Opus Colorado


Samuel Barber and Jürgens plus Jürgens

The performance given Thursday night, March 8, by the Lamont Symphony Orchestra was, in many ways, a very memorable experience. It marked the debut performance of a new graduate student in Orchestral Conducting, Ms. Breanne Cutler. In addition, it was, at least to my knowledge, the first time that the Lamont Symphony – keep in mind they are students – performed Mahler’s Symphony Nr. 1 in D Major, which has been nicknamed “Titan.” These performances were exciting; there is no question about it. However, for me, the highlight of the evening, and perhaps, one of the highlights of the entire concert season, was watching and listening to the performance given by the Lamont Symphony’s Associate Conductor, Travis Jürgens, and his pianist wife, Kristen Jürgens, in their performance of Samuel Barber’s monumental Piano Concerto, Op. 38.

Maestra Breanne Cutler opened the program conducting Beethoven’s Overture to The Creatures of Prometheus.

Ms. Cutler is now a graduate student studying with Dr. Lawrence Golan at University of Denver’s prestigious Lamont School of Music. The 2011-2012 season will mark the beginning of Breanne Cutler’s position as Apprentice Conductor with the Helena Symphony Orchestra and her mentorship from Maestro Allan R. Scott. A Montana native, she is a graduate of Montana State University- Bozeman where she was the Assistant Conductor of the MSU Symphony. Ms. Cutler is also a noted classical and jazz vocalist. As a vocal major at Montana State University, she studied with Dr. Jon Harney. Along with winning the 26th MSU Concerto and Aria Competition, she has taken 1st place in both the Lower Division in 2008 and Upper Division in 2010 for the Montana state competition of the National Association for Teachers of Singing. Not only is she an active performer, but also a distinguished leader in the collegiate music community. Her term as Montana State CMENC President has just come to an end, where she was the head of the Montana collegiate division for the National Association of Music Education. She has regularly contributed columns to the Montana music education publication, The Cadenza, which is distributed to music educators across the northwest. At Lamont, she teaches undergraduate courses in conducting. Ms. Cutler has also served as assistant conductor for various productions with Bozeman’s Intermountain Opera.

The Creatures of Prometheus, Beethoven’s only ballet, was begun in the summer of 1800. It is interesting to conjecture why the work had been given to Beethoven by Salvatore Vigano, a ballet dancer and choreographer, because Beethoven was relatively unknown at the time. I can well imagine that Beethoven was eager, not only to accept commissions that came his way, but also to try his hand at dramatic music. At any rate, the ballet was an enormous success, and the premier in 1801 was followed by 15 performances the same year. In 1802, it had 13 performances. However, after that, its popularity dwindled because some dancers and choreographers felt that the score was “too learned” for ballet. The overture did retain its popularity, and has been performed on a fairly regular basis ever since. It is interesting to note that one of the full performances of the ballet was attended by Haydn, and he expressed great pleasure with the ballet, even though he had a few critical remarks. The story of the ballet, as most of you surely realize, regards the Greek God Prometheus and his efforts to have the two creatures he has brought to life instructed in the arts.

I must say that Maestra Cutler entered the stage with a good deal of authority, and that she was absolutely beaming with pleasure as she mounted the podium. It is clear that she likes what she does. This overture begins with some widely spaced chords that require sharp attacks. Cutler’s energy and precision were readily apparent, as she raised herself on her toes, and gave the orchestra some very sharp jabs as cues. The orchestra responded with these forte chords with such precision, that several in the audience, who may not have heard the piece before, were taken by surprise and jumped in their seats. And really, Cutler’s ability at communication, even though she has had conducting experience before she came to Lamont, gave the entire audience a predilection for the style of her conducting. It is energetic and demanding, and it is clear that she knew precisely what she wanted, and was not going to be shy about demanding it from the orchestra. In the performance of this piece, it seemed to me that the outstanding section of the orchestra was the violin section which sounded quite good all the way through the piece. Ms. Cutler did give one late cue which resulted in the woodwinds not together with the strings, but a few beats later everything was back to the way it should have been. And, I must say, that if this performance had been my debut as a conductor, I would have been a little nervous myself. I am most sure that the funny cue resulted from nerves not from inability to conduct, and it was very good to see that the orchestra was doing their best for her, because after all, they are comrades. I, for one, think this was an outstanding debut of a young conductor who shows a great deal of intelligence and composure on the podium. It will be very interesting to watch her develop as she proceeds through the program at the Lamont School. And yes, it was excellent Beethoven.

