Opus Colorado

The Colorado Symphony Orchestra with Yumi Hwang-Williams and Wendy Sutter are without peer.

Friday evening, April 11, the Colorado Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of Maestro Scott O’Neil, presented an absolutely marvelous program of two rare works, and one well-known work. The CSO performed the Double Concerto for Violin, Cello, and Orchestra by Phillip Glass. This work featured the CSO’s own Yumi Hwang-Williams, violinist, and guest cellist, Wendy Sutter. Also on the program was The Pleasure Dome of Kublai Khan, Op. 8, by Charles Griffes, and the well-known Symphonic Dances, Op. 45, by Sergei Rachmaninoff.

The CSO opened the concert with the Griffes work, The Pleasure Dome of Kublai Khan. Charles Griffes (1884-1920) was an American composer whose very short life has relegated him to the ‘unknowns.’ This is truly lamentable: there are many scholars today who regard him as one of the most outstanding American composers of his generation because of his compositional artistry as well as his skill at orchestration. He was born in Elmira, New York, and began taking piano lessons from his older sister. He eventually studied piano at the Elmira Free Academy where he attracted the attention of his piano teacher. The teacher subsidized his traveled to Berlin where he began taking piano lessons with Ernst Jedliczka and Gottfried Galston. He also began to take composition lessons with Engelbert Humperdinck, and that is where he felt most comfortable. While he was in Germany, he wrote several lieder in the German language in addition to one symphony. He returned to the United States, and accepted a job at the Hackley School in Tarrytown, New York. He kept that position until he died in 1920 of pneumonia.

He began composing in a Germanic post-romantic style that soon evolved into French Impressionism, and it is that element which became very strong in his adult life, short as it was.

Before the concert opened, CSO Principal Flutist, Brook Ferguson, and pianist Josh Sedwicki gave a performance of Poem by Charles Griffes as part of the pre-concert lecture. This gave the audience a hint of his style, and what to listen for in The Pleasure Dome of Kublai Khan.

The Pleasure Dome of Kublai Khan was originally written in 1912 for piano solo, but when he submitted it to his publisher, G. Schirmer, it was rejected because they thought that Griffes was writing in a way which was much too “dreamy” for that day and age. One of Griffes’ acquaintances introduced him to Ferruccio Busoni, a Liszt pupil, who was coming to New York City on a concert tour. Busoni looked at several of Griffes’ works and was quite impressed. He also suggested that Griffes rewrite The Pleasure Dome of Kublai Khan and orchestrate it. It was that version which was premiered by the Boston Symphony Orchestra under the directorship of Pierre Monteux in 1919. It was an immediate, critical success, and it was received with rave reviews by the audience as well.

The CSO performance of this work was absolutely superb. It seems to me that it would be a rather difficult piece because of its many contrasting sections or, if you will, episodes. The orchestration of this work demonstrates how skilled Griffes truly was. I was strongly reminded of Debussy’s La Mer because of its richness and the combination of instruments. The work is only ten minutes long, but in that time span, one can hear an opening of darkness, which begins with a tremolo from the cellos and gong, accompanied very soon by soft chords from the orchestral piano. It then proceeds through stateliness and contemplation, all the while using Oriental style “scale” structure and deceptive Impressionistic harmonies. That is a great abundance for a ten minute work, but it is an absolutely beautiful work. It has always amazed me that in spite of Griffes’ quality output that he has just fallen off Mount Parnassus following his death. He deserves a great deal of attention.

Following the Griffes, the CSO performed the Double Concerto for Violin, Cello, and Orchestra by the well-known 20th-century composer, Phillip Glass (1937- ). This concerto demonstrates a real change in Phillip Glass’ style because it seems as though he has gone through a process of adding to, and expanding his original minimalist aesthetic. Thus, this work seems to take into consideration the harmonies that his elemental groups of notes can generate, as well as the textures resulting from his contrapuntal techniques. By that, I mean that in the strict sense of the word counterpoint, Glass is not only concerned so with melodic counterpoint, but becomes concerned with rhythmic counterpoint as well. The result is a new-found, and quite remarkable, expressive sound.

This is an absolutely beautiful piece of music, and I must say that Yumi Hwang-Williams and Wendy Sutter were beautifully paired for this performance. I also point out that Wendy Sutter and Maria Bachmann, violinist, were the two artists for which this piece was originally composed. The concerto itself is most unusual. Most concertos are concerned with two aspects: a soloist who “competes” with the orchestra, or a soloist who is supported by the orchestra, and in turn supports them. However, each movement of the Glass concerto begins with a solo duet for violin and cello which is then followed by the full orchestra for the remainder of the movement. The violin and cello take part in the rest of the movement as well, but are not necessarily highlighted as soloists. It is in the opening duet that the violinist and cellist demonstrate their technical prowess. I assure you that both of these performers have a great deal of technical prowess and artistry. This is a superb work, but these two individuals made it an absolute joy to hear. The duets before each movement struck me as being quite intimate even though they require a great deal of virtuosity. Both Hwang-Williams and Sutter made it seem as if they were playing very personal statements, as if they were performing chamber music rather than an enormous orchestral concerto. The duets were performed so that one could well imagine that it was written for a ballet, and, indeed, the Netherlands Dans Theater commissioned the work for their ballet, Swan Song. In many ways, the second movement of this concerto was the most important because after its duet opening, the orchestra slowly builds into a vibrant dance for orchestra and soloists. And it is interesting to note that Glass does not conclude the work, as is the case with most concertos, with a bombastic finale. Rather he closes the entire work with another duet which is rather melancholy.

Yumi Hwang-Williams and Wendy Sutter received a standing ovation for their performance. It was wonderful to see the audience truly appreciate an avant-garde composition and understand that the two artists who performed it are truly artists in every sense of the word. This was the Denver premiere of this work, and judging by the audience reaction, perhaps it will become a staple of the CSO. And, wouldn’t it be wonderful if Wendy Sutter would come back every time it was performed to join with our own, and the CSO’s, Yumi Hwang-Williams?

Following the intermission, Maestro O’Neil and the Colorado Symphony Orchestra performed Rachmaninoff’s well-known Symphonic Dances. This was Rachmaninoff’s last composition, and it was his only composition completely written in the United States. One who is familiar with Rachmaninoff’s (1873-1943) compositions understands that one can hear several things in his works. Throughout his life, Rachmaninoff was obsessed, if that is the right word, with bells. He even wrote a four movement choral symphony entitled, The Bells. A full choir is called for in every movement of that piece. And sounds of bells can be heard in many of his compositions, even the last few bars of the second movement of his famous Piano Concerto Nr. 2. But in this work, Symphonic Dances, there is no reference to bells, aside from a short snippet of bells in the percussion section. I feel that since this work was written in the United States, Rachmaninoff decided not to use the imitation of bells. Another theme that recurs in several of his works is the Dies Irae theme. This was added to the Roman Catholic Requiem Mass by Thomas of Celano around 1240 A.D. The text reminds believers that they must continue to live exemplary lives or they will be judged. In the Requiem, this section is then followed by the Tuba Mirum, the call to judgment, and it is in this section where all bets are off, and the heathens are condemned to eternal damnation. Personally, I don’t think that Rachmaninoff was overly pessimistic about his own existence, but I do think he found that this Dies Irae theme could easily be introduced as a variation, or as just an interesting theme.

