Opus Colorado

Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg: Passionate Shostakovich. Andrew Litton: Passionate Mahler

Friday, May 1, the Colorado Symphony Orchestra gave another remarkable performance. Under the directorship of Maestro Andrew Litton, and partnering with the sensational guest violinist, Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, they performed two very difficult works: Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto Nr. 1 in A minor, Opus 99, and Gustav Mahler’s Symphony Nr. 5 in C sharp minor.

Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg needs no introduction to Denver audiences. She is one of the world’s most extraordinary violinists, and she is spectacular to watch. On stage, she moves a little more than many violinists; however, her movements are not directed toward theatrical impact, but rather they clearly assist in placing energy into her bow arm. The result is one of excitement and intensity: and it is abundantly clear that she genuinely feels that intensity. Every performance that Salerno-Sonnenberg gives seems to remind me that she is, perhaps, one of the few violinists today who can truly see and re-create the passion and intensity of the composer.

Shostakovich’s marvelous Violin Concerto in A minor was written in 1947 and 1948 and then revised in 1955. It was composed for Shostakovich’s close friend David Oistrakh, but it had to be “withdrawn” because of the oppressive climate for composers, poets, and artists in the Soviet Union at the time. As I have said in past articles, the favorite term of the communist regime was “formalist perversions.” However, in the instance of the First Violin Concerto, Dmitry Shostakovich, in a rare response to Soviet criticism, wrote an article in the June 17, 1956, issue of Pravda, wherein he stated, “Not infrequently, ‘formalism’ is a label applied to what is not comprehensible or even unpalatable to some persons… However, only art which is empty and devoid of ideas, cold and lifeless, deserves to be described as formalistic art. In the latter, the technique chosen by the composer becomes an end in itself, a kind of foppery, a trick of an aesthete.” It is amazing to me that Shostakovich was able to get away with this rebuttal, but he was certainly one of the most prominent composers in the world, and it is that prominence which probably kept him from being sent to Siberia.

The reason that the Concerto was revised in 1955 was that David Oistrakh suggested that because the third movement ended with a startlingly difficult cadenza that leads directly into the fourth movement without pause, that the opening statement of the main theme of the fourth movement be given to the orchestra. In that way, the soloist gets a chance to rest and catch his breath. Shostakovich agreed to that suggestion from his friend.

Salerno–Sonnenberg’s playing at the beginning of the first movement was as moody and dark as the sound of the theme itself. Shostakovich does not begin this piece with a fast first movement: rather, he has labeled it a Nocturne that must be taken at a moderate tempo. In keeping with its rather ill-omened sound, there is a thinly veiled reference from the Dies Irae theme of the Requiem Mass in the middle of the movement. The second movement continues this mood; however, this movement is labeled a Scherzo, and it is here that Salerno-Sonnenberg’s supreme technical ability was highlighted. This is an incredibly difficult movement, but it was filled with passion and excitement. In spite of its obvious technical difficulties, Salerno-Sonnenberg demonstrated that she was more than capable in realizing what Shostakovich wished. Before the concert began, Principal Second violinist, Paul Primus, in his introductory remarks about the concert, made the statement that Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg “owned” this concerto. That is a very high compliment indeed, but you readers must realize that he was dead accurate. Everything was in place as she performed this marvelous second movement. I might also add that the woodwind section of the Colorado Symphony Orchestra was spectacular in this second movement. I truly believe that the Colorado Symphony has one of the best woodwind sections in the United States, if not the world. They certainly gave their all in providing Salerno-Sonnenberg with the musical support that her musicianship demands.

As it is labeled, the third movement of this concerto is a Passacaglia that has an almost choral like quality at the outset because the woodwinds deliver a mournful theme. When the violin enters with the main theme, it is obvious that this is one of Shostakovich’s most beautiful themes. Salerno-Sonnenberg gave it astonishing warmth, gradually increasing the tension as it headed into the cadenza which led directly to the fourth movement without any pause. The last movement is marked Burlesca: Allegro con brio, and it is indeed festive in nature. And Shostakovich seems to have written this as a statement, that even though the government is trying to control him and his art, he is daring to show them that he can have a good time. Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg played this last movement in an almost triumphant manner, and I am convinced by her playing that she is accurately convinced that is what Shostakovich wished.

It has been some time since I have heard this violin concerto. But Salerno-Sonnenberg’s performance of it will live in my memory for a very long time. Her astonishing accuracy coupled with her astonishing musicality and technical prowess was supreme in every sense of the word. The audience responded with a very long standing ovation. It was if they were saying that they clearly understood the artistic sincerity that was inherent in Salerno-Sonnenberg’s performance.

Following the intermission, Maestro Litton and the Colorado Symphony performed Mahler’s Symphony Nr. 5 in C sharp minor. Mahler “finished” this work in 1902, but the reason I used quotation marks around the word finished is because Mahler continued revising the orchestration of this work until he died in 1911. The first revision was published in 1904, and even then his publisher, C. F. Peters, didn’t bother to make the corrections in the miniature score version of their publication. In 1964, the Austrian musicologist Erwin Ratz’ “critical first edition” of Mahler’s works, turned out to be less than the final word because another musicologist, Karl Heinz Füssl, made additional discoveries which he published in 1989. Indeed, Mahler even composed the movements of this symphony out of numerical order, beginning with the third, he then wrote the first and second movements. The first movement, as Friday’s program indicated, falls into three sections: a funeral march, then a second section which is in sonata form, and a third section which is marked “Stormily with great vehemence.” The second movement of this symphony stands by itself and is marked Scherzo. The third movement can be divided into two sections, the first of which is arguably one of Mahler’s most famous symphonic movements. It is marked Adagietto: Sehr langsam and almost seems to be motivated in spirit to a song that Mahler wrote using a text by Rückert which reads “… I have become lost to the world… I live alone in my heaven.” Following this slow and emotionally painful section, there is the final fast movement which is marked Rondo – Finale: Allegro. Therefore, the end result is a symphony with three large sections, which when performed, give the impression of a typical four movement Symphony. All of this is evidence of Mahler’s continuing search to solve what some consider to be an unsettled compositional process. Nonetheless, there is clear evidence that he was beginning to discover his true symphonic vocabulary.

The performance Friday evening was absolutely superb, and the audience, which almost filled the hall completely, sat in rapt attention for over an hour. Maestro Litton was obviously concerned with every minute detail of this work. In the first movement, the violas and the cellos were absolutely sensational. Their warmth filled the funeral march with a remarkable passion. The third section of this movement, which Mahler marked stormily, brings an end to the first movement in an almost joyous conclusion.

The second movement of this work, marked Scherzo, is equally joyful and it was in this movement that the brass section, particularly the French horns, were superb. Then comes the 3rd movement, divided into two sections, with its wonderfully performed Adagietto and then the final Rondo.

As I stated above, Mahler devised a form completely separate from any previous symphonic form. It is huge and episodic, but it has its own logic. The testament to that is that it captures the audience’s attention for a very long time. Of course, Friday evening, the attention span was aided by an absolutely stellar performance. You readers must understand that Andrew Litton’s knowledge of this symphony, and of Mahler, allowed him to bring out the details of this work so that the final result was shorter in time than that which could be measured by a clock. The members of the orchestra truly must have been emotionally and mentally exhausted at the end of this performance.

It was wonderful to see that the audience came very close to filling the hall Friday evening. It was also wonderful that they demonstrated their appreciation of such a fine performance with a standing ovation after each work that was presented. Also exciting Friday evening was the fact that there were many young people in attendance to hear the works of two absolutely significant composers so beautifully performed.

The Colorado Symphony: Judd was outstanding; Olga Kern will become a legend

Saturday, October 11, I attended the Colorado Symphony concert with great eagerness. There were several reasons for that frame of mind: 1) I always enjoy the Colorado Symphony concerts, 2) Olga Kern was performing the Rachmaninoff Third Piano Concerto, 3) the CSO was performing the Haydn Symphony Nr. 103, and I have always had a weakness for Haydn symphonies. In addition, this performance was to be conducted by James Judd, an English conductor whose reputation is rapidly growing in the USA.

