Opus Colorado

The Colorado Symphony: Puts, Jackson, and Wolfram are Magnificent and Memorable

The Colorado Symphony Orchestra presented its American Festival: Part I under the direction of Maestro Andrew Litton, Saturday evening, February 28. Without becoming involved in poetic rapture, you readers must understand that this was one of the finest CSO concerts they have given. There are several reasons for this, the first of which is that they played extraordinarily well, but also they introduced Kevin Puts to the Denver audience. In addition, Bil Jackson, former Principal Clarinetist with the CSO, returned to perform Kevin Puts’ Clarinet Concerto, and the outstanding pianist William Wolfram returned to perform Leonard Bernstein’s The Age of Anxiety, Symphony Nr. 2.

The program opened with Two Mountain Scenes, Maestoso and Furioso by the American composer, Kevin Puts. Before I discuss his music, I will quote the entirety of his biographical statement from his website. I do so because it was apparent Saturday night that this is a major American composer that you readers need to know about. If you see a concert program where his works are being performed, you must attend.

“Winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for his debut opera Silent Night, Kevin Puts has been hailed as one of the most important composers of his generation. Critically acclaimed for his distinctive and richly colored musical voice, Puts’ impressive body of work includes four symphonies as well as several concertos written for some of today’s top soloists. His newest work, The City (Symphony No. 5), co-commissioned by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in honor of its 100th anniversary and by Carnegie Hall in honor of their 125th anniversary, will receive its premiere in Baltimore and New York in April 2016.

“Silent Night, commissioned and premiered by Minnesota Opera, has since been produced and performed at Fort Worth Opera, Cincinnati Opera, the Wexford Opera Festival, and Calgary Opera, with upcoming productions at the Lyric Opera of Kansas City and Montreal Opera. In 2013, his choral works To Touch The Sky and If I Were A Swan were performed by Conspirare, and a recording was released by the Harmonia Mundi label.  The recording includes a performance of his Symphony No. 4: From Mission San Juan, performed by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marin Alsop. His second opera, an adaptation of Richard Condon’s novel The Manchurian Candidate, also commissioned by Minnesota Opera, will have its world premiere in March 2015. That same month, his song cycle Of All The Moons, commissioned by Carnegie Hall, will be performed by mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke. His first chamber opera, an adaptation of Peter Ackroyd’s gothic novel The Trial of Elizabeth Cree commissioned by Opera Philadelphia will have its premiere in 2016.

“His orchestral works have been commissioned, performed, and recorded by leading orchestras and ensembles throughout North America, Europe and the Far East, including the New York Philharmonic, the Tonhalle Orchester (Zurich), the Boston Pops, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, the Miro Quartet, Cypress Quartet, Conspirare, the Eroica Trio, Eighth Blackbird, the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble, the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, and the symphony orchestras of Baltimore, Cincinnati, Detroit, Atlanta, Colorado, Houston, Fort Worth, St. Louis, and Minnesota. In 2005, in celebration of David Zinman’s 70th birthday, he was commissioned to write Vision, a cello concerto premiered by Yo-Yo Ma and the Aspen Music Festival Orchestra. During the same year, Dame Evelyn Glennie premiered his Percussion Concerto with the Pacific and Utah Symphonies. In 2008, his piano concerto Night, was commissioned by the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra and premiered by pianist and conductor Jeffrey Kahane.

“Mr. Puts has received prestigious awards and grants from the American Academy in Rome, the Guggenheim Foundation, the American Academy of Arts and Letters, BMI and ASCAP. He has served as Composer-in-Residence of Young Concerts Artists, the California Symphony, the Fort Worth Symphony, the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, Bravo! Vail Valley Music Festival, Music from Angel Fire, and the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society. Mr. Puts received his training as a composer and pianist at the Eastman School of Music and Yale University. Since 2006, he has been a member of the composition department at the Peabody Institute, and currently is the Director of the Minnesota Orchestra Composer’s Institute.

“A native of St. Louis, Missouri, Mr. Puts received his Bachelor’s Degree from the Eastman School of Music, his Master’s Degree from Yale University, and a Doctor of Musical Arts at the Eastman School of Music.”

You readers who are, perhaps, not familiar with musical terminology (which is traditionally an Italian) will, even so, recognize that two pieces are titled “majestic” and “furiously” in the work Two Mountain Scenes, Maestoso and Furioso. The work was commissioned by the Bravo! Vail Valley Music Festival, and it certainly reflects the scope of the Rocky Mountains.

