Filed under: Reviews | Tags: Adam Ewing, Amanda Balestrieri, Becca Tice, Evanne Browne, Heinrich Schütz, Johann Hermann Schein, Marjorie Bunday, Mary Springfels, Michael Lui, René Schiffer, Samuel Scheidt, Sandra Miller, Steven Soph, Tina Chancey, Yayoi Barrack
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.
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: Bernatrd Uzan, Dana Beth Miller, Donald Edmund Thomas, Giuseppe Verdi, Gordon Hawkins, John Baril, Leonardo Vordoni, Michael Deegan, Rachele Gilmore, Rene Barbera, Rigoletto, Sarah J. Conly, Stefan Szkafarowsky
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.
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: Andrew Litton, Brook Ferguson, Chad Cognata, Colorado Symphony Orchestra, Courtney Hershey Bress, Edward Elgar, Janos Starker, Jason Shafer, Paul Watkins, Peter Cooper, Prokofiev, Tchaikovsky, Yumi Hwang-Williams
Friday evening, March 14, the Colorado Symphony Orchestra presented an absolutely stellar concert comprised of a Suite from Tchaikovsky’s ballet, The Sleeping Beauty, Op. 66, the magnificent Cello Concerto in E minor, Op. 85, by Sir Edward Elgar, performed by Paul Watkins, and finishing with Prokofiev’s Symphony Nr. 4 in C Major, Op. 112. All three of these works were performed brilliantly which clearly demonstrated, once again, the Colorado Symphony Orchestra is one of the best in the country.
Recently, I had occasion to write about Tchaikovsky’s ballet, The Sleeping Beauty, and there are several interesting facts about it. I will briefly quote from my previous article:
“Most scholars and musicologists regard Sleeping Beauty as the most perfectly crafted of Tchaikovsky’s (1840-1893) three ballet scores. Yet, when he was approached to write an overture, he could not decide what pieces to include, and, in addition, he could not decide whether to write two suites or one suite. He even consulted his friend, pianist and arranger, Alexander Siloti, to set the score of his Sleeping Beauty for piano duet, which he decided not to do. However, Siloti did give the score to his cousin, Sergei Rachmaninoff (who was seventeen years old at the time) thinking that Rachmaninoff was the better pianist. Eventually, Siloti himself did arrange the entire score for piano solo. Nonetheless, no orchestral version of a suite was put together until several years after Tchaikovsky’s death. In 1899, his publisher and friend, Pyotr Jurgenson assembled the orchestral suite. It included: Introduction: Of the Lilac Fairy; Pas d’action. Adagio; Pas de caractère: Puss in Boots; Panorama; and Valse.”
The reason that I quote from my previous article is that Tchaikovsky himself had difficulty choosing what parts of the ballet to include in a suite for concert purposes. Maestro Andrew Litton solved that problem rather neatly by making his own selections from the ballet to include in a suite. I also point out that Maestro Litton did not arrange them in order of Acts or Scenes, but rather, according to the program notes, arranged them in an order which would create more of a “symphonic” aura, and to point out that the music is quite capable of standing on its own without dancers. There are some purists who might consider Maestro Litton to be tampering with Tchaikovsky’s work by arranging his own suite from the ballet. However, since a suite from the ballet was certainly not compiled by its composer, it is by no means unusual for a musician of Maestro Litton’s ability and musicianship to compile a suite from Tchaikovsky’s ballet. His selections include: 1. Scene from Act II; 2. Panorama from Act II; 3. Waltz from Act I; 4. Pas d’action – Rose Adagio from Act I; 5. Dance of the Maids of Honor; 6. Variations on Aurora; 7. The Adagio from Act III; and 8. the Finale and Apotheosis from Act III. Eight sections in all. So Maestro Litton’s suite was considerably longer than the one created by Pyotr Jurgenson 115 years ago.
