Adventures in geography and gender

Seicento Baroque Ensemble and Boulder Chorale go exploring

By Peter Alexander

UPDATE: Boulder Chorale announced Friday, Oct. 22, that “due to a family emergency Dominique Christina will not be able to perform with the Boulder Chorale this weekend.” In her place, the Chorale has announced that Colorado singer Sheryl Renee will appear on the concert Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon.

Renee has sung with the Colorado Symphony under the late Marvin Hamlisch and sung the National Anthem for President Barrack Obama.

Two of Boulder’s choral groups will separately spend the weekend exploring geography and gender. Happily, both programs will be given twice in the Boulder area, so if you are looking for musical adventures, you can experience both journeys.


Vocalist Sheryl Renee will replace Dominique Christina in the weekend performances.

The Seicento Baroque Ensemble and director Evanne Browne will travel back to the music of 16th- and 17th-century Spanish America. They will perform music by Spanish missionaries and converted Christian natives in Central and South America, sung in Spanish and Latin as well as Nahuatl, the indigenous language of the Aztecs.

At almost the same times, in Boulder and Longmont, Boulder Chorale will be delving into music by and about women. Their program, “Women’s Work: Poetry and Music” will feature the chorale and director Vicki Burrichter performing music from Hildegard to Carly Simon, and settings of religious texts extolling the Virgin Mary. Bringing the performance up to 2016, five-time national poetry slam winner Dominique Christina will poetically address modern social issues that affect women.


Seicento Baroque Ensemble and director Evanne Browne (far right)

Seicento’s mission is to present “worthy but rarely-heard music of the early Baroque period.” That time — around 1600 — coincided with the Spanish colonial era in the Americas. The Spanish missions were rich with musical activities, including choirs of Native Americans who brought their own lively traditions to the performances and in some cases wrote music themselves.

Browne says “there’s been a surge of publications and information about this repertoire. I spent the last year listening and researching and seeing what was online, and thought, ‘This would be really fun!’”


Hildegard of Bingen

Boulder Chorale’s concert of “Women’s Work” opens with music by one of the most revered female musicians of European history, the medieval Benedictine abbess, Christian mystic, composer and polymath Hildegard of Bingen. “For me, Hildegard’s O Splendidissima Gemma (O resplendent jewel) is the foundational piece” on the program, Burrichter says.

For the rest of the concert, she says, “I wanted to show the variety of music composed by women and about women, and try to touch on as much of that as I could.” And variety there is, from the medieval mysticism of Hildegard, to a traditional South African song arranged in the spirit of Miriam Makeba, to American modernist Meredith Monk’s “Panda Chant II.” The program ends with a choral arrangement of Carly Simon’s anthem “Let the River Run,” written for the 1988 film Working Girl.

Read more in Boulder Weekly.

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“Colonial Latin American and the New World”
Seicento Baroque Ensemble, Evanne Browne, artistic director and conductor

7:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 21
St. Paul Lutheran & Roman Catholic Church, 1600 Grant St, Denver

7:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 22
First United Methodist Church, 1421 Spruce St., Boulder

3 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 23, Longmont Museum Stewart Auditorium, 400 Quail Rd., Longmont

“Women’s Work: Poetry and Music”
Boulder Chorale, Vicki Burrichter, director, with Sheryl Renee, guest artist
(Please note the change in the guest artist)

7:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 22, and 4 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 23
Boulder Adventist Church, 345 Mapleton Ave.


Boulder Bach Festival goes exploring in an intriguing concert

Unfamiliar works and an unfamiliar instrument are unexpected treasures

By Peter Alexander

compass-logo-plusThere is a reason that the Boulder Bach Festival (BBF) uses a compass in its logo.

As demonstrated in their 2016–­17 season-opening concert yesterday (Oct. 15), the BBF under music director Zachary Carrettin goes sailing out into Bach’s musical world, looking for new discoveries for players and audiences alike. And usually, like yesterday’s concert, they bring back unexpected treasures.

