have been inspired by mysticism, and particularly, the mysticism of George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff (1870-1949). He was a mystic who traveled the world in order to be enlightened, and eventually combined aspects of religious thought from the Middle East, Asia, Eastern Catholicism, and Christian mysticism. He ascribed his combinations to several different legends, and even developed physical exercises to help the students develop what he called “presence of being.” Though Gurdjieff was not a dancer, these exercises have provided the basis for choreography, and two of the works on Sunday’s program make use of this choreography.

Though the choreography in the Lady of the Lake was created by David Taylor, the Zikr Dance Ensemble’s version of this ancient story becomes a vision and a metaphor for the seven degrees of spiritual initiation as The Seeker is on a quest to complete the First of the Seven Degrees. The Seeker was danced by Greg Gonzales, and the Lady of the Lake was danced by Tracy Jones. All of you readers will certainly recognize the name of Greg Gonzales as he is a well-known dancer and was Choreographer in Residence for the Colorado Ballet. Tracy Jones arrived in the United States for the 2012-13 season after dancing extensively throughout Europe.

I was immediately struck by the set design which was created by Corey Gilstrap of Imagined Creations. Greg Gonzales was awakened on a bed of rocks, while in the center of the stage mist and smoke created the impression that the body of the dancers were underwater. The dancing was superb in this opening work, and I found myself wishing that it had not been so short. The music that Taylor used for this sequence was Chopin’s Nocturne in C sharp minor, Opus 27, Nr. 1, and Debussy’s Prelude, Nr. 10 from Book One, known as the Engulfed Cathedral. It was an excellent choice of music, and I must say that the dancers seem to thrive on it. To my way of thinking this was the best program of the entire concert. At the end of the work, the Lady of the Lake displays to The Seeker the Holy Grail which represents the seventh and final degree of the consciousness of Christ in the mystical depiction of the legend. I might add, that the Grail was a beautiful illuminated sculpture done by Dorothy Tanner and Marc Billard.

The third work on the program was entitled Psalm #1, and again David Taylor relies on another Chopin nocturne in C sharp minor, this one is the Nocturne in C sharp minor, Opus Posthumous. Dana Benton and Francisco Estevez danced this work Sunday. They were absolutely excellent as they always are. The backdrop was a slide of a Cathedral which lent a surprising solemnity to this dance. As many of you will recall, the opening line of this Psalm is: “Blessed is the one who does not walk in step with the wicked…”

This seems the proper opportunity to quote directly from the Zikr Dance Ensembles website:

“The Zikr Dance Ensemble offers a spectrum of works that include transcendent dance rituals from many different ancient world cultures throughout history along with original and contemporary dance/theatre realizations. The company’s purpose is to offer performance experiences of spiritual atonement for both participants and audiences alike, which are both theatrically engaging and educational and that also connect to numerous organizations dedicated to both promoting spiritual tolerance and multi-cultural understanding for the entire community.”

Sunday’s program certainly fell into those guidelines. The fifth work on Sunday was entitled Cathedral of Light. Again, the choreography was done by David Taylor and the music was by Rick Wakeman, a keyboard player who performed with Black Sabbath, the Brotherhood of Man, and Edison Lighthouse. Projected on the back of the stage was the outline of a Cathedral which crumbles at the end. Peter Strand, Bryce Lee, Gregory Gonzales, Brandon Coleman, Alan Gonzales, Kurtis Irwin, and Connor Horak were the dancers in this work which was inspired by the Cathedral of Our Lady of Chartres. The dancing was truly excellent, but I was beginning to wonder if the idea expressed in the above paragraph was really being fulfilled by these dancers and the chosen music. I began to wonder how such a difficult art as dance can be used for the “spiritual atonement of the participants and the audiences.” Certainly, most ballets and dances relate some kind of narrative or demonstrate an artistic gift possessed by those involved, but I am not sure that it offers spiritual atonement.

The sixth work on the program was entitled Zikr, Ho Yah, The Four Prophets. The music was written by George Gurdjieff and Thomas de Hartman. De Hartman was a composer from Russia who became a pupil and follower of Gurdjieff’s. Even de Hartman’s wife, Olga, became Gurdjieff’s personal secretary for several years. Thomas de Hartman wrote the music for George Gurdjieff’s exercises and movements which were used at Gurdjieff’s Paris Institute For the Harmonious Development of Man. This work is a zikr circle chant, and it is an authentic reconstruction of a Sufi Zikr ceremony. Connor Horak and Greg Gonzales danced Whirling Dervishes who, in their medieval ceremonies, would spin in divine trance to induce a state of ecstasy.

The final work on Sunday’s program, and the second World Premiere, was Sadhu. Quoting the program notes: “A sadhu is a religious ascetic or holy person who has renounced the material world to devote themselves to spiritual practice. A sadhu wanders from place to place and owns nothing.” Dana Benton danced the title role to the traditional Tibetan Buddhist Monk chants, the music of Deva Premal, and the music of Philip Glass. German vocalist, Deva Premal, is a classically trained singer who concentrates on New Age meditative chants, concentrating on Buddhist and Sanskrit mantras. She is known throughout Europe. The choreography for this work was done by David Taylor. This work offered a climactic finish to the entire concert.

