Filed under: Reviews | Tags: Brandenburg Concerto, Brook Ferguson, Carolyn Kunicki, Catherine Peterson, Colorado Symphony, Ian Watson, J. S. Bach, Jason Lichtenwalter, Joseph Swensen, Julie Thornton, Justin Bartels, Max Soto, Monica Hanulik, Peter Cooper, Yi Zhao
The Colorado Symphony Orchestra provided the concert audience here in Denver a truly unique opportunity Friday night, May 15. It was the chance to hear all six of J. S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos. I might add that this opportunity also applied to all of the professional musicians in the state of Colorado. In all of my many years, I have never heard of a performance of all six of these magnificent pieces. This opportunity has to be extremely rare.
The performance was led by Maestro Joseph Swensen who is a world renowned conductor and violinist. I will quote very briefly from the bio statement on his personal website:
“Joseph Swensen currently holds the posts of Conductor Emeritus of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Professor of Music (violin) at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music, and Founder/Director of Habitat4Music. Swensen was Principal Guest Conductor & Artistic Adviser of the Orchestre de Chambre de Paris from 2009-2012. He was Principal Conductor of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra from 1996-2005, and has also held positions at the Malmö Opera (2008-2011), Lahti Symphony, and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. Swensen is a busy guest-conductor throughout the world (from Europe, to the USA, Japan and Australia), enjoying long-established relationships with the Orchestre National du Capitole de Toulouse (with whom Swensen recently completed a Mahler cycle, spanning ten years), London Mozart Players, Orquestra Sinfónica do Porto Casa da Música and Orchestre National de Bordeaux.
“Joseph Swensen and Victoria Eisen are co-founders and co-directors of Habitat4Music. Habitat4Music connects highly qualified, passionate young American-trained classical musicians with children living in challenged areas across the world. Their goal is to use the power of long-term, committed, participatory music education and classical music programs to inspire and bring together individuals and communities.
“Joseph Swensen was born on 4 August 1960 in Hoboken, New Jersey and grew up in Harlem, New York City, (an American, of Norwegian and Japanese descent). He maintains residences in Copenhagen (Denmark), Bloomington (Indiana) and Vermont (USA).”
Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos are truly the beginning of symphonic music even though the sonata allegro architectural form had yet to be developed. However, his use of instruments in the six concertos clearly an anticipation of what is to come. As is well known, the six works were dedicated to the Margrave of Brandenburg, Christian Ludwig, whom Bach had met while traveling in 1718 and 1719. Prince Ludwig heard Bach perform, most likely, at the Meiningen court, and asked Bach to compose some works for his orchestra. As the CSO program notes pointed out, it is unclear what Prince Ludwig’s reaction was to these six concerti for he seems to have tucked them away and forgotten about them. And indeed, Bach did not complete the commission until 1721. The reason for that is undoubtedly due to the circumstance of the death of Bach’s first wife, Maria Barbara, who passed away while he was traveling.
You readers must keep in mind that these concertos follow the traditional fast-slow-fast structure of the Italian concerto grosso style: the German style was slow-fast-slow. Hence, all of the Brandenburg Concertos with the exception of the first which has four movements, feature three movements modeled after the style which Vivaldi used. And, even in his first Brandenburg Concerto, Bach does not closely follow the traditional contrast between the solo instruments and the body of the orchestra (concertino and tutti). Of course, the other comparison between Bach and Vivaldi must be that Bach uses strict counterpoint which, for all practical purposes, was considered old-fashioned when Bach composed. But it is worth stating, that these anticipate the grand era of symphonic music. This means that Bach was clearly ahead of his time, and synthesized an old-style with the new.
Several things impressed me the minute the concert started. Maestro Swensen infused this orchestra with an incredible amount of energy. Keep in mind that this was not the full Colorado Symphony Orchestra but a chamber orchestra made up of members of the CSO, and at least one additional member that I recognized, Max Soto, playing oboe. The violinist, Yi Zhao, who is the Assistant Concertmaster of the CSO, was absolutely sensational as were Monica Hanulik, Jason Lichtenwalter, and Max Soto, all on oboe, plus Michael Thornton and Carolyn Kunicki, French horns. I was also struck by Joseph Swensen’s conducting style which is very individual, but, and I stress, extremely effective. I was also left wondering what impact this vivacious Brandenburg Concerto Nr. 1 had on those who heard it for the first time.
When I use the word “vivacious” I mean just that. I could see several members of the orchestra smiling as this work began. Additionally, I was terribly impressed, as I always am, with the depth of musicianship of everyone in the Colorado Symphony Orchestra. Everyone on stage could have been a soloist. I am sure that many of you who read this article attend the performances of the CSO because of your love for music, but also for the entertainment value. I assure you that the art of music is not considered as entertainment by those on stage. It is a way of life. Friday evening, everyone on stage made that abundantly clear.
Not only were the concertos performed out of numerical order, they required different groups of musicians, and so there was a rearrangement of the stage in between each of the concertos. Brandenburg Nr. 6 was performed as the second work on the program, and again I was struck by the musicianship and clarity with which everyone performed. It was nice to hear Basil Vendryes with a prominent viola part, and that brings up another point: I was in wonderment of the clarity with which everyone performed. Those who were in attendance might say, “Well, of course you could hear everyone because there were so few people on stage.” But that is certainly not always the case. I have heard many small chamber groups perform in a much muffled manner.
Before the intermission, Maestro Swensen performed the violin solo with Catherine Peterson and Julie Thornton playing the flute. Swensen clearly demonstrated his mastery of Bach, and he also gave a clear demonstration of why it is he teaches at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music, which is one of the best music schools in the world, if not the best. Peterson and Thornton were perfect. That is the only way to state it. Again, Bach was imbued with incredible forward motion, rhythmic pulse, and virtuosity. It was wonderfully poetic.
Brandenburg Concerto Nr. 5 was next on the program, and it is in this one that Ian Watson, who had been playing the continuo part on the harpsichord, had his solo, coupled with Joseph Swensen, violin, and Brook Ferguson, flute. I was impressed once more with the clarity of the musicians, and their ability to have every note heard while playing so softly. Keep in mind that the harpsichord is a very soft instrument (and the one used was a 7 foot harpsichord), and the lid was put back on the harpsichord so that in the open position it would direct the sound to the audience. The end result was that Ian Watson could be clearly heard. He has remarkable technique, and his ornamentation was simply beyond compare. Swensen and Ferguson demonstrated an uncanny ability to play virtuosic passages at a very soft dynamic level, and you readers must understand that that adds to the difficulty.
To me, the order of the programming was excellent. I am quite sure that Bach would not object to hearing the concertos performed in the order that they were Friday evening. Brandenburg Concerto Nr. 3 was performed next, and the last on the program was the Brandenburg Nr. 2. The soloists in Nr. 2 were Brook Ferguson, flute; Peter Cooper, oboe; Justin Bartels, clarino trumpet; and Joseph Swensen, violin. As Maestro Swensen pointed out at the beginning of the program Friday evening, the trumpet solo in Brandenburg Concerto Nr. 2 is one of the most difficult in any piece you care to name. But I hasten to point out that the oboe, flute, and violin solos were equally difficult. It was wonderful to hear the Brandenburg Nr. 2 close the program as it is, perhaps, the most rousing of all six. This, as were all the others Friday evening, was performed perfectly.
As I said at the beginning of this article, Bach used the Vivaldi concertos as his model, but Vivaldi’s concertos seem but an outline when compared to the incredible counterpoint, the complexity of the form, and the unified structure that Bach has supplied. It underscores the fact that even though Bach was using counterpoint, which was considered old-fashioned by many Baroque composers, he must clearly be labeled as the greatest composer who ever lived. I emphasize that in making that statement that I am not making light of the artistry displayed by Vivaldi, Handel, Telemann, or other of the famous composers of the time.
There is no doubt that Joseph Swensen has a way with Bach. He brought him to life as did the musicians that he was performing with and conducting. It truly was a picture of Bach with all of his clarity, vivacity, intimacy, and virtuosity.
