Opus Colorado

Virtuosity, clarity, vivacity, and intimacy: Swensen and the CSO perform Bach

The Colorado Symphony Orchestra provided the concert audience here in Denver a truly unique opportunity Friday night, May 15. It was the chance to hear all six of J. S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos. I might add that this opportunity also applied to all of the professional musicians in the state of Colorado. In all of my many years, I have never heard of a performance of all six of these magnificent pieces. This opportunity has to be extremely rare.

The performance was led by Maestro Joseph Swensen who is a world renowned conductor and violinist. I will quote very briefly from the bio statement on his personal website:

“Joseph Swensen currently holds the posts of Conductor Emeritus of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Professor of Music (violin) at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music, and Founder/Director of Habitat4Music. Swensen was Principal Guest Conductor & Artistic Adviser of the Orchestre de Chambre de Paris from 2009-2012. He was Principal Conductor of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra from 1996-2005, and has also held positions at the Malmö Opera (2008-2011), Lahti Symphony, and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. Swensen is a busy guest-conductor throughout the world (from Europe, to the USA, Japan and Australia), enjoying long-established relationships with the Orchestre National du Capitole de Toulouse (with whom Swensen recently completed a Mahler cycle, spanning ten years), London Mozart Players, Orquestra Sinfónica do Porto Casa da Música and Orchestre National de Bordeaux.

“Joseph Swensen and Victoria Eisen are co-founders and co-directors of Habitat4Music. Habitat4Music connects highly qualified, passionate young American-trained classical musicians with children living in challenged areas across the world. Their goal is to use the power of long-term, committed, participatory music education and classical music programs to inspire and bring together individuals and communities.

“Joseph Swensen was born on 4 August 1960 in Hoboken, New Jersey and grew up in Harlem, New York City, (an American, of Norwegian and Japanese descent). He maintains residences in Copenhagen (Denmark), Bloomington (Indiana) and Vermont (USA).”

Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos are truly the beginning of symphonic music even though the sonata allegro architectural form had yet to be developed. However, his use of instruments in the six concertos clearly an anticipation of what is to come. As is well known, the six works were dedicated to the Margrave of Brandenburg, Christian Ludwig, whom Bach had met while traveling in 1718 and 1719. Prince Ludwig heard Bach perform, most likely, at the Meiningen court, and asked Bach to compose some works for his orchestra. As the CSO program notes pointed out, it is unclear what Prince Ludwig’s reaction was to these six concerti for he seems to have tucked them away and forgotten about them. And indeed, Bach did not complete the commission until 1721. The reason for that is undoubtedly due to the circumstance of the death of Bach’s first wife, Maria Barbara, who passed away while he was traveling.

You readers must keep in mind that these concertos follow the traditional fast-slow-fast structure of the Italian concerto grosso style: the German style was slow-fast-slow. Hence, all of the Brandenburg Concertos with the exception of the first which has four movements, feature three movements modeled after the style which Vivaldi used. And, even in his first Brandenburg Concerto, Bach does not closely follow the traditional contrast between the solo instruments and the body of the orchestra (concertino and tutti). Of course, the other comparison between Bach and Vivaldi must be that Bach uses strict counterpoint which, for all practical purposes, was considered old-fashioned when Bach composed. But it is worth stating, that these anticipate the grand era of symphonic music. This means that Bach was clearly ahead of his time, and synthesized an old-style with the new.

Several things impressed me the minute the concert started. Maestro Swensen infused this orchestra with an incredible amount of energy. Keep in mind that this was not the full Colorado Symphony Orchestra but a chamber orchestra made up of members of the CSO, and at least one additional member that I recognized, Max Soto, playing oboe. The violinist, Yi Zhao, who is the Assistant Concertmaster of the CSO, was absolutely sensational as were Monica Hanulik, Jason Lichtenwalter, and Max Soto, all on oboe, plus Michael Thornton and Carolyn Kunicki, French horns. I was also struck by Joseph Swensen’s conducting style which is very individual, but, and I stress, extremely effective. I was also left wondering what impact this vivacious Brandenburg Concerto Nr. 1 had on those who heard it for the first time.

When I use the word “vivacious” I mean just that. I could see several members of the orchestra smiling as this work began. Additionally, I was terribly impressed, as I always am, with the depth of musicianship of everyone in the Colorado Symphony Orchestra. Everyone on stage could have been a soloist. I am sure that many of you who read this article attend the performances of the CSO because of your love for music, but also for the entertainment value. I assure you that the art of music is not considered as entertainment by those on stage. It is a way of life. Friday evening, everyone on stage made that abundantly clear.

Not only were the concertos performed out of numerical order, they required different groups of musicians, and so there was a rearrangement of the stage in between each of the concertos. Brandenburg Nr. 6 was performed as the second work on the program, and again I was struck by the musicianship and clarity with which everyone performed. It was nice to hear Basil Vendryes with a prominent viola part, and that brings up another point: I was in wonderment of the clarity with which everyone performed. Those who were in attendance might say, “Well, of course you could hear everyone because there were so few people on stage.” But that is certainly not always the case. I have heard many small chamber groups perform in a much muffled manner.

Before the intermission, Maestro Swensen performed the violin solo with Catherine Peterson and Julie Thornton playing the flute. Swensen clearly demonstrated his mastery of Bach, and he also gave a clear demonstration of why it is he teaches at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music, which is one of the best music schools in the world, if not the best. Peterson and Thornton were perfect. That is the only way to state it. Again, Bach was imbued with incredible forward motion, rhythmic pulse, and virtuosity. It was wonderfully poetic.

Brandenburg Concerto Nr. 5 was next on the program, and it is in this one that Ian Watson, who had been playing the continuo part on the harpsichord, had his solo, coupled with Joseph Swensen, violin, and Brook Ferguson, flute. I was impressed once more with the clarity of the musicians, and their ability to have every note heard while playing so softly. Keep in mind that the harpsichord is a very soft instrument (and the one used was a 7 foot harpsichord), and the lid was put back on the harpsichord so that in the open position it would direct the sound to the audience. The end result was that Ian Watson could be clearly heard. He has remarkable technique, and his ornamentation was simply beyond compare. Swensen and Ferguson demonstrated an uncanny ability to play virtuosic passages at a very soft dynamic level, and you readers must understand that that adds to the difficulty.

To me, the order of the programming was excellent. I am quite sure that Bach would not object to hearing the concertos performed in the order that they were Friday evening. Brandenburg Concerto Nr. 3 was performed next, and the last on the program was the Brandenburg Nr. 2. The soloists in Nr. 2 were Brook Ferguson, flute; Peter Cooper, oboe; Justin Bartels, clarino trumpet; and Joseph Swensen, violin. As Maestro Swensen pointed out at the beginning of the program Friday evening, the trumpet solo in Brandenburg Concerto Nr. 2 is one of the most difficult in any piece you care to name. But I hasten to point out that the oboe, flute, and violin solos were equally difficult. It was wonderful to hear the Brandenburg Nr. 2 close the program as it is, perhaps, the most rousing of all six. This, as were all the others Friday evening, was performed perfectly.

As I said at the beginning of this article, Bach used the Vivaldi concertos as his model, but Vivaldi’s concertos seem but an outline when compared to the incredible counterpoint, the complexity of the form, and the unified structure that Bach has supplied. It underscores the fact that even though Bach was using counterpoint, which was considered old-fashioned by many Baroque composers, he must clearly be labeled as the greatest composer who ever lived. I emphasize that in making that statement that I am not making light of the artistry displayed by Vivaldi, Handel, Telemann, or other of the famous composers of the time.