I will quote a couple of paragraphs from Maestro Judd’s biographical statement:

“An artist of outstanding versatility, British born conductor James Judd is sought after for his passionate musicianship and his charismatic presence both on and off the podium. Known for his extraordinarily communicative style and bold, imaginative programming, repeat engagements in concert halls from Prague to Tokyo attest to his rapport with audiences and musicians alike. In his distinguished career, James Judd has conducted the Berlin Philharmonic, Rotterdam Philharmonic, Orchestre National de France, Gewandhaus Orchestra of Leipzig, Royal Philharmonic, London Symphony, the English Chamber Orchestra, BBC Symphony, Baltimore Symphony, Indianappolis Symphony, Cincinnatti Symphony and St. Louis Symphony. Performance highlights from this past season include engagements with the Hungarian National Philharmonic, the NHK Symphony, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, the Orchestra of Santa Cecilia Rome, performances of Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius with the Vienna Symphony and a tour of China, Japan and Taiwan performing Mahler’s Symphony No. 9 with the Asian Youth Orchestra.

“Considered one of the pre-eminent interpreters of British orchestral music, Judd’s recording of Elgar’s Symphony No. 1 with the Halle Orchestra is still a highly regarded reference standard among conductors today. He has amassed an extensive discography on the Naxos label, including an unprecedented number in partnership with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, where he is Music Director Emeritus. Recordings of works by Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Bernstein, Copland, Gershwin and many others received critical acclaim. A champion of the works of Gustav Mahler, Judd’s performances of this monumental composer have been praised the world over. His recording of Mahler’s Symphony No.1 was awarded the Gold Medal by France’s Diapason as well as the Toblacher Komponierhauschen for the best Mahler recording of the year. Judd’s orchestral recordings are also featured on the Decca, EMI and Philips labels.”

Maestro Judd opened the program with Mahler’s Blumine. Originally, this work was the andante movement from Mahler’s Symphony Nr. 1 in D Major. In November of 1889, Mahler conducted this symphony in Budapest, where he revised the symphony even during its rehearsal because he finally had the opportunity of hearing just how his orchestration of this work sounded. The symphony was quite long (even now this work takes almost an hour to perform) and the reaction of the critics was strong indeed: one critic said that its endless length infuriated him. The result was that Mahler discarded the second movement from the work which he had entitled Blumine.

It is an absolutely beautiful piece of music with an incredibly lyrical trumpet solo wonderfully performed by Justin Bartels, who is Principal Trumpet with the CSO. Maestro Judd, as his above bio statement reveals, is a champion of Mahler and his conducting of this short movement clearly displayed his sensitivity for this composer. It also seemed apparent to me that the orchestra respected his conducting ability, for there was absolutely no hesitation in following his every movement and demand.

In 1791, Haydn arrived in England, and he wrote his first of the London Symphonies (93, 94, 95 and 96) in that year. He was persuaded to stay in London for the following year wherein he wrote Symphonies 97and 98. In June 1792, Haydn had to return to Vienna where he introduced his early London Symphonies. But by the end of 1793, Haydn had once again received permission from Prince Anton Esterházy, his employer, to resume his travels, and he returned to London on February 5 of 1794. His 103rd Symphony was written in London in 1795. As always, his symphonies were very well received.

Maestro Judd’s performance of the Symphony was enthusiastic indeed, and he relished explaining the opening drumroll to the audience. When Haydn premiered his symphonies, it was the custom for the audience to be milling about somewhat, and perhaps, even eating as they waited for the concert to start. Haydn decided that he would open his movement with a few measures of forte solo tympani in order to attract the audience’s attention so that they would sit down and listen attentively to his composition.

Following the opening drumroll, admirably played by Steve Hearn, a slow introduction follows that makes use of the low strings and bassoons. However, it did not seem to have the dark and brooding quality under the baton of Maestro Judd that so many other conductors give this slow introduction. It is the longest of Haydn’s slow introductions, and you readers must understand that it was Haydn who initiated introductions to the first movement of his symphonies. Following the introduction was the allegro section of the first movement and its spirited 6/8 meter was light and airy and pure Haydn. The andante second movement is a theme and variations, which truly uses two separate themes one: in C Major and one in C minor. This movement has a wonderful violin solo which was beautifully done by Yumi Hwang-Williams. The third movement is, of course, a minuet and Trio form; however, by this time in his creative output, Haydn had increased the tempo of the minuet. This was no longer a rather staid court dance, but neither was it the rapid scherzo movement originated by Beethoven. The woodwinds were certainly prominent in the Trio, and their delightful playing provided a contrast to the rather dark theme of the Minuet. I have not heard this symphony for quite some time, and the last movement of this work, marked Allegro con spirito, reminded me very much of Haydn’s use of folk material. The first five notes of the theme return almost constantly, surfacing from one section of the orchestra after another. James Judd filled this entire Haydn Symphony with a kind of charm that is so typical of Haydn’s work, and yet there was a certain overtone of seriousness that comes from Haydn’s mastery of the sonata form and his remarkable innovations.

After the intermission the pianist, Olga Kern, performed the very well-known Piano Concerto Nr. 3 by Rachmaninoff. Olga Kern has always been a startlingly fine pianist possessed of a very sincere musicianship and absolutely remarkable technique. It has been two years since I have heard her perform, but I have heard her many times. Saturday evening, to put it simply, she took my breath away. Her incredible ability at keyboard has matured and become even better in the two years since I have heard her. As I say this, keep in mind that Rachmaninoff was no doubt the finest pianist since Franz Liszt, and, since his death in 1943, there have been very few pianists who have come close to his intelligent performances, superior musicianship, and unfailingly ferocious technique. Keep in mind that he was 6’6” tall, and had hands that could reach almost 2 octaves – C to A (and that was demonstrated backstage to my mother by Rachmaninoff on a backstage piano after one of his concerts in 1936). The kind of murderous figurations in his compositions, which create terror in the hearts of modern pianists, he could simply do all day with seemingly little or no effort. And, there was never any blurring, or confusion of melodic direction and musical expression.

The reason I discuss all of this is that, as I said above, there have been many pianists today who come close to Rachmaninoff’s ability at the keyboard, but, perhaps, some of them don’t have his musicianship. And sometimes, those who have his musicianship do not have his ability at the keyboard.

I am firmly convinced that Olga Kern has his ability as a musician and as a pianist. Her performance of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto Nr. 3 was absolutely astounding. Certainly, she does not have Rachmaninoff’s reach at the keyboard, but she certainly has remarkable power, not only in her strength, but in her ability to reach into a piece of music and display its essence. Yes, one could occasionally see that she was working hard, but her phrasing, her accuracy, and the clarity of musical thought was equal to that of Rachmaninoff. Olga Kern, like Rachmaninoff, displayed her ability to match what Rachmaninoff does on his recordings: supreme accuracy and supreme musicianship, while all the time thinking of the music and not worrying about making an impression on the audience. It was abundantly clear Saturday night that music always comes first with Kern, and that is what spurs her to play. In addition, she most certainly demonstrated that she is capable of playing the aforementioned “murderous figurations” while shaping them, so that they made musical sense rather than sounding like just a series of fast notes. She grasps Rachmaninoff’s huge chords with ease.

I was also struck by the conducting of Maestro James Judd and the performance of the Colorado Symphony in the Rachmaninoff. Judd and Kern perform together as if they had been musical partners for years. There was a wonderful rhythmic thrust throughout the entire work, and in the second movement, the oboe, violas, and cellos were outstanding.

She received a very long standing ovation from an almost full Boettcher Hall. For an encore, Olga Kern played Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumblebee, which was arranged by Rachmaninoff. Needless to say, it was also outstanding.

As I left the concert hall Saturday evening, I was still in wonderment over Olga Kern’s ability at the keyboard and with music. Like Rachmaninoff, she can play any composer. Unlike many pianists today, she can play Rachmaninoff with ease and a very deep musicality. It would seem that Olga Kern has inherited the mantle of Rachmaninoff’s musicianship, intelligence, and keyboard ability. There was nothing missing in her art.