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: Andrew Converse, Bahman Saless, Boulder Chamber Orchestra, Christen Adler, Cobus Du Toit, Devon Park, Friedrich Gulda, Heidi Mendenhall, Igor Stravinsky, Inbal Segev, J. S. Bach, John King, Kaori Uno-Jack, Kellan Toohey, Kent Hurd, Kiel Lauer, Kimberly Brody, Max Soto, Mozart, Reid Johnson
Friday evening, November 7, I attended a concert by the Boulder Chamber Orchestra under the direction of Maestro Bahman Saless. This excellent program was comprised of Igor Stravinsky’s Octet for Winds, Mozart’s Serenade Nr. 12 for Winds in C minor, K. 388, and a work that I was totally unfamiliar with, the Concerto for Cello and Wind Orchestra, by pianist and composer Friedrich Gulda. The cellist who performed the Gulda Concerto was absolutely marvelous: Inbal Segev.
Maestro Seles opened the concert with the Stravinsky Octet which is scored for flute, two clarinets: one in B-flat and one in A; two bassoons, trumpets in C and A, tenor trombone, and bass trombone. According to some scholars, Stravinsky began composing this work in 1922; however, there is a sketch of 12 bars that were to become part of the waltz variation in the second movement. It is fairly certain that Stravinsky wrote those 12 measures as early as 1919.
The first movement is written in a straightforward sonata allegro form with a slow introduction. The second movement is a theme and variations, which, like the first movement, harkens back to traditional form. It even makes use of a fugue, but perhaps, the most startling variation, is the waltz, which is arrived at with no warning whatsoever. As the program notes state, the third movement is based on a Russian circle dance called a “Khorrod,” or occasionally spelled Khorovod. This is a syncopated dance in which Stravinsky almost begins to emulate a fugue once more.
This Stravinsky Octet is a difficult piece. In fact, and this is a point that needs to be made strongly, everything on Fridays program was difficult, but wonderfully done, because the musicians on stage were all excellent. I have previously written that the quality of musicians in the Boulder Chamber Orchestra is extremely high, and that sentiment was brought home with force Friday evening. Stravinsky certainly enjoyed using woodwinds in his compositions, and his use and difficulty of rhythm is truly pronounced in this work. There was a remarkable sense of energy and rhythmic precision that made the performance truly exceptional. As often as I have heard the Boulder Chamber Orchestra perform, I have come to know many of the musicians by name; however, there are some musicians whose names I do not know. Therefore, I ask forgiveness if I have misnamed any of the musicians, but I believe them to have been Cobus du Toit, flute; Kellan Toohey, B Flat and A clarinet; Kaori Uno-Jack and Kent Hurd, bassoon; Andrew Converse and Kiel Lauer, trombone; and John King and Reid Johnson, trumpet. These musicians made the march, which appears in the first movement, a wonderful, an almost caricature, of a march, wherein Stravinsky seems to be enjoying himself immensely. It was delightfully done, and the virtuosity of the musicians was remarkable.
Following the Stravinsky, the Boulder Chamber Orchestra performed Mozart’s Serenade Nr. 12 for Winds in C minor, K. 388. This Serenade was written in 1782, the same year as the Haffner Symphony, K. 385, and while Mozart was also writing his opera, Abduction From the Seraglio. This was a rare period in Mozart’s life when he was not receiving regular commissions, and many of the works composed during this time were not finished. However, this Wind Serenade, the Haffner Symphony, and, of course, the Abduction From the Seraglio are among his finest works.
This work is scored for two oboes, two bassoons, two French horns, and two clarinets. At the risk of sounding as if I am repeating myself, it was the skill and virtuosity of these performers (and of course Mozart’s ability) that truly brought this work to life. But I cannot state strongly enough how fine this evening’s concert was. Max Soto, Kimberly Brody, Kaori Uno-Jack, Kent Hurd, Kellan Toohey, Heidi Mendenhall, Christen Adler, and Devon Park are outstanding musicians. I hasten to point out that from where I was sitting, I could not see who the other French horn player was.
This particular Wind Serenade, unlike the Serenade For Winds in E Flat Major, K. 375, is quite a serious work. The E Flat Serenade has five movements, and is quite cheerful and outgoing in character. However, K. 388 has only four movements, and truly takes on the strength of a symphony complete with an introduction to the first movement. In this work, the musicians were so attuned to each other in their precision of phrasing, dynamics, and precision of note values. For example, if the oboes were playing portato notes (portato is a note value shorter than legato, but longer than staccato), and the oboes were followed by the bassoons who also played portato, the bassoon portato was exactly the same length as the oboe’s. That makes a big difference in the way any piece of music sounds to an audience: there are no ragged edges, and the Viennese charm with which Mozart writes is clearly evident. It was pure Mozart. The oboe, wonderfully performed by Max Soto, has the dominant melodic interest, while the bassoons supply the forward momentum. In so many ways, Mozart has scored this work as he would a symphonic work: the horns provide the harmonic support for the oboe, and occasionally there are wonderful, shared solos between the horn and oboe. Maestro Saless truly seemed to understand that the musicians he was conducting were excellent, as he did not seem to be forcing any kind of interpretive conducting upon them. And there is no question that he knew precisely what Mozart intended.
Following the intermission, the cellist Inbal Segev joined the Boulder Chamber Orchestra for the performance of Friedrich Gulda’s Concerto for Cello and Wind Orchestra. Before I begin to discuss Friedrich Gulda, I will quote from Inbal Segev’s bio statement on the web:
“Inbal Segev’s playing has been described as ‘characterized by a strong and warm tone . . . delivered with impressive fluency and style,’ by The Strad and ‘first class,’ ‘richly inspired,’ and ‘very moving indeed,’ by Gramophone. Equally committed to new repertoire for the cello and known masterworks, Segev brings interpretations that are both unreservedly natural and insightful to the vast range of solo and chamber music that she performs.
“Segev’s repertoire includes all of the standard concerti and solo works for cello, as well as new pieces and rarely performed gems. In June 2012, she gave the U.S. premiere of Maximo Flugelman’s Cello Concerto led by Lorin Maazel at the Castleton Festival, in Virginia near Washington DC. In February 2013, she gave the world premiere of Avner Dorman’s Cello Concerto with the Anchorage Symphony Orchestra, and then performed the work with the Hudson Valley, the Orquesta Sinfónica Nacional de Colombia in Bogota, and the Youngstown Symphony. …Composer Gity Razaz is currently at work on a new multimedia piece for Segev, which will premiere in spring 2015 and explores the themes of birth, transformation and death through the retelling of an Azerbaijani folktale.
“Inbal Segev is currently recording all of Bach’s works for solo cello for commercial release in summer 2015. Her recording sessions are taking place at the Academy of Arts and Letters in New York City. Audiences will have the opportunity to look behind the scenes at the making of this album through Inbal Segev’s PledgeMusic campaign, launching in November 2014. Segev’s new album will be released with a companion documentary about her journey through the music of Bach. Segev’s discography includes two previous solo albums – Sonatas by Beethoven and Boccherini (Opus One) and Nigun, a compilation of Jewish music (Vox). She has also recorded Max Schubel’s Concerto for Cello (Opus One). With the Amerigo Trio, she has recorded serenades by Dohnányi for Navona Records.
“…She made debuts with the Berlin Philharmonic and Israel Philharmonic, led by Zubin Mehta, at age 17.
“Segev’s many honors include the America-Israel Cultural Foundation Scholarship (which she began receiving at the age of seven), and top prizes at the Pablo Casals International Competition, the Paulo International Competition, and the Washington International Competition. She began playing the cello in Israel at age five and at 16 was invited by Isaac Stern to come to the U.S. to continue her studies.
“Segev earned a Bachelor’s degree from The Juilliard School and a Master’s degree from Yale University, studying with noted masters Joel Krosnick, Harvey Shapiro, Aldo Parisot, and Bernhard Greenhouse, cellist and founder of the Beaux Arts Trio.
“Inbal Segev (pronounced Inn-BAHL SEH-gehv) lives in New York with her husband, and three young children – twins Joseph and Shira, and Ariel. Segev performs on a cello made by Francesco Rugeri in 1673. She is managed by Barrett Vantage Artists.”
Without exaggeration, I will say that Inbal Segev is one of the finest cellists that I have heard. Her musicianship and prodigious technique remind me very much of the late Janos Starker, whom I had the great good fortune of hearing on many occasions because he taught at my undergraduate school. Every note that she plays is clear, and is done with the obvious conviction that it must relate to an overall scheme. That may sound like an obvious thing to say about a musician, but there are many musicians that I have heard where that simply is not the case.
