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: Andrew Litton, Brahms, Brook Ferguson, Chad Cognata, Cindy McTee, Gil Shaham, Jason Shafer, Peter Cooper, Tchaikovsky, William Hill
Friday evening, October 3, the Colorado Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Maestro Andrew Litton, gave a remarkable, world-class performance. Violinist, Gil Shaham was the guest artist, and performed the well-known Brahms Violin Concerto in D Major, Opus 77. Andrew Litton has wrought such a change in the symphony orchestra that every performance seems more exciting and more perfect than the previous performance. There is no question that he respects the orchestra’s individual musicianship as well as their musicianship as an ensemble. That respect is returned to him by the orchestra, and that mutual respect makes all the difference in the world.
The CSO opened the program with a wonderful piece entitled Timepiece by the American composer, Cindy McTee. For those of you who are not familiar with that name, I will quote briefly from her two bio statements that I found on the web:
“McTee (b. 1953 in Tacoma, WA) has received numerous awards for her music, most significantly: the Detroit Symphony Orchestra’s third annual Elaine Lebenbom Memorial Award; a Music Alive Award from Meet The Composer and the League of American Orchestras; two awards from the American Academy of Arts and Letters; a Guggenheim Fellowship; a Fulbright Fellowship; a Composers Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts; and a BMI Student Composers Award. She was also winner of the 2001 Louisville Orchestra Composition Competition.
”McTee has been commissioned by the Detroit, Houston, Amarillo, Dallas, and National Symphony Orchestras, Bands of America, the American Guild of Organists, the Barlow Endowment, the College Band Directors National Association, and Pi Kappa Lambda.
“She studied at Pacific Lutheran University, the Academy of Music in Kraków, Yale University, and the University of Iowa. Her teachers included Krzysztof Penderecki, Bruce MacCombie, and Jacob Druckman.
“In May of 2011, she retired from the University of North Texas as Regents Professor Emerita, and in November of 2011 she married conductor, Leonard Slatkin [he conducted the St. Louis Symphony for a number of years, and also teaches at the University of Michigan and at Indiana University]. Their principal place of residence is in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan.”
Timepiece was commissioned by Andrew Litton when he conducted the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. Maestro Litton and the Dallas Symphony premiered the work on February 17, 2000. This is a wonderful work which begins softly, and in relatively long note values. If any of you attended this concert, you may have noticed Litton’s conducting movements were quite rapid in relationship to the note values that were being played. This is the first time I have heard this piece, but it also seemed as though the meter signature, and its accompanying accents, changed constantly. There were some wonderful ostinato sections of the piece with an almost locomotive energy that seemed to be accompanied by rhythmic counterpoint. Even though the woodblock in the percussion section tries to keep order, the rhythm is still quite disjunct, and it adds to the forward momentum of the piece. This incredibly complex rhythm sometimes rests underneath the string sections of the orchestra, which, in contrast, produces an almost ephemeral aura. This was a very difficult piece because of the rhythm complexities, and it was a wonderful piece that immediately caught the audiences’ attention. I would not mind hearing it several times in a row, so that I could sort out all of the remarkably creative structures that this piece contains.
Timepiece seemed to take the audience a little by surprise, and their applause at the end seemed to be a little lukewarm. However, it is my hope that the CSO performs more works like this, because we need to know what fills the world of new music.
Following the McTee work, Gil Shaham joined the CSO for the performance of the Brahms Violin Concerto, Opus 77. Nearly everyone knows the story behind this concerto, that it was written for the great violinist Joseph Joachim, and that it caused consternation among some conductors of the time, namely Josef Hellmesberger, who made the famous comment that this concerto was “not for the violin, but against the violin.” It is my personal opinion that comments such as that one stem from the fact that Brahms demanded so much from the violin, for example, the extreme range of dynamics. And I must say, that is one of the attributes that made Friday evening’s performance so outstanding.
Gil Shaham is an incredible musician, and he simply demanded from the Colorado Symphony Orchestra the full range of dynamics of which they are capable. It has been a long time since I have heard this concerto performed to this level, and I am sure that he was grateful at having a conductor of Litton’s ilk conduct this performance. He played so softly sometimes that the orchestra had to work very hard (as a group) to play softly themselves so as not to cover him. There is no question that Litton and Shaham were in complete agreement, and that their performance of this piece was to make absolute music, and not make a display of each other’s virtuosity. The result was an incredibly intimate performance, particularly of the first movement, but, mind you, the other movements have their own superlative characteristics. Brahms’ orchestration of the second movement is absolutely remarkable because of its blend of woodwinds and strings. Peter Cooper, oboe, Jason Shafer, clarinet, Brooke Ferguson, flute, and Chad Cognata, bassoon, were absolutely incredible in the dynamic shaping of the phrases of the opening theme, which matched so well the phrasing that Shaham performed on his violin. Again, it reflected the concern with the music, rather than concern with everyone’s ego. I have heard so many performances of this piece by famous violinists, who seem to have the desire to dazzle the audience with gargantuan technique rather than a sincere desire to show what the composer wanted. The entire woodwind section of the Colorado Symphony is truly outstanding, and provides a solid backbone of the orchestra, particularly in a work such as the Brahms concerto.
It was also very clear that Gil Shaham was enjoying his relationship with the orchestra. There were some beautiful moments of give-and-take with the violin section of the orchestra, wherein Shaham seemed to be playing to concertmaster Yumi Hwang-Williams, and she seemed to be returning the gesture in kind.
The third movement of this concerto was exciting because of the incredibly detailed and careful (but not cautious) execution of the rhythmic jabs that Brahms wrote. The brilliant staccato octaves with their dotted rhythm were precisely and excitingly done by Gil Shaham, and were an incredible contrast to the very gracious and charming dolce theme. The drive in the last movement of this concerto often reminds me of Brahms’ Piano Quartet in G minor. It was a sensational performance that was built around a love of the music itself by Gil Shaham, and certainly Maestro Litton and the Colorado Symphony Orchestra.
Following the intermission, Maestro Litton in the Colorado Symphony Orchestra performed Tchaikovsky’s Symphony Nr. 5 in E minor, Opus 64. There was an 11 year gap of symphonic composition on Tchaikovsky’s part between the fourth and the fifth symphonies. Number Five was written in 1888. He wrote to his benefactress, Najeda Von Meck, that he wished to write a symphony of the greatest possible state of perfection to avoid the criticism that had been directed towards his previous symphonic compositions. Tchaikovsky, himself, conducted the premier on November 16, 1888. Its reception was lukewarm, particularly the performance in Prague, and he came to the conclusion that this symphony was a failure in comparison to his Fourth Symphony. Today, I am quite sure that all of the scholars and audiences agree that Tchaikovsky’s Symphony Nr. 5 is one of his best.
Friday evening’s performance of this work was simply the best I have ever heard, and I have heard many orchestras perform this piece. In the first movement, the wonderful woodwind section of the Colorado Symphony displayed what they are capable of, and it was sheer music. I might add that Maestro Litton conducted this work from memory, and that reflects not only his vast knowledge of symphonic literature, which he certainly has as a matter of course, but it also reflects his love for this particular work. The tempos that he took in every movement were, without exaggeration, perfect. The second movement for example, starts with a very slow tempo, and so many conductors seem to approach it with an attitude of, “Oh dear, the hard Russian winters have kept old pathos fresh.” That certainly was not the case with Lipton’s conducting Friday evening. Yes, the tempo was slow -after all, it is marked Andante cantabile, con alcuna licenza (with a certain freedom). Litton’s tempo gave the movement a marvelous sense of forward motion, and yet, let the incredible clarinet solo stand out in its expressiveness. The third movement is not the usual Scherzo, or Minuet: Tchaikovsky has clearly marked it Waltz. Litton’s tempo was graceful and charming and perfect. And, even in this movement, Tchaikovsky repeats the haunting theme from the first movement.
