Opus Colorado


The Denver Philharmonic Orchestra’s exciting season opener

I know that I have often said that the Denver Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of Maestro Adam Flatt just keeps getting better and better. But in the last year since Maestro Flatt has been at the controls, this truly is the case. While the DPO was looking for a new director, they did go through a period of a sort of malaise, which is not uncommon when looking for some positive direction. Previously, the DPO had made remarkable progress under the conductorship of Dr. Horst Buchholz. I assure you they have found their new direction now. Friday night, September 30, the improvement of the violin section was absolutely startling. Yes, there were a few funny spots, but they are not worth dwelling on. There was also a noticeable change in their attitude. One could sense that they were really working at making music. And I point out that the rest of the orchestra, low strings, woodwinds and brass, have always been quite good.

They opened their program Friday evening with Carl Maria von Weber’s Overture to Oberon. When is the last time you heard a live performance of this work? Maestro Flatt has brought with him not only consummate ability to communicate his sense of excitement and passion to the orchestra, but imaginative programming as well.

Von Weber was a composer, conductor, novelist, and essayist, and is known for being one of the leading exponents of early German Romanticism. He wrote some wonderful music for woodwinds: a terrific bassoon concerto, two concertos for clarinet, a quintet for clarinet and string quartet, plus a very good piano sonata. It is a shame that some of his works are not performed more often. The opera, Oberon, was received by the English with great enthusiasm, in spite of the fact that the libretto, which was taken from Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, is enormously complicated. The music, however, is absolutely beautiful and extremely well written. It opens with a marvelous horn solo – from principal horn, David Wallace – depicting the magic horn of Puck. If I were going to be super picky, I would say that the strings got off to a slightly shaky start as far as tune is concerned, but I emphasize that for the remainder of the concert, they were extremely good and vastly improved. The orchestra also showed a newfound precision in their entrances; they were crisp and clean. There was some beautiful clarinet work in this overture from Shaun Burley, who always seems to excel. In addition to the woodwinds, the low strings were excellent.

Following the von Weber, came a wonderful work by Daniel Kellogg, entitled Pyramus and Thisbe. I will quote directly from the program notes which were written by Daniel Kellogg:

Pyramus and Thisbe is a theatrical spectacle with wild, overwrought death scenes, waves of shimmering moonlight, fierce lion roars from the brass section, riotous music from the strings, overjoyed fanfares, sappy romantic tunes, funeral music, and a kazoo solo. It is a tragedy of the most of fascicle [a discrete section of a book or published separately] sort that parallels the story of Romeo and Juliet. Taken from act five of Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, the Tony award-winning writer Mark O’Donnell has reworked this scene for one brilliant ham who will play the part of narrator, wall, lion, moon, and art lovers Pyramus and Thisbe.”

It seems a little unlikely, but in case any of you readers don’t know who Daniel Kellogg is, I will enclose some bio information from his website:

“Daniel Kellogg, barely out of his 20s, is one of the most exciting composers around – technically assured, fascinated by unusual sonic textures, unfailingly easy to listen to, yet far from simplistic.” wrote the Washington Post.  After being chosen as Young Concert Artists Composer-in-Residence in 2002, Daniel Kellogg has become one of the nation’s most prominent young composers. Dr. Kellogg, Assistant Professor of Composition at the University of Colorado, had recent premieres with the Philadelphia Orchestra, the National Symphony Orchestra, the San Diego Symphony, the Colorado Symphony Orchestra, Ensemble Orchestral de Paris, the Takács Quartet with the University of Colorado Wind Symphony, and the Aspen Chamber Orchestra, and upcoming premieres with the South Dakota Symphony, the United States Air Force Academy Band, the Takács Quartet, and the choirs of Yale University.  Most recently, the National Symphony Orchestra took his piece, Western Skies, on a tour of Asia.  Honors include a Charles Ives Fellowship from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, six ASCAP Young Composer Awards, the BMI William Schuman Prize, and the ASCAP Rudolf Nissim Award.  His works have been performed at Carnegie’s Weill Recital Hall, the Kimmel Center, Lincoln Center, the Kennedy Center, China’s National Centre for the Performing Arts, and broadcast on NPR’s “Performance Today” and “St. Paul Sundays” among others. A graduate of the Curtis Institute of Music, Dr. Kellogg earned a Masters of Music and a Doctor of Musical Arts from the Yale School of Music.  His teachers include Don Freund, Ned Rorem, Jennifer Higdon, Joseph Schwantner, Ezra Laderman, and Martin Bresnick.  He has served as composer-in-residence for the South Dakota Symphony, Young Concert Artists, the Green Bay Symphony, and the University of Connecticut. The Washington Post counted his recent CD Beginnings, recorded by eighth blackbird, among the top five classical discs of 2004.  He resides in Colorado with his wife, concert pianist Hsing-ay Hsu, and daughter Kaela.  He has served on the faculty of CU since 2005.”

