Pro Musica Colorado Opens Season with ‘fine performance’ of Sibelius, Barber and Mozart

By Peter Alexander

Pro Musica Colorado Chamber Orchestra, the third of Boulder’s professional orchestras to get underway this fall, launched their season last night (Oct. 17) with a fine performance of three disparate works.

Very likely few from Boulder heard the concert, as it was held in the Montview Presbyterian Church in Denver—a discouragingly long trek into traffic on US 36 or I-25. The orchestra deserved a larger audience, but I cannot blame those who chose to wait for tonight’s performance (7:30 p.m. Oct. 18) in Boulder’s First United Methodist Church.

Cynthia Katsarelis. Photo by Glenn Ross.

Cynthia Katsarelis. Photo by Glenn Ross.

If you are among those, you will want to hear this intriguingly selected and well played concert. Conductor Cynthia Katsarelis acknowledged that the three pieces on the program—Rakastava for strings and percussion by Jean Sibelius, Samuel Barber’s poignant Knoxville: Summer of 1915 for soprano and chamber orchestra, and Mozart’s Symphony No. 39—have little in common except that they compliment one another very well.

Rakastava, originally written for male chorus and later arranged for strings by the composer, is one of Sibelius’ less known tone poems, and virtually the only one suitable for chamber orchestra. It is a tender portrayal of the meeting and parting of doomed lovers from Finnish legend.

The score was beautifully played by Pro Musica, with a transparency and warmth of sound. Here the chamber orchestra truly performed chamber music, with a careful balance and responsiveness of one part to another and lovely solos in violin and cello. The effect was aided by the highly resonant acoustic of Montview Presbyterian, which enriched the string sound.

The acoustic was more of an issue in the Barber. Soprano Amanda Balastrieri gave an eloquent and emotionally committed performance, but the lengthy reverberation sometimes covered consonants, rendering the text less than ideally clear.

Knoxville: Summer of 1915 is a setting of a prose poem by James Agee, describing an idyllic summer evening from his childhood, when he was wrapped in the warmth and love of his family. A wonderful piece of nostalgia, the text and music seem to yearn for a lost innocence, but it is more than that. The following year, Agee lost his father in a car accident. Perhaps coincidentally, Barber’s father was dying when he was writing the music.

This knowledge shifts the emotional focus away from the description of the warm night to the foreshadowing of the imminent tragedy, and to the words “May God bless my people . . . remember them kindly in their time of trouble; and in the hour of their taking away.”

Amanda Balastrieri, soprano soloist in "Knoxville: Summer of 1915"

Amanda Balastrieri, soprano soloist in “Knoxville: Summer of 1915″

Without stifling the nostalgic aspects of the score, both conductor and soloist brought out those shadows. Balastrieri stressed that darker aspect in talking about the piece, saying that recent losses in her family have deepened her understanding of the music.

In performance Katsarelis created a warm sonic cocoon for the opening lines of text, but then sharply attacked the harsh chords that follow the words “my father who is good to me,” making them a portent of things unsaid. Similarly Balastrieri made the words “my good father” and “their taking away” the emotional climax of the piece, rendering the subsequent  return to the nostalgic tone all the more poignant. The tender mood, so comfortable at the beginning, now feels fragile.

Often presented by larger orchestras, Barber’s score takes on an especially intimate cast when played by a chamber group. Balastrieri’s clear voice is ideal for Barber’s music, and in Katasrelis she had a congenial and like-minded partner. In spite of the acoustic disadvantages of the high-ceilinged, narrow, deep space, Knoxville: Summer of 1915 left a deep impression.

It was Mozart’s symphony that suffered most from the cathedral acoustics of Montview Church. With a reverberation time of 2 seconds or more, loud chords were still sounding into succeeding softer passages, and in fast tempos one measure overlay the next. The beginning of the Minuet, where the metronomic wind chords should pulse cleanly beneath transparent strings, was especially muddied.

Acoustics aside, Katsarelis and Pro Musica offered a stylish and energetic reading of Mozart’s symphony. The last movement got off to a sparkling start and continued to sparkle in the softer passages. And it would be remiss not to note the delightful wind playing throughout this movement, and the admirable restraint from the trumpets who could easily have overwhelmed the ensemble. Only at the end, encouraged by Katsarelis’ emphatic cues, did they open up to build a climax.

Looking at the symphony as a whole, Katsarelis provided firm control of the structure. Before the performance she spoke briefly of the symphony’s musical journey, away from and back to the home key, as a metaphor for our life’s journey. This is a theme she clearly feels deeply, and it was well reflected in her interpretation, which offered a fully satisfying homecoming at the end.