There is no doubt that Joseph Swensen has a way with Bach. He brought him to life as did the musicians that he was performing with and conducting. It truly was a picture of Bach with all of his clarity, vivacity, intimacy, and virtuosity.

The Boulder Bach Festival is reinvented by Maestro Zachary Carrettin

Friday evening, February 27, the Boulder Bach Festival came to Denver to perform J. S. Bach’s monumental Mass in B minor at the Montview Presbyterian Church. I was anxious to hear this performance as it was the first performance by the Boulder Bach Festival’s new resident conductor, Maestro Zachary Carrettin. I have written about Maestro Carrettin previous to this article, but you must recall that he was recently appointed as the Resident Conductor of the Boulder Bach Festival. This season is the 34th year of the Boulder Bach Festival, and it is also the first year of Zachary Carrettin’s appointment. I also point out that aside from their coup in retaining Carrettin, they truly gained a package, because his wife, Mina Gajić, is an accomplished pianist. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the Zachary Carrettin, I will quote from the bio statement which appears on his website:

“Zachary Carrettin has performed as violinist and conductor in more than twenty-five countries on four continents, dazzling audiences by fusing ancient music with sounds influenced by South American, Middle Eastern, and European folk traditions, and guitar solos by Eddie Van Halen and Jimi Hendrix. Fusing improvisation with decades’ experience researching old manuscripts and performing on original instruments, his performances are singular, unlike any other. Whether improvising a cadenza in a romantic violin concerto or performing the Four Seasons with an all-electric-instrument chamber orchestra, he continues to surprise audiences with a sense of freedom, poetic depth, and brilliant virtuosity.

“Zachary has performed as featured artist at festivals in Italy, Germany, Norway, and Argentina, in the world’s great concert halls including the Mondavi Center, Zurich’s Tonhalle, the Grieg Hall in Bergen, the Wolf Trap Center, the San Francisco War Memorial Opera House, and at one hundred stadiums internationally, on tour with Yanni. Zachary has been featured in Brazil by IBM, in Oman by Toyota, and in Las Vegas at The Venetian.

“A dynamic conductor and violin soloist, Zachary has led orchestras across Europe, the U.S., and South America, including the National Symphony Orchestras of Bolivia and Moldavia. He performs with pianist Mina Gajic in the duo Mystery Sonata, which presents twenty-first century programs including Tango Nuevo and Balkan Dances alongside impressionist and impetuous classical concert works. On baroque violin, he tours with trio Aeris, which specializes in the wildly expressive and improvisatory Italian sonatas of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

“Zachary has held university positions in violin and conducting at the University of St. Thomas and Sam Houston State University. He has premiered numerous works by living composers, while resurrecting the forgotten works of great artists of the past. Not one to be bound by self-prescribed limitations, he frequently presents the complete unaccompanied works for violin (and cello) by J.S. Bach on electric violin.”

I have written about J.S. Bach’s remarkable Mass in B minor before. It is remarkable in many respects. One is that Bach normally wrote at lightning speed, but it took him several years to finish this work. In addition, there has always been the question of Bach’s motivation for writing a Mass liberally taken from the Catholic style when he was a Lutheran. And, scholars often point out that the work is so large that it is not at all suitable for liturgical use. Sometimes, when I read these arguments, I think to myself that, perhaps, the reason is very simple. Bach was a very devout Lutheran, and for every liturgical piece that he wrote, he included the initials “S. D. G.” after he signed his name. Those initials stand for Soli Deo gloria meaning to the glory of God alone. He also added these initials on many of his secular works. It simply means that he was not concerned with his own glory, but humbly presenting the composition for the glory of God. In addition, it was unusual in the Baroque era to have a Mass written with such large proportions, but in later years there were many composers who wrote “concert” Masses that were too large for liturgical use. I hasten to point out that I mention these items only as food for thought in this article. I am not trying to solve the puzzle that this remarkable work presents.

The problem that occasionally occurs with the performance of Bach’s Mass in B minor is that many who perform this work believe that its large-scale and its historical importance indicate that one should have a huge orchestra and a huge choir. Unfortunately, the result of this misdirection often results in an exaggerated, almost romantic, interpretation of a Baroque work. This was certainly not the case with Friday evening’s performance: the orchestra was the perfect size, and the choir was certainly not beyond the scale available to Bach.

When the performance began, I was very pleasantly surprised at the diction of the choir. They were singing the expected Latin text with which I am quite familiar. Their diction was absolutely exceptional, and it remained so for the duration of the performance which was just over two hours. The Boulder Bach Festival Orchestra was led by Concertmaster Kenneth Goldsmith. I was sitting in a fortunate position where I could hear the orchestra as a whole and also the individual instruments. Goldsmith’s playing was remarkable. There were other new faces in the orchestra, but it was a certainty that they were all chosen very carefully as this was the best Boulder Bach Festival Orchestra I have heard to date.

The Mass in B minor is such a huge piece that there is no room here to cover every detail of the performance. The soloists, Josefien Stoppelenburg, soprano, Melissa Givens, soprano, Julie Simpson, mezzo-soprano, John Grau, tenor, and Michael Dean, bass baritone, were all truly exceptional, and all of them were very obviously familiar with this work, and familiar with the Baroque style. They had the common sense to let Bach’s genius govern the way they sang, rather than infuse the work with their own self-aggrandizing.

The outstanding feature throughout the performance Friday evening is one that is critical to the performance of Bach, and it is one which is often overlooked by those who have no true conception of how Bach should be performed. That feature is the inherent rhythmic pulse and forward motion in every single piece that Bach wrote. It is in his most languid melodic lines of the slow movements. Part of it comes from the continuo section of the orchestra. For those of you who are not familiar with that term, the continuo is that part of a Baroque ensemble played on a keyboard instrument – organ or harpsichord – and a low stringed instrument (sometimes two) that provide the harmonic basis upon which everything else is organized. Friday evening, the organ was played by Faythe Vollrath, Robert Howard, Principal Cello, and Paul Erhard, Principal Bass. It is clear that these are remarkable musicians.

In the opening Kyrie, Josefien Stoppelenburg, and Melissa Givens sang a duet in the Christe portion. They sang beautifully and it was an indication of what was to come from them throughout the entire work. Their diction was excellent, and they were strongly influenced by the steady pulse of the orchestra. I feel that I must mention again the diction of the choir. The larger the choir the more difficult diction becomes. Counting the names and the program, the choir numbered 52 individuals. Simply put, their diction never failed.

In the soprano and tenor duet, which occurs in the Domine Deus section of the Gloria, the soloists were superb, but it was this section where the orchestra took my attention completely. The woodwinds were truly excellent and the portato notes played by the cellos and the bass were absolutely the same length all the time. The counterpoint, played by the flutes Ysmael Reyes and Gina Vega, was absolute perfection and supported the soloists and the chorus without being obtrusive. And that brings me to a very important point: every note and every measure of the performance Friday evening could be heard. Nothing was covered or hidden, and I am quite sure that even a first-time listener could appreciate what Bach wrote.

The bass aria, sung by Michael Dean, in the Quoniam to solus sanctus, was full and rich, and it was done without the exaggeration of the romantic style that I have heard in other performances of the B minor Mass. It was excellent Bach.

