Opus Colorado


The Boulder Chamber Orchestra with Soto and Korevaar: Truly exceptional in every way

Saturday evening, December 21, I attended a concert given by the Boulder Chamber Orchestra under the direction of Bahman Saless, given at the Montview Boulevard Presbyterian Church in Denver. The title of this particular program was A Gift of Music, and, I must say, that certainly turned out to be the case. There were two remarkable soloists. David Korevaar performed Mozart’s Piano Concerto in A Major, K. 414, and the BCO’s own Max Soto performed a work by Boulder composer Bill Douglas, entitled Songs and Dances for Oboe and Strings. Also on the program was George Frideric Handel’s well-known Water Music Suite Nr. 1 in F Major. This program was indeed a gift because there were two well-known works on the program, the Handel and the Mozart, but also, because there was a brand-new piece that I have never heard before, and that was the work by Bill Douglas.

Maestro Saless opened the program with the Handel. Handel had left Germany for England because he did not particularly like the patronage system that was in Germany, where the type of music he wrote was dictated to him by the royalty. In England he hoped to be able to compose more freely. The three Water Music suites, as the program notes pointed out, came about because King George I was trying to improve his image before the English people. He took some barge trips on the Thames from London to Chelsea, which, in today’s vernacular, we would call a ‘photo op,’ in order to prove to the people that he could mingle.

The Suite Nr. 1 is well-known for its tricky French horn writing, and this certainly gives the piece its immediate identity. The first movement of the six part suite opens with trills in the violins, and then in the horns. I was impressed immediately by the fact that the trills in the violins were together (each note!) as well as in the horns. As a matter of fact, Devon Park and Megan Rubin, French horn, were outstanding all the way through this work by Handel. I also hasten to point out that the violins have taken on a new life this season because of all the new faces. Annamaria Karacson, Concertmaster, did not play Saturday evening, because she was serving as concertmaster in the Colorado Ballet’s The Nutcracker. Principal Second violinist, Gyongyver Petheo, took her place, and another violinist who I believe was Michaela Borth, moved up one chair. The reason that I mention all of this is that this season, the Boulder Chamber Orchestra has demonstrated a great deal of depth with many new faces. I had the opportunity Saturday evening to sit very close to the violins, and because of that, I could hear the violinists individually. Some of the ornaments in the Handel are difficult, but, as one might expect, they were accomplished with great ease. In the second movement, which Handel has marked Adagio e staccato, there was some very nice work done by the oboes, Max Soto and Kim Brody, and bassoonist, Kent Hurd. The entire orchestra reflected a new precision and care Saturday evening. It is as if the new members of this orchestra have infected the entire group with a new sense of meticulousness. The Handel was full of spirit and drive, and it truly did seem as if they were in total agreement with Maestro Saless every step of the way.

Following the Handel, and immediately before the Douglas work, Maestro Saless inserted a seasonal carol entitled Chanukah, Chanukah. This was the first time I had heard this Carol and it was very definitely a slow-fast-slow dance form. I am sure that it was using the Ahava Rabbah scale which is used throughout Israel, Turkey, and Lebanon, at least. It is similar to a modified Phrygian mode. But this was a marvelous piece of music, and it was very definitely emotional in its celebratory spirit.

Next on the program Maestro Saless and the Boulder Chamber Orchestra principal oboist, Max Soto, performed a work by Boulder composer Bill Douglas entitled, Songs and Dances for Oboe and Strings. I will quote from Douglas’ website:

“I was born in London, Ontario, Canada on November 7, 1944. My father played trombone and sang in a big band, and my mother played organ in church. My earliest memory is of myself playing in a one-man band with toy instruments when I was three. I began piano lessons at four and I taught myself ukulele and guitar when I was about eight or nine….

“From 1962-66, I attended the University of Toronto and obtained a BA in music education. During this time, I became very interested in 20th century classical music, and started composing pieces influenced by Anton Webern, Elliott Carter, and Igor Stravinsky, as well as such contemporary jazz artists as Paul Bley and Gary Peacock. I played fourth bassoon in the Toronto Symphony, and I often played jazz piano gigs on weekends.

“I was awarded a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship in 1966, and attended Yale University from 1966-69. There I met clarinetist Richard Stoltzman, and we have been touring and recording ever since. In 1967, I played three concerti with the Toronto Symphony. I received a Master of Music degree majoring in bassoon in 1968, and a Master of Musical Arts degree in composition in 1969. At this time, I was writing very avant-garde atonal music. After Yale, I received a Canada Council award to study composition in London, England, for a year.

“In 1977, I moved to Boulder, Colorado, to teach at the Naropa Institute. I continue to teach there and to tour with Richard Stoltzman and my own groups. With Richard, I also often play with bassist Eddie Gomez. Some of my bassoon students from Cal Arts moved to Boulder with me, and we formed the Boulder Bassoon Band which played together for twenty years.”

This was the first time I have heard this composition. It is a very impressive piece, which has the overall quality of a pastorale, even though these movements are all dance movements. The movements are listed as, I. Bebop Jig; II. Folksong; III. Afro-Cuban Baroque; IV. Lament; and V. Celtic Waltz.

