Opus Colorado

Mozart plus Saless and Morgan: Spellbinding

Friday evening, October 28, I attended a concert at St. John’s Episcopal Cathedral on 14th Avenue and Washington Street. This is one concert that I had been looking forward to, for it was a joint venture between two very exciting music organizations in the state, if not the entire Rocky Mountain region. It was a combined concert between the Ars Nova Singers, conducted by Thomas Edward Morgan, and the Boulder Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Bahman Saless. The main event of this concert was the Mozart Requiem, which as everyone knows, is one of the Requiem Masses of all time. The Mozart Requiem was sung after the intermission, but before the intermission were two absolute gems: the Concerto for Strings in D minor, RV 127, by Antonio Vivaldi, and the Cantique de Jean Racine, by Gabriel Fauré.

As Maestro Bahman Saless explained to the audience, the Vivaldi and Fauré are miniatures, and were chosen because they are small pieces, and would give enough time for the Mozart Requiem to be performed after the intermission.

I referred to the Vivaldi, above, as a gem, and believe me, it is. I will quote from the excellent program notes:

“Of the literally hundreds of concertos that Vivaldi wrote, approximately forty are for the entire string orchestra rather than for any particular solo instrument. Of these so-called ripieno concertos, there are twelve collected in one manuscript that resides at the Paris Conservatoire library. Although Vivaldi was known to have French patrons, most notably the French ambassador to Venice, the genesis of this collection and its connection to Paris remain unclear.

“… Its three brief movements follow the standard Italianate Concerto format of fast-slow-fast, with lively, repetitive figuration in the outer movements and a small moment of rhapsodizing for the first violin in between. What continues to amaze is Vivaldi’s ability to conjure endless variety and freshness within the briefest of forms and with the slightest of materials.”

Sharp eyed readers will also note the number, RV 127, which follows the title of the piece. A couple of years ago in another article on Vivaldi, I explained the complex Vivaldi thematic catalogue system. I will quote from my previous article:

“It is interesting to note the RV number. Unlike the D. numbers in Schubert, which stand for Deutsch, the musicologist who put Schubert’s works in chronological order, there are six different methods in identifying Vivaldi’s output. To make a long story short, Mario Rinaldi catalogued much of Vivaldi’s output, but some works were not included or not yet discovered. The Danish musicologist, Peter Ryom began his own catalog of Vivaldi’s works and also included a Concordance with Rinaldi’s catalog. Ryom suggests using RV, wherein the V stands for the German word Verzeichnis or catalogue (not Vivaldi as many suspect) and R can refer to either the Italian publisher Ricordi or to Rinaldi. I pray that you readers will trust me on the following comment, and that is: once the difference between all of the Rs is established then one can continue to the Pincherle Catalog, the Fanna Numbers, or the Malipiero Organization. There is enough information here for a doctoral dissertation.”

The best word that describes the performance of this Vivaldi Concerto is scintillating. The remarkable musicians of the Boulder Chamber Orchestra immersed this work in shimmering light. Maestro Saless found the perfect tempo, and the strings executed the ornamentation, mordents and appoggiaturas, with graceful precision. As a matter of fact, I was quite struck by the superior performance by the concertmaster, Annamaria Karacson, and the entire violin section. But truly, that speaks to the ability of this chamber orchestra: when one performs Vivaldi, the strings have to be accomplished, and everyone in this chamber orchestra is. I wish there was more space in this article, and I would name them all. This was a memorable performance.

When Gabriel Fauré (1845 to 1924) was a young boy in Arlège, France, Henry David Thoreau was in the process of writing Walden. When he died, in 1924, World War I had finally ended a few years earlier, and left a devastated Europe behind. Igor Stravinsky had written The Right of Spring. Fauré spent much of his youth playing the harmonium in a chapel which was next to his father’s school. He became one of the most progressive figures in Europe after studying at the illustrious École Niedermeyer in Paris. Camille Saint-Saëns joined the school as a faculty member in 1861, and Fauré continued his studies with him. The composition heard Friday evening, the Cantique de Jean Racine, was originally written for choir and organ, but in 1905, Fauré orchestrated the organ part for chamber orchestra. It was this version which was sung on Friday evening’s program. Fauré won first prize in 1865 for this composition.

