Boulder Philharmonic selected for a brand new festival at the Kennedy Center

One of only four orchestras nationwide chosen for the inaugural event

By Peter Alexander

11215713_10153195763195865_3630514800314949666_nThe Boulder Philharmonic is one of only four orchestras from across North America chosen to participate in a new festival at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.

The new weeklong SHIFT Festival will take place at the Kennedy Center March 27–April 2, 2017. The other groups participating will be the Atlanta Symphony, the North Carolina Symphony, and the Brooklyn-based ensemble The Knights.

The selection was announced today (May 28) by the Kennedy Center and Washington Performing Arts. Michael Butterman, music director of the Boulder Phil, commented: “I am thrilled and honored that we’ve been selected to perform in our nation’s capital alongside some of the finest orchestras in the country.

Michael Butterman

Michael Butterman

“For several seasons, we’ve been fine-tuning our new mode for programming, called ‘The Spirit of Boulder,’ which reflects our community’s own values, creativity, and sense of place. By connecting people to orchestral music, the Boulder Phil strives to be an essential part of our community’s cultural fabric. We couldn’t be more delighted to share what’s working so well in Boulder with those involved in the first SHIFT Festival.”

The Boulder Phil’s performance at the Kennedy Center will be at 8 p.m. March 28, 2017. Butterman will conduct the program, “Nature and Music,” which was also the theme of the orchestra’s 2013–14 season. The concert will feature one world premiere and three pieces from the 2013–14 season:

Composer Stephen Lias

Composer Stephen Lias

A new work by Stephen Lias, commissioned to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service, performed with photography by Colorado photographer John Fielder. Lias has won several National Park artist-in-residence grants, and the Boulder Phil presented the world premiere of his orchestral work Gates of the Arctic at the opening concert of the 2014–15 season. Other works by Lias celebrating national parks include Denali for string orchestra; Glacier Bay for orchestra; Ghosts of Mesa Verde for two flutes; Kings Canyon for trumpet ensemble; Sequoia for trombone choir; and The Timberline Sonata for trumpet and piano, written following Lias’ 2010 residency in Rocky Mountain National Park.
• Jeff Midkiff’s Mandolin Concerto: From the Blue Ridge, performed by the Boulder Phil in April, 2014. Midkiff will be the soloist for the Kennedy Center performance, as he was in 2014.
• Ghosts of the Grasslands by Steve Heitzeg, performed in Boulder in March, 2014.
• Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring, performed with Boulder’s aerial dance troupe Frequent Flyers. Boulder Phil and Frequent Flyers presented Appalachian Spring in Macky Auditorium in November, 2013.

Boulder Phil with Frequent Flyers. Photo by Glenn Ross.

Boulder Phil with Frequent Flyers. Photo by Glenn Ross.

As part of their involvement in the SHIFT Festival, each participating orchestra will engage in a mini-residency, interacting with the surrounding community through educational and outreach activities, symposia, and community events in venues throughout Washington, D.C. Proposed festival activities for the Boulder Phil include nature hikes in Washington, D.C.’s Rock Creek, led by naturalist Dave Sutherland from Boulder’s Open Space & Mountain Parks, and outdoor performances by Boulder Phil ensembles.

These events draw on the activities of the 2013–14 season, which capitalized on local residents’ love of the outdoors by exploring the many ways that composers have been inspired by nature. Among other activities, the orchestra offered guided musical hikes, with the aim of bringing concert audiences outside, and enticing nature lovers into the concert hall.

“The SHIFT Festival showcases how America’s orchestras have shifted their visions to reflect the music and programming that’s unique to their own communities,” Butterman said. “We couldn’t be more honored to share our vision of the Boulder Phil, The Spirit of Boulder, with other orchestras across the country, doing the same thing.”

SHIFT: A Festival of American Orchestras is the first significant collaboration between the Kennedy Center and Washington Performing Arts in their shared history. The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation has awarded a $900,000 grant for the collaboration, of which $700,000 will be leveraged as matching funds for new gifts to support the program. Kennedy Center President Deborah Rutter and Washington Performing Arts President & CEO Jenny Bilfield made the announcement May 28 in Cleveland at the League of American Orchestras’ annual conference before an audience of nearly 1,000 orchestra administrators, musicians, trustees, and volunteers.

