Ars Nova Singers, guitarist Spera will present ‘postcards to the future’

Concerts June 3–5 feature new work by Theofanidis and Pizzetti’s 1922 Requiem

By Peter Alexander May 23 at 9:12 p.m.

Nicolò Spera

Guitarist and CU music professor Nicolò Spera was shocked by things going on the U.S. after the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. He wanted to respond in the best way he knew—with music.

The musical work that came from that desire, Door Out of the Fire by Pulitzer Prize-winning American composer Christopher Theofanidis, will be the centerpiece of a concert by Boulder’s Ars Nova Singers, under the direction of Thomas Edward Morgan. The Ars Nova performance will be the Colorado premiere, following a performance by Spera in Michigan in October, 2021.

Also on the program is the Requiem of Italian composer Ildebrando Pizzetti. Performances will be June 3, 4 and 5, in Denver, Boulder and Longmont, respectively (see details below). In addition to the live performances, the concert will also be available by livestream. Information and tickets for the concerts, which close out Ars Nova’s 2021–22 season, are available here.

Christopher Theofanidis

After Ginsburg’s death, “I wanted a composer to write some ‘postcards to the future,’ in music,” Spera wrote in a recent email. He turned to Theofanidis, who had recently written an orchestral work, On the Bridge of the Eternal, for the 2020 centennial of the CU Boulder College of Music.

Writing for and with Spera, Theofanidis composed four choral “messages in a bottle” based on poems by Melissa Studdard. Each of the four choral settings is preceded by a prelude for guitar.

The texts reflect some of the major issues of our time, including the threat posed by climate change. They are titled “Burning Cathedral,” “The Book of Rahul,” “Ruth’s Aria”—to be sung by CU music faculty member Abigail Nims, mezzo soprano—and “Migration Patterns.” The work is dedicated to “le nostre speranze”—our hopes—Spera’s children, Julia and Giacomo.

Pizzetti’s Requiem will be presented in observance of the 100th anniversary of its composition. The Requiem, Pizzetti’s only liturgical music, is written for a-capella choir. The musical setting includes Gregorian chant as well as movements that recall Renaissance madrigals. The texture varies from single-line chant to eight voices to multiple choirs in the manner of 17th-century Venetian polychoral music.

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Thomas Edward Morgan and Ars Nova Singers

Made Real
Ars Nova Singers, Thomas Edward Morgan, director
With Nicolò Spera, guitar, and Abigail Nims, mezzo-soprano

  • Christopher Theofanidis: Door Out of the Fire
  • Ildebrando Pizzetti: Requiem

7:30 p.m. Friday, June 3
St. Paul Community of Faith, Denver

7:30 p.m. Saturday, June 4
First United Methodist Church, Boulder

7 p.m. Sunday, June 5
Stewart Auditorium, Longmont Museum

Information and tickets, including livestream

MahlerFest includes works by Bartók, Casella, guest composer Christopher Gunning

Thirty-fifth festival returns to near-normal with five days of activities

By Peter Alexander May 16 at 10:20 p.m.

It has only been nine months since the COVID-postponed 34th Colorado MahlerFest, but the festival is returning in its usual May slot and with a full schedule this week.

Performances in the 35th festival include the usual Sunday afternoon Stan Ruttenberg Memorial Concert (May 22) in Macky Auditorium featuring a Mahler Symphony—this year the Third— as well as a symposium Saturday. Other events include music for piano (Tuesday), a film screening (Wednesday), chamber music (Thursday), a free concert of film music at the Boulder Bandshell (Friday) and an opera performance (Saturday; see full schedule below). There are also open rehearsals and social events during the week.

Kenneth Woods with the Colorado MahlerFest Orchestra. Phot by Keith Bobo.

Full details and tickets are available on the MahlerFest Web page.

“We’re really excited to do a quote ‘normal’ festival,” MahlerFest’s artistic director Kenneth Woods says. “It will be the biggest festival we’ve done so far.”

The signature event of the festival is the annual performance of a Mahler symphony. That is how the festival was started, and it remains the culmination of the week’s activities. The Third Symphony “is the biggest of the big pieces, the most Mahler-ish of the Mahler symphonies,” Woods says. It will be presented in the first U.S. performance of a new critical edition from the publisher Breitkopf & Härtel.

The Third is indeed a sprawling work in six movements divided into two parts: An opening march, titled “Pan Awakes; Summer Marches In” that lasts 30 minutes or more; and a series of five movements in differing styles and for differing forces, titled respectively “What the flowers in the meadow tell me,” “What the animals in the forest tell me,” “What man tells me,” “What the angels tell me” and “What love tells me.”

In Woods’s words, the opening movement is “a creation myth. It’s incredibly epic.” That exuberant, bold march is followed by a series of more intimate reflections that grew out of Mahler’s reverence for nature. The flowers inspire a graceful minuet, the animals an energetic scherzo that includes a nostalgic offstage posthorn solo.

Kenneth Woods. Photo by Chris Stock.

“What man tells me” is an ominous alto solo using a text from Nietzsche, “O Man! Take heed!” The angels are represented with a folk-like tune accompanied by a children’s chorus imitating bells, and in the final movement the full orchestra without singers brings love’s message in the form of a broad, lyrical slow movement. 

“Modern-day fascination with this piece for me is trying to understand what Mahler means when he says, ‘What the flowers tell me’,” Woods says. “It’s quite remarkable that he’s taking these almost naive ideas and writing huge movement after huge movement of intricate, sophisticated music.

“I see the piece almost as a call to action. It ought to inspire us to listen as Mahler listened, (and) to listen to Mahler’s music as he listened to the flowers. It’s so timely—what was once gentle warnings are now urgent cries of alarm. When you think about Mahler’s evocation of the flora and fauna, and what no longer exists, there is an element of a prophetic warning in the Third Symphony, but a whole lot of hope.”

Since taking over as director of the festival in 2015, Woods has expanded the scope of the festival to include music by composers related to Mahler in one way or another. In addition to the Third Symphony of Mahler, the Sunday concert will feature the world premiere of the 10th symphony of British composer Christopher Gunning.

