Opus Colorado

An exuberant and effusive performance: Rossini’s Petite Messe Solennelle

Friday evening, October 10, I attended a concert in Hamilton Hall at DU. It was a performance of one of the least known compositions by Gioachino Rossini: his Petite Messe Solennelle, or Little Solemn Mass. Notice that I omitted one of the Cs in his first name. Gioacchino is usually spelled with two Cs, however Rossini always used one C in his name, and so did most of his acquaintances who wrote letters to him. It has only been recently, in this modern age, that the second C has been added.

Rossini was, of course, one of the most famous figures of the 19th century, and many of his 37 operas which were written between 1810 and 1829 are still being performed. However, the Little Solemn Mass was written in 1863 after many years of inactivity. Musicologists are still unsure of what caused such a hiatus. True, he did write a few works during that period of time: his Stabat Mater in 1832 and a Missa di Gloria which was written for the city of Naples. We also know, that, while he spent most of his time in Paris, he did return to Bologna every now and then. During this period of hiatus, his health began to suffer, and while staying in Bologna he returned to Paris in 1843 for an operation to remove his gallstones. He returned to Paris permanently in 1855.

His Little Solemn Mass is really neither little nor is it solemn. It is full of immense charm as well as more than a little humor, and some musicologists speculate that the dedication of this work to the Countess Louise Pillet-Will (commissioned by her for the dedication of her private chapel) that many people saw in the dedication, “Pillet,” and that somehow transformed the name to “petite.” If that is the case, Rossini, who had a very sly sense of humor, probably enjoyed the confusion. He is known to have written a short letter to God asking if his poor little mass… “is really a mass, or just a mess?” That will give you an idea of his sense of humor. But, humor aside, this is an incredibly sincere religious and personal composition. It was premiered March 14, 1864. Among those in the audience were the composers Auber, Ambroise Thomas, and Meyerbeer. They were dumbfounded by the originality and the beauty of what they heard, and Meyerbeer stood during most of the performance.

The performance Friday evening was truly spectacular. It was led by Maestra Catherine Sailer, who, as you all know by now, is the Director of Choral Studies at the University of Denver. She is also the Associate Conductor of the Colorado Ballet. She led the Evans Choir Friday evening, which is a group of professional singers from the Denver area and selected students from the University of Denver Lamont School of Music. The choir is named after Evans Chapel, where members of the choir performed together in Catherine Sailer’s undergraduate conducting recital.

The Little Solemn Mass does not require an orchestra. Instead, it relies on a piano (the original score required two pianos) and an organ. The pianist was Kevin Padworski, who is the Director of Music and Organist of the Calvary Baptist Church in Denver. His degrees are from the Duke Divinity School and a Master of Music degree in conducting from the University of Denver.

The organist Friday evening was Joseph Galema. And I am sure that all of you readers know that he recently retired as organist and Director of Music at the United States Air Force Academy. He joined the Lamont School of Music in 2008.

From the outset of this performance, it was clear that Maestra Sailer was very firm in her knowledge of how this piece should be performed. Clearly, she was able to communicate that to the pianist, as the ever present compelling humor combined with the compelling emotion arises in the piano preludes to each section of the mass. Indeed, many might find that the meter signatures themselves may be humorous and incongruous for a mass setting, but the depth of emotion that Rossini expresses is undeniable. It is as if he really enjoys his relationship with God. The high point of this mass seems to be the Agnus Dei which is beautifully romantic, and was perfectly done by soprano soloist, Gracie Carr.

There were so many fine soloists in Friday evening’s performance, and Maestra Sailer changed them for each section of the mass. In the opening Gloria, Ana Spadoni, soprano, Miranda Whitesides, mezzo, Blake Nawa’a, tenor, and David Farwig, baritone, were the soloists. The Domine Deus was sung by Kevin Gwinn, a lyric tenor who has one of the most crystal-clear voices I have heard for a long time. Steven Taylor was the bass soloist in the Quoniam. All of these soloists have superb voices, and I have heard some of them sing prior to this performance. I do not know if it was a certain freedom of expression that Rossini allows by virtue of his operatic style of writing, or if it was a mutual appreciation of this particular, rare work, but these voices were exceptional as was their musicianship. The choir sang the Cum Sancto Spiritu with such unbelievable ease, and yet it has a remarkable and rousing rhythm: it is a double fugue that demands a great deal of virtuosity from the choir, but their ease and grace and cheerfulness belied the difficulties.

I must say that Rossini treats the piano in this work as a partner to the choir and soloists, rather than an instrument which is playing something intended for an orchestra. It is abundantly clear that the pianist is playing music specifically written for that instrument, and there is never any insinuation on Rossini’s part that he would have preferred an orchestra. It is very skillfully done – and why not – Rossini was a fine composer. I also hasten to point out that the piano score is very difficult. There are so many small gestures that interrupt the melodic idea, but add to the mood, that pianist Padworski had to work very hard indeed. And often Rossini demands an abrupt change of mood from the pianist, which also crosses to the choir. Of course, that causes Maestra Sailer to work hard as well. But it was wonderful to see such artistic agreement between the piano, organ, choir, and conductor.

The Credo of this Little Solemn Mass made use of the voices of Camille Jasensky, soprano, Heidi Schmidt, mezzo, Blake Nawa’a, tenor, and Jeff Ayres, baritone. It was, again very clear that Catherine Sailer was selective indeed when she chose these soloists. It is very exciting to hear a performance with local musicians who are so gifted, and one wonders where they all come from.

The soloists in the Sanctus were Katie Lushman, soprano, Donna Wickham, mezzo, Taylor Martin, tenor, and David Farwig, baritone. Everyone knows that soloists are supposed to follow the conductor but all of the soloists reflected much more than a willingness to do what Maestra Sailer asked. They clearly demonstrated their enthusiasm for what Rossini wrote. Keep in mind that this composition encompasses a wide range of styles. The Christe eleison sounds almost as if it could come from the 16th century. The Domine Deus seemed almost operatic, and as I stated before, the Agnus Dei is incredibly romantic. But this group of singers, choir and soloists, switched back and forth with great ease, verve, and excitement. Those who do not listen carefully might come to the unwarranted conclusion that this piece is a hodge-podge of styles, but I assure you this is not the case. It is held together by a wonderful melodic line, which returns, and which is sometimes interrupted, for example, by the gusto of the aforementioned double fugue.