Collectively, the participating orchestras will offer repertoire by nine living composers, two world premieres, and numerous D.C.-area premieres during the festival, inspired by themes of nature, Americana, creation and creativity, and choral influences.

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You may read the Boulder Philharmonic’s press release here.

Information on the SHIFT Festival from the Kennedy Center can be seen here.

Kenneth Woods is “very excited” to be stepping into MahlerFest

The festival’s new music director looks forward to the music and the mountains

By Peter Alexander

Kenneth Woods. Photo by  Benjamin Ealovega.

Kenneth Woods. Photo by Benjamin Ealovega.

I spoke to Kenneth Woods, the incoming music director of Colorado MahlerFest, by phone recently. We talked about his vision and plans for the future of the festival, as well as a few personal details that will help introduce Woods to the Boulder audience. (For more on Woods, I highly recommend his blog, A View from the Podium.) Here is a lightly edited and condensed transcript of our conversation:

PA: You are clearly well aware of MahlerFest. Have you attended a performance before, or do you know of the festival by reputation? Have you met Robert Olson?

KW: I’ve never been able to attend a MahlerFest in the past, and I’ve never met Bob (Olson) in person. The degrees of separation between me and Bob, and me and the festival, are very few. I think I first became aware of it through an email listserv called Mahler List, which a lot of Mahler conductors and scholars and aficionados are on. And Colorado MahlerFest has always been a great gathering point for people on that list.

I can remember joining in back in the late ‘90s or early 2000s and everyone would be gearing up for Colorado MahlerFest, talking about what papers were presented, and what repertoire was played. So I became very aware of it then, and the sort of footprint of people who’d come through as speakers and lecturers is pretty astounding. There’s a lot of really interesting debate about key aspects of Mahler scholarship and performance that has come out of people who have spoken there, and the papers presented there, so there has been a lot of real great interest on the musicological side of the festival over the years. It’s a very small world, and particularly so when you get into Mahler. So I’m very excited to be stepping into that.

Gustav Mahler. Photo by Moritz Näher.

Gustav Mahler. Photo by Moritz Näher.

Mahler seems to attract a kind of devotion that other composers don’t—such as people traveling halfway around the world to go to a festival in Boulder. Why do you think that is?

I think part of it comes out of the historical way in which Mahler came into the repertoire. Even when I was growing up in the ‘70s and ‘80s the music was more written about than heard and performed. A performance of it was a rarity—back then you could come across the First and Fourth symphonies sometimes. But a piece like the Sixth or the Seventh or the Ninth was a real rarity.

My understanding is that one of the reasons Bob set up the festival, and one of the things that helped get it going initially, is that the music was not very often performed. For people who love it, there weren’t that many chances to perform it. That’s really changed in the past 15 years. It used to be considered something that only orchestras with the largest base of players and the biggest budgets would ever dare tackle. Of course, nowadays all sorts of youth orchestras and community orchestras play it. But I think for people who grew up in that age, that sense of advocacy and immersion and curiosity sticks with us.

For me working through the symphonies as a listener as a young musician, you had to order the record and wait for it to show up. You had to go looking for it. And the idea that you can go on YouTube now and instantaneously access dozens and dozens of Mahler performances these days—it’s a totally different world! And in that sense, I think MahlerFest means something very different that it probably did 28 years ago. That sense of discovery and immersion is really important. And to have a place that is all about Mahler, where you come and really focus on it for a week, I think is a really important thing for this music.

Kenneth Woods. Photo by Stephanie Yao/The Oregonian.

Kenneth Woods. Photo by Stephanie Yao/The Oregonian.

Do you think the fact that Mahler performances are much more common now than 28 years ago presents a challenge to the festival going forward?

The music is always going to be special and exciting and have great appeal to audiences. Staking out our territory as a place that really owns Mahler, that cares about Mahler—that’s not something that every conductor and every orchestra is well suited to. So it’s good to have a place where we can get back to first principles of Mahler, and really immerse ourselves in it. In terms of contextualizing the music, we’ve only sort of scratched the surface there, so I’m not worried about running out of things to do, anytime in my lifetime at least.

It’s almost a reverse of the paradigm of 30 years ago. At one point MahlerFest was needed because there was nowhere else to go to play and hear the music. Now it’s needed because we need a place where the music isn’t taken for granted, or just a piece that’s good for box office. In that respect, the festival is a very important institution, and one that I think makes a strong claim to being essential to the music.

