Opus Colorado

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.

The Denver Philharmonic Orchestra’s exciting season opener

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Denver Phil’s final concert with a rare Bach concerto

Last evening, Friday, May 6, the Denver Philharmonic Orchestra presented its last performance of the season, conducted, of course, by Maestro Adam Flatt, and featuring the DPO’s oboist, Kim Brody, playing Johann Sebastian Bach’s rare Concerto for Oboe d’Amore in A Major, BWV 1055. This was the first season for Maestro Adam Flatt, who took over the DPO after a fairly lengthy period of searching. There is no question that the DPO made a very wise choice when they offered him the position. He has conducted all over the United States and in Europe, and we inDenver are very fortunate that he is also the Principal Conductor of the Colorado Ballet, as well as Principal Conductor of the Emerald City Opera in Steamboat Springs. And, in an article published in the Tuscaloosa News on April 21, it was announced that Maestro Flatt is now the conductor of the Tuscaloosa Symphony Orchestra. But do not fear, for he is still going to maintain his conducting appointments here in Colorado and in Oregon. This should not be a surprise to anyone who has heard the DPO, the Colorado Ballet, or any of the operas that he has conducted. He has the genuine artistic ability to make every orchestra he conducts sound better than they have previously. 

Maestro Flatt opened the program with New England Triptych by American composer William Schuman. William Schuman (1910 to 1992) is an American composer who, unfortunately, is being forgotten by many orchestras and musicians. At one time in the ‘30s and ‘40s particularly, his third Symphony, for example, was as well known as those of Howard Hanson and Aaron Copland. It may be because he used American themes, historic as well as musical, for the subjects of his compositions, and many critics feel that that is a little déclassé. New England Triptych is based on hymn tunes written by William Billings (1746 to 1800), however, when I say “based on,” I do not neccessarily mean literally copied or used for a musical variation. Schumann tried to create the mood established by Billings in his hymns. Each movement of this triptych involves one particular hymn. The first is entitled Be Glad Then, America, and was given a wonderful forward movement by Maestro Flatt and the orchestra. There was also, aside from the reference to Billings’ hymn, a fugue in the middle section. The orchestra did quite well with this piece which opened with a very soft timpani solo performed by Steve Bulota. The second movement of this triptych is entitled When Jesus Wept, which begins with an almost exact quote of the Billings hymn, but then, through what seemed to me to be melodic extensions, becomes a very sad and lyrical variation. The third movement of the triptych is entitled Chester, which I’m sure many people in the audience recognized, for it has been used by other American composers, and was a well-known marching hymn used by the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War. The DPO performed this entire work as though they felt a real kinship with it. They never played in a bombastic way even in the march, and seemed constantly aware that this triptych was based on hymns. Of course, that is the kind of expression that they have become accustomed to producing under the leadership of Adam Flatt. 

Next on the program was J.S. Bach’s Oboe Concerto, BWV 1055, performed by Ms. Kim Brody on the oboe d’amore. I’m sure that all of you are aware that the oboe is a double reed instrument that is capable of some real volume, and has a particular sound that can cut through an orchestra quite well. The oboe d’amore is a larger oboe with a pear-shaped bell which softens the instrument. Most musicologists agree that it was developed probably around 1720, but since then, as orchestras became larger and instruments became stronger, the oboe d’amore fell out of use, to be replaced by the standard oboe. And indeed, Friday night it was most noticeable, because Ms. Brody easily produced a very warm sound on the instrument, without the usual bite (and I do not say that disparagingly) of a regular oboe. 

The full title of the oboe concerto that Ms. Brody so beautifully performed Friday night is Harpsichord Concerto Nr. 4 in A Major (or for oboe d’amore) BWV 1055. It was written in 1738 and 1739. Bach was in the habit of rearranging his harpsichord concertos for other instruments, and the reason for this is still, unfortunately, unclear. It is also unfortunate that the original harpsichord version of this concerto is lost, and some scholars believe that it was the last harpsichord concerto to have been arranged for another instrument. This is an absolutely marvelous piece that still shows some harpsichord influence in its textures. Ms. Brody and Maestro Flatt gave the first movement a wonderful forward momentum with the rhythmic emphasis that is so necessary and typical in the works of J.S. Bach. The incredible tone that she produced certainly matched the small string orchestra that was performing with her. And, I might add, that the orchestra seemed to be completely empathetic with her musicality and style of performing this piece. Did I point out that she is also a member of the DPO? They are very fortunate to have her as a member of the orchestra. The second movement of this A major concerto seems to me to “flirt” with the key of F sharp minor (which, of course, is related to A Major) and there were instances where I thought I was listening to a chaconne. But, keep in mind, that this is the first time I have ever heard this concerto, so if I am incorrect about this, my apologies go to Ms. Brody and to Mr. Bach. This movement, in particular, seems to have some of the most seamless interaction between soloist and ensemble that I’ve heard for quite a while. It was a beautiful performance. The last movement is a typical Bach fast movement: exuberant, and yet, full of charm. Again, Kim Brody excelled. She is a totally reliable musician who knows clearly what she is doing in every single measure. There was no hint of uncertainly anywhere in her playing. But then, why should there be? She is an enormously experienced performer who has played with orchestras all over the country. It was a real treat to hear a concerto that is so very seldom performed. 