This is truly a beautiful piece of music, and it seemed to me that it was very well suited to Soto’s marvelous ability on the oboe. The Bebop Jig is full of difficult rhythms, and in spite of its lively character, has a certain plaintiveness about it. The program notes explained that in Part II of the suite, Folksong, that Douglas was inspired by the folk music of the British Isles. Indeed, this was a beautifully lyric work which displayed the newfound richness that the violin section has. It also gave Max Soto the opportunity to show that he could match that ambience with his oboe. But, for me, the most exciting portion of this work (and it is difficult to make this choice because the entire work is so excellent, as was Soto’s playing) was Part III entitled, Afro-Cuban Baroque. This was a vigorous tango that was so skillfully written that I could not help but compare it to the work done by Arturo Márquez or Luis Jorge González. It was as elegant as it was spirited, and I must say that the Boulder Chamber Orchestra seemed to have the same affinity for a tango that the Costa Rican native, Max Soto, displays without effort. If you can imagine a tango being lyrical and carefree, that is the character that Soto gave this movement. Yes, it was fast at times but Soto and the orchestra seemed to be totally relaxed. I could have listened to Part III all night long. Part IV of this suite of dances was named Lament, and Part V, Celtic Waltz. Bill Douglas and Max Soto seem to have created a piece of music that has a narrative. That almost seems a shallow way to describe this work, but the narrative is so skillfully done that it could be applied to anything the listener wishes.

When Songs and Dances for Oboe and Strings came to an end I was genuinely disappointed. I would love to hear this piece again and again.

In the closing weeks of 1782, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart began work on several compositions: piano concertos K. 413, K. 414 (most likely completed by December 28, 1782), and K. 415. The G major string quartet was completed December 31, 1782. Also, we know that he had begun work on the C minor Mass at this period of time because it was mentioned in a letter to his father on January 4, 1783. This is, quite obviously, a truly Herculean effort on Mozart’s part. In many ways, it was spurred by his satisfaction of leaving Salzburg, where he had been very unhappy, for Vienna. He remained in Vienna until 1786, when the Viennese failure of The Marriage of Figaro received fewer than ten performances. This was due to the musical politics of the Italian clique in Vienna.

The A Major Piano Concerto was performed Saturday evening by David Korevaar, well-known faculty member at CU-Boulder. Korevaar has amazing concentration which keeps him very relaxed, and this was even more noticeable Saturday evening because the front row seats at the Montview Boulevard Presbyterian Church seemed to be immediately at the end of the keyboard. But I assure you that did not phase David Korevaar one bit. The minute the Boulder Chamber Orchestra and Maestro Saless began to perform, Korevaar was deep in concentration. His playing was, as usual, quite remarkable. This concerto has six major subjects in the first movement alone, and Korevaar carefully delineated each one in the most delightful way imaginable, through impeccable dynamic phrasing and nuance, which did not exceed the style of the Classical Period. It seemed that his ease at the keyboard inspired the orchestra to follow his every move with an effortlessness which was almost serene: Maestro Saless and the Boulder Chamber Orchestra easily demonstrated that they were just as musically reliable as David Korevaar. It was very clear throughout this entire concerto that everyone on stage was thoroughly enjoying each other’s company, and I assure you that for the solo performer that can be not only a very warm feeling, but a very great compliment.

The slow movement in K. 414 is a Sonata allegro form, with its main subject taken from an overture composed by Johann Christian Bach, who was Mozart’s childhood friend and teacher. As the program notes state, J.C. Bach died on New Year’s Day in 1782. This movement is so lyrical that its solemnity can almost be overlooked, and Korevaar gave it great warmth which was not at all destroyed by his meticulous shaping of each phrase. There has never been anything mechanical about the way Korevaar plays.

The third movement is a very affable and congenial movement presented in a way that only Mozart can accomplish, in spite of the complexities of its counterpoint. As my memory serves me, the last movement is written in a 2/4 meter, and is in a rondo form. It is, technically, the most difficult of the three movements, but it genuinely seemed as though Korevaar was saying to the audience, “Yes, it is difficult, but it is also an incredible joy to play, and that makes it very easy.” Again, the interchange between Korevaar and the Boulder Chamber Orchestra was something to behold: it was a remarkable and artistic collaboration.

I truly believe that I have never heard the Boulder Chamber Orchestra and Maestro Bahman Saless perform so well. On the other hand, when the orchestra has two fine soloists such as Max Soto and David Korevaar, their task becomes much more delightful. It was also a great pleasure at Saturday evening’s performance to see so many young people in the audience, even though the weather caused the audience to be somewhat sparse. Because of the intimate surroundings, these young people were able to hear a truly fine performance.



The “New” Boulder Chamber Orchestra is terrific

It is always very exciting when an organization that is already outstanding improves even more. Such is the case with the Boulder Chamber Orchestra under the directorship of Maestro Bahman Saless. The first concert of this season that I was able to attend was Saturday, November 9, at the Broomfield auditorium. They performed Mozart’s Symphony Nr. 29 in A Major, K. 201; Britten’s Les Illuminations, sung by Szilvia Schranz; and Beethoven’s Piano Concerto Nr. 2 in B flat Major, Op. 19.

There were many new faces in the orchestra, but particularly in the violin section. But, do not worry; Annamaria Karacson is still the Concertmaster. The result of the heavy changes, at least to my ear, was an amazing precision in dynamically shaped phrases which were shared by everyone, and very accurate attacks and releases in entrances. This new accuracy seems to be contagious, for the “old hands” in the orchestra played better than ever Saturday evening. Aniel Cabán was again superb as first chair viola, as was Joey Howe, Principal Cello, Cobus du Toit, flute, and Max Soto and Kimberly Brody, both on oboe. Just because I don’t mention everyone in all of the sections certainly does not mean that they escaped my attention for excellent playing. The entire orchestra seemed to be breathing fresh air.

