Filed under: Reviews | Tags: Ann Marie Liss, Barbara Hamilton, Basil Vendrys, Claude Debussy, Edward Elgar, George Frederick Handel, Josef Haydn, Marjorie Bunday, Maurice Duruflé, Olivier Messiaen, Ralph Valentine, Robert Avrett, St. Andrew's Choir, St. John 's Choir, Stephen Tappe, Timothy Krueger
Saturday evening, November 2, I attended a concert at St. John’s Cathedral at 14th Street and Washington in Denver. It featured some of the best musical organizations in Denver: the St. John’s Cathedral Choir, with Stephen Tappe, Choirmaster; St. Andrew’s Choir, Timothy Krueger, Choirmaster; Ann Marie Liss, harpist; and the region’s well-known Colorado Chamber Players, Barbara Hamilton, Executive Director, and violist. I emphasize that these are all stellar musicians.
The concert opened with a performance of Olivier Messiaen’s (1908-1992) famous organ work, Vision of the Eternal Church (Apparition de l’église eternelle) which was written in 1932. It was performed by Ralph Valentine, who is the organist at St. Andrews in Denver. Valentine is a teacher and an organist, well known throughout the United States. He began his teaching career at Rosemary Hall School in Greenwich, Connecticut, and moved with the school to Wallingford, Connecticut, when it merged with The Choate School in 1971. At Choate Rosemary Hall he was Head of Music, Choral Director, School Organist, and Instructor in Theory, Harmony, Counterpoint, History, Composition, Organ, and Harpsichord for forty-two years. He has been very active as a recitalist, composer, and leader of workshops.
This was a riveting performance of a very intense piece of music, which certainly demonstrates Messiaen’s Roman Catholic inspiration in an almost mystical way. That statement, of course, seems almost contradictory, but this composition is full of rhythmic tension and harmonic tension, with open fourths and fifths. It is a very dense piece with thick textures, some of which recall the harmonies of medieval chant with its parallelisms, which were considered consonants. Its mood also makes one think of the huge cathedrals that are characteristic in many countries of Europe. It was a wonderful performance that clearly revealed Messiaen’s inspiration.
The next work on the program was Zadok the Priest, a coronation anthem which was written for George II of Great Britain in 1727. Written by George Frederick Handel (1685-1759), I’m sure many in the audience recognized this work, because it has been sung for almost every coronation since it was written. The collaboration with the Colorado Chamber Players produced a small chamber orchestra which was a perfect size for this kind of performance. The choirs and the orchestra, which were thoroughly prepared for this performance, at once gave a demonstration in contrasts of the intricate and elegant style of Handel, while showing his skill at composition for huge ceremonies, with brazen outbursts from the trumpets. But it was in this work that a detriment in this program raised its ugly head: acoustics.
In most of the performances that I have attended at St. John’s Cathedral, the performers have been seated in the Crossing (that is the official name of the area) which is immediately in front of the Apse. The Apse is the U-shaped area at the front of the church that contains the Altar, and it is surrounded, at St. John’s Cathedral, by an area called the Ambulatory. The Ambulatory contains the organ keyboard and the seats for the choir which surround the Altar. The seating follows the U-shaped Ambulatory. Therefore, sections of the choir are facing each other. The Colorado Chamber Players was seated at the base of the U-shape, facing the congregation – or in this case, the audience. That meant that the sound of the choirs was echoing off opposite walls of the Apse, while being combined with the chamber orchestra. I’m not sure how many choir members there were at the performance, but there were fourteen members of the chamber orchestra. This may have been too large a group of musicians to put in the Crossing, but it is in the Crossing where the sound produced would not have ricocheted off the narrow walls of the Apse.
I point out that since the organ pipes are in the rear of the church above the Narthex, organ performances are not affected by the acoustics in the front of the church. In the performance of Handel’s Zadok the Priest, the acoustics made the sounds of these excellent musicians muffled and mushy. The diction of the choirs, and I remind you these are excellent choirs, could not be understood at all. Sometimes the orchestra overpowered the choirs, and sometimes the choirs overpowered the orchestra.
Next on the program, came Danses Sacrée et Profane, written by Claude Debussy (1862-1918). Debussy wrote this work as a commission from the Pleyel piano and harp manufacturer in Paris. They had just built a new chromatic harp, which was different from the conventional concert harp with its seven pedals and huge size. It also took a very long time to tune. The new harp had added strings for the chromatic half steps in the scale. As a matter of fact, it could vaguely be considered similar to Bach’s use of Pythagoras’ theories of ratio in tuning the harpsichord to equal temperament wherein, for example, the note ‘A’ can be played in the key of A major, F major, D major, etc., without having to tune the harpsichord between each key.
Debussy’s work became a very important contribution to harp literature, and I must say that it was a joy to hear, for even though it is quite popular for a small chamber orchestra and harp, it has been sometime since I have heard the piece performed live.
Dr. Ann Marie Liss performed on the harp Saturday evening. She has performed worldwide, and is on the faculty at Colorado College. She earned her doctorate at the Ecole Normale de Musique de Paris. She has won many international competitions, and is widely sought out as an instructor, coach, and clinician, specializing in technical foundation, tone production, and brain integration in musical performance. She is a founding member with Basil Vendrys, who is the principal violist with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra, in Duo Esprit which appears frequently in concert.
The opening of this work by Debussy has always struck me as being very un-Debussy-like, because of its unison strings, but soon the harp enters and it plays typical thick textured Debussy chords. Dr. Liss was absolutely wonderful and her performance of this piece, and so was the Colorado Chamber Players. Their unison string playing against the rich harmonies provided by the harp was absolutely spectacular, and it was interesting to note the difference in sound between the harp and strings, when the strings played pizzicato. I, for one, have never been able to make much of a distinction between the sacred and the profane concept that Debussy must have had in mind. To me, this is simply another beautiful piece that Debussy wrote around the turn-of-the-century.
But, once again the strange acoustics left their mark in the way of attacks and releases which were not sharp and well-defined.
