Opus Colorado

The Boulder Symphony performs Iznaola and Brahms

Friday evening I drove to Boulder to hear the Boulder Symphony Orchestra play at the First Presbyterian Church. This orchestra is conducted by Maestro Devin Hughes, and as many of you will surely recall, the First Presbyterian Church is their new place of residence. Maestro Hughes’ reputation is expanding, I am happy to say, for he is now the Music Director of the Santa Fe Youth Symphony Association, and he has also conducted, just this summer, at the American Academy of Conducting at Aspen.

The Boulder Symphony opened their program with a very charming work entitled Appalachia Waltz written by American composer Mark O’Connor (b.1961). Quoting form his web site: “He currently serves as Artist-in-Residence at the University of Miami. Mr. O’Connor is the founder and president of the internationally recognized Mark O’Connor String Camp, held each summer at ETSU in Johnson City, Tennessee and at Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts.

“As a teenager and a young professional musician in his twenties, Mr. O’Connor performed and recorded with some of the best musicians in the world, as well as being a member of some of the best groups ever assembled. At the age of 13, Mr. O’Connor won the Grand Masters Fiddling Championships in Nashville, Tennessee competing against all ages both amateur and professional. By age 19, he had won that contest two more times, won the National Old-Time Fiddlers Contest three times, the National Flatpicking Guitar Championships twice, and became the World Mandolin Champion, an incredible record of contest wins that no one believes will ever be matched. At age 17 Mr. O’Connor played guitar as a member of one of the greatest acoustic string bands of the 1970s, the David Grisman Quintet. At age 19 he played violin and guitar alongside Steve Morse as a member of one of the greatest rock-fusion instrumental bands of the 1980s, The Dregs. In his twenties he was a member of one of the greatest acoustic bands of all time with four of the greatest players on their respective instruments, Strength in Numbers (with Bela Fleck, Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas and Edgar Meyer). He also assembled two of the greatest Country bands of all time in 1989 and 1990 – The American Music Shop house band and New Nashville Cats. During his twenties, Mr. O’Connor became the most in demand session musician of any instrument and in any genre for a 3-year period, appearing on more top ten hits in the country, recording over 500 albums, and recording with everyone – Dolly Parton, James Taylor, Paul Simon, Randy Travis, The Judds; the list is too long to print.”

Appalachia Waltz was originally written for solo cello, and, as Mark O’Connor says, it is probably his most popular piece. But the program notes don’t explain who arranged it for orchestra. A quick search on the web said that it had been arranged for cello, violin, and bass, by Edgar Meyer who is on the recording of this piece with Mark O’Connor and Yo-Yo Ma.

It has been a while since I’ve heard the Boulder Symphony perform, because it is sometimes difficult for me to drive from Littleton to Boulder. I heard them last season, and I was impressed with every section of the orchestra. Friday night, as I sat and listened to them, I was a little puzzled at their performance of Mr. O’Connor’s piece, Appalachia Waltz. The strings, particularly the violas, were having a difficult time playing in tune, and that was a little surprising to me. In addition, from where I was sitting, it was difficult to hear any dynamic changes, and that created the impression that the orchestra was playing level without much passion. The last time I saw Maestro Hughes conduct, he used the baton, but at this evening’s performance it was not until the second half of the program, where he conducted Brahms Serenade, that he made use of the baton. His motions with his hands were very fluid, but from where I was sitting, I could not see any emphatic motions that might indicate an increase in dynamics or passion.

The next work on the program was Vocalise, written by DU’s Ricardo Iznaola. This work, as is explained in the program notes is “…the fourth movement of the suite, Musique de Salon, a work that evokes the spirit of the Parisian end-of-the-20th-century salon, where friends gathered to share good music.” I’m quite sure that everyone in the state of Colorado is familiar with Ricardo Iznaola. He is on the faculty at DU, and not only is he a performing artist, but he is also a fine composer. I will quote from his website:

“Mr. Iznaola’s impressive catalogue of original works includes his orchestral (‘In the Eyes, a Silver Dagger’; Tiempo Muerto – Concerto for Guitar and Orchestra), chamber (Danzas de la Abuela; Triptico Criollo; Gran Guaguanco; Diferencias para el Conde Claros Criollo), vocal (Corinna’s Songbook; Vocalise) and solo works (Sonata Daedalus; Blood Wedding Suite; Three Little Tales; Variations on a Theme by Lauro; Concert Etudes; Circus Vignettes; Monologo I and II, etc.) The Concert Etudes, written in a neo-Romantic, highly virtuosic idiom, have attracted considerable attention by fellow guitarists, as well as becoming audience favorites in many of Mr. Iznaola’s performances.

“Ricardo Iznaola’s distinguished performing career includes innumerable concert performances at venues like Wigmore Hall (London), Merkin Hall (New York City), Hercules Saal (Munich), Grande Salle de l’Unesco (Paris), Ishibashi Memorial Hall (Tokyo), Auditorio Nacional (Madrid), Teatro Municipal (Caracas), Gran Teatro de la Maestranza (Seville), the Philharmonic Society (Bilbao), the Manuel de Falla Auditorium (Granada), as well as many music festivals in the United States, Europe, South America and Japan. He has been guest soloist with numerous orchestras under the batons of conductors Murray Seidlin, Keith Lockhart, Theo Alcántara, Donald Johanos, David Lockington, Manuel Galduf, Gerhardt Zimmerman, James Setapen, Stephen Alltop, and many others. Since 2001, he is a member of the prestigious artist-faculty at the Bowdoin International Music Festival in Brunswick, Maine (USA).

