Boulder’s rich abundance of orchestra concerts

No fewer than five resident orchestras offer seasons for 2014–15  

By Peter Alexander

Of this you can be certain: there is no shortage of orchestra concerts in Boulder.

With the end of the summer and the departure of the area’s best orchestra—that of the Colorado Music Festival—now’s a good time to look at Boulder’s resident orchestras that perform during the main season, between September and May. In fact, there are no fewer than five of them. This means there is a remarkable richness of orchestra concerts for a city the size of Boulder. It is one of the true blessings of living here, and with so many different orchestras and conductors contributing to the mix, it also creates a diversity of programming that would be the envy of many larger cities.

The Boulder orchestras vary widely in professionalism and experience, but each offers it own rewards. So before the season gets under way with the opening concert of the Boulder Philharmonic in Macky Auditorium on Sept. 14, here is a quick survey of area orchestras and their pending seasons. (More information on individual concerts will appear here throughout the year.)


Michael Butterman

The Boulder Philharmonic (BPO) is Boulder’s fully-professional orchestra. Considered a regional symphony, the Boulder Phil has an annual budget just over $1 million. The orchestra has a negotiated contract with its players, who are paid union scale. In these respects, the BPO leads the orchestra pack in Boulder.

The conductor is Michael Butterman, who also conducts the Shreveport (La.) Symphony, and is now the inaugural music director of the Pennsylvania Philharmonic, leading its very first season in 2014-15. It should be noted that regional orchestras are not full-time and do not pay anyone from the director on down through the sections a full-time wage.

For example, BPO has six concerts on its 2014–15 season, plus performances of The Nutcracker with Boulder Ballet. This is not full-time work, and members of the orchestra generally have other income, either from teaching, from other orchestras, or from free-lance work—or a combination of all three.

The same is true of the music director: In addition to the three orchestras listed above, Butterman is resident conductor of the Jacksonville (Fl.) Symphony and principal conductor for education and community engagement for the Rochester (N.Y.) Philharmonic. This summer, he was guest conductor for the opening concert of the Colorado Music Festival.

Butterman is a skilled and thoughtful conductor. Under his direction, the Phil presents worthy, professional-quality performances of programs tailored to the Boulder audience. Often that means a careful combination of challenging new works and familiar favorites. Past explorations have included concerts accompanied by aerial artists, music by the original mother of invention Frank Zappa, and the premiere of CU faculty member Jeffrey Nytch’s First Symphony, inspired by Colorado’s geological formations.

Conforming to the pattern, the opening concert of the ‘14–15 season features the world premiere of Gates of the Arctic by Stephen Lias and the perennially popular Scheherazade by Rimsky-Korsakov. Other highlights of the season will include works inspired by birds; a pops concert featuring music by piano men Billy Joel and Elton John; concertos for timpani, violin and piano; and ending with Bartók’s virtuoso showpiece Concerto for Orchestra. (Season information and tickets available here.)

Cynthia Katsarellis and the Pro Music Colorado Chamber Orchestra

Cynthia Katsarelis and the Pro Music Colorado Chamber Orchestra

The Pro Musica Chamber Orchestra is fully professional orchestra, although operating at a more modest scale than the BPO. With only three concerts in a season and a much smaller number of musicians, their budget for the coming year is $63,000.

Still, the orchestra, under the direction of Cynthia Katsarelis, presents some terrific performances and offers intriguing repertoire for smaller orchestra. For example, one of last year’s program paired Vivaldi’s much loved Seasons with the fascinating, tango-inflected Four Seasons of Buenos Aires by Astor Piazzolla.

Players in the Pro Musica come from the CU faculty and professional orchestras on the front range. Katsarelis is a first-rate conductor who probably does not get enough recognition locally. She has conducted at the Colorado Music Festival, Rocky Ridge Music Festival and Loveland Opera Theatre. Every year since 2004 she has traveled to Haiti to conduct the Orchestre Philharmonique Sainte Trinité and to teach at the Holy Trinity School of Music in Port-au-Prince.

Katsarellis likes to explore themes in her concerts; building on the success of last year’s “Seasons,” the coming year will include a performance of Philip Glass’ Violin Concerto No. 2, “American Seasons.” There will also be a concert titled “American Voice” featuring Samuel Barber’s idyllic Knoxville: Summer of 1915 and a special performance with the silent film The Passion of Joan of Arc. (Season opens Oct. 17; information and tickets available here.)

