Filed under: Reviews | Tags: Brook Ferguson, Claude Sim, Colorado Symphony, Cristian Mäcelaru, Jason Shafer, Peter Cooper, Yumi Hwang-Williams
Friday evening, April 17, the Colorado Symphony Orchestra gave yet another absolutely remarkable performance under the leadership of guest conductor, Cristian Mäcelaru. I will quote very briefly from the Philadelphia Orchestra’s bio statement of Mäcelaru where he is the Conductor-in-Residence:
“Winner of the 2014 Solti Conducting Award, Cristian Mäcelaru has established himself as one of the fast-rising stars of the conducting world. With every concert he displays an exciting and highly regarded presence, thoughtful interpretations, and energetic conviction on the podium. Conductor-in-residence of The Philadelphia Orchestra, he began his tenure with that ensemble as assistant conductor in September 2011, and in recognition of his artistic contributions to the Orchestra, his title was elevated to associate conductor in November 2012.
“… Mr. Mäcelaru received the 2012 Sir Georg Solti Emerging Conductor Award, a prestigious honor only awarded once before in the Foundation’s history.”
The title of Friday’s program was Symphonic Firsts because the orchestra performed Haydn’s Symphony Nr. 1 in D Major, Shostakovich’s Symphony Nr. 1 in F minor, Opus 10, and Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D Major, Opus 61.
The CSO opened the program with Haydn’s vivacious Symphony Nr. 1, which is one of the few symphonies that we can be sure is his first. The order of Haydn symphonies has been somewhat confused over the years as a result of their appearance in the early Breitkopf and Härtel catalog which was compiled before thorough knowledge of the proper chronological order became possible. However, we can be sure that this particular symphony was his first because we know that it was written for Ferdinand Maximilian Franz, known as Count Morzin. This symphony has no minuet movement because it is early enough in the classical period that the minuet was not yet inserted into the Symphony. It is certainly clear in this work that Haydn was under the influence of the Mannheim School which included composers such as Johann Stamitz, Franz Richter, and Anton Filtz. The “Mannheim School” was not known for the startling quality of their symphonies, but rather, for its impact upon symphonic form and instrumentation. For example, at the opening of Haydn’s symphony, there is a dynamic feature known as the Mannheim Rocket, which was a fairly rapid crescendo over several measures of music. You readers must realize that this is very early in orchestral development: the use of dramatic changes in dynamics were not yet well known or used. But the Mannheim composers used them to great effect, and it is recorded that the audience was so surprised the first time they heard this dynamic change, that they actually rose to their feet in astonishment. I would like to also point out – and correct – the usually stellar program notes which call this dynamic change a “Mannheim Steamroller.” That is absolutely incorrect. The individual who wrote those notes needs to understand that the term Mannheim Rocket was used during the time of the Mannheim School’s influence in the 18th century. The term Mannheim Steamroller refers to a modern musical organization that crosses rock with classical music.
The performance of this symphony was absolutely beautiful, and I hope the audience members noticed that it was early enough in Haydn’s output, and in the development of the Symphony, that it still used harpsichord as continuo. Maestro Mäcelaru conducted this work very energetically, but at the same time, with a great sense of charm and vivacity. While this performance was the first ever given of this work by the CSO, it is often performed by other orchestras, and it is always a joy to hear. The second movement was stunning, and I was amazed by the ornamentation played by the orchestra because every note between the violins and the violas, and often the entire orchestra, was absolutely together. The third movement was very exciting, and while it was not as profound as the later Haydn symphonies (let us remember this is his first symphony), one could discern its quality and the direction in which this young composer was headed. This is a work that I hope the CSO performs again because it is so delightful to listen to. It was clear that Maestro Mäcelaru and the orchestra enjoyed themselves in this performance.
Following the Haydn, the CSO and Maestro Mäcelaru performed Dmitry Shostakovich’s Symphony Nr. 1 in F minor, Opus 10. This was an absolutely remarkable performance of this symphony, and I have never heard it performed with such passion. The first movement was jaunty in character and the clarinet solos and flute solo were beautifully done by Jason Shafer and Brook Ferguson. It was difficult to believe that Shostakovich wrote this work when he was 19 years old in 1926, and he used it as his graduation assignment from the Leningrad Conservatory. The energy with which Maestro Mäcelaru conducted was certainly noticeable in the first two movements of this work, and it was very clear that he had conducted this more than once and was totally in love with the piece. The third movement soared, and Peter Cooper’s oboe work in the solos was sensational as was the violin solo by Claude Sim. The last movement is truly episodic because it switches from fast to slow and from fff to ppp. I have heard this piece before, but Cristian Mäcelaru certainly has the ability in this piece to bring out all of Shostakovich’s characteristics which mark his future works, and one can only imagine the reception that it must have received at the Leningrad Conservatory. It certainly caught the attention of the Central Committee of the Communist Party. Though this Committee did not call Shostakovich before them to admonish him (for “formalist perversions” in his later works) until 1948 (along with Prokofiev and Kabalevsky), he was certainly aware that he had secured their interest. Upon visits to America, he was definitely overjoyed to have it his pieces heard without having to worry about any kind of political ramifications. I can guarantee you that he would have been thrilled at the performance given his first symphony Friday evening. It was wonderful to see the audience members jump to their feet when it was finished.
Following the intermission, Yumi Hwang-Williams performed Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D major, Opus 61.
It is important to realize that Beethoven wrote this concerto in 1806. Why? Because it was written after Beethoven’s realization of oncoming deafness, his attempts to get his nephew away from an alcoholic brother, and some of the trials and tribulations he faced in his relationships with women.
This concerto is not filled with pain and longing. It is cheerful and ebulliant and Beethoven seems to take pleasure in making the violinist wait for such a long time before starting to play the first movement. Yumi Hwang-Williams played this without the score, which was itself refreshing because it indicates that she has had some time to ruminate and learn this piece, and more importantly, play it the way she thinks Beethoven would approve. And she did just that. When Ms. Hwang-Williams plays, she does not employ any kind of theatrical movement. She simply gets down to business and creates a memorable experience. Her playing is sweet, and she makes it look so very easy. Her tone was absolutely breathtaking Friday night and at the end of the cadenza, when the orchestra returns with her after her solo, her playing and her rapport with the music was stunningly beautiful.