The CSO presented a splendid performance of this work. In the first movement which contains a driving rhythm, there is a moment in the score where Rachmaninoff uses the entire woodwind section to form a nonet. The CSO has one of the best woodwind sections of any orchestra in the United States. The members of this nonet were Brook Ferguson, Principal Flute; Catherine Peterson, Flute; Julie Duncan Thornton, Piccolo; Peter Cooper, Principal Oboe; Jason Lichtenwalter, English Horn; Jason Shafer, Principal Clarinet; Abby Raymond, Clarinet; Andrew Stevens, Bass Clarinet; and Chad Cognata, Principal Bassoon. Their playing was absolutely without peer. Other members of the CSO whose performance stood out Friday evening were Claude Sim, Associate Concertmaster, and Silver Ainomäe, Principal Cello.

In the second movement of Symphonic Dances, Rachmaninoff scores one of the most expressive melodic lines he has ever written for alto saxophone. It gives a startlingly melancholy and soft, dramatic sound to the orchestra, and the choice of this instrument in this orchestral work is not unheard of, but it is a little unusual. The saxophone was first demonstrated at an industrial exhibition in Paris in 1844. It was in that same year that the French composer Georges Kastner used it in his opera, The Last King of Juda. Ravel also used it, as did Berlioz. I could not find any reference in the program to the performer who played the alto saxophone Friday evening, but he was truly excellent.

It should be apparent to regular Symphony attendees, and lovers of Rachmaninoff’s music, that in this work, Rachmaninoff is looking to the future and is beginning to write with brand-new harmonies and the structure of his melodic lines. Many of his long, flowing lines are now replaced by shorter lines put together to build longer ones. This makes the development of each theme much easier. And in this work, his orchestration has become thicker as he seems to concentrate on more and different combinations of instruments than in his past compositions.

All three of the works on Friday evening’s program reflected change in composer’s styles, and that is what unified these three disparate composers, and created a remarkably interesting program to hear.

Another highlight of Friday evening’s performance was the revelation that Maestro Scott O’Neil’s conducting has undergone a tremendous change over the last five years. It is a change that emphasizes his musicianship and his trust in the ability of everyone in the Colorado Symphony Orchestra. It was a change that seems to emphasize mutual acceptance.

The audience Friday evening was larger than many of the concerts I have attended the season, and it should be noted that, finally, there were some younger people in the audience. I will never get tired of telling you readers that Colorado Symphony Orchestra is one of the best orchestras in the United States. They have proven that over and over again, and in the last couple of years the orchestra has brightened considerably due to several changes which I will not mention again.

The CSO will perform this program again tonight, Saturday, April 12, and Sunday, April 13.

Lina Bahn and the Pro Musica Colorado Chamber Orchestra are brilliant!

Friday evening, the Pro Musica Colorado Chamber Orchestra under the direction of Maestra Cynthia Katsarelis presented an absolutely stunning program featuring the renowned violinist, Dr. Lina Bahn. Not only was the program stunning because of its excellence, it was also stunning because of its originality. Maestra Katsarelis chose two works to feature on this program: the famous The Four Seasons by the Italian Baroque composer, Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741), and The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires by the twentieth century Argentine composer, Astor Piazzolla (1921-1992). The unusual aspect of the program was that Katsarelis picked contrasting seasons from each of these two works, and paired them together on the program, while keeping in mind that Italy is in the northern hemisphere, and Argentina is in the southern hemisphere. Thus, Vivaldi’s Spring was paired the Piazzolla’s Autumn, next came Vivaldi’s Summer paired with Piazzolla’s Winter; the Vivaldi’s Autumn paired with Piazzolla’s Summer; and Vivaldi’s Winter, paired with Piazzolla Spring. Lest the purists among you readers object to this kind of pairing, I advise you to attend the concert tonight, April 5, at the First United Methodist Church in Boulder at 7:30 PM. I admit to a certain amount of suspicion when I saw the program, but the minute the first pairing of these two composers were heard, I realized what a creative imagination Maestra Cynthia Katsarelis has. In addition, I can assure you that the members of the orchestra are totally dedicated, professional musicians, and they would truly not participate in anything that would denigrate their art. So, those of you who were not in attendance Friday evening, quell your suspicions, and attend Saturday evening’s performance. You will, once again, be amazed at the artistry and musicianship by violinist Lina Bahn, and you will also be amazed at the camaraderie between Pro Musica and the soloist.

I will quote from the University of Colorado at Boulder website for Lina Bahn’s bio, which I have abridged slightly:

“Lina Bahn is a violinist who has a keen interest in collaborative and innovative repertoire, and has been called ‘brilliant’ and ‘lyrical’ by the Washington Post. Appointed to the faculty at the University of Colorado in Boulder in 2008, she has taught masterclasses throughout the world, including those at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory in Singapore, the Sydney Conservatory, Hong Kong University, Renmin University in Beijing, the Curtis Institute of Music, and The Colburn School, among others. She has been on the faculty of the Sierra Summer Academy of Music since 2001, and is on the faculty at Green Mountain Chamber Music Summer Festival, and at The Institute of the Palazzo Rucellai in Florence, Italy.

“In Washington, D.C., Dr. Bahn is the Executive Director and violinist with the VERGE Ensemble, the resident ensemble of the Corcoran Gallery of Art. The VERGE Ensemble has performed in Paris, New York, Cleveland, at the Livewire Festival (UMBC) and Third Practice Festival (Richmond), and was the resident ensemble for the June in Buffalo Festival in 2009. They have performed at Le Poisson Rouge, The Issue Project Room, and the National Museum of American Indians. She is also the violinist and member of the National Gallery New Music Ensemble of the Smithsonian, which gave its inaugural performance in the East Wing in 2010, performing works of Xenakis, Antosca, and a premiere by Roger Reynolds. The National Gallery Ensemble participated in the 2012 Washington D.C. John Cage Centennial Festival, with performances at the East Wing, the NGA Auditorium, and at the Maison Francaise of the French Embassy. These included premieres of composers Christian Wolff, Beat Furrer, Robert Ashley, and George Lewis. http://www.johncage2012.com/

“As a soloist, she has appeared with the Chicago Chamber Orchestra, The Chicago Symphony Orchestra, La Orquesta Sinfonica de la Serena (Chile), and the Malaysian National Symphony Orchestra. Solo performance recitals include those at the Phillips Collection, The Stone, and at The Corcoran Gallery of Art. She has commissioned works by Benjamin Broening, Ken Ueno, Dan Visconti, Jeffrey Mumford, Adam Silverman, Steve Antosca, Keith Fitch, and (upcoming) Douglas Cuomo. Dr. Bahn’s chamber music performances have included recitals and concerts in festivals such as the Costa Rican International Chamber Festival, the Sierra Summer Festival, the Grand Canyon Music Festival, the Garth Newel Music Series, and the Festival de Música de Cámara de San Miguel de Allende. In the spring of 2010, she was on tour with the Takacs Quartet, performing at Carnegie Hall, the Southbank Centre, Concertgebouw, and the Mariinsky Theater, among others. From 1992-1994 she toured extensively throughout Chile with the Bahn-Mahave-Browne piano trio as a recipient of national grants to teach and perform. In 2005, their piano trio was selected to perform for the president of Chile and the King of Indonesia, in Kuala Lumpuur.

“Dr. Bahn studied with Dorothy DeLay at the Juilliard School for her undergraduate degree. She completed her Master’s degree as the recipient of the Jane Bryant Fellowship Award under the tutelage of Paul Kantor. Her Doctorate in Music is from the Indiana University, where she completed her dissertation entitled, Virtuosity in Luciano Berio’s Sequenza VIII. At Indiana University, she was an Associate Instructor and studied with Miriam Fried and Paul Biss. Dr. Bahn’s early training in Chicago started with Lillian Schaber and she finished her high school years under the guidance of Roland and Almita Vamos.”

