Opus Colorado

Shaun Burley excels with the Denver Philharmonic Orchestra

Friday night, October 5, was the opening season performance of the Denver Philharmonic Orchestra. They performed at their home venue of the KPOF Hall on Sherman Street just off 13th Avenue. Because Maestro Adam Flatt was conducting the opening season performance of the Colorado Ballet, the DPO had a guest conductor, Maestro Scott O’Neil. Though the Hall was not completely full, it was a good sized audience, and it was absolutely terrific to see so many youngsters in the audience.

The DPO opened the concert with Aaron Copland’s well-known Fanfare for the Common Man. This work has become one of Copland’s most popular compositions, which was written at the request of conductor Eugene Goosens, who had requested overtures from eighteen composers for the entire concert season of 1942-1943. From the outset, the French horn section seemed to have a few burbles, and the bass drum and timpani weren’t quite together. Normally, I would say that things like this happen occasionally, and one simply continues to do the best they can do. However, it seemed to me that there was no close connection between Maestro O’Neil and the orchestra. It’s not necessarily that O’Neil has a bad conducting technique. You must understand that every conductor has his own way of conducting to help them obtain the desired result from the orchestra. But, Friday evening there seemed to be a chasm of communication between him and the orchestra, for there was no discernible enthusiasm on the part of the orchestra or Maestro O’Neil.

Following the Copland, the DPO performed another American composer’s work: Samuel Barber’s Essay Nr. 2, Opus 17. As Maestro O’Neil said during the pre-concert talk, Samuel Barber is one of America’s finest composers. His Essay Nr. 2 is a wonderful piece, and I have always been puzzled why it is not performed as much as his Essay Nr.1. If one compares Samuel Barber to Aaron Copland, for example, one can make a very general statement that as Copland progressed through the years, his style became simpler. Just the opposite is true with Samuel Barber: his style became more complex. He used thicker textures, and he began to use more complex forms including counterpoint accompanied by dissonant polyharmony. Not only can this progression of style be observed in Essay Nr. 2, but also in Knoxville: Summer of 1915, and his wonderful Piano Sonata, Opus 26, which was written for John Browning.

The separation between the orchestra and the conductor began to narrow in the performance of the Barber. There seemed to be more enthusiasm in the performance of this piece, though I am sorry to say that the strings were often noticeably out of tune. But the brass section and the woodwind section were outstanding, and for these two sections, this is a difficult piece. The opening has a somewhat mournful flute solo that was played beautifully by Principle Flautist, Aaron Wille.

Every section has dotted rhythms to perform, especially in the fugue (which is marked Molto Allegro ed energico), but occasionally, the sharpness of the rhythm seemed almost lifeless. It did not seem to have enough vigor. In truth, I did not see Maestro O’Neil change his way of conducting in this piece in order to spur the orchestra into enthusiasm and conviction; however, it was certainly done more convincingly than the opening Copland Fanfare.

Next on the program, the DPO and its Principle Clarinetist, Shaun Burley performed another Copland work, the Concerto for Clarinet. I will quote from the program notes:

“Shaun Burley is a native of Colorado who attended the Denver School of the Arts, a public arts magnet school, for seven years before going to DePaul University’s School of Music in Chicago, Illinois, where he graduated with his Bachelor’s Degree in clarinet performance. While in Chicago, Shaun organized and played in a performance of Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians with his classmates in the New Music Ensemble at DePaul.

“Since returning to his home state, Shaun has played with many local ensembles, including several regional orchestras and the Colorado Wind Ensemble. John has been principle clarinetist of the Denver Philharmonic for four years and also performs regularly with the Balkan Brass Band, Gora Gora Orkestar, at outdoor festivals and indoor venues around the Denver/Boulder area. In early October, his band will be bringing their Eastern European sound to the Honk! Street Music Festival in Boston, Massachusetts.