The first of the two pieces, Maestoso, opens with a trumpet fanfare, and the music is so wonderfully descriptive that I did not bother at the concert to read the program notes describing the two pieces. I was absolutely dazzled by Puts’ use of harmony and the melodic line. His harmonic structure is best imagined as something that Aaron Copland might write if he were still alive and composing. Indeed, when I read the program notes during the intermission, they quoted Puts as saying that he “… always loved Copland’s Concerto for Clarinet.” The chordal harmony that Puts uses, on first hearing, seems to be that of 9th and 13th chords in parallel motion beneath a melodic line which has a remarkable ambitus and is quite disjunct, very similar to Sergei Prokofiev. He also seems to use a lot of harmonic counterpoint, but, again, that is based on my first hearing of this work. The overall effect is one of surprising mellifluous beauty, and the convincing use of the 9th and 13th chords in a traditionally functional manner is filled with surprise when a truly functional chord, such as a V7, makes its appearance.

The second of the Two Mountain Scenes, Furioso, very clearly describes an approaching storm. His orchestration – masses of percussion – very skillfully describes the impending storm, but his use of harmony takes away the terror of the storm, and turns it in to a natural occurrence.

The effect of these two pieces was that of absolutely stunning beauty and serenity. It is my sincere hope that the CSO programs more of his work.

Following the Two Mountain Scenes, the Colorado Symphony Orchestra welcomed the return (for this performance only) of clarinetist Bil Jackson. I’m sure that all of you readers will recognize his name because he was Principal Clarinet in the CSO for 28 years. He is now Associate Professor of Clarinet on the faculty of the Blair School of Music at Vanderbilt University. To jog your mind, I will quote very briefly from his bio statement on his website:

“Bil Jackson enjoys a varied musical career that includes solo, orchestral and chamber music appearances. Before joining the faculty at the Blair School, he served as principal clarinetist with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, Colorado Symphony Orchestra and Honolulu Symphony, and has performed as guest principal clarinetist with the St Louis, Minnesota and Cincinnati symphony orchestras. He also has appeared as a soloist with the Colorado, Honolulu, Denver, Charlotte, Dallas Chamber and Aspen Chamber orchestras.”

Bil Jackson and the CSO, as I stated in the opening paragraph, performed Kevin Puts’ Clarinet Concerto. This concerto, written for string orchestra, has two movements, each with a descriptive title of Vigil and Surge.

The opening movement was easily recognizable as being written by Kevin Puts because I had just heard his previous work. Before Saturday’s performance, I was completely unfamiliar with this composer even though this work was commissioned for Bil Jackson by Catherine Gould through the Meet the Composer program. The Colorado Symphony Orchestra premiered this work in 2009 with Jeffrey Kahane conducting. Regretfully, I did not hear that performance.

I can assure you Kevin Puts sounds like no other composer who is writing today. His skill as a composer is evident in this work because it is so convincingly written for the clarinet. It is remarkably difficult, but, on the other hand, Bil Jackson is a totally remarkable clarinetist. The opening of the work is, once again, mellifluous while being disjunct (a seemingly impossible combination?). It has some beautiful writing for two harps, and there are some long sustained notes in the violas underneath the performance of the rest of the orchestra. In the excellent program notes, Kevin Puts is quoted as explaining that part of the impetus for this work was the memory of a television documentary concerning the U. S. military personnel who lost their lives in the Middle East. It is a somber piece in many ways, and the performance of this work was very passionate indeed. Both of the movements of this concerto have a cadenza, and they truly allowed Jackson to demonstrate his almost supernatural technical ability and musicianship on the clarinet. No matter the difficulty involved, it is always apparent that the music and the art of the composer comes first. Not once did he use the ferocious difficulty required in this concerto to simply make a display of his virtuosity. The harmony of the first movement was similar to that of the Two Mountain Scenes, and yet there seemed to be an added aspect of almost modal harmony in the first movement of this concerto.

The second movement of this Clarinet Concerto by Puts began with an incredible sense that something inevitable and irrevocable was taking place: if you got in the way, it would simply run you down. However, no matter the ferocious mood, it was still an astoundingly beautiful work. This movement had a cadenza as well, and, after the cadenza, the mood to seem to change into poignant reflection. There was some wonderful use of percussion in this work: glockenspiel, marimba, bass drum, and chimes. Kevin Puts is a remarkable composer, and Bil Jackson is a remarkable clarinetist. The audience responded with a standing ovation, and it was clear that it was for both Kevin Puts and Bil Jackson.