Friedrich Gulda (1930-2000), whose Cello Concerto was performed by Segev, was a pianist (who can forget his Beethoven and Mozart recordings?) who became a composer as well. He courted controversy almost all of his life because he combined jazz with classical music, often dressed in a bizarre fashion, interrupted his concerts to improvise for the audience, and sometimes tapped his feet while he was performing, which annoyed the audience endlessly. In his compositions, as I mentioned above, he often combined jazz and other influences which annoyed the critics, and drove jazz musicians to distrust him because it was not pure jazz. However, he did study jazz piano with Chick Corea, and he performed with Miles Davis. In his effort to combine so many different aspects of music, he began to alienate the public, and it was almost as if he became bored with being the “traditional concert pianist.” He tried, valiantly to combine many arts into one pianistic expression. It clearly seemed as though the critics did not want, and therefore refused, to understand what he was trying to accomplish. It reminds me, quite seriously, of some of the rejections that the American composer John Cage suffered: the music world at large seemed disinterested in what he was trying to accomplish.
The Concerto for Cello and Wind Orchestra is a wonderful piece that combines jazz, blues, and some Eastern European jazz elements. It certainly sounds almost like beer hall music.
Guitarist Patrick Sutton, tuba player, Michael Dunn, Paul Mullikin, percussion, and bassist, Kevin Sylves, joined the Boulder Chamber Orchestra for this performance, make no mistake about it: this is a very difficult piece. This work contains a movement entitled Cadenza, in which the cellist improvises for the entire movement. Remember that cadenzas in concertos were almost always improvised, but often, some composers began to compose cadenzas in order to make sure that a relationship between the main themes and the cadenza was preserved. Nonetheless, the composers usually gave the performer the option of playing his own improvised cadenza.
Inbal Segev’s technique is one of the most formidable that I have heard, but like Janos Starker’s technique, it is always used to display the music and what the composer wished, rather than to impress the audience. Nothing was left to the imagination. I can remember a chamber literature class, wherein Janos Starker, after hearing a student perform the first movement of the César Franck Violin Concerto, said, “They say that a picture is worth 1000 words. You have just increased our vocabulary by 750 words. You must always aim for 1000.” There is no doubt that Inbal Segev is always complete. The portion of the first movement that sounded like jazz blues was done with total conviction. The portion of the last movement that sounded like “German beer hall” music sounded like German beer hall music without any hint of apology. She had the stamina and skill to do exactly what Friedrich Gulda wanted done in his composition. It was a wonderful performance and wonderful to listen to, and I hasten to point out that she received a very well deserved standing ovation. Some will say that this concerto was a carefree work, but I would disagree. I think that it was a very serious work that had cheerful moments, but it also had some moments that were incredibly moving. Inbal Segev showed that it was a serious work by delving into it, and producing some absolutely wonderful music. By demand, she performed an encore: the Gigue from the Unaccomapnied Suite for Cello, Nr. 1, by J.S. Bach.
This concert was one of the best I have ever heard from the Boulder Chamber Orchestra. Maestro Bahman Saless has surrounded himself with truly fine musicians, which, it would seem, is very easy to do when one is such a skilled musician himself.
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: Aniel Cabán, Bahmann Saless, Boulder Chamber Orchestra, César Franck, Cobus Du Toit, Georges Bizet, Gynögyvér Petheö, Joseph Howe, Manuel de Falla, Max Soto, Veronica Pigeon, Victoria Aja
Saturday evening, October 4th, I attended the performance of the Boulder Chamber Orchestra at the Broomfield Auditorium. Their season has been titled Mystique, and Saturday’s performance featured the pianist, Victoria Aja, performing two rarely heard works: Manuel de Falla’s Nights in the Gardens of Spain, and the Symphonic Variations by Belgian composer César Franck. There were two other works on the concert that night, and, as a matter of fact, they are rarely done as well: Ritual Fire Dance, by Manuel de Falla and the delightful Symphony in C by Georges Bizet.
Maestro Bahman Saless opened the program with the Ritual Fire Dance, which is one Falla’s most popular works. This is a short section from an original ballet, El Amor Brujo, which had been commissioned in 1915 by a dancer named Pastora Imperio. The scene in the ballet where Ritual Fire Dance occurs is a dance done by the character Candela, who is being haunted by the ghost of her dead husband. Candela is encouraged by Gypsies to dance the ritual fire dance in order to get rid of the ghost. As they all dance faster and faster, the ghost appears, is drawn into the flames, and then vanishes forever. This piece became so popular that Manuel de Falla arranged it for piano, and it rapidly became used by several pianists as an encore as well as a programmed work.
The Boulder Chamber Orchestra was absolutely superb in capturing the rhythms, melodic mannerisms, and the complete atmosphere of Manuel de Falla’s popular composition. Linda Wilkin is the pianist with the Boulder Chamber Orchestra, and she was excellent. There were some marvelous flute work and oboe work done by Cobus du Toit, flute, and Max Soto, oboe. The BCO seemed very excited with the performance of this piece, and it was so successful because of this excitement that I wondered why more orchestras do not perform this. It could be that for a while it was extremely popular, and that its popularity rose to the level of a cliché during the 1930s. But I was certainly glad to hear it again. I can remember hearing Arthur Rubenstein perform this years ago, and it always brought the audience to its feet.
The Spanish pianist, Victoria Aja, then joined the Boulder Chamber Orchestra to perform Nights in the Gardens of Spain. Manuel de Falla, who wrote this work, lived in Paris for a while where he befriended Claude Debussy, Paul Dukas, and Maurice Ravel. All three of these composers were very appreciative of the values they found in Spanish music, and all three of those composers responded with great enthusiasm to Falla’s music. In addition the Spanish composer, Issac Albéniz, was living in Paris as well, and there was much interchange among all of these composers. For example, Falla, through informal tutelage, learned much about Impressionism, and the French composers learned much about the Spanish model harmonies.
I will briefly quote from Victoria Aja’s bio statement:
“The Spanish Victoria Aja began her musical studies in Bilbao and continued at the Conservatory of Music in Madrid with Manuel Carra (a former student of Manuel de Falla). She then moved to London to perfect her performance. At 18, she won the Luis Coleman contest in Spain followed by the Frank Marshall Academy Competition in Barcelona and obtained the “Rosa Sabater” diploma of the Musica in Compostela. She was invited to play and hold conferences on numerous occasions by the Instituto Cervantes. She recorded an album for EMI devoted to Albéniz, Falla, Turina, Donostia and the pieces by the composer Jesus Guridi for the Naxos label, a record ranking among the American magazine Fanfare’s top records.”
Victoria Aja’s performance of this piece was exhilarating. She has great strength when she plays, and, as one would expect, she is totally at home with this composer. This is not an easy piece to play. The rhythms are extremely demanding, and there are many glissandos (on the piano, a rapid scale effect obtained by sliding the thumb, or thumb and one finger, over the keys) which must end precisely with the orchestra. As a matter of fact, she made use of a fabric pad when she performed some of the glissandos, presumably to protect her hands from being abraded as she slid the backs of her fingers across the keys. Though I have never seen this done before, in this particular composition it might be advisable because there are so many glissandos. There is no question that the audience was in love with this piece. The response to her performance was enthusiastic indeed.
Following the intermission, Victoria Aja performed César Franck’s Symphonic Variations. This is not necessarily a straightforward or simple set of variations: it is a three movement concerto form without interruption, which sometimes seems to use the word “variations” as a catchword. The number of variations, as the program notes point out is still a matter of debate, but many agreed that there are six large variations: 1) a tête-à-tête between piano and orchestra; 2) the theme stated by the cello; 3) a statement of the theme with the piano with strings and woodwinds; 4) and elaboration by the piano with harmonic changes; 5) an expansion of the former; 6) stronger variations in the piano with cello accompaniment.
César Franck (1822-1890) was born in Belgium, however, he spent most of his life in Paris. He was not a terribly prolific composer, but what he wrote is excellent music indeed. He was primarily an organist and composer, but he was also an excellent pianist. He taught at the Paris Conservatory, and his young student, Claude Debussy, studied improvisation with him, though they did not often see eye to eye. César Franck wrote this marvelous piece at the age of 63.
