Opus Colorado

The Denver Philharmonic Orchestra: Exhilarating. James Buswell is truly remarkable.

Friday evening, November 15, I attended the concert given by the Denver Philharmonic Orchestra under the conductor Maestro Lawrence Golan. This was their second performance of the season, and the second performance under the baton of Maestro Golan. He was selected as the DPO’s conductor after the departure of Maestro Adam Flatt, who left because of a heavy schedule.

This is the 66th season for the Denver Philharmonic Orchestra, and they have made several new changes this fall, aside from their new logo and program design. There were many new faces in the orchestra, particularly in the violin section. There truly seemed to be a fresh new attitude amongst the musicians of the orchestra Friday evening: one of excitement, and, certainly, one of renewed dedication to the art of making music. In addition, this season marks the fiftieth anniversary of violinist Pauline Dallenbach’s performance with the Denver Philharmonic Orchestra. She, and her husband, Dr. Robert Dallenbach, have given so much of their lives to the DPO, and they have supported the DPO by allowing the orchestra to use the KPOF Hall as its residence. Ms. Dallenbach was presented with a photograph of her and her husband, Robert, surrounded by signatures of the board and the musicians of the orchestra. She and her husband deserve much recognition for what they have contributed.

The Denver Philharmonic opened their program with Beethoven’s Overture to Fidelio, Opus 72c. As most concertgoers know by now, the overture to Fidelio was revised many times by Beethoven, and the particular one used by the DPO on Friday evening is actually the fourth overture that he composed for this opera. None of the four overtures use music that is contained in the opera itself. They were written in order to establish the atmosphere of triumph that is inherent in the opera. The other overtures are known as Lenore 2, and Lenore 3, Lenore 3 being a revision of Nr. 2. Lenore Nr. 1, carries the opus number 138, and was not discovered until after Beethoven’s death. It is widely considered to have been a possible overture to a performance which was to have been given in Prague in 1807.

After the opening chords in dotted rhythm by the orchestra, Beethoven requires the horn section to announce the main theme, followed by another outburst from the full orchestra. The horn section seemed to have some trouble with this opening, and it was burbled several times. But most noticeable in this overture, which uses the sonata-allegro form, was the marked improvement of the violin section from last season. They were in tune, and considerably more precise in their attacks. The woodwind section of this orchestra has always been good, and the oboes, clarinets, and bassoons were outstanding. Maestro Lawrence Golan is clearly leaving his own mark on this orchestra. The general tone was very different, and I think that its fullness and robustness can be ascribed to the changes in personnel. This overture seemed not only to be an opening to the evening’s performance, but an introduction to a new step in the orchestra’s development.

Following the Beethoven, violinist James Buswell joined the orchestra to perform Samuel Barber’s beautiful violin concerto. Buswell has performed the world over, and teaches violin at the New England Conservatory. I will quote from his website:

“Since his solo début with the New York Philharmonic at the age of seven, he has appeared with most of the major orchestras in the U.S. and abroad and also with conductors such as Leonard Bernstein, George Szell, William Steinberg, Leonard Slatkin, Sir Malcolm Sargent, Zubin Mehta, Andre Previn, Erich Leinsdorf, Seiji Ozawa and Michael Tilson Thomas.

“Buswell studied at the Juilliard School, where he was a pupil of Ivan Galamian, and at Harvard University, where his major field of study was Renaissance Art. For more than a decade he was a professor of violin and conductor at the Indiana University School of Music. His instrument is a Leveque Stradivarius of 1720.
“In 1987, Mr Buswell and his family moved to Massachusetts, where his teaching activities are centered at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. He is frequently engaged as an Artist-in-Residence and Visiting Professor at Harvard University and Amherst College.

“He has performed nearly one hundred works for violin and orchestra spanning three centuries. Formerly a member of the Chamber Music Society of the Lincoln Centre, Mr Buswell appears frequently as a guest artist at the Lincoln Centre and at other music festivals such as those in Santa Fe, Marlboro and Sarasota as well as events in Italy and Australia.

“James Buswell is as closely associated with new music as he has been with the standard repertoire. World première performances include works by Donald Erb, Charles Wourinen, Gian Carlo Menotti, Ned Rorem, Leon Kirchner, John Harbison, Gunther Schuller, William Bolcom, Ellen Taaffe Zwilich and Peter Schickele. Presently he is active in reviving lesser-known masterpieces from the 20th century by composers such as Martinů, Weill, Busoni and Respighi.

