Filed under: Reviews | Tags: Aniel Cabán, Athur Rimbaud, Bahman Saless, Beethoven, Benjamin Britten, Boulder Chamber Orchestra, Christine Brooke-Rose, Cobus Du Toit, Joey Howe, Kimberly Brody, Max Soto, Mozart, Samuel Barber, Soheil Nasseri, Szivilia Schranz
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.
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: Adriana Contino, Chrstipher Maunu, Clara Rottsolk, Cobus Du Toit, Colorado Bach Ensemble, Cynthia Henning, Daekwang Kim, Dann Coakwell, David Kim, Elise Greenwood Bahr, Eric Jurenas, Gene Stenger, James Kim, Joshua Ooms, Kenrick Mervine, Margaret Soper Gutierrez, Marjorie Bunday, Mary Artmann, Matt Sommer, Michelle Stanley, Nicole Lamartine, Paul Max Tipton, Steven Soph, Stuart Dameron
Every performing musician who goes out on stage to expose an audience to incredible music has his or her own “Opus Ultimum,” to borrow that term from Daniel Leeson. It doesn’t matter if the musician is a conductor, a pianist, or a vocalist: It is a piece of music that he or she strives to do, but only when he or she knows that the moment in their performing life has arrived. For pianists, it may be Liszt’s Sonata in B minor; for cellists, it may be Kodály’s Sonata for Unaccompanied Cello; or, for a conductor, it may be Mahler’s Eighth Symphony, which requires an orchestra of 200, and a choir of 800. For a Heldentenor, it may be Parsifal, by Wagner.
For Dr. James Kim, it is the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. Notice that I did not mention a particular work. Dr. Kim is on his way to perform all of the important choral works of this remarkable composer, and he has even established a basic choir and orchestra in which to complete this monumental pursuit: the Colorado Bach Ensemble. You readers who love music, but have never performed or even been trained in music, must understand the amount of preparation that goes into learning a piece such as the Zoltán Kodály Cello Sonata. It takes a great deal of musical maturity as well as knowledge of the composer, and even the period of his life when he composed the piece. When one conducts a work such as the St. Matthew Passion, one must have an understanding of the work and performance at several different levels: 1) one must understand Bach’s deep religious beliefs, 2) one must study the score of this three-hour piece, and decide how best to bring out the intricate counterpoint that infuse all of J.S. Bach’s works, 3) one must be familiar with, and know soloists who are capable of singing the solo voice parts, 4) one must know orchestral musicians who have a similar dedication and understanding of the music, 5) one must be able to put together a choir which possesses the same thought process as the instrumentalists, 6) and on a more mundane level, one must have the funding available, or have the skill to put it all together, so that this huge work can be performed. One must also have the knowledge to understand all of the ramifications of a performance preparation, and have the stamina and courage to never stop asking questions of oneself concerning its readiness. And, finally, one has to have the self-knowledge concerning one’s own ability to communicate to soloists, orchestra, and choir, what has to be done.
Needless to say, this does not happen overnight.
I will begin with the orchestra. In the Baroque orchestra, one of the most important parts is called the continuo (literally, continuing throughout the piece). To make the definition of continuo fairly simple, it is a stenographic system in which bass notes are written, but intervals (notes) above those notes are indicated by numerical figures. For example, if the bass note is an E, and there is a number 6 written below that E, then the instrumentalists performing the continuo would play the note C. The continuo is usually played by organ or harpsichord plus a low string instrument, normally the cello. Sometimes the bassoon is added. In the St. Matthew Passion, there are two orchestras, therefore, two continuo players are required. Mary Artmann played continuo cello in Orchestra II. She is a superb cellist and has performed regularly with the Colorado Chamber Players. I have had the great pleasure of hearing her perform several times. The guest cellist was Adriana Contino. Ms. Contino “… Was professor of cello, Baroque cello, and chamber music at the Hochschule für Musik in Freiburg, Germany, where she taught and concertized from 1991 to . She moved back to the United States in 2011 and is teaching at the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University in Bloomington.” I might point out that she comes from a very musical family, and that her mother, conductor Fiora Contino, also taught at the Indiana University School of Music, when I was a student there. Kenrick Mervine performed the organ continuo Saturday evening. He is the organist with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra, and was Instructor of Organ at Seton Hall University.