Litton, Gluzman, and the CSO are magnificent!
May 3, 2014, 2:16 pm
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: , , , ,

The concert given by the Colorado Symphony Orchestra Friday evening, May 4, left me absolutely speechless. They performed Erich Korngold’s Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 35, and Gustav Mahler’s Symphony Nr. 7 in E minor.

The primary reason this concert left me speechless is the fact that both of these works performed have their own separate problems that must be dealt with: an orchestra does not perform the Korngold (1897-1957) concerto unless one has a soloist who is up to the task because it is difficult. The Mahler (1860-1911) has an immense length (roughly an hour and twenty minutes) that requires intense concentration on the part of every single orchestra member, and, of course, the conductor. About thirty-five years ago, I heard the Mahler 7th performed live by an orchestra that was “quite decent” and the conductor who, judging by my own hindsight, may have been trying to gain stature by performing difficult works. That’s a fine idea, but one must have several years of experience before undertaking such a work.

The Colorado Symphony Orchestra and Maestro Andrew Litton clearly have that experience, and it is completely unnecessary for me to point that out. I do so only because I want the average concert attendee to understand the stamina that it takes everyone on stage to present such a work. But first, the Korngold.

The guest artist Friday evening was violinist Vadim Gluzman, and astoundingly fine violinist who may be someone unfamiliar to American concert audience. Watching Gluzman and Maestro Litton interact on stage made it clear that they had performed together prior this performance. Whether or not that is the case, we here in Denver are indebted to Maestro Litton and the orchestral powers that be, for inviting Gluzman to perform this work. I will quote an abbreviated bio statement from his website:

“Born in the former Soviet Union in 1973, Vadim Gluzman began violin studies at age 7. Before moving to Israel in 1990, where he was a student of Yair Kless, he studied with Roman Sne in Latvia and Zakhar Bron in Russia. In the US his teachers were Arkady Fomin and, at the Juilliard School, the late Dorothy DeLay and Masao Kawasaki. Early in his career, Mr. Gluzman enjoyed the encouragement and support of Isaac Stern, and in 1994 he received the prestigious Henryk Szeryng Foundation Career Award.

”Vadim Gluzman plays the extraordinary 1690 ‘ex-Leopold Auer’ Stradivari, on extended loan to him through the generosity of the Stradivari Society of Chicago.

“The Israeli violinist appears regularly with major orchestras such as the Chicago Symphony, London Philharmonic, Israel Philharmonic, London Symphony, Leipzig Gewandhaus, Munich Philharmonic, San Francisco Symphony, Minnesota Orchestra and NHK Symphony; and with leading conductors including Neeme Järvi, Michael Tilson Thomas, Andrew Litton, Marek Janowski, Itzhak Perlman, Tugan Sokhiev, Paavo Järvi, Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, Hannu Lintu and Peter Oundjian. His festival appearances include Verbier, Ravinia, Lockenhaus, Pablo Casals, Colmar, Jerusalem, and the North Shore Chamber Music Festival in Northbrook, Illinois, which was founded by Gluzman and pianist Angela Yoffe, his wife and long-standing recital partner.

”In this 2013-14 season, Mr. Gluzman begins a new collaboration as Creative Partner and Principal Guest Artist of the Pro Musica Chamber Orchestra in Columbus, Ohio. As Artist of the Year with the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, he performs a series of three concerts with conductor Andrew Litton, which will result in a new album of concertos by Shostakovich and Gubaidulina. In the United States Vadim is making his début with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Tugan Sokhiev, and in the United Kingdom, Gluzman’s highly anticipated Wigmore Hall recital follows last year’s acclaimed Proms début.”

Erich Korngold is one of music history’s most amazing child prodigies. Born in in 1897, he was already dazzling Viennese concertgoers by 1917 at the age of twenty. As a matter of fact, it was Gustav Mahler who proclaimed Korngold a genius, an opinion which was borne out by Korngold’s works in every serious genre: chamber music, opera, orchestral, keyboard, and even film music. Nonetheless, Korngold seems to have fallen off Mt. Parnassus, no doubt due in part to cruel criticisms written by critics who do not seem to have been schooled in music, but schooled in journalism. For example, a New York critic said after hearing this violin concerto that there was more “corn than gold,” seems like a comment designed to further the reputation of the critic rather than make a true statement of the music heard. When Jascha Heifetz premiered the work with the St. Louis Symphony in 1947, the work was a resounding success. Korngold suffered, perhaps, because he wrote scores for Hollywood movies. This association with Hollywood also damaged the career of pianist, conductor, and harpsichordist José Iturbi, who not only starred in movies, but recorded the soundtrack for various movies, including A Song to Remember, which was a movie about Frederic Chopin.

When I heard Gluzman begin to play, I was completely astonished at the sound of his violin. I had read in the program notes that it was Stradavari, but it simply has to be one of the best violins that Stradavari ever made. It sounded sweet yet warm, and both the instrument and Gluzman’s superior artistry brought out its transparent tone which was a perfect match for the Korngold Concerto in D. I say this, because, though Korngold was certainly a romantic composer who used complicated harmonies, he was such a superior orchestrator that his music often has an almost transparent, or Mozartean if you will, quality. I heard this piece performed fourteen years ago by the CSO, but I don’t remember the soloist giving the work such a personal and intimate interpretation. Vadim Gluzman’s playing was at once dynamic and powerful, yet lush and most certainly romantic, and there is no question in my mind whatsoever that he and Maestro Litton were perfectly in agreement as to its interpretation.

The violin enters almost at once in the first movement in a broad and lyrical melody that is undeniably romantic. The first movement includes a stunning cadenza that requires incredible virtuosity in total mastery of the art. Gluzman easily brought to the forefront the nostalgic qualities of the second movement, and it was here that his violin and its remarkable qualities which he clearly displayed, were overpowering. There is no question that this violin concerto demands fearless virtuosity, but Gluzman certainly brought out the more relaxed and lyrical quality of this second movement, and made it contrast perfectly with the first and third movements.

Another aspect of the performance of this Korngold concerto as performed by Vadim Gluzman was the obvious connection between the orchestra and soloist and conductor. It speaks again to the change that has been made in this orchestra in the last two or three years, and it is one of the important characteristics that makes this orchestra as conspicuous as one of the best in the United States. It goes far beyond the love of music of every member in the orchestra. It is that, plus the artistry of everyone on stage.

After the intermission, the Colorado Symphony Orchestra and Maestro Andrew Litton performed Gustav Mahler’s Symphony Nr. 7. It was not until Mahler was twenty years old that he began to become interested in philosophies outside of music such as socialism, Nietzsche and philosophy, and pan-Germanism. His first symphony was considered bizarre by many musicians, and it was his conducting ability that truly advanced his early career as a musician. However, even as a conductor, he incurred the displeasure, to put it mildly, by orchestra members because of his perfectionism and exacting rehearsals. In addition, his symphonies are enormous in length: his third Symphony lasts almost 2 hours, and he revised his works several times. For example he kept revising his Fifth Symphony, written in 1901-1902, until his death. His 7th Symphony, performed Friday evening, has five movements. The inner three movements are the shortest; nonetheless, this work lasts almost an hour and twenty minutes. In addition, the degree of harmonic experimentation in the first movement is unlike any previous work, and may be considered a portent of what is to come in his Symphony Nr. 8, which also uses the largest symphonic ensemble and choir ever conceived to that point.

The first movement of Mahler’s Symphony Nr. 7 begins with a slow introduction that is at once ominous, passionate, and turgid. It has harmonies that seem to be based on the interval of fourth (but, keep in mind, this is only the second time I have heard this symphony performed live), and it is this harmony that gives it its mysterious and almost abstract quality. The second movement continues this aesthetic by its very strange militaristic march. In addition, he calls this movement “Night Music.” Read Nocturne. The third movement is full of irregular rhythms which gradually coalesce into a waltz. The fourth movement is once again referred to as Night Music, and it is this movement that is most obviously romantic. As matter of fact, it also uses a mandolin which was skillfully and artistically performed by Principle Second violinist, Paul Primus, which certainly added to its atmosphere of the serenade. The last movement is an exciting Finale that is full of virtuosity for every member of the orchestra.