At the beginning of the program, Maestro Carrettin explained to the audience that an intermission was going to be taken after the text in the mass, “And was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate.” He asked that the audience not applaud because of the solemnity of the text. After the intermission, the positioning of the sections in the choir were very different from the first half of the program. I am sure this was done in consideration of the fact that Bach wrote this Mass over a long period of time, and Maestro Carrettin, after studying Bach’s intent, wished to have a different blend of voices for the remaining sections of Bach’s work. Consider that the second half of the program began with the jubilant, Et resurrexit, and the choir seemed to be full of energy and excitement.

The Mass in B minor gives each section of the orchestra and the choir the opportunity to display their ability as musicians. I feel that it is necessary to point out that the Boulder Bach Festival, with the appointment of Zachary Carrettin, has undergone a sea change. The quality of this performance was certainly indicative of the fact that every musician on stage, be they orchestra member, choir member or soloist, was inspired by the leadership of Maestro Carrettin. The phrasing, entrances and exits, and forward motion, was absolute perfection, and it clearly delineated the counterpoint inherent in Bach’s writing. They performed with such excitement that one could imagine that this was the first time this piece had ever been heard. I am aware that I have not mentioned some of the orchestra members and some of the choir members, but there simply is not enough room to mention everyone. However, I can assure you, everyone on stage deserves mention for this performance. It was marked by an amazing range and depth of mood which was absolutely exhilarating. The Boulder Bach Festival performers were rewarded with a standing ovation. Now, if they would just give us a performance of Bach’s Cantata, Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme, BWV 140.

The Colorado Symphony Orchestra: Smiling Bach and Serene Bruckner

Friday evening I attended the Colorado Symphony Orchestra concert entitled Going Baroque. The title is taken from the fact that the first half of the program was devoted to J. S. Bach’s famous Brandenburg Concerto Nr. 5. The guest artist in the Bach was the well-known American pianist, Simone Dinnerstein. Performing with her as soloists was CSO Concertmaster Yumi Hwang-Williams and CSO Principal Flautist, Brook Ferguson. These three individuals were part of an ensemble that was authentic in size. That is to say, that it was a small group of musicians that would have been roughly the same size as Bach may have had when the piece was performed initially. It was a shame that the other members of this small chamber orchestra were not mentioned in the program. Regrettably, I do not know all of those individuals by name, but I did recognize Claude Sim, violin; Paul Primus, violin; Silver Ainomäe, cello; Judith Galecki, cello; and Catherine Beeson, viola. Given the artistry and ability of all the instrumentalists on stage, I do not understand why the other musicians in this small group were not named. They are the reason that the CSO is one of the finest orchestras in the country: these musicians  have truly helped make that so.

Simone Dinnerstein is not only a renowned American pianist, but one aspect of her performance and dedication to music deserves special mention. She actively seeks to present music to students in the public schools, and there is no doubt that she recognizes that efforts such as this will excite young people to become interested in good music, and in some instances, may lead them to careers in music as an art. I will quote the portion of her biographical statement from her website that details a portion of what she does with young students:

“Dedicated to her community, in 2009 Dinnerstein founded Neighborhood Classics, a concert series open to the public hosted by New York City public schools. The series features musicians Dinnerstein has met throughout her career, and raises funds for the schools. The musicians performing donate their time and talent to the program. Neighborhood Classics began at PS 321, the Brooklyn public elementary school that her son attended and where her husband teaches fourth grade. Artists who have performed on the series include Richard Stoltzman, Maya Beiser, Pablo Ziegler, Paul O’Dette and many more. In addition, Dinnerstein has staged three all-school “happenings” at PS 321 – a Bach Invasion, a Renaissance Revolution, and a Violin Invasion – which immersed the school in music, with dozens of musicians performing in all of the school’s classrooms throughout the day. In early 2014, she launched her Bachpacking initiative, bringing a digital piano provided by Yamaha from classroom to classroom in public schools, presenting interactive performances and encouraging musical discussion among the students.

“Dinnerstein is a graduate of The Juilliard School where she was a student of Peter Serkin. She was a winner of the Astral Artist National Auditions, and has received the National Museum of Women in the Arts Award and the Classical Recording Foundation Award. She also studied with Solomon Mikowsky at the Manhattan School of Music and in London with Maria Curcio. Simone Dinnerstein (pronounced See-MOHN-uh DIN-ner-steen) lives in Brooklyn, New York with her husband and son. She is managed by Tanja Dorn at IMG Artists and is a Sony Classical artist.”

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) was at the court in Cöthen where he worked as he composed the Brandenburg Concertos. These exuberant six concertos are modeled on the concerto form that Antonio Vivaldi perfected, however, Bach’s reliance in the six concertos on wind instruments, and, at least the wind sound (the clarino trumpet, recorders, and violino piccolo) set them apart from the Vivaldi concertos. The fifth concerto which was performed Friday evening combines the flute and violin with the harpsichord – Maestra Dinnerstein used the piano Friday evening – but truly, it is the piano which Bach emphasizes in this Fifth Brandenburg. As a point in fact, Bach’s skillful use of the piano culminates in a cadenza in Brandenburg Nr. 5, and that truly means that this is the first important harpsichord (piano) concerto that we know of. There is no question that Bach was beginning to recognize the inadequacies of the harpsichord, and though these pieces were written in 1721, in his later years he encouraged harpsichord manufacturers to build an instrument that could at least change dynamics. I am absolutely sure that if Bach had had a modern grand piano, he would have been thrilled. There are still those individuals who count it as sacrilege if one performs Bach on the piano rather than a harpsichord. (Some of you readers may remember a misquoted statement by Wanda Landowska, who supposedly told Rosalyn Tureck that Bach should always be played on the harpsichord.)

The performance that all of the musicians on stage gave of this Brandenburg Concerto was absolutely marvelous. Dinnerstein, Hwang-Williams, and Ferguson performed this piece as if it was the first time they had ever seen: it was absolutely exultant, and their mutual concepts of the counterpoint was solid and thoroughly delightful. Everyone on stage was musically well-balanced, which allowed the contrapuntal imitation to be exposed. In the cadenza, Dinnerstein’s remarkable technique was absolutely crystal clear and astounding. Dinnerstein is known for her Bach performances, and I can guarantee you that her phenomenal technique was not used for display only. She infused this piece with an irresistible charm, as did the Yumi Hwang-Williams and Brook Ferguson. As I sat and listened to the remarkable performance of this renowned piece, I could not help but think of the portraits of Bach wherein he looks so stern and serious, and I thought to myself that these three women certainly demonstrated that, at least on this occasion, he smiled. These musicians received a very well deserved standing ovation.

Following the intermission, the CSO performed Anton Bruckner’s Symphony Nr. 4 in E-flat Major, which carries the subtitle, “Romantic.” It was conducted by guest conductor, Maestro Mark Wigglesworth. And, I hasten to point out that Wigglesworth, like Dinnerstein, is concerned with teaching young people music. I will quote from the biographical statement on his website:

“Born in Sussex, England, Mark Wigglesworth studied music at Manchester University and conducting at the Royal Academy of Music in London. He won the Kondrashin International Conducting Competition in The Netherlands in 1989, and since then has worked with many of the leading orchestras and opera companies of the world.

“In 1992 he became Associate Conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra and further appointments included Principal Guest Conductor of the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra and Music Director of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. Highlights of his time with the BBCNOW included several visits to the BBC Proms, a performance of Mahler’s Tenth Symphony at the prestigious Amsterdam Mahler Festival, and a six-part television series for the BBC entitled Everything To Play For.

