Consummate concerto performance ends the summer for CMF

Stravinsky, Schubert and Beethoven make a perfectly balanced program

By Peter Alexander

The 2016 Colorado Music Festival (CMF) came to a conclusion last night (Aug. 7) with a perfectly balanced program of three individual works, and one consummate performance of a popular concerto.

It was a fine way to end the summer.


CMF Music Director Jean-Marie Zeitouni

For the program, music director Jean-Marie Zeitouni chose works that formed a tight key relationship, and that grew in size as they moved forward on the concert but backwards in time. They were Stravinsky’s Concerto in E-flat major “Dumbarton Oaks” for 14 instruments (1938); Schubert’s Symphony No. 5 in B-flat major for small orchestra (1816); and Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat major, known as the “Emperor” Concerto (1811).

Not only was there a logical flow to the program, the works were well balanced for style and impact. An exemplar of Stravinsky’s bracing neo-classical style, “Dumbarton Oaks” is both elegant and humorous—“cheeky” is what Zeitouni calls it. It makes an ideal opener, cleansing the palate for whatever comes after. The symphony, written when Schubert was only 19, is slightly more serious, but always cheerful and a joy to hear: audience comfort food. And the “Emperor,” by far Beethoven’s most popular concerto, is a serious and imposing main dish that makes a brilliant end to any program.

Zeitouni’s collaborators for this program were of course the excellent players of the CMF Chamber Orchestra, and for the “Emperor,” the remarkable pianist Olga Kern, whose 2013 traversal of the Rachmaninoff concertos in three nights remains one of the touchstones of the festival.

The performance of Stravinsky’s rhythmically tricky concerto was surefooted and mostly clean and clear. The second movement was especially wonderful, as the phrasing by the individual players transcended the mechanical surface of the music. The fleet scampering flute, the pompous chugging of the bassoon, the tidy little phrases from the clarinet, and the gentle string interludes were all a pure delight to hear.

For the Schubert, Zeitouni adopted an unusual set-up, with the woodwinds front and center. Perhaps not strictly necessary for them to be heard, it did point up the importance of their parts in Schubert’s score.

I have heard this symphony played with a smaller string section, which gives greater muscularity to the winds and gives a more incisive early-, early-Romantic sound to the orchestra. Zeitouni opted for a more traditional full orchestral sound.

Schubert’s predecessors were apparent throughout the symphony. The lovely, graceful slow movement has more than a touch of Mozart. The bumptious Menuetto shows that Schubert had been listening to Beethoven, especially in contrast with a trio section that is pure Schubertian lyricism. And the finale is Haydn translated through Schubert’s personal sensibility.

These elements came thorough in Zeitouni’s careful interpretation. The weight of the strings, especially the lower parts, took a little—but only a little—from the sparkle of the performance.

Olga Kern

Olga Kern, pianist, photographed by Chris Lee at Steinway Hall.

With his grand sense of musical drama, Beethoven gives the “Emperor” Concerto soloist the opportunity to state “Here I am!” at the very outset. This Kern did, and her performance went from strength to strength thereafter, even covering the orchestra at one point.

After a strong, muscular, well defined opening movement, Kern and Zeitouni achieved a beautifully calibrated tenderness in the slow movement. The finale was even more invigorating than usual, with the orchestra punching out the returning rondo theme with great power and well placed accents, and Kern matching them punch for punch.

This is music from Beethoven’s so-called “Heroic” period, calculated for maximum impact, and it makes a great way to end a concert or a season. The audience stood and cheered, energized by a performance that was worthy of their approbation.

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Julian Wachner

Composer Julian Wachner

Before the concert, CMF Board president Ted Lupberger announced the winner of the 2017 “Click” Commission: Julian Wachner. One of the most innovative commissioning programs in the country, the “Click” Commission was inaugurated under former music director Michael Christie. Every summer, patrons are allowed to vote for one of three nominated composers by donating money for the commission; the composer who attracts the largest number of votes wins the commission and writes a short orchestral piece for the next summer’s festival.

Very busy as a conductor and keyboard artist, Wachner has had engagements with the Lincoln Center Festival, BAM Next Wave Festival, the Juilliard Opera Theater, New York City Opera, Hong Kong Philharmonic—and to keep things real, the 50th anniversary tour of the Rolling Stones. The Boston Globe described his music as “jazzy, energetic, and ingenious.” I look forward to hearing his work as part of the 2017 CMF.

No premieres, but enticing productions at Santa Fe Opera

“Thoroughly enjoyable” Don Giovanni and “rare, noteworthy” Vanessa among the pleasures

By Peter Alexander

It’s an unusual year at the Santa Fe Opera.


Crosby Theatre, Santa Fe Opera. Photo by Peter Alexander

The company, known for producing premieres, has no new works this year, nothing from the current century, nothing from the past 50 years. The most recent work on the 2016 season is Samuel Barber’s Vanessa, a conservative piece of neo-Romantic melodrama even when it was written in 1958. (Santa Fe is producing the now standard 1964 revision.)

This is not to imply that the current season at Santa Fe fails to live up to the company’s enviable standards. Even without new works, there is much to enjoy, appreciate and admire at the Santa Fe Opera. Of the five-opera season, I saw three: Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West (Girl of the Golden West) and Vanessa. Other productions were Richard Strauss’s Capriccio and Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette.

Don Giovanni receives a thoroughly enjoyable performance, in many ways one of the best I have seen. The cast is very strong, the production is interesting and successful, and except for the problematic second act where Mozart had to provide showpiece arias for each lead singer in turn, the pacing is brisk.