Bahman Saless with the Boulder Chamber Orcehstra. Photo by Keith Bobo.

Bahman Saless with the Boulder Chamber Orcehstra. Photo by Keith Bobo.

There is another mostly professional chamber orchestra here, the Boulder Chamber Orchestra (BCO).

This group was established in 2004 by music director Bahman Saless when friends suggested he start an amateur orchestra. Since then, the orchestra has become almost entirely paid (except for a few members who decline payment), and operates a season of seven concerts, a New Year’s Eve performance, and a couple of “MiniChamber” concerts on a budget of about $147,000.

A physicist-turned-conductor with a Ph.D. from CU and experience working for NASA and Jet Propulsion Laboratories, Saless is a genial presence at the BCO’s performances. He often speaks to the audience and has built a devoted following in the community. He loves to find key words—often enigmatic—to describe the orchestra’s season and concerts. For example, 2014–15, the BCO’s 11th season, is titled “Mystique” and the opening concert, Sept. 19, featuring Michael Haydn’s Requiem in C minor performed with St. Martin’s Chamber Choir, is titled “Charisma.”

Saless often invites compelling but little known soloists to join the orchestra. The coming year will feature performances by Spanish pianist Victoria Aja playing De Falla’s Nights in the Gardens of Spain and presenting a solo “Night of Spanish Piano Masterpieces,” Israeli-American cellist Inbal Segev and American violinist Andrew Sords, among others. (Season information and tickets available here.)

Devin Patrick Hughes

Devin Patrick Hughes

A community orchestra that has mostly remained so is the Boulder Symphony, formerly known as the Timberline Symphony.With an annual budget of $100,000, the orchestra has some paid members, including the string section principals, among volunteer musicians. They present six orchestra programs during the year, also offer four open rehearsals of pending concerts, and participate in educational activities.

Conductor of the Boulder Symphony is Devin Patrick Hughes, a young and dynamic personality who also leads the Arapahoe Philharmonic. He has also recently held conducting positions as Music Director of the Santa Fe Youth Symphony Association, Denver Contemporary Chamber Players, Resident Conductor of the Denver Philharmonic Orchestra, and Assistant Conductor for the Denver Young Artists Orchestra.

Hughes likes to collaborate with other local groups, such as Denver’s contemporary music Playground Ensemble, and has presented several world premieres—an unusual style of programming for a community orchestra. He has invited a number of young artists to appear as soloist with the orchestra. For example, the current season includes appearances by violinist Phoenix Avalon, a 13-year-old prodigy who has played with the Boulder Symphony in past seasons, and pianist Toku Kawata, a graduate student at CU. (Season opens Sept. 20; information and tickets available here.)

University Symphony

University Symphony in Macky Auditorium

The list of Boulder orchestras is rounded out by the CU University Symphony Orchestra, led by Prof. Gary Lewis, who is also director of Orchestral Studies in the College of Music as well as music director of the Midland-Odessa (Texas) Symphony.

Concerts by the University Symphony are held in Macky Auditorium on the CU campus and are free. Obviously a non-professional, student ensemble, the University Symphony—the top orchestral ensemble in the College of Music—presents fully satisfying performances of major orchestral repertoire.

Their first concert of the 2014–15 season, at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 18, will feature Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, and subsequent concerts this year will include Robert Schumann’s Symphony No. 3 (“Rhenish”), Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade and Respighi’s Pines of Rome.

If you look beyond the Boulder city limits, there are still more orchestras in the county. Particularly noteworthy is the Longmont Symphony Orchestra, a semi-professional orchestra with paid principal players throughout the orchestra and volunteer musicians selected by audition filling out the sections. The annual budget for six subscription concerts, two Nutcracker performances, a holiday concert and a community concert on the 4th of July is $240,000. Conductor of the Longmont Symphony is Robert Olson, known to Boulder audiences as the founding director of Boulder’s MahlerFest. Highlights of the coming season will include yet another performance of Scheherazade, a youth concert featuring music about spies led by Colorado Public Radio’s David Rutherford, an all-Sibelius evening and an all-American concert with Leonard Bernstein’s seldom heard “Jeremiah” Symphony. (Season begins Oct. 4; information and tickets available here.)