“In addition to concerts with most of the UK’s orchestras, Mark Wigglesworth has guest conducted many of Europe’s finest ensembles, including the Berlin Philharmonic; Amsterdam Concertgebouw; La Scala Filarmonica, Milan; Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia Orchestra, Rome; Stockholm Philharmonic; Salzburg Mozarteum Orchestra and the Budapest Festival Orchestra. He has been just as busy in North America having been invited to the Cleveland Orchestra; New York Philharmonic; Philadelphia Orchestra; Chicago Symphony; Los Angeles Philharmonic; San Francisco Symphony; Orchestre Symphonique de Montreal; Toronto Symphony; and the Boston Symphony. He often visits the Minnesota Orchestra, and has an on-going relationship with the New World Symphony. Further a field he regularly works with the Symphony Orchestras of Sydney, Adelaide, Melbourne, and Tokyo.

“Mark has a commitment to making music with young people. Having conducted the Dutch National Youth Orchestra on several occasions since 1990 he has collaborated with many of Holland’s finest musicians from the earliest stages of their careers. Passionate about passing on his experiences to a younger generation, he has also performed with the European Union Youth Orchestra, the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, and the Aspen Music Festival Orchestra, as well as giving Conducting Masterclasses in London, Stockholm, and Amsterdam.”

Much has been made, deservedly so, of the Wagnerian influence upon Anton Bruckner. Certainly, he revered Wagner but there seems to be an almost naïve quality to his symphonies when one compares it to the music of Wagner. And that is said merely as a description, not necessarily is hard fact. However, the difference between Bruckner and Wagner, aside from harmonies, is the fact that Bruckner wrote no works that were programmatic or symbolic as did Wagner and Liszt. To find similarities to another composer, one must return to the Classical period and the four movement Beethoven symphonies. That is also the root of Brahms. Indeed, the opening grandiloquence of his Symphony Nr. 4 brings one’s thoughts immediately to Wagner, but the second theme is lyrical and charming and has a decided innocent and pastoral quality.

The minute Maestro Wigglesworth began to conduct this symphony, I was struck by the difference in style with which he approached it. Most conductors seem to “dig in” with exaggeratedly firm motions and great emphasis. That is, of course, what it takes to conduct Wagner. But right away, Wigglesworth’s motions conveyed the fact that this was not Wagner, it was Bruckner, and his motions were considerably more fluid as if to announce that Bruckner was totally different. And, he is. Wigglesworth emphasized the lyricism and naïveté of Bruckner’s music. Before I am jumped upon by using the word naïveté, I use it only to emphasize that there is no grandiose program to Bruckner’s music such as there is in Wagner and Liszt. It is absolutely beautiful music, and, in comparison, seems to be almost dream-like. Wagner captures one’s attention by the musical descriptions of a program; Bruckner captures one’s attention by the harmonic serenity which is full of grace and almost bliss. Wigglesworth certainly understood this, and he led the orchestra in a manner which reflected Bruckner’s ambition: beauty from the repose, rather than drama based upon drama. He led the orchestra through pianissimos that were almost inaudible, and I don’t recall hearing the CSO ever play so softly, yet keeping every single sound audible.

At every CSO performance, there is usually, or perhaps, one musician who stands out and demands one’s attention. Friday night during the Bruckner it was timpanist William Hill. I was sitting in Mezzanine 4, and I could clearly see his hands for the first time. When the score demanded a continuous role at an incredibly soft level, he controlled the sticks with his third, fourth, and fifth fingers, while holding them between his thumb and index finger. As the dynamic range grew louder, he began to use his wrist, and when it was truly loud, he used his whole arm. This allowed him remarkable control over the entire dynamic range, and I began to understand how meticulous the timpanist must be. During the softest parts of the Bruckner, his playing was never obtrusive, but it matched the dynamic level of the rest of the orchestra. Clearly, it was long experience, and the ability to take a great deal of mental time in producing the sound that Bruckner wanted. The audience gave Wigglesworth and the CSO a standing ovation, and I wished there had been more people in the audience to hear, and then testify, to this fine performance.

As I left the hall, I was convinced that I had heard Bruckner in a way that was totally fresh and new, and in a way that he would been overjoyed to hear. The Bach on the first half of the program, was perfect. The CSO is comprised of amazing musicians, all of whom could be soloists.

Cellist Inbal Segev and the Boulder Chamber Orchestra are sensational

Friday evening, November 7, I attended a concert by the Boulder Chamber Orchestra under the direction of Maestro Bahman Saless. This excellent program was comprised of Igor Stravinsky’s Octet for Winds, Mozart’s Serenade Nr. 12 for Winds in C minor, K. 388, and a work that I was totally unfamiliar with, the Concerto for Cello and Wind Orchestra, by pianist and composer Friedrich Gulda. The cellist who performed the Gulda Concerto was absolutely marvelous: Inbal Segev.

Maestro Seles opened the concert with the Stravinsky Octet which is scored for flute, two clarinets: one in B-flat and one in A; two bassoons, trumpets in C and A, tenor trombone, and bass trombone. According to some scholars, Stravinsky began composing this work in 1922; however, there is a sketch of 12 bars that were to become part of the waltz variation in the second movement. It is fairly certain that Stravinsky wrote those 12 measures as early as 1919.

The first movement is written in a straightforward sonata allegro form with a slow introduction. The second movement is a theme and variations, which, like the first movement, harkens back to traditional form. It even makes use of a fugue, but perhaps, the most startling variation, is the waltz, which is arrived at with no warning whatsoever. As the program notes state, the third movement is based on a Russian circle dance called a “Khorrod,” or occasionally spelled Khorovod. This is a syncopated dance in which Stravinsky almost begins to emulate a fugue once more.

This Stravinsky Octet is a difficult piece. In fact, and this is a point that needs to be made strongly, everything on Fridays program was difficult, but wonderfully done, because the musicians on stage were all excellent. I have previously written that the quality of musicians in the Boulder Chamber Orchestra is extremely high, and that sentiment was brought home with force Friday evening. Stravinsky certainly enjoyed using woodwinds in his compositions, and his use and difficulty of rhythm is truly pronounced in this work. There was a remarkable sense of energy and rhythmic precision that made the performance truly exceptional. As often as I have heard the Boulder Chamber Orchestra perform, I have come to know many of the musicians by name; however, there are some musicians whose names I do not know. Therefore, I ask forgiveness if I have misnamed any of the musicians, but I believe them to have been Cobus du Toit, flute; Kellan Toohey, B Flat and A clarinet; Kaori Uno-Jack and Kent Hurd, bassoon; Andrew Converse and Kiel Lauer, trombone; and John King and Reid Johnson, trumpet. These musicians made the march, which appears in the first movement, a wonderful, an almost caricature, of a march, wherein Stravinsky seems to be enjoying himself immensely. It was delightfully done, and the virtuosity of the musicians was remarkable.

Following the Stravinsky, the Boulder Chamber Orchestra performed Mozart’s Serenade Nr. 12 for Winds in C minor, K. 388. This Serenade was written in 1782, the same year as the Haffner Symphony, K. 385, and while Mozart was also writing his opera, Abduction From the Seraglio. This was a rare period in Mozart’s life when he was not receiving regular commissions, and many of the works composed during this time were not finished. However, this Wind Serenade, the Haffner Symphony, and, of course, the Abduction From the Seraglio are among his finest works.