Following the Debussy, the Colorado Chamber Players performed a Haydn quartet that is rarely performed. It is the last of six quartets that comprise Haydn’s Opus 33, and it carries the Hoboken number Hob. III:42. Thus, its official name is String Quartet Op. 33, Nr. 6 in D major, Hob. III:42. Anthony van Hoboken was the musicologist who created the catalog of Haydn’s works. These six quartets were the first Haydn had written in ten years, and he wanted to earn more money by selling manuscript copies, even though these had been published by Artaria, I believe, in 1782. In order to sell them, Haydn proclaimed them to be “brand-new” (which, of course, they were), but some scholars have insisted that this meant that these quartets contained a new style, which is not the case. They are simply wonderful, absolutely delightful quartets that are rarely played.
The Colorado Chamber Players, in my opinion, have a special ability at performing Haydn. It is absolutely marvelous, and they convince me that the Haydn quartets should be played just as often as the Mozart quartets, which, unfortunately, they don’t seem to be. The musicians Saturday night were superb as always, and their spirit and approach to the interpretation of Haydn could not have been better. However, their hard work and enthusiasm for what they were doing was marred by the troublesome acoustics. Some of their sounds were so distorted, that they became almost “electronic” in nature, with a flat and whining buzz. The Apse of the church seemed not to be able to handle the different quality of sound between violin, viola, and cello, with the sounds ricocheting off the narrow enclosure.
Before intermission, the choirs sang a beautiful work, They are at rest, by Sir Edward Elgar (1857-1934), which he composed for the anniversary of Queen Victoria’s death. It is a striking piece with rich harmonies and a genuinely contemplative mood. And that is precisely the way it was performed.
The major work on Saturday evening’s concert was the Requiem by French composer Maurice Duruflé (1902- 1986). Duruflé was an outstanding organist and composer who, like César Franck, was not very prolific. However, Duruflé, again like Franck, is known for a small number of truly fine compositions. The Requiem is probably his best known work. It seems to be a mix of harmonies coming from Fauré and Ravel, and yet blended with the modal harmonies of the Renaissance. It is interesting to note that in this mass for the dead, he omits the Dies Irae and the Tuba Mirum, which is exactly what Gabriel Fauré omitted from his Requiem, prompting the often acid tongued Camille Saint-Saëns to call Fauré’s Requiem “One of the finest nocturnes ever written.” (The Dies Irae carries the warning that one must “live piously,” or face the wrath of God upon one’s death. The Tuba Mirum announces that the Day of Judgment is at hand, and that there is no reprieve for those who have not lived piously. Mozart, Berlioz, Verdi, and Gouvy, wrote some stunning music to fit these two sections of the requiem masses that they composed.)
Duruflé’s Requiem is an absolutely beautiful piece that deserves to be performed more often than it is. The performance clearly demonstrated the dedication and musicianship of those in the choir and orchestra, but also Timothy Krueger and Stephen Tappe, who prepared the choirs. The alto and baritone soloists, Marjorie Bunday and Robert Avrett, both of whom I have written about previously, were superb. And again, that brings me to a point about the acoustics. Both Bunday and Avrett stood just outside the arch of the Apse of the church, at the front edge of the Crossing. Therefore, their wonderful voices were un-muffled and clear. Every word they sang could be understood, because their consummate vocal production allows them to deal with the rigors of the dictation. However, the diction of these two choirs, which is normally excellent, could not be understood because of the sound bouncing around inside the Apse. Sometimes they drowned out the orchestra, and sometimes the orchestra drowned out the choir. Did the choirs have superb sound quality? Emphatically, yes. Were their dynamics excellent? Again, emphatically, yes. Everybody performing Saturday evening clearly has superb musicianship.
It speaks to that quality to say that the musicianship was apparent in spite of the acoustics. And, I am perfectly aware that fitting the chamber orchestra and the choirs in the Crossing of the church in front of the Apse, would have been difficult because of the number of musicians involved. But perhaps for performances such as this, the powers that be at St. John’s Cathedral could figure out a way to make the Crossing a little larger, perhaps by taking out the first row or two of pews just for a singular performance. I understand that would mean extra work and cost, but when such a marvelous program is presented, as it was Saturday evening, it would be worth it. Nonetheless, in spite of my criticism which some may regard as too heavy, it was a superb program. It gave everyone in the audience a chance to hear some compositions they might not hear for a long time.
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: Alexander Glazunov, Andrew Litton, Colorado Symphony Orchestra, Dmitri Shostakovich, Natasha Paremski, Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Rossen Milanov, Sergei Prokofiev, Sergei Rachmaninoff
Friday evening, October 18, the Colorado Symphony Orchestra performed an all-Russian program which was exceptional in every way. They opened the program with Sergei Prokofiev’s Russian Overture, Opus 72, continued with Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto Nr. 2 in C minor, and finished with Tchaikovsky’s Symphony Nr. 2, Opus 17, also in C minor.
This performance was led by guest conductor, Rossen Milanov. I will quote from a biographical statement obtained from his website:
“Mr. Milanov has established himself as a conductor with a considerable national and international presence. His recent conducting highlights include debuts at the Musikverein in Vienna, Grant Park Music Festival in Chicago, Zurich Opera, and a world premiere of Sergei Prokofiev’s incidental music to Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin with the Princeton Symphony Orchestra.
“Mr. Milanov has collaborated with some of the world’s preeminent artists, including Yo-Yo Ma, Itzhak Perlman, Joshua Bell, Midori, Christian Tetzlaff, and André Watts, as well as with such internationally esteemed vocalists as Nicolai Ghiaurov, Vesselina Kasarova, Angela Meade, Measha Brueggergosman, Anne Schwanewilms and Krassimira Stoyanova. During his eleven- year tenure with The Philadelphia Orchestra, Milanov conducted more than 200 performances, as Associate Conductor and as Artistic Director of the Orchestra’s summer home at The Mann Center for the Performing Arts. His passion for new music has resulted in numerous world premieres of works by composers such as Richard Danielpour, Nicolas Maw, and Gabriel Prokofiev; he also works with emerging composers through Symphony in C’s annual Young Composers’ Competition.