The performance, given in Boulder’s Adventist Church, was a repetition of a program given Friday evening in St. John’s Episcopal Cathedral in Denver. Titled “Concertos and Chorales Contextualized,” the program explored the many different ways Lutheran chorale tunes were arranged and used as the basis of larger works in the Baroque period (late 1500s to roughly 1750), and also how Bach’s concertos reflected compositional techniques that had been refined through settings of chorale tunes.

Photography by Glenn Ross.

Boulder Bach Festival Chorus and players. Photography by Glenn Ross.

There was music on the program from the early Baroque, starting with a work by the truly obscure Bartholomeus Gesius (1562–1613), through the slightly better known Michael Praetorius (1571–1621), Johann Hermann Schein (1586–1630), and Samuel Scheidt (1587–1654), and culminating with J.S. Bach (1685–1750). (See my preview of the concert here.)

Unfortunately, the space at the Boulder Adventist Church does not lend itself to clarity of the complex counterpoint you find in much Baroque music. This was evident with both the small orchestra assembled for two of J.S. Bach’s concertos, and the Boulder Bach Festival Chorus, which sang several works on the program.

The fault is not with the performers, who sang and played confidently. Carrettin led the program decisively, with a fine sense of style. Nevertheless, works performed from the front of the church were not always as clean as one would wish. Mid- to low-range sounds tended to get murky, and the bass lines were not always clear.


Organist Christopher Holman

The sound is better when the music originates from the choir loft, at the back of the sanctuary. The choir sounded cleaner and clearer from the loft, and the organ, played splendidly by Christopher Holman, was transparent and at times sparkling.

In spite of any acoustic limitations, it was a thoroughly worthwhile and intriguing program, and may well have been more fully satisfying in the Denver venue.

Before the second half of the concert, Carrettin gave a brief talk on how the word Ach (the German equivalent of “Ahh!”) in Bach’s motet Jesu Meine Freude corresponds to similar exhalations in other cultures and spiritual traditions around the world. This both served to make the music, firmly grounded in north German Lutheran religious practice, more universal, and personified the festival’s motto “Across Time, Across Cultures”—the spirit that underlies the adventurous direction of today’s Boulder Bach Festival.

Three parts of the program were particularly pleasing. The anonymous setting of Ach Gott, vom Himmel sieh darein (Oh God, look down from heaven) for organ was a delightful discovery, with rippling runs and a growing sense of pace. As throughout the concert, Holman’s playing brought the music energetically to life.

Of the two concertos, Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 6 was the best instrumental selection on the concert. A string ensemble with violas at the top of the texture runs the risk of being murky throughout, but the smaller ensemble and careful work by the players mostly overcame the danger. The texture was generally transparent.

The playing by viola soloists Aniel Cabán and Tal McGee was particularly lovely in the slow movement, and the finale romped along with great energy.


BBF artistic director Zachary Carrettin with his cello de spalla

A word about the cello da spalla (shoulder cello) that Carrettin introduced in this work. He and Renee Hemsing Patten played two interior parts (originally written for viola de gamba) on this unusual and somewhat awkward looking instrument. When heard individually, they projected a solid, clean string tone, and they obviously filled their parts well. To really judge the instruments, it would be necessary to hear one in a solo role—which Carrettin has planned for the BBF concert Dec. 8 in Boulder and Dec. 9 in Longmont.

The final set of the concert comprised three works for the Christmas season, by Michael Praetorius, J.S. Bach, and Gesius. Each work was pleasing, starting with music sung by a chamber choir, and ending with the Gesius sung in surround sound with a rank of singers in each aisle. This was good program planning: ending with the fullest and clearest choral sound of the concert, and yet another fine discovery brought back from the larger musical world.

Boulder Bach Festival begins their season with a Baroque adventure

Carrettin will explore the context of chorales and concertos

By Peter Alexander

The Boulder Bach Festival (BBF) doesn’t just give concerts. They offer musical adventures.


Zachary Carrettin

Zachary Carrettin, who has been artistic director of the festival for the past three years, loves to explore the musical world around Bach: the ways he heard music performed, the musicians who influenced him, and those who were influenced in their turn by him. Which is pretty much everybody in Europe before and after Bach.

