Filed under: Reviews | Tags: Colorado Symphony, David Lockington, Edgar Allen Poe, Eric Erwazen, Peter Cooper, The Raven, William Hill
The performance Saturday evening, March 28, by the Colorado Symphony Orchestra was unsurpassed in many ways, and, the fact that the first and last works on the program involved the loss of a loved one made the program strangely coincidental.
Maestro David Lockington returned to Denver to guest conduct this performance. It is my sincere hope that you readers will recognize his name because for three years, he held the post of Assistant Conductor with the Denver Symphony Orchestra and Opera Colorado. He is an absolutely outstanding conductor and is currently the Music Director of the Grand Rapids Symphony Orchestra and the Modesto Symphony Orchestra. Two years ago in March 2013, he was appointed the Music Director of the Pasadena Symphony.
The first work on the program was by Eric Ewazen, a very distinctive American composer. Eric Ewazen was born in 1954 in Cleveland, Ohio. Receiving a B.M. At the Eastman School of Music, and M.M. and D.M.A. degrees from The Juilliard School. His teachers include Milton Babbitt, Samuel Adler, Warren Benson, Joseph Schwantner and Gunther Schuller. He is a recipient of numerous composition awards and prizes.
Ewazen’s composition was Down a River of Time, for Oboe and String Orchestra, and was inspired by the loss of his father. The work has three movements: I)… past hopes and dreams, II)… and sorrows, and III)… and memories of tomorrow. Peter Cooper, Principal Oboe with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra, was the soloist for this work.
I use the word distinctive above because Eric Ewazen does not fit the expectations of the 21st century composer. And that remark is not meant as a pejorative at all, but simply as a way of defining his style as expressed in the work that was performed Saturday evening. This work is really an oboe concerto for string orchestra, but Ewazen describes it as “an aria for string orchestra.” The reason is apparent the minute the work begins. It is very skillfully written for the oboe, and it emphasizes the lyricism and the mellowness of which the oboe is capable of, especially in the hands of such a fine oboist as Peter Cooper. In fact, it is difficult to imagine anyone else performing this work.
It was surprising to me when the work began on such a well-defined minor triad. I did not know what to expect as this was the first time I have heard this work. Nonetheless, it was a surprise, for I expected something more obviously avant-garde. Throughout the work the harmonies seemed like a throwback to something that Rachmaninoff might have written had he been alive in the 1960s. Occasionally, there were added-note chords with slight dissonances that reminded me of Frank Bridge or Ralph Vaughan Williams. There was a spare quality to the entire work because of its orchestration solely for strings. Once in a while, particularly in the second movement, the harmony seemed almost modal; however, its use wasn’t as obvious, for example, as it is in some of Debussy’s compositions (for example, Iberia). I stress that this was marvelously written for the oboe, and it was certainly an incredibly difficult piece. Peter Cooper performed it beautifully. The mellowness of his tone was exceptional because of his breath control and phrasing ability. Indeed, there seemed times when he didn’t breathe for several phrases. There is no question that Cooper and Maestro Lockington knew and appreciated this work. It was beautifully performed by both the orchestra and the soloist, and its harmonic mixtures, i.e., modal/romantic/added notes, gave it an almost 1950s English sound. Lockington was able to ask the orchestra, and they were capable of giving him, an incredibly mellow and rich sound throughout.
Next on the program came Igor Stravinsky’s well-known and much loved Suite from The Firebird. There are many conductors who seem to believe that all 20th-century music must be emotionally spare and done without a great deal of care for the actual sound produced. This was certainly not the case with Maestro Lockington’s approach. It was very expressively done, and even the Infernal Dance of King Kastchei was not exaggerated in its ferocity. The Berceuse was particularly well done, and I don’t think I’ve ever heard and orchestra play so softly with every note still sounding. The ending was done with a remarkable sense of relief and finality. In the 1960s, I had the great good fortune to speak with Stravinsky, and he said that many conductors seem to forget that a ballet must be expressive at many different levels. Obviously, the dancers, themselves, must seek inspiration from the music and what it conveys. The performance of this work made me think that Maestro David Lockington would be an excellent conductor of ballet. Truly, this was one of the best performances that I have heard of this marvelous piece of music.
Following the intermission, the Colorado Symphony Orchestra performed the World Premiere of composer William Hill’s new work, The Raven, based on Edgar Allen Poe’s legendary poem. This enormous work uses all 18 stanzas of Poe’s poem, and it is set for full orchestra and chorus. I believe that it is unnecessary to introduce you readers to William Hill, for he has been the Principal Timpanist with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra for 35 years. Mr. Hill is an excellent composer: the Colorado Symphony Orchestra has premiered several of his works, and in addition, he is also known as a fine conductor.
Hill’s The Raven is clear evidence of the great depth of understanding that he has of Poe’s poem. There is no doubt that Poe (or is it a character that Poe allows to tell the story, as in The Tell Tale Heart) is expressing great sadness over the loss and memory of his Lenore. Keep in mind that Poe has the ability in his poems to make them intensely personal, and it is that realization that makes William Hill’s piece so totally graphic.
The opening of this piece is very dark, and every single note is pregnant with tension. It is also full of the weariness that Poe expresses in his first line, “Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary….” Hill is extremely gifted at exposing Poe’s exhaustion caused by the grief of his loss. In addition, Hill will begin one line of text with, for example, the tenor section of the chorus, and then, to provide emphasis will allow the soprano section to finish the sentence with a higher pitched and urgent inflection. And sometimes, it is the reverse: the urgent text, “Take thy beak from out my heart,” begins in one section and then another section of the choir, full of sadness and lassitude, finishes with “… and take thy form from off my door!”
Thus, the use of the chorus is doubly expressive. There was also the use of electronic sounds which intensifies the vocal sounds of an eight voice chorus situated behind the main chorus. Scattered throughout the composition, and used to emphasize the terror or resignation of loss, is the sound of a heartbeat. It is sometimes played on the bass drum, the tympani, or, later in the work, even in the low cellos and basses.
What is so remarkably convincing – if not startling – is Hill’s depth in emphasizing the ever-changing thoughts that Poe has in describing his loss. When the Raven beguiles Poe to sit down in front of him to listen to what he may tell him, the poem reads “Straight I wheeled a cushioned seat in front of bird, and bust and door;” the music reflects Poe’s excitement from the possibility he may learn something. And in the next stanza, the chorus reflects Poe’s sudden realization that Lenore is no longer present to use the cushion herself: “But whose velvet-violet lining with the lamp-light gloating o’er, She shall press, ah, never more!”
The abrupt changes of meter, the abrupt changes from one section of the chorus to the other, and the clever use of harmony from total to atonal, fill the listener with the same confusion of emotions that is expressed so skillfully in Poe’s poem. Sometimes it is terror; sometimes it is tragedy. In the end, it is absolute resignation.
The Raven takes 40 minutes to perform, and it is the most fleeting 40 minutes imaginable. The chorus was marvelous to listen to not only because of their ability to be expressive, but because of their diction. It has been a very long time since I have heard a choir of that size produce such perfect pronunciation. My hat is off to Duain Wolfe.
I am familiar with William Hill’s compositions. The Raven marks a new definition of his output which has always been excellent and artistic. But his skillful use of the chorus and the orchestra to define and bring forth the emotion and range of expression of the text to such a remarkable level, is evidence of a new era for him as a composer. Hill’s score allows one to understand Poe’s poem. It is sometimes difficult to verbalize the new age of a composer, and often it has to be done by the careful listening to the music. An example of this might be the difference between Arnold Schoenberg’s Gurre-Lieder (which is hypertrophied romanticism) and his first composition in 12 tones. Hill received one of the longest standing ovations in recent memory.
I might add that the Colorado Symphony Orchestra on Saturday evening realized a new plateau as well. They were obviously pleased to have Peter Cooper solo with them, and they seemed very pleased to have David Lockington be the Guest Conductor. It was a very fine performance from everyone on stage. The audience realized this as well.