This work is very difficult, and the difficulty is caused by Mahler’s differentiation of voices in the orchestra which gives this symphony a characteristic of collage. Therefore, his concept, in a sense, is really one of re-creating symphonic structure from all of these instrumental lines that cut at each other, and then coalesce. The difficulty is placed squarely on the conductor, and truthfully, just as much on the performing musicians in the orchestra. Everyone must share in this difficulty, and bring to the forefront the years of experience as performing musicians. As I stated above, one does not perform a work such as this without having considerable experience as a musician. In this symphony, Mahler uses many sounds from the world which surrounded him: cow bells, hammers, and a mandolin. And, in this symphony, none of these sounds are free of pathos or suppressed pain.

It is in this symphony, even though it is not the longest, that Mahler begins to use such a variety of voices, even though he does not always require the orchestra to be physically larger. Indeed, in the Seventh Symphony he does not necessarily seem to be concerned with increasing the physical size of the orchestra.

One can cite many reasons in this symphony where the difficulties raised by Mahler’s concepts can have numerous deleterious effects upon the performance. But, Friday evening it was clear that Maestro Litton and his group of remarkable musicians thoroughly understood what Mahler had intended. Everyone in the orchestra deserves to be named individually. This was a wonderful performance of this incredibly complex work, and, as I said above, it demonstrates the kind of artistry that is inherent in the Colorado Symphony Orchestra.

The Boulder Philharmonic Orchestra and Rachel Barton Pine

Saturday evening, January 11, the Boulder Philharmonic Orchestra under the conductorship of Maestro Michael Butterman performed a concert which was publicized as The Three B’s, however, in this case, the three B’s did not stand for Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms, but rather Bach, Berg, and Brahms.

The Boulder Phil opened its program with J. S. Bach’s Komm, süsser Tod which is a song for solo voice and basso continuo from the 69 Sacred Songs and Arias that Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) contributed to Georg Christian Schemelli’s Musicalisches Gesangbuch (BWV 478). It was arranged for orchestra by Leopold Stokowski (1882- 1977), the long-lived and celebrated conductor. Stokowski was born in London, England, of a Polish father and Irish mother, and, with what seemed to be very little effort, became a prodigy on the violin, piano, and organ. He was one of the youngest students to ever be admitted to the Royal College of Music. After establishing himself as a conductor with the Cincinnati Symphony, he accepted the conductorship of the Philadelphia Orchestra where he not only vastly improved the standard of playing, but increased the size of the orchestra to 104 musicians. His transcriptions of Bach are known for their lavishness, but it must be said that they had great impact upon the American public.

Maestro Butterman and the Boulder Phil were quite accurate in their reading of Stokowski’s interpretation. It was at once poignant, and yet sweet, and the dynamics that Stokowski revised, gave it a very romantic aura, which, today, many scholars might disagree with because of its “un-Baroque” flavor. However, it is important to note that Stokowski was successful in placing some of Bach’s lesser-known compositions before the general concert going public, and, thus, widening their curiosity.

Second on the program, Maestro Butterman in the Boulder Philharmonic performed Gustav Mahler’s Blumine (Bouquet of Flowers) which was originally conceived as a movement for his Symphony Nr. 1 in D Major. This symphony, which was nicknamed Titan, was conceived as a tone poem, loosely based on Jean Paul’s novel, Titan, which describes a youth gifted with an artistic desire that the world has no use for. Sometimes, one wonders if Mahler (1860-1911) saw himself as that youth; however, he eventually avoided any kind of programmatic considerations in his symphonies. As he expanded this first symphony, he dropped this movement because he felt that it contradicted the concept of the work as a whole.

The Boulder Phil’s performance of Blumine made it a perfect companion piece for the Stokowski rendition of the Bach. Compared to later works by Mahler, Blumine does not have the complicated harmony that will become so characteristic of Mahler. This work is clearly romantic, but seems almost spare in comparison to what he is to write later in his career. It certainly was lush, and the richness of its orchestration is pronounced, thus, giving it a wonderful fit to follow the Bach- Stokowski.

Following the Mahler, violinist Rachel Barton Pine joined the Boulder Phil in the performance of Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto.

I will quote briefly from a bio statement that I found on the web:

“Celebrated as a leading interpreter of great classical works, Rachel Barton Pine’s performances combine her gift for emotional communication and her scholarly fascination with historical research. Audiences are thrilled by her dazzling technique, lustrous tone, and infectious joy in music-making.

”Pine has appeared as soloist with many of the world’s most prestigious ensembles, including the Chicago Symphony; the Philadelphia Orchestra; the Royal Philharmonic; and the Netherlands Radio Kamer Filharmonie. She has worked with such renowned conductors as Charles Dutoit, Zubin Mehta, Erich Leinsdorf, Neeme Järvi and Marin Alsop. She has recorded 25 albums, her most recent CD, Violin Lullabies, recorded with pianist Matthew Hagle, debuted at number one on the Billboard classical chart.

”While she regularly plays baroque, renaissance, and medieval music, Rachel Barton Pine also performs rock and heavy metal music with her band Earthen Grave. She has jammed with the likes of Slash of Guns N’ Roses and other rock and metal stars.”

Ms. Pine has a very well-deserved reputation for being a fine violinist. The Berg Violin Concerto is a difficult piece, and even though it is one of his most popular works, it is challenging to locate a live performance.

Berg was an adult student, along with Anton von Webern, of Arnold Schoenberg who originated the twelve tone serial technique. Instead of using a standard eight note major or minor scale, Schoenberg decided that all twelve notes of the chromatic scale could be used in serial fashion in order to produce a brand-new sound. Keep in mind that major and minor has been used for almost 450 years, and Schoenberg considered it to be outdated, and was constantly looking for something new. Berg’s twelve tones are arranged in such a manner that his composition does not sound as ascetic and spare as do some of the works by Webern and Schoenberg.

The American violinist, Louis Krasner, wanted to commission a violin concerto, and was definitely intrigued by the new serial method of composition. However, he was not sure how the new serial technique would fit the melodic and lyrical needs of the violin, but when he heard Berg’s Piano Sonata he decided that Berg should receive the commission. Berg decided to take the commission, and dedicate the work, as everyone knows by now, to Manon Gropius, the daughter of Alma Mahler by her second marriage. Berg’s family was on very good terms with the Mahler family, and he was profoundly shaken by her death. Berg finished the concerto in August, 1935: it had only taken a little over four months for him to write it.

In late November and early December 1935, Berg fell ill with a Staphylococcus infection. He had suffered repeated bouts with similar infections since 1932, when he was stung by a swarm of wasps. The stings became infected and put him in bed for a week. However, in 1935 the periodic infection became quite serious, and in the middle of December he was given a blood transfusion which seemed to result in some success. However, it was to no avail. He grew delirious from the infection, and died on December 24, at 1:15 in the morning, without ever having heard the concerto that he wrote. Two days later, Alban Berg’s wife received a note from the German poet Gerhardt Hauptman. The very short note seemed to express not only the feelings of the art world toward Alban Berg, but also seemed to echo the feelings of Berg for Alma Mahler’s daughter:

“Deeply shaken, dear gracious lady, we press your hand. Why had so noble a man and master to take his leave so early? May Heaven give you strength in your great sorrow. In sincere admiration,
Gerhardt Hauptman”

Rachel Barton Pine’s enthusiasm for this concerto was obvious the minute she began to perform. It was sonorous and warm, and very passionate, which is something that many audience members do not expect in a twelve tone work. I have never been sure why audiences do not anticipate the expressiveness of contemporary music, but many do not, and I am, as they should be, grateful for musicians such as Rachel Barton Pine to demonstrate that all music is expressive. Pine’s playing is so clear that one can almost hear the twelve tone row which is built of major and minor triads. This allows for remarkable shifting of harmonic colors, which indeed, combined with the perfect tempos and phrasing, infused her playing with all the character of a Requiem. She was certainly able to expose the fact that the arrangement of the row makes some sections of this concerto tonal as well as atonal.