I am extremely familiar with this work, and I found Victoria Aja’s performance to be excellent, but at the same time a little puzzling. For example, I found her tempo to be a little bit on the slow side, and in addition, it seemed that in the lush center section where there is a two-handed arpeggio figuration, she could have been a little bit more legato in her approach. It would be interesting to know what edition of this work she was using, and that might go a long way to explaining her approach. Nonetheless, it was a beautiful performance of a work that is seldom heard. There is no question that she exposed César Franck for the creative master that he was. It is my hope that she performs this piece quite often, as the public needs to know this beautiful work.
The Boulder Chamber Orchestra closed their concert with an absolutely masterful performance of Georges Bizet’s Symphony in C Major. The Symphony was written when Bizet (1838-1875) was only 17 years old, presumably as an assignment while he was studying at the Paris Conservatory. Curiously, the work was not discovered until 1933, and it was not performed, as the program notes point out, until 1935.
Maestro Saless and the BCO gave an absolutely delightful performance of this piece. It demonstrates the influence that Mozart had on Bizet, with its transparency and refined textures. Perhaps more than any other work performed on Saturday’s program, the orchestra played this with a marvelous enthusiasm and accuracy of phrasing which accentuated Mozart’s influence. There was no denying that the entire woodwind section and the Boulder Chamber Orchestra is absolutely superb. Their performance was so exact that it could not be missed. The enthusiasm with which certain members played was easily noticeable as well. Gynögyvér Petheö and Veronica Pigeon seemed really to be enjoying this symphony, and their enthusiasm was truly hard to miss. Joseph Howe, Principal Cello; Aniel Cabán, Principal Viola, also reflected great enthusiasm. There is a fugue in the second movement of the Symphony, and that can sometimes keep the performers on their toes with dynamics and accents that keep each entrance similar. It was flawless. The entire orchestra made this work light and airy, and it made me think that Georges Bizet must have felt somewhat isolated in Paris because instrumental music was not incredibly popular in the city when he wrote this piece.
The Boulder Chamber Orchestra under the direction of Bahman Saless maintains their effortless reputation for excellent and exciting performances. And this season, the music they have programmed is truly exceptional and rarely heard: Stravinsky’s Octet for Winds; Vivaldi’s Gloria; Brahms Haydn Variations; Nielsen’s Flute Concerto; and in May, Chopin’s Concerto nr. 2 in f minor. These are all programs that you cannot miss.
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: Annamaria Karacson, Bahman Saless, Bill Douglas, Boulder Chamber Orchestra, Dances For Oboe and Strings, David Korevaar, Devon Park, Gyöngyvér Petheö, Handel, K. 414, Kent Hurd, Kim Brody, Max Soto, Megan Rubin, Michaela Borth, Mozart
Saturday evening, December 21, I attended a concert given by the Boulder Chamber Orchestra under the direction of Bahman Saless, given at the Montview Boulevard Presbyterian Church in Denver. The title of this particular program was A Gift of Music, and, I must say, that certainly turned out to be the case. There were two remarkable soloists. David Korevaar performed Mozart’s Piano Concerto in A Major, K. 414, and the BCO’s own Max Soto performed a work by Boulder composer Bill Douglas, entitled Songs and Dances for Oboe and Strings. Also on the program was George Frideric Handel’s well-known Water Music Suite Nr. 1 in F Major. This program was indeed a gift because there were two well-known works on the program, the Handel and the Mozart, but also, because there was a brand-new piece that I have never heard before, and that was the work by Bill Douglas.
Maestro Saless opened the program with the Handel. Handel had left Germany for England because he did not particularly like the patronage system that was in Germany, where the type of music he wrote was dictated to him by the royalty. In England he hoped to be able to compose more freely. The three Water Music suites, as the program notes pointed out, came about because King George I was trying to improve his image before the English people. He took some barge trips on the Thames from London to Chelsea, which, in today’s vernacular, we would call a ‘photo op,’ in order to prove to the people that he could mingle.
The Suite Nr. 1 is well-known for its tricky French horn writing, and this certainly gives the piece its immediate identity. The first movement of the six part suite opens with trills in the violins, and then in the horns. I was impressed immediately by the fact that the trills in the violins were together (each note!) as well as in the horns. As a matter of fact, Devon Park and Megan Rubin, French horn, were outstanding all the way through this work by Handel. I also hasten to point out that the violins have taken on a new life this season because of all the new faces. Annamaria Karacson, Concertmaster, did not play Saturday evening, because she was serving as concertmaster in the Colorado Ballet’s The Nutcracker. Principal Second violinist, Gyongyver Petheo, took her place, and another violinist who I believe was Michaela Borth, moved up one chair. The reason that I mention all of this is that this season, the Boulder Chamber Orchestra has demonstrated a great deal of depth with many new faces. I had the opportunity Saturday evening to sit very close to the violins, and because of that, I could hear the violinists individually. Some of the ornaments in the Handel are difficult, but, as one might expect, they were accomplished with great ease. In the second movement, which Handel has marked Adagio e staccato, there was some very nice work done by the oboes, Max Soto and Kim Brody, and bassoonist, Kent Hurd. The entire orchestra reflected a new precision and care Saturday evening. It is as if the new members of this orchestra have infected the entire group with a new sense of meticulousness. The Handel was full of spirit and drive, and it truly did seem as if they were in total agreement with Maestro Saless every step of the way.
Following the Handel, and immediately before the Douglas work, Maestro Saless inserted a seasonal carol entitled Chanukah, Chanukah. This was the first time I had heard this Carol and it was very definitely a slow-fast-slow dance form. I am sure that it was using the Ahava Rabbah scale which is used throughout Israel, Turkey, and Lebanon, at least. It is similar to a modified Phrygian mode. But this was a marvelous piece of music, and it was very definitely emotional in its celebratory spirit.
Next on the program Maestro Saless and the Boulder Chamber Orchestra principal oboist, Max Soto, performed a work by Boulder composer Bill Douglas entitled, Songs and Dances for Oboe and Strings. I will quote from Douglas’ website:
“I was born in London, Ontario, Canada on November 7, 1944. My father played trombone and sang in a big band, and my mother played organ in church. My earliest memory is of myself playing in a one-man band with toy instruments when I was three. I began piano lessons at four and I taught myself ukulele and guitar when I was about eight or nine….
“From 1962-66, I attended the University of Toronto and obtained a BA in music education. During this time, I became very interested in 20th century classical music, and started composing pieces influenced by Anton Webern, Elliott Carter, and Igor Stravinsky, as well as such contemporary jazz artists as Paul Bley and Gary Peacock. I played fourth bassoon in the Toronto Symphony, and I often played jazz piano gigs on weekends.
“I was awarded a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship in 1966, and attended Yale University from 1966-69. There I met clarinetist Richard Stoltzman, and we have been touring and recording ever since. In 1967, I played three concerti with the Toronto Symphony. I received a Master of Music degree majoring in bassoon in 1968, and a Master of Musical Arts degree in composition in 1969. At this time, I was writing very avant-garde atonal music. After Yale, I received a Canada Council award to study composition in London, England, for a year.
“In 1977, I moved to Boulder, Colorado, to teach at the Naropa Institute. I continue to teach there and to tour with Richard Stoltzman and my own groups. With Richard, I also often play with bassist Eddie Gomez. Some of my bassoon students from Cal Arts moved to Boulder with me, and we formed the Boulder Bassoon Band which played together for twenty years.”
This was the first time I have heard this composition. It is a very impressive piece, which has the overall quality of a pastorale, even though these movements are all dance movements. The movements are listed as, I. Bebop Jig; II. Folksong; III. Afro-Cuban Baroque; IV. Lament; and V. Celtic Waltz.
This is truly a beautiful piece of music, and it seemed to me that it was very well suited to Soto’s marvelous ability on the oboe. The Bebop Jig is full of difficult rhythms, and in spite of its lively character, has a certain plaintiveness about it. The program notes explained that in Part II of the suite, Folksong, that Douglas was inspired by the folk music of the British Isles. Indeed, this was a beautifully lyric work which displayed the newfound richness that the violin section has. It also gave Max Soto the opportunity to show that he could match that ambience with his oboe. But, for me, the most exciting portion of this work (and it is difficult to make this choice because the entire work is so excellent, as was Soto’s playing) was Part III entitled, Afro-Cuban Baroque. This was a vigorous tango that was so skillfully written that I could not help but compare it to the work done by Arturo Márquez or Luis Jorge González. It was as elegant as it was spirited, and I must say that the Boulder Chamber Orchestra seemed to have the same affinity for a tango that the Costa Rican native, Max Soto, displays without effort. If you can imagine a tango being lyrical and carefree, that is the character that Soto gave this movement. Yes, it was fast at times but Soto and the orchestra seemed to be totally relaxed. I could have listened to Part III all night long. Part IV of this suite of dances was named Lament, and Part V, Celtic Waltz. Bill Douglas and Max Soto seem to have created a piece of music that has a narrative. That almost seems a shallow way to describe this work, but the narrative is so skillfully done that it could be applied to anything the listener wishes.
