Opus Colorado

The Lamont Symphony Orchestra: New Music: Lamont Composers, Conductor, Trumpeter

I am constantly amazed at the versatility of the Lamont Symphony Orchestra and the Lamont School of Music. Their performance on Tuesday, April 26, in Gates Hall was comprised of new pieces – world premieres – of works produced by the composition students and faculty at the Lamont School. The Lamont Symphony was conducted at this performance by Travis Jürgens who is well on his way to becoming a major conductor in the world of symphony orchestras. 

Maestro Jürgens is the Assistant Conductor of the Lamont Symphony Orchestra and Opera Theater inDenver. He has a Bachelor’s Degree in Piano Performance with High Distinction from the prestigious Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University, and his Masters of Orchestral Conducting from the University of Illinois. While there, he was the cover conductor for the University of Illinois orchestras and Assistant Conductor for the University of Illinois Opera Theater. He also founded the United Orchestra of Urbana. One of the reasons that his conducting is so spectacular, aside from its energy and abundant musicianship, is the fact that he knows how to lead rehearsals. An absolutely unimpeachable source told me that this concert was produced with only two rehearsals. That is quite remarkable – almost miraculous – when you consider that every piece on this program was pristine and very difficult. It also says volumes about the quality of the students that the Lamont School produces. 

Let me say at the outset that I was very impressed with the maturity of these compositions. There was none of the catchy, experimental, hit-them-with-avant-garde “noisemaking” that many composers still use today. I am referring to playing on washboards, shaking marbles in a tin can, etc., that really were an outgrowth of all of the experimentation that legitimately went on in the late 1950s and through most of the 1960s. In that period of time, composers were truly looking for something absolutely new, and even Igor Stravinsky said (in the mid-1960s) that the compositional techniques being taught to composers were totally inadequate. He was referring to musical notation which went through radical changes in the 1960s, and was even filled with gimmickry by some composers. Stravinsky also said that composers were totally unprepared by their schooling. Keep in mind that Stravinsky made those comments in the 1960s (he died in 1971), and like any art of any era, composers and those who teach composition, are finding their way through all of the complexities that they face. 

My point is that the composers whose works were on this program seem to be facing the present in a very artistic way, and a very confident way, without resorting to passé styles of making sounds. This was refreshing indeed, because it not only represents the latest in the art, but there was not one piece on the program that relied on musical “tricks.” (Please note that there is always a use in percussion ensembles for something new or something old.) 

The first work on the program was by Antonio Domenick, who is a composer, arranger, singer, and trombonist from Denver. The title of this piece was In Several Keys. The first thing that struck me about this new composition was the excellence of the orchestration. There is no doubt whatsoever that he knows his way around an orchestra. The orchestration and chords that he used reminded me very much of the pre-twelve tone compositions of Arnold Schoenberg, particularly his Gurrelieder. The chords were quite complex, and he seemed to have many added note chords that almost became tone clusters, and that is something that Schoenberg did not use. However, these added note chords were used in a way that had a function similar to tonality, which provided a strong structural sense. It also seemed that there was quite a bit of influence from Bartok. I really look forward to hearing this piece again. Many critics seem to think that it is very unscholarly to say that a new piece of music was “beautiful,” but that’s exactly what this piece was. 

The second piece on the program was entitled Mystery Lie, and was exceedingly short, but exceedingly appealing. It was written by Jon Parker of Denver who is active as a pianist, composer, arranger, and conductor. While in the Army, he was the pianist with the NATO Big Band and has performed for government dignitaries throughout Europe. He is still in the adjutant general officer corps of the Army reserves while he works on his Masters Degree in Musicology from the Lamont School. Mystery Lie was really a soundscape, very dulcet and very ethereal, which bordered on the microtonal. 