This work is scored for two oboes, two bassoons, two French horns, and two clarinets. At the risk of sounding as if I am repeating myself, it was the skill and virtuosity of these performers (and of course Mozart’s ability) that truly brought this work to life. But I cannot state strongly enough how fine this evening’s concert was. Max Soto, Kimberly Brody, Kaori Uno-Jack, Kent Hurd, Kellan Toohey, Heidi Mendenhall, Christen Adler, and Devon Park are outstanding musicians. I hasten to point out that from where I was sitting, I could not see who the other French horn player was.

This particular Wind Serenade, unlike the Serenade For Winds in E Flat Major, K. 375, is quite a serious work. The E Flat Serenade has five movements, and is quite cheerful and outgoing in character. However, K. 388 has only four movements, and truly takes on the strength of a symphony complete with an introduction to the first movement. In this work, the musicians were so attuned to each other in their precision of phrasing, dynamics, and precision of note values. For example, if the oboes were playing portato notes (portato is a note value shorter than legato, but longer than staccato), and the oboes were followed by the bassoons who also played portato, the bassoon portato was exactly the same length as the oboe’s. That makes a big difference in the way any piece of music sounds to an audience: there are no ragged edges, and the Viennese charm with which Mozart writes is clearly evident. It was pure Mozart. The oboe, wonderfully performed by Max Soto, has the dominant melodic interest, while the bassoons supply the forward momentum. In so many ways, Mozart has scored this work as he would a symphonic work: the horns provide the harmonic support for the oboe, and occasionally there are wonderful, shared solos between the horn and oboe. Maestro Saless truly seemed to understand that the musicians he was conducting were excellent, as he did not seem to be forcing any kind of interpretive conducting upon them. And there is no question that he knew precisely what Mozart intended.

Following the intermission, the cellist Inbal Segev joined the Boulder Chamber Orchestra for the performance of Friedrich Gulda’s Concerto for Cello and Wind Orchestra. Before I begin to discuss Friedrich Gulda, I will quote from Inbal Segev’s bio statement on the web:

“Inbal Segev’s playing has been described as ‘characterized by a strong and warm tone . . . delivered with impressive fluency and style,’ by The Strad and ‘first class,’ ‘richly inspired,’ and ‘very moving indeed,’ by Gramophone. Equally committed to new repertoire for the cello and known masterworks, Segev brings interpretations that are both unreservedly natural and insightful to the vast range of solo and chamber music that she performs.

“Segev’s repertoire includes all of the standard concerti and solo works for cello, as well as new pieces and rarely performed gems. In June 2012, she gave the U.S. premiere of Maximo Flugelman’s Cello Concerto led by Lorin Maazel at the Castleton Festival, in Virginia near Washington DC. In February 2013, she gave the world premiere of Avner Dorman’s Cello Concerto with the Anchorage Symphony Orchestra, and then performed the work with the Hudson Valley, the Orquesta Sinfónica Nacional de Colombia in Bogota, and the Youngstown Symphony. …Composer Gity Razaz is currently at work on a new multimedia piece for Segev, which will premiere in spring 2015 and explores the themes of birth, transformation and death through the retelling of an Azerbaijani folktale.

“Inbal Segev is currently recording all of Bach’s works for solo cello for commercial release in summer 2015. Her recording sessions are taking place at the Academy of Arts and Letters in New York City. Audiences will have the opportunity to look behind the scenes at the making of this album through Inbal Segev’s PledgeMusic campaign, launching in November 2014. Segev’s new album will be released with a companion documentary about her journey through the music of Bach. Segev’s discography includes two previous solo albums – Sonatas by Beethoven and Boccherini (Opus One) and Nigun, a compilation of Jewish music (Vox). She has also recorded Max Schubel’s Concerto for Cello (Opus One). With the Amerigo Trio, she has recorded serenades by Dohnányi for Navona Records.

“…She made debuts with the Berlin Philharmonic and Israel Philharmonic, led by Zubin Mehta, at age 17.

“Segev’s many honors include the America-Israel Cultural Foundation Scholarship (which she began receiving at the age of seven), and top prizes at the Pablo Casals International Competition, the Paulo International Competition, and the Washington International Competition. She began playing the cello in Israel at age five and at 16 was invited by Isaac Stern to come to the U.S. to continue her studies.

“Segev earned a Bachelor’s degree from The Juilliard School and a Master’s degree from Yale University, studying with noted masters Joel Krosnick, Harvey Shapiro, Aldo Parisot, and Bernhard Greenhouse, cellist and founder of the Beaux Arts Trio.

“Inbal Segev (pronounced Inn-BAHL SEH-gehv) lives in New York with her husband, and three young children – twins Joseph and Shira, and Ariel. Segev performs on a cello made by Francesco Rugeri in 1673. She is managed by Barrett Vantage Artists.”

Without exaggeration, I will say that Inbal Segev is one of the finest cellists that I have heard. Her musicianship and prodigious technique remind me very much of the late Janos Starker, whom I had the great good fortune of hearing on many occasions because he taught at my undergraduate school. Every note that she plays is clear, and is done with the obvious conviction that it must relate to an overall scheme. That may sound like an obvious thing to say about a musician, but there are many musicians that I have heard where that simply is not the case.

Friedrich Gulda (1930-2000), whose Cello Concerto was performed by Segev, was a pianist (who can forget his Beethoven and Mozart recordings?) who became a composer as well. He courted controversy almost all of his life because he combined jazz with classical music, often dressed in a bizarre fashion, interrupted his concerts to improvise for the audience, and sometimes tapped his feet while he was performing, which annoyed the audience endlessly. In his compositions, as I mentioned above, he often combined jazz and other influences which annoyed the critics, and drove jazz musicians to distrust him because it was not pure jazz. However, he did study jazz piano with Chick Corea, and he performed with Miles Davis. In his effort to combine so many different aspects of music, he began to alienate the public, and it was almost as if he became bored with being the “traditional concert pianist.” He tried, valiantly to combine many arts into one pianistic expression. It clearly seemed as though the critics did not want, and therefore refused, to understand what he was trying to accomplish. It reminds me, quite seriously, of some of the rejections that the American composer John Cage suffered: the music world at large seemed disinterested in what he was trying to accomplish.

The Concerto for Cello and Wind Orchestra is a wonderful piece that combines jazz, blues, and some Eastern European jazz elements. It certainly sounds almost like beer hall music.

Guitarist Patrick Sutton, tuba player, Michael Dunn, Paul Mullikin, percussion, and bassist, Kevin Sylves, joined the Boulder Chamber Orchestra for this performance, make no mistake about it: this is a very difficult piece. This work contains a movement entitled Cadenza, in which the cellist improvises for the entire movement. Remember that cadenzas in concertos were almost always improvised, but often, some composers began to compose cadenzas in order to make sure that a relationship between the main themes and the cadenza was preserved. Nonetheless, the composers usually gave the performer the option of playing his own improvised cadenza.