“When he’s not performing or teaching, Shaun can be found on social dance floors around the city or on top of a mountain somewhere in the Rockies. Shaun also studies Mandarin Chinese in his free time.”

Copland’s Clarinet Concerto was first performed November 6, 1950 with the NBC Symphony of the Air Radio Broadcast conducted by Fritz Reiner. It is in a two-movement slow-fast format which is similar to his piano concerto. The two movements are linked by a solo cadenza. Since this work was commissioned by Benny Goodman, it is full of jazz elements, and, according to Copland, it has some Brazilian folk tunes and it, because Copland began writing this work while he was in South America. This is an incredibly difficult work for the clarinet, particularly in the cadenza.

Let me say at the outset, that the Denver Philharmonic Orchestra is very fortunate indeed to have Shaun Burley as a member. His playing has often been, as far as I am concerned, responsible for inspiring this orchestra into very decent playing, and I must say it worked again Friday evening. Burley’s tone is mellow and full, and aside from being an excellent clarinetist, he always makes it abundantly clear that he is an excellent musician as well. It also appeared to me that his playing stirred Maestro O’Neil into more enthusiastic action, for everyone, particularly in the first movement, played with a great deal more enthusiasm and precision. The cadenza was truly excellent, and there is no question that Shaun Burley really knew what he wanted to do with it, and was not intimidated by its difficulty. Copland did make adjustments here and there, taking into consideration the technical ability of Bennie Goodman. The cadenza is truly used as a transition between the first and second movements. It is full of sharp rhythms while extending the rhapsodic mood of the first movement. In the second movement, Copland even asks the basses to play a slap string style to increase awareness of the jazz themes. The orchestra did very well with this, but in the second movement, they begin to play a little out of tune.

Margo Hanschke was the pianist Friday evening, and in the second movement Copland freely employs the piano with both solo roles, and to add texture. Her playing was quite excellent. But throughout, it was Shaun Burley who was the star, and very deservedly so. There is no question in my mind that he is one of the most outstanding performers in this orchestra.

The last work on Friday’s program was the orchestral suite from the movie On the Waterfront, by Leonard Bernstein. Truly, Bernstein is one of America’s foremost musicians: conductor, composer, pianist, and educator. He was also known the world over as an interpreter of Aaron Copland and Gustav Mahler. As the excellent program notes point out, there are a number of films that use music of Leonard Bernstein, but they all use music originally written for other sources. On the Waterfront is the only film score that Leonard Bernstein wrote, and the reason for that is probably because he was not prepared to see his work so heavily edited.

It was in this work that I felt the Denver Philharmonic Orchestra played their best Friday evening. There was more excitement, there was more precision, and Maestro O’Neil appeared to be enjoying himself more than he had in the first half of the program. The woodwind section, which has always been excellent in this orchestra, was superb, as was the trumpet playing by Manny Araujo. Leonard Bernstein has a skill of building tension in his compositions, and there are many moments in this work where the tension builds to almost unreal proportions. Araujo’s playing highlighted this with very sharp rhythms which gave the orchestra a remarkable sense of direction. The string sections were far more precise with their rhythms as well. There was also some outstanding flute playing. In many ways, the orchestra as a whole simply worked harder in this composition than they did in the rest of the program.

In spite of some of my criticisms, this was an enjoyable concert, and, as I said above, I am delighted that there were so many young people in the audience. And what truly delights me, is that no matter what drew these young people to be present, the Denver Philharmonic Orchestra did not “stoop to sell” by playing music from the pop culture. The orchestra shared the composer’s art in different genres with the audience.