This Little Solemn Mass by Gioachino Rossini is as delightful to listen to as it is rare. Everyone in the audience gave this a standing ovation, and I am convinced that it was due not only to the wonderful performance, but as a thank you to being exposed to such a delightful and artful work. As a footnote, the only time I have heard this piece prior to Friday’s performance, was in 1959, when I was put in the choir at my undergraduate school, and it was then conducted by Maestra Fiora Contino. Catherine Sailer’s performance Friday evening made me realize how much I missed this piece, and, while there was a decent audience Friday evening, it made me wish the hall had been full. I can assure you that after hearing this piece of music, the audience responded with the same enthusiasm the musicians demonstrated in performing it. Fifty-five years is a very long time to wait for the next performance of such a wonderful piece. Maestra Sailer, please do it again.

Artistry and hilarity: The Colorado Ballet’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Friday evening, September 26, I attended the opening night of the Colorado Ballet’s performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream with the music of Felix Mendelssohn. This is a marvelous ballet that combines humor, love, and magic spells, in one of the most appealing ballet’s ever created. The choreography is by Christopher Wheeldon (George Balanchine also choreographed this ballet), and it is important to note that the Colorado Ballet gave the World Premiere of Wheeldon’s choreography when they performed this in 1997. Christopher Wheeldon (b. 1973) is an English choreographer who began his career with the Royal Ballet in London in 1991. In 1993 he joined the New York City Ballet and was named a soloist in 1998, all the while writing choreography. Notice the dates involved. Wheeldon was only 24 when he choreographed this ballet. Also, consider that when Felix Mendelssohn wrote his famous overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which became one of the most famous overtures ever written, he was only 17 years of age.

Several years ago, I attended a performance of this ballet with Balanchine’s choreography. I must say that I prefer Wheeldon’s choreography, because it lends itself more easily to the spirit of Shakespeare’s play, even though some aspects of the original play were not used by Wheeldon.

The performance Friday evening certainly made me sit up and take notice – once again – that this ballet company is comprised of some of the most expressive dancers that I have seen. The rampant confusion caused by the character Puck, danced by Sean Omandam, in this ballet was hilarious. It was truly refreshing to hear the audience respond at the humor in this ballet, because many individuals go to the ballet and sit there stone-faced, afraid to laugh at such an artistic event. Watching brave Sean Omandam fly through the air, suspended by wires attached to the flying machine in the ceiling of the stage, was a treat in itself as he dispensed his fairy dust and magic spells to all the creatures below him. Another performance that caught my eye Friday evening was Asuka Sasaki who danced Peaseblossom, an attendant to Queen Titania. She was positively liquid on stage, and very expressive.

There is a remarkable complexity to the plot of this story. Hermia, danced by Dana Benton, is in love with Lysander, who was danced by Viacheslav Buchkovskiy. However, Demetrius, danced by Jesse Marks is in love with Hermia, but, of course, she does not return his feelings. Helena, danced by Sharon Wehner is in love with Demetrius, and she follows him constantly as he tries to chase her away. Hermia and Helena have a rousing fight as they chase each other across the stage. In the end, Puck waits until everyone is asleep, then places a magic flower on the lovers’ eyes. They wake up, and discover that all is well: Demetrius loves only Helena, and Hermia loves only Lysander. The second act of this ballet is primarily the double wedding of Hermia and Lysander, and Demetrius and Helena. There is far more actual dance in this act then there is a dramatic acting.

It was quite something to see the ever-graceful Maria Mosina, who danced Titania, fall in love with Bottom even though he has been turned into a donkey. She displayed such a wonderfully comic nature in her relationship with Bottom, portrayed by Gregory K. Gonzales. Again, Puck has caused this problem, but he comes to the rescue and releases Bottom from his spell, and Queen Titania falls back in love with King Oberon who is danced by Alexei Tyukov. Much of the humor of the story comes from the fact that it is so confusing, and even the dancers as part of their character, portray the confusion amongst themselves. The acting ability of the dancers was absolutely outstanding.

In one scene, Queen Titania, danced by Maria Mosina, is sung to sleep by the fairies, the Colorado Children’s Chorale was augmented by sopranos Amanda Balestrieri, and Ana Spadoni. I must say that these two fine sopranos seemed to be just as excited to perform in the ballet as the youngsters who comprised the Children’s Chorale. The young people from the Colorado Ballet Academy were delightful and charming to watch. Saige Ju, who performed as the Changeling attendant to Queen Titania was absolutely perfect. All of the young people had such remarkable stage presence that they all seem to be headed for a career in ballet.

The dancers in Friday’s performance, Alexei Tyukov, Sharon Wehner, Dana Benton, Jesse Marks, Viacheslav Buchkovskiy, Domenico Luciano, Asuka Sasaki, and Shelby Dyer were all superb. But in listing these names, I have run up against an enormous problem: there is not room in this article to name everyone who appeared on stage. Gil Boggs, Sandra Brown, and Lorita Travaglia have put together a wonderful assemblage of dancers. In Friday’s performance, it was so obvious that a new spirit has taken over the Colorado Ballet.

The costumes were excellent. Many came from the Boston Ballet Company as well as the Orlando Ballet. The set came from Ballet West and was designed by Adam Skulte.

Even the Colorado Ballet Orchestra, under the direction of Maestro Adam Flatt, seemed to be inspired by a new spirit. There was a wonderful spontaneity and precision in Friday’s performance, particularly in the dynamic range demonstrated by the musicians. Both Flatt, and Associate Conductor, Catherine Sailer, have had a profound impact on the Colorado Ballet Orchestra. Friday evening there was a new spark from the orchestra which was clearly evident to the audience.