Other members of the orchestra of the Colorado Bach Ensemble come from orchestras around the state, and often play with the Colorado Chamber Players, the Boulder Chamber Orchestra, and the Colorado Symphony Orchestra. The Concertmaster of Orchestra I was Margaret Soper Gutierrez, who plays regularly with the Colorado Chamber Players. Concertmaster of Orchestra II was Dr. Hee-Jung Kim, who plays with the Fort Collins Symphony and the Cheyenne Symphony. Maestro James Kim has put together an absolutely outstanding group of musicians, which he truly has the ability to do.
The vocal soloists were tenor, Dann Coakwell, in the role of the Evangelist. This was his first appearance in Colorado, but he has sung throughout Europe and the United States, performing the Bach cantatas, the St. Matthew Passion, the St. John Passion, the Christmas Oratorio, and the Mass in B minor. The role of Jesus was sung by baritone Paul Max Tipton, who has appeared in Denver before this performance in Bach’s B minor Mass, which was the first performance given by the Colorado Bach ensemble. Clara Rottsolk sang the Soprano role. This was her first appearance in Colorado to the best of my knowledge. She teaches voice at Swarthmore, Haverford, and Bryn Mawr colleges. Eric Jurenas returned to Colorado to sing the Countertenor role in this Passion. I have heard him sing, and I have written about him before, and he still stuns the audience with his remarkable voice and musicianship. Steven Soph was the lead tenor in Saturday night’s performance, and he performs throughout the United States, and is a member of several vocal ensembles including New York’s Musica Sacra and Miami’s Seraphic Fire. The baritone for Saturday’s performance was David Kim (no relation to Dr. James Kim, the conductor). He has one of the most astonishing bass-baritone voices that I have heard in some time, and he is completing his Doctorate of Musical Arts degree at the College Conservatory of Music in Cincinnati.
The above-mentioned soloists deserve more space than I am able to give them here. They were absolutely outstanding, and I might add that their voice quality fit, or matched, if you will, with each other as well as the roles which they were singing.
There were also some excellent soloists singing from the choir. Though some may consider these roles relatively minor, I hasten to point out that the soloists’ qualities were not minor by any stretch of the imagination. These individuals were Elise Greenwood Bahr, Pilate’s Wife; Marjorie Bunday, False Witness I; Gene Stenger, False Witness II; Stuart Dameron, Judas; Christopher Maunu, Peter; Cynthia Henning, Maid I; Nicole Lamartine, Maid II; Daekwang Kim, Pilate; Joshua Ooms, High Priest II; and Matt Sommer, High Priest I. I mention these individuals because they were all exceptional, and well-chosen by Maestro James Kim. In addition, it is a reflection of the careful consideration that Maestro Kim gave this entire performance. There is no question that absolutely nothing was left to chance.
As the St. Matthew Passion began to unfold at Saturday’s performance, the performance of everyone on stage became more and more stunning. This work is divided into sixty-eight sections, delineated by recitatives, chorales, and arias. Section 5 and Section 6, a recitative, and aria, are scored for the countertenor. I have heard Eric Jurenas sing before, as I stated above; however, he never ceases to amaze me with the clear quality of his voice. It is as if one can see through it, and, in addition, his diction is remarkable. In those same two sections, the flutes in Orchestra I, Michelle Stanley and Cobus du Toit, also excelled. I point out that these two musicians are absolutely superb, as was everyone in the orchestra.
In the recitativo of Section 12, the soprano, Clara Rottsolk is required to enter on a relatively high pitch with little, if any, indication from the orchestras. She entered exactly on pitch so effortlessly and so musically that it quite literally took my breath away. Section 19, the tenor solo was the first entrance of the evening for Stephen Soph. Once again, I was impressed by the power of his voice and in his following aria (Section 20) the bassoon and oboe were absolutely gorgeous. And, I must say that all of the instrumentalists in the orchestra played as if they were all performing their own solos, even though they were all tutti. Section 22 was the first entrance of David Kim, the bass-baritone. He took the stage with disarming casualness, but when he began to sing, those around me looked at each other in disbelief of the fullness and the quality of his sound. He absolutely filled the hall, and his voice had the same transparency and clearness as that of Eric Jurenas.