Wonderful programming marks the Final Season Performance of the Denver Philharmonic Orchestra

Saturday night, May 12, was the final performance of this season given by the Denver Philharmonic Orchestra. Throughout this season, this orchestra has truly led the way in innovative programming. They performed works which are excellent, but which no other orchestra in the Denver Metro area has performed in recent memory. In doing so, they have given the concert audience (and their audience keeps growing all the time) a glimpse into the depths of concert literature, aside from the popular works which have such mass appeal. The compositions and composers that the DPO performs most certainly do have mass appeal, but this seems to be the only orchestra with a conductor, Maestro Adam Flatt, who is adventurous enough, and who cares enough to perform these works. I think the concert going public owes recognition to the DPO for leading the way in this regard.

The Denver Philharmonic Orchestra opened its program Saturday night with a suite from the ballet The Incredible Flutist by American composer, Walter Piston (1894 – 1976) (Someone needs to proofread the programs a little more carefully, especially for composer’s dates.). He was one of many American composers in the mid-20th century who eventually found his way to Paris to study with Nadia Boulanger and Paul Dukas, even though early in life his main interest was painting. His early lessons in piano and violin prevailed, however, and after World War I he entered Harvard University where he began his first serious study in music. Maestro Adam Flatt was most certainly correct in his pre-concert comments about each work to be performed that night, when he said that one of Walter Piston’s main claims to fame was his textbook simply entitled Harmony. In my mind, it is the best book for music theory students, because it is so elegantly written and so very clear and concise, as Flatt pointed out.

The ballet, The Incredible Flutist, is seldom performed today, but the music is full of humor and pictorial representation. The ballet tells the story of a town awakening from its afternoon siesta, complete with shoppers, the usual daily arguments, and romantic larking about between a merchant and rich widow. Soon, a circus comes to town, and, among the performers, is the incredible flutist of the title who charms everyone, including the merchant and the rich widow, who are eventually caught kissing. Embarrassment causes the widow to faint, but she is revived by the flutist’s miraculous playing, and the circus fades away into the night.

The DPO was highly spirited in their performance of this work, which is exactly what the score requires. They produced a wonderfully full and rich sound which truly highlights every section of the orchestra. As I have said before, the DPO has the best woodwind section of any of the community orchestras in the Denver Metro area, and Saturday night’s performance gave flutist Aaron Wille a chance to demonstrate the depth of this organization. His playing was absolutely superb. We need to hear more of him. The DPO took the audience by surprise by re-instituting one of the traditions begun by the Boston Pops Orchestra at their first performance of this work. As the circus arrives in town, the members of the Boston Pops Orchestra let out cheers of joy and welcome. So did the members of the Denver Philharmonic Orchestra Saturday night. It certainly lent some spontaneity to the performance, and underscored the delightful character of this work.

Following the Piston, Bryan Scafuri moved to the front of the orchestra as soloist in a work by Max Bruch entitled, Kol Nidrei, which is a work for cello and orchestra. Bryan is Principal Cellist with the Denver Philharmonic Orchestra and the Pueblo Symphony. He also performs with the Cheyenne Symphony. He has appeared in many master classes given by outstanding teachers of the cello. In addition, he performed in a side-by-side concert with the Cleveland orchestra, performing Symphonie Fantastique by Hector Berlioz. He has also performed the cello solo in the Brahms Piano Concerto Nr. 3 and the cello solo in Tchaikovsky’s ballet Swan Lake with the Pueblo Symphony. He has also soloed with that orchestra.

Max Bruch subtitled this work “An Adagio on Hebrew Themes for Cello and Orchestra.” It was composed in 1881 and was based on two Jewish themes. According to Bruch, “The first is an age old Hebrew song of atonement; the second is the middle section of a moving and truly magnificent song ‘O Weep for Those That Wept On Babel’s Stream.” Understand that Bruch was not Jewish, and that Jewish scholars have pointed out that his use of Jewish themes does not mean that this is official liturgical Jewish music. Bruch, himself, said that it was no more a Jewish piece of music than his Scottish Fantasy is a piece of Scottish music.