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: Alexandra Pullen, Alexei Tyukov, Ariel Breitman, Asuka Sasaki, Ben Winegar, Casey Dalton, Chandra Kuykendall, Christopher Moulton, Colorado Ballet, Curtis Irwin, Dana Benton, Dmitry Trubchanov, Domenico Luciano, Emily Dixon, Emily Speed, Fernanda Oliveira, Francisco Estevez, Gil Boggs, Jesse Marks, Joey Wishnia, Kevin Gaël Thomas, Kevin Hale, Kevin Wilson, Luis Valdes, Maria Mosina, Max Bruch, Melissa Zoebisch, Morgan Buchanan, Raul Orozco, Sean Omandam, Sergei Prokofiev, Tracy Jones, Viacheslav Buchkovskiy
Every time I leave a performance by the Colorado Ballet, I am convinced that I have seen them at their best. Then comes the next performance, and I am amazed once more. Friday night, March 27, their performance at the Gates Concert Hall at the Lamont School of Music was a clear demonstration of the artistry that is inherent in all of their performances. There were two short ballets performed, one of which was quite serious and displayed the love for their art by everyone on stage, and one, which was extremely humorous, was performed for all the children that were in the audience.
The program opened with Max Bruch’s Violin Concerto in G minor, Opus 26. The first performance of this concerto was given with Joseph Joachim as soloist on January 7, 1868, and Bruch quickly achieved worldwide recognition for this marvelous work.
While the idea of a ballet done to a violin concerto may startle some of you, I can assure you that the choreography by Clark Tippett perfectly matched the music. Clark Tippett was born in 1954 in Kansas, and was made a soloist at the American Ballet Theater in 1975. He was promoted to principal in 1976. He choreographed many ballets for companies in the United States, and his choreography for the Bruch’s Violin Concerto which was premiered in 1987, attracted a great deal of attention. He died at the young age of 37 in 1992. His death, was attributed to circumstances surrounding his battle with drugs.
For those of you who did not see this performance, I can assure you that Tippett’s choreography was wonderfully full of imagination, and its relationship to the music of Bruch seemed like a true friendship, rather than an “accompaniment,” because of its artistic merit, and the obvious elation that all of the dancers on stage exhibited. I can assure you that the choreography was difficult indeed. I have seen many performances by the Colorado Ballet where in the dancers seemed to take absolute delight in their profession. At Friday night’s performance that delight metamorphosed into absolute joy. It seemed quite obvious that all of the dancers were quite moved by the beauty of Bruch’s concerto, as well as the beauty of the choreography. That seems like an obvious thing to say: certainly they appreciate their own art or they would not be involved in it. In the past, I have seen some companies where that was not communicated to the audience.
In the First Movement, after every pas de deux by Jesse Marks and Chandra Kuykendall, Asuka Sasaki and Domenico Luciano, the audience responded with great enthusiasm to their artistry and astonishing grace. The audience was truly becoming infected with the same enthusiasm that the dancers exhibited, and it was an absolutely magical thing to see. All of the dancers on stage, Morgan Buchanan, Casey Dalton, Emily Dixon, Tracy Jones, Fernanda Oliveira, Alexandra Pullen, Emily Speed, Melissa Zoebisch, Ariel Breitman, Kevin Hale, Christopher Moulton, Sean Omandam, Kevin Gaël Thomas, Luis Valdes, Kevin Wilson, and Ben Winegar, deserve mention because they were so sensational in matching the emotions and skill of the principals and soloists. That spontaneity of emotions can make a performance truly exceptional rather than excellent, and it was inherent in the performances Friday night.
In the Second Movement, Maria Mosina and Alexei Tyukov danced in several pas de deux. As I have stated before, Mosina’s arm movements are absolutely the most graceful and frond-like that I have seen. It is also very clear that Mosina and Tyukov work extremely well together because the timing and grace of their movements is something to behold. Friday evening, I must say that Tyukov’s physical strength seemed to be greater than ever: I simply could not believe the length of time that he held Mosina above his head. On the other hand, the difficulty of the choreography certainly dictates who will dance what part, and physical strength, as well as rapport and artistic affinity between the dancers is a consideration. That is something that is shared between Maria Mosina and Alexei Tyukov. They are breathtaking.
In the third movement Dana Benton and Francisco Estevez danced the pas de deux. These two dancers are, in many ways, very similar to Maria Mosina and Alexei Tyukov because of their shared like-mindedness in their artistic styles. I know that dancers have to create a certain image on stage, and many times that requires – depending on their role – that they maintain a lovely smile. However, Dana Benton is so convincing because her smile always seems to reflect the absolute joy that her art provides to her personally. She and Estevez were absolutely remarkable Friday evening, and their ability to make the most difficult choreography seem effortless never ceases to amaze me.
Following the Bruch, the Colorado Ballet performed Serge Prokofiev’s masterful Peter and the Wolf. There is hardly anyone who would not recognize the music to this ballet, as it is as well-known as Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker. One of the reasons for its popularity truly must be that Prokofiev, in some ways, seems to have been a child in spirit. In this ballet he appears to have had a mysterious insight into what amuses children. But realize that this story offers adults as well, a chance to escape the monotony of caution that being a grown-up dictates. I also point out that when Prokofiev came to Denver in 1938 to perform his first Piano Concerto and conduct his Classical Symphony with the then-named Denver Symphony, one of the board members took him to see Disney’s new movie, Snow White. He liked it so much that he went back to see it the next day.
The choreography for Friday’s performance was by Michael Smuin (1938-2007). He danced with the American Ballet Theatre and the San Francisco Ballet. He choreographed Broadway productions and had several films to his credit, among them, The Fantasticks.
Peter and the Wolf opens with the Narrator, delightfully done by Joey Wishnia. Wishnia is a very experienced actor who was born in South Africa, and educated at Rhodes University and Trinity College in London. He has written scripts for children’s theater and he has appeared in classical and modern plays, musical theater, opera, ballet, cabaret, reviews, and many radio and television dramas. I must say that he was an excellent choice to fulfill the duties as The Narrator.
The Narrator is assisted by a Musician who presents cutouts of musical instruments as the narrator explains, for example, that The Bird will be represented by the flute. The Musician is supposed to walk out on stage holding a flute to show the audience. However, Friday night, the Musician, wonderfully done by Francisco Estevez, comes out holding a French horn. This, of course, results in nimble wits and savage repartee on behalf of the Narrator which are followed by disrespectful looks and antics by the Musician.
Friday evening, Peter was danced by Kevin Gaël Thomas, the Bird was danced by Dana Benton, the Duck by Morgan Buchanan, the Cat was danced by Tracy Jones, the Wolf by Christopher Moulton, and Jesse Marks danced the role of the Grandfather. The hunters were danced by Ariel Breitman, Curtis Irwin, Raul Orozco, Luis Valdes, Kevin Wilson, and Ben Winegar.
I am constantly amazed at how all of the dancers in the Colorado Ballet are able to communicate with the audience, not only through their dancing ability, but through their acting ability as well. For example, all on stage were absolutely superb in their comedic roles as well as their dancing ability. Everyone not only made their dancing an art, they made their comedy and acting an art. I have seen many ballet performances where the dancing was certainly an art, but everything else was secondary. This is not the case with the Colorado Ballet.
On leaving Gates Hall Friday evening, it finally dawned on me that since Artistic Director Gil Boggs has been with the Colorado Ballet, the choice of choreographers for the ballets has steadily improved. Obviously, this has also led to the improvement of the dancers, and I stress that I do not imply the dancers were poor to begin with. I wish that all of the dancers could have heard the comments from the audience as they left the hall. Certainly, the standing ovation that was received after the Bruch and after the Prokofiev demonstrated how appreciated they were.