The leadership that Gil Boggs has shown as Artistic Director, and the artistic ability of all of the dancers, has been rewarded by the awareness and support of the Board of Directors. Their new building on Santa Fe Street is a reflection of the fact that the Colorado Ballet’s evolution has been irrevocable in every artistic respect, and that this evolution has resulted in a national standing. The new building has eight studios, two of which are the size of the Ellie Caulkins’ stage. It has facilities for the Academy students to do their school work with tutors available, so that they may be immersed in ballet as they do their studies. There is a Black Box Theater to provide an extra dimension of performance. And, there is also adequate office space for the staff, and much, much more. As I have said before, the Colorado Ballet has become a very robust and artistic organization that can stand with any other ballet company in the United States. We need to support it, and we need to show our appreciation not only to the artistic leadership of the Colorado Ballet, and the musicians, but to the Board of Directors for their recognition of the artistic accomplishments and the needs of this fine ballet company.

Art and the art of communication: The Colorado Ballet

The Colorado Ballet gave their opening performance of the season at the Arvada Center Outdoor Amphitheater on Saturday, August 16. Some of the works that were on the program have been previously performed, but Saturday night they were infused with a new sense of freshness and enthusiasm that truly reflected the excitement of an opening season. Indeed, there has been so much good news from the Colorado Ballet in the last few weeks. The Artistic Director, Gil Boggs, has wisely been offered – and he has signed – a new five-year contract. This is remarkably good news, for it should be obvious to everyone that he has turned the Colorado Ballet into a vital and robust program that has some of the best dancers in the country. The second bit of good news is that Dana Benton and Domenico Luciano have been promoted from Soloists to Principals, and that is most certainly where they belong, for they are stellar artists. The other bit of good news, as most of you ballet aficionados know, is that they are preciously close to moving into their new building in the art district on Santa Fe. Note that it is their building, and they won’t have to pay anybody rent.

Keep in mind that on Saturday there were no complete works performed: this wonderful dance concert was comprised entirely of excerpts which gave the audience a taste of the coming 2014-2015 season. And, in addition, the opening excerpt, a pas de deux from the ballet Flames of Paris, was used simply as an introduction to their entire performance. I’m sure it was chosen because the choreography certainly attracts immediate attention due to its difficulty and its romantic ambiance. It was danced by Dana Benton and Viacheslav Buchkovskiy. The original ballet was premiered in 1932, and it is a fairly typical “French Revolution” ballet which deals with the trials and tribulations of that era. The music was composed by Boris Asafyev (1884-1949) whose music sounds very much like Tchaikovsky. The choreography was done by Vasily Vainonen and it requires a great deal of virtuosity. Benton and Buchkovskiy are, of course, two virtuoso artists and it showed very clearly in this introduction which alternated between solo dances and a pas de deux. As I said above, the entire company seemed to be very excited for the opening performance, and certainly Benton and Buchkovskiy were no exception.

You readers, who are not totally familiar with ballet terminology, must understand that principals are the top-of-the-line. Next, comes soloists, and, after that are members of the corps de ballet. I mention this only to tell you that everyone in the Colorado Ballet is an exceptional dancer, and I have absolutely no doubt that all of them are quite capable of eventually being promoted to a principal. From my point of view, it is only the smallest detail that is separating them now.

Next on the program, Maria Mosina and Alexei Tyukov danced the Grand Pas de Deux from Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The music for this ballet always startles me, because Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) wrote the Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream when he was 17 years old. Dwell on that. He wrote the incidental music (incorporating the Overture) for Shakespeare’s play shortly before his death, and it is that music of Mendelssohn’s which is used in the ballet.

Maria Mosina and Alexei Tyukov were sensational. They are sensational because they are totally consumed by their art, and there is nothing that detracts from their concentration on that art, which includes their relationship to each other on stage. They are capable of so much communication through their movements and facial expressions, that it surely must attract the attention of those not totally familiar with ballet. Therefore, they are completely able to convert ballet neophytes to ardent supporters. And, as in paragraph one of this article, there is one more bit of good news: everyone in this company is capable of doing exactly that. It’s still astounds me that Gil Boggs has put together such an amazing collection of dancers. Maria Mosina and Alexei Tyukov are positively electrifying.

The Mendelssohn was followed by a short work entitled Young and Beautiful featuring the choreography of the Colorado Ballet’s own Sandra Brown with music by Lana Del Rey. This was a pas de deux that was stunningly beautiful, and it was danced by Chandra Kuykendall and Domenico Luciano.

Following the remarkable grace of Kuykendall and Luciano was a solid and very expressive depiction of evil. It was the pas de deux from Dracula danced by another incredible pair of dancers, Sharon Wehner and Dmitry Trubchanov. This is the pas de deux wherein Dracula entices Mina from her bed by appearing in her dream, and then flings her around the stage by her emotions, at once enticing her with his supposed love, and repelling her with his overpowering evil. This was another pas de deux where the emotional expression conveyed by the dancers was unmistakable.

Sitting in front of me were some individuals that seemed to me to be unfamiliar with the power of expression of which ballet is capable. When Dracula ripped open his shirt and slashed his chest open, and then thrusts Mina’s face into the blood forcing her to drink, the individuals stared at each other, not believing the horror they had just seen. It was a very powerful moment. If any of you readers have not seen Dracula by the Colorado Ballet, I would encourage you to attend this season. Yes, it is horrifying, but the choreography by Michael Pink, and the music by Philip Feeney, will stay with you for a long time, not only because of the horror, but because of the beauty as well.

The Colorado Ballet then performed the Scherzo from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This certainly demonstrated the depth of ability of the dancers in the Colorado Ballet. Asuka Sasaki, Sean Omandam, Shelby Dyer, Morgan Buchanan, Luis Valdes, Francisco Estevez, Emily Speed, Tracy Jones, Emily Dixon, and Melissa Zoebisch were truly remarkable. Again, it all comes down to their expression through the movement and the spirit of the music. Some of these are new faces, but they are certainly welcome additions to the Colorado Ballet, and it is an important point to make that the Colorado Ballet can attract, and demand, dancers of this quality.