This weekend, Carrettin and the festival will explore one of the most basic elements of Bach’s musical world: the Lutheran chorale tunes that gave rise to, and were part of, so many other types of music. The program, “Concertos and Chorales Contextualized,” includes chorales, chorale preludes, motets, and—as the title suggests—two concertos.

The music is by a parade of great German Lutheran composers of the 17th and 18th centuries—not only J.S. Bach, but also Samuel Scheidt, Johann Hermann Schein, Dietrich Buxtehude, Michael Praetorius and Batholomaeus Gesius. If you don’t recognize those names, don’t be alarmed: they are all predecessors who paved the way for Bach, and their music is well worth hearing and getting to know.

Photography by Glenn Ross.

Carrettin with the BBF Chorus and players. Photography by Glenn Ross.

The Lutheran chorales were the predecessors of all the hymns that are known and loved in the various Protestant denominations. They were not only used for congregational singing, they became the basis of elaborate pieces for organ, known as chorale preludes; they appeared in many diverse forms in cantatas and motets, such as were written by Bach and other composers of the Baroque period; and as familiar tunes and emotional anchors, they appear all through Bach’s settings of the passion story.

“The Lutheran chorale tradition that preceded Bach included so many imaginative and meaningful harmonic settings of the same chorale melody,” Carrettin says. “Composers such as Scheidt and Schein that you will hear on this program, really show their individuality in these simple 12- and 16-measure, four-voice chorales.

“The contrapuntal treatment has such potential for variety, and they’re also extraordinary pieces to hear on an emotional level, both from the message behind the text and also the message within the harmonic realization. These works are among the most simple and yet powerful pieces in our European music tradition.”


Organist/harpsichordist Christopher Holman

Illustrating the power of the chorale tunes, the concert opens with three different settings of a melody well known to Lutherans of Bach’s time, Durch Adams Fall is ganz verderbt. It will be performed first as an organ chorale prelude—an elaborated setting of the tune that often showed the organist’s skill as composer or improviser. Then the BBF instrumentalists will perform an arrangement of a chorale prelude by J.S. Bach, and singers will perform Schein’s four-voice setting of the tune.

Other manifestations of chorales will include eight-voice settings in Renaissance style by Scheidt, chorale settings by Praetorius, and two motets by J.S. Bach.


Samuel Scheidt

Nestled among some relatively unfamiliar works will be two very familiar ones: Bach’s Double Violin Concerto in D minor and Sixth Brandenburg Concerto. Acknowledging that these popular pieces would be a good audience draw, Carrettin says “if programming the Bach two-violin concerto brings people to a concert where they can hear a double chorus motet by Samuel Scheidt, then I’m certainly happy!”

But he has more in mind than adding popular pieces to an unfamiliar program. “The concertos are complex and at times dense in the writing, energetic, and highly contrapuntal. The affect is completely different than sacred choral music, and yet the journey through the sonorities and through the harmonic progressions has a lot of similarity with the chorales.

“In juxtaposing sacred and secular music, I’m hoping to whet the palette of all our listeners to really internalize what’s special about the harmony and the counterpoint in this music.”


Carrettin with his cello da spalla

One special feature of the concertos will be that Carrettin will introduce Boulder audiences to a new instrument he has revived from the Baroque period: the cello da spalla. Literally a “shoulder cello,” it is in effect a small cello fitted with a neck strap, like a guitar, and played more like a violin or viola. For the Brandenburg Concerto, he and co-soloist Renee Hemsing Patten will play two parts of the concerto on these unusual instruments.

Carrettin knew of this instrument from reading descriptions of Baroque music performances. “I commissioned this cello da spalla, made by the luthiers at Cavallo Violins in Omaha last spring, working from a variety of primary sources from the Baroque,” he says. “In the Brandenburg Concerto we will play Bach’s original viola da gamba parts. We will use baroque bows as they help to create a sound similar to the viola da gamba.”

These instruments are so rare that harpsichordist Christopher Holman remarked at one rehearsal that he was probably “the first keyboardist in the history of the United States to play with a cellist da spalla to his left and right!”

