Filed under: Reviews | Tags: Annamaria Karacson, Bahman Saless, Bill Douglas, Boulder Chamber Orchestra, Dances For Oboe and Strings, David Korevaar, Devon Park, Gyöngyvér Petheö, Handel, K. 414, Kent Hurd, Kim Brody, Max Soto, Megan Rubin, Michaela Borth, Mozart
Saturday evening, December 21, I attended a concert given by the Boulder Chamber Orchestra under the direction of Bahman Saless, given at the Montview Boulevard Presbyterian Church in Denver. The title of this particular program was A Gift of Music, and, I must say, that certainly turned out to be the case. There were two remarkable soloists. David Korevaar performed Mozart’s Piano Concerto in A Major, K. 414, and the BCO’s own Max Soto performed a work by Boulder composer Bill Douglas, entitled Songs and Dances for Oboe and Strings. Also on the program was George Frideric Handel’s well-known Water Music Suite Nr. 1 in F Major. This program was indeed a gift because there were two well-known works on the program, the Handel and the Mozart, but also, because there was a brand-new piece that I have never heard before, and that was the work by Bill Douglas.
Maestro Saless opened the program with the Handel. Handel had left Germany for England because he did not particularly like the patronage system that was in Germany, where the type of music he wrote was dictated to him by the royalty. In England he hoped to be able to compose more freely. The three Water Music suites, as the program notes pointed out, came about because King George I was trying to improve his image before the English people. He took some barge trips on the Thames from London to Chelsea, which, in today’s vernacular, we would call a ‘photo op,’ in order to prove to the people that he could mingle.
The Suite Nr. 1 is well-known for its tricky French horn writing, and this certainly gives the piece its immediate identity. The first movement of the six part suite opens with trills in the violins, and then in the horns. I was impressed immediately by the fact that the trills in the violins were together (each note!) as well as in the horns. As a matter of fact, Devon Park and Megan Rubin, French horn, were outstanding all the way through this work by Handel. I also hasten to point out that the violins have taken on a new life this season because of all the new faces. Annamaria Karacson, Concertmaster, did not play Saturday evening, because she was serving as concertmaster in the Colorado Ballet’s The Nutcracker. Principal Second violinist, Gyongyver Petheo, took her place, and another violinist who I believe was Michaela Borth, moved up one chair. The reason that I mention all of this is that this season, the Boulder Chamber Orchestra has demonstrated a great deal of depth with many new faces. I had the opportunity Saturday evening to sit very close to the violins, and because of that, I could hear the violinists individually. Some of the ornaments in the Handel are difficult, but, as one might expect, they were accomplished with great ease. In the second movement, which Handel has marked Adagio e staccato, there was some very nice work done by the oboes, Max Soto and Kim Brody, and bassoonist, Kent Hurd. The entire orchestra reflected a new precision and care Saturday evening. It is as if the new members of this orchestra have infected the entire group with a new sense of meticulousness. The Handel was full of spirit and drive, and it truly did seem as if they were in total agreement with Maestro Saless every step of the way.
Following the Handel, and immediately before the Douglas work, Maestro Saless inserted a seasonal carol entitled Chanukah, Chanukah. This was the first time I had heard this Carol and it was very definitely a slow-fast-slow dance form. I am sure that it was using the Ahava Rabbah scale which is used throughout Israel, Turkey, and Lebanon, at least. It is similar to a modified Phrygian mode. But this was a marvelous piece of music, and it was very definitely emotional in its celebratory spirit.
Next on the program Maestro Saless and the Boulder Chamber Orchestra principal oboist, Max Soto, performed a work by Boulder composer Bill Douglas entitled, Songs and Dances for Oboe and Strings. I will quote from Douglas’ website:
“I was born in London, Ontario, Canada on November 7, 1944. My father played trombone and sang in a big band, and my mother played organ in church. My earliest memory is of myself playing in a one-man band with toy instruments when I was three. I began piano lessons at four and I taught myself ukulele and guitar when I was about eight or nine….
“From 1962-66, I attended the University of Toronto and obtained a BA in music education. During this time, I became very interested in 20th century classical music, and started composing pieces influenced by Anton Webern, Elliott Carter, and Igor Stravinsky, as well as such contemporary jazz artists as Paul Bley and Gary Peacock. I played fourth bassoon in the Toronto Symphony, and I often played jazz piano gigs on weekends.
“I was awarded a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship in 1966, and attended Yale University from 1966-69. There I met clarinetist Richard Stoltzman, and we have been touring and recording ever since. In 1967, I played three concerti with the Toronto Symphony. I received a Master of Music degree majoring in bassoon in 1968, and a Master of Musical Arts degree in composition in 1969. At this time, I was writing very avant-garde atonal music. After Yale, I received a Canada Council award to study composition in London, England, for a year.
“In 1977, I moved to Boulder, Colorado, to teach at the Naropa Institute. I continue to teach there and to tour with Richard Stoltzman and my own groups. With Richard, I also often play with bassist Eddie Gomez. Some of my bassoon students from Cal Arts moved to Boulder with me, and we formed the Boulder Bassoon Band which played together for twenty years.”
This was the first time I have heard this composition. It is a very impressive piece, which has the overall quality of a pastorale, even though these movements are all dance movements. The movements are listed as, I. Bebop Jig; II. Folksong; III. Afro-Cuban Baroque; IV. Lament; and V. Celtic Waltz.