There is another community orchestra in the county, the Flatirons Community Orchestra in northeast Boulder County, and youth orchestras in Boulder and Longmont. All of these groups deserve support. I doubt that anyone will get to all of the concerts presented by these orchestras, but if you don’t find an orchestral program that appeals to you, you’re not looking. With so much to choose from, there’s a limit to what anyone can do, but I will try to preview all the major orchestras of Boulder throughout the year, either here or in the pages of Boulder Weekly.

In the meantime, let the music begin! I’ll see you in the audience.

Winners and Losers

One last assessment of the Metropolitan Opera’s labor agreements

By Peter Alexander

Who won and who lost at the Met? It depends.

THe Metropolitan Opera House (interior)

The Metropolitan Opera House (interior)

On Wednesday (Aug. 20), the New York Times reported on the agreement that was reached with the third of the Metropolitan Opera’s three major unions, Local 1 of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, representing stagehands, carpenters and electricians.

The other two major unions, representing the orchestra and the chorus members, had reached agreement with the Met early on Monday. (See my post on that agreement here.) And an agreement with the remaining unions at the Met was reached on Thursday night, as reported again by the New York Times. These include unions representing scenic artists and designers, the costume department, and others.

These agreements end the conflict between management that has raged for several months and resulted in Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager, withdrawing the threat of a lockout. He has confirmed that the Met will open its fall season as scheduled on Sept. 22, with a performance of The Marriage of Figaro conducted by James Levine.

Lincoln Center Plaza and the Metropolitan Opera House

Lincoln Center Plaza and the Metropolitan Opera House

The deal with the musicians’ unions called for an immediate 3.5 percent pay cut, followed by another 3.5 percent six months later, and no raise until the fourth year of the contract. The agreement with the stagehands has been reported to provide comparable cuts in labor costs, although the deal had to be written differently because of the different work rules and benefits packages in the contract with that union’s workers, and because their agreement is for six years instead of four.

But if it sounds like the concessions from the unions—the first pay cut accepted by the Met’s union workers in many years—represent a win by the management, that would be a hasty conclusion, for three reasons. In the first place, Peter Gelb had demanded a 17 percent pay cut from labor, and said that the Metropolitan would have to close otherwise. So the much smaller size of the pay cut than what Gelb was demanding makes his “win” look much less significant.

In the second place, the unions won some battles as well, in that the settlement calls for management to make its own, comparable cuts in the budget. The unions had argued that extravagant production expenses were part of the problem, and while there simply were not enough savings to be made in production costs to solve the Met’s budget woes, the fact that the final agreement took the form it did implies that the federal mediator for the negotiations with the musicians found merit in the union’s complaints. (The stagehands had separate negotiations that did not involve a mediator.)

Finally—and this speaks directly to the union’s complaints about Gelb’s leadership—the deal calls for an independent

Peter Gelb, general manager of the Met

Peter Gelb, general manager of the Met

monitor to keep an eye on the Met’s budget and expenses. This must be a particularly galling concession for Gelb, whose rather freewheeling, pop culture approach to opera was supposed to bring in larger, younger audiences and save the Met.

Apparently he has not accomplished either of those goals.

The question remains what effect this will have on regional opera throughout the country and here in Colorado. Will this settlement make it possible for other companies to ask for pay cuts from their employees, and to reign in costs in other ways? Will it put pressure on other companies to trim their production costs, or to make their finances more transparent, as the Met was forced to do in the course of negotiations?

For now, leaders of opera companies in this area have declined to comment on the Met’s settlement, although they do say they are keeping an eye on the situation.

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For other perspectives of the Metropolitan Opera and it’s labor settlement, read these articles:

Jennifer Maloney’s highly complementary evaluation of Peter Gelb’s leadership of the Met can be read here.

Her previous, more balanced, assessment of the deal is here.

Blogger Greg Sandow’s more critical take on Gelb can be found in three installments linked from here.

The cheeky opera-fanatic blog “Parterre Box” has posted a copy of the agreement between the Met and the American Guild of Musical Artists, representing the Met Chorus, here.