Following the intermission, and the second half of Saturday’s program was the performance of Leonard Bernstein’s remarkable The Age of Anxiety, Symphony Nr. 2, with William Wolfram at the piano. This work was finished in 1949, but it was revised in 1965. At its premiere by the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1949, it was conducted by Sergei Koussevitzky with Leonard Bernstein at the piano. This remarkable work was performed by the CSO in 1998 with Marin Alsop conducting and Jeffrey Kahane at the piano.

William Wolfram performed with the CSO exactly one year ago, February 28, 2014, performing Benjamin Britten’s Piano Concerto. William Wolfram is clearly one of the best pianists alive today. He has won major awards all over the world, and he has performed with major symphonies all over the world. This also seems like a good point in this article to mention one important fact: Saturday evening, he performed on a Yamaha concert grand, because he is a Yamaha artist. I point this out because the piano he performed on was excellent. It was head and shoulders above the Steinway concert grand that is owned by the Colorado Symphony Orchestra. The Yamaha was perfectly voiced and perfectly tuned and it sounded wonderful. What a breath of fresh air it would be if the Colorado Symphony Orchestra could afford a new concert grand: perhaps a Bösendorfer, Sauter, Yamaha, Schimmel, or Blüthner, and a technician who could properly care for it.

This work by Leonard Bernstein was inspired by W. H. Auden’s poem The Age of Anxiety, which Bernstein considered “… One of the most shattering examples of pure virtuosity in the history of English poetry.” It inspired his second symphony, and he gave it the same form as Auden’s poem.

This work has to be one of the most difficult concertos written in the 20th century, and it truly takes the appearance of a concerto rather than a symphony. The second movement makes use of a drum set, an offstage upright piano, wood blocks, celesta, and bass drum located on stage behind the solo pianist. If one is thinking of this piece as recognizable because of its similarity to Westside Story or Fancy Free, he or she will be surprised. This is a wonderful example of Leonard Bernstein’s supreme compositional abilities. For example, Bernstein writes a boogie rhythm for the pianist which reminds one very strongly of the score he wrote for On the Waterfront. But keep in mind, this work is a very serious composition by Bernstein – it is almost introspective – and in no way can it be associated with “entertainment.” There are many different moods in this work, which seem to vie for the listeners’ attention. And, of course, it is remarkably complex.

This was an outstanding concert because of the works that were chosen to be performed, the superior artistry of the performers, and of the conductor, and those in the symphony. Kevin Puts, Bil Jackson, and William Wolfram are formidable artists and soloists. It was truly a memorable experience having the three of them on one program.

The American Festival: Part II will be performed on March 13 to the 15, and will feature the work of George Gershwin, Samuel Barber, and Stephen Albert. The guest artist will be violinist Anne Akiko Myers.


Shaun Burley excels with the Denver Philharmonic Orchestra

Friday night, October 5, was the opening season performance of the Denver Philharmonic Orchestra. They performed at their home venue of the KPOF Hall on Sherman Street just off 13th Avenue. Because Maestro Adam Flatt was conducting the opening season performance of the Colorado Ballet, the DPO had a guest conductor, Maestro Scott O’Neil. Though the Hall was not completely full, it was a good sized audience, and it was absolutely terrific to see so many youngsters in the audience.

The DPO opened the concert with Aaron Copland’s well-known Fanfare for the Common Man. This work has become one of Copland’s most popular compositions, which was written at the request of conductor Eugene Goosens, who had requested overtures from eighteen composers for the entire concert season of 1942-1943. From the outset, the French horn section seemed to have a few burbles, and the bass drum and timpani weren’t quite together. Normally, I would say that things like this happen occasionally, and one simply continues to do the best they can do. However, it seemed to me that there was no close connection between Maestro O’Neil and the orchestra. It’s not necessarily that O’Neil has a bad conducting technique. You must understand that every conductor has his own way of conducting to help them obtain the desired result from the orchestra. But, Friday evening there seemed to be a chasm of communication between him and the orchestra, for there was no discernible enthusiasm on the part of the orchestra or Maestro O’Neil.

Following the Copland, the DPO performed another American composer’s work: Samuel Barber’s Essay Nr. 2, Opus 17. As Maestro O’Neil said during the pre-concert talk, Samuel Barber is one of America’s finest composers. His Essay Nr. 2 is a wonderful piece, and I have always been puzzled why it is not performed as much as his Essay Nr.1. If one compares Samuel Barber to Aaron Copland, for example, one can make a very general statement that as Copland progressed through the years, his style became simpler. Just the opposite is true with Samuel Barber: his style became more complex. He used thicker textures, and he began to use more complex forms including counterpoint accompanied by dissonant polyharmony. Not only can this progression of style be observed in Essay Nr. 2, but also in Knoxville: Summer of 1915, and his wonderful Piano Sonata, Opus 26, which was written for John Browning.