The Barber Piano Concerto, Op. 38, was the next work performed on Thursday evening’s performance. This Concerto, commissioned by Barber’s publisher, G. Schirmer, for their 100th anniversary, is one of the most important pieces of the 20th century. I am constantly surprised that in spite of its eminence, its beauty, and its incredible difficulty, that it is not mentioned in many books whose main topic is piano literature. This is doubly surprising, because Samuel Barber was known as a very gifted composer which was evident from the very start of his career. His First Symphony, Op. 9, was written when he was 26. The Concerto was commissioned in 1959, and Barber began working on it in March of 1960. However, his work on the piece was partially delayed by a period of depression following the death of his sister. Barber worked very closely with John Browning (Browning was Barber’s favorite pianist at the time, and was one of three American pianists including Rosalyn Turek and Byron Janis, who achieved great prominence in the world as pianists, and whose study was accomplished in the United States without attending any of the great European conservatories.)

Barber engages in a little self-plagiarism in this work, for he elaborates and orchestrates themes from his Elegy for Flute and Piano, which was written in 1959. But even so, there is no question that he shaped this work around his own style, and the incredible technical ability possessed by the pianist John Browning. In fact, one of the reasons this work is seldom performed live, is because of its extreme difficulty.

The performance of the Barber Concerto was conducted by Maestro Travis Jürgens with his wife, Kristen Jürgens, performing on the piano. Ms. Jürgens was the winner of the 2012 Lamont Solo Honors Competition. And it is a small wonder. She is an absolutely amazing pianist. According to the program notes, she has been a pianist since the age of four. She graduated with High Distinction from the world renowned Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University, where she received her Bachelor of Music and Piano Performance. While there, she studied with Edward Auer and Luba-Edlina Dubinsky, of the distinguished Borodin Trio. She has also studied Philosophy of Music at St. Peter’s College, at Oxford University. She is now a graduate student studying with Alice Rybak for her master’s degree in Piano Performance.

I have written about Travis Jürgens in other articles, but to refresh your memory, I will quote from his website:

Travis Jürgens is currently the Music Director and Conductor of the Philharmonia of Greater Kansas City, and the Associate Conductor of the Lamont Symphony Orchestra and Opera Theatre in Denver. In 2011, Jürgens received 2nd place from The American Prize in Orchestral Conducting.

Jürgens has performed in the United States, Europe, and Japan. Musicians who have played under his baton have commented on his exceptional talent, dynamic musicianship, imagination, and strong leadership. He has conducted the Denver Philharmonic, Bohuslav Martinu Philhamonic, Illinois Valley Symphony, Rose City Chamber Orchestra, South Carolina Philharmonic, and musicians from the Orquestra de Cadaqués. He earned his Bachelor’s in Piano Performance with High Distinction from the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music, and his Master’s in Orchestral Conducting from the University of Illinois. Additionally, he studied at the Universität für Musik und darstellende Kunst Wien and the Institut für Europäishe Studien in Vienna, Austria. He also made his Viennese debut as guest conductor of the IES Vienna Chamber Orchestra.