Another reason I was delighted with this concert is purely personal: they opened with the Mozart Symphony Nr. 29, which happens to be one of my favorites. It is also regarded the world over as the first of Mozart’s mature style and symphonic writing, even though he was eighteen years old when he wrote this work. The word symphony (coming from the word ‘sinfonia’ in Italian), until the middle of the 18th century, could be applied to almost any style of composition for orchestra with different characters: suites, overtures, and even the interludes in oratorios. It was the Mannheim composers, those that came before Haydn, and the Bach sons, who contributed so greatly to the development of the sonata form and its use in the symphony. Mozart’s 29th symphony marks his change from the Italianate style to one of thematic development, richer motives, and a genuine balance between first and last movements.

From the outset, the change in this orchestra was apparent. The new precision was evidenced in the absolute accuracy of the dotted rhythms. In addition, the transparency of Mozart’s style can make it very obvious if someone in the orchestra is playing out of tune. This simply was not the case on Saturday. The entire orchestra was superbly in tune, and exhibited great care in the kind of sound they were producing. They played with such a new confidence, that it was very easy to sit back, relax, and share their amazement at the ability of an eighteen-year-old composer who could write such a work. It truly seemed as if they were able to put all of their musicianship into Mozart. The performance was warm, graceful, delicate where it needed to be delicate, and full of vigor. It was a delightful performance.

Following the Mozart, Szilvia Schranz sang Benjamin Britten’s Les Illuminations. For those of you who are unfamiliar with this work, it is a musical setting of Arthur Rimbaud’s cycle of poems. Keep in mind that Rimbaud was one of the Symbolist poets of the nineteenth century. Christine Brooke-Rose in her Grammar of Metaphor explains that in symbolist poetry “… The proper term is replaced altogether by a metaphor, without being mentioned at all.” Of course, the proper term or thing must be hinted at, or at least deciphered, from the context. I hasten to point out that some symbolist poetry simply cannot be ‘deciphered.’ Many of the symbolist poets visualized their poetry as expressing through its sensible instrumentality, something that is insensible. In addition, one of the elements that must be mentioned here is that in symbolist poetry, the lyrical self does not speak in the first person, but yields its place to a suggestive and impersonal lyrical object. For example a symbolist poet who is trying to express a search for meaning in life, might describe himself as a wandering ship.

The point of all this discussion is that symbolist poetry has a certain “musicality of language” which was recognized by Benjamin Britten, who clearly understood a great deal about poetry, especially from his friendship with W. H. Auden. Britten’s settings of Rimbaud’s poems are lyricism personified, and it is very clear that Szilvia Schranz recognized this. Her performance of this work was very emotional, and as one followed the translation in the program notes, one became aware of the “inherent search” in Rimbaud’s poetry: “Bordered by colossi and copper palms, ancient craters bellow melodiously through flames.… Groups of belfries sing the people’s ideas. Unfamiliar music escapes from castles of bone.”

There is no question that for a singer, this is a difficult piece. It not only demands perfect voice control which Ms. Schranz has in abundance, but that control must not get in the way of interpretive drama. In addition, one has to have a very keen sense of pitch, and enough control to land squarely on pitch every single time. Her performance was incredibly beautiful, and very sensitive, conveying the extraordinary sense of futility that is inherent in Rimbaud’s text. A few years ago, I was fortunate to hear Ms. Schranz perform Samuel Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915, which is one of my favorite compositions of the twentieth century. That was a stunning performance as well, just as this one was. I would also point out, that in this work Aniel Cabán’s performance on the viola was superb.

The Boulder Chamber Orchestra performed beautifully in this work. There was immediate and solid communication between Maestro Saless and Szilvia Schranz, without any confusion or haste, proving beyond a doubt, that Ms. Schranz is a solid and very reliable musician. She and Maestro Saless were very comfortable with one another, which allowed them to concentrate on making music.

I will quote from the bio statement on her website:

“Ms. Schranz was born in Budapest, Hungary into a family of musicians that had worked for generations in the Hungarian National Opera and Hungarian Festival Orchestra. At the age of 10, her family escaped their country’s oppressive communist government to relocate in Boulder, Colorado where her father’s string quartet, the Grammy-winning Takács Quartet, [was] appointed as musicians-in-residence at the University of Colorado School of Music.

“After graduating from the University of Colorado, Ms. Schranz performed at the Denver Center for Performing Arts with their Tony-award winning theater company in the Tempest. She then went to further her studies at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London where she studied with Vera Rózsa, who also taught such renown singers as Kiri Te Kanawa and Anne Sofie Von Otter. After a year’s study in London, she received a post-graduate diploma in vocal training.

“While in London she appeared several times with the London Chamber Soloists, including solo performances of Mahler’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, as well as in Mozart’s Requiem and Haydn’s Creation at St. Martin in the Fields. She also sang at a charity concert for the Kensington Housing Trust at the Leighton House in London.

“Today, Ms. Schranz studies with Julliard’s Daniel Ferro, while expanding her career as a solo and opera singer from her home in Manhattan.”

Following the intermission, pianist Soheil Nasseri, joined the Boulder Chamber Orchestra in performing Beethoven’s Piano Concerto Nr. 2 in B flat Major. I think most concertgoers are familiar with the reverse publication dates concerning Beethoven’s first piano concerto and his second, so I will not dwell on those details.

Quoting from Nasseri’s website:

“Pianist Soheil Nasseri has been lauded by The New York Times as “consistently interesting… consistently thoughtful… a vivid imagination. Filled with character…” and by the Berliner Zeitung as “Fantastic! A real talent. [In Beethoven] We in the audience could not possibly have had more fun.” In addition to critical acclaim for his playing, The New Yorker has noted that Mr. Nasseri is “one of New York’s most prolific recitalists.” Since 2001 he has performed 20 completely different solo recital programs in New York, all without repeating a single piece: at Carnegie Hall’s Weill Recital Hall, at Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center, and at Merkin Concert Hall. These concerts included 25 premières of contemporary works in addition to 30 of Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas, a part of Mr. Nasseri’s pledge to perform all of Beethoven’s works involving piano by the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth in 2020.