“He and his wife, cellist, Carol Ou, reside in Boston where he is Professor of Violin at New England Conservatory, and gives an annual recital in NEC’s Jordan Hall. The unanimous praise for his ‘sensitive, evocative, compelling playing’ continues unabated today.”

As the excellent program notes pointed out, there is much erroneous information about the Barber violin concerto that has for many years been taken as the truth. As the program notes stated, whatever gets printed first stays in the mind of the public as “the truth.” This work was commissioned by the soap magnate, Samuel Fels, for his ward, Iso Briselli. If one does the proper research, one learns that the violinist Iso Briselli’s violin coach, Albert Meiff, thought the last movement was “unviolinistic,” and might harm Briselli’s reputation. This does not mean they thought that the last movement was too difficult, as the old story goes. I think it is quite possible that Meiff and Briselli simply didn’t like the work. Therefore, Albert Spaulding gave the premier, and it was a success.

As Buswell began the Barber, I was immediately struck by the remarkable sound of his violin. It was full and it was rich, and his playing was wonderfully lyrical in the opening theme. The lyricism changes to a short and very rhythmical theme which provides a great deal of drama. I might add that in this first movement, the violin section of the orchestra sounded excellent, as did the clarinets. There is no question that James Buswell knows the Barber extremely well. His playing revealed every nuance that Barber intended in this magnificent work: drama and lyricism in the first movement, and moodiness and melancholy in the second movement. The third movement is marked Presto, and Buswell performed it at a blindingly fast pace that left everyone in the audience breathless. The orchestra provided Buswell with exactly the right amount of rhythmic drive in this work, and they performed this last movement with a great deal of confidence.

I must say that Buswell performed this concerto as if he had some special insight into what Barber wished. His musicianship is absolutely extraordinary, and as I have said before about performing musicians whether they are pianists or violinists or percussionists: it is necessary to be a musician first, and Buswell certainly is. I assure you that that musicianship is accompanied by a very powerful technique that seems limitless. I would also like to add that before the performance of the Barber began, Maestro Golan announced that Buswell had been his violin teacher at the New England Conservatory. That knowledge filled in the gap, because it seemed that the personal and musical knowledge these two gentlemen shared in the performance, narrowed their connection to Samuel Barber. It was a fine performance.

After the intermission, the DPO performed Tchaikovsky’s Symphony Nr. 5 in E minor, Opus 64. Tchaikovsky had ambivalent feelings about this symphony, certainly after it was performed, but also while it was being written in 1888. When he conducted the work in Prague, he labeled it a failure. But shortly after, he stated that he “… liked it much better now.” This Symphony is unified by a six measure motive that appears in all the movements, and many listeners and critics found the reiteration of this theme to be annoying, resulting in an overblown effect. And I think that it can certainly be said that Tchaikovsky did not find the symphonic form as satisfying or as friendly as ballet, or even opera.

The Denver Philharmonic Orchestra performed well in this symphony, but seemed to suffer a little, because their playing did not quite equal their performance of the Barber or the Beethoven. It made me wonder what would happen if they performed a concert with no intermission, which sometimes seems to drain the spark of their excitement. I hasten to point out, however, that there were moments in the Tchaikovsky where the orchestra sounded absolutely terrific. But, even in the first movement, the violins began to go out of tune as did the violas and cellos. The second movement of this work has a marvelous horn solo, and David Wallace performed it very nicely. Different sections of the orchestra seemed to be, alternatively, in and out of tune throughout the entire symphony, with the exception of the woodwinds. They were outstanding for the duration of the entire concert, and in the third movement of the Tchaikovsky, the oboes, Kim Brody and Loren Meaux, were superb. Please be aware that when I say that the orchestra vacillated in its tune, it was not terribly extreme, but it was noticeable. This was still one of the best performances that I have heard the Denver Philharmonic Orchestra give. The second movement of this symphony was done extraordinarily well, because Maestro Golan did not imbue it with the familiar maudlin and weepy quality that seems to say “hard Russian winters have kept old pathos fresh.” He conducted it with a very beautiful and lyric fashion, at a proper andante tempo, which provided it with an excellent, but unhurried forward momentum. It was very much like a slow ballet. The same was true for the third movement, which Tchaikovsky labeled Valse – Allegro moderato. As I was sitting in the audience listening, I thought to myself, “Finally, someone has some insight into this particular Tchaikovsky Symphony.”

I must emphasize how much the violins have improved in this orchestra.