The second movement is full of grace and contains some of the most tranquil and serene music that Beethoven has ever produced. That is precisely the way Yumi Hwang-Williams performed it. Totally free from any kind of dramatic unrest, Ms. Hwang-Williams filled it with intense lyricism. There is a short upsurge from the orchestra toward the end of the movement, but this leads to the cadenza which, in turn, leads us to the third movement. The first movement contains some remarkable technical demands on the soloist. But, again, Ms. Hwang-Williams played them with effortless beauty. The cadenza was an absolute joy.
Judging by the standing ovation that the audience gave Yumi Hwang-Williams Friday evening, it is evident that they realize what a treasure Denver has in such an outstanding musician. Her performance Friday evening sets her apart as an incredibly fine musician and technician whose thought is always that the music must come first. We should all be grateful that she belongs to our symphony orchestra, and that she does not have to travel from London or Berlin or New York or Chicago for us to hear her play.
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: Alan Polacek, Alex Komodore, Anthony McWright, Ashley Hoffman, Beth Sanford, Devin Nordson, Donna Wickham, John Bosick, K. James Howe, Kathryn Radakovich, Laura Nordson, M B Krueger, Matthew Bentley, Michaëla Larson Brown, Nathan Payant, Richard Detar, Rob Warner, St. Martin's Chamber Choir, Susan Langley, Taylor Martin, Timothy Krueger
Once in a while I get a chance to attend a concert that leaves me speechless. This concert season, which is in the process of ending, has provided at least five opportunities for me to be struck dumb. Keep in mind that I don’t think it is possible to compare the disparate performances, only their excellence. For example, one cannot say that an outstanding symphony concert can be compared to an outstanding ballet. The two are different, but their excellence and exceptional qualities can still leave me wordless.
So it was, Saturday night, April 11, when I heard Saint Martin’s Chamber Choir, under the leadership of Maestro Timothy Krueger, perform a program entitled Beat! Beat! Drums! America Comes Of Age. As Maestro Krueger pointed out in the program notes, and also before the audience Saturday night, it is now 150 years that the American Civil War ended. We are also, on April 15, just days away from the 150th year that Lincoln was assassinated. The program that St. Martin’s Chamber Choir performed was a eulogy to all those, Union and Confederate soldiers, who died in the Civil War. The program was not only comprised of Civil War era poets’ works set to music, there were “Readers” who read from the poets of the era, and from speeches by President Lincoln and Julia Ward Howe.
I will take this opportunity to point out that the Readers (Narrators? – Remember that word) were absolutely spectacular and obviously well-chosen. The readers were Richard Detar, Michaëla Larson Brown, Taylor Martin, Anthony McWright, Beth Sanford, and Rob Warner.
This concert also featured Alex Komodore, well-known guitar virtuoso who teaches at Metropolitan State University of Denver. He is well known in Denver and the United States for his startling technique and superior musicianship.
The first work in the program was an excerpt from a prayer given by President Lincoln. The music was by Harvey Gaul (1881-1945). It was a solemn opening to the entire program, and there was a marvelous solo sung by Kathryn Radakovich, a very expressive soprano. This first work on the program set the mood for the entire evening’s performance. There are many who still recall the rather jovial marching songs from the Civil War which were geared to the inspiration of the soldiers and, therefore, had a rather rousing tone. But there are many texts which are quite somber, such as those by Walt Whitman, and seem to have been avoided by many grade-school, and even high school teachers. An example of one of these is from Walt Whitman’s poem, A Procession Winding Around Me:
“For my enemy is dead–a man divine as myself is dead;
I look where he lies, white-faced and still, in the coffin–I draw near;
I bend down, and touch lightly with my lips the white face in the coffin.”
I can guarantee you that I never learned that in grade school or even high school. The point I’m trying to make here is that this was, deservedly, a very sober evening performance. And, why shouldn’t it be?
The length of this program was approximately two hours, and it was filled with some of the most wonderful singing from St. Martin’s Chamber Choir that I have heard. Their diction was fantastic for almost two hours with no intermission, and they were always on pitch. For two hours, the choir gave an incredibly intense performance. Donna Wickham, a member of the choir scripted a wonderful a cappella arrangement of the Battle Hymn Of The Republic.
As the program progressed, it became more and more apparent, that Maestro Timothy Krueger had spent many hours choosing the works to be performed, making his choices dependent upon how each of the twelve pieces fit together textually, and even emotionally. Some of these works were incredibly difficult, but he has always been keenly aware of the excellence of the choir that he leads. The result of this care, and the order in which all the works appeared, truly emphasized the devastating effect that the American Civil War had on our country. As he pointed out before the program began, no war in history resulted in more deaths of American soldiers then did the Civil War.
In the last work on the program, Angel Band with music by Sean Kirchner (b. 1970) and the text by Jefferson Hascall (1807-1887) a realization occurred to me: I had just heard a two-hour concert that was so well performed because everything fit together. The music, the texts, the soloist, and, if I may use the word, the narrators (rather than Readers). All of the composers on the program seems to be chosen because of their similar use – but certainly not identical – of harmony and harmonic structure.
I will explain my point by backing up a bit. In the 14th to the 16th century, there was a form of the Mass known as the parody Mass. The parody mass involved the incorporation of material derived from other compositions and composers. I emphasize that it had nothing to do with humor as we know it today. It was the borrowing of material by adding or removing voices from the original work and adding fragments of new material. This was presumably done because the material borrowed came from well-known works that could include other masses or secular works with which the public at large was familiar. Most likely, it was Palestrina who wrote the most parody masses of any other composer. Indeed, the practice became so popular that the ecumenical Council of Trent of 1562 banned the practice of using any secular material.
