New CMF music director Jean-Marie Zeitouni: “Don’t call me maestro!”

The conductor wants to build a relationship with the orchestra

Jean-Marie Zeitouni

Jean-Marie Zeitouni

By Peter Alexander

Jean-Marie Zeitouni, the new music director of the Colorado Music Festival, finds Boulder a very comfortable place to fit in and make friends.

Just don’t call him “maestro.”

He made this clear when he introduced the 2015 festival season Thursday evening (Feb. 26) at the Chautauqua Community House. “You can call me Jean-Marie or JMZ,” he said. “You can call me many things behind my back. But don’t call me maestro.”

When asked about that a couple of days later, he shook his head and made a sour face. “No,” he said. “I have played in an orchestra. There is not one master and the rest are slaves.”

This experience as an orchestra member is a very important part of the way Zeitouni thinks about his job here in Boulder. “I try to be the conductor I would want as a member of the orchestra,” he says. “The greatest goal for me this year (at the Colorado Music Festival) is to develop my relationship with the orchestra.”

One part of that relationship is to be found in the repertoire that Zeitouni, as music director, selects for the players, as members of the orchestra, to rehearse and perform. And in the season that was announced Thursday night, Zeitouni has included pieces that the musicians may be expected to relish.

For example, in addition to the usual Beethoven and Tchaikovsky and Sibelius symphonies, which the orchestra members have probably played many times, there are pieces such as Charles Ives’s Symphony No. 3 and Michael Daugherty’s Deus ex Machina that are outside the standard repertoire.

Surely some of the orchestra members will look forward to the French Baroque music of Jean-Philippe Rameau’s Les Boréades. A rarity like George Antheil’s Jazz Symphony will have its advocates. And next to the perennially popular American in Paris there is the rare opportunity to play Darius Milhaud’s response, A Frenchman in New York.

But probably nothing will be more exciting for the players than Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle. As with much of Bartók’s orchestral music, this is a virtuoso score that gives the players a chance to really show their worth. Although it has two singing characters, Zeitouni describes Bluebeard’s Castle as “an opera where the orchestra is the main character.” (It will be performed in Hungarian with English surtitles.)

Andrew Bradford

Andrew Bradford

Indeed, Zeitouni and CMF executive director Andrew Bradford confirm that they have already heard from members of the orchestra that this is the piece that they are most looking forward to.

Zeitouni, who lives in Montreal, will spend the summer in Boulder with his family. He readily cites Boulder’s concern for health, the environment, and the presence of many different cultural—and counter-cultural—elements as aspects of the city that he likes. “Like in Canada, you can be whoever you are,” he says. “I feel comfortable here.”

“It reminds me of the places I have been most joyous, in the Rockies of Canada, especially Banff.”

Speaking of their vision of the CMF, Zeitouni and Bradford point out that there were some limitations to what they could do in the first year. There was not time to develop partnerships that could be assets to the festival, and many potential soloists were not available on relatively short notice. That will change as they have more time to plan coming seasons.

2015-festival-icon-with-dates-300x213As for the future, Zeitouni says there is no fixed version of what any festival should be. He is clear that taking the heritage and the strengths of the CMF in consideration, they expect to move in new directions, aiming to make the summers more exciting, and to gain more national recognition for a festival that has already achieved a great deal in its history.

“We have many ideas” Zeitouni says. “We have big things in mind that we are starting to organize, but we want people to focus on what is there this year.

“What we have put together is quite good and we want to people to get excited about that.”

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Read my season preview, and view a complete listing of the summer’s concert, below.

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Boulder Bach Festival presents a complete realization of the B-minor Mass

J.S. Bach

J.S. Bach

By Peter Alexander

Zachary Carrettin and the Boulder Bach Festival last night (Feb. 28) delivered a performance of Bach’s monumental Mass in B minor that was creative, provocative, and sensational.

This was the first major work Carrettin has led since becoming musical director of the festival. If this is a harbinger of things to come, Boulder has much to look forward to.

The choral singing was immaculate, the orchestra superb, and the five soloists—sopranos Josefien Stoppelenburg and Melissa Givens, mezzo-soprano Julie Simson, tenor John Grau, and bass-baritone Michael Dean—were as well matched as any oratorio soloists you are likely to hear.