As any performer can tell you, excellence is always pursued, and it is the result of hours of practice. Musicianship improves with every performance, and, yet, one always reaches for that elusive, perfect performance. Once in a while, when all of the musicians are superb, all of the stars can line up in exactly the right order, and the audience will receive the benefits of a perfect performance, reflecting the joy of musicianship. That is precisely what happened at Friday’s performance. Everyone in the Pro Musica Colorado Chamber Orchestra is an excellent musician, and the performance that this orchestra gives is always truly superb. Friday night it was exceptional.

The minute they begin to play, the joy of the music came through. The size of the Pro Musica changes with the dictates of the score, and Friday evening there were sixteen members of the orchestra. Therefore, practically every individual could be heard separately, as well as the blend of the entire ensemble. That clarity was manifest throughout the entire evening.

Everyone is familiar with Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, but some of you readers may be unfamiliar with Astor Piazzolla’s work. He was an Argentine composer, as previously stated, who once made a statement that the “tango was always for the ear rather than the feet.” Piazzolla has clearly become the master of the tango for the concert hall, rather than the dance floor. His composition teacher, Nadia Boulanger (he went to Paris in 1954 to study with her) encouraged him to concentrate on the tango after she heard one of his pieces. He developed a Nuevo tango style which departed substantially from its traditional sound, as he adapted it to classical music.

Stacy Lesartre, Concertmaster, led the ensemble Friday night, and everyone in the orchestra played as if they were a concertmaster, and I assure you they all sounded as if they could be a concertmaster. Stacy Lesartre and Margaret Soper Gutierrez, Principal Second violin, were excellent. It has been sometime since I have heard Vivaldi’s work, as well as Piazzolla’s, performed live, and it always surprises me at how difficult these two composer’s works are. Plainly, everyone on stage was working hard, and yet there was no awkwardness: it was all very graceful work. Lina Bahn performed these difficult works with great aplomb, and never did her intense musicianship and virtuosity cause a wrinkle on her forehead. I mentioned that only because as the program progressed, I finally put my finger on the one element of Friday evening’s performance: it was joy. The orchestra was having a wonderful time playing these pieces, and they were having a wonderful time playing with Lina Bahn. And, Dr. Bahn was having a wonderful time playing with the orchestra. That was clearly in evidence. It has been a long time since I have seen so many smiles in an orchestra. Stacy Lesartre, Margaret Soper Gutierrez, and Heidi Mausbach, Principal Cello, easily responded to the different tempi that Lina Bahn and Maestra Katsarelis wished to take. I might add that those tempi were some of the fastest that I have heard in the Vivaldi or the Piazzolla, but I hasten to point out that everyone in the orchestra followed them with complete accuracy. There were many times when members of the orchestra had a marvelous solo, such as Heidi Mausbach in Piazzolla’s Autumn.

Lina Bahn was the perfect choice as the guest violinist and soloist for this performance. She is daring and effortless in her choice of tempos, and her musicianship is strong and authentic. Music comes to her as the primary consideration, never flamboyant. Her tone is incredible, as is her sense of pitch, which never failed even in the most rapid portions of the Vivaldi. Lina Bahn is clearly a world-class artist, and her consummate artistry reflects and underscores that fact.

The evening was marked by its contrasts between Vivaldi and Piazzolla, and yet those contrasts, emphasized as they were by the pairings, were legitimate and wonderful to hear. Paul Erhard, bass and Erika Eckert, viola, were superb as was Lyn Loewi on the harpsichord continuo. I might add that “…Lyn Loewi earned a Doctor of Musical Arts from Stanford University, and a First Prize in Organ from the French National Conservatory. She has worked for many years as a choir director and organist, and has taught at Portland State University and at the University of Minnesota. She now works as a freelance musician in Denver, and is a regular volunteer organist at Saint John’s.”

This performance by the Pro Musica Colorado Chamber Orchestra with Lina Bahn was as exciting as it was masterful. The tempos, and the musicianship, were something to behold: nothing was out of place, or out of order. Everything exceeded expectations.

Maestro Litton, The Colorado Symphony Orchestra, and Stephen Hough are World Class!

Saturday evening, March 29, the Colorado Symphony Orchestra, under the leadership of Maestro Andrew Litton, welcomed Stephen Hough to a concert at Boettcher Hall. It was a remarkable concert, for not only did Stephen Hough perform, but the CSO performed one of his compositions. I daresay that many people do not know that he is a composer as well. Therefore, I will quote briefly from a bio statement that appeared in the program notes:

“Stephen Hough is regarded as a renaissance man of his time. Over the course of his career he has distinguished himself as a true polymath, not only securing a reputation as a uniquely insightful concert pianist but also as a writer and composer. Hough is commended for his mastery of the instrument along with an individual and inquisitive mind which has earned him a multitude of prestigious awards and a long-standing international following. In 2001, Hough was the first classical performing artist to win a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship. He was awarded the 2008 Northwestern University’s Jean Gimbel Lane Prize in Piano, won the Royal Philharmonic Society Instrumentalist Award in 2010 and in January 2014 was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth in the New Year’s Honors List. He has appeared with most of the major European and American orchestras and plays recitals regularly in major halls and concert series around the world. Hough resides in London and is a visiting professor at the Royal Academy of Music, and holds the International Chair of Piano Studies at his alma mater, the Royal Northern College in Manchester.”

Stephen Hough’s work that the CSO performed Saturday evening was his Missa Mirabilis which was premiered in its orchestral version by the Indianapolis Symphony April 6, 2012. This orchestral version was commissioned by the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, while the original version for choir and organ was commissioned by the Westminster Cathedral, and that version was premiered in 2007.

This composition makes use of the five parts of the sung portion of the Ordinary of the Mass. (The Ordinary contains those texts which remain the same at all times. The Proper of the Mass contains items which are changeable according to the season of the church year.) Thus, Hough’s composition makes use of the Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei.

The composition of this work has an interesting story connected to it, and I will quote as briefly as possible from the Chorus America website of March 21, 2012:

“Hough originally wrote Missa Mirabilis for the Westminster Chorus and after hearing the first performance, he desired to transform it into a symphonic work for a chorus and full orchestra. A Catholic, Hough said, ‘My Missa Mirabilis, as well as being a musical setting of the traditional Mass texts, explores some of the psychology behind them. The centerpiece of the work is the Creed – but what does believing mean? What if we don’t believe? Or if it’s all become jaded? Or if we fear our failing faith?’

“When asked why he used the term Mirabilis, Hough said, ‘Mirabilis means ‘miraculous’ and it is purely personal. I gathered a year’s-worth of sketches for the Mass together in September 2006 and wrote three of the movements in three days while visiting the Halle Orchestra. The following day, I had a serious car crash, overturning on the motorway at 80 mph; I stepped out of the untouched door of my completely mangled car with my Mass manuscript and body intact. I was conscious as I was somersaulting with screeching acrobatics on the highway, and one regret which went through my mind was that I would never get to hear this piece. Someone had other ideas.’

“Of the two remaining movements, I sketched the Agnus Dei in St. Mary’s Hospital a few days later, waiting four hours for a brain scan following the crash, and the Gloria later still while sitting in a practice room at the Hilbert Circle Theatre on a visit to play with the Indianapolis Symphony. I never did think at the time that I would orchestrate the piece and that it would receive its premiere in that same building,’ he added.”

In addition to the rather amazing events surrounding the piece, it is a breathtaking composition. Immediately noticeable was the orchestration of this piece. There is absolutely no question in my mind that Stephen Hough knows the orchestra and the inherent capabilities of each instrument as well. His orchestration is certainly as skillful as that of Ravel or Berlioz. Perhaps it is because my mind was prejudiced with his soon-to-be performance of Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, but I could not help but hear some portions of the orchestration that reminded me very much of the sound that Rachmaninoff obtained in his four movement choral symphony, The Bells. The sound was full and lush, and it left me with the impression that none of it was left to chance. The Kyrie made marvelous use of the woodwind section, particularly oboe and bassoon (Peter Cooper and Chad Cognata were stunning, as usual), as well as the full horn section. In the Gloria, the full choir and brass combined again with woodwind section, and it was absolutely beautiful. There were several measures where two piccolos appeared from nowhere to produce an almost ethereal effect.