While the following statement may seem to be uncalled for, as I sat listening to the very last work on Saturday evening’s program, I was struck by the fact that, 1) the entire program dealt with one subject, 2) while it was so carefully assembled by Timothy Krueger, he had written none of the music, it was all “borrowed,” 3) there was a soloist, 4) there were “narrators,” 5) it related the factual story of the American Civil War.
All of those facts, with the exception of number five, fit the description of an oratorio. An oratorio is a (largely) liturgical drama without stage action and costumes, but contains the first four items in the above paragraph. This concert was so skillfully done that one could almost label it as a parody oratorio. Far-fetched? Maybe. There is no such thing as a parody oratorio, nor has there ever been, but I can assure you Saturday’s concert had that impact. It was a concert, in its entirety, and its structure, alternating the narrators and choir and a soloist, without stretching things too far, could fulfill the definition of an oratorio. I assure you that it was heartfelt by those who performed it and the audience who heard it.
As I said above, it was one of the most impactful concerts I have ever heard St. Martin’s Chamber Choir perform. Its completeness as a two-hour unit was secure. I am keenly aware, as a musicologist, that there is certainly no such thing as a parody oratorio. However, I will say it again just to drive the point home: it was a wonderful performance that gave the appearance that it should be defined as a single, two hour work. Everything fit so perfectly together.
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: Aniel Cabán, Annamaria Karacson, Bahman Saless, Beethoven, Boulder Chamber Orchestra, Brahms, Chelsea Winborne, Gal Faganel, Joseph Howe, Matt Dane, Stephanie Mientka, Zachary Carrettin
Friday evening in Boulder, five members of the Boulder Chamber Orchestra presented the first of two Minichamber Concerts at the Grace Lutheran Church of Boulder on 13th Street. I wish to say at the outset that this venue is absolutely superb for chamber music. The acoustics are excellent and this church is truly quite small which gives the performance of chamber music a true sense of intimacy. It doesn’t matter where one sits: one can always clearly hear the individual instruments as well as the sound of the musicians as a complete entity.
The members of this chamber group were Annamaria Karacson, violin; Chelsea Winborne, violin; Aniel Cabán, viola; Stephanie Mientka, viola; and Joseph Howe, cello. These individuals represent some of the best of the Boulder Chamber Orchestra, and I point out that this was the first time they had assembled as a chamber group. It is my sincere hope that they continue to play together, because this concert was a remarkably fine performance of two very difficult string quintets. In addition, after hearing these individuals play as a chamber group, one has a much clearer picture of why the Boulder Chamber Orchestra, under the direction of Maestro Bahman Saless, is such a good organization.
The first work on the program was Beethoven’s String Quintet in C Major, Opus 29. I really don’t think it is much of an exaggeration to say that Beethoven’s favorite genre of chamber music was the string quartet, for this quintet is truly the only quintet originally written for strings. There is an Opus 4 quintet which was published by Artaria in 1797; also a quintet, Opus 16, but that was originally written for piano, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, and horn. The String Quintet, Opus 29, was first published in 1802 by Breitkopf and Härtel and was written in 1801.
There is no question in my mind at all that this quintet is one of Beethoven’s masterpieces. As Maestro Saless pointed out before the concert began, the development section of the first movement flows very smoothly. The adagio movement is wonderfully lyrical. The third movement, which Beethoven marks Scherzo, is quite typical of Beethoven in that it persistently keeps its forward motion. As a matter of fact, Beethoven was the one that begin calling third movements “Scherzo,” rather than Minuet. Realize that Beethoven was the originator of the scherzo movement early on in his career as a composer. His reasoning was that the minuet seemed a little bit too stately for his tastes, so he changed the meter signature from 3/4 to 6/8, and doubled the tempo. Maestro Saless also pointed out that the last movement of this piece was quite stormy with a great deal of tremolo accompaniment, and that his first use of “stormy” finales was in his Piano Sonata Opus, 2 Nr. 1.
In the performance of this work, I was struck by the fact that these five musicians seemed to fit so well together. Of course, they have had experience playing together in the orchestra, but that is very different from playing as a quintet. In addition, the warmth and character of their instruments seemed to be well matched. All five of these musicians seemed to be extremely concerned with the balance of dynamics and tone control. The second movement of this quintet was absolutely liquid and serene, with special care given to each phrase, so that when it appeared in the different instruments, it was always phrased the same way. The third movement was full of charm and grace, so much so, that the word “fit” comes to mind again. It was as if the musicians were aware that Beethoven had given them the pieces to a puzzle, and that it was their duty to put the finished product in front of the audience. It was a beautiful performance of an absolutely beautiful piece, and I am quite surprised that this quintet is not performed more often.
After the intermission this Boulder Chamber Orchestra quintet performed the Brahms String Quintet in G Major, Opus 111. This particular quintet, which, coincidentally, bears the same opus number as Beethoven’s last Piano Sonata, was the result of a request by Joseph Joachim who wanted a companion piece to the String Quartet, Opus 88. At the time Brahms wrote this piece, he was strongly considering retirement from composition. Happily, Brahms did not retire and continued writing, completing this work in the summer of 1890 at Ischl.
As the musicians began the first movement, it was abundantly clear that this quintet requires some very hard work from the cellist. Though one could tell that cellist, Joseph Howe, was concerned, his playing was absolutely excellent, providing a foundation for the background of the other for strings. As a matter of fact, some critics were irritated by such a strong cello part in a quintet, and some even hinted that it had originally been sketched out for Brahms’ Fifth Symphony. There is a waltz as the second theme of this first movement, and Aniel Cabán and Stephanie Mientka were absolutely sensational in their passion and warm tone. The first movement of this work seems to be almost rhapsodic in nature, and Karacson and Winborne imparted a mood which can almost be described as nostalgic.
The second movement has a wonderful viola solo part which is full of melancholy. Cabán was remarkable in imparting it with warmth and grace, and is easy to discern that the viola was Brahms’ favorite instrument. This movement contains many unexpected shifts between major and minor, and if one listened very carefully one could tell that Brahms was using the variation technique in this movement.