But whether talking about motets or the concertos, Carrettin’s discussion of the program always circles back to the chorales. Sung hymn-like in simple four parts, or as part of a larger work, they have deep meaning for him—and potentially for everyone in the audience, regardless of spiritual background.

“These works have a certain meaning to Lutherans, they have a certain meaning to all Protestants, they have a meaning to all Christians,” Carrettin says. “But they also have an incredible, powerful, transcendental poetic effect on those who are not believers in the Christian faith.

“I’m hoping that our audiences will embrace the music and the texts on their own terms.”

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Boulder Bach Festival
Zachary Carrettin, artistic director

“Concertos and Chorales Contextualized”
Boulder Bach Festival Chorus and Chamber Choir with soloists
Zachary Carrettin, conductor and violinist, with
Christopher Holman, organ and harpsichord
Keith Barnhart, Baroque guitar continuo

Lutheran chorale settings and works by J.S. Bach, Samuel Scheidt, Johann Hermann Schein, Dietrich Buxtehude, Michael Praetorius and Batholomaeus Gesius

7:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 14
St. John’s Episcopal Church, 1350 Washington St., Denver

4 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 16
Boulder Adventist Church, 345 Mapleton Ave., Boulder

Composers go into the wild and come home transformed

By Peter Alexander


Composers in the Wilderness, Denali National Park and Preserve

There is a wildness in the natural world that most of us never meet. But when we do, we are likely to be transformed.

“I definitely feel changed as a person,” Alondra Vega says after brushing against the Alaskan wilderness. “The experience almost seems like it was too extraordinary to have happened,” Cassie To writes.

13690752_594538287385367_7602763590110916242_nFor Sam Young, an ex-Boulderite living in Los Angeles, touching the wild was an epiphany: “Whenever I come to a place like this, I re-evaluate my entire life and think, ‘Is it all wrong, what I’m doing?’”

Vega, To and Young were three of nine participants in “Composing in the Wilderness,” a workshop led by composer Stephen Lias in Alaska this past summer. The goal of the workshop, Lias says, is to give composers the transformative experience that comes from stepping into the natural world.

“Going into the backcountry of Alaska, I know the experience will change people,” he says. “I wouldn’t presume to guess in what way, but the art that they create will be a manifestation of whatever the change was.

“My favorite thing is putting these composers in that environment and just watching Alaska do its thing on them.”


Composer Stephen Lias

Lias is known to Boulder audiences for his orchestral piece Gates of the Arctic, premiered by the Boulder Philharmonic in 2014 — a product of Alaska doing its thing on him. He will be back this year, when his All the Songs that Nature Sings will be premiered by the orchestra and conductor Michael Butterman March 25, 2017, and subsequently performed by them at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., March 28.

Working in cooperation with Alaska Geographic, the National Park Service and the Fairbanks Arts Festival, Lias has presented the workshop every year since 2012. It is designed as both an outdoors and an artistic adventure. The composers gather in Denali National Park, where they hike and explore the backcountry. They learn about the wilderness environment from rangers and naturalists.

After Denali, the composers transfer to the remote Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve, where they have four days to compose a new piece inspired by their experiences. Written for performers from the Fairbanks Arts Festival, the pieces are all trios or quartets, but adding to the musical adventure, the composers don’t know in advance what instruments they will write for.

The pieces have to be fairly short and simple, because they have to be written quickly and learned even more quickly by the performers. That forms the third and final segment of the workshop: in just a few days the completed pieces are rehearsed and performed, first in Denali National Park, and then as part of the Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival.

The workshop takes nine participants on a first-come, first-served basis. This year there were five women and four men, ranging in age from early 20s to AARP-eligible. They came from all over: two from Australia, one from New Zealand by way of New York, one from Cuba by way of Canada, the rest from around the U.S.


The author in Alaska with sons Michael (l) and Ivan (r): Kenai Fjords National Park

As it happens, I had my own Alaskan adventure this summer, driving, hiking and flightseeing in the state with my two oldest sons. I timed my trip to hear this year’s workshop concert, “Sounds of Nature: Alaska Premieres,” July 26 at the Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival. I saw glaciers larger than counties, and stretches of boreal forest larger than several states. And like the composers in the workshop, the vast land profoundly moved me.