Inbal Segev’s technique is one of the most formidable that I have heard, but like Janos Starker’s technique, it is always used to display the music and what the composer wished, rather than to impress the audience. Nothing was left to the imagination. I can remember a chamber literature class, wherein Janos Starker, after hearing a student perform the first movement of the César Franck Violin Concerto, said, “They say that a picture is worth 1000 words. You have just increased our vocabulary by 750 words. You must always aim for 1000.” There is no doubt that Inbal Segev is always complete. The portion of the first movement that sounded like jazz blues was done with total conviction. The portion of the last movement that sounded like “German beer hall” music sounded like German beer hall music without any hint of apology. She had the stamina and skill to do exactly what Friedrich Gulda wanted done in his composition. It was a wonderful performance and wonderful to listen to, and I hasten to point out that she received a very well deserved standing ovation. Some will say that this concerto was a carefree work, but I would disagree. I think that it was a very serious work that had cheerful moments, but it also had some moments that were incredibly moving. Inbal Segev showed that it was a serious work by delving into it, and producing some absolutely wonderful music. By demand, she performed an encore: the Gigue from the Unaccomapnied Suite for Cello, Nr. 1, by J.S. Bach.

This concert was one of the best I have ever heard from the Boulder Chamber Orchestra. Maestro Bahman Saless has surrounded himself with truly fine musicians, which, it would seem, is very easy to do when one is such a skilled musician himself.

Three early Cantatas by the Boulder Bach Festival and Zachary Carrettin

Friday evening, February 21, the Boulder Bach Festival traveled to St. John’s Episcopal Cathedral, where they presented an outstanding concert of Bach (1685-1750), and the remarkable Venetian composer, Alessandro Marcello (1673-1747). It is not often that we get to hear three Bach cantatas on one program, so those in the audience received quite a treat.

For those of you who are not quite sure what a cantata is, it is a vocal and instrumental form that is particular to the Baroque period. It can contain several movements (and usually does) such as arias, recitatives, duets, and choruses which are based on religious texts. However, there are also secular cantatas, which were more popular in Italy. Bach’s cantatas were mostly of the sacred variety, cantata da chiesa, but he also composed secular cantatas known as cantata da camera. The cantatas performed at Friday’s concert were all church cantatas, or cantata da chiesa.

For those of you to whom Zachary Carrettin is new, I will include an abbreviated biographical quote from his website. He is the new Music Director of the Boulder Bach Festival.

“Zachary Carrettin is a gifted and impassioned musician whose accomplishments as a music director, conductor, violin soloist, and educator have earned him international recognition well beyond his years. He currently balances symphonic and choral conducting, teaching, and performing while serving as director of orchestras at Sam Houston State University, and music director of the Boulder Bach Festival.

“Carrettin made his conducting debut with the Royal Philharmonic of Kishinev, Moldavia, and soon thereafter conducted the Symphony Orchestra of the Theatre Vorpommern in Germany and the Bohuslav Martinu Philharmonic in the Czech Republic. He has conducted numerous soloists in projects ranging from baroque and classical-period instruments to contemporary instruments and repertory.

“Zachary Carrettin holds bachelor and master of music degrees in violin performance from Rice University Shepherd School of Music, and a master of music degree in conducting from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He studied orchestral, choral, opera, and wind ensemble conducting in Bucharest, Romania, and pursued studies in the doctor of musical arts program at Rice University. For more information, visit http://www.zacharycarrettin.com.”

At the beginning of the program Friday evening, there was the usual tuning amongst the instrumental ensemble. There is nothing at all unusual about that. As the starting time of 7:30 PM arrived, Maestro Carrettin calmly walked “on stage” and began to tune his violin. He is an absolutely remarkable violinist, so I made the assumption that he was going to perform in the Marcello Concerto for Oboe. However, he soon began to play a solo work by J. S. Bach, which I think was a toccata for violin. It was not mentioned in the program, nor was it announced by anyone. It was quite a short piece, but it was absolutely beautifully done. The casual demeanor of Maestro Carrettin and the fact that there were a few other instrumentalists on stage, seemed to take the audience by surprise.

Following the short work, Zachary Carrettin certainly did join the Boulder Bach Players to perform Alessandro Marcello’s beautiful Concerto for Oboe in D minor. The oboe soloist was Kristin Olson.

Quoting from Ms. Olson’s bio statement:

“Kristin Olson performs regularly on both modern and historical instruments. As an early music specialist, she has played with such notable conductors as William Christie, Richard Egarr, Philipe Herreweghe, and Jordi Savall. Kristin’s interest in early music began during her undergraduate studies, but first she pursued a modern orchestra career, playing in Mexico with La Orquesta Sinfonica Sinaloa de las Artes for several seasons. She eventually attended the Juilliard School, graduating from their new Historical Performance program on baroque oboe. Kristin is now co-artistic director for several ensembles, including SacroProfano on the west coast, and Grand Harmonie on the east coast. As an entrepreneur, she has been featured on PBS and in Symphony Magazine for success with her reed-making business, Reed Lizard. Her business caters to all oboe and bassoon players, but stands out as one of the only places in the country to purchase historical oboe and bassoon reeds. Kristin holds degrees from the California Institute of the Arts, the University of Southern California, and the Juilliard School. Sometimes she is also seen performing on baritone saxophone. For more information, visit http://www.reedlizard.com or http://www.kristinoboe.com.”

Alessandro Marcello was not only a composer but was an accomplished painter, inventor, bibliophile, instrument collector, and violinist. Because he was a nobleman, he was also expected to serve in various government posts, and was on the Criminal Council of 40 in Venice. Because of his governmental positions, he did not publish a great deal of music; however, there is no question that he was a very serious musician of considerable capability. The Concerto for Oboe in D minor is without a doubt his most famous composition. It is in three movements, with the first and third quite lyrical, and, I might add, very different from his Venetian contemporary, Antonio Vivaldi. It is the second movement of this concerto that continues to capture the most attention. It is an introspective and deeply felt Adagio which exhibits true pathos. Bach certainly knew this piece, for he transcribed it for solo harpsichord.

Ms. Olson’s performance of this piece was absolutely beautiful. She has amazing breath control, and her ability on the Baroque oboe was something to behold. Her tone was lush and warm, and in the second movement, her ornamentation, which was historically correct, served to increase the movement’s remarkable sense of loss and despair. This was only the second time I have heard this concerto performed live, the first being in undergraduate school when it was performed by Professor Jerry Sirucek. This was an exquisite performance by everyone on stage.

Following Kristin Olson’s performance, the Boulder Bach Festival performed J.S. Bach’s Cantata Der Herr denkt an uns (The Lord thinks on us…), BWV 196. You readers must remember that BWV is the abbreviation for Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis, the thematic catalogue of Bach’s works organized by Wolfgang Schmieder (1909-1990). The soloists in this cantata were soprano Amanda Balestrieri, Daniel Hutchings, tenor, and Adam Ewing, bass. This was very well done. As the excellent program notes point out, there is no mistaking this work for a late work of Bach’s, because the counterpoint and melodic imitation reminds one of Dietrich Buxtehude (1637-1707). The blend of the choir was absolutely marvelous, though, from time to time, their diction was not always clear. Amanda Balestrieri has an absolutely wonderful soprano voice and gave a pronounced air of cheerfulness in this cantata. However, like the choir, from time to time her diction was not as excellent as it has been in the past. Daniel Hutchings and Adam Ewing were beyond compare. Their vocal production allows them the ability to have excellent diction, and they are also possessed of an infinite variety of emotions.

Following this cantata, the Boulder Bach Chorus performed a motet by Bach, his well-known Komm, Jesu, komm, (Come, Jesus, come, my body is weary…). The motet was originally one of the most important forms of polyphonic music, but by Bach’s time, its a cappella style had fallen by the wayside and solo voices as well as instrumental accompaniment were used. The Baroque composers allowed themselves more variety of styles: alternation of singers and instruments, expressive vocal lines, solo voices, and certain echo effects, which made it quite difficult to distinguish between secular and sacred motets. The diction of the choir in this work, as well as that of the soloists, was considerably better than the opening cantata.