Do you have any thoughts about next year? Do you expect to continue cycling through the major works, or have you even had time to think about that?

I’ve been thinking about it a lot, and nothing is set or announced. The big question is whether we finish the cycle that Bob has been working on the past several years, which is not quite complete yet, or start over from scratch with the First Symphony next year. I’m somewhat inclined to finish with the two symphonies that he hasn’t done in this cycle, which is Seven and Ten, in the next two years, for a couple of reasons.

The festival has never done the Deryck Cooke version of the Tenth Symphony [which the composer never finished], which was the first and in many ways the most influential. I think that would be a wonderful thing to add to the repertoire of the festival—it’s such an important moment in Mahler scholarship. And I also like the idea of getting to know each other, finding out what possibilities and the strengths and weaknesses are before we start on the next cycle.

Mahler's autograph score of Symphony No. 7.

Mahler’s autograph score of Symphony No. 7.

It could very well be that we start with Seven next year, which is one of my favorites in the cycle and not that often done generally. And then the Tenth Symphony the following year, and then start a fresh cycle in the third year, from the First Symphony onwards.

You did not mention the Eighth Symphony, which has not been done as part of this cycle.

I was a little unclear about where that had fit in the last run of things. I would love to do the Eighth, and it might be that we would do that in the third year. That’s a particularly ambitious one logistically.

From what you’ve seen so far, what do you think is the greatest strength of this festival that you would want to build on?

I think there’s two. The combination of live concert giving with idea sharing is really potent and something that the festival does better than the vast majority. And I think it’s something that can really be built on.

And the other thing is the community spirit that seems to exist within the orchestra and within the festival itself that Bob has obviously nurtured very carefully in terms of this volunteer band with very high standards, high aspirations. People really doing it together as a team out of a sense of shared purpose is something to really build on.

Have you thought about expanding the repertoire to people who were important for Mahler, or were influenced by him, as ways of giving audiences new perspectives on Mahler the composer?

Mahler hiking in the Austrian alps.

Mahler hiking in the Austrian alps.

Yes, absolutely. These things are already on discussion—whether it’s hearing, say, Mahler 1 with Beethoven 4 where there’s an obvious modeling at work between the two pieces, or pairing the Mahler 7 with the Schoenberg First Chamber Symphony, where there’s thematic borrowing between the two pieces.

It would be nice to get into some commissioning over the next two years. I was involved with a festival at Bridgewater Hall in Manchester a few years ago where they commissioned a new work to go with Mahler symphonies in a new cycle, and I thought that worked really, really well. Not all the pieces were masterpieces, but three of four of them were sensational. It was really interesting to hear Mahler in a context alongside music that was written to comment on it or reflect it in some way. It would be nice to see some of that kind of work at the MahlerFest. At the end of the day, commissioning is what becomes the legacy of any artistic institution.

I know you have spent time in Colorado before. Do you know Boulder at all?

I spent a couple of summers in Aspen back in my student days. And I did a chamber music festival way out in the opposite corner of the state, in Durango, maybe 2006 or ‘07?

I do know Boulder quite well. I’ve got a lot of friends that teach at Rocky Ridge up at Estes Park, so I know that part of the world quite well. I’ve done a lot of skiing in Colorado too, but that won’t be happening in May.

There are ski areas that are still open through May, up at the higher elevations.

True. I could come a week early and ski, then do Mahler. That sounds very alpine.

Two things that people in Boulder really care about, aside from music of course, are outdoor recreation and food. Do you have preferences in those areas?

The thing I miss most when I’m in Britain is American beer, so I’m always happy to come back. Fat Tire was always the official beer of Aspen when I was there in past years, so I’ll be happy to catch up with a nice cold Fat Tire once I get to Colorado.

My favorite Colorado food is the Mexican green chili that no other state in the USA does as well, so I’ll be looking forward to that, assuming I can still find it there.

Kenneth Woods. Photo by  Chris Stock.

Kenneth Woods. Photo by Chris Stock.

As far as the outdoor stuff, my parents got my sister and me started with backpacking in the Rocky Mountains when I was about 5 or 6. We spent half of my summers at least in Colorado hiking as a kid. I will very much be looking forward to getting up in the mountains and doing some hiking while I’m out there. And my summers in Aspen I did a lot of road biking. Once you’re in shape, there’s nothing more satisfying than biking up to something like Independence Pass and riding back down. I’ll be looking forward to bringing with or borrowing a bike while I’m there and getting on some hills. It will be humbling the first couple of times, but it’s so spectacular there.