I must say that this was a unique experience for me. And, it was also the first time that I have seen the Zikr Dance Ensemble perform. There were members of this group that I have seen perform many times with the Colorado Ballet, and it was like seeing old friends on stage. There is no question that David Taylor has put together a unique group of dancers who fulfill a unique role. While the main thrust and philosophy of this concert was unexpected, there certainly was some distinctive dancing and choreography. The originality, alone, deserves a larger audience than was in attendance Sunday afternoon.

St. Martin’s Chamber Choir: Inherent artistry from all concerned

Friday evening, May 29, I attended the concert entitled, Byrd 4, given by the St. Martin’s Chamber Choir conducted by Maestro Timothy Krueger. Once again, I was struck by Krueger’s ability to pick compositions that fit so well together on a program. Friday evening there were four works: two short compositions by Tim Sarsany and Donna Wickham (a choir member), and two large compositions, one by John White, and the other by the Renaissance composer, William Byrd.

The first work on the program was Salve mater by Tim Sarsany (b. 1967). Before I continue, I will give you readers a short bio of Tim Sarsany that I have taken from the web:

“Dr. Timothy Sarsany is in his fourteenth year with CGMC [Columbus Gay Men’s Chorus]. He is serving his second year as Artistic Director, following twelve years as Assistant Director. He holds a Doctor of Musical Arts degree in conducting from The Ohio State University, as well a Master of Music degree in choral conducting and a Bachelor of Music degree in music composition. He served on the faculty at The Ohio State University Marion Campus for seven years, where he taught chorus and voice. As a doctoral student in conducting, Tim was the conductor of the University Chorus and taught undergraduate conducting, as well as serving as assistant conductors of the Chorale and Men’s Glee Club. Tim is also an accomplished composer and arranger, and continues to receive commissions from high school, collegiate, professional groups and other GALA choruses nationwide. His sixth published piece “Pater Noster”, an a cappella setting of the Lord’s Prayer in Latin, was released this past year by Roger Dean Publishing. As a singer, Tim is called on frequently as a tenor and countertenor soloist and has performed with the Westerville Civic, Ashland and Springfield Symphonies.”

Sarsany’s Salve mater is a motet with the mot in the tenor of the choir at the opening. The motet is unquestionably one of the most important forms of early polyphony, and to have a 21st century motet begin the program Friday evening was quite appropriate since the final piece by William Byrd is well-nigh the perfect example of Renaissance polyphony. The early motets had themes of borrowed material, or mots, taken from the florid sections of Gregorian chant. These sections, or themes, were given to one voice of the choir, while the other voices were freely composed, most often in counterpoint. Thus, members of the congregation or any audience could recognize the composition. For example, J. S. Bach’s Cantata, Wachet auf, opens with a motet, and uses Martin Luther’s hymn as its mot (one can easily see where the word motet comes from, as the mot plus the counterpoint became known as the motet).

The Sarsany work was remarkably well performed Friday evening from several standpoints. When the choir entered after the initial pronouncement of the theme in the tenors, I was taken with the blend of the choir. Not only is this due to the skill of the composer, but keep in mind that the conductor of a choir has to place the members in such an order that the voices produce a sound which is “total,” rather than hearing one side of the choir as the tenors, the other side of the choir as the bass, etc. Choral conductors of Maestro Krueger’s and James Howe’s ilk have very discriminating ears so that all the voices come from one particular point in the choir. As I have said before about St. Martin’s Choir, they are all carefully chosen as is demonstrated by the remarkable sense of pitch. I assure you that the blend was so perfect that if one person was singing off pitch it would be instantly noticeable. This was a beautiful performance from another standpoint: the obvious devotion and enthusiasm of the choir for what they were singing. That ethereal fervor makes a world of difference in the sound that they produce, and sets them into the world of true musicians. That makes it possible for them to emphasize the major second dissonances that resolved into major or minor thirds. The Conducting Intern, James Howe, who took the baton for this work, created a wonderful sound.

There followed the work by John White, The Canonical Hours. Maestro Krueger described this work in the program notes extremely well emphasizing the use of Renaissance polyphony combined with modern harmonies. This work was specifically composed for St. Martin’s Chamber Choir and premiered by them in 2005. It is a very striking piece with eight sections, all of which share the same forward motion irrespective of their tempo. The piece just keeps moving. For example, the seventh section, Matchless creator of light, was incredibly serene, and yet, it had a 6/8 meter which gave it the feeling of a modern cantilena. Again, this is a work which fit so well with the rest of the program, and with the mass by William Byrd which was the concert’s centerpiece, even though it was last on the program. How could that be, you may ask? The texts which John White used in his composition were all from Medieval authors: St. Ambrose (c. 342–397), St. Gregory (c. 540–604), and Hermannus Contractus (1013-1054). When composers such as John White, Tim Sarsany, Donna Wickham, and William Byrd choose texts, they are, of course, bound by the age in which they lived. It certainly is not unusual for modern composers to use ancient texts; however, if all the works on a given program use texts from the same era, it does make a difference in the overall frame of mind.