When Songs and Dances for Oboe and Strings came to an end I was genuinely disappointed. I would love to hear this piece again and again.
In the closing weeks of 1782, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart began work on several compositions: piano concertos K. 413, K. 414 (most likely completed by December 28, 1782), and K. 415. The G major string quartet was completed December 31, 1782. Also, we know that he had begun work on the C minor Mass at this period of time because it was mentioned in a letter to his father on January 4, 1783. This is, quite obviously, a truly Herculean effort on Mozart’s part. In many ways, it was spurred by his satisfaction of leaving Salzburg, where he had been very unhappy, for Vienna. He remained in Vienna until 1786, when the Viennese failure of The Marriage of Figaro received fewer than ten performances. This was due to the musical politics of the Italian clique in Vienna.
The A Major Piano Concerto was performed Saturday evening by David Korevaar, well-known faculty member at CU-Boulder. Korevaar has amazing concentration which keeps him very relaxed, and this was even more noticeable Saturday evening because the front row seats at the Montview Boulevard Presbyterian Church seemed to be immediately at the end of the keyboard. But I assure you that did not phase David Korevaar one bit. The minute the Boulder Chamber Orchestra and Maestro Saless began to perform, Korevaar was deep in concentration. His playing was, as usual, quite remarkable. This concerto has six major subjects in the first movement alone, and Korevaar carefully delineated each one in the most delightful way imaginable, through impeccable dynamic phrasing and nuance, which did not exceed the style of the Classical Period. It seemed that his ease at the keyboard inspired the orchestra to follow his every move with an effortlessness which was almost serene: Maestro Saless and the Boulder Chamber Orchestra easily demonstrated that they were just as musically reliable as David Korevaar. It was very clear throughout this entire concerto that everyone on stage was thoroughly enjoying each other’s company, and I assure you that for the solo performer that can be not only a very warm feeling, but a very great compliment.
The slow movement in K. 414 is a Sonata allegro form, with its main subject taken from an overture composed by Johann Christian Bach, who was Mozart’s childhood friend and teacher. As the program notes state, J.C. Bach died on New Year’s Day in 1782. This movement is so lyrical that its solemnity can almost be overlooked, and Korevaar gave it great warmth which was not at all destroyed by his meticulous shaping of each phrase. There has never been anything mechanical about the way Korevaar plays.
The third movement is a very affable and congenial movement presented in a way that only Mozart can accomplish, in spite of the complexities of its counterpoint. As my memory serves me, the last movement is written in a 2/4 meter, and is in a rondo form. It is, technically, the most difficult of the three movements, but it genuinely seemed as though Korevaar was saying to the audience, “Yes, it is difficult, but it is also an incredible joy to play, and that makes it very easy.” Again, the interchange between Korevaar and the Boulder Chamber Orchestra was something to behold: it was a remarkable and artistic collaboration.
I truly believe that I have never heard the Boulder Chamber Orchestra and Maestro Bahman Saless perform so well. On the other hand, when the orchestra has two fine soloists such as Max Soto and David Korevaar, their task becomes much more delightful. It was also a great pleasure at Saturday evening’s performance to see so many young people in the audience, even though the weather caused the audience to be somewhat sparse. Because of the intimate surroundings, these young people were able to hear a truly fine performance.
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: Beethoven, Cynthia Katsarelis, David Schwartz, Joaquín Rodrigo, Kaori Uno, Max Soto, Michael Daugherty, Michelle Orman, Michelle Stanley, Miriam Kepner, Nicoló Spera, Olga Shylayeva
It is always quite an experience, upon leaving a concert that you know will be good, to be totally surprised at just how excellent it was. Such was the case Friday evening as I left St. Paul’s Lutheran Church here in Denver, upon hearing the Pro Musica Colorado Chamber Orchestra under the direction of Maestra Cynthia Katsarelis. The performance Friday evening, November 22, was absolutely electric: it was a performance in which all the musicians (and they are all excellent) were equally excited by the music that they were playing. They seemed eager to show how their hard work allowed them to perform absolutely incredible music in an incredible way.
Maestra Katsarelis and the Pro Musica opened the program with Michael Daugherty’s Strut for String Orchestra. This work was inspired by the African-American actor Paul Roberson, who was also a singer and a civil rights activist, and a very accomplished stage actor. I will quote from the program notes:
“Robeson was widely admired for his acting, on stage as Shakespeare’s Othello, in films such as The Emperor Jones (1932) and Showboat (1936), and in concert for his singing of Afro-American spirituals and folksongs. Paul Robeson was also an advocate for American racial equality and justice. His civil rights activities were viewed as ‘subversive’ by J. Edgar Hoover, director of the F.B.I. Robeson’s American passport was revoked by the U.S. Government in 1950, forcing his political, film and concert career to a virtual stand-still.”
Keep in mind that Michael Daugherty, born in 1954 (and not 1915 as the program notes stated), has been strongly influenced all his life by American pop culture. His compositions most definitely reflect that influence, and as far as Paul Robeson is concerned, Daugherty stated that he could imagine “Robeson ‘strutting’ down 125th Street in Harlem.” While I would not disagree at all with the composer’s train of thought as he wrote this piece, to me, it seemed more like a formal tribute. It had very complicated dotted rhythms and very thick harmonic textures. It was a very exciting piece to be sure, and it clearly demonstrated how excellent the strings are in this chamber orchestra. The rhythms were very sharp indeed, and the attacks were perfect. The orchestra’s enthusiasm for the piece wanted a certain angularity in its forward motion. Keep in mind this is the first time I have heard this piece, but it seemed to me that rather than melodic counterpoint being used, there was rhythmic counterpoint, that occurred three times in this relatively short composition. This certainly was not an easy piece, but it was a delightful one, and it is my hope that they perform it again. Maestra Katsarelis infused this with a very appealing energy and drive.
Following the Daugherty, the Pro Musica and guest artist, Nicolò Spera, performed the well-known Concierto de Aranjuez, by the blind composer Joaquin Rodrigo (1901–1999). As Spera pointed out in the excellent pre-concert talk, this was the first guitar concerto written in the twentieth century. It is an astounding work, not only because it reveals Rodrigo’s affinity for both orchestra and guitar, but that the writing for the guitar never seems to be overpowered by the orchestra. I use the word “astounding” because it would be so easy for other composers who are not so sensitive to the limitations of the guitar, to write a good piece perhaps, but one for the guitar would be buried in the orchestral sound. In addition, Rodrigo creates remarkable colors by pairing the guitar, for example, with other solo instruments, such as the oboe in the second movement.
All of this has resulted in a guitar concerto which has become as popular as Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto Nr. 2, or the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto. The result of this popularity has resulted in performances by those who have not taken the time to study its musicality in depth.
I have heard this piece, as many of you readers have, performed several times, and the performance that Nicolò Spera gave Friday night was the best I have ever heard. First of all Spera is a virtuoso guitar player, and second, he is a superb musician. In addition, the Pro Musica Colorado Chamber Orchestra is exactly the right size for this kind of work, and it is comprised of very fine musicians.