Colorado MahlerFest announces new music director

Kenneth Woods will be second permanent director in festival history

By Peter Alexander

Kenneth Woods. Photo by Benjamin Ealovega.

Kenneth Woods. Photo by Benjamin Ealovega.

Colorado MahlerFest has announced the hiring of Kenneth Woods to succeed the festival’s founding director Robert Olson as music director and conductor.

Olson conducted his final performances, powerful and moving interpretations of Mahler’s elegiac Symphony No. 9, Saturday and Sunday (May 16 and 17) in Mackey Auditorium, as the culmination of the 28th festival. Woods’ appointment as only the second director in the festival’s history was announced at the performances.

Woods will direct the 29th MahlerFest in 2016, with performances scheduled for May 21 and 22 in Boulder.

Artistic director and principal conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra located in Worcester and Worcestershire, England, Woods has been an enthusiastic advocate of Mahler’s music. In addition to conducting and recording versions of Mahler’s music, he has participated in panel discussions of Mahler’s music for the BBC and NPR.

Woods commented, “I’m thrilled and humbled to be invited to steer the festival’s ongoing exploration of one of the greatest composers of all time. I’ve always been impressed by the sophistication of MahlerFest’s programming and presentation, not to mention the musical standards attained by its participants.

Robert Olson, founding director of Colorado MahlerFest. Photo by Keith Bobo.

Robert Olson, founding director of Colorado MahlerFest. Photo by Keith Bobo.

“I must extend enormous congratulations to Bob Olson for everything he has achieved. The complexity and scale of some tasks can only be fully appreciated once you’ve done them yourself, and as someone who has put together a few crazy Mahler projects of my own over the years, I know something about the kind of heroic effort Bob has made to build and sustain this festival. I take very seriously my responsibility to keep the torch he has lit blazing brightly for many years to come.”

Olson noted that “It wasn’t easy for me to wrap my brain around turning this over to somebody else. For obvious reasons, I would want someone who had the same dedication and passion to the music that I hope I bring to it. I’m just thrilled to say I will be supporting (Woods) 100%. I think he will be terrific for the festival.”

Olson started Colorado MahlerFest in 1988 with an all-volunteer, unpaid orchestra performing Mahler’s First Symphony. Since then, he has guided the festival through three nearly complete cycles of Mahler’s 10 symphonies and other major works, all the while recruiting outstanding players and singers for the festival and maintaining the volunteer character of the orchestra and chorus. Today players come from all across the U.S. at their own expense for the opportunity to play in the festival orchestra.

For the third full cycle of Mahler’s major works, only symphonies Seven, Eight and Ten, and the complete Lied von der Erde, remain unperformed. Programming for the 2016 festival has not yet been announced, but Woods said that completing the third cycle is a possible goal for his first years with the festival.

[NOTE: I will be posting an interview with Woods in a few days. In the meantime, readers who wish to get acquainted with him may read his blog, A View from the Podium.]

Boulder Chamber Orchestra puts tickets on sale for 2015–16

Season runs from Baroque to Brahms to Britten, plus the Boulder premiere of a piano (yes: a piano, not a player)

By Peter Alexander

Bahman Saless and the Boulder Chamber Orchestra. Photo by Keith Bobo.

Bahman Saless and the Boulder Chamber Orchestra. Photo by Keith Bobo.

Bahman Saless and the Boulder Chamber Orchestra will expand beyond the usual Classical/Baroque repertoire of smaller ensembles for their 2015–16 season, with concertos by Romantic composers Brahms and Tchaikovsky.

The season will also include contemporary works by John Rutter and Astor Piazzolla, music from Alfred Hitchcock’s iconic film Psycho, and the Boulder debut of a historical piano that was built in Paris in 1895.

Series tickets for the 2015–16 season are now available from the BCO. The full season schedule is not yet listed on the orchestra’s Web page, but the BCO shared a preliminary program with Sharpsandflatirons, as listed below. While some programs are incomplete, the dates and venues are definite. Watch the BCO Web page for more details.

There will also be a series of mini-chamber concerts, to be announced later.