Christopher Gunning

A prominent composer of film scores who has turned more to the writing of symphonies, Gunning is related to Mahler through the world of film music. Woods points out that the earliest film composers—Franz Waxman, Max Steiner and Erich Wolfgang Korngold—were all Austrian- or German-born musicians who brought the style of Mahler and his contemporaries to Hollywood.

And now, he says, Gunning is returning the film-music style to the symphony, “a kind of musical arc of the last 100 years coming full circle. Gunning is taking where film music got to and going back into that large-scale exploration of sonata form (of the symphony) using the language that it evolved through to him.”

The presence of Mahler’s style in film music will be explored in more depth in the free Friday evening concert at the Boulder Bandshell, in a program titled “Mahler and the Movies.” 

Another work with a distant relationship to Mahler is the opera Bluebeard’s Castle by Bartók, which will be presented in a chamber version Friday. Half a generation younger than Mahler, Bartók wrote the opera in 1911, the year of Mahler’s death, and saw its first performance in 1918.

“It is the most amazing of operas,” Woods says. “I would not try to convince anyone that Bartók and Mahler are in any way the same, but they’re breathing the same air, and feeding from the same streams. What fascinates me is stylistically how far they diverge, but the role of vernacular music in both composers is provocative for its time, and that’s something that does link them in an interesting way.”

Soprano April Fredrick

The chamber version of Bluebeard’s Castle will be presented in a concert performance, featuring soprano April Fredrick as Judith and bass Gustav Andreassen as Bluebeard. Fredrick will speak about the opera at Saturday’s symposium in a talk titled “Self-will and missed connections in Bluebeard’s Castle.”

The rest of the symposium program, and the programs of the other concerts are listed in full below. There is a great deal of music not by Mahler—pieces by Bruckner, Casella, George Crumb, Beethoven, John Williams and others—but for Woods the focus remains firmly on Mahler’s symphonies, regardless of the program content.

“This will be the first year that you can hear some of every single Mahler symphony in the festival, if you come to every event,” he says. “In fact, I can guarantee listeners that they’ll hear some of every Mahler symphony on Friday night (“Mahler and the Movies”)—just not in the way they are used to hearing it.”

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Colorado MahlerFest XXXV
“What Mahler Tells Me”

Mahler at the Piano
David Korevaar and Jeremy Reger, piano

  • Bruckner: Symphony No. 3, movements II and IV (arranged by Mahler)
  • Mahler: Symphony No. 3, “Menuetto aus der III. Symphonie” (arranged by Ignaz Friedman)
  • Mahler: Symphony No. 4, movement IV ”Das himmlische Leben” (arranged for piano by Mahler; played by Mahler via piano roll)
  • Mahler: Symphony No. 5, movement I “Trauermarsch” (arranged by Stadl)
  • Mahler: Symphony No. 6, movements II and III (arranged by Alexander Zemlinsky)
  • Mahler: Symphony No. 7, movement V (arranged by Alfredo Casella)

7:30 p.m. Tuesday, May 17
Grusin Hall, CU Imig Music Building

Movie: Under Suspicion
Film Screening of Under Suspicion, starring Liam Neeson and Laura San Giacomo
Film score by MahlerFest guest composer Christopher Gunning

3 p.m. Wednesday, May 18
Boedecker Theater, Dairy Arts Center

Quartets and More
Zachary De Pue, Karen Bentley Pollick and Suzanne Casey, violin; Lauren Spaulding, viola; Kenneth Woods and Parry Karp, cello; and Jennifer Hayghe, piano

  • Christopher Gunning: Piano Trio
  • Alfredo Casella: Cello Sonata No. 1
  • George Crumb: Sonata for solo cello
  • Beethoven: String Quartet No. 16 in F major, op. 13
    III. Lento assai, cantabile e tranquilla
  • Bartók: String Quartet No. 1

4 p.m. Thursday, May 19
Mountain View United Methodist Church

Mahler and the Movies
Colorado MahlerFest Chamber Orchestra, Kenneth Woods, conductorMax Steiner: Music from King Kong (arr. Steven Stanke)

  • Christopher Gunning: The Belgian Detective: Theme from Angela Christie’s Poirot (arr. Kenneth Woods)
  • Franz Waxman: Suite from Sunset Boulevard (arr. Matthew Lynch)
  • Mahler: Adagietto from Symphony No. 5 (arr. Kenneth Woods)
  • Korngold: Suite from Captain Blood (arr. Luciano Williamson)
  • John Williams: Theme from Schindler’s List
  • Gunning: Music from Under Suspicion (arr. Kenneth Woods)
  • George Morton: Mahler, A Final Frontier, Fantasy on themes of Mahler and Courage

6 p.m. Friday, May 20
Boulder Bandshell, 1212 Canyon Blvd.; Free

NOTE: An alternate venue in case of inclement weather will be the Mountain View United Methodist Church.

Symposium
MahlerFest XXXV Symposium

  • Leah Batstone: “Mahler’s Nietzsche: Philosophical Resonances in the Early Symphonies”
  • April Fredrick: “’Now all is darkness’: Self-Will and missed connections in Bluebeard’s Castle
  • Peter Franklin: “Mirroring the world? What a sentimental trombone, a distant posthorn and The Bird of the Night tell us about a symphony”
  • Kenneth Woods: “Interpreting Mahler’s Third Symphony”
  • Nick Pfefferkorn: “Mahler Third Symphony: Insights on the first critical edition from the editor’s desk”

9 a.m.–4 p.m. Saturday, May 21
Mountain View United Methodist Church; Free

Bluebeard’s Castle
Colorado MahlerFest Chamber Orchestra, Kenneth Woods, conductor
April Fredrick, soprano, and Gustav Andreassen, bass

  • Bartók: Bluebeard’s Castle
    Arranged for chamber orchestra by Christopher van Tuinen and Michael Karcher-Young

7:30 p.m. Saturday, May 21
Mountain View Methodist Church

Mahler’s Third Symphony 
Colorado MahlerFest Orchestra, Kenneth Woods, conductor
With Stacey Rishoi, mezzo-soprano, Women of the Boulder Concert Chorale and Boulder Children’s Chorale Festival Choir

  • Christopher Gunning: Symphony No. 10 (World premiere)
  • Mahler: Symphony no. 3

3:30 p.m. Sunday, May 22
Macky Auditorium

More information and tickets for all MahlerFest performances are available HERE.