When you face such an overwhelming immensity of nature, full of life but devoid of visible human presence, it’s hard not to be affected.

. . . . .

We are often told that nature is cruel, but that is not really true. Nature understands neither kindness nor cruelty; it is indifferent. That is the great lesson of the wilderness, as I was reminded in Anaktuvuk Pass and the composers, well cared for as they were, encountered in Denali: When we leave our well insulated lives to venture into the real world of nature, we have to be prepared to take responsibility for ourselves.

13718714_594543404051522_4074485623699253369_nWashington, very much a city-dweller from New York, had an experience that captures just what Lias hopes the composers will discover in their brush with nature. “We hiked up this high mountain pass and we were given space to go out on our own and just sit quietly and reflect,” she recalls. “I felt like an intruder in some ways — like my breathing was too loud.

“A moth came and landed on my hand, and I didn’t want to move because I was interrupting its space. It was really peaceful, and really real because everything has been undisturbed for so long. Being able to trespass there for a couple of days has been really calming.”

13718623_594538980718631_7012257335267384579_nOf all the participants, David John Lang may have captured the power of wilderness most eloquently. After returning to his home, in Adelaide, South Australia, he writes: “I took my journal, in which I often write letters to God, but I was surprised at how little I wrote while I was in Alaska. It was like I was too busy being a listener for once, hearing and seeing and loving God’s creation.

“I felt really, really small, and it was awesome.”

Read the entire article in Boulder Weekly.

Opening Night: Bracing, energetic, rough

Boulder Philharmonic begins conductor Michael Butterman’s 10th-anniversary season

By Peter Alexander


Conductor Michael Butterman began his 10th anniversary season with the Boulder Philharmonic

The Boulder Philharmonic gave a mixed performance last night, playing an intriguing program to launch its 2016–17 season.

The selections ranged from the familiar—Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini—to the not quite familiar—Tchaikovsky’s tuneful Symphony No. 2—to the almost exotic—Francis Poulenc’s Concerto for Two Pianos. The dynamic young piano duo of Greg Anderson and Elizabeth Joy Roe were soloists.

The performance had plenty of energy and many lovely moments, but it also suffered from being the orchestra’s first outing of the season. At times the sound was a little rough, the players not quite together, but in the end the high energy of the performance won out.

Boulder Phil principal cellist Charles Lee introduced the proceedings with announcements of his (20th) and Butterman’s (10th) anniversary seasons with the orchestra. Next, board vice-president Rudy Perez acquitted himself admirably, leading the orchestra in the Star Spangled Banner—not the easiest piece for a non-professional conductor—and then happily turned the musicians over to Butterman.


Duo pianists Anderson and Roe

To open the actual program, Anderson and Roe gave a bracing performance of Poulenc’s Concerto. Unfamiliar enough that Butterman gave a spoken introduction, with a recording of a Balinese gamelan to illustrate one of Poulenc’s inspirations, the concerto won the audience’s favor and a hearty ovation.

For their part, Anderson and Roe gave a scintillating performance. This is piece that it pays to hear live: the give and take between the players can be seen and enjoyed, but not necessarily heard on a recording. With their exuberant performing style, Anderson and Roe provided a visual element that only enhanced these musical exchanges and the sudden shifts in mood.

The Mozartian slow movement, played with great tenderness and pleasure by the soloists, was a delight to hear, and the spice and energy of the finale were contagious. From beginning to end, the concerto was thoroughly satisfying.

Roe returned alone as soloist for Rachmaninoff’s much loved Rhapsody. She played with great aplomb, from the strongest chords to the most delicate moments. The expressiveness of her playing and the intensity of her commitment to the music were deeply moving.

There was some lovely playing from individual musicians, moments of real beauty, but on the whole the orchestra was not at its best here. The piano forced the players farther back than usual, and the winds, sounding from the deep confines of the narrow Macky stage, were not always clear or well balanced.