The gossipy blogger Norman Lebrecht’s take on the settlement, which he sees as a “surrender” and a “humiliation for Peter Gelb,” can be found here

It’s a Deal at the Metropolitan Opera

Tentative agreement with two unions forestalls lockout at the Met

By Peter Alexander

Metropolitan Opera House, Lincoln Center, New York

Metropolitan Opera House, Lincoln Center, New York

The New York Times reports this morning, Monday, Aug. 18, that “the Metropolitan opera reached tentative agreements with the unions representing its orchestra and chorus.”

This agreement, which was announced about 6:15 a.m. today, forestalls the possibility of a lockout and means that the Met could still open on its scheduled date of Sept. 22. Opening night is to be a new production of Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro and a Met debut by the young American soprano Amanda Majeski, who is cast in the major role of the Countess.

Negotiations went all night Sunday night and extended several hours past the previously announced deadline of midnight. The deal was announced by Allison Beck, a federal mediator who was brought in just before the previous deadline for an agreement.

The agreement does not include the stagehands’ union, which is the third major union at the Met, nor any of the smaller unions that have contracts due for negotiation this year. However, the agreement with unions representing the orchestra and chorus likely paves the way for the other unions to reach an agreement.

Because details of the agreement have not yet been released, it is impossible to declare “winners” or “losers,” or to know how much each side gave in order to save the season. The one thing that is certain, though, is that not only opera lovers, but the American arts world wins from the resolution of a long and bitter battle between unions and Peter Gelb, the general manager of the Met.

Prince Igor poppies

The famous poppies in Price Igor. © Jonathan Tichler/Metropolitan Opera

In the runup to negotiations, Gelb, who was asking for 17-percent pay cuts from workers at the Met, traded accusations with the unions. Attention was placed on the highly expensive and critically unsuccessful productions Gelb has mounted since becoming general manager in 2006. But as extravagant as some productions have been—a $169,000 poppy field in Prince Igor has become particularly notorious—independent analyses of the Met’s budget suggested that production cuts alone could not solve the Met’s financial problems, and that the unions would have to give some ground as well.

While the Metropolitan Opera seems like it is a long way from Colorado, this resolution is important here and around the country. For one thing, the Met “Live in HD” broadcasts to movie theaters are popular all across the country. So there is a local audience for the Met in Boulder, Denver, and anywhere else movie theaters carry the broadcasts. It has been reported that the theaters were very reluctant to lose the income they receive from the broadcasts.

Beyond that, the Met is the most prominent advocate for opera in the country, and the loss of such a high-profile company, performing on the highest artistic level, would be a blow to the art form, to singers and opera lovers and musicians everywhere. The successes and failures of the Met influence the success and failure of opera companies everywhere, including Central City and Opera Colorado.

Until details are released and all the unions reach agreements with management we cannot consider the labor disputes totally resolved. But today there is room to breathe and reason for hope.

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Update: 2:40 p.m. 18 Aug. This story from the Wall St. Journal adds some details about the agreement. If these are accurate, they certainly sound reasonable, with cuts in both salaries and production costs. Not all the details are yet clear on how the cuts are to be accomplished, but presumably that will be worked out in the coming weeks.

One thing to keep in mind is that one reason labor costs that have been so high has to do with rules about overtime pay. Because the Met has mounted so many large productions of operas that are long, or have complex scenery changes, or both, it is difficult to separate production costs and labor costs. In other words, an overly complex production will cost a lot to mount, and part of that cost comes from extended hours from the stagehands and other production staff.

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Tuesday, 19 August: Today’s story from the New York Times adds more details. You should read the whole article, but here are the most critical parts:

The workers agreed to a 3.5 percent cut in wages upon ratification, and another 3.5 percent reduction six months later — either in the form of another wage cut or, if they agree in further negotiations, as a change in benefits. Part of those cuts would be restored with a 3 percent raise in the second half of the fourth year.

. . .

[T]he Met’s management agreed not only to match the value of the labor cuts on the administrative side, but also to cut $11.25 million worth of other expenses — which may include cutting costs, scheduling more carefully, or reducing rehearsals — in each of the four years of the contract. And in an unusual provision eagerly sought by the unions, the Met’s management agreed to have an independent analyst monitor its finances.

It appears everyone realized that a prolonged lockout or work stoppage would be disastrous for the Met, for opera in general, and also for them individually. Happily for everyone, rehearsals for the coming season can now continue uninterrupted.

Decision time is at hand for Colorado Music Festival

CMF Music Director search now in the hands of festival officials

By Peter Alexander

And then there were none.