2 Ensemble Cast in 'Don Giovanni' (c) Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera.SMALL

Ensemble Cast in ‘Don Giovanni’ (c) Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera

There is nothing particularly original or striking in the concept and characterization, which largely represent a natural and direct interpretation of the libretto and score. With a largely bare stage, the production focuses on the relationships among the characters.

Riccardo Hernandez’s set is dominated by a large semi-abstract head that recalls the sculptural style of Henry Moore and other mid-20th-century artists. A dark gray when it first rises impressively from behind the stage (left open to the New Mexico hills), the head reflects many different colors and patterns during the show, from silver and blue to gold to fiery red, paralleling the passions and actions of the characters.

22 Soloman Howard (The Commendatore) and Daniel Okulitch (Don Giovanni) in 'Don Giovanni' (c) Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera.SMALL

The Commendatore (Soloman Howard) drags Don Giovanni (Daniel Okulitch) to his infernal reward. (c) Ken Howard, Santa Fe Opera

The floor and side panels are a shiny, reflective black. Other than some suggestive scenes on the panels when the opera moves to Don Giovanni’s castle, the only other scenic elements are a few pieces of furniture when needed, and large statuary for the cemetery. With Peter Negrini’s intriguing projections on the sculptural head, this is enough to suggest the locations and simple enough to keep the action moving without time-consuming scene changes. The night I was in attendance, the flames projected on the set and the steam bursting from the stage floor as Don Giovanni is pulled into the underworld drew grasps and cheers from the audience.

Emily Rebholz’s attractive costumes suggest Mozart’s times without falling back on actual 18th-century styles, with their silk stockings and powdered periwigs that look silly today. Ron Daniel provides clean and effective stage direction with no tendentious psychological reinterpretation or the kind of slapstick and stylized gesturing that mar some Mozart productions.

Conductor John Nelson led a stylish interpretation, with the orchestra always well in balance with the singers. The overture had great energy but was slightly ragged until the players settled into the fast tempo that Nelson selected.

8 Kyle Ketelsen (Leporello) and Daniel Okulitch (Don Giovanni) in 'DOn Giovanni' (c) Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera.SMALL

Leporello (Kyle Ketelsen) and Don Giovanni (Daniel Okulitch) (c) Ken Howard, Santa Fe Opera

The key pairing of Don Giovanni and Leporello is outstanding. Daniel Okulitch cuts the very figure of the wily seducer. If slightly laconic at times, he always moves on stage with the ease of the nobleman who expects obedience from the world about him. He is vocally solid, and sparkles appropriately in the famous “Champagne Aria.”

His partner, Kyle Ketelsen as Leporello, is one of the stars of the show. He sings with great energy and expression, creating a very sympathetic Leporello without descending to mugging or overacting to make a comic point. (Disclosure: I knew Ketelsen as a graduate student singer many years ago at the University of Iowa.)

Leah Crocetto’s bright, clear soprano is ideal for Donna Anna, and she handles all the brilliant figuration of her opera seria part with aplomb. As her opposite figure, Keri Alkema is a steely-voiced Donna Elvira when intent on revenge against the Don, but capable of melting into warm, creamy tones under his seductive powers. In the ungrateful role of Don Ottavio, who has little more to do than sing his undying devotion over and over again, Edgaras Montvidas is ardent, although his voice sometimes slips into an edgy, pushed sound.

10 Rhian Lois (Zerlina) and Ensemble Cast in 'Don Giovanni' (c) Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera.SMALL

Rhian Lois (Zerlina) and ensemble (c) Ken Howard, Santa Fe Opera

Rhian Lois was lovable and flirty as Zerlina, as she should be, singing with a bright and perky manner that was never less than delightful. If occasionally under-animated, Jarrett Ott was fine as the jealous and hot-tempered Masetto. Soloman Howard’s booming voice lent weight to the Commendatore, who, unusually, enters the final scene in person instead of as a statue.

Some Santa Fe magic: nature, always an element in the beautiful open-air Crosby Theatre, made its own contribution to the production. On Monday night (Aug. 1), distant lightning, seen from the very beginning of the overture, approached the theater as Don Giovanni approached his reckoning. The final scene had some accompanying loud thunderclaps as the Commendatore entered the stage.

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La Fanciulla del West has always struck me as an uncomfortable hybrid, with its Italian passion applied over the Wild West setting with a very broad knife. The sourdoughs heartily calling out “Hello! Hello!” at every opportunity, the cringeworthy Native characters Wowkle and Billy, rich Puccinian climaxes applied to such lines as “I want my plow again and my mother,” the childlike miners who pivot so easily from a raging lynch mob to a happy congregation under the influence of Minnie’s sentimentality—it’s all a hard to sell to Americans. Not surprisingly, the night I attended (Aug. 2) the audience chuckled more than once in moments that should be serious.

13 Patricia Racette (Minnie) and Gwyn Hughes Jones (Dick Johnson) in 'The Girl of the GOlden West' (c) Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera.SMALL

Patricia Racette (Minnie) and Gwynn Hughes Jones (Dick Johnson) in ‘La Fanciulla del West’ (c) Ken Howard, Santa Fe Opera

This production is a bit of a mixed bag. The cast, led by the estimable veteran Patricia Racette as Minnie, gives a taut performance in the opera’s most dramatic moments, particularly the crucial turning points in the second act. It is a pleasure to hear some less familiar Puccini performed with commitment.