“Rossen Milanov studied conducting at the Curtis Institute of Music and the Juilliard School, where he received the Bruno Walter Memorial Scholarship. He studied oboe and orchestral conducting at the Bulgarian National Academy of Music, and holds a Master’s Degree in oboe performance from Duquesne University. As the former Chief Conductor of the Bulgarian National Radio Orchestra (2003-08) and Music Director of New Symphony Orchestra, Sofia (1997-2013), he received the Bulgarian Ministry’s Award for Extraordinary Contribution to Bulgarian Culture. He was named Bulgaria’s Musician of the Year in 2005 and won an ASCAP award in 2011 for his programming with Princeton Symphony Orchestra.
“A passionate cook, he often dedicates his culinary talents to various charities.”
I was mightily impressed with this conductor. He has a very unique way of communicating everything he wishes to the orchestra, and though quite different in approach, some of his movements, for example, the use of his entire body, reminded me very much of Andrew Litton. Maestro Milanov is a very precise conductor, and his movements can be very fast indeed. They are filled with a certain vivacity that communicates the spirit of the music. About three minutes into the Prokofiev Russian Overture which uses folk elements, there is a remarkable lyrics section where the violins and violas absolutely soar. Milanov abruptly changed his motions to huge sweeping arcs with a great smile on his face, demonstrating to me at least, his love for the music and his appreciation for what this fine orchestra can do. It truly seemed as though he was very eager to allow the musicians to demonstrate that which they are capable. The dynamics in this overture are extreme, and twice, a gradual crescendo is accompanied by a long, slow, accelerando. I was absolutely amazed at the precision with which the CSO accomplished these feats: they did last a long time, the entire orchestra was precisely together all the way, and of the tension created left me on the edge of my seat. This is not an easy piece at all, as Prokofiev’s well-known for his surprising twists and turns. There is some remarkably difficult percussion work required, and William Hill, John Kinzie, Steve Hearn, and Terry Smith were, as always, exceptional. The orchestral pianist was also quite exceptional, and I could not find her name anywhere in the program. It is my sincere hope that whoever is in charge of compiling the names of orchestra members for the program does not overlook her in the future.
Next on the program, came the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto Nr. 2, performed by the fine young pianist, Natasha Paremski.
I will quote from Paremski’s website:
“Born in Moscow, Natasha moved to the United-States at the age of 8 and became a US citizen in 1991. She is now based out of New York.
“Natasha began her piano studies at the age of 4 with Nina Malikova at Moscow’s Andreyev School of Music. She then studied at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music before moving to New York to study with Pavlina Dokovska at Mannes College of Music, from which she graduated in 2007. Natasha made her professional debut at age nine with the El Camino Youth Symphony in California. At the age of fifteen she debuted with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and recorded two discs on the Bel Air Music Label with the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra under Dmitry Yablonsky, the first featuring Anton Rubinstein’s Piano Concerto No. 4 coupled with Rachmaninov’s Paganini Rhapsody and the second featuring all of Chopin’s shorter works for piano and orchestra.
“Natasha is performing with major orchestras in North America including the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, the San Diego Symphony, the Toronto Symphony, the Baltimore Symphony, the Houston Symphony, the NAC Orchestra in Ottawa, the Nashville Symphony, the Virginia Symphony, the Oregon Symphony, the Colorado Symphony, the Minnesota Orchestra. She is touring extensively in Europe too, with such orchestras as the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, Vienna’s Tonkünstler Orchester, the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, the Orchestre de Bretagne, the Orchestre de Nancy, the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, the Tonhalle Orchester in Zurich, the Moscow Philharmonic, with conductors like Peter Oundjian, Andres Orozco-Estrada, Jeffrey Kahane, James Gaffigan, Dmitri Yablonski, Tomas Netopil, JoAnn Falletta, Fabien Gabel, Andrew Litton, She also toured with Gidon Kremer and the Kremerata Baltica in Latvia, Benelux, the UK and Austria and played with the National Taiwan Symphony Orchestra in Taipei.”
By now, everyone must be familiar with the story behind this particular piano concerto, how it was written after a period of depression which Rachmaninoff suffered at the critical failure of his First Symphony in St. Petersburg. The critics, who were led by César Cui, completely ignored the fact that at the premiere of this symphony, the conductor (who was also a composer), Alexander Glazunov, was drunk. As matter of fact, Dmitri Shostakovich stated that Glazunov would occasionally take sips from a bottle as he taught at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. Nonetheless, after extensive “neuropsychotherapy” sessions, this concerto was produced. It is an incredibly popular work because it is such a good work, though it has suffered the indignities at the hands of popular tune miscreants, who have taken the themes and added words to them.
While the difficulties of this Concerto Nr. 2 are well known to all pianists, it is not as difficult as the third or fourth piano concerto by Rachmaninoff. Nonetheless, it is a piece that all up and coming pianists deem necessary to perform. Unfortunately, many of them, armed with the knowledge that Rachmaninoff was the best pianist who has lived since Franz Liszt, try to attract critical attention from audiences by performing this work as fast as they can play it, and as loud as they can play it. This statement certainly does not apply to Natasha Paremski. Though she possesses startling technique, she is also a remarkable musician, and she performs the piece in a way which would make Rachmaninoff smile. Her tempos throughout the entire work were absolutely perfect. Keep in mind that Rachmaninoff was a huge man: he was 6’5” tall, and could reach almost two octaves: C to A. Therefore, when he performed, he was quite motionless at the keyboard. Paremski is very small, so it is necessary for her to use enough movement to help her hands and find the dynamics that are in the score, and movement which will allow her hands to play in a relaxed manner. The motions that she made with her arms were so graceful that she reminded me of Maria Mosina of the Colorado Ballet. She does not move unnecessarily when she is at the keyboard, and I must say that is very refreshing. There are many young pianists who feel it necessary to move unduly simply to provide proof that they are very “expressive musicians.” Paremski is one of the most expressive pianists I have heard because she understands the music and that is what comes first. Rachmaninoff’s long melodic lines absolutely soared in her performance, as did all of the florid passage work that is so difficult in this concerto. It requires the kind of technique that Rachmaninoff possessed in abundance – he could simply said that the piano and improvise at blinding speed indefinitely. But, I assure you that Paremski, while maintaining her individuality, made this entire concerto seem easy to play. She not only has remarkable fingers, she also has a remarkable mind, and she uses that first without fail.