The separation between the orchestra and the conductor began to narrow in the performance of the Barber. There seemed to be more enthusiasm in the performance of this piece, though I am sorry to say that the strings were often noticeably out of tune. But the brass section and the woodwind section were outstanding, and for these two sections, this is a difficult piece. The opening has a somewhat mournful flute solo that was played beautifully by Principle Flautist, Aaron Wille.

Every section has dotted rhythms to perform, especially in the fugue (which is marked Molto Allegro ed energico), but occasionally, the sharpness of the rhythm seemed almost lifeless. It did not seem to have enough vigor. In truth, I did not see Maestro O’Neil change his way of conducting in this piece in order to spur the orchestra into enthusiasm and conviction; however, it was certainly done more convincingly than the opening Copland Fanfare.

Next on the program, the DPO and its Principle Clarinetist, Shaun Burley performed another Copland work, the Concerto for Clarinet. I will quote from the program notes:

“Shaun Burley is a native of Colorado who attended the Denver School of the Arts, a public arts magnet school, for seven years before going to DePaul University’s School of Music in Chicago, Illinois, where he graduated with his Bachelor’s Degree in clarinet performance. While in Chicago, Shaun organized and played in a performance of Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians with his classmates in the New Music Ensemble at DePaul.

“Since returning to his home state, Shaun has played with many local ensembles, including several regional orchestras and the Colorado Wind Ensemble. John has been principle clarinetist of the Denver Philharmonic for four years and also performs regularly with the Balkan Brass Band, Gora Gora Orkestar, at outdoor festivals and indoor venues around the Denver/Boulder area. In early October, his band will be bringing their Eastern European sound to the Honk! Street Music Festival in Boston, Massachusetts.

“When he’s not performing or teaching, Shaun can be found on social dance floors around the city or on top of a mountain somewhere in the Rockies. Shaun also studies Mandarin Chinese in his free time.”

Copland’s Clarinet Concerto was first performed November 6, 1950 with the NBC Symphony of the Air Radio Broadcast conducted by Fritz Reiner. It is in a two-movement slow-fast format which is similar to his piano concerto. The two movements are linked by a solo cadenza. Since this work was commissioned by Benny Goodman, it is full of jazz elements, and, according to Copland, it has some Brazilian folk tunes and it, because Copland began writing this work while he was in South America. This is an incredibly difficult work for the clarinet, particularly in the cadenza.

Let me say at the outset, that the Denver Philharmonic Orchestra is very fortunate indeed to have Shaun Burley as a member. His playing has often been, as far as I am concerned, responsible for inspiring this orchestra into very decent playing, and I must say it worked again Friday evening. Burley’s tone is mellow and full, and aside from being an excellent clarinetist, he always makes it abundantly clear that he is an excellent musician as well. It also appeared to me that his playing stirred Maestro O’Neil into more enthusiastic action, for everyone, particularly in the first movement, played with a great deal more enthusiasm and precision. The cadenza was truly excellent, and there is no question that Shaun Burley really knew what he wanted to do with it, and was not intimidated by its difficulty. Copland did make adjustments here and there, taking into consideration the technical ability of Bennie Goodman. The cadenza is truly used as a transition between the first and second movements. It is full of sharp rhythms while extending the rhapsodic mood of the first movement. In the second movement, Copland even asks the basses to play a slap string style to increase awareness of the jazz themes. The orchestra did very well with this, but in the second movement, they begin to play a little out of tune.

Margo Hanschke was the pianist Friday evening, and in the second movement Copland freely employs the piano with both solo roles, and to add texture. Her playing was quite excellent. But throughout, it was Shaun Burley who was the star, and very deservedly so. There is no question in my mind that he is one of the most outstanding performers in this orchestra.

The last work on Friday’s program was the orchestral suite from the movie On the Waterfront, by Leonard Bernstein. Truly, Bernstein is one of America’s foremost musicians: conductor, composer, pianist, and educator. He was also known the world over as an interpreter of Aaron Copland and Gustav Mahler. As the excellent program notes point out, there are a number of films that use music of Leonard Bernstein, but they all use music originally written for other sources. On the Waterfront is the only film score that Leonard Bernstein wrote, and the reason for that is probably because he was not prepared to see his work so heavily edited.