All of these soloists not only had amazing vocal production, but they sang with great emotion and musicality. It was clear that the impact of Bach’s writing was having an effect on their own emotions, thus making it easier for them to project the story to the audience. The choice of the soloists is a reflection on the thoroughness demonstrated by Maestro James Kim in paragraph two of this article. For example, in the St. Matthew Passion, as he did in the B minor Mass, Bach writes an entrance for the countertenor on a note that is of very long duration. On this note the countertenor must gradually increase from a pianissimo dynamic level to a solid forte. Eric Jurenas was absolutely stunning in his long crescendo. Maestro Kim has to be able to pick a countertenor that has the breath control to do that.
Dr. James Kim infused the entire performance, both orchestras and choirs, with an intensity that was noticeable and non-stop: it lasted for three solid hours. This is how this particular, and monumentally important, work by J.S. Bach should be heard. There have been many performances of the St. Matthew Passion done with enormous choirs, presumably because the conductor thinks that more is better. It is easy to suppose that those conductors think that a large choir will make the work more impressive. However, in the end, all it does is to hide Bach’s counterpoint and sophistication in an unintelligible wash of sound. It certainly is not the size of orchestras and choirs that Bach had in mind when he wrote the piece, or that he had available to him at the time.
In Section 39, violinist Margaret Soper Gutierrez performed a duet with countertenor, Eric Jurenas. Her playing was exquisite, and both performed as if it was an unusually instrumented miniature sonata. Both parts were of equal importance, and both of these musicians honored each other’s musicality and extraordinary gifts.
This same ambience was also manifest in Section 42, when violinist Hee-Jung Kim performed a duet with David Kim, the bass-baritone. Both musicians were absolutely stellar. And, if you can imagine this from a bass-baritone, his voice was light and airy, and matched the quality of spirit of the violin, even though it was lower in pitch.
This entire performance from beginning to end was filled with uncompromising musicianship. There are many moments when the two orchestras share contrapuntal moments that produce a conversation between Orchestra I and Orchestra II. One orchestra began a “sentence,” and the other orchestra would finish it with a sentence of its own, or little rhythmic jabs of startling precision. The clarity of Bach’s counterpoint, and his inherent and constant rhythmic drive and accentuation was always distinct and unmistakable in Saturday’s performance. It is what defines Bach, and there is no question that Maestro Kim used it to shape the intensity of the performance. Everyone on stage, the soloists, the orchestra musicians, and the musicians in the choir, were all exceptional. As I stated above, this is one of the most important compositions of Bach’s, as well as one of the most important in music literature, and it takes immense stamina and artistic courage. Maestro James Kim has a way of the leading these knowledgeable musicians into the inner-most spirit of Bach, and then, if that were not enough, he eagerly invites the audience to follow.
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: Bahman Saless, Boulder Chamber Orchestra, Cobus Du Toit, Ginger Hedrick, Hsing-ay Hsu, Jerome Flegg, Kaori Uno, Kellen Toohey, Kent Hurd, Kim Brody, Max Soto
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?
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: Annmaria Karacson, Bahman Saless, Brune Macary, Chelsea Lehnert, Cobus Du Toit, Gyöngyvér Petheö, Lori Walker
It is always a great pleasure to attend a concert that, because of the reputation of the orchestra, soloist, or choir, you have a very reasonable expectation that it should be good. When it becomes obvious that the performance is not just “good,” but is exceptional in every way, that is a real bonus. It magnifies the pleasure of attending the concert many times over. Such was the case Friday evening when I attended a concert of the Boulder Chamber Orchestra at the Broomfield Auditorium.
The Boulder Chamber Orchestra opened their program with the Concerto Grosso in D minor, Op. 6, Nr. 10 (HWV 328), by George Frederic Handel (Opus numbers are still commonly used for Handel. However, the official Thematic Catalogue of his Works in Chronological Order compiled by Bernd Bäselt, is entitled HWV, which stands for Handel Werke Verzeichnis). In 1737, Handel had a very severe stroke which took three years from which to recover. Two years after the stroke, in 1739, he had recovered enough to write a set of twelve concerti grossi. The invention of the concerto grosso is universally assigned to Arcangelo Corelli.