Mina Gajić

Mina Gajić

The season will open Oct. 30 in Boulder and Oct. 31 in Lakewood with a concert featuring pianist Mina Gajić performing on an 1895 straight-strung Érard piano. A performer who has played on many Romantic-era pianos, Gajić found the Érard in Amsterdam and had it shipped to her home in Boulder in 2014. The one-of-a-kind instrument was commissioned by a noble family in Brussels, and was hand painted for them.

The historic instrument is ideal for one work on the program—Franz Liszt’s one-movement Malédiction for piano and strings, which was composed in the 1830s. Gajić will also play a 20th-century work on the same piano, Benjamin Britten’s Young Apollo for piano and strings. The program, calling on the BCO strings only, will also feature film music from Psycho and Mozart’s Adagio and Fugue in C minor for strings.

Zachary Carrettin

Zachary Carrettin

The following concerts, Dec. 4 in Boulder and Dec. 5 in Broomfield, will present the pairing of Vivaldi’s evergreen Four Seasons concertos for violin and strings, and the Vivaldi-inspired Four Seasons of Buenos Aires by Argentinean tango composer Astor Piazzolla. The soloist will be Zachary Carrettin, known in Boulder as the adventurous director of the Boulder Bach Festival. Though far from Bach, Piazzolla is not out of Carrettin’s rather large musical ball park by any means: he performed for 10 years in a duo with a “Tango Nuevo” composer working in the same style as Piazzolla.

It is noteworthy that this will be the second opportunity in less than two years for Boulder audiences to hear the Vivaldi/Piazzolla pairing, which was presented by the Pro Musica Colorado Chamber Orchestra in April of 2014, with violinist Lina Bahn and conductor Cynthia Katsarelis. The pairing of these two works was popularized by violinist Gidon Kremer when he recorded them together, and it has been played by violinists around the world.

The performance is also the second collaboration between the Bach Festival and a Boulder-based orchestra to be announced for the coming year, along with a semi-staged performance of the St. Matthew Passion with the Boulder Philharmonic and conductor Michael Butterman scheduled for April 23 and 24, 2016.

Jennifer Ellis Kampani

Jennifer Ellis Kampani

Concerts Dec. 19 in Boulder and Dec. 20 in Broomfield will feature soprano Jennifer Ellis Kampani performing Baroque vocal music (full program to be announced later). Especially known for performing the music of Spain and Latin America, Kampani has sung numerous roles in Baroque opera productions and appeared with leading early music ensembles in the U.S. and Europe.

On the same program BCO will play John Rutter’s Suite Antique for flute, harpsichord and strings; and Sibelius’ Rakastava (The lover), a short suite for string orchestra based on folksongs that tell of a nighttime tryst that must end at dawn.

BCO will continue its recent tradition of playing a News Year’s Eve concert at the Lakewood Cultural Center. The program will be announced later.

Soheil Nasseri

Soheil Nasseri

The final two programs of the season, in April and May, will see the orchestra entering Romantic repertoire with two much loved virtuoso concertos. Concerts April 15 in Broomfield and April 16 in Boulder will feature pianist Soheil Nasseri returning to the BCO for Brahms’s Second Piano Concerto, on a program that will include Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 in G minor.

The final concert of the season will be May 6 in Broomfield and May 8 in Boulder. Multiple prize-winning violinist Chloé Trevor will play Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto on a program with Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony.

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Season XII 2015–16
Boulder Chamber Orchestra
Bahman Saless, Music Director and Conductor

Friday, Oct. 30, First United Methodist Church, Bouldernewbanner3
Saturday, Oct. 31, Lakewood Cultural Center
Benjamin Britten: Young Apollo for piano and strings, op. 16
Franz Liszt: Malédiction in E minor for piano and strings
Music from Psycho
Mozart: Adagio and Fugue in C minor for strings, K546
With Mina Gajić, piano

Friday, Dec. 4, First United Methodist Church, Boulder
Saturday, Dec. 5, Broomfield Auditorium
Antonio Vivaldi: The Four Seasons
Astor Piazzolla: Four Seasons of Buenos Aires
With Zachary Carrettin, violin

Saturday, Dec. 19, Seventh-day Adventist Church, Boulder
Sunday, Dec. 20, Broomfield Auditorium
Jan Sibelius: Rakastava (The lover) for string orchestra, op. 14
John Rutter: Suite Antique for flute, harpsichord and strings
Baroque vocal music
With Jennifer Ellis Kampani, soprano