This was a remarkable, lighthearted, narrated work of satire and farce, but the music was incredibly good. I will interrupt myself long enough to explain that to write a successful, humorous piece of music is, in many ways, more difficult than just writing a piece of music. One has to have tremendous skill in order to convey the humor to those who hear the piece. In this instance, the narration, of course, conveyed much of the humor and satire, but the music is so skilled in its composition, that it never intrudes and only highlights. The orchestration (that is the choice of instruments for different themes and effects) demonstrated Dr. Kellogg’s deftness and his understanding of an orchestra. If this work is repeated again in Denver by some other orchestra, make a point to go to the performance. It was absolutely delightful in every way, and the Denver Phil was superb. In addition, the narrator, Denver’s own Frank Oden, was superb as well. The following is from Frank Oden’s website:

“Frank Oden writes and performs lyrical concert programs merging original poetry, humor, education and theatrical production values with live symphonic performance. He began creating this unique form in response to commissions from the Colorado Symphony Orchestra for a series of Halloween concerts, which resulted in The Haunted Symphony, The House of Halloween, and Eerie Lake. Based on the popularity of these works, Oden next created a full-length program of original western poetry, Cowboy Jamboree, which has been an audience favorite with orchestras across the US. His latest work, Song of the Earth, was commissioned by the Northeastern Pennsylvania Philharmonic and received its world premiere in October 2008. Mr. Oden’s perfectly inept “mucisological” expert, Dr. Hayward Benson from What is Music? often appears with orchestras in various contexts by popular demand, and Oden was also invited by the Colorado Symphony Orchestra to create a comical look at Mozart’s life and works in Happy Birthday, Wolfgang. For Marin Alsop’s tribute to Leonard Bernstein, Mr. Oden wrote and performed a critically acclaimed beat poetry version of Romeo and Juliet for Symphonic Dances from West Side Story. He also appears regularly with symphony orchestras to perform traditional narrations, as well as his own lyrical version of Peter and the Wolf and The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.

A long-term resident of Denver, Colorado, Oden is also one of the most recognizable and award-winning character actors in the mile-high city, having worked in nearly every theater and appeared in numerous television commercials and film productions. He is also a theatrical playwright and producer.”

I honestly don’t know who was responsible for inviting Frank Oden to narrate Daniel Kellogg’s work. It may well have been Daniel Kellogg, or Maestro Adam Flatt. But I assure you that the choice was absolutely perfect. Frank Oden, the writer, Mark O’Donnell, and Daniel Kellogg, complemented each other and the idea of the piece extremely well. It also seemed as if the Denver Phil had found a new kind spirit. I have never heard them perform in this way before and it was truly exciting. There was some wonderful solo work on violin from Kathy Thayer, the Concertmaster, and some equally fine work from Aaron Wille, piccolo. Brooke Hengst, playing E flat clarinet, was also superb.

And after the intermission, the Denver Phil performed the Overture to As You Like It by the American composer John Knowles Paine (1839 – 1906). Paine, who was educated musically in Germany, is beginning to emerge as a very important American composer. He single-handedly developed the music department at Harvard University, which, in many ways, became a model for universities across the country. He also had strong influence in the formation of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. As a composer he is more easily associated, I think, with Mendelssohn, with a smattering of Schumann perhaps, and though his compositions are excellent, health problems reduced his output and viability as a composer.

As the program notes for Friday’s performance state, Paine’s Overture to As You Like It, was not composed to accompany Shakespearean productions, but rather, to share the same purpose as Mendelssohn’s a Midsummer Night’s Dream: to induce the spirit of the play itself into music. The opening of this piece was very much like a barcarole, that is to say, in 6/8 meter, with a gentle flowing motion. The orchestra sounded absolutely superb in this work, again with some very fine clarinet playing by Shaun Burley and some equally fine work on oboe by Loren Meaux. Maestro Adam Flatt has truly shown the orchestra how to play with a new sensitivity that I have not heard before. What a change this has been!

The last work on the program was Leonard Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from West Side Story. As all of the previous pieces on this evening’s program generally follow the story of Romeo and Juliet, it is common knowledge that West Side Story follows that theme as well. The program notes state that this work was responsible for bringing the idea of social consciousness to the American musical. That may well be, but I can tell you that to my way of thinking, one of the most important aspects of this piece is that Leonard Bernstein was an amazingly gifted musician in many, many ways. Some of you younger readers may not be old enough to realize he was not only an incredible composer, but a conductor of worldwide reputation, a wonderful pianist, and a dedicated music educator. I think that his works that deal with the American musical theater are exceptional for one more reason: he had the musical aesthetic and skill to write music which was sung rather than shouted, as is my main criticism of contemporary musical theater.

I am confident that everyone who reads this article knows West Side Story. It is full of energy and drive and wonderful lyricism, sometimes in fast alternation. I don’t think I have ever seen the Denver Philharmonic Orchestra play with such energy before, and it is clear that Adam Flatt has no issues with communicating everything that is necessary to the orchestra. You may well say, “Yes, but that’s what conductors do,” but I would point out that some conductors do it much better than others. In that regard, and in every other regard, Adam Flatt excels. Manny Araujo, trumpet, Cheryl Gooden, flute, Catherine Ricca, flute, and the entire percussion section were excellent. Before the orchestra began to play, Mr. Flatt called Frank Oden to the podium, where Oden recited his poetic version of how Romeo and Juliet became West Side Story. This was originally written at the behest of Marin Alsop for her tribute to Leonard Bernstein. The performance of this was a wonderful amalgam of an excellent conductor, a very skilled author/writer, and a very good community orchestra which simply gets better and better.




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