In the third movement, there were fragments of first-movement themes: in the first and second violins particularly. There were moments when the meter signature gave this minuet the character of a plaintive waltz. And you readers who were at the concert must have been, as was I, enormously impressed by the musicianship of these five players which was so unselfish that the music always came first. It has been a while since I have heard this work performed live, and I must say that I have never seen the score. But these musicians performed the last movement brilliantly so that the dance theme which occurs sporadically throughout was accentuated. I finally decided that this dance influence could not have been an Austrian ländler, but must have been the influence in the Hungarian csárdás which Brahms was fond of.
This performance by these remarkable five musicians was absolutely glittering. As I said above, listening to these musicians perform is evidence of why the Boulder Chamber Orchestra sounds so excellent in its performances. The quality of musicianship coupled with the wonderful acoustics and intimate atmosphere of the Grace Lutheran Church certainly provided me – as well of the rest of the audience – with a truly memorable evening. It is my sincere hope that these five musicians (read their names again in the second paragraph of this article) can remain together as a permanent ensemble to provide the public with more outstanding performances.
Please make note of the fact that the second of these two mini concerts will take place next weekend, April 18 and 19th, and will feature Zachary Carrettin, violin; Matt Dane, viola; and Gal Faganel, cello. It will take place at the same venue: the Grace Lutheran Church on 13th St. in Boulder. You do not want to miss it.
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: Colorado Symphony, David Lockington, Edgar Allen Poe, Eric Erwazen, Peter Cooper, The Raven, William Hill
The performance Saturday evening, March 28, by the Colorado Symphony Orchestra was unsurpassed in many ways, and, the fact that the first and last works on the program involved the loss of a loved one made the program strangely coincidental.
Maestro David Lockington returned to Denver to guest conduct this performance. It is my sincere hope that you readers will recognize his name because for three years, he held the post of Assistant Conductor with the Denver Symphony Orchestra and Opera Colorado. He is an absolutely outstanding conductor and is currently the Music Director of the Grand Rapids Symphony Orchestra and the Modesto Symphony Orchestra. Two years ago in March 2013, he was appointed the Music Director of the Pasadena Symphony.
The first work on the program was by Eric Ewazen, a very distinctive American composer. Eric Ewazen was born in 1954 in Cleveland, Ohio. Receiving a B.M. At the Eastman School of Music, and M.M. and D.M.A. degrees from The Juilliard School. His teachers include Milton Babbitt, Samuel Adler, Warren Benson, Joseph Schwantner and Gunther Schuller. He is a recipient of numerous composition awards and prizes.
Ewazen’s composition was Down a River of Time, for Oboe and String Orchestra, and was inspired by the loss of his father. The work has three movements: I)… past hopes and dreams, II)… and sorrows, and III)… and memories of tomorrow. Peter Cooper, Principal Oboe with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra, was the soloist for this work.
I use the word distinctive above because Eric Ewazen does not fit the expectations of the 21st century composer. And that remark is not meant as a pejorative at all, but simply as a way of defining his style as expressed in the work that was performed Saturday evening. This work is really an oboe concerto for string orchestra, but Ewazen describes it as “an aria for string orchestra.” The reason is apparent the minute the work begins. It is very skillfully written for the oboe, and it emphasizes the lyricism and the mellowness of which the oboe is capable of, especially in the hands of such a fine oboist as Peter Cooper. In fact, it is difficult to imagine anyone else performing this work.
It was surprising to me when the work began on such a well-defined minor triad. I did not know what to expect as this was the first time I have heard this work. Nonetheless, it was a surprise, for I expected something more obviously avant-garde. Throughout the work the harmonies seemed like a throwback to something that Rachmaninoff might have written had he been alive in the 1960s. Occasionally, there were added-note chords with slight dissonances that reminded me of Frank Bridge or Ralph Vaughan Williams. There was a spare quality to the entire work because of its orchestration solely for strings. Once in a while, particularly in the second movement, the harmony seemed almost modal; however, its use wasn’t as obvious, for example, as it is in some of Debussy’s compositions (for example, Iberia). I stress that this was marvelously written for the oboe, and it was certainly an incredibly difficult piece. Peter Cooper performed it beautifully. The mellowness of his tone was exceptional because of his breath control and phrasing ability. Indeed, there seemed times when he didn’t breathe for several phrases. There is no question that Cooper and Maestro Lockington knew and appreciated this work. It was beautifully performed by both the orchestra and the soloist, and its harmonic mixtures, i.e., modal/romantic/added notes, gave it an almost 1950s English sound. Lockington was able to ask the orchestra, and they were capable of giving him, an incredibly mellow and rich sound throughout.
Next on the program came Igor Stravinsky’s well-known and much loved Suite from The Firebird. There are many conductors who seem to believe that all 20th-century music must be emotionally spare and done without a great deal of care for the actual sound produced. This was certainly not the case with Maestro Lockington’s approach. It was very expressively done, and even the Infernal Dance of King Kastchei was not exaggerated in its ferocity. The Berceuse was particularly well done, and I don’t think I’ve ever heard and orchestra play so softly with every note still sounding. The ending was done with a remarkable sense of relief and finality. In the 1960s, I had the great good fortune to speak with Stravinsky, and he said that many conductors seem to forget that a ballet must be expressive at many different levels. Obviously, the dancers, themselves, must seek inspiration from the music and what it conveys. The performance of this work made me think that Maestro David Lockington would be an excellent conductor of ballet. Truly, this was one of the best performances that I have heard of this marvelous piece of music.
Following the intermission, the Colorado Symphony Orchestra performed the World Premiere of composer William Hill’s new work, The Raven, based on Edgar Allen Poe’s legendary poem. This enormous work uses all 18 stanzas of Poe’s poem, and it is set for full orchestra and chorus. I believe that it is unnecessary to introduce you readers to William Hill, for he has been the Principal Timpanist with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra for 35 years. Mr. Hill is an excellent composer: the Colorado Symphony Orchestra has premiered several of his works, and in addition, he is also known as a fine conductor.