Thomas Canning (1911 to 1989) is an obscure American composer who was a hymnist and composer. His work, Fantasy on a Hymn Tune by Justin Morgan, was performed after the Bach Friday night. Mr. Canning was educated at Oberlin College and the Eastman School of Music. He studied with the Norman Lockwood and Howard Hanson, both of whom are well-known American composers. Canning was also a member of the Hymn Society of America. Justin Morgan, whose hymn tune Canning uses in this fantasy was also a hymnist, but today he is probably best known for breeding the Morgan horse. 

This work by Canning is the first composition that I have ever heard of his. It was very calm in mood and used typical harmonies that one hears from Aaron Copland, Howard Hanson and Norman Lockwood. It struck me as being a rather bland piece, and I wondered just where it was headed next. It seemed to revolve around beautiful harmonies, and of course, one could hear the melody and surmise that it was the melody used originally by Justin Morgan. However, this did not dissuade me from being a little indifferent to it. I must say, however, that the performance of this piece was very lush, and again, the orchestra seemed to present this in a very personal way, as if they were feeling the music themselves. There were two fine solos, violin and cello, performed Friday night by Kathy Thayer, who is the concertmaster of the DPO, and Bryan Scafuri, who is the principal cellist. 

The DPO performed George Gershwin’s delightful and familiar tone poem, American in Paris, as the last piece on the program. I strongly believe that Gershwin is still an underrated composer. Part of this may be due to the fact that since his compositions involved jazz themes and styles, and the fact that his opera, Porgy and Bess, was regarded by so many as a musical and not an opera, this had a decided influence on his reputation. But it was Walter Damrosch, the conductor of the New York Phil, who wanted to promote this young American composer after his overwhelming success with the Concerto in F and Rhapsody in Blue. I really believe that American in Paris is a true tone poem because it was inspired by totally extra-musical considerations: the sites, the sounds, the smells of Paris, and even Gershwin’s homesickness while he was there. Flatt and the DPO imbued this work with the necessary rhythmic excitement and drive that everyone is familiar with when they hear this work. The middle section, with its sad trumpet solo has always reminded me, because it is so similar, to the aria, “Bess, you is my woman now,” from Porgy and Bess. And of course, Manny Araujo, who is the principal trumpet for the DPO, was beyond excellent. Put quite simply, he never seems to make any mistakes, and he always plays with a remarkable sensitivity. 

This was an excellent concert. I am extremely pleased to tell you that the DPO has improved considerably under the direction of Maestro Adam Flatt. It is truly a noticeable change. Yes, there are still some problems with some of the sections playing out of tune, and there were some spots Friday night. But that is progressing to the point where it may not be noticeable to the general public at large. There were some excellent solos Friday night by the section leaders, and the woodwind section, in particular, is always superb. As Adam Flatt said Friday night, “The Denver Philharmonic Orchestra is one of the treasures of the Denver Metro area.”

The Denver Phil: Aldo Ragone and Adam Flatt exceptional

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christmas with the Denver Philharmonic

There can no longer be any doubt that conductor Adam Flatt is an absolutely perfect fit with the Denver Philharmonic orchestra. Their Christmas program of December 17 was absolutely marvelous. As I have said before, a conductor can make a great deal of difference in an orchestra, and for a while, the DPO was searching for the right conductor. They have finally found one. I know I’ve said that before, this season, but the performances that they have done this year have been really exciting. There are new orchestra members, the members that are continuing are performing much better, and there is no doubt that their newfound enthusiasm has been totally infectious. 