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Pro Music Colorado Chamber Orchestra will repeat this program tonight (Oct. 18) at 7:30 p.m. in First United Methodist Church in Boulder. Click here for tickets.

For information on the remainder of the season, see the Pro Musica Colorado Web page.

Baroque Trio Aeris Opens Boulder Bach Festival with stunning, eccentric program

By Peter Alexander

Aeris: William Skeen, Avi Stein, Zachary Carrettin

Aeris: William Skeen, Avi Stein, Zachary Carrettin

The Baroque-instrument trio Aeris opened the 2014–15 Boulder Bach Festival last night (Oct. 16) with a concert that more than lived up to the promise of its title, “Capriccio.”

In fact, the program was so capricious and idiosyncratic that it might well have taken its title from one of the works, Diverse bizzarie (diverse bizarrities). But that was exactly the goal of Zachary Carrettin, the musical director of the festival and the violinist of the trio. By focusing on a notably eccentric repertoire, Italian violin sonatas of the 17th and 18th centuries, Carrettin established from the very first notes of the new season that the Bach Festival will not hesitate to spread a wide net in order to illuminate the most familiar works of festival’s main subject, J.S. Bach.

Francesco Maria Veracini Italian violin virtuoso and composer (1690–1768)

Francesco Maria Veracini, Italian violin virtuoso and composer (1690–1768)

The trio, made up of Carrettin with Baroque cellist William Skeen and harpsichordist Avi Stein, gave stunning performances of violin sonatas by the Italian virtuosos and composers Veracini, Stradella, Valentini, Locatelli and Nicola Matteis, and a very Italianate and wildly virtuosic sonata by J.S. Bach; plus a cello sonata by Vivaldi.

J.S. Bach

J.S. Bach

There is an important message in the choice of program. The composers Carrettin picked were, he said, “phenomenal characters in music,” musicians who explored with gusto the outer limits of their instruments and their own virtuosity. This is very different from the image we have of Bach the sober Lutheran cantor, but it was very much part of Bach’s world. And the better we understand that whole musical world, the better we understand Bach.

And this kind of programming gets the festival beyond the mere rotation of great works and provides a welcome source of excitement and exploration for Boulder’s audiences.

To bring this ancient music to life, Aeris plays on historically accurate instruments, using gut strings and Baroque bows for the violin and cello. This creates a less brilliant and potentially less consistent sound than modern bows and metal strings, but it also gives the music a warmth and a clarity of texture that the composers would recognize.

This more delicate and intimate sound works best in a smaller venue. While it would be out of place in even a modest auditorium, it sounded completely at home in Boulder’s St. John’s Episcopal Church. Boulder’s churches see many performances, but unlike larger ensemble programs, in this case the church is in no way a compromise. In fact, it is the closest thing we have to the spaces where music was performed in the Baroque era.

Aeris also plays from reproductions of 18th-century manuscripts or first editions. This is an important decision. It’s easy to imagine that notes are notes, but in fact by bypassing all of the decisions that have to be made by modern publishers and seeing only what the original performers saw, the players are able to respond much more directly to the music as it was conceived and put onto paper—both its demands and its expressive possibilities.

Zachary Carrettin

Zachary Carrettin

While not immune to the occasional edgy sound and surging phrases that can result from the lower tension of Baroque bows, Carrettin and Skeen played with both technical polish and a lovely sound that complimented Stein’s harpsichord without overwhelming it. They are all virtuoso performers.

The most important qualities they brought to their performance were energy and passion. If played mechanically—as Baroque music was often played in the past—this music looses its life and becomes, as it was called, “sewing-machine music.” But played with freedom and a sense of drama, as newer generations of specialist performers have done, it becomes exciting, edgy, surprising.

In this regard, Aeris could not be faulted. The program was played with flair, drama and occasionally humor. The musical swings and turns of mood were well characterized throughout.

With so many cascading notes and the freedom of expression the repertoire demands, it is easy for the metrical framework and a sense of direction to get lost in performance. Here is where Aeris truly excelled: Nothing felt aimless or seemed to wander. The players’ unerring sense of phrasing made every line clear, every joint and juncture distinct.

Music historians teach that the word “Baroque” may have come from a Portuguese word for misshapen pearls, implying music that is bizarre, extravagant and asymmetrical. With its idiosyncratic and unpredictable violin sonatas, the program by Aeris was a perfect illustration of that characteristic of the Baroque era.