Hill’s The Raven is clear evidence of the great depth of understanding that he has of Poe’s poem. There is no doubt that Poe (or is it a character that Poe allows to tell the story, as in The Tell Tale Heart) is expressing great sadness over the loss and memory of his Lenore. Keep in mind that Poe has the ability in his poems to make them intensely personal, and it is that realization that makes William Hill’s piece so totally graphic.
The opening of this piece is very dark, and every single note is pregnant with tension. It is also full of the weariness that Poe expresses in his first line, “Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary….” Hill is extremely gifted at exposing Poe’s exhaustion caused by the grief of his loss. In addition, Hill will begin one line of text with, for example, the tenor section of the chorus, and then, to provide emphasis will allow the soprano section to finish the sentence with a higher pitched and urgent inflection. And sometimes, it is the reverse: the urgent text, “Take thy beak from out my heart,” begins in one section and then another section of the choir, full of sadness and lassitude, finishes with “… and take thy form from off my door!”
Thus, the use of the chorus is doubly expressive. There was also the use of electronic sounds which intensifies the vocal sounds of an eight voice chorus situated behind the main chorus. Scattered throughout the composition, and used to emphasize the terror or resignation of loss, is the sound of a heartbeat. It is sometimes played on the bass drum, the tympani, or, later in the work, even in the low cellos and basses.
What is so remarkably convincing – if not startling – is Hill’s depth in emphasizing the ever-changing thoughts that Poe has in describing his loss. When the Raven beguiles Poe to sit down in front of him to listen to what he may tell him, the poem reads “Straight I wheeled a cushioned seat in front of bird, and bust and door;” the music reflects Poe’s excitement from the possibility he may learn something. And in the next stanza, the chorus reflects Poe’s sudden realization that Lenore is no longer present to use the cushion herself: “But whose velvet-violet lining with the lamp-light gloating o’er, She shall press, ah, never more!”
The abrupt changes of meter, the abrupt changes from one section of the chorus to the other, and the clever use of harmony from total to atonal, fill the listener with the same confusion of emotions that is expressed so skillfully in Poe’s poem. Sometimes it is terror; sometimes it is tragedy. In the end, it is absolute resignation.
The Raven takes 40 minutes to perform, and it is the most fleeting 40 minutes imaginable. The chorus was marvelous to listen to not only because of their ability to be expressive, but because of their diction. It has been a very long time since I have heard a choir of that size produce such perfect pronunciation. My hat is off to Duain Wolfe.
I am familiar with William Hill’s compositions. The Raven marks a new definition of his output which has always been excellent and artistic. But his skillful use of the chorus and the orchestra to define and bring forth the emotion and range of expression of the text to such a remarkable level, is evidence of a new era for him as a composer. Hill’s score allows one to understand Poe’s poem. It is sometimes difficult to verbalize the new age of a composer, and often it has to be done by the careful listening to the music. An example of this might be the difference between Arnold Schoenberg’s Gurre-Lieder (which is hypertrophied romanticism) and his first composition in 12 tones. Hill received one of the longest standing ovations in recent memory.
I might add that the Colorado Symphony Orchestra on Saturday evening realized a new plateau as well. They were obviously pleased to have Peter Cooper solo with them, and they seemed very pleased to have David Lockington be the Guest Conductor. It was a very fine performance from everyone on stage. The audience realized this as well.
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: Alexandra Pullen, Alexei Tyukov, Ariel Breitman, Asuka Sasaki, Ben Winegar, Casey Dalton, Chandra Kuykendall, Christopher Moulton, Colorado Ballet, Curtis Irwin, Dana Benton, Dmitry Trubchanov, Domenico Luciano, Emily Dixon, Emily Speed, Fernanda Oliveira, Francisco Estevez, Gil Boggs, Jesse Marks, Joey Wishnia, Kevin Gaël Thomas, Kevin Hale, Kevin Wilson, Luis Valdes, Maria Mosina, Max Bruch, Melissa Zoebisch, Morgan Buchanan, Raul Orozco, Sean Omandam, Sergei Prokofiev, Tracy Jones, Viacheslav Buchkovskiy
Every time I leave a performance by the Colorado Ballet, I am convinced that I have seen them at their best. Then comes the next performance, and I am amazed once more. Friday night, March 27, their performance at the Gates Concert Hall at the Lamont School of Music was a clear demonstration of the artistry that is inherent in all of their performances. There were two short ballets performed, one of which was quite serious and displayed the love for their art by everyone on stage, and one, which was extremely humorous, was performed for all the children that were in the audience.
The program opened with Max Bruch’s Violin Concerto in G minor, Opus 26. The first performance of this concerto was given with Joseph Joachim as soloist on January 7, 1868, and Bruch quickly achieved worldwide recognition for this marvelous work.
While the idea of a ballet done to a violin concerto may startle some of you, I can assure you that the choreography by Clark Tippett perfectly matched the music. Clark Tippett was born in 1954 in Kansas, and was made a soloist at the American Ballet Theater in 1975. He was promoted to principal in 1976. He choreographed many ballets for companies in the United States, and his choreography for the Bruch’s Violin Concerto which was premiered in 1987, attracted a great deal of attention. He died at the young age of 37 in 1992. His death, was attributed to circumstances surrounding his battle with drugs.
For those of you who did not see this performance, I can assure you that Tippett’s choreography was wonderfully full of imagination, and its relationship to the music of Bruch seemed like a true friendship, rather than an “accompaniment,” because of its artistic merit, and the obvious elation that all of the dancers on stage exhibited. I can assure you that the choreography was difficult indeed. I have seen many performances by the Colorado Ballet where in the dancers seemed to take absolute delight in their profession. At Friday night’s performance that delight metamorphosed into absolute joy. It seemed quite obvious that all of the dancers were quite moved by the beauty of Bruch’s concerto, as well as the beauty of the choreography. That seems like an obvious thing to say: certainly they appreciate their own art or they would not be involved in it. In the past, I have seen some companies where that was not communicated to the audience.