“Born in Santa Monica, California, Soheil Nasseri began studying the piano at the age of five and at the age of twenty moved to New York in part to study with Karl Ulrich Schnabel. In 2001 Mr. Nasseri became a protégé of Jerome Lowenthal who remains Mr. Nasseri’s mentor today. Other teachers include Irina Edelman, Claude Frank, Anna Balakerskaia, Clinton Adams, Eva Pierrou, and Ann Schein.”

Soheil Nasseri deserves all of the accolades above. As a pianist, he is extremely relaxed, and has an astonishing ability to play extremely softly, and not allow himself to be covered by the orchestra. His knowledge of Beethoven is profound, with all of the clarity and dynamic contrasts that Beethoven demands. His playing can be very articulate, and then wonderfully lyrical, and his concentration on what he is doing is total, and very confident. He demonstrated remarkable finesse in his phrasing, and every aspect of musicianship that can be verbalized. The only thing that I would change in his performance ability is his penchant for stomping his right foot on the damper pedal and the stage. That created a substantial amount of noise, and gave rise to my expectation that he might explode into the theatrical movements that some pianists of today seem to think is necessary when performing. He did not do that, but, nonetheless, he made a great deal of noise with his right foot. It was a real distraction to his fine playing.

There was another aspect of Mr. Nasseri’s performance that bears mention, and which was not at all expected. At the beginning of the concert, Maestro Saless explained to the audience a few things to listen for in the Mozart Symphony. When Szilvia Schranz came out on stage to perform the Britten, Maestro Saless handed her the microphone, and she gave us some insight into her performance. When Mr. Nasseri came out on stage, Maestro Saless handed him the microphone. However, instead of offering insights into the Beethoven Concerto, Nasseri delved into a standup comedy routine, a la Lenny Bruce, complete with foul language, that had no bearing whatsoever on his performance of the piano concerto. It certainly appeared to me that Maestro Saless was clearly surprised and taken aback, as was the audience. After about five minutes of this, Nasseri asked the audience if they wanted to hear the concerto, and everyone nodded their heads, and said yes. He then proceeded to play, and, as I said, he played very well. I do not know what caused his desire to do a “standup comedy routine,” but it reminded me of the nineteenth century pianist named Daniel Steibelt, who would play the piano while his wife performed on the tambourine. I thought that Nasseri’s actions were entirely uncalled for, and I stress that it is my opinion that Maestro Bahman Saless, everyone on stage, and in the audience, was dumbfounded. I would suggest to Soheil Nasseri that no matter where he plays, if he wishes to be asked back, that he concentrate on his art, rather than contribute to its denigration.



World Class Hsing-ay Hsu and the Boulder Chamber Orchestra are stunning!

I have attended three or four concerts this concert season where the musicians involved in the performance truly seemed totally energized and excited by the music they were going to perform. Such was the case Saturday evening, May 11th, with the Boulder Chamber Orchestra under the direction of Maestro Bahman Saless. They performed an all-Beethoven program at the Broomfield Auditorium in front of a full house.

The Boulder Chamber Orchestra opened the program with the overture to Beethoven’s only ballet, The Creatures of Prometheus. A result of an association with the choreographer Salvatore Viganò in 1800, it was first performed on March 28, 1801. At the time, it was quite popular, and received twelve performances, but even so, it was eventually criticized as being far too serious for a ballet. This work carries the number Opus 43, which is quite challenging, because it indicates that the work was written quite a bit later than it actually was. We know, for example, that there was a piano arrangement of the score published as Opus 24. It was the publisher, Hoffmeister, who published the score of the overture under the incorrect number Opus 43, which, of course, leads one to believe an incorrect composition date. Beethoven also used the theme from the ballet in his Twelve Contradanses (without opus number), the Variations and Fugue for Piano, Opus 35, and the connection for Saturday evening’s performance, as a major theme in the last movement of his Symphony Nr. 3.

This Beethoven overture is a relatively short work, but it is quite an exciting one, and was well-chosen to begin this program. The work opens with forte chords separated by a considerable space between them. The attacks on each of the chords were perfect, followed by lyrical sections of the full orchestra with the weight of the melodic line carried by the woodwinds. This short introduction is then followed by the theme of the opening chords with an underlayment of sixteenth notes in the strings. This is a very exciting piece of music, and it only works if there is true precision from the violins. That precision was in abundance throughout the whole concert Saturday evening. That sounds like a very obvious thing to say, especially considering the fact that these are all professional musicians, but I assure you there was a very special “edge” to the performance on Saturday. It was full of tension and excitement. The other aspect that I noticed about the performance was that all of the musicians on stage were not only watching Maestro Saless, they were very carefully watching each other. The sforzandos (a marked and sudden emphasis) were as perfectly together as the entrances, and that comes from eye contact with each other, as well as the conductor. Beethoven’s ballet, The Creatures of Prometheus, has fallen by the wayside as far as its popularity is concerned. That, in my opinion, has led many conductors to treat the overture to the ballet as a “filler” piece of music, to be used only when a short work is needed for the program. It was great to hear Maestro Bahman Saless and the Boulder Chamber Orchestra treat it like the genuine piece of music, which it is.

Following the Beethoven overture, Boulder (and world) pianist Hsing-ay Hsu joined the Boulder Chamber Orchestra in the performance of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto Nr. 5 in E Flat Major, Opus 73, known as the “Emperor.”