The second movement was lush and soulful. Paremski performed the triplets in this work with exactly the right accents – which some pianists do not – and phrasing. It was so refreshing to see a pianist and a conductor who were clearly of the same mind, and who worked so well together. There is always a certain amount of give-and-take between the soloist and conductor, but it certainly appeared to me as if they had a very happy, and legitimate, collaboration. There was absolutely marvelous communication between the two.
The third movement was sensational. Her flourish at the opening, which sets up the main theme, was spectacular. And, keep in mind, that while this young lady is performing so beautifully, the orchestra was playing beautifully as well. Their new lease on life has filled everything they do, and to me, their joy to be performing with another fine musician seemed obvious. It was very clear that the standing ovation that was given to all of the performers onstage was delivered for the orchestra and the pianist and the conductor. This was truly a rare performance of a work that some pianists mistreat because they feel the necessity to prove they can play fast.
I do, however, wish that the piano had not gone out of tune as Maestra Paremski was performing. It is also a shame that it was not properly voiced at the extreme upper and lower range of the keyboard. Natasha Paremski is of the ilk to deserve perfection.
After the intermission, the Colorado Symphony performed Tchaikovsky’s Symphony Nr. 2. This work opens with the French horns playing a Russian folk tune called, “Down Little Mother Volga” which truly serves as an introduction to the rest of the first movement. The tempo then changes to a faster theme which clearly is of Russian character. The throughout this entire symphony, the woodwind section was absolutely splendid. The second movement was a rather delicate march, which certainly has nothing to do with militancy or exciting celebration. It is surprising, because one automatically expects a march to be leading in some exciting or apprehensive direction. This march seemed almost nonchalant. Maestro Milanov and the CSO seemed to certainly enjoy imparting a certain amount of innocence to this movement. The third movement is a scherzo which Tchaikovsky infused with of a remarkable sense of mischievousness. Keep in mind that this is one of the few major works which Tchaikovsky wrote that makes use of folk tunes. That is the case because Tchaikovsky visited his sister’s house in Ukraine, which is often referred to as “Little Russia,” and it was here that he was so strongly influenced by different folk melodies. The third movement of this work, which is so playful, is based on the Russian folk tune, “Sell the Whip, and Buy Me Some Boots.” The third movement was clearly very sunny and bright, and was full of vivacious and difficult rhythms.
The fourth movement uses a folk tune as well, entitled “Let the Crane Soar.” The use of folk tunes in this symphony give it a very definite ambience of cheerfulness.
I was once again struck by the ease with which the Colorado Symphony now plays. As I stated above, Maestro Rossen Milanov seem to give them a chance to display their musicianship and virtuosity, rather than ordering them to do so. This gave the Prokofiev, Rachmaninoff, and the Tchaikovsky a marvelous sense of ease, because it seemed to allow the orchestra to rely, with honesty, on the superior musicianship that they all possess. It was wonderful.
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: Amanda Lucarini, Ars Nova Singers, Arvo Pärt, Benjamin Britten, Brian du Fresne, Louis Warshawsky, Randall Swingler, Sphere Ensemble, Thomas Morgan, W. H. Auden
The Ars Nova Singers and Sphere Ensemble opened their new concert season Friday evening, October 11, at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church at 16th Avenue and Grant in Denver. Maestro Tom Morgan entitled this opening concert Britten & Beyond, because the program featured the music of Benjamin Britten (1913 – 1976) and the music of Arvo Pärt (b. 1934). In addition, Sphere Ensemble performed Britten’s Simple Symphony, Opus 4, and they also joined with the Ars Nova Singers on the second half of the program when both organizations performed the music of Arvo Pärt.
Ars Nova Singers opened the program with Benjamin Britten’s Hymn to St. Cecilia, which was written in 1942. The 1940s were an especially difficult time for Benjamin Britten because he was an acknowledged pacifist whose ideals led to an uneasy relationship with the British public during the times of war. As a matter of fact, Britten, and his partner Peter Pears, left England and spent some of the war years in the United States and in Canada. The Hymn to St. Cecilia was largely composed in the United States. The text consists of three poems by W. H. Auden, each of which is followed by a four line invocation to St. Cecilia who is the patron saint of music. This is not a hymn in the traditional sense, but becomes a three movement structure similar to a miniature cantata. This is an important work for Britten because it is a connection from Britten’s early accomplishment as an incredibly talented composer to that of a remarkably sophisticated composer, and one who would set his mark on the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. It is also interesting to realize, as the programs notes explained, that the work was completed in the United States, and that upon Britten’s return to England in 1942, the US customs office confiscated the first part of this composition because they thought that it was some kind of coded message. Britten had to rewrite the entire first section from memory.
The Ars Nova Singers sounded absolutely magnificent when they performed this composition. This work is full of parallel triads in the first section and a quite rapid scherzo in the second. It has been a long time since I have heard this work, but this performance made the third section recognizable as written in a cantus firmus style. The choir was so well-balanced in this performance, and the Ars Nova Singers has always surprised me at their first performance of every season with their clear definition of pitch and harmony that is never muddled and always secure. It is as if the sun comes up when they open their mouths to sing. Louis Warshawsky and Amanda Lucarini were absolutely remarkable as the soloists in this work, and their breath control on the longest notes imaginable was quite remarkable. Amanda Lucarini is a graduate student in voice performance at the University of Colorado at Boulder, so one would expect her to be superb, and trust me, she is. Louis Warshawsky is a computer engineer, but has been the tenor section leader in the Ars Nova Singers for thirteen years. One wonders why he didn’t make vocal performance his career. Both of these individuals are excellent, and they are a perfect example of this entire choir: some have made music there career path, i.e., they have degrees in music. But some have not. Nonetheless, the Ars Nova Singers is one of the best choral groups in the country, because they are all musicians, because they love what they do, and they just happen to have one of the best choral conductors in the country. Since they are located in Colorado, to put it simply, they are ours. And that should make us all very happy.