Hearing such pieces, it becomes easy to understand why the early classical composers of the generation between Bach and Mozart wrote music that oversupplied what Baroque music lacked: regularity, symmetry, and an often banal predictability. Charles Burney, an 18th-century English music historian who was quoted in the program notes, represented the view of that generation when he called the music of the Italian violinists “wild, aukward [sic] and unpleasant” and said it provided “more surprise than pleasure.”

Burney to the contrary, the music Aeris performed last night supplied both surprise and pleasure—and a promising start for the 2014–15 Boulder Bach Festival.

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AERIS: “Capriccio”
Zachary Carrettin, violin; William Skeen, cello; and Avi Stein, harpsichord
Sonatas by Locatelli, Veracini, Matteis, Stradella, Vivaldi and Bach

Remaining performances:
7:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 17, St. John’s Cathedral, Denver
7:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 18, First Lutheran Church, Longmont

Pro Musica Colorado opens season with beautiful music but no theme

By Peter Alexander

Cynthia Katsarelis. Photo by Glenn Ross.

Cynthia Katsarelis. Photo by Glenn Ross.

Pro Musica Colorado, the professional chamber orchestra directed by Cynthia Katsarelis, has told us “Stories” and taken us on “Journeys” in their past seasons. But there is no theme for 2014–15.

“Sometimes in classical music, when you’re putting together beautiful programs, the pieces are perfect together, but you can’t come up with a great theme,” Katsarelis explains.

That particularly seems true of the first concert of Pro Musica’s season, which will be performed Friday in Denver and Saturday in Boulder (7:30 p.m. both nights; season information). The program comprises three pieces with no evident connection among them: Sibelius’ tone poemRakastava for strings and percussion, Samuel Barber’s deeply moving setting of James Agee’s prose poem Knoxville: Summer of 1915 for soprano and chamber orchestra, and Mozart’s Symphony No. 39.

Read more in Boulder Weekly.

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Pro Musica Colorado Chamber Orchestra

Amanda Balastrieri, soprano soloist in "Knoxville: Summer of 1915"

Amanda Balastrieri, soprano soloist in “Knoxville: Summer of 1915″

Cynthia Katsarelis, Music Director
With Amanda Balastrieri, soprano

Jean Sibelius: Rakastava
Samuel Barber: Knoxville: Summer of 1915
Mozart: Symphony No. 39

7:30 p.m. Friday Oct. 17, Montview Presbyterian, Denver
7:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 18, First United Methodist, Boulder

Season details and tickets

Festival Looks Back to Bach while Rushing Confidently into the Future

By Peter Alexander

J.S. Bach

J.S. Bach

Johann Sebastian Bach died more than 250 year ago, but the Boulder Bach Festival is clearly not stuck in the past.

Zachary Carrettin

Zachary Carrettin

Under music director Zachary Carrettin, the festival, which launches its 34th season this week, will regard Bach from a multitude of perspectives, old and new. The festival will continue to feature the great sacred monuments of Bach’s career, but also his secular music, his many instrumental works, and even some wild virtuoso showpieces, as well as music by a diverse array of other composers. This year his music will be paired with contemporaries, and with 19th-century Impressionist and post-Impressionist composers; it will be performed on historical Baroque instruments, on electric violin, and on a 19th-century piano.

“These are all tools, they are all brushes that we use as we paint music,” Carrettin says. “I hope that the Bach festival will continue to present this music in a variety of guises and from a variety of perspectives.”

The opening concerts—Thursday at St. John’s Episcopal in Boulder, Friday at St. John’s Cathedral in Denver and Saturday in First Lutheran in Longmont, all at 7:30—will be performed by Aeris, a trio comprising Carrettin on violin with cellist William Skeen and harpsichordist Avi Stein.

AERIS.115

Aeris: Avi Stein, Zachary Carrettin, William Skeen

Using gut strings, Baroque bows and historically accurate instruments, Aeris focuses on the extensive and sometimes astonishing virtuoso violin repertoire of the 18th century. To launch the 2014-15 festival, they will perform a sonata by Bach, but also sonatas by Italian composers of the era, including Locatelli, Veracini, Stradella and Vivaldi.

“These are phenomenal characters in music,” Carrettin says. “Stradella was stabbed to death twice, the second time successfully, due to his marital infidelities. Veracini was such a virtuoso that the great Tartini went home to practice bowing technique after he heard Veracini, because he was so blown away. And Niccolo Matteis, was a great Italian who showed up with a backpack and no money in London around 1670.”

As outlandish as those Italians may sound, Carrettin believes that Bach belongs right in there with them, at least musically: “We pick music that explores the fantasia dreamscape, explores in a sense the out-of-body experience. And the Bach sonata that we chose for this program completely fits that description.