The fourth movement of this work seem to emphasize the long introduction, for the true exposition begins in measure 58. It was wonderfully exciting, wonderfully dramatic, and the repetition of the main theme brought the entire work to a wonderfully conceived conclusion. When I say wonderfully conceived, I am not referring to Tchaikovsky’s skill as a composer, which would be silly to comment on at this late date: we know he was a great composer. I am referring to the interpretation that Litton gave this work. I cannot emphasize clearly enough that this was the best performance of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony Nr. 5 that I have heard. Jason Shafer, clarinet, indeed, the entire woodwind section, and William Hill, tympani, were absolutely amazing.
Friday evening’s performance made me reflect upon today’s fast-moving lifestyle which has resulted in so many people having a very short attention span. As I have said, there is music everywhere: elevator music, telephone hold music, short music segments between broadcasts on the radio, and all of this results in the confusion between culture and art. It results in the aforementioned short attention span, if not the complete ignorance of what music as an art can be. It seems that the days even of careful reading, holding an actual book in your hand, while the late afternoon sunlight streams in through a slight opening in the drapes, are gone. That carefulness, that appreciation, that ability to listen un-hurriedly to a complete work, the pre-Internet concern for artful things, is what I was reminded of at Friday evening’s performance by the Colorado Symphony.
Boettcher Concert Hall was far from full Friday evening. Was it because so many individuals don’t wish to take the time to listen? The audience on Friday gave the CSO two standing ovations. You will have the opportunity to hear this program tonight at 7:30, and again tomorrow at 1:00 PM.
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: A Woman's Life, Angela Brown, Boulder Philharmonic, Brahms, German Requiem, James Kim, Kay Redfield Jamison, Maya Angelou, Michael Butterman, Pagtrick Mason, Richard Danielpour, Schumann
Saturday, February 23, the Boulder Philharmonic Orchestra presented a concert with Angela Brown, who sang a song cycle for orchestra and soprano written by Richard Danielpour, and Patrick Mason, baritone, who is on the faculty at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Both Mason and Brown were soloists in the Brahms German Requiem which followed the work by Danielpour. The choir for the Brahms Requiem was the Boulder Chorale, which is under the directorship of Dr. James Kim who is on the faculty at Colorado State University in Fort Collins.
The concert opened with Angela Brown singing Richard Danielpour’s work, A Woman’s Life. I will quote briefly from Angela Brown’s biography statement on her website:
“A 1997 National Metropolitan Opera Council Auditions Winner, Miss Brown received her Bachelor of Music degree in voice from Oakwood College in Huntsville, Alabama, where she studied with Ginger Beazley. She attended the Indiana University School of Music as a student in the studio of Virginia Zeani. Miss Brown received the Indiana University African American Arts Institute’s Inaugural Herman C. Hudson Alumni Award in 2006, given annually to recognize outstanding contributions made in the arts by former members of the Institute. Miss Brown is featured in ‘Nineteen Stars of Indiana,’ a book by Michael S. Maurer about nineteen, living Hoosier women with successful and inspirational life stories, released by Indiana University Press in December 2008.
“Other performances this season include Madison Symphony Orchestra, Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, Philadelphia Orchestra, Pittsburgh Symphony, Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Calgary Philharmonic, Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra, Buffalo Philharmonic, The Trumpet Awards and Sun Valley Writers’ Conference. Last season Miss Brown returned to her hometown for the title role in Ariadne auf Naxos with Indianapolis Opera. She joined the Pittsburgh Symphony to sing the world premiere of the song cycle, ‘A Woman’s Life,’ written especially for her by American composer Richard Danielpour and celebrated author Dr. Maya Angelou. Angela made her debut with Hamburg Opera and Vienna State Opera as Amelia in Un Ballo in Maschera. She reprised ‘A Woman’s Life’ with The Philadelphia Orchestra in February and sang Verdi Requiem with Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. Angela sang Serena in New Jersey State Opera’s production of Porgy and Bess. This summer she made appearances for a Night of Opera at The Mann Center in Philadelphia and a special gala with Cincinnati Opera.”
There may be some of you readers who are not familiar with Richard Danielpour, so I will also quote a short bio statement from his website:
“Dr. Richard Danielpour has been commissioned by many international music institutions, festivals, and artists, including soloists Yo-Yo Ma, Jessye Norman, Dawn Upshaw, Emanuel Ax, Frederica von Stade, Thomas Hampson, and Gary Graffman; the Guarneri, Emerson, and American string quartets and Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio; and institutions such as the New York City and Pacific Northwest ballets, New York Philharmonic, Philadelphia and Stuttgart Radio orchestras, Orchestre National de France, Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival, and many more.With Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison he created Margaret Garner, his first opera, which premiered to sold-out houses in Detroit, Cincinnati, and Philadelphia in 2005 and had its New York premiere at New York City Opera in 2007.
“Dr. Danielpour has received a Grammy Award, two Rockefeller Foundation grants, Charles Ives Fellowship and Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, Guggenheim Fellowship, Bearns Prize from Columbia University, and grants and residencies from the Barlow Foundation, MacDowell Colony, Yaddo, Copland House, and American Academy in Rome.
“In 2002 he was awarded a fellowship to the American Academy in Berlin, and he was the third composer–after Stravinsky and Copland–to be signed to an exclusive recording contract by Sony Classical.
“On the Manhattan School of Music’s composition faculty since 1993, Dr. Danielpour joined the faculty of the Curtis Institute of Music in 1997.”
A Woman’s Life is a song cycle which is comprised of seven of eight poems by Maya Angelou that describes events in a woman’s life from a young girl to adulthood. Some of the songs are humorous and some are full of pathos, but they are as expressive as one would expect poems by Maya Angelou to be. They are delightful.
As Angela Brown began to sing, it was apparent that her reputation of having an enormous voice and vocal power was deserved. Her voice also has an absolutely beautiful quality to it which obviously fits many operatic roles. However, I could not help but notice as she sang this song cycle, that she has a very pronounced bleat, or warble, especially on some of the high notes. Considering her excellent vocal quality, and the training that she has had while a student, one wonders if that could be trained out. In addition, I found it very difficult to understand the words that she was singing, and, therefore, I was pleased to have the words printed in the program. Many concertgoers often take it for granted that a singer will not be understood, because those who do possess good diction seem to be few and far between. But I assure you they do exist. I have also heard opera enthusiasts say that having good diction does not matter because the singers are always singing in a foreign language anyway. And, I have heard some singers say that the audience cannot understand Italian, French, or German, so why is diction all that important, especially when they come to hear a beautiful voice only? However it has always been my personal opinion that if one is singing words, whether it be opera or rap, the words should be heard if, for no other reason, than to honor the poet. It seems to me that Maya Angelou is worth honoring.
Ms. Brown certainly does have a keen sense of drama as any opera performer would. She pleased and delighted the audience a great deal with her theatrical movements as she was singing each song. I was a little surprised by comments I heard those audience members make who were seated close to me: they expressed a delight with her interpretation and movements of the songs, and the fact that those movements were cute and expressive. They seemed more concerned with that aspect of her performance than they were with the text of the poem.
After the intermission, the Boulder Philharmonic combined forces with the Boulder Chorale to perform Johannes Brahms’ magnificent German Requiem, Opus 45. The Boulder Chorale is under the directorship of Dr. James Kim, who has rapidly established himself as one of the premier choral conductors in the state if not the region. I will quote very briefly from his biographical statement:
“James Kim spent two years in Stuttgart, Germany from 1997-1999 studying the music of Johann Sebastian Bach [where he studied with the renowned Helmut Rilling]. After returning to the US, the passion and dedication to promote the music of J.S. Bach to American audience on a professional level have been the focus of his musical endeavors. He is committed and most excited to bring Bach’s music vividly to the audience in Colorado.”
Joining the orchestra and chorus as soloists were Angela Brown, soprano, and Patrick Mason, baritone who is on the faculty at the CU College of Music in Boulder.
Anytime one has a large chorus performing in a large hall, it will be difficult to understand the words. However, if one listens carefully for consonants and vowels sounds, one can tell if the choir has been properly prepared. I heard the Brahms Requiem performed just a short time ago by another choir, and one could not distinguish the consonants or the vowels. I was also told that since the choir was singing in German, that it didn’t matter all that much. Well, it does. It was clear that Dr. James Kim had prepared this choir quite well, which is made up largely of those who like to sing, rather than professional musicians. Their phrases were superb, and one could hear breaks between the phrases. The orchestra, in the opening sounded quite good. They, too, had excellent phrasing, and the low strings, which began this work, sounded quite mellow and rich. As the work progressed, however, the precision of the choir begin to wane. I must say that, in this particular case, I must lay that fault at the feet of Maestro Butterman. It truly seems to me as though the choir knew what to do, but that Butterman was not asking them to do it.