However, the problematic set—designed by Miriam Buether in a co-production with the English National opera—is another matter. It represents a sort of dollhouse style, with tidy buildings from somewhere far removed from a California mining camp. The second act turns Minnie’s cabin into a 1950s Adirondack weekend getaway, with a circular window and chic little lighting fixtures, while the first-act bar comes complete with neon lighting.

18 Raymond Aceto (Ashby).SMALL

Miriam Buether’s Hopper-esque U.S.Marshall’s Office, Act III of ‘La Fanciulla del West’ (c) Ken Howard, Santa Fe Opera

The first and third act sets leave director Richard Jones with some very stiff challenges for moving his cast and chorus. In the first act, the chorus keeps running in and out, en masse, often with no apparent motivation, largely because the set doesn’t leave room for them to do much more. The last act, with its broad front suggesting a marshal’s office as painted by Edward Hopper, forces the chorus to line up in two ranks, face the audience and sing. The only action possible in this constricted space is provided by posse members who keep dashing across the stage, seriously upstaging one of Jack Rance’s big moments.

Dramatically, it is hard to take this seriously, but Puccini is really about the music. Conductor Emmanuel Villaume leads an impassioned interpretation without sacrificing delicacy and control. He is unafraid to turn loose the orchestra at the climaxes, but otherwise remains supportive of the singers.

14 Mark Delavan (Jack Rance) and Patricia Racette (Minnie) in 'The Girl of the Golden West' (c) Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera.SMALL

Jack Rance (Mark Delavan) and Minnie (Racette) play cards for Dick Johnson (c) Ken Howard, Santa Fe Opera

The only major female character in an opera of men, Minnie is the heart of the story. Racette has Puccini in her veins, and at her best delivers a Minnie of great impact. Her evocation of Minnie’s anguish, and all the emotional swerves of the second act are superb. Elsewhere, I found her less effective, with a vibrato that gets away from her when pushed for volume or range.

Gwynn Hughes Jones has an appealing tenor voice that fits Dick Johnson well. He was deeply affecting in his lyrical moments, but also in the great emotional moments of the second act. Mark Delavan is a rough hewn, threatening Rance, stressing more the jealous, angry lover than the rock-steady sheriff. With Racette and Jones, he helps bring the second act to a boil.

The other roles are well handled. Craig Verm as the sympathetic Sonora is a standout, Allan Glassman a solid Nick. As Ashby, Raymond Aceto uses his sonorous, covered voice to create a blustery, officious Wells Fargo agent.

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For fans of Barber’s music (me included), any production of Vanessa is a rare pleasure, and this one was particularly noteworthy. The musical elements—the singing from a strong cast, the musical leadership from conductor Leonard Slatkin, the playing from the virtuoso orchestra—were all exceptional. The production struck a serious note, and while not everyone will like the approach, which chooses psychological symbolism over grandeur, it was consistent and meaningful.

5. Zach Borichevsky (Anatol) and Virginie Verrez (c) Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera.SMALL

Allen Moyer’s monochrome set for ‘Vanessa’ (Zach Borichevsky as Anatol and Virginie Verrez as Erika) (c) Ken Howard, Santa Fe Opera

Allen Moyer’s set portrays a grand house, set somewhere in the remote north, but Moyer eschews the lavish Masterpiece Theater Victorian-period style that often characterize the opera. Instead, his set is rendered entirely in shades of gray. That setting, and the largely monochrome costumes of James Schuette, clearly symbolize the monotony of the shuttered and emotionally choked life that Vanessa has chosen.

The back of the stage is covered by a large curtain, pulled back to reveal a shattered mirror as Vanessa begins to return to life with the arrival of the false Anatol. Representing Vanessa’s efforts to deny the aging process, when opened it stands for the shattered person that Vanessa has become. At the end, when the young Erika takes on Vanessa’s retreat from life, the curtain is pulled back over the mirror.

This approach allows for some stunning moments of theater—the eye is captured by any use of color in a costume, the pure white Erika and others wear in the second act, the view of the snowy woods through the great window—and the return to all gray at the end makes Erika’s coming fate visible. If a little oppressive for the viewer, it is handled with subtlety and consistency. The symbolism never becomes didactic or preachy, and never overtakes or contradicts the music or plot.

6. Helene Schneiderman (Old Baroness) and Erin Wall (Vanessa) in 'Vanessa' (c) Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera.SMALL

Helene Schneiderman (Old Baroness) and Erin Wall (Vanessa) in ‘Vanessa’ (c) Ken Howard, Santa Fe Opera

The opera is carried well by the two female principals, Virginie Verrez as Erika and Erin Wall as Vanessa. The two singers establish their contrasting characters at the outset, with beautiful renditions first of Erika’s calm, longing aria “Must the Winter Come so Soon,” followed by Vanessa’s fiery, overwrought showpiece, “Do not utter a word, Anatol.” Wall in particular handles the extreme demands of her aria spectacularly well, from the most brilliant outbursts to the final, filmy fading of the last note.

These two singers set a very high standard, and maintain it throughout. As the baroness, who makes her greatest emotional impact by not singing, Helene Schneiderman sings expressively but is a little light of voice for such a fierce, commanding figure: only a gutsy and powerful voice will be missed when withheld.

The third side of the triangle, Anatol, is ably carried by Zach Borichevsky. His is a less interesting character than the women—the point of his role is that he is empty at the core, proposing offhandedly to Erika, then not seeming to care if she accepts. Erika is right to doubt his love, or any other deep feeling for that matter. Borichevsky illuminates Antol’s feckless character and negotiates the part’s high range nimbly, but his bright, brittle tenor sometimes sounds pinched.