“It is stunning pyrotechnics of the violin, with an unrelenting sustained pedal, and finally when the whole thing just blows up, the aria movement is full of heart-wrenching suspensions and dissonances, and asymmetrical phrases. It’s really incredible, and it’s completely Italian in every sense of the word.”

A fascination with that kind of virtuoso music that pushes the limits is something that the members of Aeris have in common. “We came together some years ago and realized that when it comes to the 17th- and 18th-century Italian violin literature, we’re really on the same page,” Carrettin says.

“It’s as if we’ve known each other for several lifetimes at this point. Our improvisations are very intertwined and very exploratory, and I don’t think any one of us could do it without the other two members of the group. Without a doubt I play better and more imaginatively with them and because of them.”

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Carrettin has recently moved from Texas, where he held a full-time university position, to live in Boulder. This gives him an opportunity to be more involved in the running of the festival and its educational efforts.

“It is such a spectacular place that I’m so thankful that I get to spend this time of my life in Boulder,” Carrettin says. “My being here allows me to observe what we’re already doing and to become more intimately familiar with this 34-year-old organization. And one of the great advantages for the organization is that now we can function more like chamber music.

“If you take a string quartet, they spend time together, they rehearse together, they have meals together. Well, now when I look at my relationship to the board and the executive director and artists from the front range, I get to out and have coffee and have conversations and dream and take notes about what other people are telling me. There’s so much more time for the chamber music of running an organization.”

One of Carrettin’s ventures will be an outreach to people who may not have taken an interest in the Bach Festival in previous years. “We now have a sub-series called Compass, which is away of presenting Bach in a non-traditional format, in different venues and maybe attracting some of the audiences that we don’t have yet.

Carrettin and electric violin.Photo by Michelle Maloy Dillon.

Carrettin and electric violin. Photo by Michelle Maloy Dillon.

“For example, I’m doing an all-electric violin performance of the Bach Cello Suites at the Diary Center for the Arts (7 p.m. Feb. 6, 2015), with amplified reverb. It’s an interesting way bringing archaic music into relevance for a younger generation in the 21st century that may not yet be familiar with Bach’s music language.”

In some ways, the second Compass concert will be even more radical. “Bach UnCaged” (7 p.m. March 17 and 28 at the Dairy) will feature music by Bach and by American 20th-century avant-garde composer John Cage performed on electric violin and keyboard, with 3rd Law Dance/Theater.

The most traditional program of the season, performances of Bach’s Mass in B minor (7:30 p.m. Feb. 27 at Montview Presbyterian Church in Denver and Feb. 28 at First United Methodist Church in Boulder), will bring back one of the mainstays of the festival’s history, and one of the great musical works of the European tradition, but they will also have a new twist of their own.

“The piece was never performed in its entirety in Bach’s lifetime, and aside from the structure of the Mass, there are some questions as far as the intention of how it was to be performed,” Carrettin explains. “I’ll surprise your audience by saying I’ve made some minor adjustments in the form and added in a couple of surprises that I hope will pull together a Mass into more of a concert experience.”

The last concert of the season (7:30 p.m. June 6, 2015, in Grusin Hall on the CU campus) will feature Carrettin with pianist Mina Gajić playing a program of Bach along with late 19th-century Impressionists and post-Impressionists. And this is the program that will bring in that 19th-century piano.

Mina Gajic

Pianist Mina Gajić

Gajić has a decade of experience with 19th-century pianos, and she fell in love with a 19th-century piano in Amsterdam,” Carrettin explains. “It would be the piano for playing Debussy or Ravel or even Bartók, but you know, it’s also the piano for playing Bach. It’s a spectacular instrument, and in the 21st century, I hope we’re starting to look at the notion of period instruments differently.”

As he settles into his residence in Boulder, meeting musicians from across Colorado and bringing in life-long friends from around the country, Carrettin is finding a sense of mission in his work for the Boulder Bach Festival.

“Combining front-range world-class artists with great musicians form other parts of the country is part of my own personal mission,” he says. “I think we all as musicians love meeting new people and seeing old friends, and that’s how we do it, that’s part of the reason we do this for a living, with all of its struggle.”