This is truly a beautiful piece of music, and it seemed to me that it was very well suited to Soto’s marvelous ability on the oboe. The Bebop Jig is full of difficult rhythms, and in spite of its lively character, has a certain plaintiveness about it. The program notes explained that in Part II of the suite, Folksong, that Douglas was inspired by the folk music of the British Isles. Indeed, this was a beautifully lyric work which displayed the newfound richness that the violin section has. It also gave Max Soto the opportunity to show that he could match that ambience with his oboe. But, for me, the most exciting portion of this work (and it is difficult to make this choice because the entire work is so excellent, as was Soto’s playing) was Part III entitled, Afro-Cuban Baroque. This was a vigorous tango that was so skillfully written that I could not help but compare it to the work done by Arturo Márquez or Luis Jorge González. It was as elegant as it was spirited, and I must say that the Boulder Chamber Orchestra seemed to have the same affinity for a tango that the Costa Rican native, Max Soto, displays without effort. If you can imagine a tango being lyrical and carefree, that is the character that Soto gave this movement. Yes, it was fast at times but Soto and the orchestra seemed to be totally relaxed. I could have listened to Part III all night long. Part IV of this suite of dances was named Lament, and Part V, Celtic Waltz. Bill Douglas and Max Soto seem to have created a piece of music that has a narrative. That almost seems a shallow way to describe this work, but the narrative is so skillfully done that it could be applied to anything the listener wishes.
When Songs and Dances for Oboe and Strings came to an end I was genuinely disappointed. I would love to hear this piece again and again.
In the closing weeks of 1782, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart began work on several compositions: piano concertos K. 413, K. 414 (most likely completed by December 28, 1782), and K. 415. The G major string quartet was completed December 31, 1782. Also, we know that he had begun work on the C minor Mass at this period of time because it was mentioned in a letter to his father on January 4, 1783. This is, quite obviously, a truly Herculean effort on Mozart’s part. In many ways, it was spurred by his satisfaction of leaving Salzburg, where he had been very unhappy, for Vienna. He remained in Vienna until 1786, when the Viennese failure of The Marriage of Figaro received fewer than ten performances. This was due to the musical politics of the Italian clique in Vienna.
The A Major Piano Concerto was performed Saturday evening by David Korevaar, well-known faculty member at CU-Boulder. Korevaar has amazing concentration which keeps him very relaxed, and this was even more noticeable Saturday evening because the front row seats at the Montview Boulevard Presbyterian Church seemed to be immediately at the end of the keyboard. But I assure you that did not phase David Korevaar one bit. The minute the Boulder Chamber Orchestra and Maestro Saless began to perform, Korevaar was deep in concentration. His playing was, as usual, quite remarkable. This concerto has six major subjects in the first movement alone, and Korevaar carefully delineated each one in the most delightful way imaginable, through impeccable dynamic phrasing and nuance, which did not exceed the style of the Classical Period. It seemed that his ease at the keyboard inspired the orchestra to follow his every move with an effortlessness which was almost serene: Maestro Saless and the Boulder Chamber Orchestra easily demonstrated that they were just as musically reliable as David Korevaar. It was very clear throughout this entire concerto that everyone on stage was thoroughly enjoying each other’s company, and I assure you that for the solo performer that can be not only a very warm feeling, but a very great compliment.
The slow movement in K. 414 is a Sonata allegro form, with its main subject taken from an overture composed by Johann Christian Bach, who was Mozart’s childhood friend and teacher. As the program notes state, J.C. Bach died on New Year’s Day in 1782. This movement is so lyrical that its solemnity can almost be overlooked, and Korevaar gave it great warmth which was not at all destroyed by his meticulous shaping of each phrase. There has never been anything mechanical about the way Korevaar plays.
The third movement is a very affable and congenial movement presented in a way that only Mozart can accomplish, in spite of the complexities of its counterpoint. As my memory serves me, the last movement is written in a 2/4 meter, and is in a rondo form. It is, technically, the most difficult of the three movements, but it genuinely seemed as though Korevaar was saying to the audience, “Yes, it is difficult, but it is also an incredible joy to play, and that makes it very easy.” Again, the interchange between Korevaar and the Boulder Chamber Orchestra was something to behold: it was a remarkable and artistic collaboration.
I truly believe that I have never heard the Boulder Chamber Orchestra and Maestro Bahman Saless perform so well. On the other hand, when the orchestra has two fine soloists such as Max Soto and David Korevaar, their task becomes much more delightful. It was also a great pleasure at Saturday evening’s performance to see so many young people in the audience, even though the weather caused the audience to be somewhat sparse. Because of the intimate surroundings, these young people were able to hear a truly fine performance.
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: Aniel Cabán, Athur Rimbaud, Bahman Saless, Beethoven, Benjamin Britten, Boulder Chamber Orchestra, Christine Brooke-Rose, Cobus Du Toit, Joey Howe, Kimberly Brody, Max Soto, Mozart, Samuel Barber, Soheil Nasseri, Szivilia Schranz
It is always very exciting when an organization that is already outstanding improves even more. Such is the case with the Boulder Chamber Orchestra under the directorship of Maestro Bahman Saless. The first concert of this season that I was able to attend was Saturday, November 9, at the Broomfield auditorium. They performed Mozart’s Symphony Nr. 29 in A Major, K. 201; Britten’s Les Illuminations, sung by Szilvia Schranz; and Beethoven’s Piano Concerto Nr. 2 in B flat Major, Op. 19.
There were many new faces in the orchestra, but particularly in the violin section. But, do not worry; Annamaria Karacson is still the Concertmaster. The result of the heavy changes, at least to my ear, was an amazing precision in dynamically shaped phrases which were shared by everyone, and very accurate attacks and releases in entrances. This new accuracy seems to be contagious, for the “old hands” in the orchestra played better than ever Saturday evening. Aniel Cabán was again superb as first chair viola, as was Joey Howe, Principal Cello, Cobus du Toit, flute, and Max Soto and Kimberly Brody, both on oboe. Just because I don’t mention everyone in all of the sections certainly does not mean that they escaped my attention for excellent playing. The entire orchestra seemed to be breathing fresh air.
Another reason I was delighted with this concert is purely personal: they opened with the Mozart Symphony Nr. 29, which happens to be one of my favorites. It is also regarded the world over as the first of Mozart’s mature style and symphonic writing, even though he was eighteen years old when he wrote this work. The word symphony (coming from the word ‘sinfonia’ in Italian), until the middle of the 18th century, could be applied to almost any style of composition for orchestra with different characters: suites, overtures, and even the interludes in oratorios. It was the Mannheim composers, those that came before Haydn, and the Bach sons, who contributed so greatly to the development of the sonata form and its use in the symphony. Mozart’s 29th symphony marks his change from the Italianate style to one of thematic development, richer motives, and a genuine balance between first and last movements.