19. James Morris ( The Doctor) in 'Vanessa' (c) Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera.SMALL

James Morris (The Doctor) in ‘Vanessa’ (c) Ken Howard, Santa Fe Opera

A great pleasure of the performance is seeing veteran baritone James Morris as the doctor. His rich sound and precise expression made the comic scene at the beginning of Act II one of the opera’s high points, confirming Morris’s stature as one of our great actor-singers.

Santa Fe’s orchestra proved more than capable of handling Barber’s virtuoso demands. I am tempted to add, “especially the woodwinds,” whose fleeting scurries and twittering commentary are brilliantly played, but in fact the brass have equal, if different demands. Special kudos go to the horns. The highly experienced Slatkin keeps the pacing and emotional temperature firmly under control, mapping out a performance that finds its most powerful moments at just the right time.

There is still time to hear all three, and the other operas on the summer’s bill. The Santa Fe season runs through Aug. 27, with all five works in rotation. Check the SFO’s Web page for ticket availability.

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In the summer of 2017 the Santa Fe Opera will be back to their premiering ways. Sure to attract international attention, The (Re)volution of Steve Jobs will premiere July 22 with music by Mason Bates and a libretto by Mark Campbell. Michael Christie, conductor laureate of the Colorado Music Festival, will conduct. If you are interested, you should watch for the beginning of online ticket sales in the fall since this is likely to be one of opera’s hot tickets next year.

Other works on the 2017 program will include two rarities, Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s Golden Cockerel and George Frideric Handel’s Alcina, along with two works more standard in the world’s opera houses, Gaetano Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor and Johann Strauss Jr.’s Fledermaus. More information is available on the Santa Fe Opera Website.

Nine intriguing premieres in Fairbanks

Stephen Lias’s Composing in the Wilderness Workshop at the Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival

By Peter Alexander

The Fairbanks (Alaska) Summer Arts Festival presented an intriguing concert of nine new works by nine composers last Tuesday (July 26) in Davis Concert Hall on the University of Alaska campus.


Davis Concert Hall at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, site of the Composing in the Wilderness concert at the Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival. Photo by Peter Alexander.

The concert was the culmination of Composing in the Wilderness, a workshop led with great success by composer Stephen Lias. Lias is known to Boulder audiences: The Boulder Philharmonic opened their 2014–15 season with the world premiere of his Gates of the Arctic, inspired by the National Park in northern Alaska, and Lias has been commissioned to write a new work for the orchestra to play next year at the Kennedy Center in Washington. That work, All the Songs that Nature Sings, will be premiered by conductor Michael Butterman and the Boulder Phil March 25 and then performed at the Shift Festival in Washington March 28.


Composer Stephen Lias. Photo by Peter Alexander

The nine works on the July 26 program were all written under the same conditions: after spending several days getting oriented to Alaska and the wilderness at Denali National Park and Preserve, the composers travel to a remote area in the Yukon Charley Rivers National Preserve, where they have four days to write a new work inspired by their experiences in Alaska.

The works were written for and premiered by members of Corvus, ensemble in residence at the Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival. The limited instrumentation of Corvus—Katie Cox, flute; Andie Springer, violin; Kate Sheeran, horn; and Owen Weaver, percussion—and the short working time imposed both a disciplined economy and a certain similarity of sound to all nine pieces. Nevertheless, the composers all found a way to express their own musical personalities in their necessarily short works, as well as the individual sources of inspiration they found in the wilderness settings.

Little Cosmos for flute, horn and percussion by Cassie To was the composer’s response to what she called “the amazing world of lichens” that she had discovered during the workshop. Opening with noble tones from the horn and pointillistic comments from the flute, the score features wide-ranging themes that effectively evoke both the openness of large spaces and the delicacy of tiny plants. This is a well crafted, carefully shaped piece of music.

Teklanika Twilight by David John Lang calls for the same ensemble. The composer acknowledged two sources of inspiration: the “constant sound track” provided by the Teklanika River, and the perpetual twilight of the midsummer Arctic. Steady rhythms in the melodic instruments suggested the steady flow of the river, while the percussionist added sleigh bells and other subtle sounds for the tinkling of the water over rocks. It all led to a delightful ending.

Out There for violin, flute and percussion by Dylan Labrande was inspired by the mysteries of the world “out there,” beyond the window in the composer’s cabin at Yukon Charley Rivers. The music left it to the listeners to decide what was “out there.” Was there a hint of threat in the building percussion sounds, some danger behind the implacable beauty of the scene? Whatever you hear, the score clearly implies a depth beyond what you can sense on the surface.

Over the High One for violin, flute and percussion by Alondra Vega-Zaldivar describes the rising of the sun over the highest mountain in North America. “I came to Alaska and I found magic,” the composer said in her introduction. For Vega, Denali is a pretty jazzy mountain. Her score puts the percussionist through his paces, occasionally overwhelming the comparatively softer melody instruments.


Composers in the 2016 Composing in the Wilderness workshop: Shelley Washington and Cassie To (seated); Elizabeth Start, Paul Safar, Sam Young, Alondra Vega-Zaldivar, Dylan Librande, David John Lang and Gemma Peacocke (standing, l-r). Photo by Peter Alexander.