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BOULDER BACH FESTIVAL
Zachary Carrettin, music director

AERIS: “Capriccio”
Season-opening chamber music concert
Zachary Carrettin, violin; William Skeen, cello; and Avi Stein, harpsichord
Sonatas by Locatelli, Veracini, Matteis, Stradella, Vivaldi and Bach
7:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 16, St. John’s Episcopal Church, Boulder
7:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 17, St. John’s Cathedral, Denver
7:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 18, First Lutheran Church, Longmont

Electric Compass
7 p.m. Feb. 6, 2015
Dairy Center for the Arts, Boulder

J.S. Bach: Mass in B minor, “Dance of Life”
7:30 p.m. Feb. 27, 2015, Montview Presbyterian Church, Denver
7:30 p.m. Feb. 28, 2015, First United Methodist Church, Boulder

Bach UnCaged
With 3rd Law Dance/Theater
7 p.m. March 27 & 28, 2015
Dairy Center for the Arts, Boulder

Six Degrees of Separation
Zachary Carrettin, violin, and Mina Gajić, piano
7:30 p.m. June 6, 2015
Grusin Music Hall, Imig Music Building, CU Boulder

Tickets

Kronos Quartet delivers powerful, disturbing, and inspired performance

By Peter Alexander

Kronos Quartet performing Beyond Zero. Photo courtesy of Kronos Quartet

Kronos Quartet performing Beyond Zero. Photo courtesy of Kronos Quartet

Kronos’ Quartet performance of Aleksandra Vrebalov’s Beyond Zero: 1914–1918, Wednesday night (Oct. 8) at Macky Auditorium, was the one of the most powerful concert experiences I can recall.

Commissioned by Kronos to mark the centennial of the beginning of World War I, Beyond Zero is by turns beautiful, disturbing, haunting and almost unbearably intense—as befits the subject, one of the most brutal and tragic events of human history. Kronos’ performance was an inspired feat of musicianship and athletic endurance: once begun, the music scarcely lets up until the very end, with harsh, rhythmic chords propelling the piece from climax to climax.

There are times that the music becomes almost unendurable in its intensity, but that again is an expression of a war that was literally unendurable for millions. How else can you put into music the suffering of a continent and the agony of the soldiers in the trenches, year after year? Like a visit to the battlefields, it is sometimes disturbing, but it is a vital and deeply moving experience that enlarges the soul.

Included in the performance are recordings that Vrebalov collected from the time of the war, including military commands, air raid sirens, inflammatory speech, the composer Bartók playing his own music, and ending with the chanting of Byzantine monks fading into deep silence. These imported sounds heighten the music’s impact.

BZ 1058

Still image from Bill Morisson’s film accompanying ‘Beyond Zero’

Beyond Zero is performed in front of a screen on which are projected archival films from the time of the war, restored by experimental film maker Bill Morrison. The film, most of it badly deteriorated, was scanned in high definition and includes both the original filmed images and the marks of deterioration—oxidation, discoloration and other forms of physical degradation. The sometimes ghostly images are evocative of a world long past, and in their imperfections are eloquent commentary on the war itself.

There are many images that will long remain with me, but I will mention just two: the opening sequence, in which a flickering blue fog of discolored film gradually reveals an approaching line of early tanks, which seems to symbolize the world’s gradual but inexorable descent into mechanized war; and a large group of uniformed men whose image is consumed by the loss of the crumbling film, much as an entire generation of young European men was consumed by the war.

The whole multi-media experience is far too much to grasp in a single performance. I didn’t know whether to watch the film, listen to the music, attend to the combination of music and captured sound, or simply admire the sheer hard work and technical accomplishment of the players. I for one will eagerly await the release of a DVD of Beyond Zero, so I can come to grips with all that it expresses.

Beyond Zero was the second half of a concert that also included a world premiere and an appearance by David Barsamian of Boulder’s Alternative Radio. The first half opened with Death to Kosmische by Nicole Lizée. Kronos’ first violinist, David Harrington, says that Death to Kosmische is “sonic fun,” but you would not get the whole joke if you didn’t know that “Kosmische” is a form of East German electro-pop music from the 1960s and ‘70s.

Knowing that, you hear the humor as the music sonically eats its own tail and ends in a burst of electronic distortion. Clearly, the composer was no fan of “Kosmische” music, and she revels in its death. Equally, Kronos relishes playing the piece, including a variety of electronic devices; their fun is infectious even if you don’t know what or whom is being threatened with death.

Kronos next played the world premiere of Speak, Time, an accomplished score by Yuri Boguinia, a young composer who grew up in Boulder and now lives in New York. The score is an episodic exploration of sounds from the quartet, all skillfully knitted together by Boguinia into a mostly-balanced whole. I say mostly, because some sections seemed overly long in relation to the rest, but the music, which seems to trace an unspecified narrative arc, is intriguing throughout.