They opened their Christmas program with Ottorino Respighi’s Trittico Botticelliano, a wonderful piece inspired by three paintings by Botticelli. Respighi combines the old with the new in this work, using as he does, the medieval chant “Veni Immanuel,” which appears in the second movement of this work, entitled “the Adoration of the Magi.” Many composers before the days of authentic and “scholarly” performances, gave us some awareness of ancient music: Stravinsky gave us examples from Gesualdo to Pergolesi, and Ravel, and even Richard Strauss, gave us their concept of Couperin. Respighi was impacted primarily by medieval Italian music and by the architecture of medieval Italian cathedrals early in his life, as he rode around the Italian peninsula on his bicycle, as a young man. Many of his compositions reflect the combination of the old and the new, but in many ways, this particular work is one of the best. 

The orchestra has demands placed upon it immediately in the opening measures, as the work begins with trills throughout. As in some of Respighi’s best works, this is a very glittering opening and the DPO did this wonderfully well. It was colorful and absolutely beguiling. Maestro Flatt deserves much credit for being able to communicate his excitement and love for music to the orchestra, and then being successful in showing them how to convey that to the audience. It truly seemed as though everyone in the orchestra was looking forward to this concert, and showing, with a great deal of self-satisfaction which is deserved, how they have improved this year. The second movement of this work displayed, once again, how outstanding the woodwind section is. The third movement was absolutely ethereal, and the violins, which I have sometimes picked on mercilessly, were in tune. 

The second work on the program was Ralph Vaughan Williams well-known work, Fantasia on Greensleeves. Vaughan Williams (and, yes, he has the un-hyphenated double last name of Vaughan Williams) like Respighi, also wrote fantasias on medieval and Renaissance themes, but obviously Vaughan Williams was English and not Italian. The tune “Greensleeves,” is from the 16th century, and is based on Italian style of composition called a “Romanesca,” which is a romantic ballad. For a time, many people thought that it had been composed by Henry VIII, but we now know that was not the case. Vaughan Williams also uses another 16th-century folk song called “Lovely Joan,” which delighted 16th-century audiences because of its humor and its involvement with, shall we say, intricate moral issues. 

This work opens with pizzicato in the strings, and though it was not quite together, the orchestra generated a wonderful rich sound. There is a somewhat wistful, descending cadence from solo flute accompanied by the harp, which imitates a lute accompaniment. It is in the middle section that two flutes play the duet based on “Lovely Joan,” before the return of the “Greensleeves” theme. Maestro Flatt was able to draw a truly mellifluous sound from the entire orchestra. 

Following the Vaughan Williams, guest soloist, Robert Gardner, baritone, sang three arias from Händel’s “Messiah.” The titles of the three arias are, “Why do the nations so furiously rage together?”, “Behold, I tell you a mystery,” and “The trumpet shall sound.” 

American baritone Robert Gardner has appeared with numerous opera houses and symphony orchestras in the U.S., Europe, and Asia including New York City Opera, Washington National Opera, Bavarian National Opera, Santa Fe Opera, Aspen Music Festival, Spoleto Festival USA, Palm Beach Opera, Edmonton Opera, the Munich Philharmonic, the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, the Colorado Symphony, the San Diego, Santa Rosa, New Haven and Kansas City Symphonies, the Northeast Pennsylvania Philharmonic and the Daejeon Symphony in S. Korea. Originally from Denver, Colorado, he has been described as “a superb young artist” by WGBH Radio, the New York Times calls him “robust…impressive…brilliantly effective…the score presented with a proprietary authority,” an “electrifying performance” says NPR Sunday Morning Edition. The Hartford Courant hails “a talent of a high order,” “his lithe, burnished baritone a consistent pleasure” and the Kansas City Star raves “finally we heard someone sing with intelligence, passion and bravura… unusually gripping.”

Robert Gardner is the 2007 winner of the Lili Boulanger Memorial Award, chosen from five worldwide nominees (chiefly composers, conductors and instrumentalists) and by the foundation started in 1936 by famed teacher-pianist-conductor Nadia Boulanger, is considered this year’s “musician of exceptional talent and integrity.” A 2001 Pro Musicis International Award winner, he is also the winner of the 1999 William Matheus Sullivan Foundation Award, the 2000 Gerda Lissner Award, and the 2000 Denver Lyric Opera Guild Competition. He trained at Yale Opera of the Yale University School of Music and participated in young artist programs with Santa Fe Opera, the Bavarian National Opera in Munich, and the Steans Institute for Young Artists at Ravinia in Chicago. He is a member of the Society of American Fight Directors and has choreographed safe, yet effective stage conflicts professionally, and is a professional animal trainer in his spare time. 