CORRECTIONS (May 17 at 12 noon): April Fredrick’s family name was corrected; it is not Frederick. Violist Mario Rivera has replaced Lauren Spaulding on the “Quartets and More” program May 19. Due to technical constraints in the venue, there will be no lighting effects in the performance of Bluebeard’s Castle as was originally stated.

Violist Richard O’Neill gives stunning performance with Boulder Phil

All-English program features Walton Viola Concerto, works by Elgar and Anna Clyne

By Peter Alexander May 15 at 12:10 a.m.

The Boulder Philharmonic finished the 2021–22 classical concert series with sound and fury last night (May 14).

Conductor Michael Butterman and the Boulder Philharmonic in Macky Auditorium. Photo by Glenn Ross.

No, that is not a criticism. The first piece listed on the program was Anna Clyne’s Sound and Fury, inspired in part by Macbeth’s soliloquy featuring that phrase. In practice, though, Clyne was preceded by an “off-menu special,” in the words of conductor Michael Butterman: Elgar’s familiar “Pomp and Circumstance” March No. 1, in honor of the region’s recent graduates.

The performance was led by an honorary guest conductor, Boulder’s outstanding arts patron Gordon Gamm. Looking dapper in a fedora, Gamm did a creditable job of getting things started and holding the orchestra together. Indeed, the only audible error—one out-of-place note—cannot be laid to the conductor. 

Butterman preceded Clyne’s Sound and Fury with a helpful music-appreciation style introduction, with an explanation of it’s connection to “The Scottish Play” and illustrations from a Haydn symphony quoted in the score. The performance was strongly profiled, with contrasting sections nicely characterized and distinguished, lacking only the precision necessary for clarity in the skittering string parts and the full depth of sound that a larger orchestra could provide. 

The recorded voice speaking the “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow” soliloquy near the end was not always intelligible, but it did show how those words fit into the scheme of the piece. This is a new piece (2019) that is definitely comprehensible and enjoyable for the classical audience, and I would welcome hearing it again.

Violist Richard O’Neill

A friend told me about this concert, “The Walton Concerto won’t sell any tickets.” If that’s right, I’m sorry for anyone who was not sold a ticket because they don’t know Walton’s music. They missed a fun piece, and a stunning performance by violist Richard O’Neill, the newest member of the Takács Quartet. Where is their sense of fun, of adventure, interest in new things? This is not difficult music.

Composed in 1929, the Viola Concerto shows the composer’s quirky style to good advantage. At times lush, at times shifting, surging and dying away, its kaleidoscopic episodes and unexpected turns provide an ideal palette for an instrumental soloist of O’Neill’s qualities.

His performance was glittery (and no, I don’t mean his shoes) and perfectly assured. Visibly reacting to every twist and turn of the orchestra part, he showed in both gesture and musical interpretation his connection with the players. Utterly at ease playing all the virtuoso material the concerto throws at the soloist, O’Neil gave a solo performance of the highest caliber. 

Here the issues were of balance, both within the orchestra and (from where I was sitting) with the soloist. The boisterous second movement was my favorite, but the more gentle moments were equally well played. Two profound tributes to O’Neil: he held the audience in silence for at least 20 second at the end of the concerto, and it was the orchestra, stamping their feet, that brought him back for his final curtain call. 

Again channeling his inner Leonard Bernstein, Butterman gave an insightful introduction to Elgar’s “Enigma” Variations, showing how the variations brought their subjects—the composer’s friends—to life. This to me is a better preparation for the audience than program notes about “the return of the subsidiary theme” or “remote tonalities.”

Elgar’s “Enigma,” one of the greatest sets of orchestral variations of the Romantic or any period, received the best orchestral performance of the evening—maybe because it is a piece well known to all orchestral pros. Rehearsal time then can be devoted to details of interpretation, of unity, of sound. Butterman found the telling elements in each variation and brought out their individual characters. 

As one hopes and expects, the familiar “Nimrod” variation swelled calmly from shimmering pianissimo strings to a rich, full orchestral climax before falling back. Other variations had the sparkle, or the weight, to communicate character and meaning. This is a fun piece for brass, who enjoyed their moments of grandeur, and for the timpanist, who brought both visual and aural flash to the performance. 

Finally, this program had many of the ingredients of a successful concert: some exploration, a dazzling soloist, a great piece of music. I happily note the inclusion of a living female composer in the stew. It’s a recipe musical organizations should follow.

Grammy-winning violist to play with Boulder Phil

Richard O’Neill of the Takacs Quartet will play Walton Concerto Saturday

By Peter Alexander May 12 at 1:20 p.m.

Richard O’Neill

It was in the middle of the pandemic and a massive blizzard when Richard O’Neill won a Grammy award. 

The Grammy awarded in 2021 was for his recording of the Viola Concerto by American composer Christopher Theofanidis—during the same year that he joined the Takács Quartet, moved to Boulder and joined the CU faculty. “This has been a long haul,” he said at the time. 

Hopefully, things are closer to whatever can be called normal for a performing musician/recording artist, as O’Neill takes the stage Saturday (May 14) to perform William Walton’s Viola Concerto with the Boulder Philharmonic and conductor Michael Butterman (concert details below; tickets here).

A demanding and dramatic work. Walton’s concerto was composed in 1929, when the composer was 27 years old, and premiered that year by the composer/violist Paul Hindemith. Since then it has become one of the landmarks of the viola repertoire.

Composer Anna Clyne has drawn on a variety of sources for inspiration in her compositions, from the paintings of Mark Rothko to music by Beethoven. Her Sound and Fury was inspired by Shakespeare’s soliloquy for Macbeth and by Haydn’s unusual and quirky six-movement Symphony No. 60, Il distratto (The distracted one), which began as incidental music for a comic play.

Anna Clyne. Photo by Jennifer Taylor.