There is one aspect of this performance that needs to be mentioned, and it is most certainly not a reflection on Rachel Barton Pine’s performance. The sad fact is that many times throughout the Berg concerto, the orchestra covered Ms. Pine’s playing. They were simply too loud, particularly the brass section, but often the entire orchestra was guilty. It simply proves the point that in the performance of a concerto, someone needs to be in the hall to listen for orchestral balance with the soloist. I am quite sure that Maestro Butterman would have welcomed that kind of information as would Ms. Pine. I have attended many concerts in Mackey Auditorium and have sat in the same vicinity. I cannot immediately recall hearing the Boulder Phil cover a soloist before this performance, so I think that it was endemic only to Saturday’s concert.

After the intermission, Maestro Butterman and the Boulder Philharmonic performed Brahms’ Symphony Nr. 4 in E minor, Opus 98. Brahms composed the first and second movements of his Symphony in E minor during the summer of 1884. He composed third and fourth movements in 1885. During this time, he was trying to find a little relaxation in the Styrian Alps of Austria, and he wrote to Hans von Bülow that he was somewhat concerned about the serious nature of the work, for he said in the letter: “I am pondering whether the Symphony will find more of a public. I fear it smacks of the climate of this country; the cherries are not sweet here, and you would certainly not eat them.” Critical opinion of both personal friends and the music press was quite favorable upon its premiere; however, several persons to whom Brahms played it on the piano previously to the concert thought that it was altogether too serious.

The moment the Boulder Phil began, I was struck by the swaying motion produced by the violins with their quarter note pick up leading to a half note creating a two note phrase across the bar line. It was absolutely gorgeous, and it clearly captivated the audience immediately. There was a little fuzzy entrance from the woodwinds around measure twenty-three, but they quickly recovered and proceeded to the end of the entire Symphony without any miscues. There is no question that this is one of the most complex symphonies that Brahms wrote, and, even though this opening theme is so lyrical and gentle, there is a notable sense of unrest throughout the entire work. The second movement begins with a short fanfare from the French horns, which gives way to the woodwinds, which has to be one of the most beautiful themes that Brahms wrote. The tempo that Maestro Butterman took in the third movement was absolutely perfect in re-creating a very lively dance movement which proved very popular with the audience at the premiere. It is the last movement of this work, which is, in some ways, the most elaborate, and, yet, in some ways, very simple: it is a chaconne – variations over a ground bass -which uses a portion of J. S. Bach’s Cantata Nr. 150. There are thirty-four variations in this last movement which gradually increase in intensity, and act as a “recollection” of the pathos of the first movement.

The Boulder Phil and Maestro Butterman gave a wonderful performance of this symphony. There is no question that Butterman knows Brahms very well. He imparted a remarkable fluidity to this complex symphony so that the never-maudlin pathos implied in the first movement filled the remaining three.

Wouldn’t it be terrific to hear the four Brahms symphonies on one program?

This article also appears on The Scen3 website.

The Colorado Symphony Orchestra finally has a magnificent conductor: The Mahler was world class!

Saturday evening, April 13, the Colorado Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of Maestro Andrew Litton, performed Gustav Mahler’s enormous Symphony Nr. 6 in a minor. The performance of the Symphony was preceded by a performance of the first movement of Mahler’s (1860- 1911) only surviving piece of chamber music, the Piano Quartet, which is also in a minor. This work was first performed at a private concert in the home of Theodor Billroth, and may have included a violin sonata which was also written by Mahler. However, no manuscript of the violin sonata has ever been found. It is also interesting to speculate that it may have been Billroth who introduced Mahler to Brahms, as Billroth and Brahms were close friends. We do know that Brahms considered Mahler to be an excellent conductor, and told Mahler that he considered his performance of the Mozart opera, Don Giovanni, to be the best he had ever heard.

The performers of the Piano Quartet were Maestro Litton, piano; Yumi Hwang-Williams, violin; Basil Vendryes, viola; and Silver Ainomäe, cello. Alma Mahler (1879- 1964), Mahler’s wife, found this work a few months before she died in 1964, and even though it is rarely performed, it was used in the Hollywood film, Shutter Island. It is a very early work, written when Mahler was only sixteen years of age. In spite of Mahler’s youth, it is still an excellent piece, though one cannot help but think of Felix Mendelssohn’s Octet, which was written when Mendelssohn was also sixteen years of age. And, of course, the Mendelssohn Octet has become one of the great pieces of chamber literature in all of music history. Nonetheless, the Mahler Piano Quartet seems to be a good piece for a young composer. It is in traditional sonata-allegro form, with a new theme introduced in the development section, though I stress this is the first time I have ever heard this work. There is also a relatively short violin cadenza preceding the closing theme at the end of the work which allowed the music to evaporate and end with a final uncomplicated phrase played piano.

The individuals who performed this early work are absolutely superb musicians, and there is no question they enjoyed the soaring melodic line and its long note values. They also seemed to take delight in the fact that this piece, while written by Mahler when he was young, is still a “new” piece, and they were very pleased to perform it. It has none of the harmonic complications of later Mahler, and, in fact, it does not seem to be influenced by any other composer, though it is clearly of the romantic generation. It was fascinating to hear this work performed, and be able to compare it to his Sixth Symphony. Of course, there is a world of difference between the pieces.

After the intermission, the augmented Colorado Symphony Orchestra came out on stage to perform the aforementioned Symphony Nr. 6. I say augmented, because Mahler wrote his pieces for a much larger orchestra than is standard. It is scored for four flutes, four oboes, English horn, four clarinets, bass clarinet, four bassoons, contrabassoon, eight French horns, six trumpets, four trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, two harps, celesta, and strings. This Symphony carries the nickname, Tragic, because it underscores some of the tragedies that occurred in Mahler’s life, even though at the time of its writing, he was the happiest he had ever been. As Andrew Litton states in the program notes, this Symphony was written as a “… piece of darkness, and then his life spectacularly falls apart – it is as if the Symphony is a portent of what’s coming, including his wife cheating on him.” Before the performance began, Maestro Litton gave a lecture to the audience which was much appreciated by those who are unfamiliar with the life of this composer. Mahler came from a large family of thirteen brothers and sisters, and more than half of them passed away from childhood diseases. Mahler stated that it always seemed there was a coffin in the living room. In addition, Mahler suffered from prejudice because he was Jewish, and the orchestras that he conducted (He was known as a conductor who composed on the side, rather than as we know him now: a composer first, and a conductor second) did not like him because he had the reputation of being a perfectionist. He also made the discovery that he had a defective heart valve, and indeed, that is what caused his eventual death. This symphony is also known for its three, huge hammer strokes of fate in the last movement. These were done in the percussion section by John Kinzie striking a large wooden box with a huge, two-handed mallet. It was very easy to tell from the audience reaction that Maestro Andrew Litton’s comments before the performance were quite well received.

The first movement begins with a march whose tight rhythms produce a very ominous tone. And, indeed, the orchestra produced an irrevocable sound, as if one would be completely run down if one stood in the way. I sat there listening and watching Maestro Litton conduct, and I kept asking myself how long has it been since “we” have had a conductor at the CSO who conducted with such precise motions, and such careful attention to detail? And, how long has it been since we have had a conductor at the CSO who has inspired such enthusiasm for the music from the musicians themselves? This was all evident within the first twelve bars of the symphony. The first movement of this symphony is a traditional sonata form. That is to say that there is an exposition section in which the main themes are exposed. That is followed by a development section where the composer makes subtle changes, and some not-so-subtle changes, in the main themes, or “develops” them. There is a third section, called the recapitulation, where the main themes come back in their more or less original form. The march theme, which opened the first movement, is followed, in this work, by a lush and lyrical section which Mahler admitted was a musical description of his new bride, Alma. It is a strong contrast, and that is precisely what Mahler wanted. The orchestra changed its ominous tone to one of luxuriant melody: it was sublime and lyrically intense. The sound produced by the Colorado Symphony Orchestra was remarkable in its intensity and warmth. It truly was as if they were saying to the audience, “See? This is how we can play when we have a conductor who knows and cares about the music. He also knows that every one of us is a superbly trained musician who wants to play this music as badly as he wants to conduct.”