David Barsamian of Boulder's Alternative Radio

David Barsamian of Boulder’s Alternative Radio

David Barsamian was introduced to the audience as one of Harrington’s “favorite persons.” He has worked with Kronos several times in the past, providing spoken texts over their playing. On this occasion Kronos played four songs from Turkey, Greece, Poland and Armenia—cultures deeply impacted by World War I—as an informal prelude to the second half of the concert. Barsamian gave thoughts relevant to the first three countries, and played a recording of his mother, a survivor of the First World War’s Armenian genocide, for the last.

Everything Barsamian had to say was articulate and appropriate for the occasion—although even in Boulder I don’t suppose everyone agrees with his left-wing point of view. Nonetheless, Harrington’s decision to bring him in for the performance strikes me as both meaningful and confounding. His words would have more impact if they were heard apart, without music that divided the attention and occasionally covered Barsamian’s voice. I for one would rather have heard the music—beautiful and touching folk songs that represent the kind of cross-cultural performance that Kronos does so well—and had time later to reflect on Barsamian’s literary contribution.

Kronos Quartet: David Harington, John Sherba, Sunny Yang and Hank Dutt. Photo courtesy of Kronos Quartet.

Kronos Quartet: David Harrington, John Sherba, Sunny Yang and Hank Dutt. Photo courtesy of Kronos Quartet.

One reason for Kronos’ commissioning of Beyond Zero is the fact that as a country, we have largely forgotten World War I. In comparison to World War II, the “good war” of the celebrated “greatest generation,” it hardly registers in our consciousness. And yet we still live in the world that was created by the barbarity of the war and blunders of the post-war peace process. Harrington wanted to remind us all of that, and in that context Barsamian has much to say. But I am not convinced that making an artistic performance into a didactic exercise serves either the music or the message being conveyed.

In the end, it is the music that matters. And because Kronos plays such exceptional and striking music, music that itself monopolizes our attention, it is easy to forget how good they are at what they do, and how their adventurous, passionate explorations have changed the musical landscape. Whether or not you like the music they play—and I admittedly don’t like everything they have done over the years—it is always worth hearing. From the most tender and gentle pieces to the most fierce and aggressive, Kronos crosses borders, explores limits, and takes us all along for the journey.

They have been doing this for 40 years now, and remarkably all but the cellist are founding members. Such longevity is remarkable, especially when you see how physically demanding some of their playing can be. Whatever they do, they do it with commitment and technical polish. Long may their adventure continue!

Jean-Marie Zeituoni reflects on his new role as Music Director

The newly appointed Music Director of the Colorado Music Festival endorses the role of new music, chamber music, and festival themes.

By Peter Alexander

Jean-Marie Zeitouni

Jean-Marie Zeitouni

The following Q&A interview with Jean-Marie Zeitouni covers some of the issues facing the new music director of Boulder’s beloved Colorado Music Festival. The questions were presented to Zeitouni by email, giving him the opportunity to write careful and thorough answers to each question. This also allows him to introduce himself and his thoughts about the festival directly to our readers. The 12 questions I asked were intended to cover many of the most historically prominent aspects of the festival, including mini-festivals, commissions of new works, chamber music events, and guest soloists, and to give opportunity for comments on their future importance to the festival.

His answers are presented unedited, except for minor corrections to capitalization and punctuation. Additions for clarity are placed in brackets. Otherwise, the words are exactly as Zeitouni wrote them.

QUESTION: I assume it is too early to talk about specific programming for the 2015 festival, but I wonder if you have any thoughts about the general nature of programming for an intensive, six-week summer festival as opposed to a nine-month-long subscription season.

JEAN-MARIE ZEITOUNI: The keyword here is “intensity,” to which I would add creativity, originality and some balance. Some audience members are also yearlong classical concertgoers and are not always interested in listening to the same things they hear all year long; others however will get their first concert music experiences in the summer at a festival. It’s important to keep them also in mind as we elaborate programs. I’ve been involved with numerous festivals over the past 15 years (notably the Festival International de Lanaudière, where I’ve been conducting the festival orchestra for the past nine years, and with the Festival International du Domaine Forget, for the past 15 first with Violons du Roy and now with I Musici de Montréal, but also at Grant Park, Banff, Mostly Mozart, Parry Sound, and the Opera Festivals of Glimmerglass, St. Louis, Cincinnati, etc.), and what always strikes me is that they each have a distinct personality and audience that is reflected in their choices of programs, guest artists and explorations.

I’m looking forward to bringing along my experiences and ideas to Boulder, but I’m also allowing myself a bit of time to digest and understand what CMF is all about, from its roots to its fruits.