There is no question that Hough’s composition is a twentieth century work, for it used twentieth century harmonies. This was the first time I have heard this work, and I certainly have to hear it again. But the element of orchestration and expert choral writing is what left an indelible impression upon this first hearing. It was tremendous.

Following Hough’s composition, Missa Mirabilis, Huff joined the Colorado Symphony Orchestra and Maestro Litton to perform Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Opus 43. This is such a famous piece that it needs no introduction, and, of course, everyone knows the eighteenth variation as “THE melody.”

This work is a theme with twenty-four variations. I would disagree strongly with the comment in the program notes that the work gets underway after a “brief introduction to set the stage.” It is not an introduction but the first variation which Rachmaninoff states before revealing the theme and Rachmaninoff states this as Variation I in the score. However, if one is familiar with Paganini’s 24 Caprices for violin, the opening is easily identifiable as the last Caprice.

The work is easily divided into three sections that resemble a fast-slow-fast structure of a concerto. Variations XI through Variations XVIII comprise the “slow movement.” Rachmaninoff also discovered as he was writing the variations, that the theme could evolve into the Dies Irae theme from the Roman Catholic Requiem Mass. This first appears in Variation VII and the next three variations as well. While some state that this is a reference to the myth that Paganini sold his soul to the Devil in exchange for his unbelievable talents on the violin, I think it points out a characteristic that both Rachmaninoff and Stephen Hough share: a remarkable ability to see in the score things that remain unseen by the eyes of others.

Rachmaninoff simply must be credited with the uncanny ability to discern, and articulate, movements and ideas in musical compositions that remained hidden from so many other artists. And, I must say, that after hearing Stephen Hough perform, it is my strong belief that he has the same ability. Rachmaninoff was a huge man, 6’5” tall, and his enormous hands could reach almost two octaves – from C to A. The kind of technical demands with which Rachmaninoff filled all of his piano compositions are difficulties that he could play without effort. I assure you, that Stephen Hough can do exactly the same thing. I was amazed at Hough’s posture at the piano, for it was very similar to Rachmaninoff’s. Both pianists simply sat at the piano and went to work. There was no flailing of arms up to the ceiling or behind one’s back. There was no stomping of feet on the floor. And there certainly was no gaze heavenward as if beseeching divine assistance. I do not know the span of Stephen Hough’s hands, but it brought back the recording that I have heard of Rachmaninoff playing this work. The depth of Stephen Hough’s artistry at the keyboard, and his very clear desire to delve into what the composer wanted and expose that to the audience, was startling. Hough never uses his prodigious technique purely for the sake of amazing the audience. His playing always reflects his artistry and the artistry of the composer without any superficiality at all. There are many young pianists today who could use Stephen Hough as an example.

After the intermission the Colorado Symphony Orchestra and the Colorado Symphony Chorus performed Ralph Vaughan Williams Dona Nobis Pacem. This work was written in 1936 at a time when the rise of fascism alarmed Vaughn Williams, and caused him to write this moving work protesting against the terror of war. Dona Nobis Pacem (Give Us Piece) takes its texts from four different sources: the Mass, the Bible, poet Walt Whitman, and the British pacifist, Quaker John Bright. It is written in six sections that are performed without pause: Agnus Dei, Beat! Beat! Drums!, Reconciliation, Dirge for Two Veterans, and Finale. Appearing with the chorus and the orchestra were soloists Sarah Fox, soprano, and Christopher Maltman, baritone.

Sarah Fox received her training at London University and the Royal College of Music. She has won many awards and performed with orchestras and opera companies throughout Europe and England. Christopher Maltman studied at the Royal Academy of Music and has appeared in concert throughout Europe and the United States.

The first movement, Agnus Dei, is quite slow, and opens with the soprano pleading for peace. The second movement, Beat! Beat! Drums!, is, as you might expect, almost violent featuring some superb writing for brass and percussion. In comparison, Reconciliation sounds almost like a lullaby. And, of course, the Dirge for Two Veterans is a very slow solemn march. The Finale creates a mood that is glorious and gives us a sense of hope.

I suspect, and I could be completely wrong, that when the Colorado Symphony Chorus is used, there may be some regulation that all of the chorus must be used, but I found myself wondering what Ralph Vaughn Williams work would sound like with the choir half that size. The reason for the speculation is one that I have commented on in the past regarding the use of choirs. It is simply that the larger the choir the more difficult it is to understand the words. I hasten to point out that that difficulty arose Saturday night only occasionally. Nonetheless, it would have been wonderful to understand the text throughout the performance. Sarah Fox and Christopher Maltman both had wonderful voices, but the diction problem reared its head again as these two fine artists sang. Nonetheless, one could easily discern their musicianship and her dedication to what they do.

It pleases me greatly to tell you readers that there was a larger audience present Saturday evening, however, the Boettcher Hall was still not full as it should have been. This was a performance that was satisfying on every level, and exposed a depth of artistry that was very satisfying. Maestro Litton has wrought an amazing change in the Colorado Symphony Orchestra, and the soloists reflected that change in the joy and artistry of their performance.

“Traveling” through beauty with the Colorado Ballet

I always look forward to the Colorado Ballet’s series, which they have entitled Ballet Director’s Choice. Instead of one ballet being performed, the Colorado Ballet performs three short ballets, usually thirty minutes for each work, that have, for various reasons, caught the attention of the Colorado Ballet’s Artistic Director, Maestro Gil Boggs. The performance of these three ballets, in the last few years, has been done at Gates Hall in the Newman Center on the DU campus. While I certainly enjoy going to see the Colorado Ballet at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House, I truly enjoy seeing the Ballet Director’s Choice done at Gates, because the three short ballets seem more personal and intimate. In addition, there are no sets or scenery, so it gives the audience the opportunity to concentrate on just the dancing, and that is a real joy because everyone in this ballet company is a true artist.

The Ballet Director’s Choice opened with the ballet Feast of the Gods, choreographed by Edwaard Liang, and music by the Italian composer, Ottorino Respighi (1879-1936). This particular short ballet was inspired by the history of the band of traveling Gypsies, which certainly reminded me of Respighi’s travels around the Italian Peninsula on a bicycle in his youth. The particular composition of his that Liang used for the ballet is Ancient Aires and Dances, which resulted from Respighi’s interest and knowledge in sixteenth and seventeenth century Italian music. Respighi was also a noted musicologist, linguist, and conductor.

The choreographer Edwaard Liang joined the New York City ballet in the spring of 1993. He has won many awards for his ballet work as a dancer, and after he became a member of the well-known Nederlands Dans Theater 1, he choreographed and staged ballets as well as dancing in them. He has danced and choreographed ballets for many companies: the Kirov Ballet, Pacific Northwest Ballet, the Joffrey Ballet, and many others. I truly believe he is one of the most imaginative choreographers that I have had the pleasure to see.