Surely, everyone in Colorado must, by now, know who Hsing-ay Hsu is; however, I will quote from her bio statement which is on the web:

“Since making her stage debut at age 4, Chinese pianist Hsing-ay Hsu (“Sing-I Shoo”) has performed at such notable venues as Carnegie Hall, the Kennedy Center, Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center, and abroad in Asia and Europe.

“Upon entering her freshman year at Juilliard, she won the William Kapell International Piano Competition silver medal. Hsu was also winner of the Ima Hogg National Competition First Prize, the prestigious Juilliard William Petschek Recital Award, a McCrane Foundation Artist Grant, a Paul & Daisy Soros Graduate Fellowship Award, and a Gilmore Young Artist Award. She was also named a US Presidential Scholar of the Arts by President Clinton at the White House.

“A versatile concerto soloist performing Bach to Barber, she is described by the Washington Post as full of ‘power, authority, and self-assurance.’ Concerto collaborations include the Houston Symphony Orchestra as first-prize winner of the 2003 Ima Hogg National Competition, the Baltimore Symphony, the Colorado Symphony, Pacific Symphony (CA), Colorado Springs, Florida West Coast, Fort Collins, New Jersey, Waterbury (CT), China National, Shanghai, Shenzhen, and Xiamen orchestras. Television and radio feature broadcasts include Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion Live from Tanglewood (for a 10,000+ live audience members and 3.9 million broadcast audience), NPR’s Performance Today with Martin Goldsmith, TCI cablevision’s Grand Piano Recital (CA), CPR’s Colorado Spotlight, China Central National TV, Hong Kong Phoenix TV, and Danish National Radio. She has recorded CD/DVD’s for Pacific Records, Albany Records, and Nutmeg Press labels.

“An advocate of new music, she has given numerous world premieres including Ezra Laderman’s Piano Sonata No. and Beshert; Ned Rorem’s Aftermath (2002) for baritone and piano trio; Daniel Kellogg’s scarlet thread at the Guggenheim Museum in New York and his Momentum, which she commissioned for the 1998 Gilmore International Keyboard Festival; as well as Du MingXin’s Piano Concerto No.3 at the Gulangyu International Piano Festival and National Tour. Chamber music appearances include Carnegie Weill Hall, Bargemusic in New York, the Aspen Music Festival, Tanglewood, the Great Lakes Chamber Music Festival, the Gardner Museum in Boston, the Detroit Art Museum, Denmark’s Viborg Hall, Taiwan’s Novel Hall, and a 2007 all-stars gala in Hong Kong for the 10th anniversary of the reunification. Recent projects include the ongoing multi-media recital China through the Lens of Piano Music, co-directing/performing in the George Crumb at 80 Music Festival, and producing/performing the Olivier Messiaen Centennial series.”

I suppose that it is not without reason that Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto is nicknamed the “Emperor,” though I hasten to point out that nickname did not come from Beethoven. The name arises from the fact that it is a very forceful piece, akin to the “Eroica” Symphony Nr.3, also in E Flat Major (and also performed at Saturday’s concert). Beethoven, perhaps, more than any other composer, has had so much written about him which is full of nonsense by the early romantically-inclined critics, that today, one must realize that listening to a single page of his music is far more instructive than reading a hundred pages of the early literary effusion. The Fifth Piano Concerto is full of sharp forte-piano shadings, and incredible bravura eruptions, but the second movement also contains some of the most idyllic writing to come from Beethoven.

As stated above in her biography, Hsing-ay Hsu takes charge of the piano the moment she sits down. Her playing is full of confidence, and why shouldn’t it be? Consider all of her awards and concert experience. However, she also exudes true musicianship, and understanding of the composer that she is playing. I also hasten to interrupt myself here, to explain that Maestro Saless, in speaking to the audience, clarified that all of works on Saturday’s concert were going to be taken at tempos that were consistent with those of Beethoven’s era. They were faster than the tempos of today. As Hsing-ay Hsu began to play, it was clear that she was comfortable, and in full agreement with the tempos that were no doubt discussed with Maestro Bahman Saless. Her arpeggios ascending the keyboard from the opening chords of the introduction were crystal clear because of her very careful pedal use. She certainly used less pedal on the ascending arpeggios and the accompanying trills at the top than, for example, Claudio Arrau. Yet, it was wonderfully musical. I was also immediately struck with the impression that she was enjoying the Sauter piano because of its clarity of tone, though there were spots in certain registers of the keyboard that seemed a little out of tune, unlike other performances that I have heard on this particular piano. Her playing is so clean that it boggles the mind, and she has such power that it seems there is no chance that the orchestra could cover her. Her playing in the second movement was positively ethereal and dream-like. And, indeed, it is one of Beethoven’s most expressive statements in his entire output. I have often stated that it is sometimes more difficult to play slowly, concentrating on tone production and dynamic shadings, then it is to play fast and loud. Hsing-ay Hsu allowed the second movement to radiate emotion without being overly sentimental, and never once did she leave Beethoven’s style behind. The second movement has a slow transition which gets faster as it progresses, and the third movement of the concerto begins attacca (begin what follows without pausing). The tempo of the third movement was very quick indeed, but Hsing-ay Hsu filled it with the jubilance that I have not heard for some time. Once again, the members of the orchestra were watching each other carefully. The violins and cellos, which could easily see the piano keyboard, were also keeping a sharp eye on Ms. Hsu. It was a perfect example of an orchestra determined to allow the soloist and the conductor to lead them in this piece and offer both individuals all the support they could muster. It was clear that the members of this orchestra truly enjoyed playing with Hsing-ay Hsu because she is such an incredibly reliable musician.