Following the intermission, St. Martin’s Chamber Choir performed a short work, Veni Redemptor genitum. In this composition, Donna Wickham used a text from St. Ambrose (340-397). In case some of you readers are unfamiliar with Donna Wickham, I will quote from her bio statement that appears on the DU website:

“Donna Wickham holds a BM in vocal performance and an MM in conducting from the University of Denver. She is the head of the Vocal Jazz program at the Lamont School of Music and teaches music history courses for Colorado Community Colleges Online. Her diverse professional activities include work as a jazz composer, arranger and performer, conductor, keyboardist and electric bass player in genres that range from early music to rock, jazz and avant-garde. Donna’s performance credits include work with the Santa Fe Desert Chorale, The Playground, Colorado Music Festival, Santa Fe New Music, the Denver Concert Band and the Colorado Art Rock Society. She recently released two albums over the course of one month. Her classical quartet named Firesign released an album featuring the world premiere recording of Terry Schlenker’s Mass for Four Voices along with William Byrd’s Mass for Four Voices. She followed that with a jazz album featuring her own compositions, entitled Myth and Memory.”

I do not know what translation from the Latin she used, but to me, it seemed exceptional because of the way the English translation rhymed. I don’t know if it was a conscious effort, but when the rhyme at the end of every second line appeared, there was also a corresponding release of tension through the harmony in the music. This was a beautiful piece of music that was distinguished from the other three works on the program by a distinct aura of calmness. Clearly a 21st century composition, the dissonances created by the harmony were not extreme, and, therefore, created a great sense of repose. I sincerely hope that it is programmed again by St. Martin’s Chamber Choir. James Howe, once again, conducted to perfection. He is a fine conductor who communicates very well with the choir.

The final work on the program was the Mass For Four Voices by the English composer, William Byrd (1543-1623). Maestro Krueger, in his pre-concert talk, expressed the belief that this was the finest example of Renaissance settings of the Mass. Clearly, he is absolutely correct. This particular work was written between 1592 and 1593 and, as Maestro Krueger again pointed out, during this time period, it was quite dangerous for Catholics to perform any music of the Mass, and certainly the Mass itself because Catholicism was forbidden in Elizabethan England. Catholics were constantly referred to as “rescuants,” and conducted their religion in the strictest secrecy. It is, however, worthy of note that Byrd was granted special permission by Queen Elizabeth I to print his music in 1575 in spite of his intense commitment to Catholicism.

Byrd’s Mass For Four Voices was unquestionably written for liturgical use by Byrd’s fellow Catholics. It is exuberant and florid, and the writing is largely syllabic, which lends itself well to the clear imitative counterpoint. It contains a remarkable climax in the “dona nobis pacem” (grant us Thy peace), which seems as an ill-disguised plea on behalf of his fellow Catholics.

In their performance of this piece, St. Martin’s Chamber Choir was absolutely brilliant. They were full of emotion, and their blend of voices was again brilliant as well. For the performance of this work, Maestro Krueger had rearranged the positioning of the voices in the choir due to his sensitive ear discerning the difference between Byrd and the opening work by Sarsany. It has been a long time since I have heard this work performed live – perhaps 50 years, and I was awestruck by how the harmonies and the counterpoint appear to be virtually timeless. I attribute a great deal of that to the sensitivity of Timothy Krueger and the singers in the St. Martin’s Chamber Choir.

I applaud the fact that after every performance the choir congregates near the exit of whatever building they perform in, so that the audience can converse with them and express their reaction to the performance. I am continually amazed that these remarkable musicians are always sincerely concerned with how they performed. It is always easy to assure them that they were outstanding.

Virtuosity, clarity, vivacity, and intimacy: Swensen and the CSO perform Bach

The Colorado Symphony Orchestra provided the concert audience here in Denver a truly unique opportunity Friday night, May 15. It was the chance to hear all six of J. S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos. I might add that this opportunity also applied to all of the professional musicians in the state of Colorado. In all of my many years, I have never heard of a performance of all six of these magnificent pieces. This opportunity has to be extremely rare.

The performance was led by Maestro Joseph Swensen who is a world renowned conductor and violinist. I will quote very briefly from the bio statement on his personal website:

“Joseph Swensen currently holds the posts of Conductor Emeritus of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Professor of Music (violin) at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music, and Founder/Director of Habitat4Music. Swensen was Principal Guest Conductor & Artistic Adviser of the Orchestre de Chambre de Paris from 2009-2012. He was Principal Conductor of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra from 1996-2005, and has also held positions at the Malmö Opera (2008-2011), Lahti Symphony, and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. Swensen is a busy guest-conductor throughout the world (from Europe, to the USA, Japan and Australia), enjoying long-established relationships with the Orchestre National du Capitole de Toulouse (with whom Swensen recently completed a Mahler cycle, spanning ten years), London Mozart Players, Orquestra Sinfónica do Porto Casa da Música and Orchestre National de Bordeaux.

“Joseph Swensen and Victoria Eisen are co-founders and co-directors of Habitat4Music. Habitat4Music connects highly qualified, passionate young American-trained classical musicians with children living in challenged areas across the world. Their goal is to use the power of long-term, committed, participatory music education and classical music programs to inspire and bring together individuals and communities.

“Joseph Swensen was born on 4 August 1960 in Hoboken, New Jersey and grew up in Harlem, New York City, (an American, of Norwegian and Japanese descent). He maintains residences in Copenhagen (Denmark), Bloomington (Indiana) and Vermont (USA).”

Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos are truly the beginning of symphonic music even though the sonata allegro architectural form had yet to be developed. However, his use of instruments in the six concertos clearly an anticipation of what is to come. As is well known, the six works were dedicated to the Margrave of Brandenburg, Christian Ludwig, whom Bach had met while traveling in 1718 and 1719. Prince Ludwig heard Bach perform, most likely, at the Meiningen court, and asked Bach to compose some works for his orchestra. As the CSO program notes pointed out, it is unclear what Prince Ludwig’s reaction was to these six concerti for he seems to have tucked them away and forgotten about them. And indeed, Bach did not complete the commission until 1721. The reason for that is undoubtedly due to the circumstance of the death of Bach’s first wife, Maria Barbara, who passed away while he was traveling.

You readers must keep in mind that these concertos follow the traditional fast-slow-fast structure of the Italian concerto grosso style: the German style was slow-fast-slow. Hence, all of the Brandenburg Concertos with the exception of the first which has four movements, feature three movements modeled after the style which Vivaldi used. And, even in his first Brandenburg Concerto, Bach does not closely follow the traditional contrast between the solo instruments and the body of the orchestra (concertino and tutti). Of course, the other comparison between Bach and Vivaldi must be that Bach uses strict counterpoint which, for all practical purposes, was considered old-fashioned when Bach composed. But it is worth stating, that these anticipate the grand era of symphonic music. This means that Bach was clearly ahead of his time, and synthesized an old-style with the new.

Several things impressed me the minute the concert started. Maestro Swensen infused this orchestra with an incredible amount of energy. Keep in mind that this was not the full Colorado Symphony Orchestra but a chamber orchestra made up of members of the CSO, and at least one additional member that I recognized, Max Soto, playing oboe. The violinist, Yi Zhao, who is the Assistant Concertmaster of the CSO, was absolutely sensational as were Monica Hanulik, Jason Lichtenwalter, and Max Soto, all on oboe, plus Michael Thornton and Carolyn Kunicki, French horns. I was also struck by Joseph Swensen’s conducting style which is very individual, but, and I stress, extremely effective. I was also left wondering what impact this vivacious Brandenburg Concerto Nr. 1 had on those who heard it for the first time.

When I use the word “vivacious” I mean just that. I could see several members of the orchestra smiling as this work began. Additionally, I was terribly impressed, as I always am, with the depth of musicianship of everyone in the Colorado Symphony Orchestra. Everyone on stage could have been a soloist. I am sure that many of you who read this article attend the performances of the CSO because of your love for music, but also for the entertainment value. I assure you that the art of music is not considered as entertainment by those on stage. It is a way of life. Friday evening, everyone on stage made that abundantly clear.

Not only were the concertos performed out of numerical order, they required different groups of musicians, and so there was a rearrangement of the stage in between each of the concertos. Brandenburg Nr. 6 was performed as the second work on the program, and again I was struck by the musicianship and clarity with which everyone performed. It was nice to hear Basil Vendryes with a prominent viola part, and that brings up another point: I was in wonderment of the clarity with which everyone performed. Those who were in attendance might say, “Well, of course you could hear everyone because there were so few people on stage.” But that is certainly not always the case. I have heard many small chamber groups perform in a much muffled manner.

Before the intermission, Maestro Swensen performed the violin solo with Catherine Peterson and Julie Thornton playing the flute. Swensen clearly demonstrated his mastery of Bach, and he also gave a clear demonstration of why it is he teaches at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music, which is one of the best music schools in the world, if not the best. Peterson and Thornton were perfect. That is the only way to state it. Again, Bach was imbued with incredible forward motion, rhythmic pulse, and virtuosity. It was wonderfully poetic.

Brandenburg Concerto Nr. 5 was next on the program, and it is in this one that Ian Watson, who had been playing the continuo part on the harpsichord, had his solo, coupled with Joseph Swensen, violin, and Brook Ferguson, flute. I was impressed once more with the clarity of the musicians, and their ability to have every note heard while playing so softly. Keep in mind that the harpsichord is a very soft instrument (and the one used was a 7 foot harpsichord), and the lid was put back on the harpsichord so that in the open position it would direct the sound to the audience. The end result was that Ian Watson could be clearly heard. He has remarkable technique, and his ornamentation was simply beyond compare. Swensen and Ferguson demonstrated an uncanny ability to play virtuosic passages at a very soft dynamic level, and you readers must understand that that adds to the difficulty.

To me, the order of the programming was excellent. I am quite sure that Bach would not object to hearing the concertos performed in the order that they were Friday evening. Brandenburg Concerto Nr. 3 was performed next, and the last on the program was the Brandenburg Nr. 2. The soloists in Nr. 2 were Brook Ferguson, flute; Peter Cooper, oboe; Justin Bartels, clarino trumpet; and Joseph Swensen, violin. As Maestro Swensen pointed out at the beginning of the program Friday evening, the trumpet solo in Brandenburg Concerto Nr. 2 is one of the most difficult in any piece you care to name. But I hasten to point out that the oboe, flute, and violin solos were equally difficult. It was wonderful to hear the Brandenburg Nr. 2 close the program as it is, perhaps, the most rousing of all six. This, as were all the others Friday evening, was performed perfectly.