Nicolò Spera is capable of producing an incredibly warm sound from his guitar, and it was inherent throughout the concerto. His musicianship seems to inspire the orchestra, and the orchestra and Spera seemed to inspire Maestra Katsarelis. It was if they realized, simultaneously, that a genuinely special performance was taking place. Every movement of this performance was intense, either in its virtuosity on the part of Nicolò Spera, or in the sensuousness and passion demonstrated by everyone on stage. In the second movement of this concerto, there is an English horn solo which was played by Max Soto. It is always a pleasure hearing his orchestral solos, but I cannot recall hearing a better English horn performance in this guitar concerto. His sensuousness matched Nicolò Spera’s. I might add, that if I had to choose a certain section of the orchestra which I thought to be outstanding (and mind you, this is always dangerous, because it annoys the rest of the orchestra!) I would have to choose the woodwind section for their performance Friday night. Every single one of them, Michelle Stanley, flute; Olga Shylayva, flute; Miriam Kapner, oboe; Max Soto, oboe and English horn; Daniel Silver, clarinet; Michelle Orman, clarinet; David Schwartz, bassoon; and Kaori Uno, bassoon, were outstanding. I will say it again: I have never heard Rodrigo’s concerto performed where everyone on stage seemed to be of one mind, and shared such a remarkable intensity and passion. In the second movement of this concerto the cellos and violas were as warm as the woodwind section. Perhaps the best way to describe the performance of this work, is to say that it was complete. There was nothing missing. I will remember it for a very long time.
Following the intermission, Maestra Katsarelis and the Pro Musica Colorado Chamber Orchestra performed Beethoven’s Symphony Nr. 7 in A Major, Opus 92. This symphony was completed in 1812, but was not premiered until December 8, 1813. The year 1812 was a rather tumultuous year for Beethoven. He was almost completely deaf. With no invitation, he interfered in the romantic affairs of his youngest brother. His delight at finally meeting Goethe was turned sour when he made the discovery that Goethe was so elderly, that he was no longer a rabble-rouser. Beethoven also made the discovery that Goethe did not know so much about music at all, and that was a great disappointment to him. And finally, 1812 was the date placed on the letter to his “immortal beloved” which was not found until after Beethoven had died.
Maestra Cynthia Katsarelis has aptly named this entire concert season of the Pro Musica Colorado Chamber Orchestra Epic Music. Certainly, this Symphony Nr. 7 is epic, not only because formal structure and harmonic vicissitudes, but because of its technical difficulty. Every symphony that Beethoven wrote contains some kind of milestone. If one looks at an evolutionary line drawn on a piece of paper showing the progress of Mozart and Haydn and their symphonic development, one can see that it progresses at a very steady, if not rapid, rate. Beethoven’s “line of progress” goes off at a tangent, and climbs ever higher. He stretches harmonic rules, and widens the symphonic forms that Haydn and Mozart anticipated. His harmonic progressions are radical for his time period, so much so, that he is clearly pointing to a new era. Some of the rhythms in this symphony are dancelike, and believe it or not, because of that, it inspired Isadore Duncan and Léonide Massine to choreograph portions of this work. That remarkable misstep (pardon the pun) seemed to give license to many others, who completely misinterpreted the fact that this was a symphony.
Friday evening’s performance of this work was exhilarating. It has been several years since I was able to sit so close to the orchestra while this particular symphony was being performed. From the first measure to the last measure, the orchestra is required to work very hard. They did so with great willingness and great energy. As with the two first works on this program, it seemed as though the orchestra truly caught fire. In all four movements, Maestra Katsarelis took perfect tempos, and though they were working very hard, the orchestra seemed to respond to the realization that practice makes perfect.
The performance was exciting, forceful and joyful at the same time, and performed by the orchestra with great precision. Frankly, Maestra Katsarelis’ interpretation of this symphony, reminded me very much of the conducting of János Ferencsik (1907-1984), and the Hungarian Philharmonic Orchestra. To my mind, that is still one of the best recordings available, because, like Katsarelis, Ferencsik (a protégé of Arturo Toscanini at Bayreuth) provides a sense of irrevocability in his interpretation.
I left the concert Friday evening with the certain knowledge that a city the size of Denver has an extraordinarily large population of really fine musicians that are professional in every sense of the word. One does not have to live in a city the size of Chicago, New York, or Los Angeles to hear a really fine performance. That is what I heard Friday evening from the Pro Musica Colorado Chamber Orchestra.
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: Aniel Cabán, Athur Rimbaud, Bahman Saless, Beethoven, Benjamin Britten, Boulder Chamber Orchestra, Christine Brooke-Rose, Cobus Du Toit, Joey Howe, Kimberly Brody, Max Soto, Mozart, Samuel Barber, Soheil Nasseri, Szivilia Schranz
It is always very exciting when an organization that is already outstanding improves even more. Such is the case with the Boulder Chamber Orchestra under the directorship of Maestro Bahman Saless. The first concert of this season that I was able to attend was Saturday, November 9, at the Broomfield auditorium. They performed Mozart’s Symphony Nr. 29 in A Major, K. 201; Britten’s Les Illuminations, sung by Szilvia Schranz; and Beethoven’s Piano Concerto Nr. 2 in B flat Major, Op. 19.
There were many new faces in the orchestra, but particularly in the violin section. But, do not worry; Annamaria Karacson is still the Concertmaster. The result of the heavy changes, at least to my ear, was an amazing precision in dynamically shaped phrases which were shared by everyone, and very accurate attacks and releases in entrances. This new accuracy seems to be contagious, for the “old hands” in the orchestra played better than ever Saturday evening. Aniel Cabán was again superb as first chair viola, as was Joey Howe, Principal Cello, Cobus du Toit, flute, and Max Soto and Kimberly Brody, both on oboe. Just because I don’t mention everyone in all of the sections certainly does not mean that they escaped my attention for excellent playing. The entire orchestra seemed to be breathing fresh air.
Another reason I was delighted with this concert is purely personal: they opened with the Mozart Symphony Nr. 29, which happens to be one of my favorites. It is also regarded the world over as the first of Mozart’s mature style and symphonic writing, even though he was eighteen years old when he wrote this work. The word symphony (coming from the word ‘sinfonia’ in Italian), until the middle of the 18th century, could be applied to almost any style of composition for orchestra with different characters: suites, overtures, and even the interludes in oratorios. It was the Mannheim composers, those that came before Haydn, and the Bach sons, who contributed so greatly to the development of the sonata form and its use in the symphony. Mozart’s 29th symphony marks his change from the Italianate style to one of thematic development, richer motives, and a genuine balance between first and last movements.
From the outset, the change in this orchestra was apparent. The new precision was evidenced in the absolute accuracy of the dotted rhythms. In addition, the transparency of Mozart’s style can make it very obvious if someone in the orchestra is playing out of tune. This simply was not the case on Saturday. The entire orchestra was superbly in tune, and exhibited great care in the kind of sound they were producing. They played with such a new confidence, that it was very easy to sit back, relax, and share their amazement at the ability of an eighteen-year-old composer who could write such a work. It truly seemed as if they were able to put all of their musicianship into Mozart. The performance was warm, graceful, delicate where it needed to be delicate, and full of vigor. It was a delightful performance.
Following the Mozart, Szilvia Schranz sang Benjamin Britten’s Les Illuminations. For those of you who are unfamiliar with this work, it is a musical setting of Arthur Rimbaud’s cycle of poems. Keep in mind that Rimbaud was one of the Symbolist poets of the nineteenth century. Christine Brooke-Rose in her Grammar of Metaphor explains that in symbolist poetry “… The proper term is replaced altogether by a metaphor, without being mentioned at all.” Of course, the proper term or thing must be hinted at, or at least deciphered, from the context. I hasten to point out that some symbolist poetry simply cannot be ‘deciphered.’ Many of the symbolist poets visualized their poetry as expressing through its sensible instrumentality, something that is insensible. In addition, one of the elements that must be mentioned here is that in symbolist poetry, the lyrical self does not speak in the first person, but yields its place to a suggestive and impersonal lyrical object. For example a symbolist poet who is trying to express a search for meaning in life, might describe himself as a wandering ship.
The point of all this discussion is that symbolist poetry has a certain “musicality of language” which was recognized by Benjamin Britten, who clearly understood a great deal about poetry, especially from his friendship with W. H. Auden. Britten’s settings of Rimbaud’s poems are lyricism personified, and it is very clear that Szilvia Schranz recognized this. Her performance of this work was very emotional, and as one followed the translation in the program notes, one became aware of the “inherent search” in Rimbaud’s poetry: “Bordered by colossi and copper palms, ancient craters bellow melodiously through flames.… Groups of belfries sing the people’s ideas. Unfamiliar music escapes from castles of bone.”