Handel’s twelve concertos are the Opus 6, and a close examination of this collection will show no influence by the other popular composers of the time, mainly Corelli, Vivaldi, Albinoni, and Bach. Opus 6, Nr. 10, is one of the standouts of the group of twelve. I truly believe that any influence by other composers that some scholars say exists is purely coincidental.
This work begins in a very serious, if not dark, vein, and from the outset, I was struck by the absolute precision of entrances and dynamics. The phrases, so carefully shaped with dynamics, were, to my mind, perfect. The precision was not done in a mechanical way by any means; everything was wonderfully musical and very expressive. The fast movements were done with exactly the right amount of rhythmic pulse, and the tempos that were taken were excellent as well. The BCO was unmistakably full of enthusiasm for this piece, as well as enthusiasm for simply making terrific music. It was clear, by the way they performed, that they were having a very good time performing such a wonderful piece.
The second work on the program was the Concerto in G minor, RV 439, by Antonio Vivaldi. It carries the subtitle of “La Notte.” It would have been beneficial if the writer of the program notes for Friday’s concert had included the opus number or RV number for this composition – and/or perhaps, the key the piece is written in. The Vivaldi thematic catalogue is excruciatingly complex, and I will quote from other articles I have written:
“Every time I write about Vivaldi, I try to explain the RV thematic catalogue numbers, because in Vivaldi, more so than any other composer, it is a complex process. Rather than just one scholar establishing the chronological order of all of Vivaldi’s works, there are five musicologists and one publisher involved. To make a long story short, Mario Rinaldi catalogued much of Vivaldi’s output, but some works were not included or not yet discovered. The Danish musicologist, Peter Ryom began his own catalog of Vivaldi’s works and also included a Concordance with Rinaldi’s catalog. Ryom suggests using RV, wherein the V stands for the German word Verzeichnis, or catalogue (not Vivaldi as many suspect), and R can refer to either the Italian publisher Ricordi or to Rinaldi. I pray that you readers will trust me on the following comment, and that is: once the difference between all of the Rs is established then one can continue to the Pincherle Catalog, the Fanna Numbers, or the Malipiero Organization.”
This Vivaldi flute concerto which was performed by Cobus du Toit is probably the most difficult flute concerto that Vivaldi composed. What made this performance so stunning was the fact that Cobus du Toit asked for special permission to perform this without Maestro Bahman Saless conducting. That means, of course, that du Toit wished to conduct, which certainly gives the soloist a full plate. It was an absolutely amazing performance. Cobus du Toit is one of the finest flute players I have heard for quite some time, and what made this performance so outstanding, was the fact that the Boulder Chamber Orchestra musicians respect him very highly. All of the musicians in this organization are exceptional, and all of them have vast amount of chamber experience. They kept their eyes glued to Mr. du Toit, and he was certainly capable of conducting “from the bench” as it were. Of course, du Toit had the concerto memorized, and so was not constrained by having to watch a score as well as give cues to the musicians and the orchestra.
This concerto is absolutely beautiful, and, like the Handel before it, begins on a very serious but beautiful theme. Du Toit has absolutely amazing breath control, and this concerto has some trills which seemed to last forever. Not only did he make them last “forever,” but there was one trill which required that the trill be done with his fifth finger. Imagine holding one key down with your fourth finger, and then try trilling with your fifth finger of the same hand. It was amazing to watch, as much as it was amazing to hear, and it was done pianissimo. I have always been impressed with his playing, because as he moves in order to breathe, or to assist with the phrasing, he keeps the flute absolutely horizontal to his mouth. That means that he is always in tune, and that is one of the first things many other flute players do not do for whatever reason. If the flute sags from horizontal, one gets unwanted sounds and a distortion of tone.
Du Toit would occasionally turn to the orchestra to indicate the tempo that he would take, but for the most part faced the audience. However, every eye in the orchestra never left him and his movements to conduct them while playing. His virtuoso ability, combined with the wonderful musicianship of everyone in the Boulder Chamber Orchestra, made this a performance that was absolutely unforgettable.