Allow me to explain precisely what I mean by reliable. It means that the soloist not only knows where every note and rest and dynamic marking is, but is able to communicate that with eye contact and gestures with the conductor. In the third movement of this concerto, Ms. Hsu had a miniscule memory slip, and came in a beat late. This is not an extreme criticism by any stretch: it is part of the price of admission of being a soloist. I am confident that no one in the audience spotted this slip because I doubt that anyone in the audience knows the score well enough to spot such a small error, but it did result in an amused smile from Hsing-ay Hsu. Her reliability as a performing musician allowed her great confidence to keep going as if nothing had happened without losing a secondary beat, and it also gave Maestro Saless the confidence to know that she was going to continue without a stumble. She knew the piece so well that her tempo never changed, her eyes never got wide with shock, and she never lost her breath. That is mental and musical reliability, and total knowledge of the work at hand. It is the mark of experience, which is something that is difficult for the audience to understand unless they do it themselves in their own field of endeavor. Hsing-ay Hsu gave a wonderfully exciting performance of this very difficult piece, and her artistry and musical excellence were in a sphere obtained by only a few.

Following Hsing-ay Hsu’s remarkable performance, Maestro Saless and the Boulder Chamber Orchestra performed Beethoven’s revolutionary Symphony Nr. 3 in E flat Major, Opus 55. Note that I used the word “revolutionary.” In truth, all of Beethoven’s symphonies are revolutionary, because he did so many things other composers would not do, as in his first symphony (which is in C major). He starts on the wrong chord, travels through a minor, then F major, and at the beginning of the exposition section, finally settles in C major. Just that aspect startled critics of the day. Of course, being a revolutionary meant that his thinking was in advance of his contemporaries, and that he was misunderstood because his contemporaries refused to look forward. It was due only to later generations to award Beethoven their honor with their enlightenment.

This Third Symphony is so well-known that it really needs no movement by movement explanation. But I must point out that in the first movement the entire cello section was absolutely marvelous. In the second movement the oboes, Max Soto and Kimberly Brody excelled, as did Cobus du Toit and Ginger Hedrick, flute. In fact, the entire woodwind section including Jerome Fleg and Kellen Toohey, clarinet; and Kent Hurd and Kaori Uno, bassoon, were all exceptional. I have never heard the horn section of the Boulder Chamber Orchestra play as well as they did in this Third Symphony. As I said in the opening paragraph of this article, this was a wonderful concert by everyone on stage. It clearly was the best performance I have ever heard the Boulder Chamber Orchestra give. Everyone on stage, guided by Maestro Bahman Saless, had a knowledge of Beethoven that allowed them to present Beethoven in his purist sense. What more could one ask for?



The Boulder Chamber Orchestra and Hsing-ay Hsu: a magnificent all Beethoven program
April 28, 2013, 6:27 pm
Filed under: News | Tags: ,

The Boulder Chamber Orchestra, under the direction of Maestro Bahman Saless, will perform an all Beethoven program with the remarkable pianist, Hsing-ay Hsu. Please note that there will be two performances of this program: one in Boulder, and one in Broomfield.

What:
Beethoven: Overture to The Creatures of Prometheus
Beethoven: Symphony Nr. 3 in E Flat Major, Op. 55, Eroica
Beethoven: Piano Concerto Nr. 3 in c minor, Op. 37, The Emperor

When:
Friday, May 10th, 2013 at 7:30 pm

Where:
First Congregational Church of Boulder, 1128 Pine St., Boulder, CO 80302

The Second Performance:
Saturday, May 11th, 2012 at 7:30 pm

Where:
Broomfield Auditorium, 3 Community Park Road, Broomfield, CO 80020

If you have not heard this remarkable pianist perform, and if you have not heard the Boulder Chamber Orchestra perform, you must make the effort required and attend one of these concerts. I assure you that you will not be disappointed.

I will quote from the website:

“Since making her stage debut at age 4, Chinese pianist Hsing-ay Hsu (“Sing-I Shoo”) has performed at such notable venues as Carnegie Hall, the Kennedy Center, Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center, and abroad in Asia and Europe.

“Upon entering her freshman year at Juilliard and reaching the age of eligibility, she won the William Kapell International Piano Competition silver medal. Hsu was also winner of the Ima Hogg National Competition First Prize, the prestigious Juilliard William Petschek Recital Award, a McCrane Foundation Artist Grant, a Paul & Daisy Soros Graduate Fellowship Award, and a Gilmore Young Artist Award. She was also named a US Presidential Scholar of the Arts by President Clinton at the White House.

“A versatile concerto soloist performing Bach to Barber, she is described by the Washington Post as full of ‘power, authority, and self-assurance.’ Concerto collaborations include the Houston Symphony Orchestra as first-prize winner of the Ima Hogg National Competition, the Baltimore Symphony, the Colorado Symphony, Pacific Symphony (CA), Colorado Springs, Florida West Coast, Fort Collins, New Jersey, Waterbury (CT), China National, Shanghai, Shenzhen, and Xiamen orchestras. Television and radio feature broadcasts include Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion Live from Tanglewood (for a 10,000 + live audience members and 3.9 million broadcast audiences), NPR’s Performance Today with Martin Goldsmith, TCI cablevision’s Grand Piano Recital (CA), CPR’s Colorado Spotlight, China Central National TV, Hong Kong Phoenix TV, and Danish National Radio. She has recorded CD/DVD’s for Pacific Records, Albany Records, and Nutmeg Press labels.