Following the intermission, Maestro Carrettin performed the Bach Cantata, BWV 150: Nach dir Herr, verlanget mich (For you, Lord, I am longing…). This work featured soloists Amanda Balestrieri, Marjorie Bunday, Daniel Hutchings, and Adam Ewing. Amanda Balestrieri sang a wonderful aria solo in this cantata, and her diction was well-nigh perfect in this work. Marjorie Bunday was exceptional as well.

The following cantata, Aus der Tiefen rufe ich, Herr, zu dir (Out of the depths I cry, Lord, to you.) was superbly done by everyone on stage. I would also like to point out that another member of the Boulder Bach Festival Players, the bassoonist, Anna Marsh, was truly outstanding.

The following is from Ms. Marsh’s bio statement:

“Anna Marsh is originally from Tacoma, WA, and owns six bassoons from the Renaissance to the modern era. She also enjoys trying new restaurants, porcelain painting and exploring National Parks with her friends. She appears regularly with Tempesta di Mare, Opera Atelier, Tafelmusik, Arion Baroque Orchestra, Atlanta Baroque, Seattle Baroque, Opera Lafayette, Ensemble Caprice, Washington Bach Consort and Clarion Music Society. This season she will play concertos with New York State Baroque and the Boulder Bach Festival and will also appear at Versailles. She has been a featured concerto soloist with the Arion Baroque Orchestra in Montreal, The Dryden Ensemble in Princeton, Foundling Orchestra in Providence, Buxtehude Consort in Philadelphia, Americantiga Orchestra in Washington DC, the USC Early Music Ensemble and the Indiana University Baroque Orchestra… Anna is ABD [an informal expression denoting All But Dissertation] for her Doctorate at Indiana University and has recorded for Analekta, ATMA, CBC Radio, NPR, Centaur, Avie, Naxos, the Super Bowl and Musica Omnia Record Labels.”

This was a truly enjoyable concert, but I was occasionally surprised by the almost casual manner in which Maestro Zachary Carrettin (who, I stress, is a masterful musician in every way) took the stage. This resulted many times in the audience not being sure whether they should applaud his entrance, as is customary for the conductor. Indeed, after the intermission, he was tuning his violin with a few of the other musicians. The tuning went on for some time, when he obviously became concerned that the soloists had not come out to perform. He hurriedly left stage to seek out the performers, who joined him, finally, much to amusement of the audience. Perhaps, a very authoritative stride to the podium, as is de rigueur, would be more useful. But, please understand that this is hardly a permanent blot on the record of such an outstanding musician.

The Ars Nova Singers: A World Class performance ends a World Class season

The Ars Nova Singers, under the direction of Maestro Thomas Morgan, presented their final concert of the season at Our Father Lutheran Church, in Centennial, Saturday, June 1. This concert carried the title, Music Beyond Words. Its main thrust, as one might suspect coming from this a cappella vocal ensemble, was that music can be exceptional without text, as well as without accompaniment. Maestro Morgan wished to explore, in this performance, the sounds of the human voice and its expressiveness relying solely on the sounds of “people singing together” without those sounds being interrupted by text. As he pointed out before the concert, when music is sung with a text, we can certainly hear the music, but often, comprehending the text in our heads while we hear that music, can be a distraction that keeps us from concentrating fully on just the sound of the human voice.

The Ars Nova Singers opened the program with a composition by Knut Nystedt based upon J.S. Bach’s famous chorale, Komm, süßer Tod, (Come, sweet death). Originally, this is a work for solo voice from the 69 Sacred Songs and Arias that Johann Sebastian Bach contributed to Georg Christian Schemelli’s Musicalisches Gesangbuch.

I will quote briefly from Nystedt’s bio statement:

“Knut Nystedt (b. 1915), is a Norwegian orchestral and choral composer. He grew up in a Christian home where hymns and classical music were an important part of everyday life. He studied composition with Bjarne Brustad and Aaron Copland, organ with Arild Sandvold and Ernest White, and conducting with Øivin Fjeldstad.

”Knut Nystedt was organist in Torshov kirke (Torshov Church) in Oslo from 1946 to 1982 and was teaching choir conducting at the Universitetet i Oslo from 1964 to 1985. He founded and conducted Det Norske Solistkor in 1950-1990. He also founded and conducted Schola Cantorum in 1964-1985. The choir Ensemble 96 has published Immortal Nystedt (2005). This CD has been nominated in two categories in the Grammy Awards 2007. This is the first Norwegian CD nominated in two categories. Also the first CD with a Norwegian composer nominated to Grammy. In 2005 he was honoured by several concerts around the world, celebrating his 90th birthday.”

This work by Nystedt was perfect for the opening, because it clearly displayed the aesthetic that the Ars Nova Singers was looking for in the concept of this concert. The piece begins with a short and simple statement from Bach’s composition, and then comes Nystedt’s composition, celebrating just the sound of the voices. He uses Bach’s melodic line as a cantus firmus underneath, and sometimes in the middle, of his own harmonic treatment of Bach’s work. Thus, it becomes almost a clausula (motet?). Bach’s melodic line could be heard surrounded by a very thick texture of almost-microtonal harmonies cascading all around the familiar melody. This kind of singing, which some might consider “off key” because of its microtonal aspects, is incredibly difficult. For at least 500 years, our ears have been accustomed to hearing music that is “on pitch,” and that is one concept that has made it difficult for some individuals to listen to music of the avant-garde, which does not make use of major or minor, but is atonal. This work was beautifully done, and once again, the attention given to the extreme detail by Morgan and the Ars Nova Singers concerning dynamic range and phrasing, were absolutely stunning.

After the Nystedt, the Ars Nova Singers emphasized the impact of the sound of voices without text by performing a portion of Thomas Jennefelt’s Villarosa Sequences, which was a Colorado Premiere.

Again I will quote from a bio statement on the web:

“Thomas Jennefelt, born 1954, studied composition at the Royal College of Music in Stockholm from 1974 to 1980 for Gunnar Bucht and Arne Mellnäs, amongst other teachers. The attention to vocalisation is salient in his works, which extend from choral music to opera. Warning to the rich is an early and successful example of the former, and has been played the world over since its inception in 1977. Other acclaimed choral pieces include O Domine and Dichterliebe (I-X), composed to the same poems by H. Heine that Robert Schumann used, and the original a cappella suite Villarosa sequences sung to a self-created, Latinesque language.”

I said above that the Ars Nova Singers only did a portion of the Villarosa Sequences. The entire work is almost an hour and a half long, and consists of seven sections. However, I think we should all thank our lucky stars for being able to hear four sections of this magnificent work. Those four sections are entitled Aleidi Floriasti, Saoveri Indamflavi, Strimoni Volio, and Villarosa Sarialdi. In this composition, the key is the last sentence from the above quoted bio statement. Jennefelt has invented his own Latinesque language. As the excellent program notes stated, “Jennefelt has taken the radical step of creating vocal music in the whole sense of the word: he has even turned language into music.” He did this because he did not want the words to be a “cognitive event” that would distract the listener from the music itself. Thus, his language becomes a series of syllables used to accentuate pitch, and, particularly, accentuate rhythm of the music.