It was in this work that I felt the Denver Philharmonic Orchestra played their best Friday evening. There was more excitement, there was more precision, and Maestro O’Neil appeared to be enjoying himself more than he had in the first half of the program. The woodwind section, which has always been excellent in this orchestra, was superb, as was the trumpet playing by Manny Araujo. Leonard Bernstein has a skill of building tension in his compositions, and there are many moments in this work where the tension builds to almost unreal proportions. Araujo’s playing highlighted this with very sharp rhythms which gave the orchestra a remarkable sense of direction. The string sections were far more precise with their rhythms as well. There was also some outstanding flute playing. In many ways, the orchestra as a whole simply worked harder in this composition than they did in the rest of the program.

In spite of some of my criticisms, this was an enjoyable concert, and, as I said above, I am delighted that there were so many young people in the audience. And what truly delights me, is that no matter what drew these young people to be present, the Denver Philharmonic Orchestra did not “stoop to sell” by playing music from the pop culture. The orchestra shared the composer’s art in different genres with the audience.

Debut Concert: Peak Performance Chamber Series: A world-class performance

Those of you who read my articles may recall that a couple of weeks ago, when I received the notice that there was a new chamber group in Denver, that I got very excited. I have always loved chamber music, and I am of the opinion that there cannot be too many chamber groups. And yes, there are a number of high-quality chamber groups in the state. But the group that I was excited about was the Peak Performances Chamber Series founded by Matthew Dane, viola, and Christina Jennings, flute. I have heard these two perform before with the Boulder Bach Festival, and they are two of the most outstanding musicians I have heard in recent years; they have added immeasurably to the success of the Boulder Bach Festival. Keep in mind that the Boulder Bach Festival is comprised of superb musicians. I promise you that I do not use “superb” lightly.

So it was, on Saturday afternoon, November 12, that I drove to St. Andrews Episcopal Church on Glenarm Place just north of downtown for the Debut Concert of this new chamber ensemble. I have praised this venue in the recent past because of its fine acoustics and intimate atmosphere. Dane and Jennings were joined by Chad Burrow, clarinet, and Amy I-Lin Cheng, piano, in an absolutely wonderful chamber music concert.

Below, are very short bio statements which I have taken from the press release announcing their debut concert.

“Violist Matthew Dane is well known in this region and beyond as a collaborator, teacher, and performer. Principal violist of the River Oaks Chamber Orchestra in Houston and member of several chamber ensembles, he was previously tenured faculty at the University of Oklahoma and Editor of the American Viola Society’s Journal.

“Flutist Christina Jennings is a past winner of the Concert Artists Guild Competition and she has appeared as soloist with over fifty orchestras. On the faculty of the University of Colorado, she also directs the nationally recognized Panoramic Flutist Seminar.

“Born in Taiwan, pianist Amy I-Lin Cheng has been described by the New York Concert Review as a pianist whose “control of the keyboard is complete, technique easy and relaxed, with a wide range of touch.” Amy has appeared in recitals at venues such as the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Merkin Concert Hall in New York City, Weill Recital Hall in Carnegie Hall, and National Concert Hall in Taipei.

“Clarinetist Chad Burrow’s playing has been described as “brilliant technique and tonal beauty mixed with an expressive ferocity.” Formerly Principal clarinetist of the Oklahoma City Philharmonic and the New Haven Symphony, he is now on the faculty at the University of Michigan and concertizes regularly in the US, Asia, and Europe.”

Flautist Christina Jennings, Chad Burrow, clarinetist, and Amy I-Lin Cheng, pianist, opened the concert with Debussy’s Prélude à l’apres-midi d’un faune. Yes, this was an arrangement of Debussy’s work for orchestra, but before any of you readers cringe at the thought of an arrangement of such an important piece, understand this: this has to be one of the best arrangements of any piece that I have heard. It was done by Michael Webster who is a professor at Rice University’s shepherd School of Music. He is also the artistic director of the Houston Youth Symphony. He is a clarinetist, and as a soloist he has appeared with many orchestras, including the Philadelphia Orchestra with Aaron Copland conducting, the Boston Pops with John Williams conducting, and he was for many years Aaron Copland’s favorite interpreter of his Clarinet Concerto. I also point out that his recital career began in Town Hall with his father, Beveridge Webster, who was a world renowned pianist.