In his solo, How lovely is Thy dwelling place, Patrick Mason was superb. His voice quality is one that I have long admired, and his diction is excellent. At the end of this fourth section, there is counterpoint, which the choir sings. It is quite rhythmical and it needs to have each syllable accented and the beginning of the phrase clearly defined. One could tell this is the way the choir expected to sing it, but one could also tell that the choir had been told to follow the conductor, and it was here that Maestro Butterman’s conducting became, what to my mind, was indifferent. I’m sure he did not feel indifference, but he did not give the choir the rhythmic jabs that would help them perform this in an articulate way. His gestures were very smooth and connected as if he were conducting something that was very legato, rather than lively and rhythmically accented. It should have been a little more energetic and distinct.
In the fifth movement of this work, the soprano sings And ye now therefore have sorrow. The choir was very well balanced in this movement, and, again, I was struck at the beautiful sound that Angela Brown creates. But, unfortunately, I could not understand the words that she was singing.
In movement six, For here we have no continuing city, there is a great deal of counterpoint at the end of the movement. The dynamics were not big enough, nor was the choir articulate enough, and I had the distinct feeling that, somehow, the choir was being held back because Maestro Butterman was not being articulate enough, and demanding enough to allow them to sing the way they had at rehearsal. It was as if he was being very polite with the choir out of fear of offending them by demanding too much.
There were many instances in this performance of the Brahms where the orchestra just sounded absolutely sensational. The violins were absolutely superb. But I walked away from this performance, wondering if Maestro Butterman, and I am sure this is not the case, was uncomfortable conducting both a choir and an orchestra. I have been such a fan of the Boulder Philharmonic, and I hesitate to say that this was really a bad performance, but there were so many items, phrasing, lack of energy and drive, and even dynamic contrast, that should have been better.
The other item that I feel I must comment on are the program notes for the Requiem. The Boulder Philharmonic subscribes to program notes from Orpheus Music Prose & Craig Doolin. I would strongly urge the Boulder Philharmonic board to have the program notes checked, because there was a glaring error concerning Robert Schuman. The program notes state that Robert Schuman “… attempted suicide by jumping into the wintry Rhine River during an episode of mental illness brought on by advanced syphilis.” Schuman certainly did attempt suicide in that manner, but he definitely did not have syphilis. Robert Schuman came from a family that had recurrent attacks of depression, and this can be determined from reading the letters from his parents. His sister committed suicide, as did a cousin on his father’s side. One of Robert Schumann’s sons went insane in his early 20s. Another of his sons became a morphine addict. All of the evidence points against syphilis because there was never any record that he received treatment for syphilis, which involved rubbing mercury into the skin. In addition, Clara Schuman never suffered from this highly contagious disease, nor did any of their seven children. After reading all of the letters and understanding his family background, it becomes clear that Robert Schuman was manic-depressive and schizophrenic. He worked in very intensive bursts, and then for periods of time, worked not at all. In a letter to his friend, Felix Mendelssohn, he describes his recovery from a bout of depression, where he describes terrifying thoughts and a nervous collapse. He did try to commit suicide by jumping into the river, but he was rescued and placed in an insane asylum at Endenich. It was there that he died in 1856 by starving himself to death. I would urge the board to read a book by Kay Redfield Jamison entitled Touched With Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament.
There were moments of this performance that were absolutely exquisite, but there were also moments that were not. Every performer or performing group has moments that are far less successful than the standard they have established. This was one of those moments.
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: Adam Flatt, Brahms, Denver Philharmonic Orchestra, Horst Buchholz, Katherine Thayer, MeeAe Nam, Osvaldo Golijov, Schubert, Shaun Burley, Steve Bulota
Friday evening, the first day of February, Maestro Adam Flatt led the Denver Philharmonic Orchestra in, perhaps, its best performance of the season thus far. The DPO was joined in this performance by its well-remembered friend, Soprano and Doctor of Musical Arts, MeeAe Nam, one of the finest sopranos in the United States. And, if that were not enough to create a wonderful evening, the Conductor Laureate of the Denver Philharmonic Orchestra, Dr. Horst Buchholz also joined the audience that evening. Dr. Buchholz, as all of you will remember, is Dr. MeeAe Nam’s husband, and he is currently serving as the Canon of Music at the enormous St. Louis Cathedral.
The DPO and Maestro Flatt began the evening with Franz Schubert’s Symphony Nr. 8 in B minor, D. 759 (Remember that in Schubert, the D. Is the abbreviation for the Schubert Thematic Catalogue compiled by Otto Erich Deutsch.).
It is probably safe to say that every music lover in the world has heard of the “Unfinished Symphony,” even though they may not know that the composer was Franz Schubert. It is also probably safe to say that no one, even trained musicians, knows why this symphony is unfinished, if, indeed, it is unfinished. Two movements were completed in 1822, and Schubert then set the work aside and never returned to it. As all music scholars know, Schubert gave it to Josef Hüttenbrenner in 1823 in order that it be transferred to Josef’s brother, Anselm, as a gift. There was a sketch, which Schubert wrote for piano, for a Scherzo movement (the third movement) that was three pages long in its piano form. Schubert orchestrated only nine measures of this movement. The first two movements were never performed during Schubert’s lifetime, but in 1865, they were performed by conductor Johann Herbeck in Vienna on December 17. There are three reasons given for it being “unfinished.” The first is that Schubert realized that the first two movements were absolutely masterful, and that he came to the conclusion that he could not write a third and a fourth movement at the same level. This, of course, is nonsense. Schubert would never have been intimidated by his own genius. The second reason seems to be that Schubert was so busy writing all of the time (and he certainly did write all of the time), that he simply forgot to finish the symphony. That, too, is nonsense. Schubert was certainly smart enough to realize that he had written something truly exceptional, and he would not simply forget it. The third reason, hypothesized by some, is that Schubert, upon realizing he had written an incredible work in two movements, realized that it was a substantial work that would stand on its own. It would certainly not be totally unheard of, as Haydn had written a two movement piano sonata, as did his student, Beethoven. Understand that a symphony is also a sonata form, as is a keyboard sonata, or a sonata for violin and piano (Think of a symphony as a sonata for 40 to 80 individuals.). And recently, a fourth reason has been postulated, and that is that Schubert gave Josef Hüttenbrenner a full four movement symphony, and, when it was passed on to his brother, Anselm, somehow the last two movements were lost. This idea was suggested by T. C. L. Prichard in the Music Review, Cambridge, February, 1942, but no sketches have ever been found for the fourth movement, and as mentioned above, only three pages of a third movement exist which were sketched for piano. One question that has never been answered satisfactorily is: why would Schubert give an incomplete work as a present? Many individuals think that Schubert came to the conclusion that the two movement work was excellent in its two movement form, and even though he had begun to sketch a third movement, he decided not to use it. Until a better answer comes along, I think that seems to be the best solution, as do many others. And it may be that we may never find out with certainty what the circumstances were. It certainly is one of the masterpieces of symphonic literature.
Friday’s performance of this symphony was excellent. Immediately, Maestro Flatt, who conducted this from memory, infused the work with tragedy and mystery, taking an ever-so-slightly slower tempo than the well-known Wilhelm Furtwängler recording made in 1952. I have heard this symphony performed live many times, and yet the plaintive clarinet solo, which was so well done by Shaun Burley, Principal Clarinet, always takes me by surprise because it is so melancholy. The low strings played better than I have ever heard them play in the opening of this symphony: it was clear that they had worked very hard to give Maestro Flatt exactly what he wanted. They created a marvelous sense of mystery and uncertainty underneath the clarinet solo. There is absolutely no question that the DPO was ready to perform this work. All of the strings were excellent as were the brass. But, again, if I had to pick outstanding sections for this first movement, there would be two, for I would have to pick the low strings and the DPO’s marvelous woodwind section.
