Opus Colorado

The Boulder Chamber Orchestra on December 20th

Sunday night, December 20, the Boulder Chamber Orchestra presented a marvelous concert at the Broomfield Auditorium. This is a very good venue as the acoustics are well-nigh perfect, and I have never attended a concert in this auditorium where I could not hear every single note being played or sung. I would strongly suggest that you readers attend the February 27th concert by the Boulder Chamber Orchestra which also will be presented at this auditorium, as well as the first Congregational Church of Boulder. Both performances will start at 7:30 PM.

The Boulder Chamber Orchestra opened their program Sunday with the “Suite Antique For Strings, Flute, and Harpsichord,” by the well-known English composer, John Rutter. Rutter, who was born in 1945, has written many orchestral and instrumental pieces, but his output has consisted largely of choral works of all sizes. As a matter of fact, in 2007 he was awarded the distinguished Commander of the British Empire in recognition for his services to music. The soloist Sunday night was a young flutist, Cobus du Toit, from South Africa who is currently studying with Christina Jennings at CU Boulder while pursuing his Masters degree in flute. Rutter’s piece is quite difficult, and as its title suggests, is modeled after the Baroque suite, particularly those of J.S. Bach. It was written in 1979 at the invitation of the Cookham Festival and was performed at the Cookham Parish Church. Rutter has said that since a Bach Brandenburg Concerto was being performed on the same program, he decided to write a suite using the same combination of instruments and forms that Bach had used.

The Suite Antique is very difficult for the flutist because of its range and dynamic level, and therefore it requires a great deal of diaphragm support. Du Toit made the entire work look very easy. The opening Prelude (the movements are Prelude, Ostinato, Aria, Waltz, Chanson, and Rondeau) is very lyrical, and its connection to Bach is unmistakable. I would like to see the score at some point; it seemed that Rutter might have used an indication of con moto because the melody did move, but not at a hurried pace. Du Toit’s tone was rich and mellifluous and extremely satisfying to listen to. And of course, Bahman Saless’ conducting was truly excellent. He has a deceptively casual approach to his conducting, which belies his careful attention to detail, and great confidence in his ability to make the kind of music that he does. There is no question that everyone in the orchestra holds his conducting in very high regard, and I must say, that the Boulder Chamber Orchestra has never sounded better. And of course, when the conductor is working with a soloist with the ability of Du Toit, it makes his job much easier. It seems to me that in this difficult piece, especially in the extreme dynamic levels, the flutist would have to be very careful with embouchure changes on the top notes in order to reach them without overblowing. I say that because the higher range notes were so soft and yet so rich. And I know from my own accompanying experience with a flutist, that Du Toit has incredible diaphragm support. Some have said that the fourth movement of this work, which Rutter calls Waltz, is a jazz section. In the opening few measures it does sound as if there was some jazz influence, but the rhythm becomes almost that of an Irish jig. The last movement, Rondeau, is quick and hard driving, but Du Toit seems not to be troubled by that at all because he possesses the technique to make everything look so easy. I was watching him very closely to determine how he got such an incredible sound in the quiet parts without going flat, and he seemed to keep the flute absolutely level and even thrust out his lower jaw so that the pitch would not go flat. Maestro Saless seemed to enjoy working with such an accomplished soloist.

Next, came the “In turbato mare irato,” by Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741). This work carries the catalog number RV 627 (for those of you who are interested in a small discussion of the RV numbers for Vivaldi, please see my review of the Denver Philharmonic Orchestra and Alex Komodore from November). This is an incredibly difficult motet which was performed Sunday night by Bonnie Draina, who is on the faculty at CU Boulder. This piece is so difficult that it really resembles a concerto in spite of the liturgical text. It has four metaphorical movements which in actuality resembles that of a concerto grosso. The first movement is Allegro-Andante Molto-Allegro (the fast-slow-fast of a concerto grosso), and the text reflects the souls torment of a shipwreck while the orchestra plays Vivaldi’s vivid depiction of a storm tossed sea. The second movement is a Recitative; the third movement is an Aria marked Larghetto; and the fourth movement, marked Allegro, is an Alleluia, which announces the soul’s salvation from the stormy sea.

This is a very dramatic composition, and there is no question that the Boulder Chamber Orchestra helped to make it so under the fine conducting of Maestro Saless. But to be entirely successful, one also needs a soprano soloist who has a very high sense of drama, and in this regard I found myself wishing that Ms. Draina was more so equipped. She is possessed of a very pleasant sounding voice, but her diction was quite often non-existent, and in the lower ranges her voice lost a great deal of volume. As I have said before, in undergraduate school, I spent four years accompanying in vocal studios, so I learned a little bit about vocal production. In short, it did seem to me that if Ms. Draina could relax her jaw a little bit, it would help her diction. However, this Vivaldi work is seldom performed, and overlooking the diction issue and a very slight bleat, it was a satisfying piece to hear.

After the intermission, Maestro Saless and the orchestra performed six of the Liebeslieder Waltzes by Johannes Brahms (1833-1897). All told, in Opus 52 there are 18 waltzes written to texts by George Friedrich Daumer. Originally scored for two pianos and vocal quartet, they were originally performed from the manuscript on October 6, 1869, with Clara Schumann and Hermann Levi playing the piano. Brahms had indicated that the texts are optional. The performance of these pieces by the Boulder Chamber Orchestra was absolutely scintillating, full of vivacity and grace.

The last work on the program was the famous “Exsultate, jubilate,” by Mozart. Though considered a motet by many, it could also be considered as a solo cantata because it has two arias, two recitative’s and an alleluia. But realize that these definitions change over time – the original motet was a vocal work based on a piece of chant with two or three voices composed above it. And indeed, “Exsultate, jubilate” is similar to a concerto form because the second movement entitled “Recitativo” resembles a cadenza. Bonnie Draina was once again the soloist. As I stated above she does have a very pleasing voice, but again, I had a great deal of difficulty understanding the words that she was singing, and at least for myself, I enjoy hearing the words that are sung. The orchestra was superb, and was conducted with great confidence and musicality by Bahman Saless.

For an encore, Ms. Draina and the orchestra performed The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire) written in 1944 by Mel Tormé and Bob Wells. Ms. Draina seemed considerably more relaxed, and her diction improved. Taken altogether, this was a very enjoyable concert. The Boulder Chamber Orchestra is always exceptional, and the audience responded to this concert accordingly.