After the intermission, the second half of Saturday’s performance was taken up by the remarkable (there’s that word again) choreography by Sandra Brown in the performance of a new ballet, The Last Beat, which was given its world premiere in March of this year. The entire company was used on this half of the program. All of the dancers in the Colorado Ballet exemplify what it means to be a member of a Professional company. And, I might add, that this organization keeps getting better and better, and ever since Gil Boggs, Sandra Brown, and Lorita Travaglia have been a part of this organization, their artistic demands have been raised and met with every performance. The choreography for The Last Beat is difficult, and I think there is no mistaking the fact that Sandra Brown took into consideration the dedication and artistic ability of the dancers she was writing for. If you demand a lot, you will receive a lot.

Saturday’s performance was memorable. In addition to all of the good news, there is still more. Even though Saturday’s performance was done to recorded music (there is no room for an orchestra at the Arvada Center Outdoor Amphitheater) Maestro Adam Flatt and Maestra Catherine Sailer will still be in charge of leading the Colorado Ballet Orchestra.

The Colorado Ballet is comprised of individuals who have made a tremendous investment to their art. They have made it very clear that their art comes first. Therefore, let us all make our own investment, and attend their performances so that this outstanding ballet company will understand how much we appreciate them.

The Colorado Ballet’s Cinderella: Artistry and Magic

As I have often said, Artistic Director, Gil Boggs, of the Colorado Ballet, has assembled an organization that is truly superior in the world of dance. This was clearly demonstrated Saturday, February 16th, at their performance of Sergei Prokofiev’s marvelous ballet, Cinderella. The artistic staff of the Colorado Ballet, aside from Gil Boggs, is as follows: Sandra Brown, Ballet Mistress; Lorita Travaglia, Ballet Mistress; Maestro Adam Flatt, Music Director and Principal Conductor; Maestra Catherine Sailer, Associate Conductor; Ben Stevenson, Choreographer; and, Christina Giannelli, Lighting Designer. This season’s performance of Cinderella was staged by Janie Parker.

Sergei Prokofiev (1891- 1953) breathed new life into the symphony, the sonata, concerto, and most certainly, the ballet. Early on, Prokofiev tried to duplicate the success that his older countryman, Sergei Rachmaninoff, had had in the United States. Prokofiev himself was a brilliant pianist, but for some reason he was not met with the same reception. His first ballet that became an international success was Romeo and Juliet, but many of his other works were met with extreme hostility from the cultural ideologues of the Soviet Union. He was called before the Supreme Soviet and told that his music was bourgeoisie, and did not reflect proper Soviet culture. His works were banned from performance. Part of the reason for this was that his music was filled with harmonic deceptive resolutions, the use of modes simultaneously with major and minor, disjunct melodic lines with surprising twists and turns, and, at times, dissonances that were, as he labeled it, used in effort to “tease the geese.” In other words, annoy those who had banned his works.

Cinderella closely adheres to the tail written by Charles Perrault. All of you readers know the story, having heard it many times in your youth. Prokofiev, in his ballet, emphasized comedy, as well as love, compassion for others, and the yearning to do, and be, something different.

The two mean stepsisters are always played by males in this ballet in order to emphasize their ugliness and the obstreperous behavior. Saturday evening, Francisco Estevez and Christopher Moulton danced the two stepsisters to perfection. They were ill-dressed, rowdy malcontents who were abusive to their stepfather and stepsister. Dmitry Trubchanov danced the role of the Father, and Lorita Travaglia danced the role of the Stepmother. Sharon Wehner danced the role of Cinderella, and though I have seen this ballet several times, I have never seen anyone infuse the role of Cinderella with so much emotion, whether it be poignancy or absolute joy. It truly made me think that she and Choreographer Ben Stevenson were absolutely on the same wavelength, with every movement she made. Every movement she danced, she described Cinderella.

Act I is used to introduce the audience to all of the characters, and every dancer onstage accomplished that with aplomb. The fairy godmother appears toward the end of the act, and was danced by the remarkable Maria Mosina, whose graceful arms never stop moving when she dances.

The sets were through the courtesy of the Texas Ballet Company, and I immediately thought that the Colorado Ballet deserves their own sets. Yes, that would be enormously expensive, but this ballet company is of the ilk that they should have them. Cinderella’s coach, which thankfully did not look like an enlarged pumpkin, was a total work of art, and the horses in special costumes, were a stroke of visual genius. In addition, the transformation of the set from Cinderella’s living room to the woods where her Fairy Godmother transforms her into a Princess was absolutely magical.

From the very outset of Saturday evening’s performance I was struck by the Colorado Ballet Orchestra. I don’t think, and I say this without exaggeration, that I have ever heard them perform better. Understand, that Prokofiev’s music, because of his highly individual style, is difficult for an orchestra to play because it is sometimes impossible to anticipate where the melodic line will turn next. But the emotion expressed by the dancers was strongly supported and reflected by the orchestra.

Act II is comprised of The Ball. The Jester, danced Saturday evening by Kevin Gaël Thomas, introduces and welcomes the arriving guests. Their reaction to the ugly stepsisters was priceless. Upon the arrival of Cinderella, she and the Prince are smitten with the immortal love at first sight. Cinderella and the Prince, danced by Viacheslav Buchkovskiy, danced a wonderful and impassioned pas de deux which was one of the highlights of the evening’s performance. These two dancers were totally superb, as is everyone in this company. I have often said, and I mean that sincerely, that every single dancer who appears on stage for the Colorado Ballet could be a soloist. The depth of quality is astounding. When the clock struck twelve, Prokofiev allows the trombones to become powerful and threatening. I’m quite sure, judged by the sound, that Maestro Flatt told the brass to sneer and growl.

Act III concerns the prince’s search for the love of his life, who completely disappeared at the end of Act II. He searches far and wide. He and his servants ask all the cobblers who made the shoe that Cinderella dropped. While he is searching, Cinderella takes the other slipper from her apron pocket, and realizes that her memories of the ball and a handsome Prince were not a dream after all. The Prince arrives at the household, and the two stepsisters try on the shoe to no avail. Cinderella helps her stepmother to try it on, and while she is doing so, the other slipper falls from her apron. The Prince realizes that he has found his princess, and the two live happily ever after.