Before intermission, Anderson and Roe appeared together again for two encores, giving them the opportunity to show why they are known as such charismatic players. In arrangements of Astor Piazzolla’s “Libertango” and Bernstein’s “Mambo” from West Side Story, they gave teasing, saucy performances that delighted the audience. It was sheer entertainment that did not sacrifice one iota of musicality.

After intermission, Tchaikovsky’s Second Symphony started with a dramatic chord and impressive horn solo. A faster tempo was momentarily ragged, but as the performance picked up energy from movement to movement, it became more compelling. The finale, a perfect example of Tchaikovsky’s ability to build momentum and excitement, became a showcase for the brass and timpani. Butterman’s careful dynamic control gave great impact to the ending.

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This is an important season for the Boulder Philharmonic, and not just because of Butterman’s anniversary. In March the orchestra has been invited to the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., one of four orchestras nationwide to be selected for the inaugural SHIFT Festival of American Orchestras. By then, the orchestra will have had plenty of time to coalesce and work out the little kinks from last night’s performance.


Geraldine Walther and Edward Dusinberre

In the meantime, the remainder of the season here in Boulder is based on an intriguing notion: collaboration between musical pairs. Anderson and Roe were the first examples of that theme. Later concerts will feature Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante for violin and viola, played by Edward Dusinberre and Geraldine Walther of the Takacs Quartet (Nov. 6); Ethel Smyth’s Concerto for violin and horn, played by guests Jennifer Frautschi and Eric Ruske (Jan. 14); and the world premier of Stephen Goss’s Double Concerto for violin, guitar, strings and percussion, played by CU faculty Charles Wetherbee, who is also the Phil’s concertmaster, and Nicoló Spera (April 22).

Like last night’s concert, the programs for these and other concerts on the season range from the familiar to the exotic. You can see the full season listing on the Boulder Phil Web page. There is much to look forward to.

Boulder Philharmonic opens season with ‘joie de vivre’

By Peter Alexander


Duo pianists Anderson & Roe. Photo by Lisa-marie Mazzucco.

It sounds just like Boulder: “a mixture of cheeky irreverence and sophistication, elegant and raucous.”

It’s actually conductor Michael Butterman describing the first piece of the Boulder Philharmonic’s 2016-17 season. The opening concert, at 7:30 p.m. Saturday in Boulder and 2 p.m. Sunday in Denver, will begin with Francis Poulenc’s Concerto for Two Pianos.

You may not know the concerto, but Butterman is pretty sure Boulder audiences will enjoy it. “There’s a real joie de vivre about the outer movements,” he says. “The middle movement, though, is a testament to the surpassing beauty that can be conveyed through utter simplicity.”

Soloists for the concerto will be the duo pianists Greg Anderson and Elizabeth Joy Roe. After the Poulenc, Roe will return to the stage alone to perform Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini, one of the most-familiar, and most-beloved works in the piano-and-orchestra repertoire. The program concludes with Tchaikovsky’s tuneful but little performed Symphony No. 2 (“Little Russian”).

Anderson and Roe have made a name for themselves among duo pianists by reaching beyond the classical repertoire and audiences to embrace popular styles as well. They have posted a number of adventurous videos on their web page, including music by Taylor Swift and Coldplay, alongside arrangements of music from Star Wars, Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, and pieces by Mozart, Stockhausen and Schubert.

“Both of us are just fascinated by the whole realm of music,” Roe says.

Read more at Boulder Weekly.

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Anderson & Roe. Photo by Lisa-marie Mazzucco.

Boulder Philharmonic, Michael Butterman, music director
Greg Anderson and Elizabeth Joy Roe, duo pianists
7:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 8
Mack Auditorium, Boulder

2 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 9
Pinnacle Performing Arts Complex, 1001 W. 84th Ave., Denver

POULENC   Concerto for Two Pianos
Anderson and Roe, duo pianists

RACHMANINOFF   Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini
Elizabeth Joy Roe, piano

TCHAIKOVSKY   Symphony No. 2 (“Little Russian”)


Boulder Chamber Orchestra opens 13th season, titled “Jinx”

Highly polished violin soloist and rocky Brahms First fill the program

By Peter Alexander

Last night Bahman Saless and the Boulder Chamber Orchestra opened “Jinx,” their 13th season, with a program that challenged the orchestra and the soloist, violinist Yabing Tan.