There is no question that Litton’s choices certainly provided each section of the orchestra to demonstrate its performance ability and musicality. In number four, Courtney Hershey Bress had a marvelous harp solo followed by some excellent work from Chad Cognata on the bassoon and the woodwinds as a section. In number six, Variations on Aurora, Concertmaster Yumi Hwang-Williams had a beautiful solo that was full of passion. In number seven, Peter Cooper, Principal Oboe, was truly exceptional. At this juncture I need to stress a point of view: the members of this orchestra are all exceptional musicians who have worked very hard and practiced very long hours to reach this point in their lives. The musicians I just named are exceptional in every way, but you must understand that everyone in the orchestra is truly superb. The CSO performed Maestro Litton’s Suite from The Sleeping Beauty with all the passion and lyricism that one would expect from Tchaikovsky’s remarkable ballet. The only criticism that I might have about this performance is that the dynamic level seemed to be at a fairly consistent fortissimo with only a few sojourns into the piano range.
At the conclusion of the Tchaikovsky, Maestro Andrew Litton addressed the audience and welcomed them to the concert. He also pointed out to them that the Colorado Symphony Orchestra is one of the “great unknown secrets” in the United States. I could not agree more. The audience was again sparse. There seem to be so many people in the city of Denver who think that to enjoy good music, one has to be trained in it. That is simply not so. There is much music being performed today (rock, hip-hop), that is a part of our culture but is not art. Serious music is art, and that is part of our culture as well, but in some instances, culture must be separated from art.
Following the Tchaikovsky, the CSO and a very remarkable cellist, Paul Watkins, performed the Elgar Cello Concerto. I will quote from the program notes:
“Acclaimed for his inspirational performances and eloquent musicianship, Paul Watkins enjoys a distinguished career both as concerto soloist and chamber musician. He performs regularly with all the major British orchestras and has performed with the Norwegian Radio Orchestra, Melbourne Symphony, Queensland Orchestra, Konzerthausorchester Berlin, and the RAI National Symphony Orchestra of Turin. A dedicated chamber musician, he has been a member of the Nash Ensemble since 1997 and he regularly performs with Menahem Pressler, Jaime Laredo, Lars Vogt, Christian Tetzlaff, and Vadim Repin. Future highlights include solo recitals at King’s Place, London, and the Wigmore Hall. He will become the cellist of the Emerson String Quartet beginning in the 2013-14 season. Recent releases on the Chandos Records label include Britten’s Cello Symphony, the Delius and Rosza cello concertos, Martinu’s music for cello and piano, and Mendelssohn’s cello sonatas. Future releases will include the Elgar and Lutoslawski concertos, and a series of British cello sonatas. Since winning the 2002 Leeds Conducting Competition he has conducted all the major British orchestras and in the 2009-10 season became the first ever music director of the English Chamber Orchestra and principal guest conductor of the Ulster Orchestra. He studied with William Pleeth, Melissa Phelps, and Johannes Goritzki, and at the age of 20 was appointed Principal Cellist of the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Mr. Watkins plays on a cello made by Domenico Montagnana and Matteo Goffriller in Venice, c.1730.”
The minute Mr. Watkins began to play I was absolutely stunned. He opened the Elgar with an incredibly passionate but very sharp attack on the opening theme and opening phrase. It was the exact opposite of what, for example, one would expect from Jacqueline du Pré who performed this work beautifully but without the passion exhibited by Paul Watkins. Watkins precise attacks reminded me very much of Janos Starker, whose playing I’m quite familiar with. Both Watkins and Starker gave this magnificent concerto a searing and introspective atmosphere which at once was passionate and searchingly intimate. His technique is absolutely ferocious, but he never loses sight of the intensity inherent in Elgar’s writing. The second movement was a mellow and lyrical, and the opening recitative from the first movement was easily recognizable. The third movement is without a doubt one of the most passionate pieces of music that Elgar ever wrote, and Watkins was absolutely relentless in its exposure, and it was almost a relief from the intensity, when the fourth movement began without pause. I saw the score to this concerto several years ago, but I seem to recall that the last movement is marked Noblimente, which is interrupted by an Allegro non troppo on the part of the entire orchestra. As the end comes near, Elgar writes an extended and very moving reminiscence of several themes from the previous movements. Watkin’s passion for this piece was certainly noticeable, and the sound of his magnificent cello seemed to fit his playing extraordinarily well. I would invite all of you readers to seek out recordings made by Paul Watkins. You will not believe your ears.