. . And Water Connects . . . for violin, horn and percussion by Elizabeth Start begins haltingly, as if musical phrases are trying to come together, with a melody first emerging from the horn. Perhaps these are trickling streams that eventually build into a flood as the piece reaches its strong conclusion. Most unfortunately, the intended recordings of water sounds failed to play, leaving an incomplete impression of the composer’s intention. After the performance Start gamely observed that the score was intended to be effective with or without the electronics, but her piece still awaits its full premiere.

Refugium for flute, violin and percussion by Paul Safar is a playful piece that combines music with a text spoken by the players that was written by the composer. The phrase “step by step” becomes a repeated rhythm that invites in the percussion, then the flute, and last of all the violin. The score captures the idea of a journey, or stroll with different views and incidents—the mountains, a stream, flowers, a scampering ground squirrel—that form a pleasurable mosaic of at least the sunnier side of the Alaskan wilderness.

Polychrome for the full quartet of flute, horn, violin and percussion by Gemma Peacocke was inspired by a specific viewpoint within the Denali National Park, overlooking a scene of disparate colors spread across the valley and mountains. Lacking overt melody, the music moves slowly through a spectrum of instrumental sounds, like slowly shifting light across the broad Polychrome vista. This was one of the most original and engaging pieces on the program, inviting the listener to hear beyond the surface colors.

Thorofare Ridge for violin, flute and horn by Sam Young reflects the composer’s observation that during the brief but intense Arctic summer, “all living things go into overdrive.” This is a thoroughly engaging piece, with melodic bits that capture the ear supported by quirky rhythms and accompanying elements. The music has a definite outdoorsy feel that suggests not only a pleasant day in the mountains, climbing Denali National Park’s alpine Thorofare Ridge, but also the sourdough history of Alaska.


The Great Hall, University of Alaska, Fairbanks. Photo by Peter Alexander

Their Name is Yours for the full quartet by Shelley Washington made a strong conclusion for the program. Washington combined her experiences in Alaska with the idea of personal stories that form us all. “Tell us a story,” the players sing, sometimes singly and sometimes as a quartet, adding an additional musical challenge to the score. It is a very lively piece, with fiddling that suggests what kind of story this might be. At points there are slightly wild, slightly mysterious qualities to the composer’s story, suggesting something fundamental, something rooted in American soil.

Two further things need to be added to this report. One can assume that the composers did not bring their own individual cheering sections with them to Alaska, so the hoops and cheers after each piece indicate the kind of support that the Summer Arts Festival, and these new pieces created in Alaska receive in Fairbanks.

And one can not say enough about the players of Corvus. With even less time than the composers had to write them, they had to master nine completely new pieces for their premieres. They played—and sang—exceptionally through the program. How fortunate the composers, and Stephen Lias’s ongoing workshop program, are to have such support in their performers. Bravo to all!


NOTE: A longer report on the Composing in the Wilderness workshop, with interviews with the participants, will appear later this month in Boulder Weekly.

Former CMF music director Christie returns to a warm welcome

‘Up to his old tricks again,’ including a dramatic entrance from the audience

By Peter Alexander

Michael Christie.03

Michael Christie. Photo by Steve J. Sherman

Michael Christie, for 13 years music director of the Colorado Music Festival and now conductor laureate, returned to lead the Festival Orchestra last night (July 14) in a program of music by Leonard Bernstein, Charles Ives and Johannes Brahms. Appearing with him was pianist Orion Weiss, a frequent partner with Christie during his years at CMF.

In planning the program, Christie said he wanted “to come back with a presentation style that everybody would say, ‘I remember that guy! He’s up his old tricks again.’”

New tricks or old, there is no doubt that the dramatic opening of the concert caught the audience’s attention.

The program started with concert sponsor Paul Repetto introducing Christie with great warmth but more or less in absentia, since the conductor was not on the stage. But as soon as Repetto finished his remarks Christie, standing out among the audience, gave the downbeat for brass and percussion on the sides of the hall to begin Bernstein’s noisy, boisterous Shivaree, a brief, exciting program opener.

As the last note of the Bernstein faded away, the strings sitting onstage had already began Ives’s mystical Unanswered Question. The strings, playing barely audible, slow-moving chords, were led by their section leaders while a solo trumpet, posing the titular question, sounded from backstage. The woodwinds, with Christie leading them now from the side of the house, offered energetic but inconclusive non-answers that seem to not resolve anything.

At the end the trumpet is heard one last time, over slowly dying string chords, still asking, asking, asking.

This is great musical drama. I have never heard the Ives more effectively introduced: the sudden hushed chord after the last loud flourish of the Bernstein was breathtaking. May I recommend this pairing to other conductors out there?

After such a theatrical beginning, Christie needed a powerful piece to round out the first half, and he found it in the suite from Bernstein’s music for the film On the Waterfront. A gritty, jazzy precursor to the music for West Side Story, On the Waterfront is vintage Bernstein, pure big-city Americana from the 1950s.

Christie and the Festival Orchestra gave a performance bursting with the raw energy of the streets and docks of Hoboken, but also imbued with tenderness and the aching regrets of the “contender” who never was. There was one shaky moment at the beginning, and the bluesy touches seemed a little on the careful side, but otherwise the performance was exceptional.


Michael Christie and Orion Weiss. Photo by Tom Steenland.

Weiss joined Christie and the orchestra for the second half of the program, playing Brahms’s muscular Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor. Very few pieces open more stormily than this concerto, and from the opening timpani thunderclaps, the Festival Orchestra gave a vigorous performance. Mention should be made of the principal horn, who effectively negotiated exposed solos in both the Bernstein and the Brahms.