From the outset, the change in this orchestra was apparent. The new precision was evidenced in the absolute accuracy of the dotted rhythms. In addition, the transparency of Mozart’s style can make it very obvious if someone in the orchestra is playing out of tune. This simply was not the case on Saturday. The entire orchestra was superbly in tune, and exhibited great care in the kind of sound they were producing. They played with such a new confidence, that it was very easy to sit back, relax, and share their amazement at the ability of an eighteen-year-old composer who could write such a work. It truly seemed as if they were able to put all of their musicianship into Mozart. The performance was warm, graceful, delicate where it needed to be delicate, and full of vigor. It was a delightful performance.
Following the Mozart, Szilvia Schranz sang Benjamin Britten’s Les Illuminations. For those of you who are unfamiliar with this work, it is a musical setting of Arthur Rimbaud’s cycle of poems. Keep in mind that Rimbaud was one of the Symbolist poets of the nineteenth century. Christine Brooke-Rose in her Grammar of Metaphor explains that in symbolist poetry “… The proper term is replaced altogether by a metaphor, without being mentioned at all.” Of course, the proper term or thing must be hinted at, or at least deciphered, from the context. I hasten to point out that some symbolist poetry simply cannot be ‘deciphered.’ Many of the symbolist poets visualized their poetry as expressing through its sensible instrumentality, something that is insensible. In addition, one of the elements that must be mentioned here is that in symbolist poetry, the lyrical self does not speak in the first person, but yields its place to a suggestive and impersonal lyrical object. For example a symbolist poet who is trying to express a search for meaning in life, might describe himself as a wandering ship.
The point of all this discussion is that symbolist poetry has a certain “musicality of language” which was recognized by Benjamin Britten, who clearly understood a great deal about poetry, especially from his friendship with W. H. Auden. Britten’s settings of Rimbaud’s poems are lyricism personified, and it is very clear that Szilvia Schranz recognized this. Her performance of this work was very emotional, and as one followed the translation in the program notes, one became aware of the “inherent search” in Rimbaud’s poetry: “Bordered by colossi and copper palms, ancient craters bellow melodiously through flames.… Groups of belfries sing the people’s ideas. Unfamiliar music escapes from castles of bone.”
There is no question that for a singer, this is a difficult piece. It not only demands perfect voice control which Ms. Schranz has in abundance, but that control must not get in the way of interpretive drama. In addition, one has to have a very keen sense of pitch, and enough control to land squarely on pitch every single time. Her performance was incredibly beautiful, and very sensitive, conveying the extraordinary sense of futility that is inherent in Rimbaud’s text. A few years ago, I was fortunate to hear Ms. Schranz perform Samuel Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915, which is one of my favorite compositions of the twentieth century. That was a stunning performance as well, just as this one was. I would also point out, that in this work Aniel Cabán’s performance on the viola was superb.
The Boulder Chamber Orchestra performed beautifully in this work. There was immediate and solid communication between Maestro Saless and Szilvia Schranz, without any confusion or haste, proving beyond a doubt, that Ms. Schranz is a solid and very reliable musician. She and Maestro Saless were very comfortable with one another, which allowed them to concentrate on making music.
I will quote from the bio statement on her website:
“Ms. Schranz was born in Budapest, Hungary into a family of musicians that had worked for generations in the Hungarian National Opera and Hungarian Festival Orchestra. At the age of 10, her family escaped their country’s oppressive communist government to relocate in Boulder, Colorado where her father’s string quartet, the Grammy-winning Takács Quartet, [was] appointed as musicians-in-residence at the University of Colorado School of Music.
“After graduating from the University of Colorado, Ms. Schranz performed at the Denver Center for Performing Arts with their Tony-award winning theater company in the Tempest. She then went to further her studies at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London where she studied with Vera Rózsa, who also taught such renown singers as Kiri Te Kanawa and Anne Sofie Von Otter. After a year’s study in London, she received a post-graduate diploma in vocal training.
“While in London she appeared several times with the London Chamber Soloists, including solo performances of Mahler’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, as well as in Mozart’s Requiem and Haydn’s Creation at St. Martin in the Fields. She also sang at a charity concert for the Kensington Housing Trust at the Leighton House in London.
“Today, Ms. Schranz studies with Julliard’s Daniel Ferro, while expanding her career as a solo and opera singer from her home in Manhattan.”
Following the intermission, pianist Soheil Nasseri, joined the Boulder Chamber Orchestra in performing Beethoven’s Piano Concerto Nr. 2 in B flat Major. I think most concertgoers are familiar with the reverse publication dates concerning Beethoven’s first piano concerto and his second, so I will not dwell on those details.
Quoting from Nasseri’s website:
“Pianist Soheil Nasseri has been lauded by The New York Times as “consistently interesting… consistently thoughtful… a vivid imagination. Filled with character…” and by the Berliner Zeitung as “Fantastic! A real talent. [In Beethoven] We in the audience could not possibly have had more fun.” In addition to critical acclaim for his playing, The New Yorker has noted that Mr. Nasseri is “one of New York’s most prolific recitalists.” Since 2001 he has performed 20 completely different solo recital programs in New York, all without repeating a single piece: at Carnegie Hall’s Weill Recital Hall, at Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center, and at Merkin Concert Hall. These concerts included 25 premières of contemporary works in addition to 30 of Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas, a part of Mr. Nasseri’s pledge to perform all of Beethoven’s works involving piano by the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth in 2020.
“Born in Santa Monica, California, Soheil Nasseri began studying the piano at the age of five and at the age of twenty moved to New York in part to study with Karl Ulrich Schnabel. In 2001 Mr. Nasseri became a protégé of Jerome Lowenthal who remains Mr. Nasseri’s mentor today. Other teachers include Irina Edelman, Claude Frank, Anna Balakerskaia, Clinton Adams, Eva Pierrou, and Ann Schein.”