“An advocate of new music, she has given numerous world premieres including Ezra Laderman’s Piano Sonata No.3 and Beshert; Ned Rorem’s Aftermath (2002) for baritone and piano trio; Daniel Kellogg’s scarlet thread at the Guggenheim Museum in New York and his Momentum, which she commissioned for the 1998 Gilmore International Keyboard Festival; as well as Du MingXin’s Piano Concerto No.3 at the Gulangyu International Piano Festival and National Tour. Chamber music appearances include Carnegie Weill Hall, Bargemusic in New York, the Aspen Music Festival, Tanglewood, the Great Lakes Chamber Music Festival, the Gardner Museum in Boston, the Detroit Art Museum, Denmark’s Viborg Hall, Taiwan’s Novel Hall, and a 2007 all-stars gala in Hong Kong for the 10th anniversary of the reunification. Recent projects include the ongoing multi-media recital China through the Lens of Piano Music, co-directing/performing in the George Crumb at 80 Music Festival, and producing/performing the Olivier Messiaen Centennial series.

“Born in Beijing, Hsu studied piano with her parents and her uncle Fei-Ping Hsu, and later with Herbert Stessin at Juilliard and Claude Frank at Yale. She also trained in the fellowship programs at the Tanglewood Music Center, Ravinia Festival’s Steans Institute, the Aldeburgh Britten-Pears Programme (UK), the Aspen Music Festival, and abroad.

“Ms. Hsu is the Artistic Director for Pendulum New Music Series at the University of Colorado in Boulder and piano faculty at Metro State University of Denver, and visiting piano faculty at CU-Boulder. She created the Conscious ListeningÔ method to give audiences and pianists a broader perspective on the art of performance. An active educator, speaker, and adjudicator, she has been visiting piano faculty at Ohio University and the University of Colorado; her teaching honors include the 2010 NFMC Ouida Keck Award.

“Ms. Hsu is a Steinway Artist and resides in Colorado with her husband, composer Daniel Kellogg, and one daughter. She is also a founding member of the Hwang-Ainomäe-Hsu Piano Trio.”



Andrew Cooperstock and the Boulder Chamber Orchestra present rare music

The Boulder Chamber Orchestra presented a very interesting concert at the Broomfield Auditorium Saturday evening. Of the four works presented, the BCO performed two works, one by the American composer Arthur Foote (1853–1937), and the other by Ernest Bloch (1880–1959). Bloch, of course, is much better known than Arthur Foote, but both of these works deserve to be heard today, and these two works contributed to making this concert truly rewarding.

Foote has been overshadowed by other American composers who were more aggressive harmonically, while Foote is often ranked with composers such as Edward McDowell and Amy Beach. To my way of thinking, Foote is considerably better than either of those composers, even though much has been made by a supposed influence of Robert Schumann and Johannes Brahms, and, even Wagner. Comparisons to those three composers are all irrelevant, and the comparison seems to have been made simply because Foote used traditional harmonies, and, therefore, the comparison would seem to be easy. There is absolutely no relationship in his music to Wagner, and precious little to Schumann and Brahms, because his melodic lines are beginning to show an angularity with melodic leaps that, if exaggerated, might presage Copland or Roy Harris, or perhaps, Ferde Grofé. While there is absolutely no evidence that Arthur Foote was influenced by traditional American themes as Copland was, there is an element in his music that is distinctly American.

The work performed Saturday evening was the Suite for Strings in E Major, Opus 63. It is in three movements, Praeludium, Pizzicato and Adagietto, and Fugue. At first glance, the second movement, Pizzicato and Adagietto, would seem to be a two section movement; however, the Pizzicato is repeated after the Adagietto so that it becomes three sections. Originally, there was a fourth movement, a Theme and Variations, but, for whatever reason, Foote decided against that addition.

As the Boulder Chamber Orchestra began the performance of this work, it was apparent that it could easily be identified as written by an American composer because of the shape of the melodic line. It was also apparent that since Arthur Foote was educated completely in the United States, that he was very isolated from all the European trends that had such an impact on music at the turn of the twentieth century. This is an excellent piece, and it is very attractive. It is apparent that Foote is a skilled and artistic composer, but the “spiritual” isolation from composers such as Stravinsky, and even Debussy, are evident.

The performance itself was excellent, but I felt that in this first work on the program, the BCO did not experience its accustomed performance “excitement” that usually fills everything when they are on stage. In the first movement, the first violins have the melodic line with some syncopation in the accompaniment played by the second violins and violas. The syncopation seemed a little on the mushy side, but please understand that I am criticizing at a very high level. The pizzicato in the second movement was not always precisely together which makes this movement difficult (how many of you can name the Tchaikovsky Symphony that has a movement entirely pizzicato?). Even if one violin, or viola, or cello, is not with the rest of the orchestra when pizzicato is being played, it is noticeable. The third movement, which is an enormous fugue, was the best movement of the three. The BCO seemed to be uniformly thinking, “Okay, this is a hard movement, so we had best be on our toes.” It was exciting, and it certainly demonstrated that Arthur Foote was a very fine craftsman. The concert going public truly needs to hear rare music such as this. While this particular work may be among the very best that Arthur Foote wrote it certainly raised my curiosity concerning the remainder of his output.

Following the Suite for Strings, Andrew Cooperstock joined the Boulder Chamber Orchestra and performance of J. S. Bach’s Keyboard Concerto Nr. 5 in F minor, BWV 1056. Cooperstock is so well-known as a fine pianist, that I don’t think he needs any introduction here. He has performed throughout the United States and Europe, and, fortunately for us, with many orchestras and chamber groups in Denver.