There is one sad note that I must communicate. Three of the finest dancers from the Colorado Ballet have announced their retirement. Dmitry Trubchanov, Viacheslav Buchkovskiy, and Jesse Marks will no longer dance after this weekend. They have contributed so much to the Colorado Ballet that it will be very difficult to see them go. I can only hope that they will continue to share their art through teaching and coaching, for that is as much an art as was their dancing. They will be sorely missed, and I wish them well. Thank you, gentlemen, for making the performances brighter with your art.
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: Andrew Litton, Bil Jackson, Clarinet Concerto, Colorado Symphony, Kevin Puts, Leonard Bernstein, The Age of Anxiety Symphony Nr. 2, Two Mountain Scenes, William Wolfram
The Colorado Symphony Orchestra presented its American Festival: Part I under the direction of Maestro Andrew Litton, Saturday evening, February 28. Without becoming involved in poetic rapture, you readers must understand that this was one of the finest CSO concerts they have given. There are several reasons for this, the first of which is that they played extraordinarily well, but also they introduced Kevin Puts to the Denver audience. In addition, Bil Jackson, former Principal Clarinetist with the CSO, returned to perform Kevin Puts’ Clarinet Concerto, and the outstanding pianist William Wolfram returned to perform Leonard Bernstein’s The Age of Anxiety, Symphony Nr. 2.
The program opened with Two Mountain Scenes, Maestoso and Furioso by the American composer, Kevin Puts. Before I discuss his music, I will quote the entirety of his biographical statement from his website. I do so because it was apparent Saturday night that this is a major American composer that you readers need to know about. If you see a concert program where his works are being performed, you must attend.
“Winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for his debut opera Silent Night, Kevin Puts has been hailed as one of the most important composers of his generation. Critically acclaimed for his distinctive and richly colored musical voice, Puts’ impressive body of work includes four symphonies as well as several concertos written for some of today’s top soloists. His newest work, The City (Symphony No. 5), co-commissioned by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in honor of its 100th anniversary and by Carnegie Hall in honor of their 125th anniversary, will receive its premiere in Baltimore and New York in April 2016.
“Silent Night, commissioned and premiered by Minnesota Opera, has since been produced and performed at Fort Worth Opera, Cincinnati Opera, the Wexford Opera Festival, and Calgary Opera, with upcoming productions at the Lyric Opera of Kansas City and Montreal Opera. In 2013, his choral works To Touch The Sky and If I Were A Swan were performed by Conspirare, and a recording was released by the Harmonia Mundi label. The recording includes a performance of his Symphony No. 4: From Mission San Juan, performed by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marin Alsop. His second opera, an adaptation of Richard Condon’s novel The Manchurian Candidate, also commissioned by Minnesota Opera, will have its world premiere in March 2015. That same month, his song cycle Of All The Moons, commissioned by Carnegie Hall, will be performed by mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke. His first chamber opera, an adaptation of Peter Ackroyd’s gothic novel The Trial of Elizabeth Cree commissioned by Opera Philadelphia will have its premiere in 2016.
“His orchestral works have been commissioned, performed, and recorded by leading orchestras and ensembles throughout North America, Europe and the Far East, including the New York Philharmonic, the Tonhalle Orchester (Zurich), the Boston Pops, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, the Miro Quartet, Cypress Quartet, Conspirare, the Eroica Trio, Eighth Blackbird, the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble, the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, and the symphony orchestras of Baltimore, Cincinnati, Detroit, Atlanta, Colorado, Houston, Fort Worth, St. Louis, and Minnesota. In 2005, in celebration of David Zinman’s 70th birthday, he was commissioned to write Vision, a cello concerto premiered by Yo-Yo Ma and the Aspen Music Festival Orchestra. During the same year, Dame Evelyn Glennie premiered his Percussion Concerto with the Pacific and Utah Symphonies. In 2008, his piano concerto Night, was commissioned by the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra and premiered by pianist and conductor Jeffrey Kahane.
“Mr. Puts has received prestigious awards and grants from the American Academy in Rome, the Guggenheim Foundation, the American Academy of Arts and Letters, BMI and ASCAP. He has served as Composer-in-Residence of Young Concerts Artists, the California Symphony, the Fort Worth Symphony, the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, Bravo! Vail Valley Music Festival, Music from Angel Fire, and the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society. Mr. Puts received his training as a composer and pianist at the Eastman School of Music and Yale University. Since 2006, he has been a member of the composition department at the Peabody Institute, and currently is the Director of the Minnesota Orchestra Composer’s Institute.
“A native of St. Louis, Missouri, Mr. Puts received his Bachelor’s Degree from the Eastman School of Music, his Master’s Degree from Yale University, and a Doctor of Musical Arts at the Eastman School of Music.”
You readers who are, perhaps, not familiar with musical terminology (which is traditionally an Italian) will, even so, recognize that two pieces are titled “majestic” and “furiously” in the work Two Mountain Scenes, Maestoso and Furioso. The work was commissioned by the Bravo! Vail Valley Music Festival, and it certainly reflects the scope of the Rocky Mountains.
The first of the two pieces, Maestoso, opens with a trumpet fanfare, and the music is so wonderfully descriptive that I did not bother at the concert to read the program notes describing the two pieces. I was absolutely dazzled by Puts’ use of harmony and the melodic line. His harmonic structure is best imagined as something that Aaron Copland might write if he were still alive and composing. Indeed, when I read the program notes during the intermission, they quoted Puts as saying that he “… always loved Copland’s Concerto for Clarinet.” The chordal harmony that Puts uses, on first hearing, seems to be that of 9th and 13th chords in parallel motion beneath a melodic line which has a remarkable ambitus and is quite disjunct, very similar to Sergei Prokofiev. He also seems to use a lot of harmonic counterpoint, but, again, that is based on my first hearing of this work. The overall effect is one of surprising mellifluous beauty, and the convincing use of the 9th and 13th chords in a traditionally functional manner is filled with surprise when a truly functional chord, such as a V7, makes its appearance.
The second of the Two Mountain Scenes, Furioso, very clearly describes an approaching storm. His orchestration – masses of percussion – very skillfully describes the impending storm, but his use of harmony takes away the terror of the storm, and turns it in to a natural occurrence.
The effect of these two pieces was that of absolutely stunning beauty and serenity. It is my sincere hope that the CSO programs more of his work.
Following the Two Mountain Scenes, the Colorado Symphony Orchestra welcomed the return (for this performance only) of clarinetist Bil Jackson. I’m sure that all of you readers will recognize his name because he was Principal Clarinet in the CSO for 28 years. He is now Associate Professor of Clarinet on the faculty of the Blair School of Music at Vanderbilt University. To jog your mind, I will quote very briefly from his bio statement on his website:
“Bil Jackson enjoys a varied musical career that includes solo, orchestral and chamber music appearances. Before joining the faculty at the Blair School, he served as principal clarinetist with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, Colorado Symphony Orchestra and Honolulu Symphony, and has performed as guest principal clarinetist with the St Louis, Minnesota and Cincinnati symphony orchestras. He also has appeared as a soloist with the Colorado, Honolulu, Denver, Charlotte, Dallas Chamber and Aspen Chamber orchestras.”
Bil Jackson and the CSO, as I stated in the opening paragraph, performed Kevin Puts’ Clarinet Concerto. This concerto, written for string orchestra, has two movements, each with a descriptive title of Vigil and Surge.
The opening movement was easily recognizable as being written by Kevin Puts because I had just heard his previous work. Before Saturday’s performance, I was completely unfamiliar with this composer even though this work was commissioned for Bil Jackson by Catherine Gould through the Meet the Composer program. The Colorado Symphony Orchestra premiered this work in 2009 with Jeffrey Kahane conducting. Regretfully, I did not hear that performance.