Thursday, Dec. 31, Lakewood Cultural Center
New Year’s Eve Concert
Program to be announced

Friday, April 15, Broomfield Auditorium
Saturday, April 16, Seventh-day Adventist Church, Boulder

Chloé Trevor

Chloé Trevor

Mozart: Symphony No 40 in G minor, K550
Brahms: Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat major, op. 83
With Soheil Nasseri, piano

Friday, May 6, Broomfield Auditorium
Sunday, May 8, Seventh-day Adventist Church, Boulder
Beethoven Symphony No. 6 in F major, op. 68 (“Pastoral”)
Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto
With Chloe Trevor, violin

Season tickets

A perfect piece for Robert Olson’s final MahlerFest

By Peter Alexander

Robert Olson with the MahlerFest orchestra. Photo by Keith Bobo.

Robert Olson with the MahlerFest orchestra. Photo by Keith Bobo.

Robert Olson’s final concerts with the Colorado MahlerFest will be memorable occasions — for Boulder audiences, for the festival’s world-wide fans and for Olson himself.

Olson will lead his final two concerts with the festival that he nurtured from the merest of ideas 28 years ago to an event recognized around the world today, at 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 3:30 p.m. Sunday, May 16 and 17. He will conduct Mahler’s Ninth Symphony — the last of the composer’s completed symphonies — which he says is “not only the most perfect piece to end on, but may be one of the most perfect pieces, period.”

The festival will also include film showings at the Boedecker Theater at the Dairy Center, at 2 p.m. Thursday and Friday, May 14 and 15; and a free public symposium on the University of Colorado Boulder campus Saturday, May 16.

Apart from the opportunity to hear one of Mahler’s less frequently performed masterpieces, this year’s concerts will be memorable for audiences because Olson’s appearances at MahlerFest have become a familiar part of the Boulder musical landscape. After these concerts, that landscape changes. It will be memorable for Mahler fans around the world who have come to Boulder over the years because many of them will return to hear Olson conduct one last time. And it will be memorable for Olson for many reasons.

Read more at Boulder Weekly.

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Colorado MahlerFest XXVIII

Gustav Mahler. Photo by Moritz Näher.

Gustav Mahler. Photo by Moritz Nähr.

MahlerFest Orchestra, Robert Olson, artistic director and conductor
Mahler: Symphony No. 9
7:30 p.m. Saturday, May 16
3:30 p.m. Sunday, May 17
Mackey Auditorium

For Love of Mahler: The Inspired Life of Henry-Louis de la Grange (World Premiere)
2 p.m. Friday, May 15 SOLD OUT
The Boedecker Theater at the Dairy Center,

8:30 a.m. Saturday, May 16
Morning session: Imig Music Building, Room C-199
Afternoon session: ATLAS 102
University of Colorado, Boulder campus
Free and open to the public

“A crazy piece” tops off Boulder Chamber Orchestra’s season

After Rossini and Chopin, season-ending concert ends with Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony

Bahman Saless and the Boulder Chamber Orchestra. Photo by Keith Bobo.

Bahman Saless and the Boulder Chamber Orchestra. Photo by Keith Bobo.

By Peter Alexander

First it’s serious, and then it’s not; then it seems not, but it is.

That’s more or less the way Bahman Saless, music director of the Boulder Chamber Orchestra, describes Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony. Saless and the BCO end their 2014–15 season with that energetic symphony, Saturday in Broomfield and Sunday in Boulder (May 9 and 10, both concerts at 7:30 p.m.; details).

In addition to Beethoven’s symphony—one that is less well known than the Third or the Fifth or Seventh or Ninth— the program features the rollicking Overture to La Scala di seta (The Silken Ladder) by Rossini and Chopin’s Second Piano Concerto, performed by soloist Hsing-ay Hsu. This adds up to a comfortable and enjoyable evening—a humorous Rossini overture, an elegant, decorative piano concerto, and a cheerful Beethoven symphony that Robert Schumann compared to a “slender Greek maiden.”

I’ll get back to Beethoven and that Greek maiden in a moment, but first the concert opens with the overture by Rossini. It is easy to think of all of those bubbly Rossini overtures as being almost interchangeable, but Saless had a reason for choosing the one he did.

“I picked La Scala di seta because we’ve done many of the other ones, and this one seemed just fun to do,” he says. “I listened to three or four of them and I thought it fits the character of this concert, just because it’s kind of comical.”

