By Peter Alexander
From the Arctic tundra to the Arabian sea, the Boulder Philharmonic opened their 2014-15 season in Macky Auditorium with a strong performance of a strong program.
Music Director Michael Butterman led the orchestra in the world premiere of Gates of the Arctic by Stephen Lias; the Second Piano Concerto of Camille Saint-Saëns with soloist Gabriela Martinez; and Scheherazade by Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov, which gave the orchestra the opportunity to introduce new concertmaster Charles Wetherbee.
Speaking before the performance, Butterman explained that this is the orchestra’s season of “Legends,” featuring pieces that tell stories drawn from a variety of myths and legends. I have frequently enjoyed Butterman’s programming, and this concert, combining a provocative and intriguing new piece, a highly interesting soloist playing repertoire beyond the usual warhorses, and a virtuoso orchestra showpiece, hit all the right notes for a season opener.
Gates of the Arctic is an unabashedly programmatic piece that describes Lias’ 2012 residency in Gates of the Arctic National Park. He backpacked with a ranger within the park—which is entirely wilderness, without a visitor’s center or even a single road within its boundaries—for 10 days, following a caribou migration. In performance, the music was closely coordinated with photos of the park, some taken by Lias.
In addition to being visually spectacular, the photos left no doubt what was being portrayed in the music, from the long hours of trekking with a heavy backpack, to sightings of caribou, bears and wolves, and finally a placid lake that mirrored the spectacular mountains in the park. Gates of the Arctic is thoroughly entertaining, especially with the photographic accompaniment. But it is also a well crafted and skillfully designed piece that features strong contrasts and great musical drama, woven into an effective orchestral score.
Some of my more curmudgeonly composer friends might ask, “but is it great music?” In answer I would say, Bach, Mozart and Verdi didn’t sit down to write “great music.” They sat down to write music for their audiences, much of it purely for entertainment. Time will tell us if Lias’ music survives our generation, but it is music that clearly reached the Boulder audience, who gave it a standing ovation.
The Saint-Saëns concerto is a piece that comes much more alive in performance than in any recording. Martinez, a Venezuelan who has performed with the famed Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra and is now being championed by superstar conductor Gustavo Dudamel, was especially convincing in the free, fantasy-like opening movement. I especially liked her dynamic control, and the sense of spontaneity and freedom that she conveyed. Her sparkling runs and bounding arpeggios showed full technical command in the remaining movements, but the piano sound seemed underpowered at times—perhaps a victim of Macky’s inhospitable acoustics?
Another piece of program music, Scheherazade is always an audience pleaser—as it was for Butterman and the Boulder Phil. Wetherbee played the extensive violin solos with a sweetness and purity of tone that was exemplary. The solos in the cello and the wind sections were all well played, although coordination between players in the back of Macky’s deep stage and those in front was at times a little rocky.
Tricky acoustics aside, Butterman led a carefully modulated performance. The Boulder Phil strings cannot provide the sound that we hear on recordings by the Philadelphia and other orchestras with 60-plus players in the string sections and more hospitable acoustics, but the orchestra made effective work of all the big moments in the score, once again compelling the audience to their feet. It was, in the end, a satisfying performance of a much-loved piece.
Like Sinbad’s ship, the Boulder Philharmonic is well launched on a season that will feature many “Legends” and other stories in music. Let’s hope that the storm at sea where “The Ship Goes to Pieces on a Rock” remains confined to Rimsky-Korsakov’s evocative score.
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Author’s Note: I do not plan on reviewing every concert that I preview here, or every one that is worthy of such coverage. But as the beginning of a new season by one of Boulder’s older musical institutions, and with a world premiere, this concert perhaps earned a little more attention—especially since I and the audience enjoyed it so much.
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This post has been edited to correct grammar and typos.