The final work on the program Friday evening was the huge Symphony Nr. 4 by Sergei Prokofiev. Prokofiev wrote this work in Paris and completed it in 1930. Sergei Koussevitzky premiered the work with the Boston Symphony on November 14 of that year, but expressed great annoyance with Prokofiev because this Symphony made use of some material from Prokofiev’s Prodigal Son (a ballet). Koussevitzky complained that he had just performed the Symphony Nr. 3 which contained music from the Fiery Angel (a Prokofiev opera) and he wanted a Symphony with all brand-new music. Prokofiev reminded Koussevitzky’s that a decent portion of the music he had written for the Prodigal Son had not appeared in the ballet, and that Beethoven had used some of the music from his ballet, Creatures of Prometheus, in his Symphony Nr. 3. At any rate, Prokofiev’s Symphony Nr. 4 received only moderate success in Boston, and likewise in Paris, when it was performed by Pierre Monteux. Prokofiev was disappointed because he had omitted much of his usual dissonance, extreme rhythms, and the sarcasm (Prokofiev’s sarcasm comes from his use of unexpected orchestration, changes of direction of melodic lines, and disjunct rhythms) that appeared in his second and third symphonies. This symphony was revised by Prokofiev in 1947, and at that time, he enlarged it.
The Colorado Symphony Orchestra performed magnificently in this Prokofiev Symphony. It was expansive and sweeping, and the opening movement had an undeniable forward momentum from the driving rhythm. Jason Shafer, Principal Clarinet who is with the orchestra on a one-year replacement, was sensational in this first movement as was Peter Cooper, Principal Oboe. In the second movement, Brook Ferguson, Principal Flute, was equally outstanding, and even though this movement is marked Andante tranquillo, the entire orchestra gave it the sensation of monstrous scope. Throughout this entire work, the CSO and Maestro Litton emphasized the rhythmic undercurrent (even though the rhythms were not extreme) beneath the rising melodic lines. This is a huge work that encompasses many “moods,” if you will. Maestro Litton occasionally used the baton, and occasionally used just his hands to help remind the CSO of the details which were on their path through this work. At the end of this symphony, I was left with the very clear and very substantial impression that the CSO truly enjoyed performing this huge symphony. I can assure you that the audience enjoyed it as well.
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: Aaron Copland, André de Ridder, Basil Vendryes, Beethoven, Benjamin Britten, Colorado Symphony Orchestra, Jonny Greenwood, William Wolfram
Friday evening, February 28, the Colorado Symphony Orchestra under the direction of André de Ridder, presented an extremely varied program comprised of a suite of six pieces entitled There Will Be Blood taken from the movie score of the same name. Also on the program was one of the great piano concertos of the twentieth century, the rarely performed Piano Concerto Nr. 1, Opus 13 (1945 Revision), and Beethoven’s immortal Symphony Nr. 1 in C Major, Opus 21.
As I watched and listened to the Colorado Symphony Orchestra Friday evening, my impression of André de Ridder’s musicianship and conducting was excellent, however, before I discuss the music, I will introduce you to André de Ridder:
André de Ridder is in his fifth seasons as Principal Conductor of the UK-based Sinfonia ViVA, and his programmes with the orchestra are typically rich in innovation. His passion for the development of contemporary music has contributed to his position as one of today’s most fascinating and versatile conductors.
He has become especially known for his bold programming and blurring of traditions: last season he appeared at the Kölner Philharmonie and London’s Barbican Centre with electronica
duo Mouse on Mars and Musikfabrik, following their initial collaboration on Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s MusicNOW series. His regular presence at the Barbican saw him perform at their
Steve Reich festival 2011 with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, with British band These New Puritans, and, most recently, premiering works by Nico Muhly, Missy Mazzoli and Owen Pallett with Britten Sinfonia.
De Ridder performs opera at venues including English National Opera, Teatro Real, Theater Basel, Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris and Salzburg Festival, conducting works by composers as
diverse as Henze, Janacek, Wolfgang Rihm and Mozart. This season, he undertakes an extensive project at Berlin’s Komische Oper, performing three Monteverdi operas reworked by
Elena Kats-Chernin. De Ridder conducted and orchestrated Damon Albarn’s music theatre pieces, Monkey: Journey to the West and Dr Dee: a recording of Dr Dee is released this season on EMI.
André de Ridder studied at the Music Academies of Vienna and London, under Leopold Hager and Sir Colin Davis. He was Young Conductor in Association with the Bournemouth Symphony
Orchestra and also held the position of Assistant Conductor at the Hallé Orchestra in 2005-2006.
