Opus Colorado

The Denver Philharmonic Orchestra’s exciting season opener

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Denver Phil: Aldo Ragone and Adam Flatt exceptional

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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