Just prior to the intermission, the Boulder Chamber Orchestra played the Brandenburg Concerto, Nr. 3, by Johann Sebastian Bach. This is such a well-known piece that nothing needs to be said about it. I am positive that all of you readers have heard it. I first started listening to the Brandenburg Concertos (Do all of you remember that there are six?) when I was eleven or twelve, and I have often had great difficulty deciding which was my favorite, not that that was necessary. However, Friday night, even if it was just for this particular concert, the Boulder Chamber Orchestra made it clear that I should pick the Third Brandenburg Concerto. It was so masterfully done: the tempos were perfect, it had exactly the right amount of exuberance and rhythmic pulse that Bach requires, and the dynamics from everyone were absolutely together. I’m sure that the Boulder Chamber Orchestra has played this work many times, but they certainly communicated their love for it, and the fact that it might well be their favorite Brandenburg as well. They certainly made it sound as if it were Bach’s favorite. So much of what Bach wrote seems to portray him as an individual who was vibrant and full of life. The last movement was absolutely rollicking, and again the entrances were amazingly precise, as they were throughout the first two works on this concert program. I was left wondering where Maestro Saless found all of these incredible musicians. Every single one of them displays a commitment to the music first, and a commitment to their orchestra. The fewer there are in a chamber orchestra, the easier it is for those in the audience to hear occasional errors. These musicians are so dedicated, that I am sure some of them came away from Friday’s performance wishing they had performed a few measures, here and there, at a higher level. Every true musician always wants to do better. But, every work on this program was absolutely scintillating and wonderful to hear.
In 1711, Antonio Vivaldi’s reputation as a composer was beginning to spread throughout Europe. An Amsterdam publisher issued a set of violin concertos for one or more violins and orchestra with the title of Harmonic Inspiration. Bach was very impressed with these works, and transcribed them for other instruments, and, as a matter of fact, the Concerto for Four Violins and Cello, which was performed Friday evening, as the program notes point out, became Bach’s Concerto for Four Harpsichords.
The four violin soloists were Annamaria Karacson, Chelsea Lehnert, Gyöngyvér Petheö, and Brune Macary. The cello soloist was Clayton Vaughn. These individuals are all amazing musicians, and the performance of this work was truly spectacular. It is full of technical and musical traps that would send lesser musicians back to the practice room for many more hours. I have never been sure why the cello is usually left out of the title of this work, because it certainly is an integral solo instrument. What I appreciated so much in this performance was that the musicians did not try to impose their own individual style as they performed this piece. All of them played solid Vivaldi, and all of them are so accomplished at their instrument, and accomplished as ensemble players, that it was an incredible celebration of the music. As an ensemble, everything was perfectly clear and pristine, and surprisingly, they played at a dynamic level that allowed the wonderful continuo playing by Lori Walker, on the harpsichord, to be heard. Lori Walker, like everyone else in this orchestra is exceptional.
Maestro Saless ended the evening with a Suite of Carols which had been arranged by Leroy Anderson. That is certainly a name that I had not thought about for many years: how many of you readers remember his composition Syncopated Clock? These arrangements did not possess any kind of “commercial sound” whatsoever. They were done artfully, and very sensitively, and it was a great way to end the program.
The Boulder Chamber Orchestra dedicated an encore, Silent Night, to the victims of the tragedy in Connecticut.
Maestro Bahman Saless has assembled a remarkable group of musicians that are striking because they all obviously care so much for what they do. They are a joy to listen to, and one always leaves a Boulder Chamber Orchestra concert feeling refreshed and content.
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: Albinoni, Bach, Bahman Saless, Boulder Chamber Orchestra, Brian Robins, Cobus Du Toit, Max Soto, Rameau, Remo Giazotto, Torelli
Maestro Bahman Saless of the Boulder Chamber Orchestra added a very nice touch to the season’s concert series by giving each concert a specific title and performing specific composers. On the Boulder Chamber Orchestra’s website, Saless states that: “An artist’s quest to achieve mastery of his or her art is an incredible journey filled with excitement, frustration, hope, despair, and unending challenge. This season’s selection of pieces could readily be packaged in such a way as to portray the stages that artists—indeed all who aspire to master their domain—pass through in their lifetime. Thus, we have titled our season “Road to Mastery”!
So it was that Saturday night, December 17, was the third concert of their season. This particular concert was entitled “Festivity,” and the BCO presented four works from the Baroque period by the composers Rameau, Albinoni, Torelli, and Bach.