Next on the program, the Ars Nova Singers performed the Chorale after and Old French Carol. Britten had intended to write a Christmas oratorio with a text written by W. H. Auden, but he completed only two movements. As a matter of fact, it lay forgotten and unperformed until 1961 when Imogene Holst conducted it. This, too, was beautifully performed and the text by Auden is quite moving. The remarkable blend of the Ars Nova Singers provided the audience with much to listen to, and left me with the feeling of admiration that such a choir with so many backgrounds could produce such artistic results. The Ars Nova Singers also performed Benjamin Britten’s work, Advance Democracy. As Maestro Morgan pointed out, this particular work, and its text by Randall Swingler, though written as the rumblings for World War II began to increase in the 1930s, seems to fit quite well with the political situations in which we are presently embroiled. It was a rousing call to patriotism. The harmonies in this work must have been quite a surprise in the 30s, and his skill in writing for a choir is readily apparent. It did not seem as though it would be an easy piece to perform, but Thomas Morgan has the ability to bring the choir’s attention to all of the necessary details: the entrances were perfect, the dynamics were extreme, and the emotional range was quite great.
I was truly curious about the Sphere Ensemble that performed on the remainder of Friday evening’s concert, because it is not terribly often that the Ars Nova Singers combines forces with other ensembles. They are often joined onstage by individuals but it is a little unusual to hear them perform with the chamber orchestra.
After hearing Sphere Ensemble perform Benjamin Britten’s famous Simple Symphony, the reason for Thomas Morgan’s invitation to them became apparent.
Sphere Ensemble is a group of musicians (and, here, I will quote from their website):
“The Sphere Ensemble is Colorado’s exciting new chamber ensemble, freeing itself from the confines of the baton and presenting the power and richness of the string orchestra paired with the intimacy of a string quartet. Sphere was formed in 2011 by professional string players who wanted to explore new directions in string ensemble playing. The members of Sphere bring a wealth of musical experiences into the group, all having classically-based college or conservatory training but possessing a diverse background of musical loves and tastes. Sphere musicians have appeared with groups and musicians ranging from the Colorado Symphony and Boulder Philharmonic, to Moby and Kanye West, and nearly every style in between. They have performed in Denver, Boulder, and Broomfield, and have been featured on Colorado Public Radio’s Colorado Spotlight show with Charley Samson, and KGNU’s Classic Monday.”
Sphere Ensemble amazed me. In all truth, when I heard their performance of Britten’s Simple Symphony I was surprised. Here is a chamber orchestra of thirteen string players that is new. They play without a conductor, and they are absolutely stunning. They have been together a very short time, and yet they seem to have played for many years without a conductor. I have never been so spellbound by a new group for several years. Their sound is truly amazing, so much so, that they seem to have chosen each other because their instruments all produce the same warm tone. The balance is remarkable. Their musicianship is remarkable. Their accuracy as an ensemble makes one believe that they have played together for many years. They play with such enthusiasm and love for their art – and it is art – that the audience never made a sound because they were completely awestruck. The Britten work was full of powerful emotions, whether it was vivacity, as in the first and second movements; lyrical warmth filled with beautiful tone, as in the third movement; or exuberance, as in the fourth movement.
The performance of this work was so good, that I kept trying to place them in a category of performances that I have heard in my seventy years as a musician. Though it may sound extravagant in the extreme, I am very serious, when I say that Friday evening, Sphere Ensemble exhibited all of the traits of the Academy of St. Martin’s in the Fields. I know that many of you readers will scoff at that observation, and I suppose there is the possibility that, at this performance, all the stars fell into proper alignment. But I will bet all the stars in the universe that Sphere Ensemble can reproduce their performance again and again. The audience gave them a spontaneous and instantaneous standing ovation.
I have written before that there are seven or so groups in the state of Colorado that are easily classified as the best that the United States has to offer. They are the Colorado Ballet, the Colorado Symphony Orchestra, the Colorado Chamber Players, the Boulder Chamber Orchestra, the Colorado Bach Ensemble, the Pro Musica Colorado Chamber Orchestra, Ars Nova Singers, St. Martin’s Chamber Choir, and now, we must add Sphere Ensemble. Notice that I did not enumerate this list. I truly believe it would be erroneous to say that one of these groups should be at the top or at the bottom. It is simply enough to say that these organizations are first rate: they always surprise, and they never disappoint.
After the intermission, Sphere Ensemble performed Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten. This is a work scored for string orchestra and bell. It seems almost ironic that a bell is asked for in this composition which depends upon Pärt’s exploration of what he called tintinnabulation. Simply put, as a result of Pärt’s own dissatisfaction with his previous compositional style, he begins to develop the tonal center as an “omnipresent resonance” rather than as a point of departure and return. He removed the goal directedness of functional harmony and began to explore the sheer sonority of sound. In Cantus, there is a descending a minor scale that occurs in various rhythmic values and different instrumental groups with varying tempi. This creates a wonderful shimmering and diaphanous sound that was magnificently re-created by Sphere Ensemble. The element of darkness was added by Maestro Thomas Morgan performing on the bell which tolled grimly. It was as moving as it was beautiful.
After Pärt’s Cantus, Ars Nova Singers and Sphere Ensemble performed Pärt’s Salve Regina. This was the United States premiere of the composer’s new version of this work was scored for chorus, string orchestra, and cellist. Brian du Fresne performed on the celeste. The performance of this piece was absolutely otherworldly. The program notes state that the meter signature is 3/4, but at times it seemed like 6/8, so that it took on the sway of a cantilena. It was captivating, and riveted everyone’s attention.
There followed three short works, all of them announced from the stage. All three took on the appearance of encores, and included the tune by the Beatles, “You Are in My Life.”
The Ars Nova Singers and Sphere Ensemble presented a program that was marvelous to hear, and which allowed the audience to wallow in many different sounds that were at once mellow, jovial, and serious. These two organizations complemented each other through their excellence, attention to detail, joy of performance, and truly exceptional musicianship. As I stated above, I have never heard Sphere Ensemble perform, and therefore, I did not know what to expect. I was, quite literally, stunned.
The Sphere Ensemble in partnership with the Ars Nova Singers created an absolutely magical performance. And, as I have said before, there is absolutely no need to drive a thousand miles to hear a performance of this quality.