Soheil Nasseri deserves all of the accolades above. As a pianist, he is extremely relaxed, and has an astonishing ability to play extremely softly, and not allow himself to be covered by the orchestra. His knowledge of Beethoven is profound, with all of the clarity and dynamic contrasts that Beethoven demands. His playing can be very articulate, and then wonderfully lyrical, and his concentration on what he is doing is total, and very confident. He demonstrated remarkable finesse in his phrasing, and every aspect of musicianship that can be verbalized. The only thing that I would change in his performance ability is his penchant for stomping his right foot on the damper pedal and the stage. That created a substantial amount of noise, and gave rise to my expectation that he might explode into the theatrical movements that some pianists of today seem to think is necessary when performing. He did not do that, but, nonetheless, he made a great deal of noise with his right foot. It was a real distraction to his fine playing.
There was another aspect of Mr. Nasseri’s performance that bears mention, and which was not at all expected. At the beginning of the concert, Maestro Saless explained to the audience a few things to listen for in the Mozart Symphony. When Szilvia Schranz came out on stage to perform the Britten, Maestro Saless handed her the microphone, and she gave us some insight into her performance. When Mr. Nasseri came out on stage, Maestro Saless handed him the microphone. However, instead of offering insights into the Beethoven Concerto, Nasseri delved into a standup comedy routine, a la Lenny Bruce, complete with foul language, that had no bearing whatsoever on his performance of the piano concerto. It certainly appeared to me that Maestro Saless was clearly surprised and taken aback, as was the audience. After about five minutes of this, Nasseri asked the audience if they wanted to hear the concerto, and everyone nodded their heads, and said yes. He then proceeded to play, and, as I said, he played very well. I do not know what caused his desire to do a “standup comedy routine,” but it reminded me of the nineteenth century pianist named Daniel Steibelt, who would play the piano while his wife performed on the tambourine. I thought that Nasseri’s actions were entirely uncalled for, and I stress that it is my opinion that Maestro Bahman Saless, everyone on stage, and in the audience, was dumbfounded. I would suggest to Soheil Nasseri that no matter where he plays, if he wishes to be asked back, that he concentrate on his art, rather than contribute to its denigration.
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: Amanda Balestrieri, Bach, Barber, Colorado Symphony Orchestra, Henry Zhang, Mendelssohn, Mozart, Rachmaninoff, Ravel, Rimsky-Korsakov, Scott O'Neil, Yumi Hwang-Williams
Saturday evening, July 20, the Colorado Symphony Orchestra performed a delightful program, all of which were “old standards,” with perhaps one exception: Samuel Barber’s elegant and exceptional Knoxville: Summer of 1915. This piece, and my way of thinking, is under performed, and it is an excellent example of why Samuel Barber is one of the most important composers of the twentieth century.
The CSO, under the direction of Maestro Scott O’Neil, opened the program with Mendelssohn’s Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Opus 21. Do not confuse this overture with the actual incidental music to Shakespeare’s play. The incidental music carries the title A Midsummer Night’s Dream as well as the opus number 61. The incidental music was written sixteen years after the overture, and when Mendelssohn wrote the overture, he had just finished reading Shakespeare’s play. He had no idea, at that time, that he would write incidental music to the entire play. I also point out that when Mendelssohn wrote the overture he was only seventeen years old. As I have written before, one of the greatest pieces of chamber music ever written was Mendelssohn’s gigantic Octet for Strings, Op. 20, which he had written as a birthday gift for his violin teacher. At that time, Mendelssohn was only sixteen years old. Understand, that here we have a young composer, who at the young age of sixteen and seventeen, writes two of the most impressive pieces in music history.
The Colorado Symphony Orchestra certainly did justice to this piece, but I was astounded at the very opening which is scored for woodwinds and horn. It has been years, quite literally, since I have heard a section of this orchestra play out of tune. However, the horns were out of tune with the woodwinds in the opening measures of this piece. I assure you that every time this opening theme returned, they were perfectly in tune, and keep in mind that even superb orchestras can occasionally make mistakes. The rest of the performance was wonderful: it was full of vivacity and some wonderful articulation from the violins. I have often thought that the violins had some incredibly difficult writing, and that Mendelssohn’s own ability on the violin (he was a virtuoso) gave him the frame of mind that “if he could do it, so must they.” Of course, the CSO has some wonderful performers in the violins, and everyone performed the piece as if this were the first time they had ever done it. I must say, as well, that the orchestra sometimes appeared to be on their own, for there were occasions where Maestro O’Neil’s beats were late.
Following the Mendelssohn, the CSO performed just the finale to the Bach Brandenburg Concerto Nr. 3, with Maestro O’Neil performing the continuo on the harpsichord, and conducting from the bench. The CSO was splendid as well in this work, as they were in the Mendelssohn, but had I been in charge of the performance, I would have trimmed the orchestra size down to a more authentic number of musicians, indicative of what Bach had available when he wrote the piece. I remain a little puzzled as to why Maestro O’Neil programmed only the finale to the Brandenburg, rather than perform the entire work. It was almost as if he thought that a summer concert did not need to be complete because the audience was only looking for a summer pastime.
Following the Bach, sixteen-year-old pianist, Henry Zhang from Longmont, performed the first movement of the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto Op. 18, Nr. 2 in C minor. Mr. Zhang is a student of Boulder teacher, Crystal Lee. He has won numerous competitions, and is clearly on his way to establishing himself as a first-rate artist. I am not sure how many times he has performed with an orchestra, but his playing is marked by incredible reliability. By that I mean that in one so young, he knows how to keep an overall steady beat while still conveying nuance and excitement in his performance. His discipline kept him from exaggerating phrase endings, for example, which would have resulted in confusing the conductor and the orchestra. His interpretation of this difficult concerto was spot on, and it was full of genuine musicianship, without relying on his ability to simply play fast and startle the audience with pyrotechnics. He truly seems to be a musician first, and a pianist second, and that is precisely what will take him far in his pursuit of a career, because it is the music that is the reason for being a pianist in the first place. But, make no mistake about it: he has the fingers as well.
