Opus Colorado

The Denver Philharmonic Christmas Concert: Consistency in thought

Friday evening, December 16, I heard the Denver Philharmonic Orchestra perform their annual Christmas concert. In some ways, it was the expected Christmas concert with a large number of carol’s performed and sung by the audience, and a few concert works in addition. But there were several things that set this performance apart from the regular Christmas concerts one expects, and particularly what one has become accustomed to hearing from the Denver Philharmonic Orchestra.

Though this has nothing to do with the actual performance, let me point out right away that I do not think I have ever seen the KPOF Hall so full. There simply weren’t any seats left. That has to be very gratifying, not only for the DPO board and orchestra members, but for Reverend Doctor Robert Dallenbach and his gracious wife, Pauline Dallenbach, who so magnanimously allow the Denver Philharmonic Orchestra to use the KPOF Hall facilities.

In addition, there was an outstanding guest artist on Friday evening’s performance, and that was the soprano, Katie Harman. Please notice that I called her the “soprano, Katie Harman.” In the publicity for this concert, and in the program, much to do is made of the fact that Katie Harman was 2002’s Miss America. There is absolutely no question that Katie Harman, through the Miss America program, has done much good for the United States and the world with her work concerning breast cancer. And after a few sentences, I will put the highlights of her biography in this review, simply because she has done so much good, and it may help inspire others to do the same thing. However, I listed her as a soprano first because I don’t want anybody who reads this to recall the old Miss America competitions with host Bert Parks (I am sure that I am showing my age), where he asks the contestants what they will do for the talent portion of the contest. If any of you recall, and I’m sure many of you do, the contestants would come out and noodle around on the piano, or do a tap dance, or sing When the Moon Comes Over the Mountain, emulating Kate Smith. Of course the Miss America competition has changed a lot since those days, but I would like to make it clear that Katie Harman is truly a musician and a singer first. I was absolutely astonished at the way she sang. She has an incredible sense of pitch, and she has the vocal production technique and ear to always be on pitch. She also has a beautiful soprano voice, and when she sings, she demonstrates the musicianship that accompanies the rest of her ability. And (are you ready for this?), she has great diction.

I will quote from her website:

“…In addition, she aimed the Miss America spotlight at supporting breast cancer patients and championing comprehensive cancer care, converging with patients, medical professionals, health care advocacy groups, pharmaceutical manufacturers, legislators, businesses, students, media entities, and many more. Her work as an advocate was featured by numerous media outlets, including The Today Show, Good Morning America, CNN with Paula Zahn, Late Night with David Letterman, People Magazine and The Washington Post, and was also honored by Fox Chase Cancer Center, University of Pennsylvania Cancer Center, Metcalf Institute of Radiation Oncology, Walter Reed Army Medical Center, and the Cancer Research Foundation of America, among many others. In September 2002, Katie and her 2001 Miss America Competition sisters published a book detailing their unique and deeply touching perspectives on service in the aftermath of 9/11. Titled Under the Crown, the book remains one of Katie’s proudest accomplishments because it was an unprecedented undertaking by a group of strong young women dedicated to using their titles and crowns to positively affect change in uncertain times.

“…Professionally, Katie now tours nationally and internationally as a sought-after classical vocalist. After her performance on the Miss America stage in 2001, she was invited to sing with the famed Boston Pops Orchestra under the direction of Keith Lockhart, the Shreveport Symphony, the Oregon Symphony, the US Army Band, the USO, and at many other concert events across the nation. In 2003, she made her professional operatic debut with the Gold Coast Opera, and has since appeared in both full-scale productions and concerts with a myriad of opera companies, musical theater companies, symphonies, and private events throughout the nation. Her principal roles have included Marie in La Fille du Régiment, Susanna in Le Nozze di Figaro, Kathie in The Student Prince, Lily in The Secret Garden, Marian in The Music Man, Lucy in The Telephone, and Yum Yum in The Mikado. In 2007, Katie debuted her first solo album, Soul of Love, in partnership with MAH Records and renowned concert pianist and composer Michael Allen Harrison. The album was met with critical acclaim and Katie was named a “talent to watch.” In February 2010, Katie’s voice was featured on the small screen with a principal role as a singer in an episode of HBO’s dramatic series Big Love.

“…Katie and her husband, an F-15 pilot and instructor for the Air National Guard, reside in Southern Oregon with their two children. Together, they have restored a 1936 farmhouse on five “certified organic” acres and continue to strive for a sustainable life – complete with cows, goats, chickens and a large garden!”