His choreography in Feast of the Gods is absolutely sensational. It is remarkably fast-paced and extremely complex, and that carries throughout the entire work and applies to all of the dancers onstage. I have never been so aware of how the choreography of a ballet can unify the work as a whole. Chandra Kuykendall and Alexi Tyukov danced a spectacular pas de deux Friday evening. It required so much energy that Liang, through his demanding choreography, gave a very clear demonstration of not only the artistry of these two individuals, but their athletic ability as well. And that certainly applies to Sharon Wehner, Dmitry Trubchanov, Shelby Dyer, Luis Valdes, Dana Benton, Christopher Ellis, the wonderful Asuka Sasaki, Klara Houdet, and certainly, Jesse Marks. The point of mentioning all those names is not just that they deserve it, but to help explain to you readers who have not seen the Colorado Ballet, that this company is comprised of stellar performers, every one of whom is an artist. The movements choreographed by Liang require so much attention to detail from the dancers that it is astounding to watch. It made me wonder if there is not an entirely new vocabulary to describe the new contemporary movements. For example, is the term “de Côté” still used to indicate a sideways movement, when there is so much other movement combined with it?

The next work on the program was entitled Traveling Alone, choreographed by Amy Seiwert, who used music written by Max Richter. Ms. Seiwert danced with the Smuin, Los Angeles Chamber and Sacramento Ballet’s, and she eventually became the Choreographer in Residence with the Smuin after she retired from dancing in 2008. “She also directs Imagery, which is a contemporary ballet company that collaborates with artists of other disciplines” (Quoted from the program notes). She often receives commissions from other ballet companies in the United States.

Max Richter, whose music was used for this ballet was born in Germany in 1966, and studied at the Royal Academy of Music in England, as well as studying at the University of Edinburgh. He also had composition lessons with the famed Italian composer, Luciano Berio in Florence, Italy.

Dana Benton and Jesse Marks were the soloists in Traveling Alone. Dana Benton has danced this role before, and she has a great dramatic sense in portraying someone who is totally alone. Both Dana Benton and Jesse Marks were sensational Friday evening, but after the curtain went down, I sat for a moment wondering if I had ever seen Jesse Marks perform as well as he did Friday evening. He was absolutely stunning. He seemed thoroughly comfortable in everything that he did, and it was also clear that Dana Benton was treating this ballet as an old, and well remembered, friend. The choreography in this ballet was just as fast-paced as in Feast of the Gods, but not quite as complex as the Liang. Chandra Kuykendall, Christopher Ellis, Shelby Dyer, Sean Omandam, Caitlin Valentine-Ellis, and Sharon Wehner, were also in this production. All of these dancers imbued their movements with a searing intensity that was absolutely startling. It seemed that they filled their performance with a sense of irrevocability, so that if anyone got in their way, the dancers would simply run them down. I could not help but notice that during this performance, the audience never made a sound, so rapt was their attention.

The third work on the program was entitled The Last Beat, and it was choreographed by the Colorado Ballet’s own Sandra Brown. She has vast dancing experience, and a great deal of choreography experience. For the American Ballet Theater, she choreographed her own ballet, Synchronicity, and she has assisted in choreographing The Nutcracker, Coppélia, Swan Lake, and she was chosen by Mikhail Baryshnikov to choreograph for the American Ballet Theater Choreographic Workshop. And, as all you readers know in 2006 she joined her husband, Gil Boggs, to work with the Colorado Ballet as a Ballet Mistress.

Her ballet, The Last Beat, is, as the program notes state, “Dedicated to those who are serving our country and for those who are waiting for them to come home.” One has the distinct feeling that the title of Brown’s ballet refers to the last beat of a dying soldier’s heart, rather than have anything to do with the inherent rhythm of the ballet. The music that she chose for her work was by DeVotchKa. DeVotchKa is, of course, a four-piece multi-instrumental and vocal ensemble. They take their name from the Russian word meaning “girl”. Based in Denver, Colorado, the quartet is made up of Nick Urata, who sings and plays theremin, guitar, bouzouki, piano, and trumpet; Tom Hagerman, who plays violin, accordion, and piano; Jeanie Schroder, who sings and plays sousaphone, double bass, and flute; and Shawn King, who plays percussion and trumpet.

The male dancers were dressed in camouflage, while the female dancers wore translucent skirts with an underskirt of a different color. There were five movements to this work, which sometimes used different dancers in each movement. Appearing for the first time Friday evening were Maria Mosina, Domenico Luciano, Kevin Wilson, Tracy Jones, Francisco Estevez, Kevin Gaël Thomas, Morgan Buchanan, and Lesley Allred. I apologize if I have left out anyone’s name, but this ballet required a very large cast, all of whom appeared together in the last movement. The name of the first movement was The Alley; movement two, All the Sand in the Sea; movement three, How It Ends; the fourth movement, Exhaustible; and movement five, The Last Beat of My Heart.

I was again taken by surprise at the drama and emotion that every dancer onstage communicated to the audience. For sheer impact, Maria Mosina, Domenico Luciano, and Asuka Sasaki were startling. But you must understand that the Colorado Ballet, as I have said so many times before, has such incredible depth that it is very difficult to say one is better than the other. However, Friday evening, in this ballet, it was Mosina, Luciano, and Sasaki who made me take notice. They were fluid, dramatic, and yet very graceful in their drama.

The one thing that I question about The Last Beat was the choice of music. Clearly, a choreographer chooses music to work with because of its rhythmic element, and because it must suggest something specific to the choreographer. Keep in mind that quite often music used by a choreographer has not necessarily been written for use in a ballet unless it was specifically commissioned for that purpose. The music by DeVotchKa made use of Nick Urata’s singing, and I found myself wondering if it was the text that helped Sandra Brown’s choice in using DeVotchKa. I, for one, could not understand anything that was being sung except for scattered words and phrases here and there. Therefore, the text of the song had no meaning for me. The rest of the music used, perhaps, three or four chords, which lent itself to a kind of minimalist feel, but did not carry the subtleties and complexities found in the music of Phillip Glass or Arvo Pärt. Certainly, there was a steady beat and constant rhythmic pattern. And, certainly, the dancers onstage had no difficulty following that beat. The choreography in this ballet was so excellent and imaginative, that I was left wondering about the choice of music.

The Colorado Ballet once more demonstrated that they are one of the best ballet companies in the United States. Their depth, their excellence, and the inherent art in everything they do are remarkable. Their dedication shows, and the audience reaps the rewards.

The Jefferson Symphony Orchestra Young Artist Competition winner, Danny Lai, is remarkable!

The Jefferson Symphony Orchestra performed a concert on Sunday, March 23, at the Green Center at the Colorado School of Mines. In many ways, it was a celebratory concert because it afforded the winner of the Jefferson City Young Artist Competition the performance of the concerto with the orchestra, and it is the sixty-first anniversary of the Jefferson Symphony Orchestra.

The winner of the Young Artist Competition is Danny Lai, an extraordinarily fine violist, who has had a great deal of performing experience with orchestras around the country, many of which are leadership positions. I will quote from his bio statement that was in Sunday’s program:

“Violist Danny Lai, 23, the 2014 International Young Artist Winner” was born in San Diego, but grew up in Greenwood Village. He attended Cherry Creek High School and continued his education at Northwestern University. He joined the Colorado Symphony this year after having previously played with the Chicago Symphony, Lyric Opera of Chicago, the New World Symphony, Pacific Music Festival and the Lucerne Festival Academy. He has also been heard in recital at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. as part of the Conservatory Project which features rising stars from the top music schools in America. In his emerging career he has held multiple leadership positions, including principal viola of the Civic Orchestra of Chicago and of the Northwestern Symphony, as well as assistant principal in the Aspen Chamber Symphony. In 2011 Danny was invited to participate in the YouTube Symphony Orchestra project, which used the iconic Sydney Opera House as its stage. Former teachers include Dr. Roland Vamos of Northwestern University and Basil Vendryes of the Colorado Symphony Orchestra. Danny’s instrument is a modem viola created in Chicago by Stanley Kiernoziak.”