In this performance, Maestro Litton performed the Andante moderato movement as the second movement. I have heard some recordings of this work wherein the Scherzo is performed as the second movement. Whatever it is worth, I am in complete agreement with the Andante moderato being placed in the second movement position. That certainly is the traditional placement for a slow movement, and I have always been unsure of the authority in placing it as the third movement. I believe that it was in Alma Mahler’s memoirs, that she said the slow movement of the symphony depicted their children playing in the living room and in their yard (A word of caution here: for some time, scholars have found discrepancies and inaccuracies in Alma Mahler’s memoirs. Previous to this discovery, her asseverations of her former husband’s work in her memoirs were taken quite seriously and incautiously.). This is a very expressive movement, and in the opening themes, Maestro Litton did not use a baton. He conducted with his bare hands, as if to encourage the orchestra to feel the tangible emotion with which Mahler infused this movement. In the B theme group of this movement, Litton did pick up the baton again, and I rather suspect it was because of the very long melodic line built of long note values in the violins. These long note values were precisely together every time they changed pitch. I would like to point out that it is sometimes considerably more difficult to play slowly with precision and emotion, than it is to play fast and loud. Again, it was as if the Colorado Symphony has discovered a new sense of freedom, as if they were being treated like the incredible musicians which they are.

The third movement Scherzo is a dangerously fast and complicated movement. It is full of rhythmic complexity and presents us with an almost dancelike character. The CSO presented it almost as an evil dance, with a somewhat subdued trio section. The trio section seemed to be based upon the Jewish Ahava Raba mode, which does not have a leading tone that “leads” our ear back to a specific tone. If any of you readers know the order of half steps and whole steps in the harmonic minor scale, you might hear a resemblance between it and the Ahava Raba mode. The harmonic minor scale has eight notes in it. There is a half-step between two and three, five and six, a step and a half-step between six and seven, and a half-step between seven and eight. All the rest are whole steps. However, in the Ahava Raba mode, there is a step and a half between two and three, a half-step between six and seven, and a whole-step between seven and eight. This gives the Ahava Raba mode a certain unsettled feeling to the Western ear.

The fourth movement, which Mahler calls Finale: Sostenuto – Allegro moderato – Allegro energico is enormous. The opening few pages of this movement sound very much as if Mahler had been taught by Claude Debussy. It is positively Impressionistic, but that very quickly dissolves away into another forceful and menacing march. It is in this movement that the three hammer blows of fate are heard, and after the last hammer blow, the movement slowly sinks away to the relative quiet ending.

In characterizing the way the Colorado Symphony Orchestra performed at this concert, the first word that comes to mind is enthusiasm. And, of course, one needs enthusiasm to play a piece that is one hour and twenty minutes in length. The feeling of enthusiasm encompassed so many aspects of this performance: enthusiasm for the music (I wondered how many times the members of this orchestra had performed Mahler’s Sixth Symphony), enthusiasm for being allowed to demonstrate that they were marvelous musicians, and, enthusiasm for a new beginning. You must understand that Maestro Andrew Litton, more than some of the recent conductors, trusts the musicianship of this orchestra. And it is also necessary for you readers to understand that there must be a sense of exchange between an orchestra and its conductor. And, as trite as it may sound, it helps immeasurably if they like each other. Andrew Litton certainly fills all of these qualifications, and, to my observation, he is the first conductor that the CSO has had for quite some time to do so.

The Colorado Symphony is, I truly believe, one of the best orchestras in the United States. With Maestro Andrew Litton at the helm, I see no reason why they cannot become one of the best in the world.

Samuel Barber and Jürgens plus Jürgens

The performance given Thursday night, March 8, by the Lamont Symphony Orchestra was, in many ways, a very memorable experience. It marked the debut performance of a new graduate student in Orchestral Conducting, Ms. Breanne Cutler. In addition, it was, at least to my knowledge, the first time that the Lamont Symphony – keep in mind they are students – performed Mahler’s Symphony Nr. 1 in D Major, which has been nicknamed “Titan.” These performances were exciting; there is no question about it. However, for me, the highlight of the evening, and perhaps, one of the highlights of the entire concert season, was watching and listening to the performance given by the Lamont Symphony’s Associate Conductor, Travis Jürgens, and his pianist wife, Kristen Jürgens, in their performance of Samuel Barber’s monumental Piano Concerto, Op. 38.

Maestra Breanne Cutler opened the program conducting Beethoven’s Overture to The Creatures of Prometheus.

Ms. Cutler is now a graduate student studying with Dr. Lawrence Golan at University of Denver’s prestigious Lamont School of Music. The 2011-2012 season will mark the beginning of Breanne Cutler’s position as Apprentice Conductor with the Helena Symphony Orchestra and her mentorship from Maestro Allan R. Scott. A Montana native, she is a graduate of Montana State University- Bozeman where she was the Assistant Conductor of the MSU Symphony. Ms. Cutler is also a noted classical and jazz vocalist. As a vocal major at Montana State University, she studied with Dr. Jon Harney. Along with winning the 26th MSU Concerto and Aria Competition, she has taken 1st place in both the Lower Division in 2008 and Upper Division in 2010 for the Montana state competition of the National Association for Teachers of Singing. Not only is she an active performer, but also a distinguished leader in the collegiate music community. Her term as Montana State CMENC President has just come to an end, where she was the head of the Montana collegiate division for the National Association of Music Education. She has regularly contributed columns to the Montana music education publication, The Cadenza, which is distributed to music educators across the northwest. At Lamont, she teaches undergraduate courses in conducting. Ms. Cutler has also served as assistant conductor for various productions with Bozeman’s Intermountain Opera.

The Creatures of Prometheus, Beethoven’s only ballet, was begun in the summer of 1800. It is interesting to conjecture why the work had been given to Beethoven by Salvatore Vigano, a ballet dancer and choreographer, because Beethoven was relatively unknown at the time. I can well imagine that Beethoven was eager, not only to accept commissions that came his way, but also to try his hand at dramatic music. At any rate, the ballet was an enormous success, and the premier in 1801 was followed by 15 performances the same year. In 1802, it had 13 performances. However, after that, its popularity dwindled because some dancers and choreographers felt that the score was “too learned” for ballet. The overture did retain its popularity, and has been performed on a fairly regular basis ever since. It is interesting to note that one of the full performances of the ballet was attended by Haydn, and he expressed great pleasure with the ballet, even though he had a few critical remarks. The story of the ballet, as most of you surely realize, regards the Greek God Prometheus and his efforts to have the two creatures he has brought to life instructed in the arts.

I must say that Maestra Cutler entered the stage with a good deal of authority, and that she was absolutely beaming with pleasure as she mounted the podium. It is clear that she likes what she does. This overture begins with some widely spaced chords that require sharp attacks. Cutler’s energy and precision were readily apparent, as she raised herself on her toes, and gave the orchestra some very sharp jabs as cues. The orchestra responded with these forte chords with such precision, that several in the audience, who may not have heard the piece before, were taken by surprise and jumped in their seats. And really, Cutler’s ability at communication, even though she has had conducting experience before she came to Lamont, gave the entire audience a predilection for the style of her conducting. It is energetic and demanding, and it is clear that she knew precisely what she wanted, and was not going to be shy about demanding it from the orchestra. In the performance of this piece, it seemed to me that the outstanding section of the orchestra was the violin section which sounded quite good all the way through the piece. Ms. Cutler did give one late cue which resulted in the woodwinds not together with the strings, but a few beats later everything was back to the way it should have been. And, I must say, that if this performance had been my debut as a conductor, I would have been a little nervous myself. I am most sure that the funny cue resulted from nerves not from inability to conduct, and it was very good to see that the orchestra was doing their best for her, because after all, they are comrades. I, for one, think this was an outstanding debut of a young conductor who shows a great deal of intelligence and composure on the podium. It will be very interesting to watch her develop as she proceeds through the program at the Lamont School. And yes, it was excellent Beethoven.