Jeff Ashears’ work, 11:1, was next on the program, and was clearly microtonal. I don’t know exactly what the title – a mathematical ratio – refers to, but my guess would be that the whole step relationship, which is traditional in pre-avant-garde music, contains 11 steps rather than two half steps in this work. There was also a minimalist aspect of this work which reminded me of Arvo Pärt and/or John Tavener. I was a little puzzled by the use of the piano, which, when played, normally was highly effective. But, when the pianist plucked the strings with his fingers, or tapped directly on the strings, the sound generated was almost inaudible. It didn’t really seem to me that the composer wanted that part of the performance so very soft. This was a very effective piece, very well done. 

Lamont faculty member Malcolm Lynn Baker’s work, Giving, was performed next. This terrific piece began in the orchestra, but it soon became apparent that this was a short introduction which led to an almost John Cage-like percussion ensemble, which reminded me very much of Imaginary Landscapes One and Two, by Mr. Cage. This was a deceptive piece simply because I fell into the trap of imagining that the work with the title of Giving would be a little more gentle, but this was a hard driving and very impassioned piece of music. After this section, and it seemed to be inABA form with the percussion solos in section B, the orchestra in the A return was clearly microtonal. But its emotional fluency was so great that I wondered if this wonderful piece was some kind of avant-garde tone poem. I would really like to see the score to this composition. 

The next work on the program, Pace Plateau, was written by Amra Tomsic. I would have loved to see some kind of bio statement in the program, but according to the web: “Amra Tomsic is a Junior transfer student new to DU this year. He comes from a small town in Colorado called Gunnison where he attended Western State College for three years. He majored in classical voice, piano and Music Education. Now at Lamont he is working on a BM in classical voice, after which he plans to get his Masters, also from the Lamont School. He plans to pursue a career in operatic performance after his completion of school and hopes to someday teach as well. He also loves conducting, theory, and composition.” 

Pace Plateau was a very energetic piece quite reminiscent of Yugoslavian or Slovenian folk melodies. There was a great deal of forward drive in this work which was very short indeed, but was possessed of great saga. Though the harmonies were not so terribly new, this was another terrific piece that I am quite sure was very difficult for the orchestra. 

Chacon is the title of the composition that was performed next on the program. It was composed by Myranda Whitesides ofDenver. Again, I quote from the website, DU Portfolio: “Myranda Whitesides is a BA in Vocal Performance at the University of Denver’s Lamont School of Music. Her instruments include guitar, piano, and cello. She participates in the Lamont Chorale, and also plays in two bands in addition to performing acoustic shows at DU and various coffee shops inDenver. She recorded an Alternative Rock EP with original material in 2009 at FTM studios. Myranda graduated from the International Baccalaureate Program at Lakewood High School in 2009 with High Honors. She participated in Lakewood’s Encore and Acappella group Eclipse. She also performed in Lakewood’s orchestra for 3 years. Myranda is working on a minor in Art at the University of Denver. She enjoys drawing and painting, and has recently begun exploring woodworking and sculpting.” 

Chacon is a beautiful work with some wonderful flowing melodic lines in the violas. This composition also seemed to be in ABA form where, in the B section, the oboe carried much of the melodic work. I must say, that for my ear, the oboe seemed a little harsh after the wonderfully mellifluous viola sections. I guess my question is this: “What? Is she the only female composer on the program?” There is no question that this young lady has a real talent for composition, and it would be my hope that she continue her efforts in this direction. She is gifted. 

The next to the last work on this remarkable program was the third movement of a Trumpet Concerto by composer Chip Michael. This Concerto was dedicated to Mr. Joseph Docksey who, as almost everyone knows by now, is retiring from a long and illustrious Directorship at the Lamont School of Music. I will quote from the program notes: 

“Clarity of melody with intense rhythms is a key element in the music of Chip Michael. He feels it is important that the listener have something to grasp in terms of melody while providing interesting, intricate rhythms, odd meter and complex counterpoint. The unique blend of rhythms and melody are what make Chip’s music appealing to audiences of all types from around the world.” 