Even though I continually nag about the Denver Philharmonic Orchestra having problems with tune, there is no mistaking their excitement with what they play, and their desire to continually improve. There is no question in my mind that they are the best community orchestra in the state.

The Denver Philharmonic Christmas Concert: Consistency in thought

Friday evening, December 16, I heard the Denver Philharmonic Orchestra perform their annual Christmas concert. In some ways, it was the expected Christmas concert with a large number of carol’s performed and sung by the audience, and a few concert works in addition. But there were several things that set this performance apart from the regular Christmas concerts one expects, and particularly what one has become accustomed to hearing from the Denver Philharmonic Orchestra.

Though this has nothing to do with the actual performance, let me point out right away that I do not think I have ever seen the KPOF Hall so full. There simply weren’t any seats left. That has to be very gratifying, not only for the DPO board and orchestra members, but for Reverend Doctor Robert Dallenbach and his gracious wife, Pauline Dallenbach, who so magnanimously allow the Denver Philharmonic Orchestra to use the KPOF Hall facilities.

In addition, there was an outstanding guest artist on Friday evening’s performance, and that was the soprano, Katie Harman. Please notice that I called her the “soprano, Katie Harman.” In the publicity for this concert, and in the program, much to do is made of the fact that Katie Harman was 2002’s Miss America. There is absolutely no question that Katie Harman, through the Miss America program, has done much good for the United States and the world with her work concerning breast cancer. And after a few sentences, I will put the highlights of her biography in this review, simply because she has done so much good, and it may help inspire others to do the same thing. However, I listed her as a soprano first because I don’t want anybody who reads this to recall the old Miss America competitions with host Bert Parks (I am sure that I am showing my age), where he asks the contestants what they will do for the talent portion of the contest. If any of you recall, and I’m sure many of you do, the contestants would come out and noodle around on the piano, or do a tap dance, or sing When the Moon Comes Over the Mountain, emulating Kate Smith. Of course the Miss America competition has changed a lot since those days, but I would like to make it clear that Katie Harman is truly a musician and a singer first. I was absolutely astonished at the way she sang. She has an incredible sense of pitch, and she has the vocal production technique and ear to always be on pitch. She also has a beautiful soprano voice, and when she sings, she demonstrates the musicianship that accompanies the rest of her ability. And (are you ready for this?), she has great diction.

I will quote from her website:

“…In addition, she aimed the Miss America spotlight at supporting breast cancer patients and championing comprehensive cancer care, converging with patients, medical professionals, health care advocacy groups, pharmaceutical manufacturers, legislators, businesses, students, media entities, and many more. Her work as an advocate was featured by numerous media outlets, including The Today Show, Good Morning America, CNN with Paula Zahn, Late Night with David Letterman, People Magazine and The Washington Post, and was also honored by Fox Chase Cancer Center, University of Pennsylvania Cancer Center, Metcalf Institute of Radiation Oncology, Walter Reed Army Medical Center, and the Cancer Research Foundation of America, among many others. In September 2002, Katie and her 2001 Miss America Competition sisters published a book detailing their unique and deeply touching perspectives on service in the aftermath of 9/11. Titled Under the Crown, the book remains one of Katie’s proudest accomplishments because it was an unprecedented undertaking by a group of strong young women dedicated to using their titles and crowns to positively affect change in uncertain times.

“…Professionally, Katie now tours nationally and internationally as a sought-after classical vocalist. After her performance on the Miss America stage in 2001, she was invited to sing with the famed Boston Pops Orchestra under the direction of Keith Lockhart, the Shreveport Symphony, the Oregon Symphony, the US Army Band, the USO, and at many other concert events across the nation. In 2003, she made her professional operatic debut with the Gold Coast Opera, and has since appeared in both full-scale productions and concerts with a myriad of opera companies, musical theater companies, symphonies, and private events throughout the nation. Her principal roles have included Marie in La Fille du Régiment, Susanna in Le Nozze di Figaro, Kathie in The Student Prince, Lily in The Secret Garden, Marian in The Music Man, Lucy in The Telephone, and Yum Yum in The Mikado. In 2007, Katie debuted her first solo album, Soul of Love, in partnership with MAH Records and renowned concert pianist and composer Michael Allen Harrison. The album was met with critical acclaim and Katie was named a “talent to watch.” In February 2010, Katie’s voice was featured on the small screen with a principal role as a singer in an episode of HBO’s dramatic series Big Love.