In a program note, Clyne wrote: “My intention with Sound and Fury is to take the listener on a journey that is both invigorating—with ferocious string gestures that are flung around the orchestra—and reflective—with haunting melodies that emerge and recede.”

Sir Edward Elgar’s Variations on an Original Theme, known as the “Enigma Variations” from the word Elgar wrote at the top of the score, remains one of the most popular works in the orchestral repertoire, more than 120 years after its premiere. Each of the 14 variations has an inscription that refers to one of Elgar’s friends. 

Those subjects of the individual variations have been identified. The larger enigma, however, is what Elgar wrote in his program note: “The Enigma I will not explain. Its ‘dark saying’ must be left unguessed. . . . Over the whole set another and larger theme ‘goes,’ but is not played.”

Whether that “larger theme” is a musical or a philosophical one is one of the many mysteries that surround the piece. Guesses as to the musical theme have ranged from “Rule Britannia” to “Pop Goes the Weasel” to Luther’s “A Might Fortress is Our God,” to Liszt’s Les Preludes, none of which have convinced a majority of musical scholars.

And so that enigma remains unsolved. Feel free to go to the concert and devise your own solution.

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Boulder Philharmonic Orchestra, Michael Butterman, conductor
With Richard O’Neill, viola

  • Anna Clyne: Sound and Fury
  • William Walton: Viola Concerto
  • Elgar: Enigma Variations

7:30 p.m. Saturday, May 14
Macky Auditorium

TICKETS

Conductor Cynthia Katsarelis and Pro Musica choose ‘Joy’

Music of Tchaikovsky, Bach and Dvořák for Sunday’s concert

By Peter Alexander April 29 at 1:10 p.m.

Conductor Cynthia Katsarelis found inspiration for her next concert in poetry.

In the midst of dire events in Boulder and around the world—the pandemic, the Marshall Fire, and the war in Ukraine—“I was thinking, how are we going to find joy?” she asks. “There’s a wonderful quote by an African-American poet, Toi Derricotte, ‘Joy is an act of resistance.’ It’s really been a source of inspiration.”

The renovated sanctuary of Mountain View Methodist Church

With that in mind, she decided to put together a concert program for the Pro Musica Chamber Orchestra titled “Joy” that would offer joy through music. The concert will be at 3 p.m. Sunday (May 1) in the newly remodeled Mountain View Methodist Church (see details below). 

The program comprises three pieces: Andante cantabile by Tchaikovsky, the Orchestral Suite in B minor by J.S. Bach, and the Serenade for Winds by Dvořák.

Katsarelis found another source of inspiration in the history of her own family, which has ancestral ties to Greece. “I thought a lot about my family in World War I and in World War II,” she says. “They found joy in their lives in the middle of all this, so I was thinking, how are we going to find joy?

Cynthia Katsarelis

“You can find joy going to a concert and hearing great music, connecting to your own humanity but also connecting to the humanity around you—people in the audience, the musicians (and) the artists. So it was really out of the depths that I decided to put on a concert called ‘Joy.’”

Tchaikovsky’s Andante cantabile is a string orchestra version of the slow movements from the composer’s First String Quartet. “It’s just this really beautiful work,” Katsarelis says. “It opens the concert with a lovely wash of the soul and a little tug at the heartstrings.”

It’s inclusion on this program is also a subtle political statement about the war in Ukraine. Katsarelis explains: “You have to remember that Tchaikovsky was a gay man who had to hide it, and was oppressed because of it. Putin has been brutal on the LGBTQ+ community, and when the Russians invaded Ukraine they had a list of people to target (including) LGBTQ+ activists. Tchaikovsky suffered in the society that he was in, and that element’s still there.”

Michelle Stanley

The Orchestral Suite in B minor for flute and strings is one of Bach’s best known works. The featured performer will be Michelle Stanley, Pro Musica’s flutist and a flute professor at Colorado State University.

Katsarelis says that Pro Musica’s approach to Bach’s work would be “historically informed on modern instruments,” meaning that all of the orchestral players will have modern instruments, with their large dynamic range and fuller sound, but they will also make use of Baroque-era conventions in the treatment of rhythms and other details of articulation and interpretation.

“There are some conventions that we follow that are part of the Baroque dance,” Katsarelis says. “There’s a lot about Baroque music that’s suggestions, but you don’t play exactly what’s on the page. We add dynamics, we add articulations, we do the rhythms and in a way that represents the movements (of the different dances).”

The final piece of the “Joy” program is Dvořák’s Serenade for Winds, a piece that Katsarelis has programmed before. She turned to music for winds because she had been able to present music for strings over the past two years, since they can play while wearing masks, but “the winds were out of work for a year and a half during the pandemic,” she says. “And so I thought it was time to do the Dvořák again.”

Dvořák wrote the Serenade in 1878 when he was 37, and included it in an application for an Austrian state award for musicians, which he won. “Brahms was on the jury of that competition and specifically mentioned that he enjoyed that piece,” Katsarelis points out. “It’s a beautiful gem of a piece.

“It’s just lovely to listen to and really nice in character and sophisticated in a way where you don’t have to work at it. It’s very satisfying emotionally and it’s almost like therapy to play and listen to this beautiful piece. And to give the wind players an opportunity to really shine for 25 minutes in a major work is really special for us.”

In fact, Katsarelis hopes that the entire program becomes “almost like therapy” for the audience. “In the depths of everything going on in the world, reaching for joy and happiness felt like the medicine we all need,” she says.

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“Joy!”
Pro Musica Chamber Orchestra
Cynthia Katsarelis, conductor, with Michelle Stanley, flute

  • Tchaikovsky: Andante cantabile, op. 11
  • J.S. Bach: Orchestral Suite No. 2 in B minor
  • Antonín Dvořák: Serenade for Winds in D minor, op. 44

3 p.m. Sunday, May 1
Mountain View Methodist Church, Boulder

TICKETS

CORRECTION 4/29: The spelling of poet Toi Derricotte’s name was corrected. It is Derricotte, not Deracotte.

Frequent Flyers join Boulder Phil for ‘Butterfly Lovers’

Concert April 30 includes music celebrating rebirth and reconnection

By Peter Alexander April 27 at 5 p.m.