In addition to the packed KPOF Hall and the outstanding guest soloist, the third element that set this performance apart, was the marked improvement of the Denver Philharmonic Orchestra under the leadership of Maestro Adam Flatt. I have often taken community orchestras to task for one thing and another, but usually it concerns what I perceive to be a lack of effort on the part of some of the musicians (some just seem to sit and display little industry), and my other concern is when they play out of tune. I am perfectly aware the community orchestra musicians volunteer because they love the music, but I have often been mentally stymied by the fact that in spite of this love, some members don’t seem to know how to convert that love into action (I have written about this before, and received a splendid comment from Maestra Cynthia Katsarelis, who said that community orchestra conductors must also be teachers, and know when to teach, and when to be quiet.). There is no question that Maestro Adam Flatt knows this, and he has enormous experience and musicianship as a conductor (do any of you recall his excellent work for the Colorado Symphony Orchestra for five years?). I certainly have not attended any DPO rehearsals. But after hearing the orchestra Friday night, it is very easy to hypothesize that Flatt is doing everything right in his communications with the orchestra. I was genuinely struck by the improvement Friday night. Over the last couple of years, steady improvement has certainly been made under Maestro Flatt’s direction, but Friday night there was a quantum leap. It was as if the whole orchestra had been awakened to a new musical world. They were in tune, everyone had their eyes on Maestro Flatt, and though, from where I was sitting, it was difficult to see the entire orchestra, I could clearly hear the energy with which they played. Maestro Flatt has been entirely successful in teaching them a consistency in thought (there is a difference between consistency “in” thought and a consistency “of” thought), and that has made a real difference in the performance of the Denver Philharmonic Orchestra.

There were several instances in the concert Friday evening, where the orchestra, for example, at the end of a piece, made a decrescendo – in other words, they got softer – but it was absolutely totally in union, and to the same degree. Attacks and releases and phrasing were marvelous.

One of the works performed Friday evening was the Concerto grosso, Opus 6 Nr. 8, in G minor, by Arcangelo Corelli. This is without a doubt one of his most famous pieces. This particular concerto grosso was not published until 1714 (it was published posthumously), but there is evidence that what it was written about 25 years earlier, because it seems to have been first performed in 1690 for his patron, Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni.

I mention this little historic anecdote, because, due to its time of composition, you must realize that it was written for a chamber orchestra of strings. The DPO performance of this work was done beautifully, expressively, and the small ensemble revealed no serious deficiencies in the player’s musicianship. It was gorgeous.

The Denver Phil also performed a piece by Georges Bizet, famous for writing the opera Carmen. However, the piece they performed Friday evening was from the incidental music to the play, The Woman from Arles, by French playwright Alphonse Daudet. They performed the Farandole, the last part of the suite from L’Arlesienne, which is an open chain line dance that was popular at the time in Nice. This was extremely well done with very sharp rhythms and everyone together. This dance had a reputation for being quite rowdy, and the DPO performed with a great deal of excitement and energy.

And what winter concert would be complete without a performance of the Skater’s Waltz? Written by Emile Waldteufel, this work is undoubtedly known by everyone. It is, as Maestro Flatt said, one of the most graceful pieces ever written. That is precisely how the DPO performed. It has been years since I have heard this done by an orchestra, and it was great having my mind refreshed. I had completely forgotten how difficult some of the bowing and fingering is for the violins, but they accomplished the piece without any problem at all.

Katie Harman led the audience in a medley of Christmas carols, and she sang Christmas solos with the orchestra which were absolutely beautiful. The audience gave Katie Harman, Maestro Flatt, and the Denver Philharmonic Orchestra a standing ovation, and demanded an encore. Ms. Harman and the orchestra performed a Merry Little Christmas.

There will be some individuals who read this who will say that a community orchestra cannot be as good as this one. But with the leadership that they have in the person of Maestro Adam Flatt, and the outstanding section leaders, I am not surprised at the steady improvement that this orchestra has made. In January, there will be two performances: one on January 7, and one on January 28. On Friday, February 17, there concert will feature the winners of the DPO’s Young Artist Vocal Competition.

For more information, please go to the DPO website, which is listed among the links in the left-hand column of this page.

A Valentine from The Ars Nova Singers

Saturday, February 13th, the Ars Nova Singers presented what was truly a pre-Valentine’s Day concert at the Bethany Lutheran Church here in Denver. The title of the program was Chanson d’Amour, and of course everything on the program had to do with love or unrequited love. There were several solos as well as duets, so the full ensemble was not used. There was a special guest artist, Jean Browne, who was the collaborative accompanist throughout the entire program.

It just so happens that Jean Browne is the sister of Evanne Browne, the Director of Music at the First United Methodist Church in Boulder. She is a fine pianist as well as a conductor. Jean Browne began piano lessons at age three and by the age of 16 debuted as a soloist with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. Jean received her Performer’s Certificate in Vocal Accompanying from the Music Conservatory in Freiburg, Germany, and her Master’s Degree in Piano from Southern Methodist University. She was a staff accompanist for the Summer Vocal Institute in Graz, Austria, for two summers and worked as a vocal coach for the opera house in Osnabrück, Germany, for three years.