This was a truly remarkable performance of the Barber Concerto. It was remarkable because both the conductor and the pianist are already outstanding artists. It was also remarkable, because they are husband and wife, and it is a very moving experience to see them perform together, especially when they are of such even musicianship. The Barber Concerto, for both orchestra and piano, is one of the most difficult. I have never performed this concerto, but I have performed two Prokofiev concertos, and I honestly believe that the Barber exceeds the Prokofiev in difficulty. From the outset Ms. Jürgens demonstrated a great deal of forcefulness. By that, I mean that she sat down at the piano and truly took charge with her astonishing finger work that was always very clear and very articulate. One of the aspects of this Concerto is difficult rhythms with demanding accents throughout the entire work, her accents were perfect and even in the most difficult rhythmic spots, her tone was scintillating, yet rich. And, of course, Maestro Jürgens conducting was above reproach. I must also say that the orchestra seemed to be enjoying this partnership between conductor- pianist-husband-wife, because it is been some time since I have seen the Lamont Symphony (they always work very hard) work so hard at making music and responding to what the conductor demands. There are so many words that typify this performance: exciting, passionate throughout, lyrical, and beautiful. And every note could be heard. It was also a pleasure to watch Ms. Jürgens play, because there were no extraneous theatrical movements. She simply sat at the piano and got to work. In truth, I would challenge anyone to make theatrical movements while playing this piece, because I simply don’t think they would have the time.

I truly enjoyed the second movement, because it gives the pianist and the orchestra a chance to blossom in the incredible lyrical sections that must sound so expansive. I assure you that Kristen Jürgens performed it just that way. I could not help but think of the words that I believe come from Omar Khayyám: “Ephemeral light, ephemeral life!” The two Jürgens made such incredible music – both seemed very comfortable in their roles, and very assured.

The last movement, which is so full of rhythmic difficulties, demonstrated the thorough knowledge and understanding that both of these musicians possess. In a piece like this it is not enough to simply memorize: it must be conceived in the mind in order to bring it to life. Both of these musicians have that ability. They are outstanding: Kristen Jürgens has amazing technique and amazing ability to concentrate with ease. Their ability to communicate with each other as they performed was so incredibly personal, and full of knowledge as to what the other was going to do. It truly became a musical conversation between piano and orchestra, for all the questions were answered and all statements were in agreement. It was an electrifying performance because both are such superior musicians. They are of graduate student age, but in this instance, age has nothing to do with ability. These two are excellent musicians, and one wonders where their artistic ability will take them.

Following the Barber Concerto, Maestro Lawrence Golan conducted the Mahler Symphony Nr. 1 in D Major. This is an absolutely enormous piece of music that, like the Barber, is extremely difficult. This symphony is known to all regular concert audiences, so I will not go into great detail about its history. In the performance of this piece, Lawrence Golan easily demonstrated what a partnership there was between him and the Lamont Symphony Orchestra, which obviously admires and respects him. I mention that because it is so necessary for orchestra members to have some sense of symbiosis with their conductor, and it is most noticeable when that does not exist.

The pastorale opening of the first movement with all the bird calls and distant fanfares was absolutely beautiful as it develops into a standard sonata form. There were moments in this first movement that seemed absolutely mysterious, and I am not sure at all that I have heard the Lamont Symphony change their mood, which they created with such depth, so easily and quickly. That, again, is a demonstration of Golan’s ability to motivate the students. The second movement was lusty and full of vigor with a slower trio section which was incredibly lyrical and graceful. It was a pleasure to sit and listen for a while without taking any notes on the performance. I was once again struck by the fact that this was a student orchestra performing a Mahler symphony. If any of you readers are orchestra members or professional musicians, you will understand what I mean. Performing a Mahler symphony is not at all like playing an early Mozart or an early Haydn symphony. While those works are gems that will live forever, the Mahler is fraught with rhythmic difficulties, changes of tempo, and harmonies which can be difficult because they require excellent tune and attention to sound. It is hard work to play the notes, and to make those notes beautiful.

I have written about this Symphony before, and every time I hear it, I become divided in my thoughts about the third movement. Mahler uses the French folk song, Frère Jacques, in a minor key, slows the tempo, and changes it to a funeral march. Its motivation was a woodcut depicting animals carrying a hunter to his grave. Its tone is one of deadly seriousness, and yet its irony almost overcomes that seriousness. I have often wondered if Mahler wasn’t inserting his own brand of humor in this very serious symphony, but I have been assured by Mahler-ites that he never laughed much during his entire life, and this certainly was not the spot. Nonetheless, the orchestra performed it beautifully, with great solemnity, and yet with a certain lightness that did not bog things down.