This work was conducted by Maestro Bahman Saless, but Maestro Thomas Morgan, of course, prepared the Ars Nova Singers. And I would like to point out, that Mr. Morgan sang in the choir for this performance. And what a beautiful performance it was! Right away, I noticed that 1) I could understand what the choir was singing because their diction was excellent, and 2) from where I was sitting, the acoustics in St. John’s Cathedral were perfect. I will say that there was a very large audience, so I am sure that affected the acoustics. The result, whether due to the large audience or not, was a splendid performance where the orchestra never overpowered the choir, nor did the choir ever overpower the orchestra. This has to be one of Fauré’s most serene compositions. The music encompasses Racine’s three stanza prayer, “Word of God, one with the most high… Pour on us the fire of thy mighty grace.” Again, the word I used in the first paragraph of this article, “scintillating,” comes to mind. The balance between the orchestra and the choir was perfect, and Fauré’s harmonies never grow old. Maestro Saless gently exposed the phrasing in this tiny masterpiece, and made the hearing of this work absolutely sublime.

Following the intermission, the Boulder Chamber Orchestra and the Ars Nova Singers performed Mozart’s Requiem Mass. As most everyone is aware, until recently, there was great mystery surrounding Mozart’s death and the completion of this famous composition. In August of 2009, I wrote an article on the death of Mozart and the Requiem’s completion. At the performance Friday evening, CU musicologist, Peter Alexander, presented a terrific pre-concert lecture on the same subject. Not only that, but in the program notes he included a wonderful chart concerning the original manuscripts of the Requiem, and a Requiem Timeline concerning details of its completion and the “fraud” surrounding the attributation of its composition. These two items in the program notes certainly gave me a new visual perspective of all of the events surrounding the Requiem. I think that everyone realizes, by now, that these events were fictionalized in the movie, “Amadeus.”

This performance truly was one of the best that I have heard of the Mozart Requiem. Why? For many reasons. The soloists, Szilvia Schranz, soprano (and daughter of the Concertmaster – amazing!), Leah Creek, mezzo, Joel Burcham, tenor, and Matthew Singer, bass, were not only all excellent, but their voices seem to be suited for this particular work, and this particular church. I could understand all four of them, because their diction was perfect, and I promise you that is not an exaggeration. In addition, as I have said before, the acoustics can sometimes be very problematical in St. John’s Cathedral. But it is often such a magical place to perform, that everyone is grateful to make use of this facility. But it seemed that on Friday evening, there was no issue with the acoustics at all. Again, I point out that Maestro Thomas Morgan prepared the choir, and Maestro Saless conducted the performance. It truly seemed as though both of these gentlemen knew how to manipulate the acoustics. I say that, because when Maestro Saless indicated sharp cut-offs to the orchestra and the choir, even when the phrase endings lasted only a nano second, everybody stopped in unison (as they are supposed to do) but the effect was magical, because of the echo. And again, perhaps because the audience was so large, that echo never covered up the choir or the chamber orchestra, and it never distorted the soloist’s excellent diction, nor the diction of the choir. It is been a long time since I have heard that in St. John’s Cathedral, so perhaps it was a confluence of all things enchanted, but I think it had more to do with the thorough musicianship of everyone involved.

This was such a fine and well balanced performance that it is very difficult to say, for example, that the Tuba Mirum was better than the Dies Irae, or that the Tenor was better than the Soprano. The entire performance was full of emotion, but never went beyond the style of Mozart. Everything was crystal clear, and the soloists were an equal part of the performance, never overshadowing it, and never timorous.

I must say that I was looking forward for a long time to this concert, because Saless and Morgan are two outstanding musicians. I did not exaggerate above when I said this was one of the best performances of the Mozart Requiem that I have heard. Perhaps due to the surroundings, it had a very intimate feel, but the choir, the orchestra, and the soloists all gave the impression that they were performing for just a select few. It was so very clean and clear that every note (from everyone) could be heard.

The standing ovation was very well deserved, and judging by the look on the faces of all the performers, it was clear they had given their best and found it very rewarding, as did the audience.