The second movement of this remarkable work was filled with the same passion as the first movement. Again, I was dazzled by the breath control demonstrated by clarinetist, Shaun Burley. It is interesting to note that Schubert asked for an A clarinet rather than the usual B-flat clarinet. The A clarinet has a more plaintiff and mellifluous quality (Rachmaninoff, years later, also required an A clarinet in his Symphony Nr. 2 in E minor.) which certainly fits the mood of Schubert’s writing. I cannot recall if the Denver Philharmonic Orchestra has performed this symphony prior to this performance, but it was clear that every member of the orchestra had fallen in love with this work. It was full of emotion.
Following the Schubert, the DPO performed the Three Songs for Soprano and Orchestra by Osvaldo Golijov. Golijov (born December 5, 1960) was born in Argentina, but his family had emigrated there from Romania and Russia. Golijov is a composer of very wide reputation, and has received a Fromm Foundation commission, and invitations from conductors and orchestras around the world. Helmut Rilling, the Bach scholar, commissioned Golijov to compose a Passion According to St. Mark, which had its premiere at the European Music Festival in 2000.
The works that were chosen by MeeAe Nam to perform, were “assembled” from other sources: film and separate commissions. The three songs entitled Three Songs for Soprano and Orchestra, are Night of the Flying Horses, Lúa Descolorida, and How Slow the Wind, are all from different sources, but all of them reflect Golijov’s ability to write new music that has a tonal center.
I will now quote from MeeAe Nam’s biography:
“Dr. Nam is associate professor of voice at Eastern Michigan University and has extensive performance experience as a soloist in recitals, oratorio, chamber and orchestral concerts, and operas in the United States, Germany, Austria, and South Korea. Many of you readers will recall that Dr. Nam is the wife of Dr. Horst Buchholz, who was the Canon of Music at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Denver, and Professor of Organ at the Lamont School of Music at the University of Denver. He was also the conductor of the Denver Philharmonic Orchestra. Dr. Nam earned her Doctor of Musical Arts degree from the University of Colorado at Boulder where she studied with Dr. Patty Peterson and Dr. Mutsumi Moteki.
“Since 2000, she has given numerous recitals for organ and voice in Germany and Austria with her husband. Her excellent understanding of the works by Mozart has led her to perform many of his sacred works including Exsultate jubilate, the Grand Mass in c minor, and the Requiem Mass, performed with the members of the Mozart Te Deum Orchestra in the 250th Anniversary Year of Mozart’s birth (1756) in Salzburg, Austria. Her frequently performed works include Bach’s cantatas, Handel’s Messiah, Haydn’s Masses, Schubert’s Masses, Gounod’s St. Cecilia Mass, and Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, among many oratorios. Due to her great interest in contemporary music, she has premiered, in her region, many living composer’s works, including Joseph Dorfman’s one act opera Shulamith for soprano and percussion, Voice of the River Han by David Mullikin (who won the Distinguished Composer award from the MTNA), James Mobberly’s Words of Love, and Stuart Glazer’s Voices From the Holocaust. Dr. Nam frequently travels throughout the United States, Europe, and South Korea to give vocal performances, workshops and masterclasses at universities and music organizations, including the College Music Society, the American Liszt Society, the Vianden International Summer Festival in Luxembourg, and the Seoul International Opera Festival. She is currently undertaking a project of recording a CD which will be entitled Forgotten Songs of Théodore Gouvy with Albany records.”
Though I am fairly familiar with Osvaldo Golijov’s output, I have never heard these Three Songs. The first, a genuinely heartbreaking lullaby, begins in an electrifying fashion with the soprano soloist beginning before the orchestra. I have always been amazed at Dr. Nam’s ability to start on a pitch without any hesitation or inaccuracy. It is in works like this where perfect pitch can be a definite advantage. The opening of Night of the Flying Horses was absolutely haunting, and no matter what a motion she wishes to express, she does so convincingly and without hesitation. As I have said before, Nam has an incredible voice quality coupled with the freest vocal mechanism I have heard. Concertmaster Katherine Thayer also had a solo in this first song, and she matched Nam’s emotions note for note. I heard many in the audience express the fact that they were not familiar with Golijov’s music, and many added that it might be difficult to listen to simply because it was “new.” But his tonal writing, his excellent orchestration, and Dr. MeeAe Nam’s superb voice easily won them over.
The second of the three songs, Lúa Descolorida, which translates as the Colorless Moon is, as the program notes so aptly expressed, define despair. I have never heard Dr. Nam sing in such a low register, but, of course, I have learned over the years that she can do anything she wishes, and never fail. In this song, she was so thoughtful and so pensive, and again, another violin solo, was so well done, that it literally brought tears to the eyes. The orchestra in this song was well-nigh perfect, and there were pizzicatos that were amazing because they were so precisely together. The third song, How Slow the Wind, is the setting of two short poems by Emily Dickinson, and it was written in memory of a friend of Golijov’s in response to his sudden death. This song was quite different from the other two: it made use of some very distinctive percussion work, and the harmonies, at times, were almost identical to Mahler. There was some wonderful work on bass clarinet and bassoon in the orchestra. Even though this song was like the others in its melancholy and great sorrow, MeeAe Nam was certainly able to show the audience that the different circumstances described by the text in each song conveyed three different kinds of melancholy. One never had the thought, “Here it is: another sad song.” All three were very different, and she perfectly conveyed those differences.
MeeAe Nam transmits great confidence when she is on stage, and it is borne out of vast experience and truly amazing musicianship. That word encompasses so much: technique, voice quality, knowledge of the composer, and, of course, a great sense of ensemble. She is a joy to listen to because all of these attributes allow her to be extremely reliable. She always captures the hearts of the audience and leaves them spellbound.
During the intermission, many audience members expressed curiosity about Osvaldo Golijov and their desire to hear more of his music. This curiosity, I know, would please Dr. Nam, for one of the reasons she performs is to expose the audience to new music.
Following the intermission, the DPO performed one of Johannes Brahms’ most famous works, the Symphony Nr. 1 in c minor.
It took Brahms almost 20 years to write his first Symphony in c minor, Opus 68. He had started sketches for a Symphony in 1854, but these sketches eventually became used in the first movement of his Piano Concerto, Opus 15. The symphony is Brahms’ homage to Beethoven, was first performed in 1876 under the direction of Otto Dessoff, and critical opinion of this work from Brahms’ friends, as well as the critics, varied considerably. The conductor Hans von Bülow was the one to label it “Beethoven’s tenth,” and one wonders if he was being entirely generous in making that statement. In the last movement, Brahms admitted that he was using a slight variation of themes from the last movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, and he certainly did not consider that plagiarism. Nonetheless, many musicians, and even some critics, noticed those themes, and when another critic pointed out the similarities of themes between Brahms and Beethoven, Brahms became quite angry and said, “Any ass can see that!” I am sure that Hans von Bülow was complementing Brahms on writing a symphony that was as perfect as Beethoven’s. And, Brahms was almost hypercritical of his own work, and even ordered his secretary Max Kalbeck to destroy his letters and musical sketches that were never used, or that were changed. But you have to understand that in this time period, the Beethoven symphonies were used to measure composers (aren’t they still used this way?) and the critic Eduard Hanslick said in the Neue Freie Presse that, “Brahms’ artistic kinship with Beethoven must be plain to every observer.”