As I said at the beginning of this article, Bach used the Vivaldi concertos as his model, but Vivaldi’s concertos seem but an outline when compared to the incredible counterpoint, the complexity of the form, and the unified structure that Bach has supplied. It underscores the fact that even though Bach was using counterpoint, which was considered old-fashioned by many Baroque composers, he must clearly be labeled as the greatest composer who ever lived. I emphasize that in making that statement that I am not making light of the artistry displayed by Vivaldi, Handel, Telemann, or other of the famous composers of the time.

There is no doubt that Joseph Swensen has a way with Bach. He brought him to life as did the musicians that he was performing with and conducting. It truly was a picture of Bach with all of his clarity, vivacity, intimacy, and virtuosity.

Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg: Passionate Shostakovich. Andrew Litton: Passionate Mahler

Friday, May 1, the Colorado Symphony Orchestra gave another remarkable performance. Under the directorship of Maestro Andrew Litton, and partnering with the sensational guest violinist, Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, they performed two very difficult works: Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto Nr. 1 in A minor, Opus 99, and Gustav Mahler’s Symphony Nr. 5 in C sharp minor.

Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg needs no introduction to Denver audiences. She is one of the world’s most extraordinary violinists, and she is spectacular to watch. On stage, she moves a little more than many violinists; however, her movements are not directed toward theatrical impact, but rather they clearly assist in placing energy into her bow arm. The result is one of excitement and intensity: and it is abundantly clear that she genuinely feels that intensity. Every performance that Salerno-Sonnenberg gives seems to remind me that she is, perhaps, one of the few violinists today who can truly see and re-create the passion and intensity of the composer.

Shostakovich’s marvelous Violin Concerto in A minor was written in 1947 and 1948 and then revised in 1955. It was composed for Shostakovich’s close friend David Oistrakh, but it had to be “withdrawn” because of the oppressive climate for composers, poets, and artists in the Soviet Union at the time. As I have said in past articles, the favorite term of the communist regime was “formalist perversions.” However, in the instance of the First Violin Concerto, Dmitry Shostakovich, in a rare response to Soviet criticism, wrote an article in the June 17, 1956, issue of Pravda, wherein he stated, “Not infrequently, ‘formalism’ is a label applied to what is not comprehensible or even unpalatable to some persons… However, only art which is empty and devoid of ideas, cold and lifeless, deserves to be described as formalistic art. In the latter, the technique chosen by the composer becomes an end in itself, a kind of foppery, a trick of an aesthete.” It is amazing to me that Shostakovich was able to get away with this rebuttal, but he was certainly one of the most prominent composers in the world, and it is that prominence which probably kept him from being sent to Siberia.

The reason that the Concerto was revised in 1955 was that David Oistrakh suggested that because the third movement ended with a startlingly difficult cadenza that leads directly into the fourth movement without pause, that the opening statement of the main theme of the fourth movement be given to the orchestra. In that way, the soloist gets a chance to rest and catch his breath. Shostakovich agreed to that suggestion from his friend.

Salerno–Sonnenberg’s playing at the beginning of the first movement was as moody and dark as the sound of the theme itself. Shostakovich does not begin this piece with a fast first movement: rather, he has labeled it a Nocturne that must be taken at a moderate tempo. In keeping with its rather ill-omened sound, there is a thinly veiled reference from the Dies Irae theme of the Requiem Mass in the middle of the movement. The second movement continues this mood; however, this movement is labeled a Scherzo, and it is here that Salerno-Sonnenberg’s supreme technical ability was highlighted. This is an incredibly difficult movement, but it was filled with passion and excitement. In spite of its obvious technical difficulties, Salerno-Sonnenberg demonstrated that she was more than capable in realizing what Shostakovich wished. Before the concert began, Principal Second violinist, Paul Primus, in his introductory remarks about the concert, made the statement that Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg “owned” this concerto. That is a very high compliment indeed, but you readers must realize that he was dead accurate. Everything was in place as she performed this marvelous second movement. I might also add that the woodwind section of the Colorado Symphony Orchestra was spectacular in this second movement. I truly believe that the Colorado Symphony has one of the best woodwind sections in the United States, if not the world. They certainly gave their all in providing Salerno-Sonnenberg with the musical support that her musicianship demands.

As it is labeled, the third movement of this concerto is a Passacaglia that has an almost choral like quality at the outset because the woodwinds deliver a mournful theme. When the violin enters with the main theme, it is obvious that this is one of Shostakovich’s most beautiful themes. Salerno-Sonnenberg gave it astonishing warmth, gradually increasing the tension as it headed into the cadenza which led directly to the fourth movement without any pause. The last movement is marked Burlesca: Allegro con brio, and it is indeed festive in nature. And Shostakovich seems to have written this as a statement, that even though the government is trying to control him and his art, he is daring to show them that he can have a good time. Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg played this last movement in an almost triumphant manner, and I am convinced by her playing that she is accurately convinced that is what Shostakovich wished.

It has been some time since I have heard this violin concerto. But Salerno-Sonnenberg’s performance of it will live in my memory for a very long time. Her astonishing accuracy coupled with her astonishing musicality and technical prowess was supreme in every sense of the word. The audience responded with a very long standing ovation. It was if they were saying that they clearly understood the artistic sincerity that was inherent in Salerno-Sonnenberg’s performance.