I can assure you Kevin Puts sounds like no other composer who is writing today. His skill as a composer is evident in this work because it is so convincingly written for the clarinet. It is remarkably difficult, but, on the other hand, Bil Jackson is a totally remarkable clarinetist. The opening of the work is, once again, mellifluous while being disjunct (a seemingly impossible combination?). It has some beautiful writing for two harps, and there are some long sustained notes in the violas underneath the performance of the rest of the orchestra. In the excellent program notes, Kevin Puts is quoted as explaining that part of the impetus for this work was the memory of a television documentary concerning the U. S. military personnel who lost their lives in the Middle East. It is a somber piece in many ways, and the performance of this work was very passionate indeed. Both of the movements of this concerto have a cadenza, and they truly allowed Jackson to demonstrate his almost supernatural technical ability and musicianship on the clarinet. No matter the difficulty involved, it is always apparent that the music and the art of the composer comes first. Not once did he use the ferocious difficulty required in this concerto to simply make a display of his virtuosity. The harmony of the first movement was similar to that of the Two Mountain Scenes, and yet there seemed to be an added aspect of almost modal harmony in the first movement of this concerto.
The second movement of this Clarinet Concerto by Puts began with an incredible sense that something inevitable and irrevocable was taking place: if you got in the way, it would simply run you down. However, no matter the ferocious mood, it was still an astoundingly beautiful work. This movement had a cadenza as well, and, after the cadenza, the mood to seem to change into poignant reflection. There was some wonderful use of percussion in this work: glockenspiel, marimba, bass drum, and chimes. Kevin Puts is a remarkable composer, and Bil Jackson is a remarkable clarinetist. The audience responded with a standing ovation, and it was clear that it was for both Kevin Puts and Bil Jackson.
Following the intermission, and the second half of Saturday’s program was the performance of Leonard Bernstein’s remarkable The Age of Anxiety, Symphony Nr. 2, with William Wolfram at the piano. This work was finished in 1949, but it was revised in 1965. At its premiere by the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1949, it was conducted by Sergei Koussevitzky with Leonard Bernstein at the piano. This remarkable work was performed by the CSO in 1998 with Marin Alsop conducting and Jeffrey Kahane at the piano.
William Wolfram performed with the CSO exactly one year ago, February 28, 2014, performing Benjamin Britten’s Piano Concerto. William Wolfram is clearly one of the best pianists alive today. He has won major awards all over the world, and he has performed with major symphonies all over the world. This also seems like a good point in this article to mention one important fact: Saturday evening, he performed on a Yamaha concert grand, because he is a Yamaha artist. I point this out because the piano he performed on was excellent. It was head and shoulders above the Steinway concert grand that is owned by the Colorado Symphony Orchestra. The Yamaha was perfectly voiced and perfectly tuned and it sounded wonderful. What a breath of fresh air it would be if the Colorado Symphony Orchestra could afford a new concert grand: perhaps a Bösendorfer, Sauter, Yamaha, Schimmel, or Blüthner, and a technician who could properly care for it.
This work by Leonard Bernstein was inspired by W. H. Auden’s poem The Age of Anxiety, which Bernstein considered “… One of the most shattering examples of pure virtuosity in the history of English poetry.” It inspired his second symphony, and he gave it the same form as Auden’s poem.
This work has to be one of the most difficult concertos written in the 20th century, and it truly takes the appearance of a concerto rather than a symphony. The second movement makes use of a drum set, an offstage upright piano, wood blocks, celesta, and bass drum located on stage behind the solo pianist. If one is thinking of this piece as recognizable because of its similarity to Westside Story or Fancy Free, he or she will be surprised. This is a wonderful example of Leonard Bernstein’s supreme compositional abilities. For example, Bernstein writes a boogie rhythm for the pianist which reminds one very strongly of the score he wrote for On the Waterfront. But keep in mind, this work is a very serious composition by Bernstein – it is almost introspective – and in no way can it be associated with “entertainment.” There are many different moods in this work, which seem to vie for the listeners’ attention. And, of course, it is remarkably complex.
This was an outstanding concert because of the works that were chosen to be performed, the superior artistry of the performers, and of the conductor, and those in the symphony. Kevin Puts, Bil Jackson, and William Wolfram are formidable artists and soloists. It was truly a memorable experience having the three of them on one program.
The American Festival: Part II will be performed on March 13 to the 15, and will feature the work of George Gershwin, Samuel Barber, and Stephen Albert. The guest artist will be violinist Anne Akiko Myers.
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: Boulder Bach Festival, Faythe Vollrath, Gina Vega, J. S. Bach, John Grau, Josefien Stoppelenburg, Julie Simson, Kenneth Goldsmith, Mass in B minor, Melissa Givens, Michael Dean, Mina Gajic, Paul Erhard, Robert Howard, Ysmael Reyes, Zachary Carrettin
Friday evening, February 27, the Boulder Bach Festival came to Denver to perform J. S. Bach’s monumental Mass in B minor at the Montview Presbyterian Church. I was anxious to hear this performance as it was the first performance by the Boulder Bach Festival’s new resident conductor, Maestro Zachary Carrettin. I have written about Maestro Carrettin previous to this article, but you must recall that he was recently appointed as the Resident Conductor of the Boulder Bach Festival. This season is the 34th year of the Boulder Bach Festival, and it is also the first year of Zachary Carrettin’s appointment. I also point out that aside from their coup in retaining Carrettin, they truly gained a package, because his wife, Mina Gajić, is an accomplished pianist. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the Zachary Carrettin, I will quote from the bio statement which appears on his website:
“Zachary Carrettin has performed as violinist and conductor in more than twenty-five countries on four continents, dazzling audiences by fusing ancient music with sounds influenced by South American, Middle Eastern, and European folk traditions, and guitar solos by Eddie Van Halen and Jimi Hendrix. Fusing improvisation with decades’ experience researching old manuscripts and performing on original instruments, his performances are singular, unlike any other. Whether improvising a cadenza in a romantic violin concerto or performing the Four Seasons with an all-electric-instrument chamber orchestra, he continues to surprise audiences with a sense of freedom, poetic depth, and brilliant virtuosity.
“Zachary has performed as featured artist at festivals in Italy, Germany, Norway, and Argentina, in the world’s great concert halls including the Mondavi Center, Zurich’s Tonhalle, the Grieg Hall in Bergen, the Wolf Trap Center, the San Francisco War Memorial Opera House, and at one hundred stadiums internationally, on tour with Yanni. Zachary has been featured in Brazil by IBM, in Oman by Toyota, and in Las Vegas at The Venetian.
“A dynamic conductor and violin soloist, Zachary has led orchestras across Europe, the U.S., and South America, including the National Symphony Orchestras of Bolivia and Moldavia. He performs with pianist Mina Gajic in the duo Mystery Sonata, which presents twenty-first century programs including Tango Nuevo and Balkan Dances alongside impressionist and impetuous classical concert works. On baroque violin, he tours with trio Aeris, which specializes in the wildly expressive and improvisatory Italian sonatas of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
“Zachary has held university positions in violin and conducting at the University of St. Thomas and Sam Houston State University. He has premiered numerous works by living composers, while resurrecting the forgotten works of great artists of the past. Not one to be bound by self-prescribed limitations, he frequently presents the complete unaccompanied works for violin (and cello) by J.S. Bach on electric violin.”
I have written about J.S. Bach’s remarkable Mass in B minor before. It is remarkable in many respects. One is that Bach normally wrote at lightning speed, but it took him several years to finish this work. In addition, there has always been the question of Bach’s motivation for writing a Mass liberally taken from the Catholic style when he was a Lutheran. And, scholars often point out that the work is so large that it is not at all suitable for liturgical use. Sometimes, when I read these arguments, I think to myself that, perhaps, the reason is very simple. Bach was a very devout Lutheran, and for every liturgical piece that he wrote, he included the initials “S. D. G.” after he signed his name. Those initials stand for Soli Deo gloria meaning to the glory of God alone. He also added these initials on many of his secular works. It simply means that he was not concerned with his own glory, but humbly presenting the composition for the glory of God. In addition, it was unusual in the Baroque era to have a Mass written with such large proportions, but in later years there were many composers who wrote “concert” Masses that were too large for liturgical use. I hasten to point out that I mention these items only as food for thought in this article. I am not trying to solve the puzzle that this remarkable work presents.