Maestro Adam Flatt, once again conducting from memory, infused this work with an urgency that was quite fresh. The opening was very dramatic and almost menacing. It sounded inexorable, as if you would get in the way, it would run you down. Every entrance was in place, the phrase endings were marvelous, as were the dynamic shadings from the orchestra. There was no question that they were trying very hard to do exactly what Maestro Flatt requested. Every time one of the themes returned in this huge sonata form movement, it became more dramatic. And, I must say, that it was toward the end of this first movement that violins seemed to be getting a little bit tired. The second movement was done just as beautifully as the first movement: perfect ambience and considerably more peaceful. The violin solo for the end of this movement was absolutely gorgeous. There are some spots in this movement that have a slightly thinner texture than the rest of the movement, and it exposes the violin section considerably. This is a hard symphony for any orchestra, but I found myself wishing that they would watch their tune just a little bit more carefully. It wasn’t bad but it was noticeably out of tune. In the third movement, which is the shortest of all four, the woodwinds were absolutely sensational. This goes along a little faster than the second movement, but Maestro Flatt infused it with lightness and almost tender energy. The orchestra responded with an incredible amount of grace. Again their entrances and phrasing were superb. There were some pizzicatos that were as precise as one would hope for. The brass section in this movement was as exceptional in this movement as they were in the first. The fourth movement was really exceptional: it was dark but flowed so beautifully, and I wondered what the audience thought of this movement at its premiere in 1876. Steve Bulota’s very quiet timpani roll provided a kind of background for the horn melody: Brahms called it his “Alphorn.” This movement has a very long introduction, and the exposition section does not begin until measure sixty-two. The strings sounded absolutely excellent in the exposition section, and again their dynamically shaped phrasing provided an almost dignified procession of melodic line. It was beautifully done.
This concert demonstrated what the Denver Philharmonic Orchestra is capable of doing. They have an exceptional conductor who pushes the orchestra to forget that they are volunteers. And, it is obvious that he reminds them continually that because they are a community orchestra does not mean they cannot be excellent. And it is clear that he is showing them that no detail in the art of music, however minor, demands less than total dedication if one wishes to excel in it. Their performance Friday evening was superb.
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: Austin Wintory, Brahms, Brian Patrick Leatherman, Devin Hughes, Janet St. John, Nora Golden, Teresa Castillo, Thomas Fitzpatrick-Kittle
Saturday, May 19, the Cherry Creek Chorale and the Boulder Symphony, both under the baton of Maestro Devin Hughes, presented a program at the Bethany Lutheran Church on East Hampden. Two works were performed: Inter, which is the middle movement of a larger work entitled The Existence Trilogy, by composer Austin Wintory, and the well-known German Requiem by Johannes Brahms.
I will quote briefly from the program notes concerning the conductor of the Cherry Creek Chorale and composer Austin Wintory:
“The Artistic Director of the Cherry Creek Chorale, Brian Patrick Leatherman, now in his 17th year with the chorale, leads a multifaceted life as a conductor, teacher, singer, and clinician… He is active as a choral clinician and adjudicator. Mr. Leatherman has appeared as a tenor and counter-tenor soloist with the San Juan Symphony, National Repertoire Orchestra, Colorado Springs Symphony, Greeley Philharmonic, Aurora Symphony, and many more.… He holds the BME and the MM degree, with emphasis in choral conducting, from Colorado State University, and cites as his two greatest influences Barbara Grenoble in pedagogy, and Robert Shaw in choral work.”
“Starting from a childhood obsession with the music of Jerry Goldsmith, Austin Wintory’s passion for composing has led to a career spanning over 200 productions, encompassing films and video games, TV shows, commercials, shorts, podcasts, video art installations, and audio books. Austin has scored over twenty-five feature films, most notably the 2009 Sundance hit, Grace, as well as the 2008 Sundance Audience Award winner, Captain Abu Raed. In addition to feature films, Austin has a tremendous passion for the world of games scoring. Austin maintains a busy schedule writing concert music, and composing/producing albums. Wintory is the composer in residence with the Boulder Symphony.
“Concerning the middle movement, Inter, of The Existence Trilogy, Wintory states that ‘Inter, with its intentional double meaning of ‘between’ and ‘bury,’ is Death. It speaks of the moment of death and the souls achieving, for the first time, actual contentedness.’ ”
This work is for orchestra and women’s chorus. It also calls for two soloists: an alto and a soprano. The alto soloist was Janet St. John, and the soprano soloist was Nora Golden. Wintory’s composition is a very attractive piece with harmonies that will not infringe on the ears of the average concertgoer, even though the work is new and makes use of modern harmonies. The complete work was premiered just last October. It reminds me a little of the composer Veljo Tormis, or perhaps Tarik O’Regan. It was very smooth and diaphanous without excessive rhythmic punctuation. The orchestra has improved since the last time I heard it. The strings were more in tune at this performance; however, it was the choir that, quite frankly, left me wanting. I could not understand any of the words they were singing, and even the soloists lacked good diction. I tried following along with the text which was in the program, but I simply couldn’t do it: there was no way to tell where, in the text, the choir was. And, unfortunately, that included the soloists as well. Good voices? Yes, without a doubt, but it would have been very nice to understand the words.
A great deal has been written about the Brahms German Requiem, so much, that I am not going to go into it here. Suffice it to say that he was fairly young to have written such an enormous piece (age 35), and, that it initially caused a great deal of upset amongst Brahms’ fellow composers, as well as the public. Even Max Bruch, in some of his letters, complains that Brahms used such complicated harmony that it was difficult to follow the piece. In addition, many people complained that a Requiem should contain the expected liturgical texts. Many sources avoid coming straight out and saying that Brahms was certainly agnostic, and quite possibly an atheist. Be that as it may, there is no question that this huge work had a strong influence on Brahms’ acceptance in the musical world as a major composer. There is also no question that it is an absolutely beautiful piece of music.
Several years ago, I attended a performance of Gabriel Fauré’s Requiem. It was sung in French, but the diction was severely lacking from the choir and even the soloists. When I wrote that in my review, I was taken to task for being too pedantic. I received a letter stating that, “Of course, you couldn’t understand it. No one in the audience could understand it because it was sung in French.” I, of course, take exception to that. I am quite sure there were several people in huge audience who knew French, myself included. Secondly, it is a very lazy attitude to take in excusing one’s mistakes. The point of this, unfortunately, is that the same problem existed in Saturday’s performance of the Brahms. Many audiences do excuse the fact that the words that a choir or soloists sing cannot be understood. Yes, the music is incredibly beautiful, but it was very difficult to follow the text which was printed in the program. I do not know how many rehearsals the choir had, but, certainly, I bow to the fact that the two ensembles, the choir and the orchestra, may have had only three rehearsals. That is the usual procedure. But, it also means that both organizations have to be ready for those three rehearsals. In addition, when one is performing a work in which a large chorus is used, extra time at the rehearsals must be spent just on diction, as it becomes more problematic because of the numbers involved. I congratulate the Cherry Creek Chorale for singing this impressive work in its original language, but I could hear no distinct German syllables.
Soon after, there arose another problem. In Movement III, there is a fugue with great rhythmic drive and emphasis. The orchestra provided the necessary drive and rhythmic direction, but the choir simply refused, on their entrances, to reciprocate: no accents and no drive; therefore, the third movement which provides a very dramatic moment in the entire work because of this fugue, was left sounding amorphous. This occurred in other movements as well, particularly Movement V and Movement VI.
There were moments in this performance where Maestro Hughes seemed to be concentrating on conducting the choir alone, in an effort to get them to respond to his direction. That can often be the case when an orchestra and a choir are being conducted at the same time. Normally, the orchestra, while certainly not being left to fend for themselves, must have enough musicianship to remember their own rehearsals and listen to the music that they are making. Occasionally, this did not work, as there were instances where a section of the orchestra would make its entrance much too loudly, and cover the choir. Saturday evening, the most consistent offenders in this regard seemed to be the low brass. They also suffered often from not being in tune with each other.
This work requires a baritone solo and a soprano. The soprano was Teresa Castillo, who is currently working on her Master’s degree at the University of Denver. She has had several operatic roles, and she performs with the Central City Opera. She has an absolutely beautiful voice, and it is big. But, it is my sincere hope that she will devote more time to diction.
The baritone soloist was Thomas Fitzpatrick-Kittle. He graduated from the University of Denver’s Lamont School of Music with many awards and scholarships. He has competed in many vocal competitions, has performed several operatic roles, and placed fifth in the Denver Lyric Opera Guild’s annual vocal competition. His voice is perfectly suited for a work such as the Brahms: it is huge, and has exactly the right quality. But, again, I could not understand a word that he sang.