Following the intermission, Maestro Litton and the Colorado Symphony performed Mahler’s Symphony Nr. 5 in C sharp minor. Mahler “finished” this work in 1902, but the reason I used quotation marks around the word finished is because Mahler continued revising the orchestration of this work until he died in 1911. The first revision was published in 1904, and even then his publisher, C. F. Peters, didn’t bother to make the corrections in the miniature score version of their publication. In 1964, the Austrian musicologist Erwin Ratz’ “critical first edition” of Mahler’s works, turned out to be less than the final word because another musicologist, Karl Heinz Füssl, made additional discoveries which he published in 1989. Indeed, Mahler even composed the movements of this symphony out of numerical order, beginning with the third, he then wrote the first and second movements. The first movement, as Friday’s program indicated, falls into three sections: a funeral march, then a second section which is in sonata form, and a third section which is marked “Stormily with great vehemence.” The second movement of this symphony stands by itself and is marked Scherzo. The third movement can be divided into two sections, the first of which is arguably one of Mahler’s most famous symphonic movements. It is marked Adagietto: Sehr langsam and almost seems to be motivated in spirit to a song that Mahler wrote using a text by Rückert which reads “… I have become lost to the world… I live alone in my heaven.” Following this slow and emotionally painful section, there is the final fast movement which is marked Rondo – Finale: Allegro. Therefore, the end result is a symphony with three large sections, which when performed, give the impression of a typical four movement Symphony. All of this is evidence of Mahler’s continuing search to solve what some consider to be an unsettled compositional process. Nonetheless, there is clear evidence that he was beginning to discover his true symphonic vocabulary.

The performance Friday evening was absolutely superb, and the audience, which almost filled the hall completely, sat in rapt attention for over an hour. Maestro Litton was obviously concerned with every minute detail of this work. In the first movement, the violas and the cellos were absolutely sensational. Their warmth filled the funeral march with a remarkable passion. The third section of this movement, which Mahler marked stormily, brings an end to the first movement in an almost joyous conclusion.

The second movement of this work, marked Scherzo, is equally joyful and it was in this movement that the brass section, particularly the French horns, were superb. Then comes the 3rd movement, divided into two sections, with its wonderfully performed Adagietto and then the final Rondo.

As I stated above, Mahler devised a form completely separate from any previous symphonic form. It is huge and episodic, but it has its own logic. The testament to that is that it captures the audience’s attention for a very long time. Of course, Friday evening, the attention span was aided by an absolutely stellar performance. You readers must understand that Andrew Litton’s knowledge of this symphony, and of Mahler, allowed him to bring out the details of this work so that the final result was shorter in time than that which could be measured by a clock. The members of the orchestra truly must have been emotionally and mentally exhausted at the end of this performance.

It was wonderful to see that the audience came very close to filling the hall Friday evening. It was also wonderful that they demonstrated their appreciation of such a fine performance with a standing ovation after each work that was presented. Also exciting Friday evening was the fact that there were many young people in attendance to hear the works of two absolutely significant composers so beautifully performed.

The Colorado Symphony: Hwang-Williams and Mäcelaru are Fantastic

Friday evening, April 17, the Colorado Symphony Orchestra gave yet another absolutely remarkable performance under the leadership of guest conductor, Cristian Mäcelaru. I will quote very briefly from the Philadelphia Orchestra’s bio statement of Mäcelaru where he is the Conductor-in-Residence:

“Winner of the 2014 Solti Conducting Award, Cristian Mäcelaru has established himself as one of the fast-rising stars of the conducting world. With every concert he displays an exciting and highly regarded presence, thoughtful interpretations, and energetic conviction on the podium. Conductor-in-residence of The Philadelphia Orchestra, he began his tenure with that ensemble as assistant conductor in September 2011, and in recognition of his artistic contributions to the Orchestra, his title was elevated to associate conductor in November 2012.

“… Mr. Mäcelaru received the 2012 Sir Georg Solti Emerging Conductor Award, a prestigious honor only awarded once before in the Foundation’s history.”

The title of Friday’s program was Symphonic Firsts because the orchestra performed Haydn’s Symphony Nr. 1 in D Major, Shostakovich’s Symphony Nr. 1 in F minor, Opus 10, and Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D Major, Opus 61.

The CSO opened the program with Haydn’s vivacious Symphony Nr. 1, which is one of the few symphonies that we can be sure is his first. The order of Haydn symphonies has been somewhat confused over the years as a result of their appearance in the early Breitkopf and Härtel catalog which was compiled before thorough knowledge of the proper chronological order became possible. However, we can be sure that this particular symphony was his first because we know that it was written for Ferdinand Maximilian Franz, known as Count Morzin. This symphony has no minuet movement because it is early enough in the classical period that the minuet was not yet inserted into the Symphony. It is certainly clear in this work that Haydn was under the influence of the Mannheim School which included composers such as Johann Stamitz, Franz Richter, and Anton Filtz. The “Mannheim School” was not known for the startling quality of their symphonies, but rather, for its impact upon symphonic form and instrumentation. For example, at the opening of Haydn’s symphony, there is a dynamic feature known as the Mannheim Rocket, which was a fairly rapid crescendo over several measures of music. You readers must realize that this is very early in orchestral development: the use of dramatic changes in dynamics were not yet well known or used. But the Mannheim composers used them to great effect, and it is recorded that the audience was so surprised the first time they heard this dynamic change, that they actually rose to their feet in astonishment. I would like to also point out – and correct – the usually stellar program notes which call this dynamic change a “Mannheim Steamroller.” That is absolutely incorrect. The individual who wrote those notes needs to understand that the term Mannheim Rocket was used during the time of the Mannheim School’s influence in the 18th century. The term Mannheim Steamroller refers to a modern musical organization that crosses rock with classical music.