Chautauqua Auditorium home of the Colorado Music Festival

Chautauqua Auditorium, home of the Colorado Music Festival

All of the conductors have come and gone: the three official candidates to succeed Michael Christie as music director of the Colorado Music Festival, the unofficial candidates, the popular favorites, and the other guest conductors.

It has been an interesting few weeks, with rumors swirling and unexpected statements from the search committee—in one case, from the stage before a concert. As a professional violinist who has played worldwide and participated in several conductor searches wrote to me recently, “Nothing brings the blood to a full boil as a conductor search can!”

Now it’s up to the CMF board, the search committee, and the new executive director, Andrew Bradford. The decision will be entirely in their hands: there will be no musicians from the orchestra and no CMF staff members other than the newly-arrived Bradford at the table. Deliberations will begin this coming week, with a decision to be announced after all the details fall into place. Let’s hope everyone’s blood has gone off the boil as the decision gets made.

Here is what we know: the committee originally selected five finalists. These were culled from recommendations to the board as well as applicants who contacted the CMF. Of those five, three were able to schedule a full week of concerts here at Chautauqua during the summer, with two different programs each—one for the full symphony and one for chamber orchestra.

These were the summer’s official music director candidates. I have posted interviews with all three: William Boughton, Carlos Miguel Prieto, and Jean-Marie Zeitouni.

Over the summer, the festival was in the hands of several other guest conductors—a fact that gave the season a rather colorless quality compared to the vivid festivals Michael Christie put together, and probably contributed to the lower attendance this year. (This does not reflect on the quality of the guests, official candidates and others, some of whom gave excellent and exciting concerts.)

Many of the guest conductors were clearly not in the running for music director. Michael Butterman, the director of the Boulder Philharmonic who conducted the opening night concert, has stated he did not want to take on the festival. Cynthia Katsarellis, director of the Colorado Pro Music Chamber Orchestra in Boulder who conducted children’s concerts, was not in contention.

With some of the other guests, the status is more murky. With word getting around that some of the guests were popular with musicians and others in the community, the search committee released a statement Aug. 1 that concluded “we will be looking at everyone we have seen,” a splendidly ambiguous sentence that might refer to the other guest conductors. Or might not.

The most surprising announcement from the search committee was that violinist/conductor Andrés Cardenes, who taught at CU-Boulder for two years and is co-director of String Music Festival in Steamboat Springs, was “a fourth finalist” who was “unable to conduct in Boulder this summer.”

In reality, however, Cardenes can be ruled out as a serious candidate. The board would be unlikely (and unwise) to hire someone who has never conducted the CMF orchestra and is unknown to the public, after so much time and energy has been invested in the other candidates.

The music director’s job is far more than what the orchestra and the public see on the podium. He has to maintain relations with the executive director, the board, major contributors, and other cultural leaders in the community. He has to help raise funds for the festival. And he has to be able to plan a six-week festival that engages successfully with all of these constituencies. Much of this work is done behind closed doors and is invisible to public and critics alike.

But of course he must also excite musicians and audiences with his performances. In other words, the public part of his job has to be exciting, if not spectacular.

With that in mind, here are my impressions of the conductors who have a shot at the job of music director:

William Boughton; photo by Harold Shapiro

William Boughton; photo by Harold Shapiro

The first to appear this summer, William Boughton has a British charm that Americans love. He would be excellent in the social aspects of the job—working with boards and contributors. He is also a decent conductor who did a good job with the concerts he led. But it was no more than that. The performances were solid but not exciting, and I fear that the festival under his direction would not have the cutting edge it needs to keep growing. As much as I enjoyed Boughton’s presence at the festival, he would be my third choice of the three official candidates.


Jean-Marie Zeitouni

Jean-Marie Zeitouni, the most recent of the candidates, would be second choice. He led an impressive performance of a couple of virtuoso orchestra show pieces, the Richard Strauss tone poems Don Juan and Ein Heldenleben (A hero’s life). The performances showed off the orchestra’s skill and Zeituoni’s ability to manage the orchestral forces. But the interpretation was too one-dimensional, with too much reliance on the orchestra’s ability to deliver a impressive sound. A more nuanced interpretation would show a more consistent balance within the orchestra, create a contour over the entire span of a large work, and deliver a greater impact at the end.