Once again, Maestro Flatt is to be congratulated on his programming choices. I have been aware that this piece was written by Bruch, but this is the first time I have heard it performed. It not only is an incredibly beautiful piece of music, but it fit so well into the entire program. Bryan Scafuri gave a very emotional performance of this piece, and he has the kind of rich mellow tone (What kind of cello does he have?) that perfectly fits the turgid harmonies and melodic line that Bruch wrote. He was acutely aware of how to shape the phrases with dynamics alone, and, due to his long experience in playing with different orchestras, could easily communicate with Maestro Flatt. There were times when, clearly, he was the soloist, and there were times, at Bruch’s demand, when he was supplementing the orchestra. Not once did he attempt to “take over the spotlight,” but he always performed in partnership with the orchestra. It was an extremely satisfying performance of a wonderfully satisfying piece that is not heard often enough.

Following the Bruch, the DPO performed the Camille Saint-Saëns Morceau de Concert, Opus 94, with David Wallace who is the Principal Horn with the orchestra. (I would like to point out that the program gave Saint-Saëns birth and death dates as 1685 to 1750. In addition, I would like to point out to the individual who proofread the program that those are the dates of J. S. Bach. Saint-Saëns’ dates in the program biographical notes were 1835 to 1921, and those are correct.) The Morceau de Concert was written in 1887, and dedicated to Henri Chaussier, a French horn player at the Paris Conservatory. As the program notes state, this is really a small-scale horn concerto, the opening theme of which is followed by variations. Saint-Saëns had a great interest in the court of Louis XIV, and Saint-Saëns’ treatment of the horn in this work and its stilted dance rhythms, bring to mind that court. The variations explore some of the extreme ranges of the horn, and Wallace seemed to have no difficulty with these whatsoever. Wallace has so much orchestral playing experience, that it was clear he was quite comfortable in front of the audience. His playing of this piece made it abundantly clear why he is Principal Horn with the DPO. He has the ability to make the horn sound quite pompous, and I think that is exactly what Saint-Saëns called for in this work, especially considering the almost eighteenth-century reminiscence inherent. One could almost imagine Louis XIV mounting the stage and leading off  the dancing of ballets, which is exactly what he liked to do. Saint-Saëns was perfectly aware of this, and the mood of this piece reflects that knowledge.

David Wallace has been acting Assistant Principal Horn in the Colorado Symphony Orchestra and has performed and played with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. He has also played in Broadway orchestras, including the Phantom of the Opera, Miss Saigon, and Camelot. He has played in orchestras under some of the most significant conductors of this century, including Sir George Solti, Daniel Barenboim, Zubin Mehta, and James Levine. He has been the Performing Artist in Residence at the Denver School of the Arts, and is currently teaching music at Tarver Elementary School.

Following the intermission, the Denver Philharmonic Orchestra performed three works by the highly underrated Finnish composer Jean Sibelius (1865-1957). These three works were Pohjola’s Daughter, Op. 49, Valse Triste, and Finlandia, Op. 26.

Sibelius, along with Dvořák, is one of the most important composers associated with the nationalism in music, and quite instrumental (no pun intended) in the development of the symphonic poem. His symphonic fantasy, Pohjola’s Daughter, is a very dark piece of incredible beauty, and was inspired by the seven stanza preface from Runo 8 of the Kalevala, which is Finland’s national folk epic (think of a Finnish Beowulf). It starts in a very dark, almost threatening manner, adequately depicting the evil daughter of Pohjola, who wants the hero to evenly split a single horsehair with a dull knife in order to win her affections.

The violins of the DPO truly seemed to realize their role in all three of the works performed after the intermission. They were brilliantly in tune, their pizzicato’s were absolutely together, and like many of their final season performances, this sounded absolutely exquisite. They are becoming more consistent all the time. They never seem to take their eyes off Maestro Flatt, who, after the performance, received a standing ovation, and seemed immensely pleased with the way they had performed. This orchestra has such a fine brass and woodwind section that it is wonderful to hear the strings match those sections.