The performance of this symphony was absolutely beautiful, and I hope the audience members noticed that it was early enough in Haydn’s output, and in the development of the Symphony, that it still used harpsichord as continuo. Maestro Mäcelaru conducted this work very energetically, but at the same time, with a great sense of charm and vivacity. While this performance was the first ever given of this work by the CSO, it is often performed by other orchestras, and it is always a joy to hear. The second movement was stunning, and I was amazed by the ornamentation played by the orchestra because every note between the violins and the violas, and often the entire orchestra, was absolutely together. The third movement was very exciting, and while it was not as profound as the later Haydn symphonies (let us remember this is his first symphony), one could discern its quality and the direction in which this young composer was headed. This is a work that I hope the CSO performs again because it is so delightful to listen to. It was clear that Maestro Mäcelaru and the orchestra enjoyed themselves in this performance.

Following the Haydn, the CSO and Maestro Mäcelaru performed Dmitry Shostakovich’s Symphony Nr. 1 in F minor, Opus 10. This was an absolutely remarkable performance of this symphony, and I have never heard it performed with such passion. The first movement was jaunty in character and the clarinet solos and flute solo were beautifully done by Jason Shafer and Brook Ferguson. It was difficult to believe that Shostakovich wrote this work when he was 19 years old in 1926, and he used it as his graduation assignment from the Leningrad Conservatory. The energy with which Maestro Mäcelaru conducted was certainly noticeable in the first two movements of this work, and it was very clear that he had conducted this more than once and was totally in love with the piece. The third movement soared, and Peter Cooper’s oboe work in the solos was sensational as was the violin solo by Claude Sim. The last movement is truly episodic because it switches from fast to slow and from fff to ppp. I have heard this piece before, but Cristian Mäcelaru certainly has the ability in this piece to bring out all of Shostakovich’s characteristics which mark his future works, and one can only imagine the reception that it must have received at the Leningrad Conservatory. It certainly caught the attention of the Central Committee of the Communist Party. Though this Committee did not call Shostakovich before them to admonish him (for “formalist perversions” in his later works) until 1948 (along with Prokofiev and Kabalevsky), he was certainly aware that he had secured their interest. Upon visits to America, he was definitely overjoyed to have it his pieces heard without having to worry about any kind of political ramifications. I can guarantee you that he would have been thrilled at the performance given his first symphony Friday evening. It was wonderful to see the audience members jump to their feet when it was finished.

Following the intermission, Yumi Hwang-Williams performed Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D major, Opus 61.

It is important to realize that Beethoven wrote this concerto in 1806. Why? Because it was written after Beethoven’s realization of oncoming deafness, his attempts to get his nephew away from an alcoholic brother, and some of the trials and tribulations he faced in his relationships with women.

This concerto is not filled with pain and longing. It is cheerful and ebulliant and Beethoven seems to take pleasure in making the violinist wait for such a long time before starting to play the first movement. Yumi Hwang-Williams played this without the score, which was itself refreshing because it indicates that she has had some time to ruminate and learn this piece, and more importantly, play it the way she thinks Beethoven would approve. And she did just that. When Ms. Hwang-Williams plays, she does not employ any kind of theatrical movement. She simply gets down to business and creates a memorable experience. Her playing is sweet, and she makes it look so very easy. Her tone was absolutely breathtaking Friday night and at the end of the cadenza, when the orchestra returns with her after her solo, her playing and her rapport with the music was stunningly beautiful.

The second movement is full of grace and contains some of the most tranquil and serene music that Beethoven has ever produced. That is precisely the way Yumi Hwang-Williams performed it. Totally free from any kind of dramatic unrest, Ms. Hwang-Williams filled it with intense lyricism. There is a short upsurge from the orchestra toward the end of the movement, but this leads to the cadenza which, in turn, leads us to the third movement. The first movement contains some remarkable technical demands on the soloist. But, again, Ms. Hwang-Williams played them with effortless beauty. The cadenza was an absolute joy.

Judging by the standing ovation that the audience gave Yumi Hwang-Williams Friday evening, it is evident that they realize what a treasure Denver has in such an outstanding musician. Her performance Friday evening sets her apart as an incredibly fine musician and technician whose thought is always that the music must come first. We should all be grateful that she belongs to our symphony orchestra, and that she does not have to travel from London or Berlin or New York or Chicago for us to hear her play.

The St. Martin’s Chamber Choir is monumental

Once in a while I get a chance to attend a concert that leaves me speechless. This concert season, which is in the process of ending, has provided at least five opportunities for me to be struck dumb. Keep in mind that I don’t think it is possible to compare the disparate performances, only their excellence. For example, one cannot say that an outstanding symphony concert can be compared to an outstanding ballet. The two are different, but their excellence and exceptional qualities can still leave me wordless.

