Opus Colorado

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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