The last movement had some fine lyricism which belied the difficulties of the work. The brass section in the performance of this symphony was outstanding, and considering the difficulties of this work, and considering that these are students still in the learning process, this was a remarkable performance.

The Lamont Symphony Orchestra members are very fortunate to have Maestro Lawrence Golan show them Mahler and lead them through the learning process of such a difficult work so that they perform it truly well. As they received their well-deserved applause, one could observe how tired some of the orchestra members looked, and yet, sense the pleasure they felt in their performance. I am sure that made it very satisfying for the audience as well.

Some of you readers may consider that this review is overly complementary. I assure you that it is not. Every superlative was well deserved. Every performance has spots where the performers wish they could have done better. But the ultimate goal was most certainly achieved: they made music worth listening to.



The new Lamont Symphony season

The University of Denver’s Lamont Symphony Orchestra has several interesting programs this season, as well as several interesting performers and conductors. This season we will get to hear the seldom performed work by Vaughn Williams entitled the Sea Symphony, which is written for orchestra and chorus. I encourage all of you to come to this particular performance because this is an absolutely beautiful piece of music. This work will be conducted by Catherine Sailer. We will also get to hear Ravel’s orchestration of Mussorgsky’s pictures at an exhibition. This is a great piece, but I do wish pianists would not seem to be so fearful of it, and perform the original version on the keyboard. Actually, the original version was done for two pianos, and then Mussorgsky’s rewrote it for one piano. It sounds just as perfect on the keyboard as Ravel’s orchestration.

We will also get to hear program conducted by Rin Jong Yang, Travis Jürgens, and Breanne Cutler. In addition, we will hear David Wetherill perform the Mozart horn Concerto on a Natural Horn, that is to say, a French horn with no valves (or keys).

The season schedule follows:

Fall 2011

October 11, 7:30 pm

Opening Night with David Wetherill, former Principal Horn of the Philadelphia Orchestra
Strauss: Overture to Die Fledermaus, Travis Jürgens, Conductor
Mozart: Horn Concerto No. 3, David Wetherill, Natural Horn
R. Strauss: Horn Concerto No. 1, David Wetherill, Horn
Sibelius: Symphony No. 5
 
David Wetherill, long-time first-horn player with the Philadelphia Orchestra, began his professional career as Principal Horn with the renowned opera house, “Teatro alla Scala” in Milan, Italy, playing the greatest operas with the finest singers and conductors in the world. In 1976, Pierre Boulez asked Mr. Wetherill to come to Paris to work with the “Ensemble InterContemporain,” as a founding member of that cutting-edge chamber orchestra. During this period, he performed literally dozens of premieres by the leading contemporary composers of the day, including Berio, Stockhausen, Xenakis, Boulez, and Messiaen. At the invitation of Maestro Eugene Ormandy, Mr. Wetherill returned to Philadelphia, where he played for nearly 30 years. Now retired from full time performing, he is active with teaching and conducting, and occasionally performing on the horn if the stars line up properly. Mr. Wetherill is the Associate Conductor of the Lower Merion Symphony, where he conducts regularly. He also has conducted the Orchestra Society of Philadelphia.

November 3-5, 7:30 pm & November 6, 2:30 pm

Fall Opera
Gounod: Faust
 
November 17, 7:30 pm

Travis Jürgens, Artist Diploma Recital
Mozart: Overture to Le nozze di Figaro
Copland: Appalachian Spring Suite (Original 13 Instrument Version)
Handel: Overture to Solomon
Rachmaninov: Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Steven Mayer, Piano
 
Travis Jürgens has performed in the United States, Europe, and Japan. Musicians who have played under his baton have commented on his exceptional talent, dynamic musicianship, imagination, and strong leadership. He earned his Bachelor’s in Piano Performance with High Distinction from the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music, and his Master’s in Orchestral Conducting from the University of Illinois. Additionally, he studied at the Universität für Musik und darstellende Kunst Wien and the Institut für Europäishe Studien in Vienna, Austria. He also made his Viennese debut as guest conductor of the IES Vienna Chamber Orchestra.