In the First Movement, after every pas de deux by Jesse Marks and Chandra Kuykendall, Asuka Sasaki and Domenico Luciano, the audience responded with great enthusiasm to their artistry and astonishing grace. The audience was truly becoming infected with the same enthusiasm that the dancers exhibited, and it was an absolutely magical thing to see. All of the dancers on stage, Morgan Buchanan, Casey Dalton, Emily Dixon, Tracy Jones, Fernanda Oliveira, Alexandra Pullen, Emily Speed, Melissa Zoebisch, Ariel Breitman, Kevin Hale, Christopher Moulton, Sean Omandam, Kevin Gaël Thomas, Luis Valdes, Kevin Wilson, and Ben Winegar, deserve mention because they were so sensational in matching the emotions and skill of the principals and soloists. That spontaneity of emotions can make a performance truly exceptional rather than excellent, and it was inherent in the performances Friday night.
In the Second Movement, Maria Mosina and Alexei Tyukov danced in several pas de deux. As I have stated before, Mosina’s arm movements are absolutely the most graceful and frond-like that I have seen. It is also very clear that Mosina and Tyukov work extremely well together because the timing and grace of their movements is something to behold. Friday evening, I must say that Tyukov’s physical strength seemed to be greater than ever: I simply could not believe the length of time that he held Mosina above his head. On the other hand, the difficulty of the choreography certainly dictates who will dance what part, and physical strength, as well as rapport and artistic affinity between the dancers is a consideration. That is something that is shared between Maria Mosina and Alexei Tyukov. They are breathtaking.
In the third movement Dana Benton and Francisco Estevez danced the pas de deux. These two dancers are, in many ways, very similar to Maria Mosina and Alexei Tyukov because of their shared like-mindedness in their artistic styles. I know that dancers have to create a certain image on stage, and many times that requires – depending on their role – that they maintain a lovely smile. However, Dana Benton is so convincing because her smile always seems to reflect the absolute joy that her art provides to her personally. She and Estevez were absolutely remarkable Friday evening, and their ability to make the most difficult choreography seem effortless never ceases to amaze me.
Following the Bruch, the Colorado Ballet performed Serge Prokofiev’s masterful Peter and the Wolf. There is hardly anyone who would not recognize the music to this ballet, as it is as well-known as Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker. One of the reasons for its popularity truly must be that Prokofiev, in some ways, seems to have been a child in spirit. In this ballet he appears to have had a mysterious insight into what amuses children. But realize that this story offers adults as well, a chance to escape the monotony of caution that being a grown-up dictates. I also point out that when Prokofiev came to Denver in 1938 to perform his first Piano Concerto and conduct his Classical Symphony with the then-named Denver Symphony, one of the board members took him to see Disney’s new movie, Snow White. He liked it so much that he went back to see it the next day.
The choreography for Friday’s performance was by Michael Smuin (1938-2007). He danced with the American Ballet Theatre and the San Francisco Ballet. He choreographed Broadway productions and had several films to his credit, among them, The Fantasticks.
Peter and the Wolf opens with the Narrator, delightfully done by Joey Wishnia. Wishnia is a very experienced actor who was born in South Africa, and educated at Rhodes University and Trinity College in London. He has written scripts for children’s theater and he has appeared in classical and modern plays, musical theater, opera, ballet, cabaret, reviews, and many radio and television dramas. I must say that he was an excellent choice to fulfill the duties as The Narrator.
The Narrator is assisted by a Musician who presents cutouts of musical instruments as the narrator explains, for example, that The Bird will be represented by the flute. The Musician is supposed to walk out on stage holding a flute to show the audience. However, Friday night, the Musician, wonderfully done by Francisco Estevez, comes out holding a French horn. This, of course, results in nimble wits and savage repartee on behalf of the Narrator which are followed by disrespectful looks and antics by the Musician.
Friday evening, Peter was danced by Kevin Gaël Thomas, the Bird was danced by Dana Benton, the Duck by Morgan Buchanan, the Cat was danced by Tracy Jones, the Wolf by Christopher Moulton, and Jesse Marks danced the role of the Grandfather. The hunters were danced by Ariel Breitman, Curtis Irwin, Raul Orozco, Luis Valdes, Kevin Wilson, and Ben Winegar.
I am constantly amazed at how all of the dancers in the Colorado Ballet are able to communicate with the audience, not only through their dancing ability, but through their acting ability as well. For example, all on stage were absolutely superb in their comedic roles as well as their dancing ability. Everyone not only made their dancing an art, they made their comedy and acting an art. I have seen many ballet performances where the dancing was certainly an art, but everything else was secondary. This is not the case with the Colorado Ballet.
On leaving Gates Hall Friday evening, it finally dawned on me that since Artistic Director Gil Boggs has been with the Colorado Ballet, the choice of choreographers for the ballets has steadily improved. Obviously, this has also led to the improvement of the dancers, and I stress that I do not imply the dancers were poor to begin with. I wish that all of the dancers could have heard the comments from the audience as they left the hall. Certainly, the standing ovation that was received after the Bruch and after the Prokofiev demonstrated how appreciated they were.
There is one sad note that I must communicate. Three of the finest dancers from the Colorado Ballet have announced their retirement. Dmitry Trubchanov, Viacheslav Buchkovskiy, and Jesse Marks will no longer dance after this weekend. They have contributed so much to the Colorado Ballet that it will be very difficult to see them go. I can only hope that they will continue to share their art through teaching and coaching, for that is as much an art as was their dancing. They will be sorely missed, and I wish them well. Thank you, gentlemen, for making the performances brighter with your art.