“…Katie and her husband, an F-15 pilot and instructor for the Air National Guard, reside in Southern Oregon with their two children. Together, they have restored a 1936 farmhouse on five “certified organic” acres and continue to strive for a sustainable life – complete with cows, goats, chickens and a large garden!”

In addition to the packed KPOF Hall and the outstanding guest soloist, the third element that set this performance apart, was the marked improvement of the Denver Philharmonic Orchestra under the leadership of Maestro Adam Flatt. I have often taken community orchestras to task for one thing and another, but usually it concerns what I perceive to be a lack of effort on the part of some of the musicians (some just seem to sit and display little industry), and my other concern is when they play out of tune. I am perfectly aware the community orchestra musicians volunteer because they love the music, but I have often been mentally stymied by the fact that in spite of this love, some members don’t seem to know how to convert that love into action (I have written about this before, and received a splendid comment from Maestra Cynthia Katsarelis, who said that community orchestra conductors must also be teachers, and know when to teach, and when to be quiet.). There is no question that Maestro Adam Flatt knows this, and he has enormous experience and musicianship as a conductor (do any of you recall his excellent work for the Colorado Symphony Orchestra for five years?). I certainly have not attended any DPO rehearsals. But after hearing the orchestra Friday night, it is very easy to hypothesize that Flatt is doing everything right in his communications with the orchestra. I was genuinely struck by the improvement Friday night. Over the last couple of years, steady improvement has certainly been made under Maestro Flatt’s direction, but Friday night there was a quantum leap. It was as if the whole orchestra had been awakened to a new musical world. They were in tune, everyone had their eyes on Maestro Flatt, and though, from where I was sitting, it was difficult to see the entire orchestra, I could clearly hear the energy with which they played. Maestro Flatt has been entirely successful in teaching them a consistency in thought (there is a difference between consistency “in” thought and a consistency “of” thought), and that has made a real difference in the performance of the Denver Philharmonic Orchestra.

There were several instances in the concert Friday evening, where the orchestra, for example, at the end of a piece, made a decrescendo – in other words, they got softer – but it was absolutely totally in union, and to the same degree. Attacks and releases and phrasing were marvelous.

One of the works performed Friday evening was the Concerto grosso, Opus 6 Nr. 8, in G minor, by Arcangelo Corelli. This is without a doubt one of his most famous pieces. This particular concerto grosso was not published until 1714 (it was published posthumously), but there is evidence that what it was written about 25 years earlier, because it seems to have been first performed in 1690 for his patron, Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni.

I mention this little historic anecdote, because, due to its time of composition, you must realize that it was written for a chamber orchestra of strings. The DPO performance of this work was done beautifully, expressively, and the small ensemble revealed no serious deficiencies in the player’s musicianship. It was gorgeous.

The Denver Phil also performed a piece by Georges Bizet, famous for writing the opera Carmen. However, the piece they performed Friday evening was from the incidental music to the play, The Woman from Arles, by French playwright Alphonse Daudet. They performed the Farandole, the last part of the suite from L’Arlesienne, which is an open chain line dance that was popular at the time in Nice. This was extremely well done with very sharp rhythms and everyone together. This dance had a reputation for being quite rowdy, and the DPO performed with a great deal of excitement and energy.

And what winter concert would be complete without a performance of the Skater’s Waltz? Written by Emile Waldteufel, this work is undoubtedly known by everyone. It is, as Maestro Flatt said, one of the most graceful pieces ever written. That is precisely how the DPO performed. It has been years since I have heard this done by an orchestra, and it was great having my mind refreshed. I had completely forgotten how difficult some of the bowing and fingering is for the violins, but they accomplished the piece without any problem at all.

Katie Harman led the audience in a medley of Christmas carols, and she sang Christmas solos with the orchestra which were absolutely beautiful. The audience gave Katie Harman, Maestro Flatt, and the Denver Philharmonic Orchestra a standing ovation, and demanded an encore. Ms. Harman and the orchestra performed a Merry Little Christmas.

There will be some individuals who read this who will say that a community orchestra cannot be as good as this one. But with the leadership that they have in the person of Maestro Adam Flatt, and the outstanding section leaders, I am not surprised at the steady improvement that this orchestra has made. In January, there will be two performances: one on January 7, and one on January 28. On Friday, February 17, there concert will feature the winners of the DPO’s Young Artist Vocal Competition.

For more information, please go to the DPO website, which is listed among the links in the left-hand column of this page.