The problem that occasionally occurs with the performance of Bach’s Mass in B minor is that many who perform this work believe that its large-scale and its historical importance indicate that one should have a huge orchestra and a huge choir. Unfortunately, the result of this misdirection often results in an exaggerated, almost romantic, interpretation of a Baroque work. This was certainly not the case with Friday evening’s performance: the orchestra was the perfect size, and the choir was certainly not beyond the scale available to Bach.
When the performance began, I was very pleasantly surprised at the diction of the choir. They were singing the expected Latin text with which I am quite familiar. Their diction was absolutely exceptional, and it remained so for the duration of the performance which was just over two hours. The Boulder Bach Festival Orchestra was led by Concertmaster Kenneth Goldsmith. I was sitting in a fortunate position where I could hear the orchestra as a whole and also the individual instruments. Goldsmith’s playing was remarkable. There were other new faces in the orchestra, but it was a certainty that they were all chosen very carefully as this was the best Boulder Bach Festival Orchestra I have heard to date.
The Mass in B minor is such a huge piece that there is no room here to cover every detail of the performance. The soloists, Josefien Stoppelenburg, soprano, Melissa Givens, soprano, Julie Simpson, mezzo-soprano, John Grau, tenor, and Michael Dean, bass baritone, were all truly exceptional, and all of them were very obviously familiar with this work, and familiar with the Baroque style. They had the common sense to let Bach’s genius govern the way they sang, rather than infuse the work with their own self-aggrandizing.
The outstanding feature throughout the performance Friday evening is one that is critical to the performance of Bach, and it is one which is often overlooked by those who have no true conception of how Bach should be performed. That feature is the inherent rhythmic pulse and forward motion in every single piece that Bach wrote. It is in his most languid melodic lines of the slow movements. Part of it comes from the continuo section of the orchestra. For those of you who are not familiar with that term, the continuo is that part of a Baroque ensemble played on a keyboard instrument – organ or harpsichord – and a low stringed instrument (sometimes two) that provide the harmonic basis upon which everything else is organized. Friday evening, the organ was played by Faythe Vollrath, Robert Howard, Principal Cello, and Paul Erhard, Principal Bass. It is clear that these are remarkable musicians.
In the opening Kyrie, Josefien Stoppelenburg, and Melissa Givens sang a duet in the Christe portion. They sang beautifully and it was an indication of what was to come from them throughout the entire work. Their diction was excellent, and they were strongly influenced by the steady pulse of the orchestra. I feel that I must mention again the diction of the choir. The larger the choir the more difficult diction becomes. Counting the names and the program, the choir numbered 52 individuals. Simply put, their diction never failed.
In the soprano and tenor duet, which occurs in the Domine Deus section of the Gloria, the soloists were superb, but it was this section where the orchestra took my attention completely. The woodwinds were truly excellent and the portato notes played by the cellos and the bass were absolutely the same length all the time. The counterpoint, played by the flutes Ysmael Reyes and Gina Vega, was absolute perfection and supported the soloists and the chorus without being obtrusive. And that brings me to a very important point: every note and every measure of the performance Friday evening could be heard. Nothing was covered or hidden, and I am quite sure that even a first-time listener could appreciate what Bach wrote.
The bass aria, sung by Michael Dean, in the Quoniam to solus sanctus, was full and rich, and it was done without the exaggeration of the romantic style that I have heard in other performances of the B minor Mass. It was excellent Bach.
At the beginning of the program, Maestro Carrettin explained to the audience that an intermission was going to be taken after the text in the mass, “And was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate.” He asked that the audience not applaud because of the solemnity of the text. After the intermission, the positioning of the sections in the choir were very different from the first half of the program. I am sure this was done in consideration of the fact that Bach wrote this Mass over a long period of time, and Maestro Carrettin, after studying Bach’s intent, wished to have a different blend of voices for the remaining sections of Bach’s work. Consider that the second half of the program began with the jubilant, Et resurrexit, and the choir seemed to be full of energy and excitement.
The Mass in B minor gives each section of the orchestra and the choir the opportunity to display their ability as musicians. I feel that it is necessary to point out that the Boulder Bach Festival, with the appointment of Zachary Carrettin, has undergone a sea change. The quality of this performance was certainly indicative of the fact that every musician on stage, be they orchestra member, choir member or soloist, was inspired by the leadership of Maestro Carrettin. The phrasing, entrances and exits, and forward motion, was absolute perfection, and it clearly delineated the counterpoint inherent in Bach’s writing. They performed with such excitement that one could imagine that this was the first time this piece had ever been heard. I am aware that I have not mentioned some of the orchestra members and some of the choir members, but there simply is not enough room to mention everyone. However, I can assure you, everyone on stage deserves mention for this performance. It was marked by an amazing range and depth of mood which was absolutely exhilarating. The Boulder Bach Festival performers were rewarded with a standing ovation. Now, if they would just give us a performance of Bach’s Cantata, Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme, BWV 140.
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: Adam Flatt, Alexandra Pullien, Alexei Tyukov, Asuka Saski, Casey Dalton, Catherine Sailer, Chandra Kuykendall, Christopher Moulton, Dana Benton, Domenico Luciano, Emily Dixon, Emily Speed, Fernanda Oliveira, Francisco Estevez, Gill Boggs, Kevin Gaël Thomas, Lorita Travaglia, Maria Mosina, Melissa Zoebisch, Morgan Buchanan, Sandra Brown, Sharon Wehner, Shelby Dyer, Tracy Jones
Friday evening, February 20, the Colorado Ballet gave one of its most brilliant performances. It was brilliant not only because the dancers are so good and the orchestra so fine, but because the Ballet Masterworks series is always just that: usually three short ballets – roughly 20 to 25 minutes each – are very carefully chosen by Artistic Director Gil Boggs. They are truly masterworks. They can carry that label because the choreography is excellent and because the music is magnificent as well.
The opening work was Concerto Barocco choreographed by George Balanchine with music by Johann Sebastian Bach. Balanchine was an excellent musician as well as a choreographer and dancer, and he had the reputation of being a remarkable pianist. He had extensive courses in music when he was in school. When he conceived this work, which uses the music from Bach’s Concerto in D minor for Two Violins, he was quoted as saying, “if the dance designer sees in the development of classical dancing a counterpart in the development of music and has studied them both, he will derive continual inspiration from great scores.” I came away from the performance Friday evening secure in my realization that Gil Boggs is also an accomplished musician, and agrees with the ethos expressed by Balanchine. For those of you who are surprised by the use of Bach’s music for a ballet, realize this: the one feature of every single piece that Bach wrote that stands out above all else is an underlying rhythmic pulse. And, it is that pulse that Balanchine took advantage of. Certainly, there is much in Bach’s music to take advantage of: the counterpoint, incredible grace, and continual forward movement. I also hasten to point out that Gil Boggs is aware of the fact that Maestro Adam Flatt, who conducts the ballet orchestra, has had a profound effect on the quality of this orchestra. Lydia Sviatlovskaya and Leslie Sawyer where the violin soloists for this double concerto. They were superb.