As a conductor, Jean spent seven summers as the Associate Music Director for the Dallas Summer Musicals and two years as the Associate Music Director for San Francisco Opera’s Western Opera Theater. She was the Associate Music Director & Conductor for the Broadway production and national tour of Peter Pan starring Sandy Duncan, thus becoming the first woman to conduct a hit Broadway show (and participating in 954 performances of the show). Jean is currently artistic advisor to concert pianist Robert DeGaetano and business manager to jazz drummer Joe Piazza. Jean has lived in or around New York City for the past 30 years.

The first set of four songs on the program was sung by Evanne Brown. In fact one of them, “Lullaby” was written by her sister Jean Browne. There is no doubt that both of these women are fine musicians. But as the program opened, it became apparent that either I was sitting in an acoustic dead spot in the Bethany Church, or that the Brownes had not sought anyone’s advice on balance between the piano and soprano. The piano was quite loud and Evanne Browne’s voice was quite soft – not only could I not hear her well; I certainly could not understand her words. Both women are such experienced performers, it is difficult to imagine that they did not “try out the hall” before the performance just to check the acoustics of the sanctuary. Following Evanne Browne’s group of songs, baritone Brian Du Fresne sang a group of three songs by Rico Gerber. Mr. Du Fresne has a voice that will carry just about anywhere, but in this instance he was covered by the piano. After his group of songs, I moved from where I was sitting about eight or nine rows forward. Things improved considerably, so I am quite sure that my original seat was in some kind of acoustic anomaly. Frustrating to be sure, but I will certainly remember never to sit in that location again.

Next on the program were four Majo Songs by Enrique Granados and the Habanera from Bizet’s “Carmen.” These were sung by Ars Nova’s remarkable mezzo-soprano, Tara U‘Ren. There is no question that she has one of the finest voices in the Ars Nova Singers, and because of her stage experience in several opera groups, she also has a marvelous dramatic sense, which last night, concealed the fact that I was not watching the actual opera by Bizet. Her voice is full and rich and her diction is well-nigh perfect. Following her outstanding performance was the famous Barcarole from the Tales of Hoffmann. Ms. U’Ren was joined by Tana Cochran who is another “best reason” to go hear the Ars Nova singers. For good diction, proper vocal production, and projection, nothing beats operatic experience. The duet they sang from Offenbach’s famous opera was absolutely scintillating.

After the intermission the duet, Lippen Schweigen from “The Merry Widow” was sung by Tana Cochran and Brian Du Fresne. This was perhaps, one of the best selections for this pre-Valentine program. Both Du Fresne and Cochran have voices that match in quality, and their innate dramatic sense – they danced this famous waltz as they sang – lent genuine poignancy to their performance.

And, delightfully, after this duet, the audience got to hear Tana Cochran again singing two Fauré songs (he is one of the most ignored, but still well known, composers) and the aria, Chi il bel Sogno, from Puccini’s “La Rondine.” The Fauré songs were magnificent and again, her diction was excellent. Why should that be so unusual? – but it is.

The Ars Nova tenor, Louis Warshawsky, sang Ungeduld from Schubert’s “Die schöne Müllerin. This is the moment in the song cycle for the young man declares his love and dedication for the Beautiful Maid of The Mill. Mr. Warshawsky has a very light and lyrical voice – and I am beginning to believe that no one in Ars Nova as bad diction – which seemed quite suitable for Schubert. I mention this only because I don’t think I have ever heard such a light voice sing Schubert before. He sang a marvelous performance, and a nice touch was the use of an enormous red valentine to hold the lyrics.

And now, it is time for an exam. How many of you remember Tom Lehrer? I’ll give you a hint: he taught mathematics at MIT, Harvard, and Wellesley. He also sang and wrote songs that led one New York critic to write, and I quote, “Mr. Lehrer’s muse is not fettered by such inhibiting factors as taste.” He certainly had a sense of the macabre. Do you remember this song, “Poisoning Pigeons in the Park”? Well, Mr. Warshawsky delighted the audience with one of Tom Lehrer’s songs, “She’s My Girl,” in which he describes a girl with every fault that you can think of, including ‘diseased’ hair, but it just doesn’t matter because she’s my girl. Wow.

Mr. Warshawsky then joined the Ars Nova quintet for a performance of Chanson d’Amour by Wayne Shanklin and arranged by Paul Hart.

That was followed by the entire ensemble singing Waltz For Debby by the ever great and sadly missed Bill Evans which was arranged by Peter Carlson. The final performance was It’s a Grand Night For Singing by Rodgers and Hammerstein.

This was another enjoyable performance by the Ars Nova Singers, and one that was not nearly so serious, though it did have its moments of thoughtfulness and poignancy, and above all, the sheer musicianship that typifies everything they do.