Next on the program, the CSO performed the last movement of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade. Again, I was a little puzzled by the performance of only one movement of this work. Rimsky-Korsakov was one of the great orchestrators of all time. One who “orchestrates” is one who assigns the instruments of the orchestra to certain themes so as to give the themes the emphasis that the composer wishes. Debussy was a great admirer of Rimsky-Korsakov’s work, and even used a theme from the second movement of Scheherazade in his work La mer. Rimsky-Korsakov wrote a two-volume work on orchestration: the first volume text, and the second volume, musical examples. It has been translated to English by Edward Agate, and is not terribly difficult to find, as it has the reputation of being one of the books on orchestration.
The Colorado Symphony was spectacular in the performance of this work, and produced a stunning richness of tone. Every section of the orchestra has something to contribute in this last movement, and they again demonstrated why they are one of the finest orchestras in the United States. Concertmaster Yumi Hwang-Williams was truly wonderful in her solo at the end of the movement. Her sound was rich and full, and absolutely always on pitch, even when the difficulties of phrasing and range surely made playing the violin difficult. Of course, playing difficult pieces is part of the price of admission. However, she always excels, and she does so with complete effortlessness.
Following the intermission, the CSO opened with Mozart’s infectious Overture to The Marriage of Figaro. The violins in the performance of this work were incredibly accurate in their entrances and exits as well as their phrasing. Of course, they are supposed to be, but their meticulousness, again, demonstrates the quality of the CSO. This overture is always fascinating, because it so clearly predicts the humor that the opera exemplifies, and it also seems to be such a perfect picture of Mozart’s own sense of humor.
Amanda Balestrieri then joined the Colorado Symphony in the performance of Samuel Barber’s magnificent Knoxville: Summer of 1915. There were times when it seemed that Samuel Barber was the only twentieth century American composer who still believed in lyricism, but this work, plus his Violin Concerto, his Piano Concerto, Adagio for Strings, and his Piano Sonata, will forever stand the test of time. Knoxville: Summer of 1915 is the setting of James Agee’s work, and reflects the unerring taste in Barber’s literary interest. Both Samuel Barber and James Agee were five years old in 1915, and both became good friends after they met.
This is a work that needs to be heard far more often than it is, and Amanda Balestrieri easily made that abundantly clear to the audience Saturday night. Her voice quality is wonderful, and her expressiveness was so reflective of both Barber and Agee, that it made me wonder at the times of 1915. World War I was raging, but families still sat on their front porches. Balestrieri brought out a kind of intimacy of that period of time when most families had time to relax together with their neighbors, and even cool off on warm front-porch-evenings, without the rush to the future. Her sense of pitch is always amazing, and she always imbues her singing with a wonderful sense of musicianship whether she is singing Bach or Barber.
The final work on the program was Boléro by Maurice Ravel. This is a work that repeats the only theme over and over again. It is also famous for its fifteen minutes of crescendo, from an almost inaudible pianissimo to a good, solid fortissimo. This piece is a miniature ballet which was commissioned by the dancer Ida Rubenstein; however, Ravel seemed to also consider this as a demonstration of his technical ability at composition. He never suspected that it would become such an outstandingly famous piece. The Colorado Symphony performed this piece with an enthusiasm which, again, seemed to belie the fact that they had played this piece several times. It was a breathtaking performance that brought the audience to its feet.
Throughout the evening, Maestro O’Neil spoke to the audience concerning each work on the program. Most conductors make sure that these explanations are instructive, and, I do point out, that all of these short descriptions did have information in them. However, for the most part they seemed to be filled with the kind of frivolous banter, such as his comments on Ravel’s Boléro. He seemed to take pains to point out that what genuinely made this work famous was the Hollywood movie, “10,” which starred Bo Derek and Dudley Moore. In reality this work had become famous long before the movie, and was so well received at its premiere given by Ida Rubenstein and her dance troupe, that the audience demanded they do it again. All of O’Neil’s comments contained humor (there is nothing wrong with that, for there is occasionally much humor concerning the background in certain pieces of serious music) that seemed quite inane, as if he felt the necessity to make learning about an art “fun.” It reminded me of the denigration that music as an art suffers at the hands of a certain female disc jockey on the local serious music radio station, when she makes such inane comments as, “As a young composer, François Couperin was so well respected by his family that none of them would have considered calling him “Little Frankie”.” What is the point of making such an uninformed statement as that? How does that kind of inanity add to the listener’s knowledge? Does that help to make music “fun” so that it will sell better? If that is the case, then we must figure out ways to make Rembrandt, Jasper Johns, and Monet fun.
All season long, the Colorado Symphony Orchestra has performed as if they had new breath. Saturday’s performance was no exception, for it was truly outstanding. Everyone in that orchestra from the percussion section through the bass is an outstanding musician, and, once again, with unabashed enthusiasm, I emphasize that we in Denver are so lucky to have this group of musicians here.
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: Abby Raymond, Andrew Litton, Brook Ellen Schoenwald, Carl Fenner, Chad Cognata, Colorado Symphony Orchestra, Erin Svoboda, Gregory Harper, Jason Lichtenwalter, John Kinzie, Julie Thornton, Justin Bartels, Michael Thornton, Mozart, Nicole Abissi, Nijinsky, Paul Primus, Peter Cooper, Roger Soren, Silver Ainomäe, Stefan Dombrowski, Steve Hearn, Terry Smith, William Hill, Yumi Hwang-Williams, Zoltán Kodály
This weekend of May 24th, marks the final concert for the Colorado Symphony in its “Masterworks” series. They completed the season on Friday evening with another stellar performance, and it was, in many respects, one of the best performances they have ever given.
The concert began with one of Zoltan Kodály’s most popular works, the Dances of Galánta, which was written in 1933. Kodály, and his good friend Béla Bartók, were two of the most important scholars in Hungarian folk music. Kodály was raised in the countryside of Hungary, and, in 1905, he began collecting Hungarian folk music. He eventually catalogued over 4000 examples of Hungarian folk music, and, with his friend Bartók, published several collections. He also was composing at this time, but it was not until 1923, with the premier of Psalmus Hungaricus, that his reputation as a composer gained credence. His opera, Háry János, solidified his importance and success in 1926, and Dances of Galánta added to his popularity.