The minute these individuals began to perform, it was readily apparent that this was going to be an extraordinary concert. Christina Jennings’ tone but was full and round, and matched the remarkable warm sound that Chad Burrow got from his clarinet. Please keep in mind that in a piece such as this, the pianist is an equal partner, and not just an “accompanist.” I bring this up only because so many people have said to me after a performance, “What a nice concert. Didn’t you love the accompanist?” Ms. Cheng is a wonderful pianist and artist. She has such a marvelous way of getting everything, both legato and portato from her hands, using precious little pedal. The most outstanding aspect of this performance, and one that I think is rare, is the fact that all three of these musicians were equally sensitive, not only to the music, but to what each individual wanted to do. It was identical to the close musical association that I witnessed so many times, for example, between Starker and Sebok. It is sometimes difficult to describe, but it is instantly recognizable and magical. And it was always what the composer wanted. Chad Burrow is capable of some of the most haunting sounds that I have ever heard come from a clarinet. Jennings, Cheng, and Burrow gave a wonderfully mystical performance of Debussy’s work, which is based on an equally mystical poem by Stephane Mallarmé. The poem, itself, is almost impossible to understand because it uses so many metaphors, but these musicians had no problem interpreting one of Debussy’s most enchanting compositions.

(If any of you readers would like to pursue Mallarmé’s incredible poem, I would suggest that you read two books: A Grammar of Metaphor by Christine Brooke-Rose [Secker & Warburg, London, 1958], and Anna Balakian’s The Symbolist Movement in the Literature of European Languages, [Akadémiai Kiadó, Budapest, 1984]).

Next on the program came a wonderful piece by Edward Knight (b. 1961). Knight has a background in jazz, classical, and theatrical composition. He toured Europe as a jazz trumpeter and earned his DMA from University of Texas at Austin. He studied privately with John Corigliano and was the first American to win the Sir Arthur Bliss Memorial award, for outstanding postgraduate composer at London’s Royal College of Music. Dr. Edward Knight is composer-in-residence and director of music composition at Oklahoma City University.

This work, entitled INBOX, was commissioned in 2009 by Matthew Dane, Christina Jennings, and Alexandra Ngyuen. It is a delightfully humorous piece with four movements, Do Not Delete!, Classmate Quest, Match.com, and E-Bay Bid Wars. Quoting from the program notes, the composer states:

“We live in an era of instant communication, multitasking, and short attention spans. INBOX explores a world where a flood of information awaits each morning in your e-mail inbox. Do Not Delete! is a tongue-in-cheek depiction of ‘high priority’ e-mail, spam, and viruses. A quirky little tune depicts various facets of those daily annoyances. Classmate Quest presents two former classmates with the flute and viola in disparate musical worlds. The piano plays a recurring nostalgic tune, sharing past memories. The two finally connect, reveling in the past, before being jolted back into the reality of their separate lives. Match.com spoofs cyber dating through the romantic give-and-take of the tango. E-Bay Bid Wars explores the frenetic world of online auctions. Cunning strategy combines with intense suspense right before the virtual gavel falls.”

Depicting humor with music is often difficult. First, the composition must be good, and this one was excellent, and second, the performing musicians must be as good as the composition. Otherwise, all can be overstated and sound corny, or the opposite may occur, leaving the audience wondering what was so droll. Matthew Dane, Christina Jennings, and Amy I-Lin Cheng were superb.

This was a difficult, piece and all three musicians were working. The opening was almost minimalist in style, but I soon realized that every theme was pictorial, and it was also clear that these musicians are excellent in portraying what the composer wanted. The second movement, Classmate Quest, was in truth, very much like a ballet. It was moving and sensuous, and utterly dancelike. The tango in the third was understated, and really quite sad; they proved that there is more than one way to look at a romantic spoof. The fourth movement was appropriately hard-driving and full of technical virtuosity. It was wonderfully well done, and again, the close communication among these musicians was natural, and perhaps, not noticeable to everyone in the audience who was not a musician. But without it, everyone in the audience would have known.

Following the Knight, Chad Burrow and Amy I-Lin Cheng performed Leonard Bernstein’s Sonata for Clarinet and Piano, which was written in 1942.

Note the date in which this Sonata was written: 1942. Bernstein was still a student when he wrote this, and yet he received much acclaim for it. In the program notes for this concert Matthew Dane states that Bernstein speaks “… And the intensive harmonic language of Paul Hindemith while creating melodic phrases and textures of great accessibility on personality.” That is absolutely correct, but I also think that it needs to be stated that he was using harmonies of his time, and Hindemith was one of the leading composers when Bernstein wrote this piece. If one listens carefully, one can easily hear the language and speech that delineate Bernstein’s works from this point forward. This is a wonderful piece that I first heard back in the 1960s.

So often, especially in chamber music, it is so easy to grasp the fact that the musicians like or dislike what they are performing. One of the outstanding aspects of Saturday’s performance was the enthusiasm and joy which was reflected in this concert. Chad Burrow, and his wife, Amy I-Lin Cheng, perform with each other in a very easy and ecstatic way. She is a true artist who, with her phrasing, supports her husband’s incredible breath control with every phrase. Again, in the Bernstein, I was absolutely awestruck by the tone with which Chad Burrow plays.