Maestro Flatt began this work with wonderful energy and drive. Gardner’s voice quality is absolutely remarkable and he is incredibly dramatic, which is exactly what the Händel requires. All three of these arias were very well sung by Gardner – his voice is so well-suited to this oratorio – that I began to wonder what it would be like to hear him sing the role of Amfortas in Wagner’s Parsifal. I think that would really be something. The only complaint that I might have about his performance of the Händel, was that occasionally his diction was not entirely clear. His rhythmic emphasis, it’s punctuation, were absolutely outstanding. 

There are several orchestra members to be remembered from the first half of theis concert: Manny Araujo, trumpet, Suzanne Moulton-Gertig, harp, Shaun Burley, clarinet, David Fisk, piano, and Kim Brody, oboe. And there were more. 

Following the intermission, the DPO performed a medley of popular Christmas carols. There was a sing-along, and Gardner returned to the stage and performed several solos of well-known Christmas song. He sang White Christmas in such a smooth, crooning manner, that even though his voice quality is very different from Bing Crosby’s, his performance brought back Crosby’s panache. I might add, that throughout the entire second half of this program Robert Gardner’s diction was excellent. For me, the highlight of the second half of the program was Gardner’s narration, with the DPO’s accompaniment, of everyone’s favorite Christmas poem ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas. There have been others in the past that have narrated this: James Mason, Sir John Gielgud, and, I think, Sting. But for me, Gardner was the absolute best. It was full of emotion and humor. 

Maestro Flatt invited three youngsters from the audience to come down to the podium and take turns conducting Leroy Anderson’s “Sleigh Ride.” It was great fun, and all three were grinning from ear to ear. 

I also point out that during the second half of the program, Maestro Flatt removed his conducting tails, and donned a white dinner jacket with a red vest, and a green handkerchief in the pocket. I, for one, think that he should have added a Santa hat, but as his conducting style is often quite vigorous, it may have ended up on the music stand. 

This was an excellent performance, full of good music, good playing, and an enthusiastic orchestra that truly seemed to be filled with a genuine Christmas spirit. With Adam Flatt at the helm, I see absolutely every reason to believe that the quality of this performance will be repeated. It was a job well done.

Final season concert by the Denver Philharmonic

Friday night, May 7, the Denver Philharmonic Orchestra played their season finale at their home venue, the KPOF Concert Hall in Denver. The program was comprised of the Overture to Giovanna d’Arco (Joan of Arc) by Giuseppe Verdi, the Mozart Concerto for Bassoon in B Flat Major, K. 191, with the DPO’s own Kenneth Greenwald performing, and the beautiful, if often performed, Tchaikovsky Fourth Symphony. The DPO is still involved in a search for a new conductor, and tonight’s guest conductor was Steven Byess. 

Steven Byess is Music Director of the Tupelo Symphony Orchestra and the Arkansas Philharmonic Orchestra, Cover Conductor for the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Principal Guest Conductor of the Ohio Light Opera, and Conductor at the International Vocal Arts Institute in Tel Aviv, Israel. 

He is a former faculty member of the Cleveland Institute of Music and the University of Michigan School of Music. 

Mr. Byess received his Bachelor of Music Degree in classical performance and jazz studies from Georgia State University, and his Master of Music degree from the Cleveland Institute of Music, where he studied conducting with Louis Lane and Carl Topilow, bassoon with George Goslee and David McGill, violin with Carol Ruzicka, and piano with Olga Radosavljevich. He also attended the Pierre Monteux Memorial School for Conductors under the tutelage of Maître Charles Bruck. In addition to his conducting studies with Louis Lane, Robert Shaw, and Carl Topilow, he has worked under the auspices of the American Symphony Orchestra League with such noted conductors as Lorin Maazel, Zubin Mehta, Daniel Barenboim, Pierre Boulez, and Otto Werner Mueller. Mr. Byess was an assistant to conductor Robert Shaw at the Shaw Institute in Souilliac, France. 

In the opening Verdi overture, it was readily apparent that the orchestra was responding to every demand placed upon them by Byess, and that one of the requests he had made of them during their rehearsals was that the violins, particularly the second violins, play in tune. And what a difference this makes! I have not heard the violins play so well since Dr. Horst Buchholz and Dr. Lawrence Golan conducted this orchestra. The opera, Joan of Arc, was written in 1845 and is Verdi’s seventh opera. It is not performed as much, perhaps because the story follows the play which was written by Friedrich Schiller, rather than remaining true to historical fact. This really is a shame because the music is quite good and is typical Verdi. Maestro Byess gave this work some genuine electric tension and there was some fine oboe work by Carlton Alexander, as well as the flutes, Cheryl Gooden and Catherine Ricca. 