It is interesting to note that at Indiana University, there was quite a group of Hungarian musicians: Béla Boszorményi-Nagy, Janos Starker and György Sebok (who had performed quite often together before they joined the faculty), Ede Zathureczky (who had concertized extensively with Bartók), and later, Eva Janzer, and her husband, Georges Janzer. In addition, there was Tibor Kozma. All of these individuals knew Zoltán Kodály, and, as my memory serves me, it was in 1959, when Kodály came to the Indiana University School of Music for a visit with his friends, and to hear Starker perform Kodály’s Sonata for Unaccompanied Cello.
The performance of Dances of Galánta was one of the most turgid and passionate that I have ever heard. The opening is a haunting flourish, which is followed by a series of dances that are as exciting, as some are almost reminiscent in mood. The entire orchestra was absolutely clean and precise in their rhythms and in their changing meters. It was full of vivacity, and it was clear that Maestro Litton was inspiring the orchestra in its accuracy by demonstrating from the podium that he was quite comfortable with the rhythmic changes. One of Maestro Litton’s outstanding abilities, one which is so necessary for a conductor to have, but which has been missing from the CSO for some time, is communication with the orchestra, and a clear demonstration to the CSO of outstanding musicianship. That is often what inspires an orchestra to work for the conductor, and it was obvious that the orchestra is very willing to work for Litton. The woodwind section has many opportunities in this work to excel, and their performance was absolutely perfect.
Following the Kodály, the audience gave a warm welcome to Jeffrey Kahane, who returned to Denver for the weekend to perform Mozart’s well-known Piano Concerto Nr. 22 in E Flat Major, K. 482. This is a well-known concerto for two reasons; the first is that Mozart replaced the two oboes with two clarinets. This immediately changes the tonal coloring of the orchestra, and, in some ways, gives it more warmth, particularly in the second movement. And it is the second movement that comprises the second reason for this concerto’s fame. Upon hearing Mozart perform the second movement, the audience demanded that it be played again. The second movement is in C minor, and it is a series of variations which comes to a head at the end of the third variation. There are syncopated inflections which mark the beginning of the coda.
Watching Kahane perform, without having to worry about conducting at the same time, was truly enlightening. His concern for detail was most noticeable in his playing, and his dynamic contrasts were absolutely exquisite. In addition, he possesses absolutely superb technique which allows him to bring out the detail as he sees fit. His phrasing was pure Mozart, and his pedaling was superior, particularly in the second movement. This is an incredibly gratifying piece to perform, and, coupled with Maestro Andrew Litton’s obvious affection for this piece, these two musicians were clearly enjoying themselves. It is my understanding that Litton and Kahane have known each other for quite some time. I do not know how often they have performed together, but their knowledge of each other, and obviously each other’s musicianship, came to the fore Friday evening, because there was precious little eye contact between the two. Only a few times, did Kahane keep his eyes glued to Maestro Litton, and that was at the end of some phrases, and in some of the more difficult technical spots where the pianist and orchestra must be exactly together. The orchestra in this concerto was, again, superb. And, I must say this was the best performance that I have ever heard from Jeffrey Kahane. He seemed very relaxed mentally, and why not, for I am sure that he knows this work well. The only distracting moments during his performance came from his leaning back and gazing at the ceiling. Some of his extracurricular movements seemed to be just that: extracurricular, and a little unnecessary. However, I hasten to point out, that they were not nearly on the level as the movements that Lang Lang makes when he performs. I only mention these movements because I personally found them distracting. It was a fine performance that was wonderful to hear.
After the intermission, the Colorado Symphony Orchestra performed what has to be one of the most difficult works written for orchestra: Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, which carries the subtitle Scenes From Pagan Russia. As everyone knows, it is a description of the nature of the earth, and of human nature, which travels through ritual, and culminates in a human sacrifice. The brutal inevitability of this ballet (and you must never miss a chance to see the ballet performed) is often interrupted by plaintive solos, particularly from the bassoon. The incredible hammering rhythms and the incessant bitonal chords in a 2/4 meter which overlay shifting accents, change, and expand, only to have the bassoon reenter with its mournful melodic motif. As all of you must surely know by now, this work received many vituperous comments to put it mildly, and caused some members of the audience to throw the chairs in which they were sitting. It may be necessary to understand that some of this reaction was not due to the music alone, but due to some of the Nijinsky’s choreography which was considered to be unnecessarily erotic.
As I recall Friday’s performance of this ballet music, which has now assumed its proper place not only on the ballet stage, but in symphonic literature, the words “tight and clean” come to mind. The difficult rhythms, augmented by the irregular periods of silence, make this work extraordinarily difficult. It is one of the only performances that I have heard were the rhythms were so incredibly accurate, that those periods of silence seemed like an eternity, even though they are fleetingly indicated in the score. The Colorado Symphony Orchestra has become so reliable in its musicianship that it is astounding. I assure you, that musicianship has always been in existence, but it takes a proper conductor to bring it out. William Hill, Principal Timpanist; John Kinzie, Principle Percussion; Steve Hearn and Terry Smith, also percussion, were remarkable in this performance. Stravinsky’s writing of the rhythms in this work strives to move this piece forward in an incredible trajectory, but that striving cannot be realized unless the musicians can cause it to be realized. That is precisely what Hill, Kinzie, Hearn, and Smith did Friday evening with remarkable aplomb. I watched them carefully, and with the exception of the force they had to use in order to play loudly, they did not seem to be working hard, or even counting furiously. Everything was accomplished with incredible grace.