The B-minor Mass, nearly two hours of music, is a vast undertaking for any conductor or performing organization. It is so well known, and has been performed so often, that it is difficult to offer anything new. And yet Carrettin, who rethought the score from beginning to end, managed to make it fresh.

One departure from the norm was the choice to have some choral movements sung by the soloists rather than the full chorus. This is sanctioned by history, since the alternation between solo and group performance is one of the cornerstones of Baroque music, and Bach is known to have made similar decisions in performances he directed. There have even been modern Bach performances that reduced the entire chorus to soloists throughout, though few scholars endorse such an extreme.

Zachary Carrettin

Zachary Carrettin

For this performance, Carrettin used soloists to stress the personal as opposed to congregational expression of the text, as at the beginning of the Credo (“I believe in one God.”) This was extremely effective, both as a way to illuminate the meaning of the text, and as a source of variety in the texture and sound of the performance.

I was less convinced by another departure, when Carrettin gave the choral movement “Confiteor” (“I confess one baptism”) to a single soprano soloist and strings, converting a choral movement into an aria. On the one hand, this decision brings out the highly personal nature of the text at the moment that the soprano sings “I look for the resurrection of the dead.” But on the other, it suppresses the brilliant counterpoint among equal parts that Bach wrote.

There can be no complaint about the quality of the performance, however. Stoppelenburg has a soprano voice of remarkable purity and clarity, and her singing in the “Confiteor” was exquisite.

Another decision concerns the placement of the intermission. It usually occurs between the Gloria and the Credo movements, a location that corresponds to a break in the liturgical segments of the mass. But Carrettin understands that performances of the B-minor Mass are just that—performances—because the piece is not suited to use in a service. And so he decided move intermission to a moment of high drama within the Credo, immediately following the “Crucifixus” (“He was crucified’).

Boulder Bach Festival singers and players. Courtesy of the Boulder Bach Festival

Boulder Bach Festival singers and players. Courtesy of the Boulder Bach Festival

Carrettin had asked the audience not to applaud at that point, so Bach’s deeply moving music faded into silence, leaving the audience to contemplate the central event of Christian belief. That moment was made even more moving by the decision to have the “Crucifixus” sung only by the soloists, making it a musical expression of failing strength after the preceding full chorus.

After intermission, the audience returned for “Et resurrexit” (“And he rose again”), one of Bach’s most joyous and uplifting moments. Purists may object to having a break where there is usually continuity from sorrow to joy, but I found it highly effective as a moment of musical drama. It is this kind of creative rethinking that keeps the great masterpieces alive in our times.

On a purely musical level, the performance was extraordinary. The intonation among the singers and the orchestral players was exquisite, lending a clarity and transparency to Bach’s counterpoint that is only rarely achieved. This effect was aided by the meticulous phrasing, often based in the individual motives rather than long, Romantic lines that can obscure the exchanges among parts.

Earlier I praised Stoppelenburg’s performance of the “Confiteor,” but it would be unfair to single out only one soloist. They all sang with great precision of pitch and rhythm, rendering their complex lines, almost instrumental in quality, with remarkable clarity.

The balance among forces was carefully controlled throughout. In this respect particularly I would be remiss not to mention the brass players. The trumpets managed Bach’s high and difficult parts without ever overwhelming the singers, and the duet between horn and bassoon in the bass aria “Quoniam” becomes a new piece when the parts are so carefully balanced.

BBF-2014-15-season-brochure-pdfThe Boulder Bach Festival is likewise fortunate to have a flute player of the quality of Ysmael Reyes. His sound was gorgeous throughout, but especially in his duet with Grau in the “Benedictus.”

But above all else, I admired the pacing of the performance. It is hard to manage musical forces over such a long span of time, so that the chorus at the end of the Gloria can rise to a climax for the entire movement, and so that they can then achieve one more level of fullness of sound for the final “Dona nobis pacem,” before subsiding to a moment of rest and, indeed, peace.

In its accumulated impact, this may have been the most complete realization of the B-minor Mass I have heard. It was a remarkable achievement by the performers, and for everyone in attendance it was a night to remember.