I was astounded by the very opening of this work, because the minute the curtain was up the orchestra and the dancers began their work; there was no hesitation. It was absolutely together as the curtain reached its zenith. It truly seemed to me as if Maestro Flatt was watching the curtain, and, of course, all of the dancers on stage had their eyes glued to Maestro Flatt. It had a profound effect on the audience. It was immediately obvious that Balanchine felt a remarkable kinship with the music, and the dancers on stage seem to take particular joy in dancing to his choreography. The most astounding feature of their dancing came in the last movement, where Bach wrote many 16th note passages. The dancers were required to use a step which seemed to me to be a combination of a frappé and a bourée. I have never seen that step before, and I’m quite sure that it has a name, but it was incredibly difficult and every dancer on stage was precisely together with the orchestra and with each other. It was a breathtaking demonstration of the ability of these dancers. However, truly, the most amazing aspect of the performance of this work was the fact that Balanchine’s choreography, and the skill of the dancers on stage, made Bach’s wonderful double concerto truly fit ballet. It was as if Bach had written this work as a ballet. I am sure that he would be amazed if he could have seen this performance.
Sharon Wehner, Maria Mosina, and Alexei Tyukov, were truly sensational. The dancers in the core, Morgan Buchanan, Casey Dalton, Emily Dixon, Tracy Jones, Fernanda Oliveira, Alexandra Pullen, Emily Speed, and Melissa Zoebisch were marvelous. All of these dancers “fit” the choreography to the extent that I cannot imagine a performance using any other dancers.
The second ballet on this program of three was a work entitled In Pieces, which was given the world premiere by the Colorado Ballet on February 22, 2013. The title comes from a work entitled Concerto in Pieces by Danish composer, Poul Ruders (b. 1949). The work was commissioned by the BBC for the 300th year of the death of English composer Henry Purcell, and the 50th anniversary of Benjamin Britten’s Young Persons’ Guide to the Orchestra. The choreographer of this ballet is Val Caniparoli who, in an interview that is still available on the Colorado Ballet’s website, states that he specifically wanted the dancers in the Colorado Ballet to give the world premiere of this work. That should say something about the skill and artistic ability of these dancers, as well as the entire organization. Caniparoli, in the interview, states that he was very excited by the ability of these dancers, as well as having a live ballet orchestra at his disposal. He admired the versatility of these dancers because they are always “willing to try something new and they love challenges.” He also had a great affection for the orchestra’s ability.
From the outset, it was very clear that this is an incredibly difficult ballet. The rhythm is very complicated, and quite often the tempos, at least to me, seemed to be extreme. Asuka Sasaki, Domenico Luciano, Chandra Kuykendall, Jesse Marks, Sharon Wehner, and Christopher Moulton, were the soloists in this ballet, and I was left speechless (again) by their remarkable ability. The music itself has many instances wherein I was reminded of John Cage. There was what I can only describe as thorough use of percussion instruments in this ballet, which is one of the reasons I was drawn to the comparison with Cage. Douglas Walter, Scott Higgins, Mark Foster, Paul Milliken, and Carl Dixon are the percussionists in the Colorado Ballet Orchestra, and they are excellent. In addition, there was a marvelous tuba solo, and Michael Allen came wonderfully close to making the tuba sound like a cello.
The music and the choreography in this work were incredibly dramatic. The movements and steps that the dancers were required to make were quite new to me, and I am quite sure that Caniparoli invented them out of necessity in order to fulfill his spectacular concept of the music. And, there again, I have mentioned a choreographers concept of movement that the music requires. Many audience members who are not totally familiar with ballet and all of its artistic intricacies are under the impression that a choreographer somehow separates movement from the music, and only picks the music once he or she has the choreography in mind. I hasten to point out that in the mind of a choreographer, the movement and the music cannot be separated: they are conceived simultaneously. I encourage all of you to go to the Colorado Ballet website and listen to the interview with Caniparoli. It will shed much light on the process of such a complicated procedure. It also shows how much respect Val Caniparoli has for the Colorado Ballet.
Following In Pieces, the Colorado Ballet performed Fancy Free, choreographed by Jerome Robbins to the music of Leonard Bernstein. The set design for this work was absolutely terrific. One could easily tell that it was in the heart of New York City, for that is where this short ballet takes place: on a hot summer evening in 1944, with three sailors looking for relief from their military duty. As a matter of fact, this work was premiered on April 18, 1944. It concerns three sailors who find themselves in a pickle because they meet only two girls. There is a marvelous pas de deux which was danced by Dana Benton and Francisco Estevez. But when I mention them, you must realize that Kevin Gaël Thomas, Jesse Marks, and Shelby Dyer were excellent as well. It is that fact that sets this ballet company so far above many others that I have seen. I have stated many times, and it is my sincere belief, that every member of this ballet company is a truly fine artist. In the plot of this ballet. Each of the sailors performs a solo dance to attract one of the two girls they have met. The girls can’t decide who they wish to pair up with, so the three sailors promptly engage in a fight. While they are fighting the two girls disappear. The three sailors eventually noticed this, renew their friendship with another drink, and leave the bar for the sidewalk. There, they promptly meet another beautiful girl, danced by Tracy Jones, and they follow her with great enthusiasm.
Estevez, Thomas, Marks, Dyer, and Benton, are not only truly fine ballet artists, they are skilled actors as well, and they injected this ballet with humor as well as a certain amount of pathos. That fact always seems to surprise many individuals who are not familiar with ballet, as they seem to be unaware that a ballet can express so many different emotions.
This ballet company approaches every single production as if it were a theatrical play set to music with incredibly thought out and descriptive movement. Gil Boggs, Adam Flatt, Catherine Sailer, along with Sandra Brown and Lorita Travaglia, have changed this Colorado Ballet into a remarkable artistic organization by demonstrating to the dancers and the musicians that artistry and dedication are rewarded. It is clear that all of the dancers are artists just as all of the orchestra member are artists, and they have the support of the leadership and the Board.
There was a standing ovation Friday night by an audience that was too small. Certainly, many people stayed home in fear of the weather, but those who stayed home are the ones who lost the advantage of seeing three honest Masterworks of Ballet.
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: Antonio Vivladi, Cynthia Katsarelis, Daniel Cox, Daniel Kellogg, Philip Glass, Pro Musica Colorado Chamber Orchestra, Ralph Vaughn Williams, Walt Whitman, Willi Apel, Yumi Hwang-Williams
I always admonish you readers to attend as many concerts as you possibly can. One of the reasons is that there are many remarkably fine ensembles here in the state of Colorado, and their excellence often takes new concertgoers by surprise. And sometimes, it takes veteran concertgoers such as myself completely by surprise even though I know the ensemble which is performing has an outstanding reputation.
I had the great privilege Friday evening, February 6, to hear a truly outstanding concert, and even the word outstanding does not describe the excellence of the performance. Without exaggeration, it was truly world-class.
The performance that I’m referring to was the concert at St. John’s Episcopal Cathedral given by the Colorado Pro Musica Chamber Orchestra under the direction of Maestra Cynthia Katsarelis. The guest artist at the concert was Yumi Hwang-Williams, violin, and the guest composer was Daniel Cox.
The performance opened with a World Premiere of a work by Daniel Cox entitled … I give you my sprig of lilac. Composer, Saxophonist, and Pianist from Kansas City, Missouri. BA in Music and BA in Psychology from University of Missouri-Columbia, 2012. Currently working on MM in Music Composition at the University of Colorado-Boulder, where he studies with Daniel Kellogg. Daniel Cox also won the University of Colorado Boulder composition competition.
This work was commissioned for the Pro Musica Colorado Chamber Orchestra’s 2014-2015 concert season, and it is a response to Walt Whitman’s poem, When Lilacs Last In The Dooryard Bloom’d. As the program notes written by Daniel Cox state: “This piece is my musical response to Walt Whitman’s famous poem, When Lilacs Last In The Dooryard Bloom’d, written in 1865 in response to the death of Abraham Lincoln. Whitman’s poem uses natural and idyllic imagery to ruminate on the nature of life and death. The result is one of coexisting sadness and beauty and the fleeting world that surrounds us. My goal with this piece was to process how Whitman’s poem made me feel while reading it and translate those emotions through music.”