The Mozart Bassoon Concerto in B Flat, which followed the Verdi, is the first concerto for wind instruments. It was finished in 1774, the year in which Mozart did not travel until December. It is his only surviving bassoon Concerto, though it is suspected that he may have written three more, as well as a bassoon sonata for Thaddäus Baron von Dürnitz (who owned an astonishing seventy-four pieces by Mozart). From the outset, the violins again sounded very good. I emphasize this because throughout this season the violins have seemed to struggle even though they have a fine concert master, Kathy Thayer. It is quite possible that the entire orchestra felt an immediate connection with Maestro Byess, and of course, that is a fortunate situation. But, it would be a shame if their past struggles this season were caused by their anticipation for a conductor that they could readily connect with. One of the first things that a string player learns is to play in tune. But all of that aside, they sounded quite good in the Mozart. And of course, so did Kenneth Greenwald. Greenwald joined the Denver Philharmonic Orchestra as principal bassoonist in 2008. A native of Colorado, he grew up surrounded by music. He began studying the violin at age 5, and later, would study piano and flute. He discovered the bassoon when he was in high school, and began taking lessons with Jonathan Sherwin, and later Joann Goble, both of whom performed with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra. He received both a Bachelor’s and a Master’s degree in performance from the Lamont School of Music at the University of Denver. 

Greenwald has been a fine addition to the DPO, and his orchestral performing experience has made him a very reliable solo performer. That is to say, that he has great confidence and seems to be remarkably relaxed when he performs as a soloist. His playing is marked by great ease, and he does not seem to struggle at all with any of the technical difficulties. While his performance Friday night was very good Mozart, I would have preferred a little more playfulness and, perhaps, a little more dynamic contrast. The orchestra was quite good in their support of Greenwald, and he and Maestro Byess gave the impression that they had performed together for many years, such was their ease in this performance. One unusual feature of this concerto is the tempo marking for the second movement: Andante ma adagio (easily flowing, but slow). I would also point out that Mozart used the theme of the slow movement in his opera The Marriage of Figaro. This was really an enjoyable performance of this popular work from bassoon literature. Greenwald had absolutely no problems with the giant leaps that occur in this work. 

After the intermission, the DPO performed Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony. Much has been made about Tchaikovsky symphonies having programs, and it does seem that Tchaikovsky’s patroness, Nadya von Meck, asked him to write a program for this particular work. That fact led many critics to disparage the work for which nowadays seems rather silly. There’s no question that he had a true program in mind for his Sixth Symphony, and even considered calling it the Programmatic Symphony but decided against that – not only did he dislike that title, but he was afraid that people would ask him what the program was, and he never divulged the program to anyone, not even his brother. The Fourth Symphony’s program, what ever it may be, seems to be a little bit more contrived, because it was written after the symphony was completed. 

Byess is not an overly demonstrative conductor, but throughout this entire concert he demonstrated great confidence in his ability to control the orchestra, and he did so with grace and passion. This is a difficult symphony, and every movement that he made seemed to say that he knew it was difficult, but there is only one way to do it, and that way is Tchaikovsky’s. The orchestra really responded to him, and there was some marvelous clarinet work from Shaun Burley. In fact, there was some marvelous work from the entire woodwind section. In the second movement, the violins had a few glitches, but the glitches lasted only a few measures and seemed odd, because they performed so well throughout the entire concert. The third movement of the symphony is a scherzo, which requires all of the strings to play pizzicato, except in the trio section of the scherzo which Tchaikovsky wrote mainly for woodwinds. The pizzicato was together and had great dynamic contrast – it really demonstrated what the strings in this orchestra can do when they put their minds to it. The fourth movement is guaranteed to give any orchestra a real workout. It is difficult. But like the first movement, it gives each section a chance to shine. The brass section, all of them, Dave Wallace on horn, Manny Araujo on trumpet, Josh Chance on trombone, and Bruce Blomquist who plays bass trombone, and Joe Walsh on Tuba, were all exceptional.

The Denver Philharmonic has established a reputation of giving absolute stellar performances in their final concert of the year. This was no exception, and the success was in so many ways due to the musicianship and leadership of Steven Byess. It was genuine pleasure to hear the violins get back into the groove. The entire orchestra worked very hard at this performance. Bravo!