As I have said, I have seen Prokofiev’s Cinderella several times, but this is the first time where I was so taken with the shared artistry between the orchestra and the dancers. In the forest scene, where the Fairy Godmother transforms Cinderella, the Spring Fairy, danced by Klara Houdet; the Summer Fairy, danced by Tracy Jones; and the Autumn and Winter fairies, danced respectively by Morgan Buchanan and Shelby Dyer, were strongly supported by the excellent clarinet work of Michelle Orman in the orchestra. Small details, such as the transformation of the moon into a midnight clock, added to the magic of the performance. When the guests at the ball were given oranges as special treats, the orchestra seemed to emphasize the theme for the oranges, so that those familiar with Prokofiev’s opera, The Love for Three Oranges, was clearly recognizable.

It was a magical evening in every sense of the word. The adults in the audience sat transfixed, and the youngsters in the audience laughed delightedly with the antics of the stepsisters. Everyone gasped in almost terror and surprise when the clock began to strike twelve. Saturday evening’s performance was a complete artistic amalgamation where dancers, choreographer, and musicians worked together in a convincing artistic union.

There are more performances. You must see this ballet.

Thu 2/20/14 6:30PM: Ellie Caulkins Opera House
2014 Cinderella More Information Purchase
Fri 2/21/14 7:30PM: Ellie Caulkins Opera House
2014 Cinderella More Information Purchase

Sat 2/22/14 2:00PM: Ellie Caulkins Opera House
2014 Cinderella More Information Purchase

Sat 2/22/14 7:30PM: Ellie Caulkins Opera House
2014 Cinderella More Information Purchase

Sun 2/23/14 2:00PM: Ellie Caulkins Opera House
2014 Cinderella More Information Purchase

The Colorado Ballet and The Nutcracker: Ever delightful – always superior

There is very good reason why Piotr Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker is one of the most popular ballets ever written. It contains some of the most beautiful melodies ever composed, and it has an almost endless stream of character dances. As everyone knows, it is based on E. T. A. Hoffman’s story, as translated by Alexandre Dumas, of Clara, whose Christmas gift, the Nutcracker, comes to life. The Nutcracker, now a soldier, defeats the Mouse King with the aid of Clara, but not before the soldier is knocked unconscious. At the defeat of the Mouse King, a spell is broken, and the Nutcracker/Soldier is transformed into a handsome Prince. Intent upon showing his gratitude to Clara for saving his life, he spirits her off to a magical land of toys and candy. There, the Sugar Plum Fairy decrees that a great celebration take place in order to honor Clara. While Clara and the Prince are seated on thrones to witness the celebration in their honor, many dances take place to reward her for her bravery. At the end of the celebration, the Prince carries Clara back to her home, where she awakens with vivid memories of what has just transpired, but is also completely unsure if it was reality or if it was a dream.

Tchaikovsky followed no new paths or innovations in his compositions, yet his melodic lines are remarkably powerful even though they use traditional harmony, when compared to his contemporaries such as Wagner and Bruckner. His ballets, Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty, and The Nutcracker, are the most popular ballets of all time. Many potential audience members seem to avoid the Nutcracker because it is done by every dance company imaginable since it has become a staple of the Christmas season. That is truly unfortunate because the music is remarkable, and the production presented by the Colorado Ballet is superb.

From the opening, the entire company exuded a joy and enthusiasm on their way to the Christmas party that was tangible. When Clara’s godfather, Herr Drosselmeyer, appears, all of the party guests seemed to draw away from him, not from fear as in past productions, but out of a sense of respect. In Saturday evening’s production, Clara was danced by Dana Benton, who was absolutely irresistible in her childlike charm, and effortless dancing. She was truly grace personified. Herr Drosselmeyer was played by the esteemed Gregory K Gonzales who has played this role many times. However, Saturday evening, he truly excelled: he was not only mysterious and magical, but very caring towards Clara as well. Sean Omandam danced the role of Clara’s brother, Fritz, and he too was exceptional in his effortless portrayal of a somewhat bratty sibling. It is Fritz who is responsible for breaking the Nutcracker, but Herr Drosselmeyer assures Clara that all will be well. After all the guests have left the party, and the house darkens with everyone in bed, Herr Drosselmeyer begins to work his magic. In Hoffman’s story, everyone begins to grow smaller. Of course, the only way to do this on stage is to have the Christmas tree grow much taller, and, all of the toys underneath the tree become quite large. Now the Nutcracker, danced by Adam Still, is the size of the mice, as is Clara. She provides the distraction which allows the Nutcracker to slay the Mouse King. I point out that in this year’s production the Soldier Mice, and even the Mouse King, seem to have been portrayed in a more humorous vein than in the past productions, where they seemed positively evil.

The pas de deux between Clara and the Nutcracker turned Prince, was absolutely spectacular. Both Adam Still and Dana Benton are remarkable dancers, but they also possess a great dramatic sense. They not only demonstrated great confidence in their ability to dance these roles, but they demonstrated an excitement which was inherent throughout the entire performance Saturday evening.

The members of the Colorado Ballet have such versatility that they often dance different roles on the same day. For example, at the matinee performance on November 30, Sean Omandam danced the role of the soldier doll, while that evening he danced the role of Clara’s brother, Fritz. No doubt some of the alteration was done in consideration of the physical demands upon the human body. Nonetheless, I think it is remarkable the way the members of the Colorado Ballet can switch roles from day-to-day, or from afternoon to evening. Dana Benton danced Clara Saturday evening, but in the matinee performance on the same day, in Act II, she danced one of the Marzipan candies. That is remarkable concentration.

Toward the end of Act I, the Prince and Clara visit the Land of Snow. It was in this scene that the choreography seemed to be considerably different from last year. That is certainly not a criticism by any stretch of the imagination, as it was certainly beautiful to watch. The program lists additional choreography done by Sandra Brown, though most of the ballet was based on choreography done by Martin Fredmann.