There is also the wonderful CMF orchestra. We need to develop our way of making music together, and some of next summer will be about that.

Chautauqua Auditorium, home to the CMF Festival Orchestra

Chautauqua Auditorium, home to the CMF Festival Orchestra

Q: How do you feel about “themes” for a festival—musical topics such a Russian music or great violin concertos—to be explored during all or part of a festival?

JMZ: I like themes and thematics in general, especially for concert programs. I think that coherent and original pairings can help us enjoy more and differently some pieces we don’t know, and even some others we think we know so well. “Mini-festivals” are also interesting if the circumstances are right. The nature of a festival allows us to explore a subject more deeply in an intensive period of time and is a good setting for organizing parallel activities (film, seminars, lectures, etc.) for audiences looking for a more complete immersion.

Q: How do you feel about programming that crosses genres and styles, such as the “mashup” programs blending pop and classical styles we have had at CMF the past two years, or the “World Music” series of earlier festivals that blended classical with music of other cultures (Klezmer, Asian styles, jazz, etc.)?

JMZ: My personal taste is very eclectic. I like great music whether it’s Western classical or Eastern or Afro-Cuban or old or modern, etc. . . . (the list goes on and on). I think it’s very natural to blend and cross styles and genres as long as we are presenting good music and at a high level of performance.

The other major factor is having the sensational Festival Orchestra, which is an invaluable asset. We want to program music that will display this ensemble’s colors and possibilities.

CMR Festival Orchestra onstage in Chautauqua Auditorium

CMF Festival Orchestra onstage in Chautauqua Auditorium

Q: What do you see as the role for new music in the festival?

JMZ: The festival has a long history of playing new music and even commissioning works. I think every arts organization should be involved in both the performance and creation of art. As for programming, it’s like creating a menu at a great restaurant—accords and contrasts, themes and threads, originality and references. Balancing the flavors.

Q: Would you like to continue the CMF’s history of commissioning new works?

JMZ: Yes, no doubt.

eTown Hall, home of CMF's chamber music concerts

eTown Hall, home of CMF’s chamber music concerts

Q: What do you think should be the role of chamber music performances in the festival?

JMZ: I don’t know where to start. . . . There are so many positive aspects of having the chamber music series in the festival. First, of course, there is the vast repertoire that is complementary to what we do with the orchestra, with so many masterpieces available for the audience to discover. Second, the intimacy and proximity between the artists and the audience that is incomparable. It’s also a great way to showcase some of the musicians of the CMF orchestra (and guest artists) and introduce them to the community in a more personal way.

Q: In picking soloists for the festival, how do feel about inviting well known artists as opposed to younger artists who may not be as well known? Do you think there is a role for each within the festival?

JMZ: There is definitely a role for both in the festival. We have the responsibility to both get the best artists possible on our stage and to be scouting for the best new talents to introduce them to the audience.

Jean-Marie Zeitouni

Jean-Marie Zeitouni

Q: How do you expect to be involved in the educational aspects of the organization? 

JMZ: Much yet has to be defined. We are looking at creating more activities for the younger ones, and I have some ideas to share with the team. There is of course the very popular young people concerts, and I hope in the future, finding the right channels to involve the kids who attend CMA in original projects.

Q: Do you anticipate any issues in maintaining balance between the two arms of the organization—the school and the festival?

JMZ: No. In fact, it is important to me that we not only strive to take both the Festival and Center to new heights, but that we also look for ways to create greater synergies between the two.

Q: Do you have specific plans for attracting new audiences to the festival?

JMZ: Although [Executive Director] Andrew [Bradford] and I are both still fairly new to the organization, we have already spent a lot of time talking about this subject. We are both committed to collaborating with some of the many arts organizations in Boulder, which we hope will lead to, among other things, new audiences attending our concerts. Also, Andrew is carefully examining how we have approached marketing and public outreach in the past, and is looking for new, more creative ways to increase awareness of the organization.

The Dining Hall, on the beautiful CMF Chautauqua campus

The Dining Hall, on the spectacular CMF Chautauqua campus

Q: What is your initial impression of Boulder?

JMZ: What is there not to love? My first impression was as positive as could be! I got to know many people and found them all to be extremely friendly. I also managed to make time to try many of Boulder’s best restaurants. The location is fantastic and the landscape is literally breathtaking. It’s a place I’m looking very forward to spending my summers in with my daughter, Gabrielle, who will turn two in a couple of months.

Q: What would be your message for Boulder audiences, and the supporters and fans of the Colorado Music Festival?