The Barber Piano Concerto, Op. 38, was the next work performed on Thursday evening’s performance. This Concerto, commissioned by Barber’s publisher, G. Schirmer, for their 100th anniversary, is one of the most important pieces of the 20th century. I am constantly surprised that in spite of its eminence, its beauty, and its incredible difficulty, that it is not mentioned in many books whose main topic is piano literature. This is doubly surprising, because Samuel Barber was known as a very gifted composer which was evident from the very start of his career. His First Symphony, Op. 9, was written when he was 26. The Concerto was commissioned in 1959, and Barber began working on it in March of 1960. However, his work on the piece was partially delayed by a period of depression following the death of his sister. Barber worked very closely with John Browning (Browning was Barber’s favorite pianist at the time, and was one of three American pianists including Rosalyn Turek and Byron Janis, who achieved great prominence in the world as pianists, and whose study was accomplished in the United States without attending any of the great European conservatories.)

Barber engages in a little self-plagiarism in this work, for he elaborates and orchestrates themes from his Elegy for Flute and Piano, which was written in 1959. But even so, there is no question that he shaped this work around his own style, and the incredible technical ability possessed by the pianist John Browning. In fact, one of the reasons this work is seldom performed live, is because of its extreme difficulty.

The performance of the Barber Concerto was conducted by Maestro Travis Jürgens with his wife, Kristen Jürgens, performing on the piano. Ms. Jürgens was the winner of the 2012 Lamont Solo Honors Competition. And it is a small wonder. She is an absolutely amazing pianist. According to the program notes, she has been a pianist since the age of four. She graduated with High Distinction from the world renowned Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University, where she received her Bachelor of Music and Piano Performance. While there, she studied with Edward Auer and Luba-Edlina Dubinsky, of the distinguished Borodin Trio. She has also studied Philosophy of Music at St. Peter’s College, at Oxford University. She is now a graduate student studying with Alice Rybak for her master’s degree in Piano Performance.

I have written about Travis Jürgens in other articles, but to refresh your memory, I will quote from his website:

Travis Jürgens is currently the Music Director and Conductor of the Philharmonia of Greater Kansas City, and the Associate Conductor of the Lamont Symphony Orchestra and Opera Theatre in Denver. In 2011, Jürgens received 2nd place from The American Prize in Orchestral Conducting.

Jürgens has performed in the United States, Europe, and Japan. Musicians who have played under his baton have commented on his exceptional talent, dynamic musicianship, imagination, and strong leadership. He has conducted the Denver Philharmonic, Bohuslav Martinu Philhamonic, Illinois Valley Symphony, Rose City Chamber Orchestra, South Carolina Philharmonic, and musicians from the Orquestra de Cadaqués. He earned his Bachelor’s in Piano Performance with High Distinction from the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music, and his Master’s in Orchestral Conducting from the University of Illinois. Additionally, he studied at the Universität für Musik und darstellende Kunst Wien and the Institut für Europäishe Studien in Vienna, Austria. He also made his Viennese debut as guest conductor of the IES Vienna Chamber Orchestra.

This was a truly remarkable performance of the Barber Concerto. It was remarkable because both the conductor and the pianist are already outstanding artists. It was also remarkable, because they are husband and wife, and it is a very moving experience to see them perform together, especially when they are of such even musicianship. The Barber Concerto, for both orchestra and piano, is one of the most difficult. I have never performed this concerto, but I have performed two Prokofiev concertos, and I honestly believe that the Barber exceeds the Prokofiev in difficulty. From the outset Ms. Jürgens demonstrated a great deal of forcefulness. By that, I mean that she sat down at the piano and truly took charge with her astonishing finger work that was always very clear and very articulate. One of the aspects of this Concerto is difficult rhythms with demanding accents throughout the entire work, her accents were perfect and even in the most difficult rhythmic spots, her tone was scintillating, yet rich. And, of course, Maestro Jürgens conducting was above reproach. I must also say that the orchestra seemed to be enjoying this partnership between conductor- pianist-husband-wife, because it is been some time since I have seen the Lamont Symphony (they always work very hard) work so hard at making music and responding to what the conductor demands. There are so many words that typify this performance: exciting, passionate throughout, lyrical, and beautiful. And every note could be heard. It was also a pleasure to watch Ms. Jürgens play, because there were no extraneous theatrical movements. She simply sat at the piano and got to work. In truth, I would challenge anyone to make theatrical movements while playing this piece, because I simply don’t think they would have the time.

I truly enjoyed the second movement, because it gives the pianist and the orchestra a chance to blossom in the incredible lyrical sections that must sound so expansive. I assure you that Kristen Jürgens performed it just that way. I could not help but think of the words that I believe come from Omar Khayyám: “Ephemeral light, ephemeral life!” The two Jürgens made such incredible music – both seemed very comfortable in their roles, and very assured.

The last movement, which is so full of rhythmic difficulties, demonstrated the thorough knowledge and understanding that both of these musicians possess. In a piece like this it is not enough to simply memorize: it must be conceived in the mind in order to bring it to life. Both of these musicians have that ability. They are outstanding: Kristen Jürgens has amazing technique and amazing ability to concentrate with ease. Their ability to communicate with each other as they performed was so incredibly personal, and full of knowledge as to what the other was going to do. It truly became a musical conversation between piano and orchestra, for all the questions were answered and all statements were in agreement. It was an electrifying performance because both are such superior musicians. They are of graduate student age, but in this instance, age has nothing to do with ability. These two are excellent musicians, and one wonders where their artistic ability will take them.

Following the Barber Concerto, Maestro Lawrence Golan conducted the Mahler Symphony Nr. 1 in D Major. This is an absolutely enormous piece of music that, like the Barber, is extremely difficult. This symphony is known to all regular concert audiences, so I will not go into great detail about its history. In the performance of this piece, Lawrence Golan easily demonstrated what a partnership there was between him and the Lamont Symphony Orchestra, which obviously admires and respects him. I mention that because it is so necessary for orchestra members to have some sense of symbiosis with their conductor, and it is most noticeable when that does not exist.

The pastorale opening of the first movement with all the bird calls and distant fanfares was absolutely beautiful as it develops into a standard sonata form. There were moments in this first movement that seemed absolutely mysterious, and I am not sure at all that I have heard the Lamont Symphony change their mood, which they created with such depth, so easily and quickly. That, again, is a demonstration of Golan’s ability to motivate the students. The second movement was lusty and full of vigor with a slower trio section which was incredibly lyrical and graceful. It was a pleasure to sit and listen for a while without taking any notes on the performance. I was once again struck by the fact that this was a student orchestra performing a Mahler symphony. If any of you readers are orchestra members or professional musicians, you will understand what I mean. Performing a Mahler symphony is not at all like playing an early Mozart or an early Haydn symphony. While those works are gems that will live forever, the Mahler is fraught with rhythmic difficulties, changes of tempo, and harmonies which can be difficult because they require excellent tune and attention to sound. It is hard work to play the notes, and to make those notes beautiful.

I have written about this Symphony before, and every time I hear it, I become divided in my thoughts about the third movement. Mahler uses the French folk song, Frère Jacques, in a minor key, slows the tempo, and changes it to a funeral march. Its motivation was a woodcut depicting animals carrying a hunter to his grave. Its tone is one of deadly seriousness, and yet its irony almost overcomes that seriousness. I have often wondered if Mahler wasn’t inserting his own brand of humor in this very serious symphony, but I have been assured by Mahler-ites that he never laughed much during his entire life, and this certainly was not the spot. Nonetheless, the orchestra performed it beautifully, with great solemnity, and yet with a certain lightness that did not bog things down.

The last movement had some fine lyricism which belied the difficulties of the work. The brass section in the performance of this symphony was outstanding, and considering the difficulties of this work, and considering that these are students still in the learning process, this was a remarkable performance.

The Lamont Symphony Orchestra members are very fortunate to have Maestro Lawrence Golan show them Mahler and lead them through the learning process of such a difficult work so that they perform it truly well. As they received their well-deserved applause, one could observe how tired some of the orchestra members looked, and yet, sense the pleasure they felt in their performance. I am sure that made it very satisfying for the audience as well.

Some of you readers may consider that this review is overly complementary. I assure you that it is not. Every superlative was well deserved. Every performance has spots where the performers wish they could have done better. But the ultimate goal was most certainly achieved: they made music worth listening to.