The powerful moments of the concerto’s first movement are so memorable that it is easy to forget that there are many passages of great delicacy. It is one of the delights of the Chautauqua Auditorium that music played softly has great presence throughout the hall. These portions of the concerto were especially effective; Weiss’s clean sound and control made every ripple, every filigreed decoration deliciously clear. He had an attentive partner in Christie, who allowed the soloist to shine through.

In contrast, some of the heavier passages lost transparency, as the piano was swallowed in a reverberant wash of sound. This is where recordings have spoiled our ears: it is too easy for the engineer to boost the piano, so that the soloist can dominate in even the strongest orchestral passages. In the real world, that is more difficult.

The practiced, responsive interplay between Christie and Weiss was one of the pleasures of the performance. I thought the final rondo was particularly enjoyable, as each episode had its own character, helped along by sparkling winds. The final measures built to a rousing end. The full house, happy to see two old friends back for a visit, responded with enthusiastic ovations.


NOTE: For anyone who wants to hear more of his work, Christie will be conducting at the Breckenridge Music Festival Aug. 5 and 6.

Fresh, re-imagined Baby Doe opens Central City Opera season

“A performance worthy of the company’s history”

By Peter Alexander

Central City Opera | The Ballad of Baby Doe |

Central City Opera | The Ballad of Baby Doe | Photo credit: Amanda Tipton

Central City Opera has a fresh and imaginative remake of a old friend this summer.

Their 60th-anniversary production of Douglas Moore’s The Ballad of Baby Doe—CCO’s signature piece, which the company premiered July 7, 1956—opened in the historic Central City Opera House July 9. The production, which continues in repertory through Aug. 6, features a uniformly strong cast and chorus, creative use of projections by designer David Martin Jacques, and inspired work by stage director Ken Cazan.

The orchestra, under conductor Timothy Myers, gave a nuanced and supportive performance, responding well to the many moods and styles of Americana in Moore’s effective score. The result was a performance worthy of the company’s great history with this opera.

Read more in Boulder Weekly.

Adventures in the sound spectrum from Starkland

Three new CDs from Boulders adventurous recording label

By Peter Alexander

Boulder’s Starkland recording label has issued thee CDs over the past eight months that are very, very different. Yet, all three have one thing in common: an intensive exploration of pure sound.

That exploration takes the various composers far from the familiar paths of most concert music. If your musical tastes lean more to bracing adventure than the comfort of the familiar, all three are recommended for your consideration.

Boreal CoverElliott Sharp: The Boreal. Music of Elliott Sharp: The Boreal, performed by the JACK Quartet; Oligosono, performed by Jenny Lin, piano; Proof of Erdös, performed by Orchestra Carbon, David Bloom, conductor; On Corlear’s Hook, performed by the Janáček Philharmonic Orchestra, Peter Rundel, conductor. Starkland ST-222.

The name may not be familiar in Colorado, but Elliott Sharp is well known on the experimental music scene in New York. According to his Web bio, his 85 recordings include work in “blues, jazz, noise, no-wave rock and techno music.” As an instrumentalist, he has worked with many experimental performers in New York and has had work performed by Kronos, the FLUX Quartet, Ensemble Modern, and other stars of the new-music world.

In the four works compiled on this album, Sharp’s music is atomized and the separate elements—particularly sonority and rhythm—are examined in isolation and in collisions with one another.

The first piece on the album is the title track, The Boreal. Performed by the ever adventurous JACK Quartet, the score calls for what are described as “bows made from ball chains and metal springs,” making sounds utterly unlike the warm and cushiony sounds of conventional bows on stringed instruments.

With startling control of these unconventional bows, the JACK Quartet produces vibrating, shattered and edgy sonorities. The four movements of The Boreal feature rhythmic patterns on often static pitches. Musical interest resides largely in the utterly unexpected and unique sounds being produced by the instruments.

Oligosono was composed for the Taiwanese-born American virtuoso pianist Jenny Lin, who is heard on this recording. The title, derived from Greek, means “few sounds,” and the score is again an intense exploration of a limited, specific set of sonorities. Steady, motoric, repeated-note rhythms predominate; long passages on a single pitch and its octaves suddenly break into little explosions that extend across the range of the keyboard. Lin gives a virtuoso performance, apparently undaunted by Sharp’s extensive demands

Proof of Erdös, an homage to the late mathematician Paul Erdös, is ably played by the Orchestra Carbon, directed by David Bloom. With a larger variety of instruments, Sharp wields a correspondingly greater variety of sounds. Here, one whole sound world succeeds another, suggesting distant planets, or perhaps the abstract world of mathematics.

You do not feel that these worlds are pretty places. But that is the point: the conventional laws of beauty do not apply in these distant worlds, just as the conventional laws of physics seem to be suspended in the far reaches of the universe.

On Corlear’s Hook, performed by the Janáček Philharmonic Orchestra of Ostrava, Czech Republic, and conductor Peter Rundel, is the most conventionally approachable work on the disc. It is named for a district on the lower east side of Manhattan where Sharp once lived, a place of old tenement buildings and a sordid history. But the music is not really of that mundane place, “neither programmatic nor pictorial,” Sharp writes.

Instead, Sharp takes the listener deep into his own fantastic imagination. The sounds he creates through the orchestra seem to collide in some vast, cosmic drama. The score is by turns delicate, mysterious, evocative: an aural expression of Sharp’s adventurous spirit. The score is performed with great precision and élan.