John Tayer in his natural environment as CEO of the Boulder Chamber of Commerce

The concert in the Boulder Adventist Church on Mapleton opened with an appearance by Boulder Chamber of Commerce CEO John Tayer as guest conductor. The orchestra played Johan Strauss, Jr.’s spirited Tritsch Tratsch Polka with appropriate vigor, while Tayer provided choreography on the podium—posing on one foot, making pantomime gestures and leading the audience in clapping. There was no sign of a jinx in this cheerful start to the season.

The rest of the concert’s first half was given over to Tan’s performance of two staples of the violin repertoire, Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso by Saint-Saëns and Henryk Wieniawski’s Second Concerto. The order—Strauss, Saint-Saëns, Wieniawski—was like going from desert to main course, but all the dishes were well prepared.

Tan earned her appearance with the BCO as winner of the Classic Alive Artist Competition. She has a silky sound that was well displayed throughout. She has said of the Saint-Saëns “if you practice for years and hours, then it’s not so hard.” Clearly she has put in the practice, because the music was completely under control. If anything, it seemed too easy, so comfortable that the music’s innate drama was understated.


Yabing Tan

The same was true to some extent of her polished performance of the Wieniawski Concerto. She flashed through all the technical passages easily, while floating beautifully through the lyrical passages. The only thing missing was a fiery spark of excitement.

The Romance emerged as a lovely interlude between the outer movements, as Tan carried Wieniawski’s lyrical lines with great tenderness. She was aided by outstanding playing from the solo clarinet. The performance caught fire in the à la Zingara (gypsy style) finale, providing a bit of flash and dash for the ending. Saless and the BCO provided sympathetic support throughout.

Brahms’s First Symphony is a serious and complex work, Brahms’s studied answer to expectations that he would follow Beethoven as the great German symphonist. This large-scale symphony was a severe test for the small forces of the BCO, pushing them to and sometimes beyond their limit. All the notes were in place, the dynamic contours generally clear, but Brahms needs more than that.


BCO conductor Bahman Saless

To begin with, the orchestra failed to retune before beginning the symphony. The pitch never really settled comfortably until the players finally tuned again before the last movement. The lack of precise pitch agreement created a muddied and raw sound, especially when the full ensemble was playing. This compounded the natural problems that result when a small orchestra undertakes a piece that requires weight and strength.

Problems were evident in the very first notes of the introduction, when the timpani, positioned in a corner of the resonant church sanctuary, overwhelmed the rest of the orchestra. In the rest of the introduction one heard mostly a wall of wind sound, with moving lines within the small-ish string section rendered almost inaudible.

Once the Allegro portion of the movement got underway, the more lightly scored passages were much more satisfactory. Tutti climaxes, however, always tended to sound heavy and unclear. Full chords from the winds and rhythmic impulses from the brass often covered the strings. Since the strings carry much of the musical argument, a lot of what was happening in the score was not available to the listeners.

Another problem, at least in the space of the Adventist Church, is that the limited range of dynamics and weight available to a smaller orchestra did not allow for powerful contours over longer stretches of music. In other words, local contours were well shaped, but across longer spans everything fell within the same range. Extremes were lost, at both the delicate and weighty ends of the spectrum.

With intonation improved, the beginning of the finale was the best part of the symphony. The buildup to the big theme, which Saless had pointed out before the performance, was effective, and the ending achieved a satisfying level of excitement and impact.

There were outstanding performances by the individual players in the orchestra—the principal clarinet, flute and oboe were notable. Concertmaster Annamaria Karacson’s solos were beautifully played. The horn had some lovely moments, although always at the risk of overwhelming the string sound.

In short, the individual players fully met the challenges of Brahms’s First. Alas, the BCO collectively did not. The strengths and weaknesses of the performance should stand as a cautionary note for chamber orchestras venturing into large-orchestra territory.