Jonny Greenwood’s suite There Will Be Blood, as mentioned previously, is from the movie of the same name. The movie score was nominated for an Academy Award, but as the program notes stated it was withdrawn from recognition because it made use of works he had written for Radiohead as well as ideas from Krzysztof Penderecki and Johannes Brahms. Greenwood then decided to write an orchestral suite with the same title as the movie, and that was premiered by the Amsterdam Sinfonietta in 2012. As I listened to this work, I could not help but compare it to other movie scores that have become well known to concert audiences, for example, The Red Pony, by Aaron Copland. Greenwood’s suite is in a minimalist style, but it does not seem to have the same depth as other minimalist composers such as Arvo Pärt, John Tavener, or Phillip Glass. Indeed, there seemed to be something missing from the work as the orchestra proceeded through the composition, and I stress that the sense of loss was not caused by any lack of effort or musicianship in the orchestra. Nor did it seem to come from any inability on the part of Maestro de Ridder. It came from the music itself. While I am sure that this was an effective score as one watched the movie, it seemed easy to come to the conclusion while listening to the six parts of the suite, that this work would not stand on its own as does the aforementioned The Red Pony by Aaron Copland. To be sure, Greenwood employs some very interesting compositional techniques: the division into multiple sections of the strings which allows him to have very thick textures and wonderful sounding tone clusters. In the fifth movement of the suite, entitled Proven Lands, Greenwood asks the string players (all of them) to strum their instruments as if they were guitars. This produced a very interesting and redolent mood, and yet it somehow seemed incomplete. I am sure that if I had been watching the movie (which I have not seen) I would have been impressed with the score; however, as I stated above, I do not think that this piece of music can stand alone.
It was also easily noticeable that Maestro de Ridder used no baton as he conducted this work, but relied on hand movements alone. Every conductor has his style, and I am certainly not criticizing his decision to use his hands. However, the music just seemed to refuse his supreme effort in trying to pull any depth from it.
After the Greenwood work, William Wolfram joined the orchestra to perform Benjamin Britten’s only piano concerto.
I will quote from Wolfram’s website:
“American pianist William Wolfram was a silver medalist at both the William Kapell and the Naumburg International Piano Competitions, a bronze medalist at the prestigious Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow and finalist in the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition.
“Wolfram has appeared with many of the greatest orchestras of the world and has developed a special reputation as the rare concerto soloist who is also equally versatile and adept as a recitalist, accompanist and chamber musician.
“His concerto debut with the Pittsburgh Symphony under the baton of Leonard Slatkin was the first in a long succession of appearances and career relationships with numerous American conductors and orchestras. He has also appeared with the San Francisco, Saint Louis, Indianapolis, Seattle and New Jersey symphonies, the Buffalo Philharmonic, the National Symphony Orchestra (Washington D.C.), the Baltimore Symphony, the Colorado Symphony, the Rochester Philharmonic, the Nashville Symphony, the Oregon Symphony, the Utah Symphony, the Edmonton Symphony, the Columbus Symphony, the Florida Orchestra, and the Grand Teton and San Luis Obispo Mozart festival orchestras, among many others. He enjoys regular and ongoing close associations with the Dallas Symphony, the Milwaukee Symphony, the San Diego Symphony and the Minnesota Orchestra in the United States.
“Internationally recognized conductors with whom he has worked include Andrew Litton, Jerzy Semkow, Mark Wigglesworth, Jeffrey Tate, Vladimir Spivakov, Gerard Schwarz, Carlos Miguel Prieto, Jeffrey Kahane, James Judd, Roberto Minczuk, Stefan Sanderling, JoAnn Falletta, James Paul, and Carlos Kalmar.
“A graduate of The Juilliard School, William Wolfram resides in New York City with his wife and two daughters.”