Act II contains some of the most famous dances ever written. Clara and the Prince have traveled to the Kingdom of the Sugar Plum Fairy who was performed by Chandra Kuykendall. The Sugar Plum Fairy’s Cavalier was danced by a new member of the company, Domenico Luciano. As I watched Kuykendall dance Saturday evening, I was struck by the fact that she seemed to be a little careful and without her usual exuberance. In a few instances it seemed as though she might be recovering from a slight injury that may have occurred during rehearsal, but I stress that this is sheer speculation on my part. She certainly was as wonderful to watch as she always is. Her partner, Domenico Luciano was excellent, and I look forward to his performances throughout the season. He exhibited great strength which resulted in an astounding ease of movement as well as grace.

The highlights of the celebratory dances in Act II were the Arabian, danced by Shelby Dyer and Luis Valdes. There are so many lifts in this duet that one wonders how Valdes can stay in shape even though Shelby Dyer is very small. Morgan Buchanan, Cara Cooper, and Christopher Moulton were absolutely superb as the Spanish Chocolate dancers, as were Casey Dalton, Asuka Sasaki, and Jesse Marks as the Marzipan dancers, but I must give special mention to Sean Omandam, Kevin Gaël Thomas, and Lesley Allred who danced the Russian. Omandam and Thomas were so precisely together, and they jumped so high off the stage, that the audience was dazzled. The famed Dance of the Flowers was spectacular.

Grace is a word that might characterize the way the Colorado Ballet Orchestra performed. They were at times emotionally intense, more so than I have heard them before. But, more than any other performance, the orchestra and the dancers seemed to be very comfortable with each other. As I have said before, Maestro Adam Flatt and the Maestra Catherine Sailer have done wonders with the Colorado Ballet Orchestra over the past few years. They have contributed mightily to making the Colorado Ballet the well-rounded organization that it is: it is an organization where everybody contributes their fullest, and the result is wonderfully artistic and a joy to watch and hear.

As I said in the opening paragraph, there is such a good reason why this ballet is so well known. It is also equally important to understand that the Colorado Ballet never treats this performance as a cliché. All of the dancers, all of the orchestra members, and all of those involved in the production backstage, clearly worked very hard to make this the exciting and artistic performance. You must see it.

Follow this link to see the date and times of performances and to purchase tickets: http://www.coloradoballet.org/

The Colorado Ballet is artistry personified
November 25, 2012, 12:07 pm
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: , , , , ,

There are times in any performing organization when, as a result of all the hard work and artistic skill, things align in just the right way so that it would seem the performance cannot be improved upon. Most certainly, it is not the result of luck or good fortune. One has to develop the ability to see what needs to be accomplished, and then possess the ability to make everything involved a very special case. That is precisely what the Colorado Ballet did, and clearly has done at all of their rehearsals, leading to Saturday night’s performance on November 24.

Truly, I don’t think I have ever heard the Colorado Ballet Orchestra perform as well as they did Saturday evening. They were absolutely superb: they were, beat for beat with the danseurs and coryphées, and the dancers were with them. That, in itself, is extremely difficult to carry off as perfectly as it occurred at the opening performance. Maestro Adam Flatt, when conducting a ballet, not only has to conduct the orchestra, but must also conduct the dancers while allowing them their own artistic freedom. He has to be able to anticipate the dancer’s moves while supplying them with the rhythmic and melodic background to which they perform. Of course, that sounds obvious, but that does not mean that it is easy or should be taken for granted. As I said above, I simply have not heard the Colorado Ballet Orchestra perform at such a level. Maestro Flatt and Maestra Catherine Sailer have truly had a profound impact on this orchestra.

The Colorado Ballet is, of course, deeply indebted to the inspiration and guidance of its Artistic Director, Gil Boggs. The kind of performance that was given Saturday evening would not be possible without the forward thinking leadership and enthusiasm that Boggs has been able to spread throughout the company. There certainly seems to be solid leadership on the board of directors as well as in the studio.

The reason I address this before I even begin to write about the dancers in the company is that I don’t think I have ever seen the entire company reflect such joy in dancing as they did Saturday evening. Of course, they like what they do, or they wouldn’t be doing it, but their enthusiasm on the opening night of The Nutcracker was something to behold, and virtually everyone on stage revealed it. That revelation made this performance outstanding.

I have always admired Dana Benton, who danced Clara Saturday evening, and Sean Omandam who danced Fritz: both of them excelled Saturday, and absolutely sparkled in their roles. In addition, the contribution that Gregory K. Gonzales makes to this production, as Drosselmeyer, and to the Colorado Ballet as a whole, cannot be understated. He was excellent. As Drosselmeyer works his magic, it was apparent, in this production, that the Christmas tree was not growing, but that everyone was shrinking down to the size of the Nutcracker and mice. And the outsized toys under the tree emphasize that fact. That event was quite clear in Saturday’s performance, even though in the past it has been the same. E. T. A. Hoffman would have loved it.

The connection between scenes in Saturday’s performance was considerably more seamless than in previous productions. The entire First Act flowed together so that when the intermission arrived, it seemed as though only ten minutes had passed. Casey Dalton, Kevin Gaël Thomas, Cara Cooper, Shelby Dyer, Morgan Buchanan, and Caitlin Valentine-Ellis were all superb.

Act II, as all of you must surely know by now, presents the trip that the (Nutcracker) Prince and Clara take to enchanted lands, where they are entertained by many dancers. The Spanish, Arabian, Chinese, March and, Russian, Dew Drop, and the Flowers were all exceptional, but there were three that stood out, at least to my way of thinking. This ballet seems to have more lifting required, where the male dancer raises his female partner over his head. In Saturday’s production, Luis Valdes and Shelby Dyer danced the Arabian. Valdes accomplished this with such grace and ease and lack of hesitation that I was awestruck. I’ve seen this ballet many times, but never have I seen it accomplished with such seeming lack of effort. I point out that Shelby Dyer must have enough confidence in Valdes that she can allow and trust him to do this without flinching. And, of course, it must all be done under Maestro Flatt’s, Martin Fredmann’s (the choreographer), Sandra Brown’s and Tchaikovsky’s direction.