There is no question that for a singer, this is a difficult piece. It not only demands perfect voice control which Ms. Schranz has in abundance, but that control must not get in the way of interpretive drama. In addition, one has to have a very keen sense of pitch, and enough control to land squarely on pitch every single time. Her performance was incredibly beautiful, and very sensitive, conveying the extraordinary sense of futility that is inherent in Rimbaud’s text. A few years ago, I was fortunate to hear Ms. Schranz perform Samuel Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915, which is one of my favorite compositions of the twentieth century. That was a stunning performance as well, just as this one was. I would also point out, that in this work Aniel Cabán’s performance on the viola was superb.
The Boulder Chamber Orchestra performed beautifully in this work. There was immediate and solid communication between Maestro Saless and Szilvia Schranz, without any confusion or haste, proving beyond a doubt, that Ms. Schranz is a solid and very reliable musician. She and Maestro Saless were very comfortable with one another, which allowed them to concentrate on making music.
I will quote from the bio statement on her website:
“Ms. Schranz was born in Budapest, Hungary into a family of musicians that had worked for generations in the Hungarian National Opera and Hungarian Festival Orchestra. At the age of 10, her family escaped their country’s oppressive communist government to relocate in Boulder, Colorado where her father’s string quartet, the Grammy-winning Takács Quartet, [was] appointed as musicians-in-residence at the University of Colorado School of Music.
“After graduating from the University of Colorado, Ms. Schranz performed at the Denver Center for Performing Arts with their Tony-award winning theater company in the Tempest. She then went to further her studies at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London where she studied with Vera Rózsa, who also taught such renown singers as Kiri Te Kanawa and Anne Sofie Von Otter. After a year’s study in London, she received a post-graduate diploma in vocal training.
“While in London she appeared several times with the London Chamber Soloists, including solo performances of Mahler’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, as well as in Mozart’s Requiem and Haydn’s Creation at St. Martin in the Fields. She also sang at a charity concert for the Kensington Housing Trust at the Leighton House in London.
“Today, Ms. Schranz studies with Julliard’s Daniel Ferro, while expanding her career as a solo and opera singer from her home in Manhattan.”
Following the intermission, pianist Soheil Nasseri, joined the Boulder Chamber Orchestra in performing Beethoven’s Piano Concerto Nr. 2 in B flat Major. I think most concertgoers are familiar with the reverse publication dates concerning Beethoven’s first piano concerto and his second, so I will not dwell on those details.
Quoting from Nasseri’s website:
“Pianist Soheil Nasseri has been lauded by The New York Times as “consistently interesting… consistently thoughtful… a vivid imagination. Filled with character…” and by the Berliner Zeitung as “Fantastic! A real talent. [In Beethoven] We in the audience could not possibly have had more fun.” In addition to critical acclaim for his playing, The New Yorker has noted that Mr. Nasseri is “one of New York’s most prolific recitalists.” Since 2001 he has performed 20 completely different solo recital programs in New York, all without repeating a single piece: at Carnegie Hall’s Weill Recital Hall, at Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center, and at Merkin Concert Hall. These concerts included 25 premières of contemporary works in addition to 30 of Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas, a part of Mr. Nasseri’s pledge to perform all of Beethoven’s works involving piano by the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth in 2020.
“Born in Santa Monica, California, Soheil Nasseri began studying the piano at the age of five and at the age of twenty moved to New York in part to study with Karl Ulrich Schnabel. In 2001 Mr. Nasseri became a protégé of Jerome Lowenthal who remains Mr. Nasseri’s mentor today. Other teachers include Irina Edelman, Claude Frank, Anna Balakerskaia, Clinton Adams, Eva Pierrou, and Ann Schein.”
Soheil Nasseri deserves all of the accolades above. As a pianist, he is extremely relaxed, and has an astonishing ability to play extremely softly, and not allow himself to be covered by the orchestra. His knowledge of Beethoven is profound, with all of the clarity and dynamic contrasts that Beethoven demands. His playing can be very articulate, and then wonderfully lyrical, and his concentration on what he is doing is total, and very confident. He demonstrated remarkable finesse in his phrasing, and every aspect of musicianship that can be verbalized. The only thing that I would change in his performance ability is his penchant for stomping his right foot on the damper pedal and the stage. That created a substantial amount of noise, and gave rise to my expectation that he might explode into the theatrical movements that some pianists of today seem to think is necessary when performing. He did not do that, but, nonetheless, he made a great deal of noise with his right foot. It was a real distraction to his fine playing.
There was another aspect of Mr. Nasseri’s performance that bears mention, and which was not at all expected. At the beginning of the concert, Maestro Saless explained to the audience a few things to listen for in the Mozart Symphony. When Szilvia Schranz came out on stage to perform the Britten, Maestro Saless handed her the microphone, and she gave us some insight into her performance. When Mr. Nasseri came out on stage, Maestro Saless handed him the microphone. However, instead of offering insights into the Beethoven Concerto, Nasseri delved into a standup comedy routine, a la Lenny Bruce, complete with foul language, that had no bearing whatsoever on his performance of the piano concerto. It certainly appeared to me that Maestro Saless was clearly surprised and taken aback, as was the audience. After about five minutes of this, Nasseri asked the audience if they wanted to hear the concerto, and everyone nodded their heads, and said yes. He then proceeded to play, and, as I said, he played very well. I do not know what caused his desire to do a “standup comedy routine,” but it reminded me of the nineteenth century pianist named Daniel Steibelt, who would play the piano while his wife performed on the tambourine. I thought that Nasseri’s actions were entirely uncalled for, and I stress that it is my opinion that Maestro Bahman Saless, everyone on stage, and in the audience, was dumbfounded. I would suggest to Soheil Nasseri that no matter where he plays, if he wishes to be asked back, that he concentrate on his art, rather than contribute to its denigration.
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: Bahman Saless, Boulder Chamber Orchestra, Cobus Du Toit, Ginger Hedrick, Hsing-ay Hsu, Jerome Flegg, Kaori Uno, Kellen Toohey, Kent Hurd, Kim Brody, Max Soto
I have attended three or four concerts this concert season where the musicians involved in the performance truly seemed totally energized and excited by the music they were going to perform. Such was the case Saturday evening, May 11th, with the Boulder Chamber Orchestra under the direction of Maestro Bahman Saless. They performed an all-Beethoven program at the Broomfield Auditorium in front of a full house.
The Boulder Chamber Orchestra opened the program with the overture to Beethoven’s only ballet, The Creatures of Prometheus. A result of an association with the choreographer Salvatore Viganò in 1800, it was first performed on March 28, 1801. At the time, it was quite popular, and received twelve performances, but even so, it was eventually criticized as being far too serious for a ballet. This work carries the number Opus 43, which is quite challenging, because it indicates that the work was written quite a bit later than it actually was. We know, for example, that there was a piano arrangement of the score published as Opus 24. It was the publisher, Hoffmeister, who published the score of the overture under the incorrect number Opus 43, which, of course, leads one to believe an incorrect composition date. Beethoven also used the theme from the ballet in his Twelve Contradanses (without opus number), the Variations and Fugue for Piano, Opus 35, and the connection for Saturday evening’s performance, as a major theme in the last movement of his Symphony Nr. 3.
This Beethoven overture is a relatively short work, but it is quite an exciting one, and was well-chosen to begin this program. The work opens with forte chords separated by a considerable space between them. The attacks on each of the chords were perfect, followed by lyrical sections of the full orchestra with the weight of the melodic line carried by the woodwinds. This short introduction is then followed by the theme of the opening chords with an underlayment of sixteenth notes in the strings. This is a very exciting piece of music, and it only works if there is true precision from the violins. That precision was in abundance throughout the whole concert Saturday evening. That sounds like a very obvious thing to say, especially considering the fact that these are all professional musicians, but I assure you there was a very special “edge” to the performance on Saturday. It was full of tension and excitement. The other aspect that I noticed about the performance was that all of the musicians on stage were not only watching Maestro Saless, they were very carefully watching each other. The sforzandos (a marked and sudden emphasis) were as perfectly together as the entrances, and that comes from eye contact with each other, as well as the conductor. Beethoven’s ballet, The Creatures of Prometheus, has fallen by the wayside as far as its popularity is concerned. That, in my opinion, has led many conductors to treat the overture to the ballet as a “filler” piece of music, to be used only when a short work is needed for the program. It was great to hear Maestro Bahman Saless and the Boulder Chamber Orchestra treat it like the genuine piece of music, which it is.
Following the Beethoven overture, Boulder (and world) pianist Hsing-ay Hsu joined the Boulder Chamber Orchestra in the performance of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto Nr. 5 in E Flat Major, Opus 73, known as the “Emperor.”