This two movement work has tempos that go from moderately fast to very fast, and underneath it all, the pianist must keep up a certain pulse with the clarinet. The last movement seems to have an almost Latin rhythm which gives the ending a very solid sense of direction. Burrow and Cheng made this piece so very easy, though I am convinced they were working very hard. Their sense of phrasing, which they share throughout the entire piece, was absolutely beautiful and delightful to hear. They gave each other ample opportunity to explore their own musicianship as well as Bernstein’s.

The last work on the program was by Max Bruch, and is a late work, written when he was over 70 years of age. Each of the eight pieces is absolutely beautiful, and each of them, I think, is a set of character pieces. However, there are no titles to any of the eight pieces; they truly seem to describe eight different individuals. I found it very interesting  because that is the way that Cheng, Burrow, and Dane performed them.

In the first piece, I was again struck by the intensity of tone from all three musicians. All three were lyrical and lush. The second piece is full of technical hurdles for the pianist to cross, but she did so magnificently. Her dynamic contrast was wonderful.

This marvelous musicianship of all three continued throughout the eight pieces; the darkness of the third piece; the passion of the fifth. In the sixth piece, Ms. Cheng was absolutely beyond compare. She has a remarkable concept of pedaling, and therefore, every single note could be heard. The seventh piece was cheerful and delightful, and the eighth piece was imbued with an incredibly sweet sound, as well as haunting passion.

I have already said that this was a remarkable performance. All of these musicians played their instruments with such musicality and tone that I was simply enthralled. It was the same feeling I had when I was in undergraduate school and heard James Pellerite and Robert McGinnis perform. Matthew Dane is simply one of the best violists I have heard. Ms. Cheng is an artist.

All four of these musicians are the kind of musicians that I would want to study with if I were in school again. They have a love of music and a care for music that is unmistakable and obvious. Their students, and the universities where they teach, are very fortunate indeed.

The Peak Performance Chamber Series will present another concert on January 14, 2012, and yet again on May 19, 2012. These two performances will include works by Mozart, the underrated English composer, Frank Bridge, and works by Bach and Stravinsky. With great enthusiasm, I encourage everyone who loves chamber music to come here these performances. We are very fortunate to have musicians of this stature in the Denver Metro area.

The Denver Philharmonic Orchestra’s exciting season opener

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Denver Young Artists Orchestra and Ricardo Iznaola

I have heard the Denver Young Artists Orchestra several times over the last few years, and I heard them again Sunday afternoon, May 8. They performed Aaron Copland’s El Salón México, Joaquín Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez, and Leonard Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from West Side Story. The Rodrigo guitar concerto featured Ricardo Iznaola who is another member of the fine faculty at the Lamont School of Music. 

The DYAO opened the program with the Copland work which everybody must be completely and totally familiar with by now. Copland was one of the first American composers to study in France with Nadia Boulanger and Ricardo Viñes. This famous work was the result of a trip to Mexico where he visited a dance hall with the name El Salón México. It makes use of the popular Mexican dance rhythm called a huapango, which is a measure of 6/8 time followed by a measure of 3/4. This is a very vigorous piece and the DYAO performed it well. Nonetheless, I was a little surprised to see at least three quarters of the orchestra sitting rock still, and moving nothing but their bow arm (or whatever it took to play their particular instrument). Maestro Jurgen de Lemos was, in the meantime, working very hard on the podium, emphasizing the rhythm to the utmost of his ability. The orchestra, however, seemed totally uninspired by this piece of music which is quite good. Yes, they played it well, but it could have been so much better because they are capable of playing so much better, as in full of life and excitement. There were a few funny spots where one section of the orchestra wasn’t quite with another section, but I would be most willing to overlook those little glitches if only the orchestra members looked interested. I assure you that some did. I do not think that I expect too much from this orchestra even though they are young musicians. They have worked hard to be accepted in this organization, and it seems a little unusual that there seemed to be no excitement in performing from most of them. 