The second dance that I found spectacular was Marzipan, which was danced by Casey Dalton, Caitlin Valentine-Ellis, and Jesse Marks. The characterization and humorous drama that this pas de trois provided to the audience was delightful. The members of the Colorado Ballet have always surprised me with their acting ability as well as their dancing ability. I don’t recall seeing this depth in other dance companies, except very rarely.

The third dance was the Dance of the Flowers. At the very beginning, the orchestra and the dancers wrought an incredible rubato that was absolutely and precisely together. They did it more than once. Rubato means “dwell on” where the rhythm is used to prolong prominent melodic tones (or chords). This requires an equivalent acceleration of the less prominent tones, so that the time value is robbed. It is one thing for a soloist to accomplish this because a soloist does not have to rely on anyone else to stay with him. But when an orchestra does it together with a group of dancers onstage, and does it repeatedly with no errors, it is something of which to take notice. It is the result of incredible work and skill, and an exchange of artistic thought between dancer and conductor. For that reason, I came away from this performance thinking that the Dance of the Flowers must be one of the most subtly difficult in this entire ballet. It was mesmerizing.

Of course, another highlight of this remarkable performance was the pas de deux between the Sugar Plum Fairy, danced by Maria Mosina, and the Cavalier, danced by Alexei Tyukov. Both of these Principals are so full of grace, beauty, and strength that it absolutely boggles the mind. Their pas de deux requires many jeté entrelacés and grand jetés, but they never seem to get tired, and in addition they communicated this pervasive sense of joy in what they were doing that it was infectious. It was palpable.

I have said this before, but it bears repeating. It is extremely rare to attend a performance of a ballet company that has such remarkable depth of artistic ability. It is rare to see performances by a ballet company where virtually all of the dancers so easily demonstrate the love for what they do. That makes an incredible difference. The staging, done by Lorita Travaglia and Sandra Brown, was excellent. The Colorado Ballet is fortunate beyond compare to have Gil Boggs, Maestro Adam Flatt, and Maestra Catherine Sailer, Sandra Brown, and Lorita Travaglia as the Artistic Staff. For any organization to succeed as the Colorado Ballet has succeeded, it is clear that they must support one another and share a mutual artistic respect. Everything this entire company produces is art.

Final concert of the season at Lamont: Consistent Excellence

The Season Finale by the Lamont Symphony Orchestra, entitled “Adventures at Sea,” was not only a fitting end to their concert season, it was very well attended as it should have been. Because it was a mix of two orchestral works and one work for chorus and orchestra, it clearly defined the progress that the students have made, not only during the school year, but in their careers as students. The confidence that they demonstrate always changes greatly. And when one performs difficult works as they did on Thursday, May 31, that confidence was clearly noticeable in the way they responded to Maestro Golan and Maestra Sailer. You must understand that these students are so good, and they work so hard when they perform, that sometimes the smallest mistake can be noticeable, but please do not take that as any kind of harsh criticism. This orchestra is so much better than many of the university orchestras in the US that I have heard, let alone most of the community orchestras in the state, that very tiny errors become apparent. I wish some of the community orchestras in Colorado performed to the standard of the Lamont Symphony Orchestra. And the same applies to the Lamont Chorale, Lamont Women’s Chorus, and the Lamont Men’s Choir. These groups are delightful to listen to.

The Lamont Symphony Orchestra opened the program with the overture to The Flying Dutchman by Richard Wagner. As everyone must know by now, this is the story of a Dutch sea captain who is cursed to sail the earth forever, only coming ashore every seven years to see if he can find the unselfish love of a woman. At the very beginning of this overture, there are open fifths and a tremolo which clearly remind one of Beethoven whom Wagner admired as the ultimate composer. There is a constant juxtaposition of themes: the dramatic Dutchman theme, and a milder, gentler theme which suggests the Dutchman’s liberation and release.

I’ve always admired the tempos that Maestro Golan takes when he performs Wagner with this orchestra. They are always a little quicker than I anticipate, and certainly The Flying Dutchman was taken at a faster tempo than the recording I have of this work, which is done by the Budapest Symphony. I certainly did like Golan’s tempos better, because, in the opening, it gives the French horns more momentum, especially with their hard-driving two-note-phrase that is repeated so often. Against this insistent, almost terror driven theme, the violins have sweeping glissandos, which accurately describe the waves, and the bow wave of the red ghost ship becoming visible through the fog. I know that I have commented on this before, but it is amazing for me to watch these students working so hard on their instruments. None of them sits in his chair, and simply moves his bow arm. Of course, unlike community orchestras, the students are working for a grade, but, nonetheless, they always impress me with the sincerity of their effort. Even in the quieter moments of this overture, the LSO and Golan provided tension. I thought that it was an absolutely marvelous performance, particularly when you consider all of the technical difficulties inherent in this work. It was exciting and it was driven.

After the Wagner, the LSO continued its seafaring theme with a work by American composer, Peter Boyer, entitled Titanic. I will quote very briefly from his website:

“Boyer was born in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1970, and began composing at the age of 15. His first major composition was a large-scale Requiem Mass in memory of his grandmother, composed while only a teenager. He was named to the first All-USA College Academic Team, comprised of “the 20 best and brightest college students in the nation,” by USA TODAY in 1990. Boyer received his Bachelor’s degree from Rhode Island College, which awarded him an honorary Doctor of Music degree in 2004. He received Master of Music and Doctor of Musical Arts degrees from The Hartt School of the University of Hartford, which named him its 2002 Alumnus of the Year. There his teachers included Larry Alan Smith and Harold Farberman. Following his doctoral work, Boyer studied privately with John Corigliano in New York, then moved to Los Angeles to study film and TV scoring at the USC Thornton School of Music, where his teachers included the late Elmer Bernstein. In 1996, Boyer was appointed to the faculty at Claremont Graduate University, where he holds the Helen M. Smith Chair in Music and the rank of Full Professor.”