The second work by Sibelius was his Valse Triste. This is certainly one of Sibelius’s most famous pieces, and I must say, that I grew up listening to students play a piano arrangement of this on their recitals. It is a beautiful piece, and it is a very good piece, but I never grasped the depth of its tragedy until I was in my twenties. It involves a dying woman and the Grim Reaper, whom she mistakes for her dead husband. And, as the program notes state, she dances in a locked embrace with the Grim Reaper until she dies. The DPO was absolutely superb in the performance of this piece. I might add that I have heard many performances of this work done in an overly sentimental way without the communication to the audience of the tragedy that this work describes. Adam Flatt was wonderfully capable of communicating the mood that Sibelius dictates in this work. There was nothing false or insincere in this performance at all. Its emotional impact was sincere and total.

The final work on Saturday’s program was Sibelius’s famous Finlandia. This was written in reaction to the strict censorship on Finland by the Russians in 1899. The work opens with a powerful statement from the brass that is dark and ominous, and,  indeed, reflects the darkness of the mood that the Finnish nation was feeling at the time. It gradually turns to joyousness, and there is an almost hymn-like statement of the main theme which many people mistakenly believe is the Finnish national anthem.

Again, the DPO, under the leadership of Maestro Flatt, gave an exhilarating performance of this piece. With everyone in the orchestra working so well together, the tension that this piece created leading up to the statement of the main theme, was unmistakable and very real. The audience gave the orchestra and Maestro Flatt a very well-deserved standing ovation. This was clearly another performance where the orchestra demonstrated its ability to excel when everyone in the orchestra works well together.

As a footnote to this final performance of the season, I point out that this was the final month of the six-year term that Russell Klein has fulfilled as Executive Director and sometimes Treasurer of the Denver Philharmonic Orchestra. Under his direction, the orchestra has achieved a most secure footing that befits its very long history in the City and County of Denver.

Thank you, Mr. Klein.

The Denver Philharmonic Orchestra’s exciting season opener

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Denver Phil: Aldo Ragone and Adam Flatt exceptional

Friday night, April 1, the Denver Philharmonic Orchestra presented its sixth concert of the season with a program which featured all Russian composers. Maestro Adam Flatt opened the program with an opera overture by Modest Mussorgsky, followed by the Shostakovich Symphony Nr. 6, and ending with Aldo Ragone performing Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto Nr. 2 in C minor. This is a very ambitious program, but the Denver Philharmonic Orchestra has demonstrated a newfound energy and purpose this entire season, so I was not surprised that the performance Friday night was a resounding success. 

Maestro Flatt is to be commended for his interesting programming that has sustained this season. The opening overture, Khovanshchina (literally The Khovansky Affair), is from Mussorgsky’s Opera which was left unfinished at the time of his death, March 28, 1881. The story of the opera and its title takes its name from two princes with the last name of Khovansky, Ivan and Andrei, who rise up against Peter the Great. Mussorgsky, himself, was born into nobility because his family owned a great deal of land in Karevo, Russia. His music education was in many ways incomplete, as he did not set out to be a composer at all. His mother had given him piano lessons, but his family had prepared him for a military career, sending him to a military academy. In cadet school he joined a choir and discovered Russian church music. After he graduated and had joined the Russian Imperial Guard, he began to associate with several composers and eventually met Balakirev, Cui, Rimsky-Korsakov, and Borodin, joining them to become known as the “Mighty Five.” His compositions are known for their rich, if not surprising, harmonies, and his bleak depictions of Russian nationalism, and of life itself. His family called him to help run their large estate which was beginning to lose money. He was then obliged to seek employment as a civil servant, and sank into alcoholism, which of course, affected his ability to finish compositions and to take care of his estate which was rapidly depleted. He died in poverty and from extreme alcoholism at the age of 42, leaving many unfinished compositions. However the works that were completed, among them Pictures at an Exhibition, the tone poem, Night on Bald Mountain, not to be confused with another symphonic poem entitled, St. John’s Night on Bare Mountain, will give him a lasting place in music history. 