The Boulder Philharmonic Orchestra concert was exceptional
September 18, 2011, 9:30 pm
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: , , , , ,

There was a sold-out house Saturday evening, September 17, at Mackey Auditorium on the CU campus in Boulder. The Boulder Philharmonic Orchestra performed two very important pieces from music literature: the first, was the keyboard Concerto in D minor, BWV 1052, by Johann Sebastian Bach, and the second was Mahler’s Symphony Nr. 1 in D Major, which has been called the “Titan.” Both the Bach and the Mahler received well-deserved standing ovations, and the performance of both works has to be classified as some of the Boulder Phil’s best.

The soloist for the Bach concerto was Hsing-ay Hsu who is on the faculty at CU in Boulder. In case any of you readers are not aware of who she is, please make a sincere attempt to hear her performances because she is absolutely amazing, not only for her technique, but for her impeccable musicianship. To really be a good pianist, one must have sound technique of course, but to really excel, one has to be a musician first. Believe me, Hsing-ay Hsu is a truly fine musician.

I will quote from her bio statement: “Since making her stage debut at age four, Chinese pianist Hsing-ay Hsu (Sing-I Shoo) has performed at such notable venues as Carnegie Hall, the Kennedy Center, Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center, and abroad in China, Japan, Taiwan, the Czech Republic, Denmark, and France. Upon reaching the age of eligibility in her freshman year at Juilliard, Hsu captured the 1996 William Kapell International Piano Competition Second Prize. She is also winner of the prestigious Juilliard William Petschek Recital Award in 2000, a 2003 McCrane Foundation Artist Grant, a 1999-2001 Paul & Daisy Sows Graduate Fellowship, and a 1997 Gilmore Young Artist Award.

“She has served as visiting piano faculty at Ohio University and University of Colorado, given residencies at the University of Missouri at Kansas City and Xiamen University, and regularly teaches masterclasses. Ms. Hsu is currently the Artistic Administrator of the Pendulum New Music Series at the University of Colorado in Boulder, where she resides with her husband, composer Daniel Kellogg.”

Bach constantly borrowed from himself, as well as revising previous works for new instruments, when he composed. Many scholars are now convinced that this particular keyboard concerto is a revised work that was originally for violin which has since been lost. This concerto was written for a harpsichord with two manuals, but nonetheless when it is performed today, it is almost imperative that it be performed on a piano rather than the harpsichord. If it is done on harpsichord then the hall has to be quite small and the ensemble has to be quite small as well, for the harpsichord can be a very difficult instrument to hear. Ferruccio Busoni, a student of Franz Liszt’s, arranged this concerto for a larger ensemble and a modern solo instrument. Purists should not be alarmed at this as it has certainly increased the popularity of this work and increased its chances of being performed. In addition, Busoni was a very fine musician himself.

I was pleasantly surprised at the very outset of this performance, because the tempo that was taken by Maestro Butterman, and without question asked for by Ms. Hsu, was a little faster than I am accustomed to hearing, but it is a tempo that I have longed to hear. It was spirited, it was quick, and it had the kind of rhythmic drive – or pulse, if you will – that is so necessary when one performs Bach. That drive is often missing from other performers and orchestras. There was so much joy given by both the soloist and the orchestra that one simply had to smile while listening. The first movement was amazingly articulate, and each phrase was perfectly executed and shaped. The first movement also contains some very difficult fingerwork, but every single note could be heard. Her pedaling was absolutely flawless. It is also a wonderful thing to see and hear the confidence with which Hsing-ay Hsu performs. There were no extraneous and unnecessary motions; she simply gets down to the business of concentrating and presenting the audience a wonderful and accurate picture of the composer.

It was also very clear that Maestro Butterman and Ms. Hsu had a great deal of confidence in each other. There was some eye to eye contact, but in some ways, surprisingly little. They both knew what each other wanted and they did it with great ease. I must say that it has been a long time since I have heard the second movement of this concerto done so mysteriously and with so much darkness of tone. It really was quite a surprise. It sounded as if Bach was suddenly recalling some great tragedy. Mind you, it was still superb Bach, but the first movement was so full of joy, that the “musical description” of the second movement was quite a surprise. 

The third movement returned the listener to the jovial character of the first movement. I know that it is a terrible cliché to say that this movement “dazzled with its sparkling quality,” but that’s exactly the way it was. I also point out that the third movement is just as difficult as the first. All of the non-musicians in the audience must surely be aware that because every single note can be heard, and because the soloist is not visibly working hard or “shaken,” does not mean that the piece is easy. It simply means that Hsing-ay Hsu is an exceptional pianist and musician.

This was a delightful performance, and the audience called Ms. Hsu back at least three times, as I recall, for an encore. Unfortunately, no encore was played, which only makes me yearn for her next performance.

An intermission separated the Bach with the only other work on the night’s program: the Mahler First Symphony. This symphony gets its name, “Titan,” because it was originally conceived as a tone poem loosely based on a novel of the same name by Jean Paul. Jean Paul’s novel describes a youth who is full of artistic desire, but whom the world has no use for. He finds no outlet for his artistic ability, and, because he has such difficulty adapting, his only way out is to commit suicide. Much has been made of Mahler’s preoccupation with death, and I will not go into it here. It is certain that Mahler had to have been one of the most troubled composers in all of music history, save, perhaps, for Tchaikovsky.

The first two movements, as the program notes explained, express the joys of youth, while the last two movements examine death. This morbid outlook is typical of Mahler, but to my way of thinking it is sometimes overstated in the same way that so many doctoral dissertations were written about Schoenberg’s and Webern’s 12 tone compositions. In the 1950s and early 1960s, as far as these two composers were concerned, there was analysis, and analysis, and analysis. Scientificism was rampant. Concerning Mahler: as he grew older, I do think that his preoccupation with the morbid grew stronger, but it is sometimes overdone.

The first movement of this “Titan” Symphony is really a pastorale setting, and exhibits bird calls and distant fanfares. The main theme comes from the song “I Went Out This Morning Through the Fields.” The second movement is a rather rousing Austrian Ländler, which is a dance in ¾ meter, usually with a dotted rhythm on the third beat. Beethoven, Schubert, Bruckner, and Mahler used it often. Now for the unusual feature of this Symphony: the third movement is a funeral march which is based on a woodcut by Jacques Callot. The woodcut depicts a procession of forest animals carrying the body of a hunter to his final resting place. This movement is in three sections, wherein the center trio section is almost similar to some kind of rowdy dancehall music. The opening and closing sections are the French folk tune, “Frère Jacques” played in a minor key. This is so full of irony, that it has often struck me – at the risk of annoying all Mahler lovers – as humorous. As far as I know, there is no evidence that Mahler was concerned with humor at this point in this symphony. In fact, his whole life often seems to be devoid of humor. But to me, this movement, because of its irony, is humorous. Every time I hear it performed live, I watch the audience very carefully, and everyone is sitting staring straight at the orchestra, uttering no sound whatsoever, and with a very serious look on their faces. It is if they are all thinking, “Listen to this. This cannot be funny because it is Mahler, and everyone knows Mahler is always serious, and may not have smiled his entire life.” The last movement of this symphony begins without a break, and really, the only word that describes this last movement is triumphant.

The Boulder Philharmonic, with Maestro Butterman leading the way, was absolutely sensational in the performance of this work. The outstanding sections in the performance of this symphony, to my way of thinking, were the cellos and the violas. There was also some wonderful playing from the clarinet and the oboe. Before the performance, Mr. Butterman explained that this symphony has a reputation of being one of the two best “first” symphonies ever written, the other one being Symphony Nr.1 by Brahms. I am in complete agreement. The fact that I think the third movement is full of ironic humor certainly does not detract from the genius this symphony exhibits. It is also very clear that Maestro Butterman understands how this Mahler Symphony should be performed. The tempos were perfect, and the entire orchestra performed with enthusiasm and sincerity under his direction.

In spite of this symphony’s emotional turbulence, and even taking into account the artistry that it displays, it is still a good “first” work to initiate those who are unfamiliar with Mahler. I hope that the Boulder Phil will perform another Mahler symphony soon. And I think that says a great deal about the performance ability of this orchestra. They are excellent.