“The Boulder Symphony Orchestra announced Chip Michael as Composer in Residence for their 2010- 2011 season. Conductor Devin Hughes created the appointment along with commissioning a new work for the BSO, Exchanging Glances.” 

This is truly a fine composition. This is another work where I would like to examine the score, because it seemed to me that intentionally or unintentionally, Mr. Michael made use of what theory students have learned to tag as “white key diatonicism.” This is the style of composition personified by the American composer Aaron Copland, and as I have said before in very oversimplified terms, white key diatonicism is where key signatures and enharmonic equivalence are taken as points of departure for a study of the diatonic-chromatic relationship. In other words, key relationships do not follow established rules of traditional harmony. But I must tell you that as I listened to this composition, I was totally astonished not just by the work itself, but by the amazing trumpet performance by Traci Nelson. Ms. Nelson has her own website which I encourage all of you to visit. I quote from it here: 

“Traci received a Bachelor’s Degree in Trumpet Performance from DePaul University of Chicago, IL, in June 2009, graduating Summa Cum Laude. Her primary teachers at DePaul were Chicago Symphony Orchestra members John Hagstrom, Tage Larsen, and Matthew Lee. During her time in Chicago Traci performed with countless ensembles in and outside of the school, including DePaul’s Symphony Orchestra, Opera Orchestras, Wind Ensemble, the Classical Orchestra of Chicago, various brass ensembles including quintets, trios, trumpet ensembles, and more.”

“Traci currently resides in Denver, Colorado where she is trumpeting her way toward a Master’s Degree in Trumpet Performance at the University of Denver’s Lamont School of Music, studying with Al Hood and serving as a Graduate Teaching Assistant. Traci also freelances and teaches throughout the Denver metro area.”

This young lady is a remarkable performer, and it is wonderful to see a young woman be such a skilled brass player. She reminded me instantly of Alison Balsom, the remarkable English performer who has taken the trumpet world by such a storm. Does that remark sound prejudiced? Both Alison Balsom and Traci Nelson have the appearance of supermodels. Is that necessary to say? Probably not, but when I was in my high school band as a percussionist, many, many years ago, young ladies simply did not play brass instruments. Those who did smoked and drove pickup trucks. But it is also necessary to understand that in the 1800s it was considered very unladylike to play the cello. However, here, at this concert, was a very sophisticated, young woman who is a fantastic performer. No burbles, incredibly reliable with an orchestra, and capable of wonderful technical feats. What a joy to listen to! All of you who know her must get her autograph now. 

Closing the program was, in many ways, the biggest surprise of all. It was an orchestral arrangement – and remember, a world premiere – of a very famous work by Charlie Daniels, who, most of you are aware, is one of the pillars of country music and southern rock. The work’s title is The Devil Went Down to Georgia. This work was arranged, played (violin), and sung (!) by the multifaceted conductor of the Lamont Symphony Orchestra, Dr. Lawrence Golan. And what an accent! Who knew? But, typical of Dr. Golan, this was a very sophisticated work and performance. The Devil Went Down to Georgia could almost be considered a very short version of Stravinsky’s The Soldiers Tale. The hero, rather than the Devil, as in Stravinsky, beats the Devil at a violin competition. Maestro Golan proved that he can play the violin (which everyone has been aware of), that he can make skillful arrangements (maybe some of us have been  aware of), and that he is a very good singer/narrator (few of us have been aware of), and that he was capable of an incredible hillbilly accent (who knew that!)! 

What a delightful program this was! There was not an inferior piece in the entire concert, and, as I said above, it is very gratifying to hear new works composed with such confidence and artistic skill. In addition, I cannot say enough about the skill and musicianship of Maestro Jürgens. He is a very dynamic conductor who, without a doubt, knows the music before him, and who has no difficulty whatsoever, in communicating that skill and joy to the orchestra. Remember that these were new compositions. The Lamont Symphony Orchestra, under Jürgens direction, performed them as if they were concert standards. It will be a long time before this performance is forgotten.