At Friday night’s performance, the low strings, particularly the violas and cellos, got off to a very rocky start. It appeared that some of them were not watching Maestro Adam Flatt, as they did not enter together, nor were they in tune. However, after about five measures, they seemed to recover and assumed their musical place in the performance of this very lovely overture. In fact, its serenity and quietness, which depicts early morning in Moscow, draws one into its allure, and makes the work seem far too short. There was some wonderful oboe playing on the part of Kim Brody, who is principal oboist. Maestro Flatt seems never to have any problem allowing (note that I did not use the word “make”) the orchestra to feel the same rich emotions and love for the music that he feels. 

We here in Denver have been fortunate this concert season to hear more than one Shostakovich Symphony, as the Lamont Symphony Orchestra performed his Symphony Nr. 7 in February. In the article that I wrote for that performance, I discussed a little of Shostakovich’s trials and tribulations under the Stalinist regime, so I will not go into that here. For those of you who are curious, please see my February article, “The Lamont Symphony Orchestra: a Remembrance of 9/11.” Suffice it to say, that when this Symphony was composed in 1939, government censorship was strong, and composers were encouraged to write works that somehow displayed anti-German propaganda. Shostakovich was fearful that if he did not bend to that, that he would meet his end in a labor camp. 

The orchestra began the gloomy first movement very differently from the way they began the Mussorgsky. The strings entered at the same time and were in tune, which led me to wonder if they had such an excellent opening in this symphony, why couldn’t they perform the opening of the Mussorgsky? Throughout this Symphony the orchestra sounded absolutely wonderful. And once again, the woodwind section was exceptional. Kim Brody, principal oboe, Loren Meaux, English horn, Cheryl Gooden, principal flute, Catherine Ricca, flute, Aaron Wille, piccolo, Shaun Burley clarinet, Brooke Hengst, clarinet: all were truly exceptional. The low strings in this Symphony have the main theme in the opening, and it is beefy sounding, and very dark. The English horn introduces the second theme group, and begins to lead the orchestra toward a much sunnier resolution, even though the main theme reappears. The second movement of this symphony is very bright indeed, almost playful and in the same character, say, of a Prokofiev Symphony. There are some remarkable rhythms in the second movement, which seem to lead to some unimagined conclusion. This is the kind of thing that Maestro Flatt presents in a very exciting way. No matter what he is conducting, it is always full of vitality and energy, and there is no question that this rhythmic drive is shared, sometimes in very subtle ways, by different instruments “inside” the orchestra. He consistently pays attention to these inner voices which are so important because of their dynamic contributions to the phrasing. And, it is often that Shostakovich lets these inner voices grow until they become an integral part of the main theme. This is the kind of musical perception that all good conductors must have, and the DPO is unbelievably fortunate to have a conductor of Adam Flatt’s caliber.

The last movement, which is entitled Presto, has a vitality which grows from the second movement, and the rhythms become even more accentuated. It is exuberant even though the middle section is a little more subdued, and this second theme group seems to be quite anxious to begin building toward the end. In many ways, as Maestro Flatt pointed out in brief comments before the symphony began, Shostakovich often seemed to impart his own thoughts about his works into them, but even though they may be “visible” to us, the audience, he still leaves room for us to have our own thoughts. The ending of this work is one of the most exciting that Shostakovich has written, and the Denver Phil certainly felt that excitement. The audience gave the orchestra and Maestro Flatt a standing ovation which was truly well deserved. It is my hope that they were also applauding David Wallace and Jeanine Branting on French horn as well as Manny Araujo on trumpet. 