Surely, everyone in Colorado must, by now, know who Hsing-ay Hsu is; however, I will quote from her bio statement which is on the web:
“Since making her stage debut at age 4, Chinese pianist Hsing-ay Hsu (“Sing-I Shoo”) has performed at such notable venues as Carnegie Hall, the Kennedy Center, Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center, and abroad in Asia and Europe.
“Upon entering her freshman year at Juilliard, she won the William Kapell International Piano Competition silver medal. Hsu was also winner of the Ima Hogg National Competition First Prize, the prestigious Juilliard William Petschek Recital Award, a McCrane Foundation Artist Grant, a Paul & Daisy Soros Graduate Fellowship Award, and a Gilmore Young Artist Award. She was also named a US Presidential Scholar of the Arts by President Clinton at the White House.
“A versatile concerto soloist performing Bach to Barber, she is described by the Washington Post as full of ‘power, authority, and self-assurance.’ Concerto collaborations include the Houston Symphony Orchestra as first-prize winner of the 2003 Ima Hogg National Competition, the Baltimore Symphony, the Colorado Symphony, Pacific Symphony (CA), Colorado Springs, Florida West Coast, Fort Collins, New Jersey, Waterbury (CT), China National, Shanghai, Shenzhen, and Xiamen orchestras. Television and radio feature broadcasts include Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion Live from Tanglewood (for a 10,000+ live audience members and 3.9 million broadcast audience), NPR’s Performance Today with Martin Goldsmith, TCI cablevision’s Grand Piano Recital (CA), CPR’s Colorado Spotlight, China Central National TV, Hong Kong Phoenix TV, and Danish National Radio. She has recorded CD/DVD’s for Pacific Records, Albany Records, and Nutmeg Press labels.
“An advocate of new music, she has given numerous world premieres including Ezra Laderman’s Piano Sonata No. and Beshert; Ned Rorem’s Aftermath (2002) for baritone and piano trio; Daniel Kellogg’s scarlet thread at the Guggenheim Museum in New York and his Momentum, which she commissioned for the 1998 Gilmore International Keyboard Festival; as well as Du MingXin’s Piano Concerto No.3 at the Gulangyu International Piano Festival and National Tour. Chamber music appearances include Carnegie Weill Hall, Bargemusic in New York, the Aspen Music Festival, Tanglewood, the Great Lakes Chamber Music Festival, the Gardner Museum in Boston, the Detroit Art Museum, Denmark’s Viborg Hall, Taiwan’s Novel Hall, and a 2007 all-stars gala in Hong Kong for the 10th anniversary of the reunification. Recent projects include the ongoing multi-media recital China through the Lens of Piano Music, co-directing/performing in the George Crumb at 80 Music Festival, and producing/performing the Olivier Messiaen Centennial series.”
I suppose that it is not without reason that Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto is nicknamed the “Emperor,” though I hasten to point out that nickname did not come from Beethoven. The name arises from the fact that it is a very forceful piece, akin to the “Eroica” Symphony Nr.3, also in E Flat Major (and also performed at Saturday’s concert). Beethoven, perhaps, more than any other composer, has had so much written about him which is full of nonsense by the early romantically-inclined critics, that today, one must realize that listening to a single page of his music is far more instructive than reading a hundred pages of the early literary effusion. The Fifth Piano Concerto is full of sharp forte-piano shadings, and incredible bravura eruptions, but the second movement also contains some of the most idyllic writing to come from Beethoven.
As stated above in her biography, Hsing-ay Hsu takes charge of the piano the moment she sits down. Her playing is full of confidence, and why shouldn’t it be? Consider all of her awards and concert experience. However, she also exudes true musicianship, and understanding of the composer that she is playing. I also hasten to interrupt myself here, to explain that Maestro Saless, in speaking to the audience, clarified that all of works on Saturday’s concert were going to be taken at tempos that were consistent with those of Beethoven’s era. They were faster than the tempos of today. As Hsing-ay Hsu began to play, it was clear that she was comfortable, and in full agreement with the tempos that were no doubt discussed with Maestro Bahman Saless. Her arpeggios ascending the keyboard from the opening chords of the introduction were crystal clear because of her very careful pedal use. She certainly used less pedal on the ascending arpeggios and the accompanying trills at the top than, for example, Claudio Arrau. Yet, it was wonderfully musical. I was also immediately struck with the impression that she was enjoying the Sauter piano because of its clarity of tone, though there were spots in certain registers of the keyboard that seemed a little out of tune, unlike other performances that I have heard on this particular piano. Her playing is so clean that it boggles the mind, and she has such power that it seems there is no chance that the orchestra could cover her. Her playing in the second movement was positively ethereal and dream-like. And, indeed, it is one of Beethoven’s most expressive statements in his entire output. I have often stated that it is sometimes more difficult to play slowly, concentrating on tone production and dynamic shadings, then it is to play fast and loud. Hsing-ay Hsu allowed the second movement to radiate emotion without being overly sentimental, and never once did she leave Beethoven’s style behind. The second movement has a slow transition which gets faster as it progresses, and the third movement of the concerto begins attacca (begin what follows without pausing). The tempo of the third movement was very quick indeed, but Hsing-ay Hsu filled it with the jubilance that I have not heard for some time. Once again, the members of the orchestra were watching each other carefully. The violins and cellos, which could easily see the piano keyboard, were also keeping a sharp eye on Ms. Hsu. It was a perfect example of an orchestra determined to allow the soloist and the conductor to lead them in this piece and offer both individuals all the support they could muster. It was clear that the members of this orchestra truly enjoyed playing with Hsing-ay Hsu because she is such an incredibly reliable musician.
Allow me to explain precisely what I mean by reliable. It means that the soloist not only knows where every note and rest and dynamic marking is, but is able to communicate that with eye contact and gestures with the conductor. In the third movement of this concerto, Ms. Hsu had a miniscule memory slip, and came in a beat late. This is not an extreme criticism by any stretch: it is part of the price of admission of being a soloist. I am confident that no one in the audience spotted this slip because I doubt that anyone in the audience knows the score well enough to spot such a small error, but it did result in an amused smile from Hsing-ay Hsu. Her reliability as a performing musician allowed her great confidence to keep going as if nothing had happened without losing a secondary beat, and it also gave Maestro Saless the confidence to know that she was going to continue without a stumble. She knew the piece so well that her tempo never changed, her eyes never got wide with shock, and she never lost her breath. That is mental and musical reliability, and total knowledge of the work at hand. It is the mark of experience, which is something that is difficult for the audience to understand unless they do it themselves in their own field of endeavor. Hsing-ay Hsu gave a wonderfully exciting performance of this very difficult piece, and her artistry and musical excellence were in a sphere obtained by only a few.
Following Hsing-ay Hsu’s remarkable performance, Maestro Saless and the Boulder Chamber Orchestra performed Beethoven’s revolutionary Symphony Nr. 3 in E flat Major, Opus 55. Note that I used the word “revolutionary.” In truth, all of Beethoven’s symphonies are revolutionary, because he did so many things other composers would not do, as in his first symphony (which is in C major). He starts on the wrong chord, travels through a minor, then F major, and at the beginning of the exposition section, finally settles in C major. Just that aspect startled critics of the day. Of course, being a revolutionary meant that his thinking was in advance of his contemporaries, and that he was misunderstood because his contemporaries refused to look forward. It was due only to later generations to award Beethoven their honor with their enlightenment.
This Third Symphony is so well-known that it really needs no movement by movement explanation. But I must point out that in the first movement the entire cello section was absolutely marvelous. In the second movement the oboes, Max Soto and Kimberly Brody excelled, as did Cobus du Toit and Ginger Hedrick, flute. In fact, the entire woodwind section including Jerome Fleg and Kellen Toohey, clarinet; and Kent Hurd and Kaori Uno, bassoon, were all exceptional. I have never heard the horn section of the Boulder Chamber Orchestra play as well as they did in this Third Symphony. As I said in the opening paragraph of this article, this was a wonderful concert by everyone on stage. It clearly was the best performance I have ever heard the Boulder Chamber Orchestra give. Everyone on stage, guided by Maestro Bahman Saless, had a knowledge of Beethoven that allowed them to present Beethoven in his purist sense. What more could one ask for?