This review also appears on TheScen3.
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: Adam Flatt, Adam Still, Adolphe Adam, Alexi Tyukov, Asuka Sasaki, Caitlin Valentine-Ellis, Chandra Kuykendall, Colorado Ballet, Dana Benton, Dmitry Trubchanov, Gil Boggs, Hector Berlioz, Jean Coralli, Jesse Marks, Jules Perrot, Lorita Travaglia, Maria Mosina, Marius Petipa, Sharon Wehner, Shelby Dyer, Théodore Gouvy, Viacheslav Buchkovskiy
Friday evening, October 4, was the Colorado Ballet’s 53rd season opener. There was so much that seemed new Friday evening: there were new faces on the stage, there are new names on the board, the Colorado Ballet has a new home which they will move into next year, and there was a brand-new enthusiasm displayed by the dancers onstage. As everyone knows, Gil Boggs was made artistic director of the Colorado Ballet during the 2006 – 2007 season. He has changed the Colorado Ballet very dramatically every year since he has held that position, and there is absolutely no question that the Colorado Ballet is one of the best ballet companies in the United States. It is certainly time for an organization of this caliber to have a new home, and not only do they deserve our congratulations, they deserve our continued support.
They opened this year’s season with Giselle written by Adolphe Adam (1803 – 1856). He was a prolific composer of ballets, incidental music, comic operas, and even vaudeville. This seems most unusual considering the fact that his father was a pianist and teacher; however, his father encouraged him only to become a musician if he learned that music was only amusement (!) not an art, and certainly not suitable for a career. His father finally changed his mind and permitted Adolphe to enter the Paris Conservatory. Keep in mind, that at this time, in France, musical plays, trite operas, and music written for the entertainment of the masses was extremely popular, and remained so for a number of years, much to the consternation of composers such as Hector Berlioz (who wrote much about French music in the Journal des Débats), Georges Bizet, and Théodore Gouvy. To find seriously composed concert music, one had to go mainly to Germany and Austria, for that is where symphonies and chamber music were being written, and that, for example, is why Théodore Gouvy spent his early years in Germany surrounded by friends such as Liszt, Friedrich Förster, Ferdinand Möhring, Ferdinand Hiller, and Carl Reinecke. Nonetheless, Adolphe Adam became a very well-known composer in France, but it is two of his ballets, Giselle and Le Corsaire, that have assured his place in the history of music.
To quote from the Colorado Ballet press release: “[Giselle] tells the story of a count [Albrecht] in disguise who falls in love with Giselle, a beautiful peasant girl with a fragile heart. When she discovers the count’s true identity, and that he is engaged to another woman, she dies broken-hearted. She becomes a member of The Wilis – vengeful spirits who suffered unrequited love in life, and are destined to roam the earth each night, trapping men and dancing them to their deaths. When the count enters the domain of the Wilis, only Giselle’s love can save him.” The original choreography for this ballet was done by Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot, and was later revised by Marius Petipa. The staging for the performance was done by Gil Boggs, Sandra Brown, and Lorita Travaglia.
The minute the curtain rose there was a gasp from the audience because of the scenery which came to the Colorado Ballet through the courtesy of the American Ballet Theatre. It was absolutely wonderful, with branches and leaves individually cut out with a cottage on each side of the stage. In the background, on a high hilltop, was the castle of the Duke of Courtland. The costumes were also terrific, and they were also from the American Ballet Theater.
Friday evening, Giselle was danced by Maria Mosina. I have seen Maria Mosina dance many times, but I must say that this was the best performance I have ever seen her give. There is absolutely no doubt that she was immensely comfortable on stage, which led me to believe that she has danced Giselle many times before. What sets her apart from other principal dancers around the country is her acting ability as well as her true artistic ability as a supreme ballerina. She is, simply put, incredible. And, what is more incredible is the fact that the other principal dancers in the Colorado Ballet, Viacheslav Buchkovskiy, Chandra Kuykendall, Dmitry Trubchanov, Alexi Tyukov and Sharon Wehner are all equal in ability. I have written in the past about the depth of artistry that the Colorado Ballet has, and you readers must understand that there is no clear-cut division in artistic ability between principles soloists and members of the Corps. Asuka Sasaki, Shelby Dyer, Dana Benton, Jesse Marks, Adam Still, and Caitlin Valentine-Ellis are all incredibly fine artists. I have watched other ballet companies, and have often thought that, perhaps next year, so-and-so will be elevated to the rank of Soloist from the rank of Corps de Ballet. The division line was clear. With the Colorado Ballet, that division line is very hard to see indeed, and it was particularly hard to see Friday evening. There was a new precision from everyone on stage: movements were absolutely together, and they were precisely with the beat provided by the orchestra. In fact, it was difficult to tell if they were following Maestro Adam Flatt, or if Maestro Flatt was following them, because there was such precision. And I point out that everyone seemed to be at perfect ease.
When Alexi Tyukov lifted Maria Mosina over his head, Mosina was perfectly horizontal, and it was one of the most graceful moves I have seen from these two dancers. The Peasant Pas de deux, which was danced by Dana Benton and Adam Still, was simply perfect. Truthfully, I do not remember ever seeing a performance the Colorado Ballet where everyone on stage made all of their movements look so effortless. And again, I must mention their dramatic ability, as well. Berthe, Giselle’s mother, was performed by Lorita Travaglia who is one of the Ballet Mistresses with the company. This role is not a dancing role, but she performed it so well that one simply did not have to read the program notes in order to understand what she was telling her daughter.
In Act II, Giselle has died because Albrecht’s deception aggravated her frail heart, and the character, Hilarion, danced by Dmitry Trubchanov, is attending her grave. It is nighttime, and the Queen of the Wilis, Myrtha, danced by Asuka Sasaki, made her appearance on stage. She performed a bourée step across the stage, and I do not think I have ever seen a bourée done so well. Nothing moved accept Sasaki’s feet. Her head did not bobble and her arms did not move, but you must understand that she did not appear to be rigid either. She simply floated across the stage in the most graceful manner, simply by moving her feet inches at a time. That has to be one of the most difficult steps in ballet, or at least, it seems so to me.