Two years ago, conductor Michael Butterman had drafted a program to celebrate the return of spring with the Boulder Philharmonic Orchestra.

That program, originally planned for April 2020, had to be postponed, due to COVID. But now the long-planned concert celebrating renewal and rebirth has itself been resurrected for performance at 7:30 p.m. Saturday (April 30) in Macky Auditorium (tickets here).

A previous performance by Frequent Flyers Aerial Dance with the Boulder Philharmonic

“This was a program that was originally intended to reflect the notion of rebirth that happens in springtime,” Butterman says. “It still reflects that, but it has an additional layer of meaning for us—our own emergence from our pandemic isolation.”

The starting point for the program was The Butterfly Lovers Violin Concerto by Chinese composers He Zhanhao and Chen Gang, which the Philharmonic will perform with violin soloist Claude Sim and Boulder’s Frequent Flyers Aerial Dance Company. Before that performance the concert will open with Undistant by Mason Bates, which addresses our return to human interaction after the recent period of widespread self isolation.

Original costume design for Stravinsky’s Firebird by Léon Bakst (1913)

Filling out the program will be first Rimsky-Korsakov’s Russian Easter Overture, which has obvious seasonal significance. The final piece will be Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite, which Butterman selected because it ends with the rebirth of knights and 13 princesses who have been under a magic spell—another connection to the idea of renewal.

The Butterfly Lovers Violin Concerto was written by two Chinese students of Western music at the Shanghai Conservatory and premiered in 1959. Written for a Western orchestra, it is based on a Chinese legend of lovers who are separated by death, but reunited as butterflies. “It works very well for Western audiences,” Butterman says. “It’s extremely relatable on first hearing.”

Butterman and the Phil have done a number of performances with Frequent Flyers. He thought that The Butterfly Lovers would be a good piece for further collaboration and suggested it to Nancy Smith, Frequent Flyers’ artistic director. “It strikes me that it has a narrative arc, and certainly has potential as a work for visual interpretation,” he says.

“(Smith) agreed and they really embraced the thing. They constructed this large wing-like structure that will be hung above the stage. It acts as one fixed structure for most of the piece, but it also has hinges and it can bend like butterfly wings. It will be quite something to see!”

Violinist Claude Sim

The soloist, Claude Sim, is associate concertmaster of the Colorado Symphony. The Phil’s concertmaster, Charles Wetherbee, was first scheduled to perform the concerto, but when he became unavailable Sim stepped in to serve as soloist and as concertmaster for the concert.

The one piece that was not in the original program Butterman conceived two years ago is Bates’s Undistant. That is the piece on the program that best connects with the idea of people re-emerging from isolation as the pandemic abates—at least a little. “Undistant is a piece that (Bates) wrote in 2020, and it is a work that mirrors in some ways our separation,” Butterman says.

Michael Butterman. Photo by Jiah Kyun.

“There are two groups of musicians that are placed away from the rest of the orchestra. (Bates) has written an electronica part that incorporates static, sounds of Zoom and other communication platforms that we came to use a great deal during the pandemic. Over about seven minutes he brings these different elements back together, and there are little wisps of Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy,’ just enough that it’s recognizable. That begins to coalesce until we have an affirming and positive ending.”

Apart from the theme of rebirth and renewal, there is one thing that joins all four pieces musically, and that is their uplifting endings. It’s there in all four pieces. In Bates’s Undistant, it is the transformation from separation and static to hints of the “Ode to Joy.” In the Butterfly Lovers, it’s the overcoming of first separation and then death through the transformation of the lovers into butterflies, gently portrayed in music.

In the second half, the Russian Easter Overture opens with the solemn tones of two Russian Orthodox hymns, “Let God Arise!” and “An Angel Cried.” Rimsky-Korsakov wrote in an autobiography that “the gloomy colors of the Andante lugubre seemed to depict the holy sepulcher . . . [and] the solemn trumpet voice of the Archangel is then displaced by a tonal reproduction of the joyous, dance-like tolling of the bells.”

The progress of Stravinsky’s Firebird is no less joyous, with “The Infernal Dance of Katschei” being followed by the “Berceuse”—a tender lullaby that lulls Katschei’s demonic minions to sleep—and the “Finale” that portrays in music the return of Katschei’s prisoners to life.

You might say these are four variations on the theme of life returning after a long winter—or a pandemic.

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“The Firebird and Frequent Flyers”
Boulder Philharmonic Orchestra, Michael Butterman, conductor
With Claude Sim, violin, and Frequent Flyers Aerial Dance

  • Mason Bates: Undistant
  • He Zhanhao and Chen Gang: The Butterfly Lovers Violin Concerto
  • Rimsky-Korsakov: Russian Easter Overture
  • Stravinsky: Firebird Suite (1919)

7:30 p.m. Saturday, April 30
Macky Auditorium

TICKETS

Boulder Phil announces its 65th anniversary season

Masterworks concerts for 2022-23 will all be in Macky Auditorium

By Peter Alexander April 27 at 12:15 a.m.

The Boulder Philharmonic announced programming for its 2022–23, 65th anniversary season Tuesday evening (April 26). All subscription concerts for the coming year will be once again in Macky Auditorium

Pianist Angela Cheng returns to Boulder to perform with the Phil April 22, 2023

The season introduced by music director Michael Butterman includes some warhorses— Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini and Richard Strauss’ Don Juan—some less familiar standard works—Bruckner’s Symphony No. 7 and Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G—and a healthy dose of new and unfamiliar works (see full programs below). Particularly noteworthy will be two world and one Colorado premiere of commissioned works.

Some features of the season will be familiar to current and past Boulder Phil patrons. One will be the return to Macky. The annual Nutcracker performances with Boulder Ballet are scheduled for Nov. 25 and 27. There will be a seasonal special event, “Holiday Brass with the Phil,” Dec. 18. The Phil’s Executive Director, Sara Parkinson, announced the resumption of the educational Discovery Concerts for school students.

Long-time concertgoers will welcome the return of former CU faculty member and audience favorite Angela Cheng April 22, who has not appeared in Boulder since 2009. Other soloists during the season will include tenor Matthew Plenk, on the opening night concert Oct. 8; double bassist Xavier Foley and violinist Eunice Kim Nov. 12; and violinist Stefan Jakiw March 25. 