This Concerto is made up of three movements, all of them in ritornello form, which is typical of the Baroque Period, and certainly of the concerto grosso style. The ritornello form is a term that is usually applied to the first and last movement of the Baroque Concerto. These movements consist of an alternation of tutti (full orchestra) and solo sections. The tutti sections are based on identical material while the solo sections vary. The full orchestra sections are what give the ritornello its form. In the first movement, there is a solo section which is an almost sonata-like development, full of triplets that were stated in the opening tutti. It was exciting to listen to, and Cooperstock’s playing is always very clean and very articulate. He was, by the way, conducting from the bench, and his movements in doing so were extremely subtle. Of course, they would almost have to be subtle, because Cooperstock is playing almost all of the time. A Baroque Concerto, at least in the first and third movements, never gives the soloist much opportunity to sit and relax, as he is constantly playing. If he is conducting from the bench, he can only nod his head or raise his eyebrows in expectation. The orchestra performance in the Bach, finally hit its stride: it was excited and full of life, and it seemed to gain a lot by following the obvious energy given to it by Cooperstock.

In addition, I must say that the Sauter piano that Cooperstock performed on sounded absolutely perfect. It was in tune and it sounded as though the technician that services it knew what he was about. Sauter, of course, is one of the five or six best pianos in the world, and one would expect it to sound good. The Broomfield Auditorium is very fortunate to have such a piano.

The performance of the Boulder Chamber Orchestra, Andrew Cooperstock’s fine performance, and the excellent piano, would surely have pleased Bach. It was full of vivacity and vigor.

The audience demanded an encore, and Cooperstock responded by playing a Nocturne by Samuel Barber. It was a beautiful performance of Samuel Barber’s tribute to Irish composer John Field, who was the originator of the nocturne form which Chopin borrowed and made famous.

After the intermission, the Boulder Chamber Orchestra performed Samuel Barber’s well-known Adagio for Strings. This work, which was originally the slow movement from Samuel Barber’s String Quartet Nr. 1, Opus 11, has to be one of the best-known pieces of American music. It has been used for many funeral ceremonies, but it was not originally intended as a work of great sorrow, but one of intense meditation by the composer. Its arch form, slow buildup and then release of tension, and its deep, profound emotion, always surpassed the other movements of the original string quartet from whence it came.

Performing a piece such as the Adagio for Strings can sometimes be fraught with danger because it is such a familiar piece with such power that it must be done perfectly. And, the Boulder Chamber Orchestra and Maestro Saless did it perfectly. The music was allowed to work its magic on the audience without any kind of exaggerated dynamics or phrasing. In spite of its profound expression, it possesses a certain amount of simplicity, and, above all, a sense of great dignity. It may be that is what has helped this work become so successful. Dignity is the one aspect of this work that the Boulder Chamber Orchestra never lost sight of.

The last work on the program was the Concerto Grosso Nr. 1 by Ernest Bloch, (1880-1959). Straight away, I will warn you readers not to confuse this Ernest Bloch with his contemporary, Ernest Bloch (1885-1977), who was a German philosopher and music lover. The Ernest Bloch that we are concerned with was born in Switzerland, immigrated to the United States, became Director of the San Francisco Conservatory, and eventually Professor at the University of California in Berkeley. He still seems more European to me than American, particularly when one considers his knowledge of all that was being done in Europe. His music was strongly influenced by chants from Jewish worship, as well as twelve-tone serial technique.

The work that the Boulder Chamber Orchestra and Andrew Cooperstock performed Saturday evening was Bloch’s Concerto Grosso, which was written, as the program notes correctly stated, to demonstrate to his students at the Cleveland Institute of Music (which he founded) that one could write a Baroque concerto grosso using traditional techniques, but modern sounds. The piano, which is the concerto instrument in this composition, is placed at the rear of the orchestra, because even though it is the major instrument, it serves an almost dual role as soloist, and as a very prominent continuo, in that, it supports the orchestra.

The first movement, which is marked Allegro energico e pesante, begins with some very powerful chords. It is invigorating and exciting to hear because of its drive. The slow movement is lyric and beautiful, but, unlike the suggested mood from its title, Dirge, it did not strike me as being overly poignant or sad. The BCO and Cooperstock played it very expressively. The third movement is entitled Pastorale and Rustic Dances. I think it may have been a surprise to many people in the audience who were not expecting a 20th Century work to so easily portray a pastorale. But, it is a tribute to Bloch’s compositional ability that it does just that so easily. And, in truth, its overall sound is not as “avant-garde” as one might hear from Webern or Berg. The last movement is quite a remarkable fugue that uses every fugal technique invented by J.S. Bach: retrograde, inversion, and augmentation.

The performance of the Bloch was truly exceptional. The piano was used in the same way that Bartók used the orchestral instruments in his Concerto for Orchestra: it was considerably more important than an orchestral instrument, but only slightly less than a true concerto instrument. The size of the Boulder Chamber Orchestra, and the ear of Maestro Saless, was perfect to allow the piano to be heard, placed as it was, at the rear of the orchestra.

Again, the audience demanded an encore, and Maestro Saless chose one of the Romanian Dances by Béla Bartók.

In spite of the slow start, this was another fine performance by the Boulder Chamber Orchestra, because they were able to gather themselves together, and truly get down to business. In addition, it was an absolutely fascinating program because of the works performed. How many of the audience members have ever heard of Arthur Foote, let alone his wonderful Suite for Strings in E Major? And, why is it that the fickleness regarding “new music” has relegated Ernest Bloch’s music to silence, rather than the frequent performance that it deserves? There was absolutely no question that the audience appreciated this performance by Andrew Cooperstock, Maestro Saless, and the BCO, and well they should have, because it is another example of instruction in rare music beautifully performed. I guarantee you that all of us need that.




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