So it was, Saturday night, April 11, when I heard Saint Martin’s Chamber Choir, under the leadership of Maestro Timothy Krueger, perform a program entitled Beat! Beat! Drums! America Comes Of Age. As Maestro Krueger pointed out in the program notes, and also before the audience Saturday night, it is now 150 years that the American Civil War ended. We are also, on April 15, just days away from the 150th year that Lincoln was assassinated. The program that St. Martin’s Chamber Choir performed was a eulogy to all those, Union and Confederate soldiers, who died in the Civil War. The program was not only comprised of Civil War era poets’ works set to music, there were “Readers” who read from the poets of the era, and from speeches by President Lincoln and Julia Ward Howe.

I will take this opportunity to point out that the Readers (Narrators? – Remember that word) were absolutely spectacular and obviously well-chosen. The readers were Richard Detar, Michaëla Larson Brown, Taylor Martin, Anthony McWright, Beth Sanford, and Rob Warner.

This concert also featured Alex Komodore, well-known guitar virtuoso who teaches at Metropolitan State University of Denver. He is well known in Denver and the United States for his startling technique and superior musicianship.

The first work in the program was an excerpt from a prayer given by President Lincoln. The music was by Harvey Gaul (1881-1945). It was a solemn opening to the entire program, and there was a marvelous solo sung by Kathryn Radakovich, a very expressive soprano. This first work on the program set the mood for the entire evening’s performance. There are many who still recall the rather jovial marching songs from the Civil War which were geared to the inspiration of the soldiers and, therefore, had a rather rousing tone. But there are many texts which are quite somber, such as those by Walt Whitman, and seem to have been avoided by many grade-school, and even high school teachers. An example of one of these is from Walt Whitman’s poem, A Procession Winding Around Me:

“For my enemy is dead–a man divine as myself is dead;
I look where he lies, white-faced and still, in the coffin–I draw near;
I bend down, and touch lightly with my lips the white face in the coffin.”

I can guarantee you that I never learned that in grade school or even high school. The point I’m trying to make here is that this was, deservedly, a very sober evening performance. And, why shouldn’t it be?

The length of this program was approximately two hours, and it was filled with some of the most wonderful singing from St. Martin’s Chamber Choir that I have heard. Their diction was fantastic for almost two hours with no intermission, and they were always on pitch. For two hours, the choir gave an incredibly intense performance. Donna Wickham, a member of the choir scripted a wonderful a cappella arrangement of the Battle Hymn Of The Republic.

As the program progressed, it became more and more apparent, that Maestro Timothy Krueger had spent many hours choosing the works to be performed, making his choices dependent upon how each of the twelve pieces fit together textually, and even emotionally. Some of these works were incredibly difficult, but he has always been keenly aware of the excellence of the choir that he leads. The result of this care, and the order in which all the works appeared, truly emphasized the devastating effect that the American Civil War had on our country. As he pointed out before the program began, no war in history resulted in more deaths of American soldiers then did the Civil War.

In the last work on the program, Angel Band with music by Sean Kirchner (b. 1970) and the text by Jefferson Hascall (1807-1887) a realization occurred to me: I had just heard a two-hour concert that was so well performed because everything fit together. The music, the texts, the soloist, and, if I may use the word, the narrators (rather than Readers). All of the composers on the program seems to be chosen because of their similar use – but certainly not identical – of harmony and harmonic structure.

I will explain my point by backing up a bit. In the 14th to the 16th century, there was a form of the Mass known as the parody Mass. The parody mass involved the incorporation of material derived from other compositions and composers. I emphasize that it had nothing to do with humor as we know it today. It was the borrowing of material by adding or removing voices from the original work and adding fragments of new material. This was presumably done because the material borrowed came from well-known works that could include other masses or secular works with which the public at large was familiar. Most likely, it was Palestrina who wrote the most parody masses of any other composer. Indeed, the practice became so popular that the ecumenical Council of Trent of 1562 banned the practice of using any secular material.

While the following statement may seem to be uncalled for, as I sat listening to the very last work on Saturday evening’s program, I was struck by the fact that, 1) the entire program dealt with one subject, 2) while it was so carefully assembled by Timothy Krueger, he had written none of the music, it was all “borrowed,” 3) there was a soloist, 4) there were “narrators,” 5) it related the factual story of the American Civil War.

All of those facts, with the exception of number five, fit the description of an oratorio. An oratorio is a (largely) liturgical drama without stage action and costumes, but contains the first four items in the above paragraph. This concert was so skillfully done that one could almost label it as a parody oratorio. Far-fetched? Maybe. There is no such thing as a parody oratorio, nor has there ever been, but I can assure you Saturday’s concert had that impact. It was a concert, in its entirety, and its structure, alternating the narrators and choir and a soloist, without stretching things too far, could fulfill the definition of an oratorio. I assure you that it was heartfelt by those who performed it and the audience who heard it.

As I said above, it was one of the most impactful concerts I have ever heard St. Martin’s Chamber Choir perform. Its completeness as a two-hour unit was secure. I am keenly aware, as a musicologist, that there is certainly no such thing as a parody oratorio. However, I will say it again just to drive the point home: it was a wonderful performance that gave the appearance that it should be defined as a single, two hour work. Everything fit so perfectly together.


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