In other ways Zeitouni does not seem a good fit for Boulder. He is more of a maestro than the others, which implies a kind of distance that could create barriers. I do not believe he would work effectively with the public, the board and the donors.

Carlos Miguel Prieto. Photo by Peter Schaaf

Carlos Miguel Prieto. Photo by Peter Schaaf

My first choice of the official candidates is Carlos Miguel Prieto. I loved his program of Diaghilev ballets, and it was especially exciting to hear the full, original version of Stravinsky’s Petrushka, which is exactly the kind of programming that a summer festival can exploit. In that one concert he showed the knack for creating a program that is both musically exciting and intellectually engaging.

His rapport with the musicians and the genuine enthusiasm with which he recognized the players was evident. Because the Colorado Music Festival depends to a larger extent than standing symphonies on the personal relationships among conductor, players and public, that is an especially important quality for the next musical director.

His past record of leading a festival in Mexico City and creating programs based around interesting ideas is very appealing for the CMF. He was very approachable, he seems gracious and personally charming, and shows a great enthusiasm for the music he is conducting. I believe he has the ability to take the festival into the future.

One other conductor needs to be mentioned. I have never seen a greater show of enthusiasm for a conductor from an orchestra than the CMF players showed to Andrew Grams at the end of his very exciting concert of Russian masterworks. The entire program was electrifying, and his work with piano soloist William Wolfram was magical.

Grams is not an official candidate, but he has a very interesting perspective on his time here this summer. He considers every guest

Andrew Grams

Andrew Grams

conducting engagement an opportunity to build relationships for the future.

“I approach every engagement that I have as a potential time to forge new and hopefully lasting relationships,” Grams said. “To me, it’s not that important to get a job. It’s much more important to find those connections that can make good quality work possible. When you find it, you want to nurture it and keep it going.”

Whether as guest or in a more permanent relationship, there is no doubt that Grams is interested in the Colorado Music Festival. “The time that I’ve had here, just with the musicians alone, has made this whole festival seem incredibly attractive,” he said.

Grams confirmed that he met with at least some members of the search committee while he was in Boulder. “They would ask me questions and I answered them, and I asked them questions,“ is the way he put it. “It was productive in that I think it really helped clarify where everybody stands.”

It should be noted that neither Grams, nor anyone from the festival, used the word “interview” to describe the contacts. But the concert he conducted, and the rapport he established with the musicians, were such that we should all hope that the connectivity he found here will continue into the future in one form or another.

Michael Christie. So-Min Kang Photography

Michael Christie. So-Min Kang Photography

The final word about the search should go to Michael Christie, a music director so beloved to Boulder audiences that I heard several festival patrons discussing the newest addition to his family on the Hop2 Chautauqua bus after a concert. He truly became like family to many in Boulder.

Earlier this summer, I asked him if he had any thoughts about the future of the festival he had led so successfully. “Naturally, I wish them and their future leaders well,” he said.

“A lot of blood, sweat and tears went into the success of that festival over my time and certainly many years before then. There’s a solid artistic foundation a music director can build upon and I can’t imagine anyone would put anything less than 100% into it.”

The stakes are high. Let us all hope that the board has found the director who can build on Christie’s foundation, and that he will rebuild the festival’s impressive momentum from past years.

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NOTE: Corrections have been made to this post on 8/10/14. I inadvertently typed “Colorado Springs” instead of Steamboat Springs as the location of the String Music Festival, and I originally typed “about six” candidates when in fact my notes show that I was told there were five.

CMF’s “Music Mash-up” series earns mixed review

Beethoven/Coldplay and other blurred lines at Colorado Music Festival

By Peter Alexander

Let’s get one thing out of the way: mashups are nothing new.

Today the term usually means the blending together of music by different pop artists, by overlaying tracks from separate recordings into a new piece. This concept is the basis of the “Music Mash-up” series at the Colorado Music Festival, which just finished its second year.

Steve Hackman, music director of CMF's "Music Mash=up" series

Steve Hackman, music director of CMF’s “Music Mash-up” series

But it is also just about as old as written music. Remixes and what were called “break-in” songs go back just about as far as recordings. The history of recorded mashups is complex and fascinating, from “Stairway to Gilligan’s Island” (a mashup of Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” and the theme from the “Gilligan’s Island” TV show) to the world of hip-hop DJs and “turntablism.”