There was a standing ovation at the end of the evening, and I am quite sure that the majority of the audience was thoroughly impressed with the beauty of the music and the size of the effort, as well they should be. But, I found myself wondering if the audience could understand the words, or even if they were listening for them. I also wonder if anyone in the audience heard the phrases that were begun in the orchestra, but were not continued by the choir as they should have been. I, likewise, wondered, if, at rehearsals, anyone was placed “in the hall” to listen for diction and balance between the orchestra and the choir, or any of the subtle nuances that separate an execution of music from a really fine performance.
I have heard at least three live performances of the Brahms Requiem previous to Saturday’s. I know that it is possible to have a large choir and soloists be clear in their enunciation. After hearing Saturday’s performance, I wonder how many people think that it is not.
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: Boulder Symphony Orchestra, Brahms, Copland, Devin Hughes, Mark o'Connor, Musique de Salon, Patrick Sutton, Ricardo Iznaola
Friday evening I drove to Boulder to hear the Boulder Symphony Orchestra play at the First Presbyterian Church. This orchestra is conducted by Maestro Devin Hughes, and as many of you will surely recall, the First Presbyterian Church is their new place of residence. Maestro Hughes’ reputation is expanding, I am happy to say, for he is now the Music Director of the Santa Fe Youth Symphony Association, and he has also conducted, just this summer, at the American Academy of Conducting at Aspen.
The Boulder Symphony opened their program with a very charming work entitled Appalachia Waltz written by American composer Mark O’Connor (b.1961). Quoting form his web site: “He currently serves as Artist-in-Residence at the University of Miami. Mr. O’Connor is the founder and president of the internationally recognized Mark O’Connor String Camp, held each summer at ETSU in Johnson City, Tennessee and at Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts.
“As a teenager and a young professional musician in his twenties, Mr. O’Connor performed and recorded with some of the best musicians in the world, as well as being a member of some of the best groups ever assembled. At the age of 13, Mr. O’Connor won the Grand Masters Fiddling Championships in Nashville, Tennessee competing against all ages both amateur and professional. By age 19, he had won that contest two more times, won the National Old-Time Fiddlers Contest three times, the National Flatpicking Guitar Championships twice, and became the World Mandolin Champion, an incredible record of contest wins that no one believes will ever be matched. At age 17 Mr. O’Connor played guitar as a member of one of the greatest acoustic string bands of the 1970s, the David Grisman Quintet. At age 19 he played violin and guitar alongside Steve Morse as a member of one of the greatest rock-fusion instrumental bands of the 1980s, The Dregs. In his twenties he was a member of one of the greatest acoustic bands of all time with four of the greatest players on their respective instruments, Strength in Numbers (with Bela Fleck, Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas and Edgar Meyer). He also assembled two of the greatest Country bands of all time in 1989 and 1990 – The American Music Shop house band and New Nashville Cats. During his twenties, Mr. O’Connor became the most in demand session musician of any instrument and in any genre for a 3-year period, appearing on more top ten hits in the country, recording over 500 albums, and recording with everyone – Dolly Parton, James Taylor, Paul Simon, Randy Travis, The Judds; the list is too long to print.”
Appalachia Waltz was originally written for solo cello, and, as Mark O’Connor says, it is probably his most popular piece. But the program notes don’t explain who arranged it for orchestra. A quick search on the web said that it had been arranged for cello, violin, and bass, by Edgar Meyer who is on the recording of this piece with Mark O’Connor and Yo-Yo Ma.
It has been a while since I’ve heard the Boulder Symphony perform, because it is sometimes difficult for me to drive from Littleton to Boulder. I heard them last season, and I was impressed with every section of the orchestra. Friday night, as I sat and listened to them, I was a little puzzled at their performance of Mr. O’Connor’s piece, Appalachia Waltz. The strings, particularly the violas, were having a difficult time playing in tune, and that was a little surprising to me. In addition, from where I was sitting, it was difficult to hear any dynamic changes, and that created the impression that the orchestra was playing level without much passion. The last time I saw Maestro Hughes conduct, he used the baton, but at this evening’s performance it was not until the second half of the program, where he conducted Brahms Serenade, that he made use of the baton. His motions with his hands were very fluid, but from where I was sitting, I could not see any emphatic motions that might indicate an increase in dynamics or passion.
The next work on the program was Vocalise, written by DU’s Ricardo Iznaola. This work, as is explained in the program notes is “…the fourth movement of the suite, Musique de Salon, a work that evokes the spirit of the Parisian end-of-the-20th-century salon, where friends gathered to share good music.” I’m quite sure that everyone in the state of Colorado is familiar with Ricardo Iznaola. He is on the faculty at DU, and not only is he a performing artist, but he is also a fine composer. I will quote from his website:
“Mr. Iznaola’s impressive catalogue of original works includes his orchestral (‘In the Eyes, a Silver Dagger’; Tiempo Muerto – Concerto for Guitar and Orchestra), chamber (Danzas de la Abuela; Triptico Criollo; Gran Guaguanco; Diferencias para el Conde Claros Criollo), vocal (Corinna’s Songbook; Vocalise) and solo works (Sonata Daedalus; Blood Wedding Suite; Three Little Tales; Variations on a Theme by Lauro; Concert Etudes; Circus Vignettes; Monologo I and II, etc.) The Concert Etudes, written in a neo-Romantic, highly virtuosic idiom, have attracted considerable attention by fellow guitarists, as well as becoming audience favorites in many of Mr. Iznaola’s performances.
“Ricardo Iznaola’s distinguished performing career includes innumerable concert performances at venues like Wigmore Hall (London), Merkin Hall (New York City), Hercules Saal (Munich), Grande Salle de l’Unesco (Paris), Ishibashi Memorial Hall (Tokyo), Auditorio Nacional (Madrid), Teatro Municipal (Caracas), Gran Teatro de la Maestranza (Seville), the Philharmonic Society (Bilbao), the Manuel de Falla Auditorium (Granada), as well as many music festivals in the United States, Europe, South America and Japan. He has been guest soloist with numerous orchestras under the batons of conductors Murray Seidlin, Keith Lockhart, Theo Alcántara, Donald Johanos, David Lockington, Manuel Galduf, Gerhardt Zimmerman, James Setapen, Stephen Alltop, and many others. Since 2001, he is a member of the prestigious artist-faculty at the Bowdoin International Music Festival in Brunswick, Maine (USA).
“An artist of charisma, charm and authority, his performances are characterized by immediate rapport with his audiences, who respond with enthusiasm to his virtuosity and intense musicality.”
Patrick Sutton is a doctoral student in guitar at the University of Denver Lamont School of Music. I have heard him play before, and at that hearing, he was one of the outstanding performers of the evening. The same was the case Friday evening. He has won many awards, and it is abundantly clear that he loves chamber music. He is a student of Mr. Iznaola.
Vocalise is a beautiful piece that is remarkably lyrical. Sutton’s playing is just as lyrical, and his phrasing is very well considered and thought out. I was struck Friday night by his ability to create a sense of architecture. However, I must say that it seemed as though the Boulder Symphony was not giving him quite the support that he needed. From where I was sitting, I could barely see Patrick Sutton’s head and shoulders, but it sounded as though his acoustic guitar was amplified, and in the hall that size, it would certainly be necessary. But compared to his sound, which I judged to be just fine, the orchestra sounded almost anemic, and there were still problems with the strings being in tune. I must say that this is not the way the Boulder Symphony sounded last season. Occasionally, the orchestra seemed to not arrive at phrase endings together, and they were sometimes almost an eighth of a beat off. This was really a shame, because Patrick Sutton’s performance was absolutely beautiful.
Next on the program, came Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring. I know that all of you readers are familiar with this piece. I’m not going to say anything about its history. I will, however, say that this is one of those pieces where one cannot help but think that in spite of its popularity, it is always a wonderful piece to hear. Everyone knows who Aaron Copland is, and, of course, this is the piece that helped to make him famous. But he is still a much underrated composer. How many of you readers have heard Quiet City, his Clarinet Concerto, or his Variations for Piano?