The Boulder Chamber Orchestra performs Samuel Barber
November 14, 2010, 1:02 pm
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: , , , ,

I am very pleased to say that Colorado now has a chamber orchestra under the direction of Maestro Bahman Saless that surpasses the former Denver Chamber Orchestra of years ago under the direction of Maestra JoAnn Falletta. The Boulder Chamber Orchestra is a remarkable group, and though their performance on Saturday night, November 13, at the Broomfield Auditorium was not without a fault, there’s no mistaking the professionalism, dedication and musicianship of everyone in the orchestra. 

They opened the program with Rossini’s Overture to The Barber of Seville. In spite of a slight bobble on the very first note, the performance was light and airy and absolutely sparkled. The long crescendos (similar to the Mannheim Rocket, except that they are not broken, arpeggiated chords), so typical of Rossini, were very exciting and yet, very controlled. But most importantly, it sounded like the overture to a comic opera. It had that spirit and the connectivity. The woodwinds were outstanding, especially the clarinet and bassoon. I might add, that these days it seems rare to have such good second violins, but they were there, full of confidence and musicology. Rossini wrote all of the music for the Opera in about three weeks. The opera’s first performance was a dismal failure because of several accidents on stage, and the fact that Rossini’s compatriot and rival, Piasiello, had stirred up the audience because he had just finished his own Barber of Seville. However, the second performance was just the opposite: an astounding success. Wouldn’t it be interesting if rivalries like that occurred today? 

The second piece on the program was Samuel Barber’s incomparable Knoxville: Summer of 1915. I was a little bit surprised that in the program the full title was not listed. It simply said Knoxville Summer. This work exemplifies Samuel Barber’s style of composition which was very lyrical, tonally centered, and unmistakably American. I believe that many performers consistently underrate this composer. The work itself was written in 1947, and is for soprano, really a narrator, and orchestra. The text comes from a piece of prose written by James Agee in 1938. The narrator describes what it was like to grow up in Knoxville, Tennessee, and it begins, “We are talking now of summer evenings in Knoxville, Tennessee, in the time that I lived there so successfully disguised to myself as a child.” The only other piece that I can think of that is so unceasingly successful that uses a narrator and ensemble is Igor Stravinsky’s “The Soldier’s Tale.” Both of these works need to be performed more often, and what a treat it was to hear this remarkable piece Saturday evening. It was the eminent American soprano Eleanor Steber who commissioned Samuel Barber to compose this piece. You may also recall that Ms. Steber was the first to perform the role of Marie in Alban Berg’s opera Wozzeck. In addition, she also performed the title role of Vanessa in Samuel Barber’s opera, Vanessa

The soprano Saturday night was Szilvia Schranz of Boulder. I will quote from the program notes: “Ms. Schranz was born in Budapest, Hungary, into a family of musicians that had worked for generations in Hungarian National Opera and Hungarian Festival Orchestra. When she was 10, her family relocated to Boulder, where the members of her father’s string quartet, the Grammy-winning Takács Quartet, were appointed as musicians-in-residence at the University of Colorado School of Music.” 

Szilvia Schranz has won many awards and scholarships and has performed in operas in the United States and Canada. She has also sung in England and Europe. She has an absolutely wonderful voice that has a very sweet quality, one of almost naïveté, but it perfectly fits Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915. She is also very expressive. I really think that this is a young lady that everyone should pay attention to. 

And now, comes the problem. My first impression on hearing Ms. Schranz, and I am sure that I was in error, was that her voice was too small and that her diction was uneven. There was never any question about her ability to stay on pitch. But I say that I was in error, because I think the fault came from the orchestra itself, and not Ms. Schranz. They were simply too loud. And that is a surprise because Maestro Saless unquestionably knows his business. Nonetheless, there were times when the orchestra covered the soloist, and this is a problem that every single orchestra in the world has faced at one time or another. It is my sincere hope that the next time the Boulder Chamber Orchestra performs in the Broomfield Auditorium, which is a fine venue, they put someone in the hall to listen to the balance. It was clear that both the orchestra and soloist were very well prepared, and that the problem did not lie in preparation, but in underestimating the hall. It was still a pleasure to hear the performance of a work that is so rarely done, but I also know that with this orchestra and this soloist, the performance would have been absolutely perfect if they had checked the balance. 