But composers were borrowing from each other long before recordings. In the 16th century the “parody mass” was music written for performance in the Catholic mass using music from secular songs and other sources, with new music interposed into the original song. This became so popular that in 1562 the church’s Council of Trent banned the use of secular music in services.

At the CMF the mashups have taken two forms. One is the creation of a new score by combining a classical piece with music by a contemporary popular group or artist. In 2013, it was Brahms’s First Symphony and Radiohead’s album “OK Computer” that were blended together in a score written and conducted by Steve Hackman. That performance featured the CMF orchestra performing Brahms and material written or arranged by Hackman, and three vocalists singing music and lyrics by Radiohead.

This year, it was Beethoven’s Third Symphony and music by the British rock band Coldplay that were blended, again in a score created and conducted by Hackman. The performance again featured the orchestra and the same three singers. (Hackman, a conservatory-trained musician with an equal love for popular and classical music, was named Music Director for the 2014 Mash-up series.)

These are genuine mashups, putting together music from two different sources. I will have more to say about them, but first I want to turn to the second form of event in CMF’s “Music Mash-up” series. Two performances on this year’s festival fall into this second category, and they are in fact little more than traditional pops concerts, featuring an orchestra and a guest artist from the popular music world—something Arthur Fielder was doing with the Boston Pops in the 1940s and ‘50s.

San Fermin

San Fermin

One of the two pops/mashups (as I will call these concerts to distinguish them from the Music Mash-up series as a whole) this year featured three female vocalists, singing their own material in arrangements for orchestra. The second featured the Brooklyn-based San Fermin—sometime called a Baroque-pop band—performing material from their self-titled first album and some newer pieces.

I only heard the second of these, with San Fermin, and on that concert the orchestra contributed very little. It was essentially a San Fermin concert with backup—something that makes sense for a popular concert series, but seems out of place in the Colorado Music Festival.

San Fermin itself is an interesting band with a unique sound. The songs from their original album were a little too much alike, but the new material was inventive and intriguing. I remain unconvinced by the claim that the band is focused on “life’s top-shelf issues,” which are enumerated in the program notes as “youth, nostalgia, anxiety, unrequited love.” These are not really life’s top-shelf issues—but maybe that’s just the over-30 (admittedly way over 30) curmudgeon in me.

It’s clear to anyone who attended this summer’s Music Mash-up concerts that while Beethoven/Coldplay had a sold-out and enthusiastic audience, the house was much smaller for the two pops/mashup events. There were some fans in the audience—San Fermin got some loud cheers from the back of the house—but not enough of them to meet what I assume were the expectations. Perhaps San Fermin is not well known in Boulder; perhaps other, better known artists would have attracted an equally enthusiastic and larger audience.

In any case, I question whether pops concerts of this type are the best use of the CMF’s resources. This year the three Music Mash-up concerts took all three Tuesday nights that previously had been devoted to the World Music series. That series featured some of the most creative and intriguing performances of the festival, and had the potential to energize new audiences. (Need I mention that the inclusion of various ethnicities in the World Music categories could reach portions of Colorado’s population that are conspicuously absent most nights at Chautauqua?)

Brahms/Radiohead at the 2013 Colorado Music Festival

Brahms/Radiohead at the 2013 Colorado Music Festival

Turning to the concerts that I consider to be genuine mashups, the perspective is more positive. The 2013 Brahms/Radiohead combo was very successful. Hackman said specifically that he chose those two sources because of stylistic compatibility, and the score flows seamlessly in and out of the Brahms symphony. It is not entirely to my taste—I prefer Brahms neat, thank you—but I still consider it a worthy and successful mashup of two creative and interesting artists. With the increasingly eclectic tastes of younger listeners (and not so young, for that matter), this is a project worthy of the festival.

That said, I found this year’s mashup to be less successful. Hackman says he chose Coldplay to go with Beethoven not for its musical or stylistic similarity, but because of “a feeling and a universality that they have in common, because of the simplicity of their music and yet the beauty of it, and the themes that are prevalent in the music.”

He is talking about the way that Beethoven tackles, even without words, major humanistic issues through his music. That is part of the profundity we feel in Beethoven’s music, which Hackman aligns with Coldplay lyrics such as “nobody said it was easy” and “when you try so hard but you don’t succeed.”