Daniel Cox certainly realized his goal in this piece. This was an absolutely gorgeous piece of music that had sustained tone clusters that moved very slowly creating not only tension and release, but creating a vivid impression that these tone clusters had a chordal function. That is rare, because you must realize that tone clusters contain no obvious leading tone. In addition, there was some discernible counterpoint that appeared in the last half of the piece that was in three voices: viola, cello, and violin. The orchestration of this piece – and it was for just a string orchestra – was remarkably skillful, and the entire work was so artistic that it seemed to have come from the pen and mind of someone much older. This was a piece that could be listened to again and again. It is my sincere hope that Maestra Katsarelis and the Pro Musica Chamber Orchestra perform this again and soon. I promise you that you will hear a great deal about, and from, Daniel Cox.
I might add that the sensitivity with which this chamber orchestra played Cox’s composition left me with the impression that they were thoroughly enamored with it. There were also some new faces in the orchestra, and there is no question that Maestra Katsarelis is very demanding at the auditions. This has always been a very good chamber orchestra, but I have never heard them play as beautifully as they did Friday evening.
Following the splendid work by Daniel Cox, the Pro Musica Colorado Chamber Orchestra performed the Fantasia On a Theme by Thomas Tallis, which was written by Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958). Ralph Vaughn Williams, as I am sure most of you readers are aware, is one of the outstanding English composers of the 20th century. Thomas Tallis (1505-1585) was another major English composer, and one will find his name in almost every collection of English music from the 1500s. As a matter of fact, one of my professors in undergraduate school, Willi Apel, told me that Tallis was so well thought of that Queen Elizabeth allowed him to use the paper to compose on (because of its fine quality) which hitherto had been used exclusively for printing.
In 1567, Tallis contributed nine vernacular psalm settings for a Salter being compiled by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Matthew Parker. These nine songs became quite obscure after Tallis died, and as Maestra Katsarelis pointed out in the pre-concert lecture (which all of you should attend), Vaughan Williams was familiar with these through his second calling which was musicology. The name of the Tallis tune that Vaughan Williams chose was Why Fum’th in Fight. Katsarelis also pointed out that this original tune was written in the Phrygian mode. Modes are different from scales in that there is no leading tone as there are in major and minor scales. It was in 1558 that Italian theorist, Gioseffo Zarlino, codified major and minor in a four volume treatise translated as the Institution of Harmony. The primary use of modes was to describe the ambitus of the melodies and Gregorian chant or pre-major and minor melodic lines.
Maestra Katsarelis divided the chamber orchestra into two sections, one of which remained in the Crossing of St. John’s, while the other was placed in the Ambulatory, which is the area closest to the alter. I point out that the orchestra members situated in the Ambulatory faced the congregation so that their sound was projected outward, and thus, not allowed to bounce off the walls of the Ambulatory. Katsarelis did this because Vaughan Williams wanted to take advantage of the antiphonal effect of Tallis’s score. I point out that this effect is felt in the opening bars before Tallis’ melody is heard in the low pizzicato strings. As one may take for granted, the two orchestras are treated separately, and there are some remarkable melodic lines for solo violin and viola. Towards the end of the work, the solo violin brings the music to a close, but it is a close in which these fine musicians seemed to evoke an extraordinary eternal rest. It was an absolutely wonderful performance, and there is no question that this piece by Vaughan Williams be placed in the same stratosphere as the Dvořák Serenade for Strings and the Serenade for Strings by Josef Suk. This was a wonderful performance, and it was profoundly moving. It pointed out that every musician in this orchestra is truly exceptional.
Following the intermission, Yumi Hwang-Williams joined the Pro Musica Colorado Chamber Orchestra and performed one of the finest violin concertos of the 20th century, the Violin Concerto Nr. 2, “The American Four Seasons” by Philip Glass (b. 1937). Before I introduce this concerto, I will tell you readers a little about Yumi Hwang-Williams.
I know that all of you recognize the name, for she is the concertmaster of the Colorado Symphony Orchestra. She made her concert debut as a soloist with the Philadelphia Orchestra when she was 21 years old. She has soloed with the Cincinnati Symphony, the Indianapolis Symphony, and the Santa Rosa Symphony. She has played, toured, and recorded extensively with the Philadelphia Orchestra, and she continues to be invited there as a guest first violinist. Her accolades and experience are so extensive that they simply cannot be mentioned here, but she is one of the finest violinists in the United States if not the world. She has had experience performing the works of Philip Glass (she is a champion of avant-garde music), and recently performed Glass’ Double Concerto for violin and cello with Wendy Sutter and the Colorado Symphony Orchestra.
This concerto was commissioned by violinist Robert McDuffie, and it has a subtitle of “the American Four Seasons.” Glass gave it this subtitle because it is his homage to Antonio Vivaldi’s set of four concertos which he entitled The Four Seasons, or Le quattro stagioni. As Maestra Katsarelis said in her pre-concert lecture, Vivaldi named each of his concertos with the name of a season, i.e., Fall, Winter, Spring, and Summer. Philip Glass does not do that because he, rather coyly, left that up to the audience to decide which season he was musically describing.
I had the great good fortune to be sitting rather close to the Crossing in St. John’s Cathedral. This had the advantage of a very clear view of how hard Yumi Hwang-Williams works when she plays. She has absolutely colossal technique, and it is to her advantage that she does not use this to impress the audience or to take extreme tempos. She is such a profound musician that impressing the audience, unlike some violinists which I shall not name, is far from her mind.
In this work, Philip Glass begins with a solo section (without orchestra) which he calls a Prologue. That is followed by Movement I. Following that Movement there is another solo section which Glass has called Song Nr. 1. This format is followed until Movement IV which ends the piece without a closing Song Section.
Hwang-Williams playing in the opening Prologue was wonderfully sensitive, and it was emphasized by such an amazing confidence and conviction that the audience was profoundly moved. I was happy to see that the program notes included the make of violin that Ms. Hwang-Williams owns. It was made in 1752 by Carlo Landolfi in Milan, Italy. The sound of her violin is remarkable but no less so than her ability to obtain amazing volume and tone from it. This was one of the few violin performances I have attended in recent years where the instrument and the performer truly seemed to be one unit.
Throughout the entire work, but particularly in the sections that Glass has named as “Movements,” there is a remarkable rhythmic drive and urgency from the orchestra. Yumi Hwang Williams echoed this character very easily so that one literally was sitting on the edge of his seat because of the irrevocable drive. Movement II was an exception to this drive, for it was sweet and lyrical, and even mysterious. Yumi Hwang-Williams’ playing is full of passion without being cloying and overdone, and her tone and phrasing is solid and very convincing. I truly wish that Philip Glass had heard this performance of his composition. Not only was this remarkable soloist exceptional in every way, but so was the Pro Musica Colorado Chamber Orchestra. I truly believe that it was one of the best performances they have ever given. I dare say that after the Glass, the orchestra looked totally exhausted but also triumphant as well they should.
This entire performance Friday evening seemed to be so full of mutual respect amongst the musicians in the orchestra, and certainly between the composer and orchestra, as well as the violinist. This was a performance clearly given by people who truly love good music, and the audience responded accordingly with a standing ovation. Yes, it was for Yumi Hwang-Williams, but I can promise you it was also for Daniel Cox, Maestro Cynthia Katsarelis, and the remarkable musicians that are in the Pro Musica Colorado Chamber Orchestra.
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: Abdrew Sords, Anton Arensky, Antonin Dvořák, Bahman Saless, Boulder Chamber Orchestra, Johannes Brahms
It was my great pleasure Saturday evening, January 31, to attend the Boulder Chamber Orchestra’s performance at the Broomfield Auditorium. The concert included a young man named Andrew Sords who is a marvelous violinist, and who is well on his way to becoming a true virtuoso.