Nature of thingnessOn The Nature of Thingness. Music by Phyllis Chen and Nathan Davis, performed by the International Contemporary Ensemble. Starkland ST-223

The Music of Phyllis Chen and Nathan Davis inhabits a very different soundworld than that of Elliott Sharp. Rather than a realm of aggressive experimentation, theirs is a world just beyond the familiar, filled with bright and tinkly sounds. Prepared pianos, toy pianos, music boxes, tuning forks, jaw harps and electronic effects are combined with conventional classical instruments, including piano, clarinet, flute, bassoon and violin.

These works were created through ICElab, a commissioning program of the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) notable for the close collaboration between composers and performers. Invoking the idea of “divine play,” ICE’s co-artistic director Claire Chase refers to ICElab as the ensemble’s “in-house playground,” and indeed the spirit of play pervades the CD.

Of the CD’s 10 tracks, one of the most striking is the very first, Davis’s Ghostlight for prepared piano. There is a delightful, teasing variety of sounds from the prepared piano that keep the listener slightly off balance. These sounds are evocative of the idea of a “mischievous spirit” possessing the instrument, or, as the composer suggests, a performance when a mechanical breakdown affects the piano so that notes fail to sound correctly.

The title refers to the bare light bulb left on in otherwise dark theaters to frighten away the ghosts that every theater possesses (or more prosaically, to keep workers coming into theater at night from falling into the pit). Ghostlight was written for pianist Jacob Greenberg, who here delivers an enchanting performance.

Phyllis Chen’s Hush is dedicated to her first child, who inspired the sounds that seem to come from a slightly off-kilter nursery. As performed by the composer, the cheerful, jaunty sounds of the prepared piano, toy pianos and music boxes have only the slightest hint of a haunting spirit.

Chen’s Chimers inhabits a similar world of shimmery, twittering sounds. Inspired by the magic chimes played by Papageno in Mozart’s Magic Flute, the sore combines clarinet and violin with toy piano, toy glockenspiel and tuning forks.

Mobius for music box and electronics, credited to Chen and Robert Dietz, evokes rustling insects, delicate chiming and distant fairy bells, suggesting scenes of tiny creatures who come out at night on the forest floor. It is an utterly engaging piece, and utterly unlike anything I have heard before.

The title work, which concludes the disc, goes in a slightly different direction, into what the liner notes describe as the “hysterical fury of the ‘Dada’ movement.” Written for soprano and small ensemble, with each player also doubling on jaw harp, Davis’s On the Nature of Thingness combines a consonant-heavy Polish text best appreciated for its sound with a word-centric “Dada manifesto.”

The most haunting of the four remarkable movements is the third, titled “Vowels.” Delicate, chiming chords create an aura of harmony and reflection against which the vowel sounds, vocalized on a single pitch, seem to float, like clouds over a distant, misty landscape. Like the rest of the CD, it’s an intriguing and enchanting aural experience.

IoH coverInstruments of Happiness. Music by Tim Brady, Rainer Wiens and Antoine Berthiaume, performed by the electric guitar quartet Instruments of Happiness. Starkland ST-224.

Once in a great while, I come across music that is so unexpected, so strikingly original that I cannot quite find the words to describe it. Hearing this album was one of those occasions.

Instruments of Happiness calls itself an “electric guitar collective” and offers performances by their basic quartet—Tim Brady, Gary Schwartz, Antoine Berthiuame, Michel Héroux—as well as a 20-piece orchestra and a 100-piece ensemble. This album represents the CD debut of the quartet.

There are a handful of electric guitar quartets in the world today, several based on the east coast. This is not a scene that I am familiar with, but I was happy to be introduced to this thriving sub-genre of music.

In this recording, Instruments of Happiness (IoH) draws heavily on art-rock influences reaching back several years. I can’t identify all of those sources, but fortunately, you don’t have to know the influences to enjoy the music. Otherwise, most older music would be beyond our appreciation, since so much of it draws on sources now forgotten.

The largest portion of the recording is given over to two works—or if you prefer, two versions of the same work—by IoH member Tim Brady. Titled The Same River Twice: Symphony #5.0 and The Same River Twice: Symphony #5.Solo, they can easily be appreciated as two separate pieces, one for the quartet and one for solo guitar with much use of pedals and electronic enhancements.

But as the title suggests, the two versions sprang from a shared well of inspiration. As Brady explains in his liner notes, the solo version “takes many of the same ideas but explores them with solo guitar.” On the surface, they seem to be separate pieces: the movement structure is different, and the common ideas go in different directions. But deep listening for the shared elements returns rewards, too.

Brady says he started with the question, “What kind of music can a composer actually make with four electric guitars?” He clearly came up with lots of answers. The very first track, a movement of Symphony 5.0 titled “Riff,” starts with ponderous chords that seem to say “Pay attention now!” It quickly moves into an ear-capturing riff that grows and spreads through the ensemble, into a mesmerizing blur of sound that is part minimalist trance, part rock solo explosion, and all original.

Other movements sure to capture the attention are “Solo 2,” a whirlwind blend of bits and pieces that keep coming together in unexpected ways, and “A somewhat eccentric waltz,” which ends with an ironic voiceover challenging, “Is this the best you can do?” And who can resist the final movement of Symphony #5.0, “Count,” with the irregularities—and some regularities, too—literally counted out by the players.

Since I can’t quite describe this CD, I will just say: Find it. Buy it. Listen to it. I can promise that you will find it full of surprises. And if you don’t like it, you certainly know someone who will.


All Starkland recordings may be purchased through the label’s Webpage.