I strongly suspect that one of the reasons the Britten piano Concerto is not performed often is because of its difficulty. I spoke very briefly with William Wolfram about the concerto after his performance, and he corroborated the fact that in many ways it is one of the most difficult piano concertos. As the program notes state, Britten revised the concerto in 1945 by replacing the third movement which had originally been labeled Recitative and Aria with one entitled Impromptu. The opening movement is an incredibly demanding Toccata, which is not only the movements name, but also its style even though it is in a Sonata allegro form. Toccatas often employ a perpetual motion environment which gives the performer a chance to display his technical ability. There is no question that this is a bravura piece of music, and William Wolfram played it beautifully, clearly defining the two subjects: octaves over animated chords in the winds, and the second, a more lyrical theme from the strings. The second movement has a wonderful viola solo which allowed Basil Vendryes to remind us what an exceptional musician he is. The second movement is entitled Waltz, and it is interesting to note that in the Classical period of music, a minuet was often used for a slow movement. Realize that a minuet has a triple meter just as does a waltz, but it is apparent that Britten wanted something a little less staid than the traditional minuet. Like a minuet, the Waltz also has a contrasting trio section. The third movement, labeled Impromptu, has themes that come from music that Britten composed for a radio play about King Arthur in 1937, and, in the concerto, is the basis for a set of variations. The last movement, entitled March, is full of deceptive twists and turns in the melodic line as well as harmonic relationships. The result is that it sounds very much like something Prokofiev might have written, and yet, it is still clearly Benjamin Britten.
The difficulty of this work was absolutely astounding. William Wolfram’s performance of it was astounding as well. He is a fine pianist who deserves to be heard far more often than he is. He is a formidable technician whose ability allows him to use the full range of his musicianship and displaying what the composer asked for. In hearing him play, one is never conscious of an ostentatious rush for glory: the music always comes first, and what wonderful music it is. The only time I have heard this concerto played live prior to William Wolfram and the CSO performance, was in 1953 when I heard it performed by the Indianapolis Symphony. Unfortunately, I do not remember who the soloist was, and when I mentioned the performance to William Wolfram Friday evening, I said I thought perhaps it had been John Browning. Wolfram stated that he didn’t think Browning had ever performed the piece, but said that he thought it might have been Sviatislav Richter. The one thing I clearly remember about that performance in 1953, was that the audience gave the pianist a very long standing ovation. That is precisely what William Wolfram received, and deserved, Friday evening. His performance was breathtaking.
After the intermission, the Colorado Symphony Orchestra and Maestro de Ridder performed Beethoven’s Symphony Nr. 1 in C Major, Op. 21. This work needs no introduction. It is simply, and deservedly, one of the great works of symphonic literature. I suspect that the members of the Colorado Symphony Orchestra have played this work dozens of times, but Friday evening they approached it as if it was a brand-new work. This performance was so evenly excellent across the entire orchestra, that it is impossible to point to one particular section that could be called exceptional. It was one of the finest performances of this symphony that I have heard the CSO give. I might also add that, in the Beethoven and in the Britten, Maestro de Ridder’s conducting seemed to me to be much more confident. He used a baton for the Britten and the Beethoven, and seemed to be at greater ease than he was in the Greenwood work. The orchestra received a standing ovation for the Beethoven. It was an exciting performance full of wonderful dynamic contrast, phrases and entrances that were perfect and remarkable musicianship. The tempos were perfect, as well.
I wish there had been more people in the audience. This concert was an excellent and spectacular way to spend a Friday evening, but the audience was truly sparse. I sat there thinking that one of the local television stations has a Friday feature which they call “9 Things to do This Weekend.” I don’t recall ever seeing the Colorado Symphony listed as one of those nine things. Perhaps this television station might expand their concept of culture enough to include one of the best orchestras in the United States and one of the best guest artists. Is that a challenge? You bet it is.
This program will be repeated tonight, March 1st, and tomorrow, March 2nd. Go hear it.
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: Adam Ewing, Alessandro Marcello, Amanad Balestrieri, Anna Marsh, Boulder Bach Festival, Daniel Hutchings, J. S. Bach, Kristin Olson, Marjorie Bunday, St. John's Episcopal Church, Zachary Carrettin
Friday evening, February 21, the Boulder Bach Festival traveled to St. John’s Episcopal Cathedral, where they presented an outstanding concert of Bach (1685-1750), and the remarkable Venetian composer, Alessandro Marcello (1673-1747). It is not often that we get to hear three Bach cantatas on one program, so those in the audience received quite a treat.
For those of you who are not quite sure what a cantata is, it is a vocal and instrumental form that is particular to the Baroque period. It can contain several movements (and usually does) such as arias, recitatives, duets, and choruses which are based on religious texts. However, there are also secular cantatas, which were more popular in Italy. Bach’s cantatas were mostly of the sacred variety, cantata da chiesa, but he also composed secular cantatas known as cantata da camera. The cantatas performed at Friday’s concert were all church cantatas, or cantata da chiesa.