JMZ: I want them to know that I feel blessed to have been given the opportunity to serve as Music Director of this wonderful organization, and that I take this responsibility with great respect and care. I think I am coming to understand the great love and passion so many people in this community have for CMF and CMA, and I intend not only to create new, exciting programs for their enjoyment but also to be a steward of the organization.

Edited 10/7 to put back one word that dropped out in transmission.

BCO and pianist Victoria Aja in a delightfully designed program

By Peter Alexander

Pianist Victoria Aja

Pianist Victoria Aja

Conductor Bahman Saless and the Boulder Chamber Orchestra were joined by Spanish pianist Victoria Aja for a program of French and Spanish music Friday and Saturday, Oct. 3 and 4. The program was wonderfully planned, if somewhat uneven in execution on Saturday.

The first drawback of that performance was the venue, Broomfield Auditorium. Part of a larger complex that includes a public library, the auditorium looks like a barely completed warehouse, with an open ceiling that reveals pipes, light instruments, ducts and conduits. Spare stands and chairs are stacked on the edge of the stage, and a ladder can be seen backstage as the artists enter and exit.

More troubling than the inelegant appearance, however, is the sound. The stage is shallow and flat, and the hard concrete walls bounce the sound directly into the small seating area (fewer than 300 seats on the main floor), rather than blending it or in any way cushioning the sound waves, as more suitable acoustic materials would do.

Because the sound is so present, it was hard to achieve the needed balance and contrasts in the opening work, Manuel de Falla’s popular “Ritual Fire Dance” from El Amor Brujo. This exciting orchestral work was well played, but the winds—almost hidden on the flat stage—were often unbalanced, while the bright sound made it especially difficult to achieve the kind of dynamic contrasts that would give impact to the fiery climaxes.

The second work on the program introduced the soloist in de Falla’s impressionistic Nights in the Gardens of Spain. Normally a work for large orchestra, Saless used a chamber-orchestra version that suited his smaller ensemble. This version lost none of the score’s exotic color, but the reduced strings gave up some of the mysterious atmosphere of the original.

Clearly having a full grasp of de Falla’s style, Aja played with great flair and expression. Saless’s accompaniment was sympathetic, but the soloist sometimes struggled to be heard, even over the reduced orchestra, in the hall’s vivid acoustic environment.

The second, French half of the program fared better. César Franck’s Symphonic Variations treats the piano and orchestra not as contestants in a heroic concerto or as soloist with accompaniment, but as two equal partners that share the material. This disposition eliminates many of the balance problems the hall imposes.

Consequently, Aja could be heard as a thoroughly worthy partner to the orchestra. She certainly has the technique and the interpretive gifts to bring Franck’s somewhat academic work to life. I especially enjoyed the spirited final variations.

Boulder Chamber Orchestra. Photo by Keith Bobo.

Boulder Chamber Orchestra. Photo by Keith Bobo.

In this case, the greatest drawback was the size of the BCO. Saless said that the Symphonic Variations was written for a “Beethoven orchestra,” which might be true of the wind section. But when it was completed in 1885 (not 1955 as the program anachronistically stated), string sections of 50 or more had been commonplace for more than 20 years, whereas BCO only mustered about 30 for Saturday’s concert. (The program lists 34, but there did not appear to be that many on the Broomfield stage.) While the performance on the whole was satisfactory, the string section sound was audibly underweight in some full-bodied passages.

To close the program, Saless chose Bizet’s early Symphony in C major, written when the composer was a 17-year-old student in the Paris Conservatory. Both the size and the personnel of the BCO are ideally suited to this delightful work, which was pure pleasure from beginning to end. The spirited wind solos were notable throughout, and oboist Max Soto deserves special recognition for his lovely solos throughout the tender second movement.

In spite of any shortcomings, Saless’s thoughtful programming and Aja’s pianism afforded an enjoyable evening of music, topped off with Bizet’s refreshing little symphony. In a more hospitable performance space, such as the Methodist Church where the BCO performed on Friday, it may well have been even more satisfying.

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NOTE: After intermission, Saless characterized the first half of the concert as “tapas” that preceded a main course of French cuisine. If you would like more than an appetizer of Iberian music—paella or a Spanish omelet, perhaps?—Aja is playing an entire solo piano recital of “Spanish Piano Masterpieces” at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 10, in Grace Lutheran Church, Boulder. The program, about an hour to be played without intermission, will include music by Albéniz, de Falla, Joaquin Larregla and Padre Jose Antonio Donostia.

“A Night of Spanish Piano Masterpieces”

Victoria Aja, piano
Presented by the Boulder Chamber Orchestra
7:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 10
Grace Lutheran Church, Boulder

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