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: Andrew Litton, Bil Jackson, Clarinet Concerto, Colorado Symphony, Kevin Puts, Leonard Bernstein, The Age of Anxiety Symphony Nr. 2, Two Mountain Scenes, William Wolfram
The Colorado Symphony Orchestra presented its American Festival: Part I under the direction of Maestro Andrew Litton, Saturday evening, February 28. Without becoming involved in poetic rapture, you readers must understand that this was one of the finest CSO concerts they have given. There are several reasons for this, the first of which is that they played extraordinarily well, but also they introduced Kevin Puts to the Denver audience. In addition, Bil Jackson, former Principal Clarinetist with the CSO, returned to perform Kevin Puts’ Clarinet Concerto, and the outstanding pianist William Wolfram returned to perform Leonard Bernstein’s The Age of Anxiety, Symphony Nr. 2.
The program opened with Two Mountain Scenes, Maestoso and Furioso by the American composer, Kevin Puts. Before I discuss his music, I will quote the entirety of his biographical statement from his website. I do so because it was apparent Saturday night that this is a major American composer that you readers need to know about. If you see a concert program where his works are being performed, you must attend.
“Winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for his debut opera Silent Night, Kevin Puts has been hailed as one of the most important composers of his generation. Critically acclaimed for his distinctive and richly colored musical voice, Puts’ impressive body of work includes four symphonies as well as several concertos written for some of today’s top soloists. His newest work, The City (Symphony No. 5), co-commissioned by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in honor of its 100th anniversary and by Carnegie Hall in honor of their 125th anniversary, will receive its premiere in Baltimore and New York in April 2016.
“Silent Night, commissioned and premiered by Minnesota Opera, has since been produced and performed at Fort Worth Opera, Cincinnati Opera, the Wexford Opera Festival, and Calgary Opera, with upcoming productions at the Lyric Opera of Kansas City and Montreal Opera. In 2013, his choral works To Touch The Sky and If I Were A Swan were performed by Conspirare, and a recording was released by the Harmonia Mundi label. The recording includes a performance of his Symphony No. 4: From Mission San Juan, performed by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marin Alsop. His second opera, an adaptation of Richard Condon’s novel The Manchurian Candidate, also commissioned by Minnesota Opera, will have its world premiere in March 2015. That same month, his song cycle Of All The Moons, commissioned by Carnegie Hall, will be performed by mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke. His first chamber opera, an adaptation of Peter Ackroyd’s gothic novel The Trial of Elizabeth Cree commissioned by Opera Philadelphia will have its premiere in 2016.
“His orchestral works have been commissioned, performed, and recorded by leading orchestras and ensembles throughout North America, Europe and the Far East, including the New York Philharmonic, the Tonhalle Orchester (Zurich), the Boston Pops, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, the Miro Quartet, Cypress Quartet, Conspirare, the Eroica Trio, Eighth Blackbird, the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble, the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, and the symphony orchestras of Baltimore, Cincinnati, Detroit, Atlanta, Colorado, Houston, Fort Worth, St. Louis, and Minnesota. In 2005, in celebration of David Zinman’s 70th birthday, he was commissioned to write Vision, a cello concerto premiered by Yo-Yo Ma and the Aspen Music Festival Orchestra. During the same year, Dame Evelyn Glennie premiered his Percussion Concerto with the Pacific and Utah Symphonies. In 2008, his piano concerto Night, was commissioned by the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra and premiered by pianist and conductor Jeffrey Kahane.
“Mr. Puts has received prestigious awards and grants from the American Academy in Rome, the Guggenheim Foundation, the American Academy of Arts and Letters, BMI and ASCAP. He has served as Composer-in-Residence of Young Concerts Artists, the California Symphony, the Fort Worth Symphony, the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, Bravo! Vail Valley Music Festival, Music from Angel Fire, and the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society. Mr. Puts received his training as a composer and pianist at the Eastman School of Music and Yale University. Since 2006, he has been a member of the composition department at the Peabody Institute, and currently is the Director of the Minnesota Orchestra Composer’s Institute.
“A native of St. Louis, Missouri, Mr. Puts received his Bachelor’s Degree from the Eastman School of Music, his Master’s Degree from Yale University, and a Doctor of Musical Arts at the Eastman School of Music.”
You readers who are, perhaps, not familiar with musical terminology (which is traditionally an Italian) will, even so, recognize that two pieces are titled “majestic” and “furiously” in the work Two Mountain Scenes, Maestoso and Furioso. The work was commissioned by the Bravo! Vail Valley Music Festival, and it certainly reflects the scope of the Rocky Mountains.
The first of the two pieces, Maestoso, opens with a trumpet fanfare, and the music is so wonderfully descriptive that I did not bother at the concert to read the program notes describing the two pieces. I was absolutely dazzled by Puts’ use of harmony and the melodic line. His harmonic structure is best imagined as something that Aaron Copland might write if he were still alive and composing. Indeed, when I read the program notes during the intermission, they quoted Puts as saying that he “… always loved Copland’s Concerto for Clarinet.” The chordal harmony that Puts uses, on first hearing, seems to be that of 9th and 13th chords in parallel motion beneath a melodic line which has a remarkable ambitus and is quite disjunct, very similar to Sergei Prokofiev. He also seems to use a lot of harmonic counterpoint, but, again, that is based on my first hearing of this work. The overall effect is one of surprising mellifluous beauty, and the convincing use of the 9th and 13th chords in a traditionally functional manner is filled with surprise when a truly functional chord, such as a V7, makes its appearance.
The second of the Two Mountain Scenes, Furioso, very clearly describes an approaching storm. His orchestration – masses of percussion – very skillfully describes the impending storm, but his use of harmony takes away the terror of the storm, and turns it in to a natural occurrence.
The effect of these two pieces was that of absolutely stunning beauty and serenity. It is my sincere hope that the CSO programs more of his work.