For those of you to whom Zachary Carrettin is new, I will include an abbreviated biographical quote from his website. He is the new Music Director of the Boulder Bach Festival.
“Zachary Carrettin is a gifted and impassioned musician whose accomplishments as a music director, conductor, violin soloist, and educator have earned him international recognition well beyond his years. He currently balances symphonic and choral conducting, teaching, and performing while serving as director of orchestras at Sam Houston State University, and music director of the Boulder Bach Festival.
“Carrettin made his conducting debut with the Royal Philharmonic of Kishinev, Moldavia, and soon thereafter conducted the Symphony Orchestra of the Theatre Vorpommern in Germany and the Bohuslav Martinu Philharmonic in the Czech Republic. He has conducted numerous soloists in projects ranging from baroque and classical-period instruments to contemporary instruments and repertory.
“Zachary Carrettin holds bachelor and master of music degrees in violin performance from Rice University Shepherd School of Music, and a master of music degree in conducting from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He studied orchestral, choral, opera, and wind ensemble conducting in Bucharest, Romania, and pursued studies in the doctor of musical arts program at Rice University. For more information, visit http://www.zacharycarrettin.com.”
At the beginning of the program Friday evening, there was the usual tuning amongst the instrumental ensemble. There is nothing at all unusual about that. As the starting time of 7:30 PM arrived, Maestro Carrettin calmly walked “on stage” and began to tune his violin. He is an absolutely remarkable violinist, so I made the assumption that he was going to perform in the Marcello Concerto for Oboe. However, he soon began to play a solo work by J. S. Bach, which I think was a toccata for violin. It was not mentioned in the program, nor was it announced by anyone. It was quite a short piece, but it was absolutely beautifully done. The casual demeanor of Maestro Carrettin and the fact that there were a few other instrumentalists on stage, seemed to take the audience by surprise.
Following the short work, Zachary Carrettin certainly did join the Boulder Bach Players to perform Alessandro Marcello’s beautiful Concerto for Oboe in D minor. The oboe soloist was Kristin Olson.
Quoting from Ms. Olson’s bio statement:
“Kristin Olson performs regularly on both modern and historical instruments. As an early music specialist, she has played with such notable conductors as William Christie, Richard Egarr, Philipe Herreweghe, and Jordi Savall. Kristin’s interest in early music began during her undergraduate studies, but first she pursued a modern orchestra career, playing in Mexico with La Orquesta Sinfonica Sinaloa de las Artes for several seasons. She eventually attended the Juilliard School, graduating from their new Historical Performance program on baroque oboe. Kristin is now co-artistic director for several ensembles, including SacroProfano on the west coast, and Grand Harmonie on the east coast. As an entrepreneur, she has been featured on PBS and in Symphony Magazine for success with her reed-making business, Reed Lizard. Her business caters to all oboe and bassoon players, but stands out as one of the only places in the country to purchase historical oboe and bassoon reeds. Kristin holds degrees from the California Institute of the Arts, the University of Southern California, and the Juilliard School. Sometimes she is also seen performing on baritone saxophone. For more information, visit http://www.reedlizard.com or http://www.kristinoboe.com.”
Alessandro Marcello was not only a composer but was an accomplished painter, inventor, bibliophile, instrument collector, and violinist. Because he was a nobleman, he was also expected to serve in various government posts, and was on the Criminal Council of 40 in Venice. Because of his governmental positions, he did not publish a great deal of music; however, there is no question that he was a very serious musician of considerable capability. The Concerto for Oboe in D minor is without a doubt his most famous composition. It is in three movements, with the first and third quite lyrical, and, I might add, very different from his Venetian contemporary, Antonio Vivaldi. It is the second movement of this concerto that continues to capture the most attention. It is an introspective and deeply felt Adagio which exhibits true pathos. Bach certainly knew this piece, for he transcribed it for solo harpsichord.
Ms. Olson’s performance of this piece was absolutely beautiful. She has amazing breath control, and her ability on the Baroque oboe was something to behold. Her tone was lush and warm, and in the second movement, her ornamentation, which was historically correct, served to increase the movement’s remarkable sense of loss and despair. This was only the second time I have heard this concerto performed live, the first being in undergraduate school when it was performed by Professor Jerry Sirucek. This was an exquisite performance by everyone on stage.