All of the Wilis danced precisely together, and their movements were highlighted by the perfect costumes that they wore: dressed entirely in white, they seemed entirely the antithesis of evil, but that is what made them so effective. They quickly dispatched Hilarion by dancing him to death.
Even in death, Giselle resolves to protect Albrecht, and it is here that Mosina and Tyukov do some of their finest dancing together. It was artistic and it was poignant. Maria Mosina was able to demonstrate through her remarkable skill and artistry that she was a spirit trying to protect the man she loved while she was alive. And, Alexi Tyukov was clearly able to play the role of a man still in love with the spirit, and yet, frightened by being surrounded by the Wilis and not knowing what to expect from the woman he loved while she was alive.
The Colorado Ballet is also very fortunate that they have Maestro Adam Flatt to conduct the Ballet Orchestra. In some ways, conducting a ballet can be considered to be not too much different from conducting a soloist who is performing a concerto. I make that statement only because audiences sometimes find it more difficult to hear a soloist who is unable to stay with an orchestra than it is to watch a dancer who is unable to stay with the orchestra. Maestro Flatt’s conducting is flawless, because he is able to anticipate what the dancers need in the way of support rhythmically, while making sure that the orchestra responded to those needs. Needless to say, he has transformed this orchestra so that its quality matches that of the ballet company. It is a wonderful thing to have the dancers and the orchestra so evenly matched.
Looking back over the years since Gil Boggs has been the Artistic Director; it is easy to watch the rapid improvement in this organization. And to phrase it in those terms makes it sound very trite. He has inspired the dancers with a newfound enthusiasm and he has inspired them with his own love for the art of ballet. He has proven time after time that he can raise this ballet company to new heights, and that here in Denver, there is a place for such an artistic organization to exist. It is high time that the community realizes that they do need their own building, and it is a very happy occasion when the community recognizes that need and supports the ballet to the extent that they have realized a long-held dream. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if they could have their own set design crew? They need that as well. This company, through the hard work by everyone on the staff, is one of the best in the United States. I can say that because I have seen other ballet companies and the Colorado Ballet is an equal.
Thank you, Colorado Ballet, for making my Friday evening a memorable one.
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: Arthur Bliss, Brett Kostrzewski, Cecil Effinger, Hubert Parry, Sarah Bierhaus, St. Martin's Chamber Choir, Terry Schlenker, Thomas Hornsby Ferril, Timothy Krueger
On September 8 of this year, I posted the press release from the St. Martin’s Chamber Choir, which was the preview of programs they are going to present this concert season. It is their twentieth year, and Maestro Timothy Krueger explained quite eloquently why the theme for this year’s concert season is Echoes. In case you missed the preview article, here is what he wrote:
“As I’ve pondered our first twenty years, I hear many, many echoes. Mostly those echoes are of great concerts. Important milestones in our history – our first live radio broadcast; our collaborations with orchestras like the Baroque Chamber Orchestra and the Colorado Music Festival; our invitational performances for Chorus America, the National Performing Arts Conference and the American Choral Directors Association – as well as concerts that stick out in my memory as my personal favorites: England Expects: Trafalgar at 200; Enlightenment A Cappella; The Art of Imitation; A Marian Christmas.
“Other echoes include our CD recordings – eleven of them, and counting – and their broadcasts on numerous radio stations across the country.
“There are also echoes of those former singers and board members who have died, but whose voices can still be heard if you listen very carefully – Mark Sheldon, Brennen Maynard, Ernest Priest, Larry Donoghue, Bill Gaunt, and others.
“And finally, there are the echoes of praise—your voices—those who have cheered and applauded after concerts, have filled us with joy and pride, have encouraged us, have supported us by buying tickets and donating.
“All of these Echoes have led to this upcoming Season, inspiring the theme for the entire year, and we have devised an incredible lineup of concerts, both looking back at our first twenty years, and looking forward to our next twenty.”
In reading this, I think one can get a very good idea of Timothy Krueger’s dedication to what he does, and his concern with music as an art. That entire aesthetic was in abundance Friday evening, September 27, at St. John’s Episcopal Cathedral, when they opened the first performance of their Twentieth Anniversary Season.
St. Martin’s Chamber Choir opened their program Friday with a work entitled Sweet Day, So Cool, by Sir Hubert Parry (1848-1918). Truthfully, the importance of Hubert Parry is often underestimated, because he made some great contributions to music – witness his major triumph with his piano Concerto in F Sharp Major, which was performed by Edward Dannreuther in 1880. In addition, he was a major contributor to Sir George Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians. And, as my memory serves me, he also had considerable success with a cantata entitled, Scenes From Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound.
Maestro Krueger chose a perfect work with which to open the program. Sometimes, critics are castigated for using the following word: pretty. But the word fits the music, and the performance also fits this word. The minute this choir begins to sing, I am always struck by the incredible balance in dynamics and sound. It was warm and mellifluous. In addition, throughout the entire concert Friday evening, the diction was well-nigh perfect. Where I was sitting, I had no trouble understanding every single word they were singing, and I did not have to refer to the text of each work which was printed in the program.
There followed three songs that, as Maestro Krueger explained, were rather trite, and he even stated that the arrangements he completed of these three songs, were trite. However, the latter statement certainly covers up his skill as a choral arranger. These three songs were concerning Lord Nelson, and I am sure all of you will remember from your high school history classes that Lord Nelson was a Flag Officer in the British Royal Navy during the Napoleonic wars. The songs were entitled Brave Nelson, The Second of August, and Nelson’s Death and Victory. The first song used the theme from the national anthem of Great Britain, as well as the national anthem of France. Typical of the songs of the period, they sounded as if they were used to stir the troops into action by praising the officers in charge. And while they may not have been overcome with profundity, they were a joy to listen to because of the skillful arrangement. The third was positively jovial.
Next on the program came a Birthday Song For a Royal Child by English composer Arthur Bliss (1891-1975), and three wonderful 18th century motets. The motets were conducted by Brett Kostrzewski, who is the Conducting Intern with St. Martin’s Chamber Choir. I could not help but wonder how excited he must have been to be conducting such an organization. It was also clear that he is very close to stepping out on his own. The choir followed him very closely, and gave him everything that he asked for.