Carmen Without Context at Chautauqua

Brook’s Tragedy of Carmen flattens a great opera

By Peter Alexander

Peter Brook

Director Peter Brook, who conceived The Tragedy of Carmen

Colorado Music Festival’s performance of The Tragedy of Carmen, Peter Brook’s radical reduction of Bizet’s opera, gave me heightened respect for the work great theater composers do, fitting their music to the demands of the stage.

Unfortunately, that is because so much of the slimmed down work fails to match music and drama as effectively as Bizet did in his original.

To be clear, that was not the fault of the performers. Under the direction of CMF music director Jean-Marie Zeitouni, and with a strong cast of singers, last night’s performance at the Chautauqua Auditorium (July 10) was delivered with emotional force and musical skill. But their commitment was not enough to overcome the limitations of the work.


Composer Georges Bizet

Zeitouni has described The Tragedy of Carmen as “the pure essence of Carmen, . . . not the regular 40% scotch but more like 97% alcohol, distilling the essence of the passion of the opera.” But for me, the CMF program notes hit closer, saying this version “is best labeled as Carmen Light. Like Bud Light (it) is less filling. But whether the new product tastes great depends on each listener’s palate.”

Fair enough. And my palate, honed by great operas including Bizet’s Carmen (and Colorado’s great craft beers), found the low-calorie version, just like light beers, lacking in taste.

There are several specific shortcomings that I found in the work itself. First, removing so much of the original takes away much of the context in which the drama is played. This has the effect of flattening the characters and their emotions.


Abigail Fischer, who portrayed the title character in CMF’s Tragedy of Carmen

A pertinent example is the scene in Lilas Pastia’s tavern. In the original, the gypsy dances that open the scene establish the kind of place it is, and provide the atmosphere for the following scene between Carmen and Don Jose. Reducing those dances to a brief flourish by Carmen not only removes the context, the setting and the atmosphere, it forces the story to lurch without respite from emotional punch to emotional punch.

A second problem is the repurposing of music that was written for a specific dramatic or stage context to another, as when the music written for a riot among the cigar girls is used for a fight between Carmen and Micaëla. Such repurposing of music discounts the skill with which the composer tailors his music for the stage. If we have a fight between two characters, it would be better to hear the music Bizet would have written for that more intimate scene, rather than what he wrote for a stage full of people.

de Slayden

Tenor Jason Slayden (not in Carmen)

The extreme condensation results in scenes not having time to breathe and build. In Bizet’s opening scene, there is a long buildup of tension from the moment Carmen throws a flower at Don Jose, to her arrest and her escape. Brook reduces this to a much shorter span of time, dissolving most of the suspense that Bizet so carefully builds in his score.

Brook has made some capricious changes in the plot. For one, there is a mysterious man from Carmen’s past who suddenly interrupts a love scene between Carmen and Don Jose, shouting “She belongs to me.” Only moments later he is killed by Don Jose, offstage. I still don’t know what dramatic purpose he serves. If it were not for the dark music, this would be almost comical.

The most shocking change comes near the end, when a funeral march—not from Carmen—interrupts the dramatic final scene between Carmen and Don Jose, while a projected title tells us that Escamillo has died in the bull ring. This change eviscerates the ending of the story and denies the audience a great musical-dramatic stroke, when the cheers from the bull ring punctuate Jose’s passionate appeals and murder of Carmen.


Soprano Janine De Bique

Brook’s version does remove some absurdities of plot that we have tolerated because of the dramatic truth of the opera. For example, we do not have the mountainous, secret smuggler’s lair that everyone in Seville can easily find. But we loose some of Bizet’s best music in the process, and we do not get any compensating dramatic truth, either.

While the work seems questionably conceived, the performers addressed their parts with intensity and commitment. Zeitouni led a decisive performance by the CMF Chamber Orchestra. The singers do not have named roles, only voice types, of which Abigail Fischer was a strong mezzo soprano, essentially the Carmen of the show. The abbreviated performance did not give her the chance to build a fiery, luminous character, but she dominated her scenes, as she should.


Baritone Aleksey Bogdanov

Jeanine De Bique’s soprano/Micaëla sang warmly, darkly, strongly in a role that is not made more rewarding by Brook’s changes. Baritone Aleksey Bogdanov had the unenviable task of playing two different characters who die before the end, Zuniga and Escamillo. I thought he was especially effective in one of opera’s great star turns, his entrance as the toreador. Tenor Jason Slayden was vocally passionate, if a little stiff dramatically in his scenes as Don Jose.

Chautauqua Auditorium may not be a great venue for theater. Many of the spoken lines were scarcely audible, particularly when the orchestra was playing. The limited performance space left the actors to move almost randomly, with no setting to indicate destination or motivation, and I found their movements around and behind the conductor to be distracting.

I suspect this show is best for people who do not know the original Carmen well and want a distilled taste of the story. Clearly, many in the audience enjoyed it. I cannot begrudge them any pleasure taken from the music and the performance, but you will more likely find me at a future production of Bizet’s full opera—or enjoying a strong local brew.


EDITORIAL NOTE (7/11/16): The CMF program notes for The Tragedy of Carmen do not credit an author. However, it has come to my attention that the portion that I quoted above—Brook’s version “is best labeled as Carmen Light. Like Bud Light (it) is less filling. But whether the new product tastes great depends on each listener’s palate.”—appeared in an Oct. 13, 2013 review by David Abrams of a performance of The Tragedy of Carmen at Syracuse Opera, published online at Opera Today.