Concertmaster Charles Wetherbee will solo with the Phil Jan. 22, 2023

Boulder Phil concertmaster Charles Wetherbee has been on medical leave, but is expected back next season and will play Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 5 with the orchestra Jan. 22.

One prominent change for the season is that the Saturday evening concert time has been moved to 7 p.m. from 7:30 p.m., in response to feedback from ticket buyers. That change affects all the masterworks concerts except “Afternoon with Bruckner,” at 4 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 22. In conjunction with the change of curtain time, the Phil will try different forms of related programming for its concerts, including pre-concert lectures, intermission features and post-concert talk-back sessions.

One special event in the season will bring the popular Denver-based multi-instrumental band DeVotchKa to Macky Auditorium to perform with the Phil. That performance will take place at the “old” time of 7:30 p.m. Saturday, May 6, 2023. Further details of that concert are pending.

The opening night concert Oct. 8, titled “Hymn to the Earth,” includes the first of the season’s premieres, a Boulder Phil co-commission that was postponed from a planned earlier season due to COVID: Ozymandias: To Sell a Planet. This musical alarum for threats to the planet was composed by the American composer Drew Hemmenger and uses Percy Shelley’s poem “Ozymandias,” as well as texts from native American sources, United Nations climate reports and speeches by Greta Thunberg. 

The Colorado premiere of another co-commission, Jennifer Higdon’s Suite from Cold Mountain, follows on Nov. 12, and another world premiere of a new work by Boulder High School graduate Leigha Amick will be presented April 22, 2023.

Season tickets will go on sale Monday, May 2, and tickets to individual concerts will be available Monday, Aug. 22. Purchases can be made by calling the box office at 303-449-1343, or through the Boulder Phil web page.

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Boulder Philharmonic Orchestra
Michael Butterman, music director
2022-23 Season
All performances in Macky Auditorium except as otherwise noted

Conductor Michael Butterman with the Boulder Phil in Macky Auditorium

Opening Night: Hymn to the Earth
Boulder Philharmonic, Michael Butterman, conductor
With Boulder Phil Chorus and Matthew Plenk, tenor

  • Michael Abels: Global Warming
  • Drew Hemenger: Ozymandias: To Sell a Planet (Co-Commission & World Premiere)
  • Mozart: Overture to Don Giovanni
  • Wagner: Trauermusik from Götterdämmerung
  • Richard Strauss: Don Juan

7 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 8

Gran Duo: Higdon and Foley
Boulder Philharmonic, Michael Butterman, conductor
With Xavier Foley, double bass, and Eunice Kim, violin

  • Jennifer Higdon: Suite from Cold Mountain (Co-Commission & Colorado Premiere)
  • Xavier Foley: For Justice and Peace
  • Giovanni Bottesini: Gran Duo Concertante
  • Dvořák: Symphony No. 8 in G major

7 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 12

The Nutcracker with Boulder Ballet
Boulder Philharmonic, Gary Lewis, conductor 

2 and 7 p.m., Friday, Nov. 25
2 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 27

Special Event: Holiday Brass with the Phil

4 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 18
Mountain View United Methodist Church, Boulder

Afternoon with Bruckner
Boulder Philharmonic, Michael Butterman, conductor
With Charles Wetherbee, violin

  • Mozart: Violin Concerto No. 5
  • Anton Bruckner: Symphony No. 7 in E major

4 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 22, 2023

Jackiw Plays Bruch
Boulder Philharmonic, Michael Butterman, conductor
With Stefan Jakiw, violin

  • George Butterworth: The Banks of Green Willow
  • Max Bruch: Scottish Fantasy
  • Rachmaninoff: Symphonic Dances

7 pm. Saturday, March 25, 2023

Ravel and Rachmaninoff
Boulder Philharmonic, Michael Butterman, conductor
With Angela Cheng, piano

  • Leigha Amick: “Resound Boulder”” Commission 
  • Ravel: Piano Concerto in G
  • Rachmaninoff: Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini
  • Tchaikovsky: Romeo and Juliet: Fantasy Overtur

7 p.m. Saturday, April 22, 2023

Special Event: DeVotchKa + Boulder Phil

7:30 p.m. Saturday, May 6, 2023

LSO Premieres percussion showpiece

Longmont resident Michael Udow’s Ancient Echoes inspired by archaeological finds

 By Peter Alexander April 24 at 12:15 a.m.

NOTE: I usually do not review ensembles that are not fully professional. This performance by the semi-pro Longmont Symphony rates an exception because it includes a world premiere, which always deserve media attention.

Last night (April 23) the Longmont Symphony Orchestra (LSO) gave the first performance of a piece that was inspired by archaeological discoveries in the state of Colorado. Michael Udow’s  Ancient Echoes makes use of four stones discovered in Great Sand Dunes National Park and elsewhere in the San Luis Valley that archeologist Marilyn Mortorano discovered to be ancient lithophones, or musical instruments made of stone. (Read the full story here.)

Great Sand Dunes NP and the San Luis Valley. Photo by Peter Alexander

Under conductor Elliot Moore, the LSO gave a careful reading of Udow’s atmospheric score. Soloist Anthony Di Sanza, once Udow’s percussion student at the University of Michigan, was all over the front of the stage, switching among four different percussion setups that included the four ancient stones, a modern mallet instrument with tuned granite bars—Udow’s personal creation for this one piece—a vibraphone, drums from North Africa and Japan, German cowbells and temple gongs, among other instruments.

There can be no doubt that Udow knows the percussion instruments intimately that he writes for. They were all used effectively, and Di Sanza gave a virtuosic performance on all of them. It was clearly as much fun for him running from one setup to another, as it was for the audience watching and listening. 

Percussion soloist Anthony Di Sanza

The score opens with a dreamy, evocative passage that made good use of the quiet plinking sounds of the ancient stones. From there the score moves from one set of instruments to another, each representing a different culture or part of the world. The score is highly episodic, as each set of instruments brings forth its own musical style and mood. 