He has served as Graduate Assistant Conductor and General Manager of the University of Illinois Philharmonia Orchestra, and as a cover conductor for the University of Illinois Orchestras. He was also the Assistant Conductor for the University of Illinois Opera Theater production of Hansel and Gretel by Neely Bruce. While in Illinois, he founded the United Orchestra of Urbana.

The soloist, Steven Mayer, is Professor of Piano at the International Keyboard Institute and Festival at Mannes College of Music. He has served as Visiting Lecturer in Piano at UCLA, Professor of Piano at the Manhattan School of Music, and is currently Associate Professor with Tenure at University of Denver’s Lamont School of Music.

Winter 2012

January 15, 3:00 pm

Side-by-Side with the Phoenix Youth Symphony
Strauss: Also sprach Zarathustra
 
February 9, 7:30 pm

Rin Jong Yang, Guest Conductor
Elgar: Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1 in D Major
Beethoven: Symphony No. 5
Mussorgsky, orch. Ravel: Pictures at an Exhibition
 
Maestro Rin-Jong Yang, one of the most prominent conductors of South Korea, has extensive experience conducting orchestras in various countries and has a vast repertoire ranging from Baroque music to contemporary music.

He was Visiting Professor at the University of British Columbia and Professor of Yeungnam University. In Korea he conducted the Suwon Philharmonic Orchestra for seven and half years. Internationally he has been Guest Conductor of Brasov Philharmonic conducting festival programs of Brahms, Mozart, Mendelssohn, Beethoven, and Tchaikovsky. In addition, he has been the guest conductor of orchestras throughout Russia, Jerusalem, and South America. As a Professional Violinist and Violist, Dr. Yang has performed at Carnegie Hall with Pianist Raymond Dudley, Suntory Hall in Japan, and Third International Viola D’Amore Congress.

March 8. 7:30 pm

Titans!
Beethoven: Overture to The Creatures of Prometheus, Breanne Cutler, Conductor
Concerto TBD (DU Honors Competition Winner)
Mahler: Symphony No. 1 “Titan”
 
The 2011-2012 season will be the beginning of Breanne Cutler’s position as Apprentice Conductor with the Helena Symphony Orchestra and her mentorship from Maestro Allan R. Scott. A Montana native, she has recently graduated from Montana State University- Bozeman where she was the Assistant Conductor of the MSU Symphony.  She is now a graduate student studying with Dr. Lawrence Golan at University of Denver’s prestigious Lamont School of Music.  There, she is the Assistant Conductor of the Lamont Symphony Orchestra while she pursues a Master of Music in Orchestral Conducting.

Ms. Cutler is also a noted classical and jazz vocalist.  As a vocal major at Montana State University, she studied with Dr. Jon Harney. Along with winning the 26th MSU Concerto and Aria Competition she has taken 1st place in both the Lower Division in 2008 and Upper Division in 2010 for the Montana state competition of the National Association for Teachers of Singing.
She received the Lamont School of Music Endowed Scholarship for her pursuit of graduate study.    This past spring, she graduated with honors with her Bachelor of Music Education from MSU.

Spring 2012

April 19-21, 7:30 pm & April 22, 2:30 pm

Spring Opera
Mozart: Le nozze di Figaro
 
May 1, 7:30 pm

New Music Concert, Breanne Cutler, Conductor
 
May 31, 7:30 pm

Season Finale with the Lamont Chorale, Women’s Chorus, and Men’s Choir
Adventures at Sea
Wagner: Overture to The Flying Dutchman, Travis Jürgens, Conductor
Boyer: Titanic 1997, Colorado premiere
Vaughan-Williams: Symphony No. 1, “A Sea Symphony,” Catherine Sailer, Conductor

 




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