The woodwind section in this composition has to stay on their toes. And I was quite surprised to see Shaun Burley performing with the Boulder Symphony, as he regularly plays with the Denver Philharmonic. He was, however, filling in for Jack Chen who is the principal clarinetist. Shaun Burley and the flute section, Kristin Stordahl-Kanda, and Ginger Hedrick, made this piece beautiful. But again, the dynamics of the entire orchestra seemed to be almost nonexistent. There were some isolated spots where I could tell that they were getting a little bit louder or a little bit softer, but it certainly wasn’t the dynamic range that this piece calls for, in my opinion. In addition, many times, the orchestra was a fraction of a beat behind Maestro Hughes. It also seemed to me in this piece that Maestro Hughes was not quite as forceful as he might have been. I have never had conducting lessons, but again, I noticed that Maestro Hughes was not using a baton in this piece. I have seen other conductors who do not use a baton be quite forceful, because it helps to sharpen the movements that they are making with their hands. But I must say, that when the Shaker hymn, Simple Gifts, made its appearance, the orchestra was spellbinding. I also emphasize that the performance of Copeland’s famous work was not bad. It’s just that I am accustomed to hearing better from this orchestra. There were many places where I longed for some detail work. After the intermission the Boulder Symphony Orchestra performed Brahms’ marvelous Serenade Nr. 1 in D major, Opus 11. This Serenade evolved from a nonet for winds and strings which was written in 1858. He then rewrote it for chamber orchestra in 1859, but as so often is the case with Brahms, the two early works are either lost, or they were destroyed by him. We are indebted to a critic and writer named Max Kalbeck who edited some of Brahms letters, as well as sketches of compositions, that had been saved from destruction by Brahms’ secretary. Kalbeck also wrote an eight volume biography of Brahms, which, to my knowledge, has never been translated to English (doctoral students, take note). But apparently, he could not save the original of this work. At any rate, Brahms added two more movements and published the serenade as an orchestral work in 1860. This work was considered as an avant-garde composition, which today, seems a little surprising.
Maestro Hughes used a baton to conduct this work, and I am unsure as to whether its use contributed to the better performance which I heard, in comparison to the first half of the program. Certainly, the dynamics were better in the Brahms than they were in the Copeland, O’Connor, and Iznaola.
The woodwind section clearly is the best section in this orchestra. Sometimes the French horns were wonderful and sometimes they burbled or were off pitch. As this composition progressed through its six movements, it seemed that the viola section played more and more out of tune, and they sometimes took the cello section with them. In this work, the orchestra was uneven. I have always marveled and wondered at what makes orchestra so inconsistent. Do they practice enough? But again, and I emphasize this point, this was not a bad performance. It was so close to being really good, that the problems were maddening for the listener. The woodwind sections, clarinets and flute, were consistently good, but the strings scooped their pitches and in one movement which was filled with pizzicato, they were so soft that the rest of the orchestra almost covered them. Their pizzicato was even out of tune, let alone not together. There is no question in my mind that Maestro Hughes knows how to conduct Brahms, and that he knows how to make Brahms work. But I found myself wanting to run down the aisle occasionally, and encourage the string section to practice.
As I said above, I am accustomed to hearing better from this orchestra, and there’s no question that any orchestra can have a “bad night.” I am being supercritical because I heard them play so very well last season.
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: Arkady Fomin, Brahms, David Korevaar, Haydn, Jesus Castro-Balbi, Paul Schoenfield, The Beaux Arts Trio, The Budapest Quartet, The Clavier Trio
Since 1950, there have been two chamber groups that have had a profound impact on the world of chamber music, not only because of their incredibly vast repertoire, but because the members of each group were somehow brought together to perform. The earliest of these two chamber groups was the Budapest String Quartet: Joseph Roisman and Jac Gorodetzky, violins; Boris Kroyt, viola; and Mischa Schneider, cello. If they ever needed a pianist for the group, they often included Artur Balsam.
The other chamber group that has had such a profound impact on the art of chamber music is the Beaux Arts Trio. The founding members of the Beaux Arts Trio were Menahem Pressler, piano; Daniel Guilet, violin; and Bernard Greenhouse, cello. The Beaux Arts Trio members changed from time to time for a variety of reasons, but the center artist has always been Menahem Pressler.
Since Bloomington, Indiana, was my hometown, I have heard the Beaux Arts Trio countless times since I was 15 years old. I was also very fortunate to hear the Budapest Quartet. Sunday afternoon, I heard a performance at the CU Boulder College of Music by The Clavier Trio. Its members include Arkady Fomin, violin; Jesus Castro-Balbi, cello; and David Korevaar, piano. Below, are some short bio statements of the members of this trio:
“Violinist Arkady Fomin was born in Riga, Latvia, where he received his musical training at the Latvian State Conservatory with the legendary Latvian pedagogue, Voldemar Sturestep. A founder of Clavier Trio, Mr. Fomin has collaborated in performances with Pinchas Zukerman, Yefim Bronfman, Emanuel Borok, Shlomo Mintz, Atar Arad, David Korevaar, Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, Andrew Litton and the late Steven De Groote. As violinist and conductor, Mr. Fomin performs in Russia, Latvia, Europe, Japan, and throughout the United States. A member of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, Mr. Fomin is also Professor and Artist-in-Residence at The University of Texas at Dallas, Artistic Director of the New Conservatory of Dallas, and Artistic Director of Conservatory Music in the Mountains in Durango, Colorado. Arkady Fomin is recipient of the Cowlishaw Artist-in-Residence Award for artistic achievement and contributions to the City of Dallas.”
“Dr. Castro-Balbi is a graduate of the Conservatoire National Supérieur in Lyon (France), Indiana University at Bloomington, Yale, and of The Juilliard School, where he also served on the Pre-College faculty. He studied cello with Aldo Parisot and Janos Starker and chamber music with Boris Berman, the late Rostislav Dubinsky, Joseph Kalischtein, Fred Sherry and members of the Amadeus, Juilliard, Ravel and Tokyo String Quartets. Together with his wife, pianist Gloria Lin and son Joaquín he resides in Fort Worth, where he is the cello professor at Texas Christian University.
“A passionate chamber musician, Dr. Castro-Balbi is the cellist of the Castro-Balbi/Lin Duo with pianist Gloria Lin and of Clavier Trio with violinist Arkady Fomin and pianist David Korevaar. Dr. Castro-Balbi is the founder and director of the TCU Cello Ensemble and of the Faculty & Friends Chamber Music Series, a showcase of collegiality and excellence at TCU. Festivals include La Jolla SummerFest in California; Mimir in Fort Worth, Texas; Norfolk, Connecticut; Music in the Mountains in Durango, Colorado; Aguascalientes, Mexico; the Bartók Festival in Szombathely (Hungary); the Caracas (Venezuela), Manchester (England), and Beauvais (France) international cello festivals, and the Isaac Stern Third International Chamber Music Encounters in Jerusalem, Israel.”
“David Korevaar began his piano studies at age six in San Diego with Sherman Storr, and at age 13 he became a student of the great American virtuoso Earl Wild. By age 20 he had earned his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from the Juilliard School, where he continued his studies with Earl Wild and studied composition with David Diamond. He completed his Doctor of Musical Arts from the Juilliard School with Abbey Simon. Another important mentor and teacher was the French pianist Paul Doguereau, who had been a student of Egon Petri, and who had studied the music of Fauré and Debussy with Roger-Ducasse (a pupil of Fauré’s), and the music of Ravel with the composer.
“Prior to joining the faculty of the University of Colorado in 2000, Korevaar taught for many years at the Westport School of Music in Connecticut, where he was Artist-Teacher. He now lives in Boulder, CO with his family. David Korevaar presented his London debut at Wigmore Hall in 2007, as well as his German recital debut at the Heidelberg Spring Festival. Mr. Korevaar has been heard at major venues in New York including Weill Hall, Alice Tully Hall, Town Hall, and Merkin Concert Hall. He has performed across the United States from Boston, New York and Washington, DC to Chicago, Cincinnati, Houston, Dallas and San Diego, and he plays frequently in his home state of Colorado with orchestras, in chamber ensembles and in solo recitals.”
This trio is absolutely without question world-class. No doubt, there will be some of you readers who will say that they cannot be world-class because the pianist is from Boulder, not New York or Paris or Salzburg, and the other two musicians, Fomin and Castro-Balbi, are presently from Texas. I am well aware, as I have written before, of the old cliché, that one cannot be good at anything unless one has to travel from far away. That, I assure you, is utter nonsense.