After the intermission, Maestro Saless announced that since this was Veterans Day week, they would perform a work by Samuel Barber and dedicate it to the veterans. He said that he would not tell the audience the name of the work, and indeed there was no need to do so at all. The orchestra then performed Barber’s most famous piece, the Adagio for Strings. Not many people realize that this famous piece came from the second movement of his String Quartet, Opus 11, composed while he was still a student at the Curtis Institute of Music. This was in 1936. Two years later, he orchestrated it, and sent the orchestrated version to the legendary conductor, Arturo Toscanini. Toscanini, who had a prodigious memory, returned the score to Barber. Later, through Barber’s close friend, the composer Gian Carlo Menotti, Toscanini said he had returned it because he had already memorized the score. It was successfully premiered on November 5, 1938. One always assumes that orchestras become accustomed to performing the pieces that they play. But occasionally, the audience, if they look closely, can see that the music performed still causes a strong, emotional response. Saturday night, there were a few damp eyes in the orchestra. And why shouldn’t it be so? 

The final work on the program Saturday night was Barber’s Concerto for Violin and Orchestra. It was performed by Gregory Walker, who is the concertmaster of the Boulder Philharmonic Orchestra and a Professor at the University of Colorado-Denver. Again, quoting from the program notes: “Since a marathon performance of Bruch’s Kol Nidre, an original arrangement of Ora No Omboko and his own Bad Rap for Violin and Chamber Orchestra with the Colorado Symphony in 1996, Gregory Walker has charted his own creative course while developing unique collaborations with the Cleveland Chamber Symphony, the Breckenridge Festival Orchestra, the Ft. Collins Symphony, the Yaquina Chamber Orchestra, and the Colorado Music Festival Orchestra, as well as Poland’s Filharmonia Sudecka and the Encuentro Musical de los Americas in Havana, Cuba.” “…He is currently working with filmmaker Charles Fryberger on Song of the Untouchable, a documentary film project that will take him to Kerala, India, to perform with Dalit caste musicians.” 

This Concerto certainly had a checkered beginning. It was commissioned by Samuel Fels for his adopted son, Iso Briselli. When Briselli showed the work to his violin coach, Albert Meiff, Meiff suggested that the third movement be reworked, and that the entire piece was somewhat mediocre. Barber stood his ground and eventually the piece was played by the Curtis Institute Symphony Orchestra conducted by Fritz Reiner, and given another “official” premiere conducted by Eugene Ormandy. It has remained a mainstay of violin repertoire ever since. 

Walker’s performance of this Concerto was adequate, though there were instances in the first movement where he was not quite on pitch. Also, to his defense, the BCO was again overpowering. It just didn’t seem as though Walker’s violin had much power, but I don’t think that was the case. Someone should have checked the balance. Walker’s violin certainly did have a very good sound. The second movement contained some really fine oboe work from Max Soto, the 1st Oboe of the orchestra. There were just a few instances where it seemed as though Walker was a little late to the beat. The third movement is a difficult “perpetual motion” style of movement, and while not overly difficult, does tax a violinist’s ability. For the most part, Walker did quite well with this movement, though the opening could have been a little clearer. As I said, this is a good performance, but it seemed to me that Walker’s playing was missing the confidence and connection one has to a piece that comes from hard practice and close examination. It was as if he was viewing the work from afar, rather than knowing it intimately. 

The audience response was enthusiastic, and Mr. Walker performed an encore; a Lullaby by Manuel da Falla, which was transcribed from a song to violin and piano solo. I did not hear Mr. Walker announce who had done the transcription, but I believe it to be from a set of six songs, written by da Falla shortly before his death. It is a beautiful piece, and Walker seemed to perform it with considerably more conviction than the concerto. 

This really was a very enjoyable concert in spite of the balance problem. I am certainly looking forward to their next performance which will be December 17, at the first Congregational Church of Boulder, and December 18, again in the Broomfield Auditorium. At those concerts, they are performing the Holberg Suite by Grieg, which is a work that I, at least, have not heard live for several years. The Boulder Chamber Orchestra is fulfilling exquisitely well, a niche that has been empty for some time. They possess genuine artistry, thanks to their dedication, ability, and their fine conductor.