The concerto, which he chose to perform with the Jefferson Symphony under the direction of Dr. William Morse, was the Bartók Concerto for Viola, Op. Posth.. Béla Bartók (1881-1945) was commissioned by violist William Primrose in 1945 to write a concerto. Composers write in the state of great independence because their art, quite naturally, requires a great deal of individualism. However, as it is happened a few times in the past, the untimely death of a composer sometimes necessitates the assistance of a collaborator. Two of the most well-known examples are Mozart’s Requiem, and Mahler’s Tenth Symphony. Bartók enlisted the aid of his friend and pupil, Tibor Serly, to finish this concerto as Bartók’s health was obviously deteriorating. Bartók died in September of 1945, but Serly’s task did not actually involve writing down the notes of the composition. Bartók was a composer who never wrote a piece as a piano reduction, and then expanded it into an orchestra score. He had actually finished the notes in an orchestra score, but had not indicated what instruments were to be used. Every melodic line and instrumental part was in place in the score. Serly’s familiarity with his teacher’s style allowed him to decipher what Bartók had begun.

William Primrose finally premiered the piece with the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra in 1950.

Danny Lai’s performance of this piece was absolutely superb. More and more violinists are performing concertos from memory, as pianists always do (Liszt and Clara Schumann began the tradition of playing from memory). It goes without saying that Lai’s memory was as superb as his playing. And, his experience playing with orchestras means that he is an absolutely reliable musician. When I make a statement like that, it means that he knows his part and the orchestra’s part, that he can keep a steady beat, that he is able to concentrate on the task at hand, and have the confidence to concentrate on his artistry while in front of an audience. I have seen many contest winners who have not had the performing experience that Danny Lai has had by the age of twenty-three years. It makes a great deal of difference.

The opening movement begins with the first theme accompanied by pizzicato cellos and basses. That is followed by a passage which is very similar to a cadenza which leads to the full orchestra entrance. I have not heard this work for some time, but I counted three main themes in the first movement which Bartók treated as a pseudo-Sonata allegro form. The second movement which is marked Adagio religioso-allegretto is extremely lyrical with a rather restless center section. In the third and final movement, Bartók inserts the expected dance rhythms, which reminded one of his earlier style.

Danny Lai’s tone was perfect all the way through the performance, and his technical ability gave him the opportunity to enjoy the performance himself. He plays with great confidence, and is able to see his way through, and create, the slightest nuance with the greatest of ease. It was a truly fine performance, and there is no question that he has a remarkable career before himself.

The second place award in the Young Artist Competition was won by Robert Chien, and the third place award was won by Emma Hoeft. I will quote from their bio statements which were also included in Sunday afternoon’s program:

“Robert Chien, age 12, has recently won the first place awards in the Pacific Music Society Competition and the Music Teacher Association of California (MTAC) VOCE Competition in 2013. In 2012, he was the winner of the CMTANC Music Competition and the US Open Music competition. Robert has been invited to play at the state convention of the MTAC, at the Bear Valley Music Festival in California, in the Kohl Music Concert at Kohl Mansion and in the Koret Concert series of the Music@Menlo chamber music festival. Robert studies violin with Li Lin of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, who has taught many winners of the world’s most prestigious violin competitions. Robert is also a member of the Bay Area Youth Music Society, where he regularly performs ensemble and solo music for seniors and other charity causes. Robert attends Saint Andrew’s Episcopal School in Saratoga., California. He loves reading and science and he is a member of the school’s award-winning Tech Challenge team.”

“At age four, Emma Hoeft (fifth child in a large musical family) began studying cello with her older brother, Philip. At age 11 she was the youngest winner of the International Viva Vivaldi Competition, performing with the Viva Vivaldi All-Girl Orchestra and the Washington, DC Chamber Symphony at the Kennedy Center. She has been heard twice on NPR’s From the Top in 2003 with her sister, Katrina, and in 2008 with an oboe quartet. In 2010 Emma performed Haydn’s D Major Cello Concerto with the Cleveland Orchestra. She has studied with Dr. Joyce Geeting; Ben Hong of the LA Philharmonic; Richard Aaron, Melissa Kraut and Richard Weiss (Cleveland Institute’s Young Artist ‘Program); and Tanya Ell of the Cleveland Orchestra. Now 22, Emma graduated from Rice University in May of 2013 with a Bachelor of Music degree under the tutelage of Desmond Hoebig. Most recently she placed second in the National Music Teacher Association’s Young Artist String Competition. She has been a member of the Colburn Chamber Orchestra, Cleveland Youth Orchestra, Shepherd School Shepard School Symphony and Chamber Orchestra, and is a substitute cellist for the Houston and Kansas City Symphonies.”

There were only two works performed on Sunday, and after the Bartók Viola Concerto, the Jefferson Symphony performed Beethoven’s well-known Symphony Nr. 7 in A Major, Op. 92. This Symphony was very well received in Vienna at its premiere on December 8, 1813, but it was panned in Germany, where the critics announced that Beethoven must’ve been intoxicated when he wrote it.

This is a very difficult piece for any orchestra particularly because of the tempos that are required in the first movement and last movement. It has a long introduction of some sixty measures, and in that introduction it changes key from A Major and then to the surprising keys of C Major and F Major and then back to A Major.

In this first movement there was some remarkable oboe work by Larry Beck. The second movement, marked Allegretto, was very well done, but I kept asking myself if the tempo wasn’t just a little bit on the fast side for this particular movement. In the third movement the tempo was perfect. In addition, the woodwind section of the Jefferson Symphony Orchestra was excellent. On occasion, the woodwind section seemed to be overpowered by the violins. It is the last movement where the violins must work very hard indeed. There are some sixteenth notes in the last movement that can sound very muddled if the violinists in the orchestra are not precisely together. The sixteenth notes are repeated, for example, G G, F F, E E, etc., and if each of these notes are not precisely attacked, they can sound rather mushy. Unfortunately, this is what happened in this movement. I do stress that this is difficult, particularly when one takes into consideration the tempo that Beethoven indicates. Nonetheless, this was an exciting performance of one of Beethoven’s most beloved works.

The Jefferson Symphony Orchestra is to be congratulated on their sponsorship of such an exciting competition. Its rewards are great for everyone who enters it, and it demonstrates to many that there are exciting young artists who take serious music seriously, and who must be heard. I say congratulations to all the competition entrants and to the Jefferson Symphony Orchestra.

The Seicento Baroque Ensemble is superb!

Friday evening, March 21, the Seicento Baroque Ensemble under the direction of Maestra Evanne Browne presented a truly fine program entitled Voices and Viols at the St. Paul Lutheran Church in Denver. The program centered on the music of German composers Heinrich Schütz (1585-1672), Johann Hermann Schein (1586-1630), and Samuel Scheidt (1587-1654).

This was a very refreshing program in many ways. Schütz, Schein, and Scheidt are seldom heard because they are often overshadowed by the composer who followed them by roughly 100 years, J.S. Bach. But these three composers had a remarkable impact in the early Baroque, which was roughly 1600 to the year 1750. Please note the use of the word “roughly,” and realize that these dates are approximations because many characteristics of Baroque music were in evidence before 1600 and many disappeared before 1750.