After the intermission, pianist Aldo Ragone joined with the Denver Philharmonic Orchestra and Adam Flatt to perform the Rachmaninoff’s famous Piano Concerto, Nr. 2 in C minor. A few days ago, I wrote a short preview of this performance, and I will quote from that here: 

“Aldo Ragone received an Artist Diploma from DU in the fall of 2008. He has also taught at Regis University in Denver. I have heard Ragone play several times, and in one of my previous reviews, I said that we here in Denver were very fortunate to have a true concert pianist of his stature living in Denver. He is a remarkable pianist who has performed throughout Europe and much of the eastern half of the United States. He has a very solid reputation in his home country of Italy and throughout Europe, and he, once again, comes from Italy to give this particular performance. 

“The last time Aldo Ragone performed in Denver, he amazed his audience by performing the set of variations based on Paganini’s 24th Caprice for violin. It was written by the Turkish composer and pianist, Fazil Say. This is a prodigious work that only very accomplished pianists attempt, but then, that is exactly the kind of pianist that Aldo Ragone is. Aldo Ragone is a superior musician and pianist who brings a great deal of artistic ability and musicianship to everything he performs.” 

What needs to be stressed here, is the great truth to the cliché, “The further away someone comes to accomplish a certain task, the greater the expert they are.” A corollary to this might well be, “If you personally know an expert (in any field) then because of that familiarity, he can’t be such a great expert.” Let me make it clear that the cliché and its corollary don’t make sense. Those of us in Denver who are familiar with the musical scene have known of Aldo Ragone for five or six years. As I have said before, we are very fortunate to know him, and to have him perform in the city of Denver. He is the kind of pianist that one should never take for granted. He is excellent and superior in every way that you can imagine. I have heard Andre Watts, who teaches at my beloved alma mater, perform the Rachmaninoff Second three times, and the third time, it sounded as though he was simply bored. He has played it many, many times, much the same way that Cliburn played the Tchaikovsky B flat many times, and it always left me with the feeling, “Won’t he ever play anything new?” In addition, there have been any number of new recordings of this famous concerto recently released, which have attracted a great deal of attention because of their blinding speed, technical facility, exceptional recording quality, or any number of appealing characteristics. But Aldo Ragone’s performance, to my way of thinking and personal experience with this concerto, was exceptional in every way. It was certainly better than Andre Watts’ last performance, which I heard, and it certainly was more profound than some of the recordings by all the young lions of the art. Why was it exceptional? Because he (and Maestro Adam Flatt) adhered to the tempos that Rachmaninoff indicated and used, and because it was abundantly clear that he genuinely cares about the music. It truly seemed to me that he and Flatt were saying, “Here is a piece that everyone in the world knows. Because it is so popular, it has been played by people who have not done so terribly well with it because they just wanted to do it. Here is how we think Rachmaninoff wanted you, the audience, to hear it.” 

It was amazing to see how well Ragone and Flatt worked together. Flatt always allowed room in the beat for Ragone to take all of the subtle nuances and agogics that the performance of Rachmaninoff requires. There was no question that Flatt was able to impart this skill to the orchestra. Ragone and Flatt were in constant communication and in constant partnership. Aldo Ragone displayed his usual mind numbing technique, and his artistic ability to bring out the important rhythmic jabs which are so characteristic of Rachmaninoff, let alone his ability to bring out all of the inner voices that this work requires. Yes, he got a standing ovation, but it is my sincere hope that the audience dares to compare him and his performance with other concert artists of the day. I use the word “dare” because he is so well-known to Denver audiences, and therefore, according to the old cliché, “How could he be that good?” If those in the audience who heard this performance compare him with other concert artists of the day, the result will be very simple: They will either find him a match or find him superior. 

I can also assure you with every confidence that the same applies to Adam Flatt. How fortunate the DPO is to have him! 

A further note: Dr. Aldo Ragone is performing a solo recital at the KPOF Hall on Sunday, April 3, at 2:00 PM. Bach, Scriabine, Gershwin, and Villa-Lobos. You have to hear it.