Udow used the orchestra well, but did not resist falling into Hollywood-style Orientalist cliches to support some of the instruments, and I am not sure that his series of musical vignettes adds up to more than the sum of its highly individual parts. But the result is certainly a showpiece for the soloist, and one that may prove irresistible to other percussionists in the future. 

Michael Udow with his granite lithophone, created for his score Ancient Echoes. Photo by Peter Alexander.

Udow’s modern granite lithophone is bound for a percussion collection in Indianapolis, where it will be available for Di Sanza and other professional percussionists who wish to perform Udow’s score. With it containing so many fun licks, I would not dare to guess where we will hear it next.

Following a standing ovation, Di Sanza and his former teacher Udow gave an energetic handclapping encore that was great fun, if perhaps a minute too long.

For the rest of the concert, Moore led the LSO in first Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite, and later to close the program Brahms’s Symphony No. 1. The Firebird performance had a strong expressive profile, capturing well the essence of each scene. There were some especially nice solos in the woodwinds, if a few issues of balance overall.

The Brahms was the least satisfying of the three pieces, needing better balance—again—and more rhythmic precision, especially within the string sections. In a modern concert hall and with modern winds, Brahms really needs a larger string section than most small-budget orchestras can provide, and that was the case here. But it should be noted that the LSO has grown in quality over Moore’e five years in Longmont, and Moore brought the symphony to an energetic conclusion. It was greeted warmly by the audience.

LSO will premiere music with 6,000-year history

Michael Udow’s Ancient Echoes on Saturday’s program with Stravinsky and Brahms

By Peter Alexander April 21 at 7:10 p.m.

It’s not often that an orchestra premieres a piece with roots that go back 6,000 years.

Saturday (April 23) the Longmont Symphony and conductor Elliot Moore will do just that when they give the first performance of Ancient Echoes, a score by percussionist/composer and Longmont resident Michael Udow (see concert details below; tickets are available here). 

Udow’s concerto for multiple percussion instruments will feature soloist Anthony Di Sanza playing instruments including one designed by Udow, based on ancient artifacts from Colorado that date back thousands of years. As part of the same piece, Di Sanza will play a variety of instruments from cultures around the world, including Indonesia, Japan and Korea. The concert program also includes Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite and Brahms’s Symphony No. 1.

Great Sand Dunes National Park and Colorado’s San Luis Valley, where ancient lithophones have been found. Photo by Peter Alexander.

Udow’s piece has a long backstory—although not quite 6,000 years. In fact it started around 2000, when archaeologist Marilyn Mortorano was doing consulting work at Great Sand Dunes National Park. The museum at the park has a number of ground stone artifacts, shaped roughly like baguettes, up to a two feet long, in their collection. 

They had been found at archaeological sites throughout the park, including one that was standing up in the sand, and other sites in the San Luis Valley. In fact, Mortorano says, “Almost all the collectors (in the area) had them and they didn’t know what they were, and we didn’t either.”

Archaeologist Marilyn Mortorano with ancient lithophones found in Colorado. Photo by Peter Alexander.

They were carefully worked, but way too heavy to be used as grinding tools like the mano and metate sets found throughout the Southwest. But “somebody spent a lot of time making them,” Mortorano says. “It bothered me because I thought, why do we not know what these are?”

Then in 2013 she ran across a YouTube video from the Musée de l’Homme (Museum of man) in Paris, which had similar artifacts that French soldiers had brought back from Africa. At the time she had several of the Colorado stones for research purposes, so she was surprised when she learned that the stones in Paris produced a musical sound when tapped. (You can see and hear them here; narration in French.)

In fact a set of them was used for Paleomusique, written by French composer Philippe Fenelon. Those stones were used for a single series of performances in 2014, and then packed away for storage, never to be played again.

“I thought this is crazy,” Mortorano says, “but I’ll see if (the stones from Colorado) could be musical. My younger daughter is a percussionist, so she had a basket of mallets. I couldn’t believe it—they rang like bells!”

When Mortorano returned the stones to the museum at Great Sand Dunes the next day, she showed her discovery to Fred Bunch, the chief of resources. He was startled, and promised to support any further research that Mortorano could pursue with the stones. 

“We don’t know how these were used, because we don’t know the whole context,” Mortorano says. “But we know now from studying lithophones (musical instruments made of rocks), they’re all over the world. They’re in Africa, they’re in Asia, they’re in South America, they’re even in Hawaii.”

In the meantime, Mortorano had talked to Colorado Public Radio’s Ryan Warner several years earlier, before she realized that the stones could be lithophones, who told her to let him know if she figured out what they were used for. She contacted him again after discovering their musical qualities and he did a new interview that was picked up by National Public Radio and noted on other national media.

Percussionist/composer Michael Udow

And this is where Udow enters the story. When he heard about Mortorano’s research and the Colorado stones, he wanted to see and hear them. When he contacted Mortorano, he discovered that she only lived about two blocks from his home in Longmont. He went over for a visit.

“Marilyn and (her husband) Sal had them set up beautifully on a long table with a hemp chord set at the nodes so they get maximum vibration,” Udow says. “I played them and I went home and thought, this is really important. It shows the musical side of the creative human spirit from 6,000 years ago, and wouldn’t it be interesting to compose a work!”

The Longmont Symphony had previously played two pieces by Udow, so his next step was to contact LSO director Elliot Moore and propose a new piece for orchestra using the stones. When he met Mortorano and heard the stones, Moore became interested in the project, and eventually got a commitment from the LSO board to support a new piece from Udow.

“What I really have the privilege of getting to do is putting this all together,” Moore says. “You can have the idea to write a piece of music and you can find these ancient stones, but until there’s an orchestra willing to premiere this, it’s theoretical. I feel lucky that when I presented it to the Longmont Symphony, everybody said, ‘Let’s do it!’”

Udow realized that the more or less random collection of stones that had been found was not really suitable for a piece all by themselves. He decided he needed to create a new instrument that as well as possible duplicated the nature and sound of the ancient ground stones: a modern lithophone that was tuned to play with a modern orchestra.