Following the Two Mountain Scenes, the Colorado Symphony Orchestra welcomed the return (for this performance only) of clarinetist Bil Jackson. I’m sure that all of you readers will recognize his name because he was Principal Clarinet in the CSO for 28 years. He is now Associate Professor of Clarinet on the faculty of the Blair School of Music at Vanderbilt University. To jog your mind, I will quote very briefly from his bio statement on his website:
“Bil Jackson enjoys a varied musical career that includes solo, orchestral and chamber music appearances. Before joining the faculty at the Blair School, he served as principal clarinetist with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, Colorado Symphony Orchestra and Honolulu Symphony, and has performed as guest principal clarinetist with the St Louis, Minnesota and Cincinnati symphony orchestras. He also has appeared as a soloist with the Colorado, Honolulu, Denver, Charlotte, Dallas Chamber and Aspen Chamber orchestras.”
Bil Jackson and the CSO, as I stated in the opening paragraph, performed Kevin Puts’ Clarinet Concerto. This concerto, written for string orchestra, has two movements, each with a descriptive title of Vigil and Surge.
The opening movement was easily recognizable as being written by Kevin Puts because I had just heard his previous work. Before Saturday’s performance, I was completely unfamiliar with this composer even though this work was commissioned for Bil Jackson by Catherine Gould through the Meet the Composer program. The Colorado Symphony Orchestra premiered this work in 2009 with Jeffrey Kahane conducting. Regretfully, I did not hear that performance.
I can assure you Kevin Puts sounds like no other composer who is writing today. His skill as a composer is evident in this work because it is so convincingly written for the clarinet. It is remarkably difficult, but, on the other hand, Bil Jackson is a totally remarkable clarinetist. The opening of the work is, once again, mellifluous while being disjunct (a seemingly impossible combination?). It has some beautiful writing for two harps, and there are some long sustained notes in the violas underneath the performance of the rest of the orchestra. In the excellent program notes, Kevin Puts is quoted as explaining that part of the impetus for this work was the memory of a television documentary concerning the U. S. military personnel who lost their lives in the Middle East. It is a somber piece in many ways, and the performance of this work was very passionate indeed. Both of the movements of this concerto have a cadenza, and they truly allowed Jackson to demonstrate his almost supernatural technical ability and musicianship on the clarinet. No matter the difficulty involved, it is always apparent that the music and the art of the composer comes first. Not once did he use the ferocious difficulty required in this concerto to simply make a display of his virtuosity. The harmony of the first movement was similar to that of the Two Mountain Scenes, and yet there seemed to be an added aspect of almost modal harmony in the first movement of this concerto.
The second movement of this Clarinet Concerto by Puts began with an incredible sense that something inevitable and irrevocable was taking place: if you got in the way, it would simply run you down. However, no matter the ferocious mood, it was still an astoundingly beautiful work. This movement had a cadenza as well, and, after the cadenza, the mood to seem to change into poignant reflection. There was some wonderful use of percussion in this work: glockenspiel, marimba, bass drum, and chimes. Kevin Puts is a remarkable composer, and Bil Jackson is a remarkable clarinetist. The audience responded with a standing ovation, and it was clear that it was for both Kevin Puts and Bil Jackson.
Following the intermission, and the second half of Saturday’s program was the performance of Leonard Bernstein’s remarkable The Age of Anxiety, Symphony Nr. 2, with William Wolfram at the piano. This work was finished in 1949, but it was revised in 1965. At its premiere by the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1949, it was conducted by Sergei Koussevitzky with Leonard Bernstein at the piano. This remarkable work was performed by the CSO in 1998 with Marin Alsop conducting and Jeffrey Kahane at the piano.
William Wolfram performed with the CSO exactly one year ago, February 28, 2014, performing Benjamin Britten’s Piano Concerto. William Wolfram is clearly one of the best pianists alive today. He has won major awards all over the world, and he has performed with major symphonies all over the world. This also seems like a good point in this article to mention one important fact: Saturday evening, he performed on a Yamaha concert grand, because he is a Yamaha artist. I point this out because the piano he performed on was excellent. It was head and shoulders above the Steinway concert grand that is owned by the Colorado Symphony Orchestra. The Yamaha was perfectly voiced and perfectly tuned and it sounded wonderful. What a breath of fresh air it would be if the Colorado Symphony Orchestra could afford a new concert grand: perhaps a Bösendorfer, Sauter, Yamaha, Schimmel, or Blüthner, and a technician who could properly care for it.
This work by Leonard Bernstein was inspired by W. H. Auden’s poem The Age of Anxiety, which Bernstein considered “… One of the most shattering examples of pure virtuosity in the history of English poetry.” It inspired his second symphony, and he gave it the same form as Auden’s poem.
This work has to be one of the most difficult concertos written in the 20th century, and it truly takes the appearance of a concerto rather than a symphony. The second movement makes use of a drum set, an offstage upright piano, wood blocks, celesta, and bass drum located on stage behind the solo pianist. If one is thinking of this piece as recognizable because of its similarity to Westside Story or Fancy Free, he or she will be surprised. This is a wonderful example of Leonard Bernstein’s supreme compositional abilities. For example, Bernstein writes a boogie rhythm for the pianist which reminds one very strongly of the score he wrote for On the Waterfront. But keep in mind, this work is a very serious composition by Bernstein – it is almost introspective – and in no way can it be associated with “entertainment.” There are many different moods in this work, which seem to vie for the listeners’ attention. And, of course, it is remarkably complex.
This was an outstanding concert because of the works that were chosen to be performed, the superior artistry of the performers, and of the conductor, and those in the symphony. Kevin Puts, Bil Jackson, and William Wolfram are formidable artists and soloists. It was truly a memorable experience having the three of them on one program.
The American Festival: Part II will be performed on March 13 to the 15, and will feature the work of George Gershwin, Samuel Barber, and Stephen Albert. The guest artist will be violinist Anne Akiko Myers.
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: Boulder Bach Festival, Faythe Vollrath, Gina Vega, J. S. Bach, John Grau, Josefien Stoppelenburg, Julie Simson, Kenneth Goldsmith, Mass in B minor, Melissa Givens, Michael Dean, Mina Gajic, Paul Erhard, Robert Howard, Ysmael Reyes, 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.