The first work on the program was the Orchestral Suite in G minor by Rameau. This French composer was one of the multifaceted musicians of his day. Like Bach in Germany, Rameau was the greatest organist in France. He was a prodigious composer of operas and ballets as well as works for harpsichord, which were primarily written early in his life. He was the most important musical theorist since Gioseffo Zarlino (whose four volume treatise, Istitutioni harmoniche, of 1558, codifies major and minor tonality), and even today, doctoral students are kept quite busy pouring over his theoretical writings.
The Orchestral Suite in G minor is truly an arrangement by the German violinist, conductor, and founder of the Mainz Chamber Orchestra, Gunter Kehr. While this may seem like heresy to any of you readers who are purists, please understand that this was a fairly common practice in the Baroque period, and it was J.S. Bach, among others to practice this on a fairly regular basis, particularly with his own works. As I have said before, the term is self-plagiarism. Granted, the late Gunter Kehr (1920-1989) was not a Baroque composer, but nonetheless there is ample justification for his arrangement of this keyboard work.
As the members of the Boulder Chamber Orchestra entered the stage, I noticed that there were several regular members who weren’t there Saturday evening. Though I do not know for sure, I suspect that many of them were involved with the Colorado Ballet Orchestra, as I think both orchestras share members. At any rate, the Boulder Chamber Orchestra performed the Rameau beautifully. In the first movement there were some trills in the strings, which were exceedingly well done (trills on any stringed instrument always seem difficult to me). The fourth movement of this work had a great deal of ornamentation, but the strings were very nicely together throughout and the terrace dynamics were extremely precise.
The second work on the program was the Oboe Concerto in D minor, Opus 9, Nr. 2. There is substantial mystery surrounding this piece; however, it’s quite possible that the mystery is close to being solved. The mystery concerns Tomaso Albinoni’s authorship of this work. As per the Saturday night’s program notes, Italian musicologist Remo Giazotto, an Albinoni scholar, said that he reconstructed this concerto from a small fragment of the slow movement that he supposedly found in the Saxon State Library after the bombing raids of World War II in Dresden. There is evidence that the adagio may be Giazotto’s composition, even though the fragment that he says he discovered has never been found. According to the research done by Brian Robins, who is a musicologist, we know that, in 1722, a set of concertos labeled Opus 9 were published in Amsterdam by Le Cène. They were published in three separate groups of four each. Number two has a solo part for oboe, and that work contains an Adagio, which bears the unmistakable style of Albinoni. In addition, descriptions by Albinoni contemporaries give evidence to the published Opus 9 concertos of the same powerful lyric and incredibly lush sounds that are typical of Albinoni.
I suppose we will have to wait for a definitive answer after more doctoral students have examined this problem. But, there is absolutely no doubt about the beauty of this remarkable composition and its beautiful performance Saturday night by Max Soto.
Quoting from Max Soto’s biographical statement that I found on the web:
“Max began his musical education with the Orquesta Sinfonica Juvenil de Costa Rica which allowed him to study with Principal Oboist Jorge Rodriguez and helped to cultivate a passion for Classical Music and the Oboe. Max arrived in the USA in 1996 at the Loyola University of New Orleans and received his Bachelor of Arts in Music Performance. Max began his professional career performing a season with the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra as Assistant Principal Oboist. Max moved to Denver in 2002 in order to pursue his Masters Degree in Music Performance. He attended the Lamont School of Music at Denver University and graduated in 2004. Max went on a whirlwind tour of the United States and Canada performing The Pirates of Penzance with the London based Carl Rosa Opera Company in 2007. He has performed with the Colorado Ballet, Fort Collins Symphony, Steamboat Springs Orchestra, Emerald City Opera, and Cheyenne Symphony Orchestra and appears at various music festivals with small ensembles all over the state of Colorado. In addition to playing with the Boulder Philharmonic, Max also appears as Assistant Principal Oboist of the Greeley Philharmonic Orchestra and Principal Oboist for the Musica Sacra Chamber Orchestra.”
I add to the above file statement that Max Soto is the principal oboe for the Boulder Chamber Orchestra.