Michael Udow’s absolute black granite lithophone

This turned out to be a lengthy process, but one that paid off in the end. He visited granite quarries in Colorado, but none of them had stone that resonated well enough to be used in a musical instrument. He discovered that the best stone was absolute black granite from India, which fortunately he could get from Colorado manufacturers of granite countertops. 

He ended up purchasing two slabs of black granite, only one of which had good acoustical qualities. He was able to have that one cut into bars of varying length, which could be tuned by delicately cutting and grinding the stone, using a circular saw with a diamond blade.

In the end Udow estimates he spent about $5000 of his own money for the granite, the shop time to produce the bars, the frame that holds them and special cases to protect the bars. But he ended up with a playable instrtrument.

The completed score is virtually a concerto for multi percussion with orchestra. Udow’s lithophone will be featured, along with a number of other instruments: a marimba, a vibraphone, gongs from Korea, drums from Japan, a bamboo rattle from Java and German cowbells. For the one performance Saturday, the soloist will also briefly play four of the original ancient stones before they are returned to their museum collection.

Udow decided to use instruments from other cultures because in his travels as a percussionist, he had played instruments all over the world and he wanted to capture not only the timelessness of the original stones, but the universal quality of music. 

Percussion soloist Anthony Di Sanza

That also inspired Moore. “One of the main things that have kept me going is remembering that we’re bringing these things to life,” he says. “A fundamental human characteristic that we all share is, we love music. That’s been one of the great things about this whole process.”

The soloist for the performance, Anthony Di Sanza, is a former student of Udow who currently teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In fact, he will bring instruments that used to be Udow’s with him to fill out the solo percussion array. 

One issue that Di Sanza will have to deal with is the width of the bars on Udow’s new lithophone. It turns out that the bars have never been standardized by percussion makers. “Michael sent me all of the dimensions of the instrument, including the overall length and height, and also the bar width,” Di Sanza says. “The bar width (of other instruments) can vary to small increments or great increments, so we get used to making that adjustment.”

Di Sanza has had at least some of the music since last summer. Talking by phone from his home last week, he reported “I am at the stage now where I’m playing through the piece, listening to the midi (digital recording). That’s really fun because there are three-and-a half different physical setups on the stage. I start at one place, move to a different place for another part, come back for a different part, move to a third setup.

“A particularly challenging thing is as you move from one place to the next, knowing here’s where I’m going next! So that’s really fun, and fairly common with multiple percussion in the western classical tradition. And we thought a lot about how the instruments are grouped, to make sure the audience could see into the setups, and see what’s happening.”

LSO conductor Elliot Moore

Moore selected the rest of the program to go with Udow’s piece, with some very specific reasons for both the Stravinsky and the Brahms. “I thought that Stravinsky’s Firebird, with the idea of the rising phoenix, was something that could work well with this concerto,” he says. “It was the idea of matching Michael’s piece with the Stravinsky where I thought we had a winning program.

“And the other thing (is), I haven’t done a Brahms symphony (in Longmont). We have a wonderful cellist that retired pre-pandemic, Carmen Olguin, and as she was walking offstage with me for the retirement, she said, ‘Elliot, if you ever program a Brahms symphony, would you let me come back and play it?’ And I said ‘Sure.’

“I’ve always had in my mind this woman who wanted to play a Brahms symphony so bad, and I never programmed one, and I thought this was a good time to do it. So she joined us again, for her first rehearsal in probably three years.”

Brahms’s First Symphony is very standard orchestral repertoire, but Moore says the audience will hear some new things Saturday. “We are looking at this with fresh eyes and fresh ears, and I think it’s going to feel fresh. We’re taking a direction that is little bit leaner and a little bit closer to what the score indicates, not über Romantic.”

“People are going to be interested to hear it if for no other reason, that reason.”

In case you wonder about the new instrument, Di Sanza will take it back to Wisconsin, and eventually take it to a percussion museum in Indianapolis where he and others can use it for performances. Udow also hopes that some day, someone else might want to write music for it.

“That would be a hope of mine, to share it,” he says.

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“Soundings: Past and Present”
Longmont Symphony Orchestra, Elliot Moore, conductor
With Anthony Di Sanza, percussion

  • Michael Udow: Ancient Echoes (World Premiere)
  • Stravinsky: Firebird Suite (1919 version)
  • Brahms: Symphony No. 1 in C major

7:30 p.m. Saturday, April 23
Vance Brand Civic Auditorium, Longmont

TICKETS

NOTE: Effective immediately and until further notice, the Longmont Symphony no longer requires patrons to show proof of COVID vaccination, and masks will remain optional. This decision has been made with guidance from local, state, and federal officials.

The unfamiliar familiar by Seicento

Baroque Ensemble celebrates it 10th anniversary at the weekend

By Peter Alexander April 21 at 1:30 pm.

Boulder’s Seicento Baroque Ensemble celebrates its 10th anniversary this weekend (April 22–24) performing a piece that is both familiar—and not.

The piece is the Magnificat by J.S. Bach, which as the Magnificat in D is one of the most celebrated works of the Baroque master. But they will not perform that Magnificat, but a lesser known, earlier version in E-flat that has much of the same music, with interesting twists.

Artistic director Amanda Balestrieri with Seicento. Photo courtesy of Seicento.

Completing the program, titled “Magnificent Magnificats,” are two other settings of the same sacred Christian text, known as the Canticle of Mary. One is anonymous, although previously attributed to the German composer Dietrich Buxtehude, and the other is by the 17th-century French composer Marc-Antoine Charpentier. Performances will be Friday through Sunday in Longmont, Arvada and Boulder.

Read more in Boulder Weekly.

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Magnificent Magnificats
Seicento Baroque Ensemble, Amanda Balestrieri, conductor
Choir, soloists and orchestra

  • Anonymous (attr. Buxtehude): Magnificat
  • Marc-Antoine Charpentier: Magnificat
  • J.S. Bach: Magnificat (original version in E-flat)

7 p.m. Friday, April 22
Longmont Museum Stewart Auditorium

7 p.m. Saturday, April 23
Arvada Methodist Church, Arvada

3 p.m. Sunday, April 24
First United Methodist Church, Boulder

6 p.m. Friday, May 6
Streamed Virtual Performance

TICKETS