The orchestra members that everyone knows so well by now: Yumi Hwang-Williams, Paul Primus, Basil Vendryes, Silver Ainomäe, Carl Fenner, Brooke Ellen Schoenwald, Julie Thornton, Peter Cooper, Jason Lichtenwalter, Abby Raymond, Erin Svoboda, Chad Cognata, Roger Soren, Michael Thornton, Justin Bartels, Nicole Abissi, Gregory Harper, and Stefan Dombrowski, along with the percussionists and timpanists, need to be celebrated for the incredible success of this performance. Keep in mind that those I have just named are the section leaders of this orchestra, and then keep in mind that Stravinsky wrote this ballet almost in a chamber fashion, because so many small groups in the orchestra have such an important part throughout the ballet. I have occasionally run across, but not recently, members of an audience who think that one can play in an orchestra simply by knowing how to play one’s instrument. Many do not have the concept of orchestra musicians holding advanced degrees in music performance, obtained by practicing hours every single day. This season, I have come to the conclusion that everyone in the Colorado Symphony Orchestra could be a solo performer.
At the end of this performance, the orchestra was rewarded with a very long standing ovation. The standing ovation was not given out of politeness, but with the realization that the Colorado Symphony Orchestra led by Maestro Andrew Litton gave a world-class performance of a remarkably difficult piece, and a remarkably beautiful piece. Keep in mind that the beauty of composition depends upon the creativity of the composer, but also depends on the re-creative ability of the musicians involved, for they must understand the intent of the composer. Everyone in the Colorado Symphony Orchestra excels.
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: Barbara Hamilton Primus, Benjamin Britten, Carole Whitney, Colorado Chamber Players, Cynthia Katsarelis, David Korevaar, Edward Elgar, Johann Christian Bach, Margaret Soper Gutierrez, Mozart, Paul Primus, Pro Musica Coloardo Chamber Orchestra
Friday, November 9, I attended a concert given by the Pro Musica Colorado Chamber Orchestra at St. Paul Lutheran Church in Denver. It was a wonderful evening made even more special by the addition of the Colorado Chamber Players for the performance of an Elgar work for string quartet and string orchestra. But I will talk about that work in detail in due time.
Last concert season, during an intermission of a concert presented by the Pro Musica Colorado Chamber Orchestra, I struck up a casual conversation with an individual who is relatively new to Colorado. He had moved here from Chicago, and expressed to me his initial doubts that a city “out of the West” could have concerts comprised of local individuals that were worth attending. He clearly stated that he needn’t have worried, and that he was more than pleasantly surprised at the quality of performance that evening. The point of this little story is that yes, here in Denver we have some of the best musical groups in the nation, if not beyond. I have heard chamber concerts all over the United States and in Europe, and I can promise you that the Pro Musica Colorado Chamber Orchestra and the Colorado Chamber Players would fit quite nicely within any group you care to mention. Judging by the size of the audience, more people in the Denver Metro area need to be made aware of the excellence of the music that was produced Friday evening.
Since this organization is still relatively new, I will introduce you again to Maestra Cynthia Katsarelis:
“Maestra Cynthia Katsarelis is Music Director and Conductor of PMC. She has conducted excellent professional, conservatory, youth and training orchestras. As Conducting Assistant with the Cincinnati Symphony and Pops, Ms. Katsarelis worked with top conductors and guest artists, assisted with recordings for Telarc Records, and worked with James Conlon and the Cincinnati May Festival. Her professional activities include conducting the Buffalo Philharmonic, and the symphonies of Knoxville, Kansas City, Spokane, Flint, Georgetown and the Columbus Women’s Orchestra. She made her international debut leading the Bourgas Philharmonic in Bourgas, Bulgaria. Ms. Katsarelis has served as music director of the Seven Hills Sinfonietta, Antioch Chamber Orchestra, Northern Kentucky Chamber Players, Dearborn Summer Music Festival and Hillman Opera. Critical reviews have praised her work as ‘a model of precision and spirit.’
“In Colorado, Ms. Katsarelis conducted the Colorado Music Festival in June, 2012 in Mozart’s Magnificent Voyage. In 2007, she assisted CMF in conducting the offstage brass in Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, the Resurrection. For three summers, she conducted the Young Artist Seminar at Rocky Ridge Music Center. Working with the Loveland Opera Theatre, Ms. Katsarelis led performances of Hansel and Gretel, HMS Pinafore and leads a production of La Bohème in February of 2013. She has conducted the Longmont Ballet in the Nutcracker with the professional Longmont Ballet Chamber Orchestra.
Ms. Katsarelis studied Violin and Conducting at the Peabody Conservatory of Music of the Johns Hopkins University, earning her Bachelors and Masters of Music degrees. She was the first undergraduate ever admitted to the conducting program. At the College-Conservatory of Music in Cincinnati, she pursued doctoral studies in Orchestral and Opera Conducting. There she served as assistant conductor for both conservatory orchestras and the Opera Theater. She has studied at the Oregon Bach Festival with Helmuth Rilling and also participated in master classes led by Neeme Jarvi, Michael Tilson Thomas, Kenneth Kiesler, Yoel Levi and Marin Alsop. She began her professional career at the age of 18 as a section violinist in the Florida Orchestra.”
Friday night, Maestra Katsarelis and the PMC opened her program with the Sinfonia in G Minor, Opus 6, Nr. 6, by Johan Christian Bach. All of these Opus 6 Sinfonias are scored for strings, two oboes, two horns, and bassoon. Though there is no definite date for its composition, most scholars agree that it was probably written about 1762 or 1763. We do know that it was published in 1770. The opening allegro movement is extremely energetic, if not driven, and, of course, Katsarelis’ conducting style easily communicates that storminess to the orchestra. Immediately, one notices a certain influence of Haydn in this work by JS Bach’s youngest son. Though they were about the same age (J.C. Bach was born in 1735 and Haydn was born in 1732) they were still pushing their way into the new style of the classical period, and divesting themselves of the Rococo style. In this instance, I am using the word “style” to indicate the (as yet) imperfectly formed aspirations of this age in music. The slow movement of this work allows the orchestra to demonstrate the art of the two note phrase, and, of course, this orchestra is so excellent that they did it beautifully. The two note phrase is one of the signatures in the classical period, and whether one is performing in a chamber orchestra or performing a piano sonata by J. C. Bach or by Haydn, one must always pay strict attention to its performance. The dynamics that helped shape the two note phrases were absolutely perfect. The last movement is just as stormy as the first, and Katsarelis chose an absolutely perfect tempo again. Even though this is a crossover work between the Baroque and the Classical period, Katsarelis easily gave this work a sense of its own identity as a work by one of the Bach sons. It was neither Haydn nor Mozart, nor was it C. P. E. Bach. The orchestra presented this composition as written by someone who has his own feet to stand upon. That is a terrific complement to this composer, and it is well deserved. It was a delight to hear.