Right away, the oboist is put on his mettle, because this work requires incredible breath control and support. The opening movement of this three movement work is a fairly standard allegro, but if one compares it to Vivaldi, it doesn’t have quite the same forward motion. It is still a wonderful piece, and is very transparent because of its orchestration solely for strings, continuo, and, of course, the oboe. It is the second movement that is one of the most beautiful compositions ever written for oboe. And it is this movement where I was absolutely astonished at Max Soto’s breathing ability. Make no mistake: Albinoni wrote some incredibly long melodic lines for a Baroque composer. The melodic lines in this Adagio movement are long enough that I sat on the edge of my seat wondering if Soto was going to get to the end of the phrase, but he always did, and his tone never wavered or faltered. This certainly has to be one of the most difficult works for any oboe player but it was so beautifully done, and so skillfully done, that Soto, if one wasn’t looking, seemed to just “play it,” without working hard all. And, of course, Maestro Saless was clearly enjoying himself, and his conducting skills come to him just as naturally as Soto’s breathing.
After the intermission, the Boulder Chamber Orchestra performed a work by Giuseppe Torelli (1658 – 1709). This work, the Concerto Grosso, Op.8, Nr. 6, otherwise known as the Christmas Concerto, is the sixth concerto of a set of twelve which were published in 1709. It is a short piece, but nonetheless delightful, and is called a “Christmas Concerto” because one of the sections is a pastorale. This is a one movement piece in four sections, Grave – Vivace (Pastorale) – Largo – Vivace. The orchestra sounded absolutely superb, and I am always enormously pleased to hear this chamber orchestra perform because they play with so much love for what they do.
Following the fairly short Torelli work, was the famous Bach Orchestral Suite Nr. 2 in B minor, featuring Cobus du Toit, Principal Flute in the Boulder Chamber Orchestra. This orchestral suite is scored for flute strings and continuo, and it is possible that it was written for Pierre-Gabriel Buffardin, who was the Principal Flute in the Dresden Court Orchestra. There is no question that he knew Bach, who was 30 years older. As Maestro Saless pointed out, many people consider this orchestral suite a concerto because the flute is featured so prominently. However, if it were a concerto, the flute would not simply double the violins, as it does, and would have its own separate themes in an exchange with the orchestra. There are moments, particularly in the last movement of the famous Badinerie, where the flute is featured, but that is because Bach chose to allow the flautist to show off a little.
The contrast between the Bach piece in the Torelli was remarkable. The first movement is an overture, as is the first movement of all three orchestral suites, but following the Torelli the Bach seemed quite formal, though it certainly is graceful as well. The second movement, a Rondeau, is in reality, a fugue. The following sarabande certainly has a measured step so that the bourée seems almost rowdy. Keep in mind that all these names are names of dances from the Baroque period that worked their way into the suites of music, not only for orchestral suites, but also keyboard suites as well. And they were used by most Baroque composers as well as Bach.
But, of course, the movement that I was waiting for was the Badinerie (of which, in French, means flirtation). Cobus du Toit is an absolutely astounding flautist. I have heard him several times, and he never ceases to amaze me. I wrote about him two years ago, December 20, 2009. I encourage you to read that review. All you have to do is to go to the left-hand column of this page and click on December 2009, and that will take you to the review of the Boulder Chamber Orchestra.
In this performance, I was again amazed at the ease with which Cobus du Toit plays. It is always musical, his tone is always superb, and his breath control is amazing. In addition, he played some ornaments in this movement that I have not heard any other flautist play. Being familiar with du Toit’s abilities, I am sure that they were authentic, but I must say they sounded incredibly difficult. He is such a fine flute player and the grace with which he exhibited playing the accented appoggiaturas was something to behold. They are not terribly difficult, but they were perfect, and the kind of perfection he exhibits when he plays Bach or anything else, is never pedantic, but it is always beautiful.
The Boulder Chamber Orchestra performed an encore at the end of the program. It had to be one of the most gorgeous performances of Silent Night, Holy Night, that I have ever heard. Cobus du Toit and Max Soto join together, and each proceeded down the aisles from the rear of the church, Soto playing oboe, and du Toit playing the flute. Du Toit performed an improvisation above the familiar melodic line, while Soto doubled the strings of the orchestra. It brought the audience to their feet, and I saw several in the audience wiping their eyes.
I have always been impressed by the Boulder Chamber Orchestra under the direction of Bahman Saless. They never disappoint, and they always surprise. It is quite something to see the joy that the orchestra members take in each other’s playing. The applause by the orchestra given to Soto and du Toit was clearly heartfelt.
The applause from the audience was exultant as well.