The Clavier Trio opened their recital with a work by Franz Joseph Haydn: the Trio in C Major, Hob. XV:27 (1797).
Note that instead of an opus number, there is an Hob. number. The Hob. number refers to Anthony Van Hoboken, who was a Dutch engineer. He also studied music in Frankfurt and Vienna, and began collecting additions of music beginning with Bach and (essentially) ending with Brahms. This collection of over 5000 items is now in the Austrian National Library in Vienna. The Haydn works catalogue is entitled Thematisch-bibliographisches Werkverzeichnis (3 vols., Mainz: Schott, 1957-78). The Hoboken catalogue uses a double-numbering system. Works are first grouped by genre and then by number. A Roman numeral is used to indicate the group. It is interesting to note that Haydn, himself, began a thematic catalog of his own works, but it was never completed, and oddly enough, contains a few errors!
During his stay in England in the early 1790s, Haydn composed eleven new piano trios, and he seems to have lavished all of his incredible talents on these remarkable compositions. The instant The Clavier Trio began to perform, I was absolutely struck by the amazingly clear phrasing and pedaling by David Korevaar. The phrases were shaped delicately by dynamics, and each Haydn-esque motive was separated by very adroit pedaling and keyboard touch. In fact, everyone in this trio was remarkable in having the same concept of dynamics and phrasing. I was also struck by the sound of the violin; it was full and warm, and so beautiful, that it fit everything that was performed on the program.
There are some instruments that are better for some composers than others, but that simply does not apply to Mr. Fomin’s violin. (After the program, I asked Arkady Fomin what kind of violin he had, and he said it was new to him, and I believe that he said that it was a Grancino). For those of you who are not familiar with this violin maker, Grancino was a student of Niccolo Amati. Mr. Fomin gladly showed me his violin, which was built in 1690 (!), and it was absolutely beautiful. He also said that this particular violin was noted for being in almost original shape.
What was so striking about the first movement was the sameness of concept and musical ideas that each member exhibited as they played. That is the same thing that sets the Beaux Arts Trio and the old Budapest Quartet apart from chamber groups today. The members of The Clavier Trio truly seemed to be in total mental and musical coordination. I point out that it takes a great deal of musical understanding and skill to perform this way. Yes, it’s true that the more one performs with whatever musical partners one has, the more confidence grows, but I assure you that it is an absolute joy to listen to, and it is instantly recognizable.
The slow movement of this trio is in three parts, and is full of accents where one does not expect them. The center section is somewhat stormy with many surprising key changes. Again, this movement reflected that all three of these musicians had not just mastered their instruments, but they fully understood what to do with Haydn’s humor, and how to allow each other to express their ideas while staying within the scope of Haydn. The cellist was absolutely remarkable in this movement: his tone was clear and lyrical. There was never a hint that one member of the trio might cover up the other two; it just never happened. One was left with the feeling that the audience was being given a presentation on why Haydn is such a great composer, and why The Clavier Trio likes his music so much. All of this is a very difficult thing for a chamber group to express, and it is what made the Beaux Arts Trio and the Budapest Quartet so wonderful to listen to.
The last movement of the Haydn was full of Haydn’s humor and incredible technical demands on each musician. Korevaar, Fomin, and Castro-Balbi played with great energy and spirit, and with intense focus. Every entrance and phrase ending was done impeccably. In fact, their playing was so startlingly good, I must admit that I sharpened my ears just to see if they would make a mistake. They didn’t. Now, if one asks them after the performance if they were satisfied, they may point out the minutest of details that they might change. But, you must understand that musicians of such caliber are always concerned with the smallest detail.
Following the Haydn, was a three movement work by the American composer, Paul Schoenfield. Schoenfield is a native of Detroit, and for a time, the main thrust of his musical life was concertizing on the piano. He studied with Rudolph Serkin. Quoting from his website:
“Although he now rarely performs, he was formerly an active pianist, touring the United States, Europe, and South America as a soloist and with groups including Music from Marlboro. His recordings as a pianist include the complete violin and piano works of Bartok with Sergiu Luca. His compositions can be heard on the Angel, Decca, Innova, Vanguard, EMI, Koch, BMG, and the New World labels. A man of many interests, Paul Schoenfield is also an avid scholar of mathematics and Hebrew.”
Schoenfield’s work is a three movement composition entitled Café Music. This is the first time I have heard this composer’s work, and I was totally unprepared for the surprising character of this piece. It was an absolutely glorious rag, infinitely more sophisticated than the well-known rags of Joplin. It had an overtone of French jazz that was so popular in the 1920s and 30s, but it is infinitely more difficult. It certainly was a tonal piece, but the jazz chords were often infused with modern harmonies and the structure, with modern ideas. Keep in mind, that this was the first time I ever heard this work, but the transitions between themes seem to always employ the most avant-garde harmonies, and then, with the return of the theme, the rag idiom and harmonies would reappear. The first movement is marked Allegro, and The Clavier Trio had a rather quick interpretation of the tempo marking, but it was a very natural sound, I assure you.
The slow movement, marked Rubato – Andante Moderato, was a slow stride, with incredibly sweet sounding string work from the violinist and cellist, whose mellifluous qualities were given emphasis by the slow stride rhythm from the piano. The harmonies were incredibly lush with a little bit of dissonance and deceptive resolutions. The Clavier Trio’s playing is so crystal clear, that every nuance and harmonic change could be heard very easily.
The last movement, marked Presto, was a blindingly fast blues/rag. The tempo taken by The Clavier Trio was absolutely breathtaking, considering the technical difficulties that each of these musicians faced in this last movement. It is extremely difficult writing. They never faltered, their entrances were always together, and the insistence of the driving rhythm never failed. It was exciting to listen to and a joy. David Korevaar’s pedaling was perfect in this last movement (as it was throughout the whole recital), and I bring it up, because clarity in this last movement is absolutely essential, and I think many lesser pianists would have had difficulty. Mr. Korevaar did not, and Mr. Fomin and Mr. Castro-Balbi, even though they were hard at work, were impeccable.
For some time, everyone has known that Brahms was very careful to destroy not only his letters that he did not want anyone else to read, but also early sketches, and even complete works, that he thought were unworthy. The Piano Trio in B Major, Opus 8, is a youthful work which was revised thirty-four years later at the invitation of his publisher, Simrock. It is this revision of the earlier work (which was also criticized by Clara Schumann) that is most often performed today. Like Brahms’ other trios, it is in four movements. The second movement, which is a Scherzo, gives this work an almost symphonic feel. In fact, the first movement has so many themes, that it is easy to consider it symphonic in scope. The Clavier Trio performed this work with the required balance, and the wonderful cello playing supported the very passionate work of Mr. Fomin, the violinist. Throughout this work, The Clavier Trio showed profound musicianship which reminded me of the performances that I have twice heard by the Beaux Arts Trio. Why? Because the concept that The Clavier Trio has of Brahms struck me as being identical to the concept that Pressler, Guilet, and Greenhouse had. The last movement has some very dark and mysterious writing, and Korevaar emphasized this with very subtle changes in tone. I have a recording of this trio with the Beaux Arts Trio performing, though Isidore Cohen has replaced Daniel Guilet as violinist (this recording was done in 1986, and I am not sure what year Daniel Guilet left the trio. I first heard the Beaux Arts Trio perform this trio in 1958). At any rate, the sameness of concept and sound between the Beaux Arts Trio and The Clavier Trio is amazing.
Again, I am sure there will be those who read what I have written, and think that the comparison of The Clavier Trio to the Beaux Arts Trio is nonsense. I would invite all of those individuals to attend a Clavier Trio performance after spending some time listening to the Beaux Arts Trio recordings.
There was a decent audience in Grusin Hall, but truthfully, it should have been larger. I think that The Clavier Trio should perform regularly in Denver, so that Denver audiences will hear more chamber music that is world class. I say more, because there are already some very good chamber organizations in the city and the Metro area. But The Clavier Trio, and I do not intend to take anything away from any of the other organizations, is absolutely world-class.