Following the Bach Sinfonia in G Minor, David Korevaar, Chairman of Piano at CU in Boulder, performed Mozart’s Piano Concerto in E flat, K. 271. This concerto was written in 1777 for a young French woman, Mlle Jeunehomme, and though it was only his fourth solo-piano concerto, he finally arrived at his ideal of a genuine collaboration between piano and orchestra. This is a three movement work (as all of his concertos are) which displays an amazing sensitivity in the orchestral writing. It is considered to be one of the most original works of Mozart no matter the category. It is in this work that Mozart leaves behind in the influence of the composer Johan Christian Bach.
Make no mistake about it: this concerto is extremely difficult. In addition, this was one of the rare concerto performances where there was a true partnership between the pianist and the orchestra. There was never any point in any of the three movements of where one could say, “Here is the pianist working by himself,” or “Here is the orchestra performing all by itself.” It was truly a very happy united effort in making music. Korevaar played with great ease – he always seems to do that – with absolutely remarkable phrasing emphasized by great dynamic contrast. But, you must understand, that Katsarelis and the orchestra followed suit in every single detail, answering Korevaar’s rhythmic pulse even when this pulse was reversed between soloist and orchestra.
The slow movement, even though I know this work quite well, always takes me by surprise because it is, in my opinion, one of the most tragic utterances ever written by Mozart. It is written in the relative (to the opening movement’s key of E Flat Major) key of C minor. It seems odd to state that the expressive performance of this movement was enchanting, but I’m convinced that is the right word. Neither Katsarelis nor Korevaar lost their partnership. The raised lid of the piano obscured Katsarelis from my view, but as I was watching Korevaar, it was clear that he did not have to overly rely on Katsarelis for her interpretation of this work, or for showing where she was within the beat. That is a clear demonstration of the musical reliability of these two musicians, and, I also stress the reliability of all the musicians in this wonderful orchestra. I do not use the word “wonderful” lightly.
The last movement of this concerto is undoubtedly the most difficult. I was genuinely surprised at the tempo that these two musicians took. It was absolutely ferocious and the orchestra was clearly working very hard, as was Korevaar. I emphasize that the tempo was used purely for music making, and not for grandiose display: 1) one simply doesn’t have time at this tempo for grandiose displays, and 2) these are remarkably accomplished artists, and musicianship is their first calling.
The last movement has a set of variations in the style of the minuet in its center, which is absolutely elegant. The exuberant first theme returns and ends the entire Concerto. This Concerto was written in the same month that Mozart turned 21 years of age. We know nothing about the young lady for whom it was written, but it is clear that if Mozart wrote it for her to perform, her abilities must have been considerable. This performance was memorable from the pianist and from the conductor and orchestra.
Following the intermission, the Pro Musica Colorado Chamber Orchestra performed Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro for String Quartet and String Orchestra. It was so refreshing hearing this work, as I have not heard it for a great number of years, and it clearly demonstrates Elgar’s ability at string writing. The intimate sound of the string quartet greatly complements the sound of the string orchestra, and I will go so far as to say that there are many organizations that could not quite bring this off because of the general character of the work in Elgar’s imaginative sweep. But Friday night, there were two absolutely superb organizations: the Pro Musica Orchestra and Colorado’s own, and I must say, venerable, Colorado Chamber Players. The CCP is, of course, comprised of Paul Primus, violin; Margaret Soper Gutierrez, violin; Barbara Hamilton-Primus, viola; and Carole Whitney, cello. This brings me to a major point, not only in the performance of this piece, but in the entire performance Friday evening. I had the opportunity to speak with Maestra Katsarelis after the performance, and she told me that this particular composition, when it was performed by chamber orchestra and not full orchestra, gave the members of the orchestra a chance to be virtuosos, rather than having to conform to the strictures of a full symphony sized string orchestra. I still think that is a very eloquent way to describe the Pro Musica Colorado Chamber Orchestra and, of course, the Colorado Chamber Players. It was so clear on Friday evening that everyone, and I do mean everyone, on that stage was a virtuoso. The Elgar was turgid and impassioned even though it moves along at a good pace. There is some substantial writing for viola, and Barbara Hamilton played it beautifully (how many of you realize that Barbara Hamilton-Primus is, in reality, Dr. Barbara Hamilton-Primus. Her Doctorate is in Viola Performance from Yale University. But please realize that everyone in the CCP has equivalent experience or degrees. That is why this is such an incredibly outstanding collection of musicians). When I use the word virtuoso, I am not referring to just technical ability alone. Virtuoso encompasses everything musical: technical ability, musical understanding and knowledge, and musical sensitivity. This was another remarkable performance of the evening.
The PMC closed this concert with the Simple Symphony, Op. F, by Benjamin Britten. Note the opus number. Benjamin Britten was 20 years old when he composed this work, which is based on songs and melodies that he had experienced in his preteen years. The work is not only popular because of these melodies; it is popular amongst orchestras because the string writing is so amazingly competent from a composer of that age. It is a short work of four movements named Boisterous Bourée, Playful Pizzicato, Sentimental Sarabande, and Frolicsome Finale. The music is as witty as the titles of these movements, the final movement, offering a disguised recapitulation of themes from the first movement. The work has incredible charm because Britain uses such urbane musical “grammar” to describe relatively unsophisticated melodies from his youth. The result is an absolutely infectious composition, and a work that seems incredibly difficult to a non-string player such as myself. This performance clearly demonstrated the close and genuine connection between the orchestra musicians and the conductor.
This was another performance that I shall remember for a very long time. The performance should have gotten, in my estimation, at least a dozen standing ovations, and I am not ashamed at all to say that I led at least three standing ovations. We are so very fortunate to have these musicians where we can hear them on a regular basis.