“How Beethoven are those lines?” Hackman asks.

To answer him honestly, not very. Simplicity and universality are not the same as profundity.

Comparing those quotes to what Beethoven is expressing is like comparing greeting card sentiments to Shakespeare. And as Hackman suggested, the stylistic combination was awkward at best, so the mashup of Beethoven with Coldplay was not nearly as seamless or successful as Brahms/Radiohead. In short, while I admire Hackman’s ambition and his work as an arranger, the two mashup scores are not equally successful.

Another point is worth mentioning. In fascination over the pop-music part of his arrangements, it is easy to overlook the fact that Hackman is conducting a symphony orchestra in major portions of symphonies by Brahms and Beethoven. His conducting is clear and efficient, and the performances of Brahms and Beethoven that he elicited from CMF’s excellent orchestra were eloquent.

On the basis of two years of Music Mash-up concerts at the Colorado Music Festival, I think the genuine mashups are worth pursuing. Hackman’s arrangements are never less than skillful and intriguing. He should search out new and more far-ranging sources and combinations. I look forward to his next mashup score.

On the other hand, something better than pops concerts are needed to fill out a series. And none of this is worth giving up the World Music concerts from past years. CMF has to go forward, and it needs to do so with insight into both audience building and first-rate musical values.

Four or more for Music Director

By Peter Alexander

Rumors have been swirling around Chautauqua all summer.

When the Colorado Music Festival announced its summer season, it was stated that three of the guest conductors were candidates to replace Michael Christie as music director of the festival. Those three were William Boughton, Carlos Miguel Prieto and Jean-Marie Zeitouni. Of the three, Boughton and Prieto have already appeared at the festival, and Zeitouni will conduct in the festival’s final week, Aug. 3 and 7-8.

But other conductors were well liked by the orchestra and had expressed an interest in the job. Were they candidates or not?

That depended on who you talked to. Members of the orchestra said they were. Or some of them were. But officially, they weren’t. Or probably weren’t.

Officially there were three candidates, and the CMF Board and search committee admitted they had no contingency plan if none of the three worked out or accepted the position. That seemed a perilous situation, considering the festival’s past record of hiring an executive director, when it took a year and one failed hire to get Andrew Bradford into the job. But that was the official position.

Until now.


Andrés Cárdenes, another potential candidate for music director of the CMF

Andrés Cárdenes, another potential candidate for music director of the CMF

Today the search committee issued a statement acknowledging that more than just the three official candidates were finalists for the job. Andrés Cárdenes, who taught violin for two years in CU Boulder and is co-director of Strings Music Festival in Steamboat Springs, is also a candidate, even though he was not able to conduct this summer. And apparently the committee is open to other possibilities as well.

Here is the statement from the search committee:

 “We have three candidates for the music director position, and these are Maestros Boughton, Prieto, and Zeitouni. A fourth finalist, Andrés Cárdenes, was unable to conduct in Boulder this summer, but members of our team observed him in Steamboat and he did meet with the committee. These wonderful men emerged from a search that produced scores of applicants, and they have been thoroughly vetted and examined, and we have been fortunate to attract them this summer. They are all highly accomplished musicians who would be of interest to any great orchestra. We’ve also been fortunate in finding and engaging other guest conductors this summer, including Michael Butterman, Joshua Gersen, Andrew Grams, and Lawrence Rachleff. At the end of the summer, we will meet and discuss the matter and make an approach to the person whom we think is best suited for the job, and we will be looking at everyone we have seen.”

For anyone who has been following the festival over the summer, this is a fascinating statement. Until now, Cárdenes has not figured in the discussion of potential candidates. The rumors have all been about other guest conductors on the summer schedule, particularly Rachelff and Grams.

None of this is about qualifications, by the way. Cárdenes has extensive experience as a violinist, teacher and conductor that would make him an interesting fit for the job leading both the CMF summer festival and the Center for Musical Arts. (Disclosure: I knew him slightly when we were both graduate students at Indiana University.) And some of the guest conductors have made impressions as strong as, or stronger than, some of the official candidates—which makes the very last phrase of the statement particularly fascinating.

The committee says “we will be looking at everyone we have seen.” But they do not specify just who is included in “everyone.”

In any case, it is now official that the search committee is considering other possibilities than the three “official” candidates. And by saying so, the festival has helped settle the rumors.