Opus Colorado

The Playground’s tribute to Elliot Carter was terrific!

On November 5, 2012, America lost one of its most important composers, Elliott Carter. He was born December 11, 1908, and he made a conscious decision to become a composer after hearing Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring when he was fifteen. He attended Harvard as an English major but also studied music there with Walter Piston and Gustav Holst. The most remarkable aspect of Elliott Carter was the fact that many of his compositions were written between the age of 90 and 103. In some ways, his music has been like Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring was in 1913, in that its popularity has never been easy because of its remarkable complexity. Over the years, Carter’s music became ever more complicated, and sophisticated as well, following his stated believe that, “I like music to be beautiful, ordered, and expressive of the more important aspects of life.”

Conrad Kehn and The Playground presented a concert on Thursday, February 21, at the Lamont School of Music’s Hamilton Hall, and it was entitled Elliott Carter in Memoriam. The pianist in the Playground Ensemble is Joshua Sawicki, and he opened the program with Carter’s Retrouvailles (written in 2000), for solo piano. This piece was written for the seventy-fifth birthday of Pierre Boulez, and its title, loosely translated means back together again, and is quite appropriate considering that Carter wrote pieces for Boulez on his sixtieth and his seventieth birthday. This is also, I think, indicative of Elliott Carter sense of humor. Sawicki is an excellent pianist, and seemed completely at home in this work. This particular piece reflects Carter’s atonal complexity and is a very good example of what he called “metric modulation, wherein he goes from one metronomic speed to another by lengthening or shortening the value of the basic unit.” An example might be when a quarter-note unit in one passage becomes a half-note unit in another. This is a wonderfully attractive piece and it was performed in a very expressive way, and I must say, that Sawicki made this piece very special. I, for one, would like to hear him do Carter’s enormous Sonata for Piano.

The next work on the program was Three Poems of Robert Frost, which was written in 1942, and, unlike Retrouvailles, these three poems, Dust of Snow, The Rose Family, and The Line-Gang, and shows much influence of Aaron Copland and Samuel Barber. These are three beautiful songs which were sung by Megan Buness, with Joshua Sawicki collaborating on the piano. Again, I was struck by the fact that both of these musicians were very sensitive in their performance. Even though these three songs are less “contemporary” in sound, I have heard them sung before by musicians who thought twentieth century music could not possibly be expressive. It is those musicians who could have benefited greatly from listening to Buness and Sawicki.

One of the fascinating aspects of this concert was the video excerpts that were shown between each composition of Carter’s. They were taken from interviews, and seemed to be edited so that Carter’s comments reflected the next piece on the program.

Sarah Johnson, who is a fine violinist, performed Carter’s Rhapsodic Musings, which was written in 2000. This is another wonderfully complex piece from a set of four pieces, entitled Four Lands. Each of the four pieces is dedicated to a colleague of Carter’s, and Rhapsodic Musings was written for the birthday of Robert Mann. Ms. Johnson’s playing is always very secure, and always very exciting to hear. And as I was listening to all of these performers on the concert, I began to wonder if Conrad Kehn, who founded the playground, had an extra-particular aspect of musicianship in mind when he chose the members of this ensemble. All of the members of the group seem to have a very wide range of ability plus a wide ranging musical curiosity, and it always makes these concerts a pleasure to hear.

During the concert, I could not help but wonder at Elliott Carter’s possession of such a long and productive life. As he said in one of the videos, his music has changed over the years because the world we live in has changed so much over the years. Our lives are now so much more complex, and we have so much more to think about. And then he added, “Perhaps that means people will like my music even more. [!]” So, you see, he was also known for his sense of humor, and it is well-known that he was delighted at the increasing regard in which his music was being held by musicians throughout the world. When reminded of that, he expressed his pleasure, and said, “After all, you don’t live to be 103 that often.”

This recital was outstanding because there were so many small pieces of Carter’s included on the program; all told there were nine. Often there are three or four pieces separated by an intermission, but the selection of the pieces on Thursday’s program presented a wide range of Carter’s output. There were three pieces from his set of Eight Pieces for Four Timpani performed by Jason Rodon. Of course, one is immediately reminded of John Cage since he was the “inventor” of the percussion ensemble. However, I certainly don’t recall Cage requiring a timpanist to adjust the tune by as much as a fourth while the sound is being generated. That was the pedal on the timpani that allowed Rodon to accomplish this, and it certainly proved that timpani could be a melodic instrument.

After the intermission, The Playground performed Carter’s Sonata for Flute, Oboe, Cello, and Harpsichord, which was written in 1952. The performers were Sonya Yeager–Meeks, flute; Maureen Farkash, oboe; Richard vonFoerster, cello; and Kristen Jürgens, harpsichord. These are all remarkable performers. This piece was written for a commission by Sylvia Marlowe, and was written for a very large Pleyel harpsichord that Marlowe owned. Certainly, they had a large harpsichord on stage Thursday evening. I was quite entranced by Kristen Jürgens performance, because she seemed to get so much tone out of a harpsichord which usually has very limited tone (Do any of you remember her performance of the Barber Concerto a year ago?) This was a beautiful performance of this three movement sonata, and its unusual instrumentation provides a marvelous contrast in sound. I have not heard this piece before, and I’m not sure if a recording of it exists. But the performance of this piece by these for outstanding musicians makes it a certainty that I will try to find one.