Peter Boyer is an excellent composer who has a marvelous understanding of orchestration. His ability to orchestrate was certainly demonstrated in Titanic, where he so skillfully uses the strings to create the tension of impending doom. He uses cascading glissandi, which almost seem to be “stacked” on top of each other so that the sound created is almost microtonal. To that, he adds gongs and bells, that truly sound like the voices of fate. As he points out in the program notes, it has been recorded by Titanic survivors that there were at least two pieces performed by the ships orchestra: Alexander’s Ragtime Band, and the hymn, Nearer, my God, to Thee. Hearing these two popular pieces in the middle of the tension really does give the piece a sense of humanness, a startling contrast to the mood that has been set before.

Of his work, Peter Boyer states (and I quote from the program notes):

“The final section of this work contains the most complex music I have ever written, and it was inspired by a specific moment, the ship’s very last. Just before the liner broke in two, so much water had flooded its bow that the steel behemoth literally stood upright in the water, its stern fully elevated a few hundred feet above the water’s surface. (This is recreated with frightening accuracy in James Cameron’s film.) At this moment, all the contents of the ship—from enormous boilers to grand pianos, furniture, china, passengers, luggage—came crashing down atop one another, and for one brief moment, things which were never meant to occupy the same place did just that. This inspired me to attempt the same phenomenon musically, and so all of the musical themes of the work, both original and ‘borrowed,’ return simultaneously in their original keys and tempos, like ‘ghosts’ crashing into one another. One by one, these ‘ghosts’ fade, engulfed by the ‘sea music,’ until it alone remains eternal. An offstage trumpet plays the hymn a final time, like a spectral benediction, and the sea fades to silence.

“The score’s dedication reads: ‘In memory of the 1,517 lives lost in the North Atlantic on April 15, 1912.’”

I have not seen the score to this work, but Maestro Golan and the Lamont Symphony Orchestra seemed to play the glissandi with almost scratching noises of the bows on the strings. Mind you, I’m not sure that’s what they did; perhaps I was hearing overtones caused by all of the “stacked” glissandi. But it would be interesting to see if Boyer indicated some kind of special effect aside from just the straight sound of the violins. Wherever that sound came from, it was marvelously effective, for it not only created tension, but it conveyed the sensation of very cold water. It also conveyed a great feeling of tragedy, particularly, when, in the background, Irving Berlin’s famous tune was played. It was interesting to watch the orchestra members, because as the piece progressed, their demeanor seemed to change and become more serious. Clearly, they were being moved by the emotion of the music, and it was very definitely conveyed to the audience. I point out, that this is one of the irreplaceable facets of musical education that these students are learning through Maestro Golan and their other professors: how to convey and portray what the composer wishes. And, learning how to respond precisely to what a conductor wishes. That is one reason this orchestra is so excellent.

I was truly stunned by this work: not only its quality, but the quality of the performance. I know that the orchestra reached the audience in every way possible, because they were extremely attentive, and there was no movement in their seats whatsoever.

Following the intermission, the Lamont Symphony Orchestra was joined onstage by the Lamont Chorale, the Lamont Women’s Chorus, and the Lamont Men’s Chorus, in a performance of Ralph Vaughn Williams’ enormous work, A Sea Symphony. This is a striking work, not only because of its innate beauty, but because it was Vaughn Williams’ first attempt at writing a symphony, and he chose to write this symphony with a large choir in every movement. Throughout his life he was motivated by the poetry of the American, Walt Whitman. In this instance, Vaughn Williams, who was a declared agnostic, used Whitman’s decidedly non-ecclesiastical concept of life’s journey as a sea voyage through all of the uncharted corners of the earth. In the first movement, A Song for All Seas, All Ships, Vaughn Williams outlines the themes which will be used throughout the entire work.

The combined choirs sat behind the orchestra, which is the normal position, but they were so far back from the audience that I was initially a little apprehensive about the projection of their sound. But I must say that that length, plus the closeness of the walls, projected the sound forward almost like it was coming out of the broad end of a funnel to the audience. The sound was fantastic, and, I must say, so was the diction. This work was conducted by Maestra Catherine Sailer, and she is a profound musician, as well as a very good choral conductor. She certainly knows how to coach a choir in diction, and how to get them to use small, but forceful breaths, in order to accent the syllables in the text. That same skill is certainly shared with Maestro Paul Smith who’s Lamont Men’s Choir. I can easily assure you that the words the choir was singing could be understood at least ninety-five percent of the time, and that is excellent, when you consider the size of the choir and the size of the orchestra. The balance between the two was also excellent.

I must say, that I have never seen Maestra Sailer be so emphatic and commanding in her conducting as she was in A Sea Symphony. I left the performance wondering how many times she has conducted this work, for she seemed totally familiar with it, and extremely comfortable and precise in her cues to the orchestra and the soloists (how much of this score did she memorize?). The orchestra followed her every indication, and, as is her customary technique, she used huge sweeping motions to pull the orchestra and the chorus along. She cued the soloists with casual glances in their direction, and it was very effective. Keep in mind, that I am not a conductor, but I was so impressed with her ability to get so many different emotions from not just the orchestra, but from the choir as well, even when one group was anticipating emotions for the other group. The orchestra never covered the choir, nor did the choir ever cover the orchestra, no matter what the dynamic level.

This work is written for soprano and baritone solos. The soprano was Michelle Mendoza, and I have written about her before. She has an absolutely enormous voice that is full of power and emotion. Her voice has a certain transparent quality, which is well-suited for the Vaughn Williams, because it lends a certain innocence to the work. But, I must say, that I was a little disappointed in her diction Thursday evening. It was a difficult sometimes to understand the words that she was singing. This is an unusual criticism because, when I have heard her before this performance, her diction has been excellent. The baritone was Benjamin Wood. He, too, has a huge voice with a quality very close to a heldentenor (heroic tenor). It is the exact quality of voice that Wagner calls for in his operas. Mr. Wood’s diction was well-nigh perfect. So was his phrasing and breath control.

It is always enjoyable hearing the Lamont Symphony, and all of the Lamont choirs, whether they are combined or performing separately. They are so consistent, which, of course, means that as music students, their learning processes are consistent. They are being taught excellence and how to achieve it, which is what they will need if they are to be performers.


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