Friday evening’s program opened with a work, Herr, Unser Herrscher (Lord, our Sovereign) from the Psalmen Davids, by Heinrich Schütz. Schütz was probably the greatest German composer and one of the most important figures to bridge the gap between the stile antico and stile moderno (conservative versus progressive). Schütz went to Venice and studied with Giovanni Gabrieli for three years from 1609 to 1612. Following his sojourn in Italy, he became the Kapellmeister for the Elector of Saxony in Dresden. The employment was interrupted by the Thirty Years War, during which he became the Court Conductor in Copenhagen. The beautiful work performed by the Seicento Baroque Ensemble is a concertato – a chorale style composition in which a contrast is provided by the instrumental accompaniment to the florid vocal solos. The Psalmen Davids, and hence Herr, Unser Herrscher, is for multiple choruses and soloists, plus continuo, which was wonderfully performed in almost every piece Friday evening by Michael Lui on the portative organ. The soloist in this particular work was tenor, Steven Soph. Soph has appeared several times in Denver, but for the benefit of you readers who are not terribly familiar with him, I will include a short bio statement which was kindly supplied to me by Becca Tice, who is the Publicity Officer on the board:

“Steven Soph (tenor) has been praised by critics as a ‘superb vocal soloist’ (Washington Post) possessing a ‘sweetly soaring tenor’ (Dallas Morning News) of ‘impressive clarity and color’ (New York Times). Mr. Soph’s upcoming solo engagements include Mozart’s Mass in C-minor with Yale Choral Artists, Bach’s Mass in B-minor and St. John Passion with Spire and Indianapolis Baroque Orchestra, Bach’s St. Matthew Passion with Chicago Chorale, and Bach’s Mass in B-minor with Symphony Orchestra Augusta. 2013 marked his Cleveland Symphony solo debut under Ton Koopman in an all-Handel program in Severance Hall. Recent highlights include Evangelist in Bach’s St. John Passion with Chicago Chorale, arias in Bach’s St. Matthew Passion with Voices of Ascension, NYC, as well as with the Colorado Bach Ensemble, and appearing as a Young American Artist with the City Choir of Washington, D.C. Mr. Soph performs with Seraphic Fire, Conspirare, Yale Choral Artists, Musica Sacra, Tucson Chamber Artists, Baroque Chamber Orchestra of Colorado, Seicento Baroque Ensemble, Clarion Music, Cut Circle, Spire, and Sounding Light. He is a graduate of the University of North Texas and the Yale School of Music and Institute of Sacred Music.”

The Seicento choir is made of thirty-one members, many of whom sing with other choral groups in the area. The blend of this choir simply could not be better: their voices are big, and the number of singers in each section creates a huge sound. However, there is no doubt that Maestra Browne has spent some time with the choir working on diction. But do not doubt the quality of this choir. As I stated, many of the members have considerable experience, and that is something everyone demonstrated Friday evening. Steven Soph was excellent, as I have come to expect from him. He has a wonderful voice quality and such a range that it sometimes borders on that of a heldentenor.

There were five viola da gamba performers in the orchestra that, like the vocal soloists, have performed many times in Denver. They were Yayoi Barrack, Tina Chancey, Sandra Miller, René Schiffer, and Mary Springfels. The sound of these instruments is rich and warm, and having six of the same instrument accompanying the choir would not have been unusual during Schütz’s day. These instruments strongly resemble cellos, but there is no peg to rest on the floor: they must be held with the lower leg. In addition, unlike a modern cello, some have six string sand some have seven, rather than four. I mention all of this, because I feel it is necessary for all of you audience members who were there, and for all of you readers who were not, to understand that one of the pleasures of Friday evening’s performance was its authenticity: the choir was not overly large; the viola da gambas were authentic, as was the portative organ. I sincerely believe that Heinrich Schütz would have been quite pleased.

The next work that really caught my attention was a work by Johann Hermann Schein. It was entitled Christ Unser Herr zum Jordan Kam, which translated is “Christ our Lord came to the Jordan River.” Schein was born just a year apart from both Schütz and Scheidt. And, of course, all three of these composers were instrumental in forming a new identity for the early German Baroque. Schein eventually became the Kantor of music at St. Thomas in Leipzig in 1616, and this is the same church where J.S. Bach was to eventually become Kantor. Unfortunately, Schein seems to have been beset by misfortunes which slowed the process of his professional life: his first wife died; all of the children by his second wife died before reaching adulthood, and even his own health suffered from tuberculosis and scurvy. He was only forty-four years of age when he died in 1630.

The Schein work that the Seicento Baroque Ensemble performed Friday evening comes from his Opella Nova which has to be considered a milestone in the development of the then new, modern aforementioned Chorale concertato. This work made use of soprano Amanda Balestrieri and alto Marjorie Bunday. Since both of these musicians perform frequently in Denver (and elsewhere) I see no need for a bio statement here. Both of these soloists were spectacular Friday evening. Both have absolutely incredible voice quality and vocal production. In addition, it truly seemed that both of these fine musicians were truly enjoying the performance of Schein’s work. I suspect that there were many in the audience who have not heard a great deal of music from this period of time – the crossover from very late Renaissance to the early Baroque. The choir plus Balestrieri and Bunday clearly demonstrated that rarely performed music can be incredibly beautiful and interesting. They also whetted the appetite for more music from this period.

I must say that the work on Friday’s program that riveted my attention, and I think the rest of the audience, was entitled Die Sieben Worte Jesu Christi am Kreuz (The Seven Words of Jesus Christ Upon the Cross). Composed by Heinrich Schütz, most scholars agree that it may have been written in 1657. Even so, there is no doubt that this work was one of Schütz’ most mature works, it is scored for five soloists: soprano, alto, two tenors, and baritone. The second tenor was a choir member, but I could find no place in the program where his name was mentioned. The baritone in this work, and throughout the evening, was Adam Ewing. Mr. Ewing has sung frequently throughout Colorado, but not so frequently that all of you readers may know precisely who he is. Therefore, I will quote briefly from a bio:

“Adam Ewing (baritone) currently is pursuing a Doctorate of Musical Arts degree in vocal performance at the University of Colorado-Boulder, where he studies with Patrick Mason. He is a frequent performer along the Front Range, singing with the Boulder Bach Festival and the Denver Early Music Consort. He was a founding member of the ensembles An die Musik and Vox Reflexa, and also sang with Indiana University’s Pro Arte choir, groups dedicated primarily to early and 20th century music. In addition, Mr. Ewing participates in Central City Opera’s Community Education and Enrichment programs, where he helps to introduce students across the Denver Metro area to opera and orchestral music. In addition to dramatic works, Ewing is an avid performer of art song. He spent a month in Canada as a student at the Vancouver International Song Institute. He has sung in master classes and recitals for Roger Vignoles, William Bolcom, Lori Laitman, Jake Heggie, and Libby Larsen. Mr. Ewing is an alumnus of Phi Mu Alpha, a national men’s music fraternity.”

This work had some astounding harmonies in it, which almost sounded as if they could have come from the Romantic period 200 years in the future. There were still some cadences (phrase endings) that were clearly identifiable as in the very early Baroque or very late Renaissance style. And I must say that it was entirely in keeping with this style that the soloists did not exaggerate the drama of the text, but rather, simply left it as a deeply moving meditation summed up by the choir with the text: “He who honors God’s martyrdom and remembers the seven words, God will care for with his grace, surely here on earth and there in the eternal life.” The choir was superb in this work as were all five soloists.

Following the work by Schütz, Seicento Baroque Ensemble performed the Surrexit Christus Hodie (Christ is risen today) by Samuel Scheidt from his collection entitled Cantiones Sacrae. Scheidt’s ability on the organ, and his compositions for organ, have often overshadowed his vocal music. But it is in his vocal music that each phrase of the chorale melody can sometimes have a different rhythmic idea, and it is that emphasis on rhythmic variety which sets them apart from Schein and Schütz. The performance of Scheidt’s Surrexit Christus Hodie was absolutely electrifying because of its infectious joy and the energy with which contralto Marjorie Bunday always imbues her performance.