Following the Copland was the very popular Concierto de Aranjuez for guitar and orchestra by Joaquín Rodrigo (1901 to 1999). This concerto is so popular that it has eclipsed other works that Rodrigo has written, let alone all of the other guitar concertos by (and this is a very small list) Carulli, Molino, Vivaldi, Giuliani,Ponce, Tedesco, Villa-Lobos, and Arnold. Those of you who have not heard the Rodrigo Concerto are missing a great work, and those of you who have never heard Ricardo Iznaola perform are missing one of the great guitarists. I am quite serious when I say that there is not enough room on this blog site to list his honors and awards from the world over. He is also an accomplished composer which, much to my chagrin, I just discovered a couple of weeks ago. In 2004, he was awarded the John Evans Distinguished Professorship, the highest distinction bestowed by the University of Denver. Trust me: we are indeed fortunate to have him here in Denver, because he could be anywhere he chooses. 

In the Rodrigo, the orchestra seemed to perk up a little, and be more excited about the performance of this piece. There was some very good clarinet work in the first movement. I could not see the clarinet section from where I was sitting, but I am sure that it came from Stephen Chen. I hope that I am correct. Iznaola’s playing was absolutely perfect in this piece, displaying his formidable technique and wonderful musicality. And I kept wondering how many times he has performed this work. I know that this was the second time I have heard him play it, and he certainly did not seem to be tired of performing it. There is a wonderful conversation between the guitar and English horn in the second movement followed by a lengthy cadenza which leads to a surprisingly quiet closing after some turbulence. Even though I have a recording of this piece, I have never seen the score, and I have never been able to put my finger on what it is that is so appealing in the last movement. But Iznaola’s clarity in this performance made clear that there is a “fight” between 2/4 and 3/4 meter in this movement as well as some very solid counterpoint. Iznaola’s intensity highlighted the contrast between the outer two movements, which are very light and almost carefree, and the incredible passion and sadness of the second movement. Quite frankly, I think that it speaks volumes of his artistic ability to perform this piece, because I am quite sure that he is played it many, many times. There was no complacency due to familiarity. 

After the concerto by Rodrigo, the audience, with good reason, demanded an encore. Therefore, members of the orchestra, Concertmaster Emily Switzer, Sarah Ervin, Second Violin, Kasey Pickard, Viola, and Jurgen de Lemos, cello, with Ricardo Iznaola on guitar, performed a Boccherini work for string quartet and guitar with Tracy Fielder playing castanets.  This was a very charming piece and, of course, performed very well, and was somewhat refreshing after the seriousness of the Rodrigo. I would like to point out that the young lady, Sarah Ervin, played very expressively and very enthusiastically. 

After the intermission the DYAO performed the Symphonic Dances from West Side Story. This is from a brilliant musical by Leonard Bernstein, Jerome Robbins, Arthur Laurents, and Stephen Sondheim. This musical was so popular when it came out, and its quality so obvious, that there wasn’t a person in the audience, and I’ll bet amongst all you readers, who is unfamiliar with it. It ties in with the previous Latin American and Spanish works because the gangs involved in the musical were Puerto Rican. There are nine pieces in this suite, and number four is entitled Mambo: Presto. I point to this one on purpose, for this is another example where the DYAO performed well, and where Maestro Jurgen de Lemos worked very hard to get the orchestra excited. But again, I was left with the feeling that most of the orchestra needs to understand that sometimes working hard to make music pays off. And I am not at all speaking about practicing hard, because it is apparent that everyone in this orchestra does. But it sometimes seems that they believe it is impolite to demonstrate that they like the music. I am not suggesting by any means, that everyone in the orchestra makes such extravagant movements and motions as, for example, the pianist Lang Lang. But it would be very helpful, I think, if they would be a little bit more lively, rather than just sitting and moving nothing but their bow arms. Consider, for example, the fourth piece in the suite entitled Mambo. I have not done this before but I’m going to include a link which I hope all of you readers will follow. It leads to a YouTube site where Gustavo Dudamel is conducting the Youth Orchestra of Venezuela as they perform Bernstein’s Mambo. I am not suggesting that the DYAO stand up as they shout “mambo,” but I am suggesting that such demonstrative enthusiasm and love for the music would improve an already very good orchestra. The Youth Orchestra of Venezuela is the same age group as the DYAO. Here is the link: 


Another example of this orchestra’s enthusiasm for the music is in a performance of Arturo Marquez’ Danzon Nr. 2. If you follow this link, the enthusiasm of this Youth Orchestra is unmistakable. This link is:


 Please do not misunderstand the point that I am trying to make. Maestro Jurgen de Lemos was working very hard, as it is clear that he loves what he is doing. And there were many in the orchestra who shared his enthusiasm, but the majority simply looked bored to tears. I would also point out that some of the community orchestras in the Denver Metro area also suffer from the same lack of spirit. There is often no evidence of any excitement whatsoever or love for the music. 

The DYAO is a fine orchestra that plays well. They have the capacity to be truly excellent.