Following Kristin Olson’s performance, the Boulder Bach Festival performed J.S. Bach’s Cantata Der Herr denkt an uns (The Lord thinks on us…), BWV 196. You readers must remember that BWV is the abbreviation for Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis, the thematic catalogue of Bach’s works organized by Wolfgang Schmieder (1909-1990). The soloists in this cantata were soprano Amanda Balestrieri, Daniel Hutchings, tenor, and Adam Ewing, bass. This was very well done. As the excellent program notes point out, there is no mistaking this work for a late work of Bach’s, because the counterpoint and melodic imitation reminds one of Dietrich Buxtehude (1637-1707). The blend of the choir was absolutely marvelous, though, from time to time, their diction was not always clear. Amanda Balestrieri has an absolutely wonderful soprano voice and gave a pronounced air of cheerfulness in this cantata. However, like the choir, from time to time her diction was not as excellent as it has been in the past. Daniel Hutchings and Adam Ewing were beyond compare. Their vocal production allows them the ability to have excellent diction, and they are also possessed of an infinite variety of emotions.
Following this cantata, the Boulder Bach Chorus performed a motet by Bach, his well-known Komm, Jesu, komm, (Come, Jesus, come, my body is weary…). The motet was originally one of the most important forms of polyphonic music, but by Bach’s time, its a cappella style had fallen by the wayside and solo voices as well as instrumental accompaniment were used. The Baroque composers allowed themselves more variety of styles: alternation of singers and instruments, expressive vocal lines, solo voices, and certain echo effects, which made it quite difficult to distinguish between secular and sacred motets. The diction of the choir in this work, as well as that of the soloists, was considerably better than the opening cantata.
Following the intermission, Maestro Carrettin performed the Bach Cantata, BWV 150: Nach dir Herr, verlanget mich (For you, Lord, I am longing…). This work featured soloists Amanda Balestrieri, Marjorie Bunday, Daniel Hutchings, and Adam Ewing. Amanda Balestrieri sang a wonderful aria solo in this cantata, and her diction was well-nigh perfect in this work. Marjorie Bunday was exceptional as well.
The following cantata, Aus der Tiefen rufe ich, Herr, zu dir (Out of the depths I cry, Lord, to you.) was superbly done by everyone on stage. I would also like to point out that another member of the Boulder Bach Festival Players, the bassoonist, Anna Marsh, was truly outstanding.
The following is from Ms. Marsh’s bio statement:
“Anna Marsh is originally from Tacoma, WA, and owns six bassoons from the Renaissance to the modern era. She also enjoys trying new restaurants, porcelain painting and exploring National Parks with her friends. She appears regularly with Tempesta di Mare, Opera Atelier, Tafelmusik, Arion Baroque Orchestra, Atlanta Baroque, Seattle Baroque, Opera Lafayette, Ensemble Caprice, Washington Bach Consort and Clarion Music Society. This season she will play concertos with New York State Baroque and the Boulder Bach Festival and will also appear at Versailles. She has been a featured concerto soloist with the Arion Baroque Orchestra in Montreal, The Dryden Ensemble in Princeton, Foundling Orchestra in Providence, Buxtehude Consort in Philadelphia, Americantiga Orchestra in Washington DC, the USC Early Music Ensemble and the Indiana University Baroque Orchestra… Anna is ABD [an informal expression denoting All But Dissertation] for her Doctorate at Indiana University and has recorded for Analekta, ATMA, CBC Radio, NPR, Centaur, Avie, Naxos, the Super Bowl and Musica Omnia Record Labels.”
This was a truly enjoyable concert, but I was occasionally surprised by the almost casual manner in which Maestro Zachary Carrettin (who, I stress, is a masterful musician in every way) took the stage. This resulted many times in the audience not being sure whether they should applaud his entrance, as is customary for the conductor. Indeed, after the intermission, he was tuning his violin with a few of the other musicians. The tuning went on for some time, when he obviously became concerned that the soloists had not come out to perform. He hurriedly left stage to seek out the performers, who joined him, finally, much to amusement of the audience. Perhaps, a very authoritative stride to the podium, as is de rigueur, would be more useful. But, please understand that this is hardly a permanent blot on the record of such an outstanding musician.