In this performance, I was absolutely amazed at the ability of the Ars Nova Singers to literally slide from one pitch to the next. However, the word “slide” almost implies a fairly long distance, and I assure you that the choir was sliding across a microtone or two. As I have stated before, that is incredibly difficult to sing because our ear forces us to sing in tune. The result of this kind of harmonic writing is one of tonal softness (that is the best way I can describe it), which provides an ethereal sound, and lengthy harmonic deceptive movements that eventually resolve to a harmonic point that our ears expect. What truly amazed me about this composition was that it required the choir to be divided into many different sections: there were some “chords” that sounded as though they were made up of at least ten different tones. This is the first time I have heard this composition, and I have never had a chance to look at the score. But, I do have a decent ear, and I have been blessed or cursed, depending upon how I look at it occasionally, with perfect pitch. Again, the detail work that the Ars Nova Singers and Maestro Morgan exemplify is startling. It was clear that they approached this work with the same aesthetic ideal that motivated Thomas Jennefelt.

The third section of this suite, Strimoni Volio, was for solo soprano, and was sung by Tana Cochran who has performed with the Ars Nova Singers for seven years, and is now pursuing her Doctor of Musical Arts degree at CU-Boulder. She has a wonderful voice, and incredible vocal production, allowing her to accomplish the difficult pitch requirements that are required by Jennefelt. Think of this: early in the 20th Century, it was often considered very expressive for instrumentalists, particularly violinists, to scoop their pitches. For example, if any of you recall the violin playing of the legendary Fritz Kreisler, scooping pitches is occasionally what he did. Mind you, I am not criticizing Kreisler (his recordings performing with Rachmaninoff are magnificent), that was the style of the period. When Ms. Cochran sang, she did not always slide to the next pitch; she often arrived at the microtone pitch spot on. I was dazzled by her control and her sense of pitch.

The final section of Jennefelt’s work was Villarosa Sarialdi. It emphasized the rhythm that can be produced with just emphasis of syllables. This is a remarkable composition, and I sincerely hope that the Ars Nova Singers performs the entire piece at one of their future concerts. It is incredibly difficult to be sure, but, not only would it demonstrate the very latest in avant-garde vocal composition, it would give the audience an experience they would remember for a lifetime, and the Ars Nova Singers is just the group to do it in spectacular fashion.

Following the Jennefelt, and after the intermission, the Ars Nova Singers performed eight small pieces for the second half of the program. They began with a work by Thomas Morgan, entitled The Hollow Mansions. This was a beautiful piece with very subtle syllabification which resulted in some very startling changes in sound. This is another work that needs to be heard again, and its length would be perfect for an encore. Paul Fowler sang a tenor solo in this work that was outstanding. I knew that he was an excellent composer, but, somehow, it escaped me that his major instrument is voice. He is a very lyrical, light tenor, and his voice quality matches the Ars Nova Singers beautifully.

There followed a work by Debussy, Syrinx, which was performed on a Strathmann flute by John Heins. (I will talk more about that later.) This was a surprising piece on this program because it is for an instrument and not for voice. However, because of the manner in which the Ars Nova Singers was performing, it was a perfect addition to the program, and it was certainly not out of character. This work is very important because it is the first piece for solo flute (it was written in 1913) since C.P.E. Bach, and it is considered a mandatory work in flute literature. It tells the tale of the god, Pan, who falls in love with the nymph Syrinx. In order to hide from Pan, syrinx disguises herself as a reed on the river’s edge. When Pan goes to a clump of reeds to cut some for his pipes, he accidentally kills Syrinx without knowing it. Heins performed this piece quite well, and his phrasing and dynamics, and breath control were excellent.

Following the Debussy was a piece written by Emilyn Inglis , entitled Chanson des Fleurs. This was a World Premiere, which was inspired by flowers in a garden. Ms. Inglis said that, “as I was photographing flowers at a garden in Fort Collins, Colorado, I became strongly aware of vibration coming from the flowers. If there is a vibration, I reasoned, there must be a sound; so I sat down to listen. This piece is my effort to transcribe the amazing vibrating harmonies that I heard.” How many of you remember that the late John Cage attached contact microphones to the many plants that he had in his apartment in Champaign-Urbana? He recorded those sounds as the plants grew, and then used the sounds in compositions. This was a very attractive piece of music that allowed the audience to become lost in the intricate sounds that the Ars Nova Singers produce.

The next work was a World Premiere as well: Nocturne, by composer and flautist John Heins. It was composed for choir and Strathmann flute. The Strathmann flute is a new instrument, and I will quote from the web:

“A patent for a fully keyed recorder was taken out in 1988 by the saxophonist Rudolf Strathmann who adapted the elaborate keywork and fingerings of the saxophone to the recorder. With his co-worker Klein, in Kiel, a series of ‘Strathmann flutes’ has been developed with many modern features. The body is made of wood or durable plastic, the block height is adjustable with a simple thumbscrew, and the thumbhole is replaced by a key which opens two small holes high up in the head piece which raises any fingering of the lower register to the octave above. The volume of sound for all notes is stronger than on conventional recorders, and the timbre is said to be between that of a recorder and flute. Strathmann flutes have been made in both soprano and alto models.”

Heins’ work, Nocturne, is a very Debussy-like piece that often uses the choir as a harmonic platform for the flute. However, the flute does not have any great length of melodic line, nor, upon this first hearing, did I detect any counterpoint. It is a work that seems to concentrate on texture and tone, as well as a general three-part form. It fits perfectly as an addition to this program. The future of the Strathmann flute is the only thing that gives me concern. While it produces a very nice sound, one wonders what kind of future it has, and I bring this up only because this is the first time I have heard one. I am quite sure that one could substitute a regular flute for the Strathmann flute, but it could be that the composer’s intention would be lost. It does bring to mind the instruments that avant-garde composer Harry Partch so carefully invented and constructed. If one wants to perform his music, one has to rent the instruments from the Partch Foundation. I doubt very seriously that the Strathmann flute will fall into that predicament because, while a substitution in instruments would produce a different sound, at least the substitution would be available.

The Ars Nova Singers then performed for compositions: La Lluvia by Stephen Hatfield; Sergei Rachmaninoff’s famous Vocalise, Opus 34, Nr. 14; To Be Sung of a Summer Night on the Water, by Frederick Delius; and Sir Edward Elgar’s Lux Aeterna, perhaps better known as the “Nimrod” Variation. As Maestro Morgan pointed out to the audience, the Nimrod Variation is to the English as Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings is to Americans. I must say that the performance of these last four works made it very difficult to keep a dry eye. They were beautifully done with intense emotion.

The Ars Nova Singers finished their performance with an encore, known to most as Danny Boy. Percy Grainger arranged the version that was sung by the Ars Nova Singers, and he did so many arrangements of this tune (which was originally published in a collection in 1855, and attributed to Jane Ross) that one wonders if he had any particular text in mind. Nonetheless, this was a wonderfully warm and tender performance of this piece.

When I write reviews of performances such as this one, it always seems as if I am exaggerating when I call them “world-class.” But there are perhaps six or eight organizations in the state of Colorado that are consistently world-class. I assure you that I base my comments on seventy years of experience being a performing musician, and not just on a whim to popularize a group that I happen to like this particular week. The Ars Nova Singers and Maestro Thomas Edward Morgan are consistent in their excellence, which means they are consistent in their love for music, and in their work ethic. This was a remarkable performance, and I promise you that it was truly world-class.

Andrew Cooperstock and the Boulder Chamber Orchestra present rare music

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 61 other followers