It was with these motets that the concert began to reflect (or Echo, if you will) the joy that the choir takes in performing early music. They also demonstrated through that joy the care that it takes to perform it so authentically.
Following the motets, Maestro Krueger and the St. Martin’s chamber choir performed Four Pastorales by Colorado composer Cecil Effinger (1914-1990). These pieces were written for choir and oboe, and the quality of these pieces, and the excellence of the performance left me wondering how it could be that Cecil Effinger never achieved a national reputation. These were beautifully done, and it was clear that Krueger and the Chamber Choir felt a very special relationship to them. The oboe soloist was Sarah Bierhaus. I will quote from the program notes:
“Sarah Bierhaus is the oboe instructor at the University of Denver and at Regis University. She is the principal oboist of the Boulder Philharmonic Orchestra and Fort Collins Symphony Orchestra and plays oboe and English horn in the Central City Opera. Her woodwind quintet, the Antero Winds (formally Arundo Winds), has won national recognition, including the silver medal at the 2006 Fischoff National Chamber Music Competition and first prize at the 2007 Plowman Chamber Music Competition. Ms. Bierhaus received her Doctorate of Musical Arts at the University of Colorado at Boulder, where she studied with Peter Cooper. She also holds a Master of Music degree from the Eastman School of Music, where she studied with Richard Kilmer.”
The text to these Four Pastorales comes from poems by Thomas Hornsby Ferril (1896-1988). Ferril was a lifelong resident of Denver. Aside from being a very prolific poet, he was the publicity director for the Great Western Sugar company for more than forty years. He was appointed Colorado Poet Laureate in 1979. He won many awards for his poetry, and many of the most illustrious American writers visited his home here in Denver, including Jack London, Carl Sandburg, Thomas Wolfe, Dorothy Parker, and Robert Frost.
The texts to these poems are incredibly expressive, and seemed to me to be very close to the Symbolist poetry and literature written by the great French poets of the middle and late nineteenth century. These four poems were a joy to listen to, and Sarah Bierhaus’ performance, as well as the choir’s, was very moving indeed. It was clear that Effinger was moved by these poems, and that Maestro Krueger, Sarah Bierhaus, and the St. Martin’s Chamber Choir felt that emotion as well. The performers lent a great deal of mystery to the text and its meaning, because of their warmth and sensitivity. The texts were full of haunting obscurities whose meaning was not readily apparent. For example:
“And you were kneeling by a flower,
And it was practical and wise
For me to kneel and you to rise,
And me to rise and turn to go,
And you to turn and whisper no,
And seven wondrous stags that I
Could not believe walked slowly by.”
The choir and the oboe positively shimmered. There was no question that all of the performers were struck by this composition. And, it was certainly obvious that the audience was as well, for there was a moment of silence before the audience began their applause. It was an absolutely wonderful performance.
Following the intermission, St. Martin’s Chamber Choir and Maestro Krueger performed two works by Terry Schlenker, (b. 1951). The two works performed were Laudate Dominum and Mass for Double Choir. I will quote from a bio statement I obtained from the web:
“Terry Schlenker (b. 1951) studied music composition at the University of North Dakota and at the University of Denver’s Lamont School of Music, from which he holds a Master of Art’s Degree in Composition. He is a past winner of the Young Artist’s Orchestra’s Composition Competition. A composer of many orchestral, piano and chamber works, Schlenker has focused much of his recent energy on a cappella choral music. Many of his choral works have been recorded and published and are regularly heard on the Classical Public Radio Network. He has been featured on the Public Radio programs of Colorado Matters, Colorado Spotlight, Sacred Classics, and Classical Discoveries. In addition, his music has been used in a documentary film. He is regularly commissioned in the Colorado area. His work has been performed at the national conventions of Chorus America and ACDA (The American Choral Director’s Association), at the International Festival of GALA Choruses, and at the National Choral Festival. For Schlenker, to compose music is not to engage in an esoteric, intellectual exercise, but to articulate beauty, to express his deepest self, and to make a connection with the spiritual, both for himself and for others. An embryologist by profession, Schlenker co-founded and for 12 years directed one of the most successful human in-vitro fertilization laboratories in the world. Several years ago he partially retired, in order to focus more time on composing music. He continues to work part-time as an embryologist.”
Hearing these two works by Schlenker was an education for me because I have never heard his music performed before, though I am familiar with his name as a composer. The Laudate Dominum truly made me sit up and take notice. The melodic line was absolutely gorgeous, and it was perfectly written for a choir the size of the St. Martin’s Chamber Choir. Schlenker does not write using serial technique, nor is he a minimalist composer. He certainly has an amazing knowledge of choirs, and the ability to divide a choir into many parts so that the harmony underlying the melodic line can be divided into an infinite number of tones. There were times when it seemed that he was writing larger chords and thirteenth chords, but every single note resolved continually by half step. The resolutions were absolutely unceasing and deceptive. This also applies to the Mass for Double Choir. There was constant harmonic movement, and it seemed to me that there were scattered quarter tone steps, rather than the usual half step, in the passing tones. The resultant sound can most easily be described as some form of 21st century Impressionism, for it shimmered constantly, and its shape continually changed. What we might describe as normal chords function was nonexistent. The demands placed on the choir were extreme, and Schlenker makes full use of the full range of each voice. He certainly demanded that each singer in the choir utilize the utmost in control of breath and dynamics.
This was a spellbinding performance, and again, as the choir finished his performance of this Mass, there was a very long pause before they gave Schlenker and St. Martin’s Chamber Choir a standing ovation. It was certainly well-deserved. This performance, without a doubt, was one of the best that I have ever heard St. Martin’s Chamber Choir give. As I have written before, there are six or seven music organizations, choral and instrumental, in this state that can be favorably compared to any organization you care to mention. The St. Martin’s Chamber Choir and Timothy Krueger are among those that should never be taken for granted just because they are local. There is the old cliché that says “The further away one has to travel for a performance, the better the performance is.” The St. Martin’s Chamber Choir shatters that cliché with every performance.