Under the direction of Maestro Bahman Saless, the Boulder Chamber Orchestra opened the concert with the Dvořák Romance in F minor for Violin and Orchestra, Opus 11. I have often said that Dvořák needs to be played more often, and this is certainly a piece that fits in that category. Happily, this was just the first rarely heard piece on the program.But first, a brief introduction to Andrew Sords from his website:
“American violinist ANDREW SORDS has received continuous critical acclaim for his performances combining ravishing tone and dazzling virtuosity. Hailed in the press as ‘a fully formed artist’ (Kalisz-Poland News), ‘utterly radiant’ (Canada’s Arts Forum), and ‘exceptionally heartfelt and soulful’ (St. Maarten’s Daily Herald), Sords has appeared as soloist with nearly 150 orchestras across 4 continents. Continually diversifying his repertoire and appearances, Sords is respected as a charismatic performer, clinician, and recording artist.
“Born in Newark, Delaware, Sords began piano lessons at the age of five, followed shortly by violin studies. He studied at The Cleveland Institute of Music and Southern Methodist University, and counts Linda Cerone, David Russell, and Chee-Yun among his teachers. Additional summer studies were undertaken at Interlochen’s Center for the Arts and the Encore School for Strings.”
The F minor Romance by Dvořák (1841-1904) comes very close to being a tone poem for violin and orchestra, and it has an unmistakable aura that reminds one of the rolling hills and woods in the Bohemian countryside south of Prague. This piece, finished in 1877, is really a reworking of the second movement of his String Quartet in F minor which was written in 1873. Sords’ performance of this piece was lyrical and warm and it seemed the perfect piece to play on his 96 year old Belgian violin by Augustine Talisse, which has a wonderful rich sound. His playing style is quite relaxed, and it is thankfully devoid of extracurricular movement such as sweeping his bow off the strings at the end of a phrase. He knows the music, and he simply gets down to business and performs it. This Dvořák is a beautiful piece, and Sords filled it with warmth and emotion. I might add that the BCO seemed to thoroughly enjoy performing with Sords, and I am sure that one of the reasons is because he is such a reliable musician. Sords was clearly at ease in performing with the BCO, and the interaction between the two was marvelous.
Following the Dvořák, Maestro Saless and Andrew Sords performed another work, the Violin Concerto in A minor, Opus 54, by the rarely heard composer, Anton Arensky (1861-1906). Arensky was a Russian composer who studied with Rimsky-Korsakov at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. Arensky’s mother was a fine pianist who supervised his early training, and, though his father was a physician, he was also an excellent cello player. Arensky seems to have been quite fortunate to have two good musicians to influence his musical training. In 1882, at the startlingly young age of 21, Arensky became professor of music at the Moscow Conservatory, and it was here that he gained fame by teaching Scriabin, Rachmaninoff, and Grechaninov.
His compositional style closely follows that of Tchaikovsky: it is lyrical and warm rather than dramatic. This concerto has attracted much attention recently, as well as his three suites for two pianos.
Arensky’s violin concerto was strongly influenced by Tchaikovsky, and that fact was noted by his teacher Rimsky-Korsakov who seemed a little miffed when, as the program notes pointed out, he stated that Arensky would “… soon be forgotten.”
Sords performance of this piece was absolutely superb. Not only does it reflect Tchaikovsky’s lyricism, but it also contains elements of Mendelssohn because of it’s a delicacy, particularly in the orchestration. It is cast in one movement, and, as the program notes pointed out, there is returning material at the end of the work which unifies the whole. For me, the most sensational aspect of this concerto has been its waltz, which comprises the third movement. As Maestro Saless pointed out, the waltz sounds very much like it could come from a Tchaikovsky ballet, and that is indeed quite a compliment. Be aware that Tchaikovsky wrote some of the greatest ballet music that has ever been written.
Andrew Sords’ lyrical way of playing was a perfect companion to the Arensky Concerto in A minor. I might add that his violin seemed incredibly well-suited to this piece. It had a very warm tone, and its mellowness seemed to soften the beginnings of phrases, giving them an almost dreamlike quality. There is no doubt that this is a virtuoso piece, but Sords’ remarkably flexible bow arm, and his relaxed left-hand not only made this piece wonderfully musical, but created the impression that he was having no difficulty whatsoever.
Following the intermission, Maestro Bahman Saless chose another work by Anton Arensky, the Variations on a Theme by Tchaikovsky, Opus 35a. This work is an homage to Tchaikovsky who died in 1893. He used a song by Tchaikovsky entitled “When Jesus Christ Was Yet a Child,” from Tchaikovsky’s Songs for Children. This work is a set of variations on Tchaikovsky’s theme, and it is a very touching tribute to the composer to whom Arensky admired so much. It is certainly more profound than his violin concerto, and yet one can easily identify this work as one by Arensky, because of its lyricism and its lack of typical Russian drama. In fact, that is a hallmark of all of Arensky’s compositions.
Throughout this concert Saturday evening, the Boulder Chamber Orchestra sounded absolutely superb, and though I continually searched for one section of the orchestra that was better than all the rest, it was almost impossible because this chamber orchestra is so well-balanced. But it was in this Arensky composition that the violas really stood out. They were excellent; they’re playing was precise, and very emotional.
The final work on the program was the well-known Brahms Variations on a Theme by Haydn, Opus 56a. Note that there are two versions of this composition: one with the opus number Opus 56a which is for orchestra, and the other with the opus number 56b, which is for two pianos. Even though the version for two pianos was written first, it carries the opus number 56b. The original work for two pianos was first performed by Brahms and Clara Schuman in the summer of 1873. The orchestral version is also from 1873, but there is no doubt that the orchestral version was composed after the version for two pianos. There are some individuals who insist that the arrangement for two pianos is inferior to the orchestral version. However, I assure you readers that both versions display Brahms compositional stature to the fullest. It is true that the orchestral version is better known, but it is my belief that is only because duo-piano artists are not as common as an orchestra. This work has eight variations, and as Maestro Saless pointed out, each variation is almost an exercise completed by Brahms as a self-assignment to determine his ability at orchestration. Clearly, it was a success, and it has become one of the most popular concert pieces by Brahms, and very deservedly so.
The performance that the Boulder Chamber Orchestra gave this piece highlighted the skill of everyone in the orchestra. The woodwind section, the horns, and the basses were absolutely superb; however, please realize that when I make that statement I am not diminishing the strings. They were excellent as well, but again, this orchestra is so very well-balanced, because Maestro Saless has the ability to pick outstanding musicians. The entire orchestra brought out the remarkable color of Brahms’ orchestration, and each section of the orchestra was absolutely breathtaking in Variation 7 which is a marvelous and lilting siciliana with it 6/8 meter and graceful melodic line.
As Maestro Saless pointed out to the audience, the last variation uses a five measure ground bass which is repeated in the manner of a Baroque passacaglia. Around these repeating five measures, Brahms fashioned a rather remarkable development of the theme that becomes increasingly grand as it progresses. The BCO filled this magnificent final variation with remarkable majesty. It was an absolutely breathtaking performance.
As I stated above, this performance was at the Broomfield Auditorium. I know that the evening before this concert was presented at the First United Methodist Church in Boulder. I did not hear that performance; therefore, I cannot say how many were in attendance. The Broomfield Auditorium should have been packed. The Boulder Chamber Orchestra is one of the outstanding organizations in the state, and their performances are superior. It is a wonderful thing to see the interchange between the orchestra members and their conductor, Bahman Saless. More than once, as he did Saturday evening, I have seen him simply stop conducting and let the orchestra, themselves, take the lead. I point out, again, that the musicians in this orchestra are so superior that their ability instills great confidence in Maestro Saless. This is not “showmanship” on Saless’ part, but it is a demonstration of his ability to enjoy the music as he is in front of the orchestra, and it certainly shows to the audience the mutual confidence that he and the orchestra share. There is also considerable mutual joy.