“An artist of charisma, charm and authority, his performances are characterized by immediate rapport with his audiences, who respond with enthusiasm to his virtuosity and intense musicality.”

Patrick Sutton is a doctoral student in guitar at the University of Denver Lamont School of Music. I have heard him play before, and at that hearing, he was one of the outstanding performers of the evening. The same was the case Friday evening. He has won many awards, and it is abundantly clear that he loves chamber music. He is a student of Mr. Iznaola.

Vocalise is a beautiful piece that is remarkably lyrical. Sutton’s playing is just as lyrical, and his phrasing is very well considered and thought out. I was struck Friday night by his ability to create a sense of architecture. However, I must say that it seemed as though the Boulder Symphony was not giving him quite the support that he needed. From where I was sitting, I could barely see Patrick Sutton’s head and shoulders, but it sounded as though his acoustic guitar was amplified, and in the hall that size, it would certainly be necessary. But compared to his sound, which I judged to be just fine, the orchestra sounded almost anemic, and there were still problems with the strings being in tune. I must say that this is not the way the Boulder Symphony sounded last season. Occasionally, the orchestra seemed to not arrive at phrase endings together, and they were sometimes almost an eighth of a beat off. This was really a shame, because Patrick Sutton’s performance was absolutely beautiful.

Next on the program, came Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring. I know that all of you readers are familiar with this piece. I’m not going to say anything about its history. I will, however, say that this is one of those pieces where one cannot help but think that in spite of its popularity, it is always a wonderful piece to hear. Everyone knows who Aaron Copland is, and, of course, this is the piece that helped to make him famous. But he is still a much underrated composer. How many of you readers have heard Quiet City, his Clarinet Concerto, or his Variations for Piano?

The woodwind section in this composition has to stay on their toes. And I was quite surprised to see Shaun Burley performing with the Boulder Symphony, as he regularly plays with the Denver Philharmonic. He was, however, filling in for Jack Chen who is the principal clarinetist. Shaun Burley and the flute section, Kristin Stordahl-Kanda, and Ginger Hedrick, made this piece beautiful. But again, the dynamics of the entire orchestra seemed to be almost nonexistent. There were some isolated spots where I could tell that they were getting a little bit louder or a little bit softer, but it certainly wasn’t the dynamic range that this piece calls for, in my opinion. In addition, many times, the orchestra was a fraction of a beat behind Maestro Hughes. It also seemed to me in this piece that Maestro Hughes was not quite as forceful as he might have been. I have never had conducting lessons, but again, I noticed that Maestro Hughes was not using a baton in this piece. I have seen other conductors who do not use a baton be quite forceful, because it helps to sharpen the movements that they are making with their hands. But I must say, that when the Shaker hymn, Simple Gifts, made its appearance, the orchestra was spellbinding. I also emphasize that the performance of Copeland’s famous work was not bad. It’s just that I am accustomed to hearing better from this orchestra. There were many places where I longed for some detail work.   After the intermission the Boulder Symphony Orchestra performed Brahms’ marvelous Serenade Nr. 1 in D major, Opus 11. This Serenade evolved from a nonet for winds and strings which was written in 1858. He then rewrote it for chamber orchestra in 1859, but as so often is the case with Brahms, the two early works are either lost, or they were destroyed by him. We are indebted to a critic and writer named Max Kalbeck who edited some of Brahms letters, as well as sketches of compositions, that had been saved from destruction by Brahms’ secretary. Kalbeck also wrote an eight volume biography of Brahms, which, to my knowledge, has never been translated to English (doctoral students, take note). But apparently, he could not save the original of this work. At any rate, Brahms added two more movements and published the serenade as an orchestral work in 1860. This work was considered as an avant-garde composition, which today, seems a little surprising.

Maestro Hughes used a baton to conduct this work, and I am unsure as to whether its use contributed to the better performance which I heard, in comparison to the first half of the program. Certainly, the dynamics were better in the Brahms than they were in the Copeland, O’Connor, and Iznaola.

The woodwind section clearly is the best section in this orchestra. Sometimes the French horns were wonderful and sometimes they burbled or were off pitch. As this composition progressed through its six movements, it seemed that the viola section played more and more out of tune, and they sometimes took the cello section with them. In this work, the orchestra was uneven. I have always marveled and wondered at what makes orchestra so inconsistent. Do they practice enough? But again, and I emphasize this point, this was not a bad performance. It was so close to being really good, that the problems were maddening for the listener. The woodwind sections, clarinets and flute, were consistently good, but the strings scooped their pitches and in one movement which was filled with pizzicato, they were so soft that the rest of the orchestra almost covered them. Their pizzicato was even out of tune, let alone not together. There is no question in my mind that Maestro Hughes knows how to conduct Brahms, and that he knows how to make Brahms work. But I found myself wanting to run down the aisle occasionally, and encourage the string section to practice.

As I said above, I am accustomed to hearing better from this orchestra, and there’s no question that any orchestra can have a “bad night.” I am being supercritical because I heard them play so very well last season.

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