Friday’s performance of rare music is something that needs to receive the attention by every concert audience in the Denver Metro area. It will be repeated Saturday, March 22, at 7:30 PM at the First United Methodist Church in Boulder, and again on Sunday, March 23 at 2 PM at the Stanley Hotel Concert Hall in Estes Park. The Seicento Baroque Ensemble is a relatively new organization which deserves our attention. Maestra Evanne Browne has chosen her program well and certainly made some terrific decisions in her choice of soloists and instrumentalists. This was a delightful concert which deserves more attention than I am able to give it here. It was authentically performed and it also broadens our scope of music from a period that is often ignored. It gave us a wonderful window into the world of German music before the age of Johann Sebastian Bach.

Opera Colorado’s Rigoletto is sensational, and the house was full!

Saturday evening, March 15, Opera Colorado performed Giuseppe Verdi’s tragic but popular opera, Rigoletto. It was performed, as most of you know, at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House in the Denver Performing Arts Center. “The Ellie” seats 2,225 people, and I am delighted to say that at the Saturday performance the hall was full.

Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901), as most of you surely know by now, was to Italian Opera what Beethoven was to the symphony. His first opera, Oberto, was written in 1839 and was a moderate success. It seemed to indicate that he was on the road to becoming an accomplished opera composer, but his following work, Un giorno di regno, was a total failure. Its failure, accompanied by the death of his wife while he was composing it, and the death of both of their children in the previous years, left Verdi completely depressed. However in the early 1840s he achieved great success with Nabucco, Macbeth, and Louisa Miller. Rigoletto was written in 1851; however, as the program notes point out, it uses the text of a Victor Hugo play (Le roi s’amuse) that had been banned in Paris because it denigrated royalty. Verdi and his librettist, Francesco Maria Piave, also suffered from the slings and arrows of the censors, but Piave was finally able to satisfy both Verdi and the aristocracy.

Rigoletto is a court jester who, as the program notes point out, tolerates his employer’s frequent affairs until his daughter becomes involved in them. Rigoletto then contracts the Duke,s death but his daughter is tragically and mistakenly killed by the assassin instead. I think that it is safe to say that many of Verdi’s contemporaries did not think that anyone could succeed in writing opera after the astounding successes of Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868); however, it was Verdi who took Italian opera to new heights.

The conductor was Maestro Leonardo Vordoni, and he was truly outstanding. I will quote from his website:

“Originally from Trieste, Italy, the fast-rising conductor Leonardo Vordoni studied conducting at the Accademia Pescarese with Gilberto Serembe, and earned a diploma in opera conducting at Bologna’s Reale Accademia Filarmonica.

“Last season Mr. Vordoni made his debut with Houston Grand Opera conducting Il Barbiere di Siviglia followed by a return to Minnesota Opera for Lucia di Lammermoor and La Bohème with the Green Mountain Opera Festival. Current projects include La Bohème with the Minnesota Opera and Don Giovanni with the Peabody Institute. Future engagements include a return to Opera Colorado in Rigoletto as well as debuts with the Michigan Opera Theatre in La Traviata, Opera Omaha in La Cenerentola and the Opéra National de Bordeaux in Donizetti’s Anna Bolena.

“Mr. Vordoni’s recent engagements featured three of Puccini’s greatest works: La Bohème with Santa Fe Opera and Utah Opera, Tosca at Opera on the James, and Turandot at Portland Opera. He made an important debut with the Canadian Opera Company with La Cenerentola.

“Leonardo Vordoni has given master classes in Italian repertoire for Young Artist Programs across the United States including: San Francisco Opera, Seattle Opera, Utah Opera, Santa Fe Opera, Kansas University, UMKC Conservatory, University of North Texas in conjunction with La Fenice in Castelfranco Veneto as well as coaching for the Accademia Rossiniana in Pesaro. Additional studies include: piano at the Conservatorio Tartini with Neva Merlak, and composition at the Accademia Musicale in Portogruaro with Mario Pagotto.”

The orchestra was absolutely superb Saturday evening. Their dynamic range was excellent, and I sat there wishing that I could actually watch Maestro Vordoni conduct. Orchestra entrances were absolutely together, and all of their nuances of phrasing were together as well.

As the first curtain rose, there were gasps from the audience because of the scenery which was designed by Sarah J. Conley and Michael Deegan for the Atlanta Opera. It was made available through the Utah Symphony and Opera. The sets were quite substantial; as well they should have been because members of the cast had to use the doorways, stairs, etc. Nonetheless, they were assembled and painted with great skill.

I must admit that it has been quite a while since I have seen an opera performance, which has been very strange because I grew up where opera performances were an almost daily occurrence during the school year. I did my undergraduate work in that town as well, and the habit was to put piano performance majors such as myself into operas to fill out the choruses. Therefore, I have some opera experience, though not as much as if I were an actual voice student. Right away, it was clear that in the person of John Baril, Opera Colorado has a wonderful Chorus Master. The opening scene of Rigoletto requires a chorus scene, and I could understand every word that the chorus was singing. I am aware that I have emphasized diction in articles that concern choirs and soloists. I do so because so many times after some kind of a vocal performance, I have heard audience members say that the singer had a beautiful voice but the words could not be understood. This has occurred so often, that many audience members have told me they never expect to understand the words that are being sung. After all, even in pop culture, the words to hip-hop and rap can seldom be understood simply because the music is so loud and the singers so careless. But I assure you, these audience members should have attended this Opera Colorado performance. The entire cast was excellent, and truly, why not? They are all professionals, and it was abundantly clear that they had superb training, diction, and vocal production to support good diction.

The soloists Saturday evening were very exciting because of their voice quality and because of their dramatic ability. Gordon Hawkins as Rigoletto filled the entire hall with the size of his voice. He has the voice quality that sometimes borders on being a heldentenor, but mind you, he brings with it a remarkable sense of pathos and drama in his role. Rene Barbera sang the role of the Duke of Mantua, and it was startling to hear him sing, for he reminded me very much of a classmate of mine in undergraduate school, Ronald Naldi, who went on to sing with the Met. Barbera was perfect in the role of the Duke, who, in this operatic role is careless with everyone’s feelings he comes across. His voice was crystal clear, light and airy, and very easily produced. Rachele Gilmore sang Gilda, Rigoletto’s daughter. She has a wonderful coloratura voice that can be huge when she wishes it to be, but it has a quality that portrays all of the innocence that her role of Gilda personifies. Yearning for a different kind of life, she made it clear that her character was the embodiment of hope for the future.

The members of the cast were very well chosen. The character of the assassin, Sparafucile, was sung by Stefan Szkafarowsky, and his libidinous daughter, Maddalena was sung by Dana Beth Miller. These may have been relatively small roles as far as the total opera is concerned, but these two characters are vital and these individuals were excellent.

As the opera progressed, I began to notice that in this particular production the stage direction became increasingly important. The stage director was Bernard Uzan, and I will quote from a website:

“A native of France, Mr. Uzan is a graduate of the University of Paris, with Ph.D.’s in Literature, Theatrical Studies and in Philosophy. He began his career in the theater as an actor and director, and appeared in leading theaters throughout Europe. He emigrated to the U.S., where he established French Theater in America, which toured for ten years, giving 200 performances per year. He pursued an academic career as Professor of Literature, Acting, and Directing at Wellesley and Middlebury College in addition to his work as an actor and director. He was also the producer and the main French voice for many French academic books. In 2008, Mr. Uzan’s first novel, The Shattered Sky, was published in both French and English. In 2010, he returned to the stage to direct Ultraviolet’s Adolf and Andy in New York City.”

Uzan has a very clear understanding of what it takes for each character to make themselves complete on stage: their position, their movements, and even the direction they are looking. All of these incredibly small details are so important, and it allows the characters to reach toward the audience and present a very personal narrative.

Opera Colorado has set a very high standard of excellence, and it is very exciting to realize that they are here in Denver, joining with the Colorado Ballet and the Colorado Symphony to provide such a rewarding artistic experience.


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