In some ways, the most interesting work on the entire program was Carter’s Canon for Three: Igor Stravinsky in Memoriam. It was written in 1971 for the British music journal, Tempo, and many composers contributed to the tribute including Boulez, Copland, Sessions, Milhaud, Berio, and many others. Its instrumentation was never specified by Carter but he did require that they all play in the same range. Conrad Kehn took advantage of this unspecificity, and “realized” the three instruments electronically. It was done very well, and I am absolutely sure that Elliott Carter would have approved of this method of performing his piece. In addition, I would like to point out that this piece has been recorded several times with different combinations of instruments. I found it extremely pleasing to hear, and I must say that it reminded me of some of the work that Lejaren Hiller did at the University of Illinois. I think it points to the ingenuity and creativity of Conrad Kehn to have performed the piece in this way.

There followed the String Trio performed by Sarah Johnson, violin; Donald Schumacher, viola; and Richard vonFoerster, cello. This composition was completed in 2011, and as Carter often did, it was dedicated to three of his friends who often performed his work. The melodic interest in this trio is given to the viola, and Donald Schumacher played it beautifully. As someone said, this work shares a common attribute of Carter’s recent music, and that is the “ambiguous line between dispute and shared expression” in the music.

The concert closed with Carter’s Elegy for string quartet. Anne Morris, violin, joined Sarah Johnson, Donald Schumacher, and Richard vonFoerster for this final performance. This is another piece that was written in the transitional period (early to mid-1940s) before Carter’s compositional style abandoned the influences of Barber and Copland. It is a wonderful piece, and, as the program notes stated, it made a fitting end to this particular concert.

As I stated above, Conrad Kehn has a knack for choosing musicians for The Playground. Their outstanding performance and their enthusiasm for Elliott Carter made this a very enjoyable evening. I am always amazed that Elliott Carter, even in his 103rd year, never lost any of the rhythmic suppleness and his harmonic language. In spite of his atonality, and sometimes pointillism, his music never lost its lyrical quality and its incredible color. These musicians never ignored the sonority and balance that are so inherent in Elliott Carter’s work. It was a wonderful performance.

The Boulder Symphony and The Playground present a World Premiere

The Boulder Symphony Orchestra is going to present a very exciting program on Saturday, March 31 at 7 PM (please note the time) at their home venue which is the First Presbyterian Church at 1820 15th St. in Boulder. It will be a World Premiere of Playgrosso written by their Composer in Residence, Conrad Kehn. For this World Premier, the Playground Ensemble from DUs Lamont School of Music will join the Boulder Symphony in a collaboration performing Conrad Kehn’s new work. As I’m sure most of you know, Conrad Kehn is also the conductor of The Playground.

Conrad Kehn is a composer, improviser, performer, educator, writer and artist. He is the founding Director of The Playground; a chamber ensemble dedicated to modern music.

An award winning composer, Conrad’s style spans many genres from traditional chamber pieces to aleatory, graphic scores, multimedia works and experimental rock. His music has been performed across the U.S. including Issue Project Room (NY), Audio Inversions (Austin, TX), Pendulum New Music Series (CU-Boulder), and the Summer New Music Symposium at Colorado College.

Conrad holds a Master of Business Administration Degree (2010) from the University of Denver’s Daniels College of Business. He also holds a Master’s degree in Composition (2000) and Bachelor’s degree in Commercial Music/Recording Technology (1996) from the University of Denver’s Lamont School of Music. His composition instructors include Donald Keats, M. Lynn Baker, and Bill Hill. Conrad is currently a lecturer of Music Theory and Music Technology at Lamont.

Playgrosso is collaboration between the Boulder Symphony and the Playground Ensemble, modeled after the Baroque era Concerto Grosso form which juxtaposes a small group (or concertino) against a large group (ripieno)such as the orchestra.   In writing this piece, Kehn was heavily influenced by Alfred Schnittke’s Concerto Grossi, especially Concerto Grossi No. 1. Kehn states: “My composition is somewhat traditional in the sense that the Baroque concertino would often be continuo (keyboard and bass instrument, usually cello) and two treble instruments (usually two violins). My concertino is comprised of prepared piano and bass clarinet as the continuo, and a flute and violin as the two treble instruments”   Soloists from The Playground are Sonya Yeager-Meeks, flute;  Brian Ebert, bass clarinet; Kristen Jürgens, piano; and Sarah Johnson, violin.

This performance will be the fifth concert of the 2011-2012 season. The orchestra has named the season “Transcendental Metamorphosis,”  and Boulder Symphony music director Devin Patrick Hughes will also conduct the orchestra in the Boulder Premiere of Arvo Part’s Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten; Charles Ives’ The Unanswered Question; and the magnificent Symphony No. 4 in e minor by Johannes Brahms. Tickets are $15 for adults, $12 for seniors and $5 for students.  Additional information is available at www.bouldersymphony.org or at 970-577-1550.

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.