Next on the program will be Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2—actually the first to be written, while the composer was still studying at the Warsaw Academy and first performed in 1830. It is not modeled on the heroic concerto of Beethoven and the later 19th century, but is more lyrical, decorative and free-flowing.

Hsing-ay Hsu. Photo by Cyrus McCrimmon.

Hsing-ay Hsu. Photo by Cyrus McCrimmon.

The concerto was the choice of the soloist, Hsing-ay Hsu. “I think that every great composer has his own voice and there is a lot of poetry in Chopin. It’s emotionally very approachable, and for an audience to experience that kind of soaring and that kind of blissful energy is a great experience.”

Poetry suggests a certain freedom for the soloist, which Hsu identifies as the greatest challenge of the concerto. “What I find really challenging is that on one hand it has to feel completely free and improvised, and on the other hand the rhythmic integrity is very important,” she says. “There’s the sense of very long-reaching lines and having that flexibility within this larger structure is something that is really exciting and really challenging at the same time.”

That flexibility is in turn a challenge for the conductor, who has to follow the soloist without constraining her expressivity. “The pianist can take all of these elaborations on every phrase, with a lot of freedom if they want to, so the rubato (alteration of tempo) is going to challenge any conductor to make sure they play together,” Saless says.

Because he wrote the concerto before leaving Poland, Chopin did not have the Parisian drawing room in mind. In fact, Hsu hears a lot of the composer’s native culture in the music.

“I think of the third movement as a mazurka,” she says, referring to a Polish folk dance. “You might not dance to it because it’s quite complex music, but I think that understanding the rhythm is crucial to the performance, and having that feeling of lifting your dress up and twirling and all that is part of the character of the third movement.

“I think it’s music of the people. It’s a movement that’s meant to be a joyful family gathering.”


Beethoven around the time of the Fourth Symphony. Portrait by Christian Horneman.

After intermission it’s time for Schumann’s “slender Greek maiden,” a phrase suggesting that Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony is graceful and ingratiating, and avoids the drama of some of his music.

But maybe not. Saless sees far more going on in the symphony than the cheerful surface Schumann describes. “It’s a crazy piece,” Saless says. “It’s lighter and folksier, but at the same time in many ways crazier than even the Third Symphony, in the sense that he’s just pushing the boundaries and experimenting with extremes.”

Saless points to the very beginning of the symphony. It opens with a very somber slow introduction that seems to be building to a dramatic climax when suddenly, a fast and bumptious allegro seems to explode out of nowhere.

In other words, first it’s serious and then it’s not.

“Beethoven tries at first to kind of fool you into thinking this is going to be a serious piece of music,” Saless says. “The first 12, 15 bars is very serious. You think ‘Oh my God, what’s going to happen,’ but then suddenly, brrum! It’s like a horse race!”

Saless compares this beginning, seeming so solemn before bursting into a raucous romp, to Beethoven’s private piano recitals, when he would practically mock his audiences. “He would perform something and purposefully make the music deep,” Saless explains. “Everybody was drawn in, their complete attention was to the music, and then he would suddenly stop and laugh at them!”

The slow movement moves in another direction, from placid beauty to something more troubling. “I think the slow movement has a lot more depth than people have thought,” Saless says.

Bahman Saless.

Bahman Saless. Photo by Keith Bobo.

The movement is dominated by one of Beethoven’s most serene melodies. It seems perfectly calm, but it is accompanied by a constant rhythmic figure that, to Saless, represents the composer’s heartbeat. “Why would you put that against this legato melody?” Saless asks. “He obviously wants to keep you unsettled.”

At one point, the heartbeat figure takes over completely, and is played in unison and forte by the whole orchestra. “It seems like the whole idea of this beautiful melody gets dropped and he’s really concerned about his heart,” Saless says. “What’s that about? It’s nothing musical, it’s not fate knocking on the door, it’s just really amazing.”

So now it doesn’t seem serious, but it is.

After that, the last movement poses virtuoso challenges to the players, but refreshingly few complications to the audience. It moves like the wind from beginning to the end, and is one of the great movements of Beethovenian exuberance. It is, Saless says, “as showoff a piece as anything, if you can pull it off!”

Making a great ending for a concert or a season.

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Boulder Chamber Orchestra
Bahman Saless, conductor, with Hsing-ay Hsu, piano

Rossini: Overture to La Scala di seta
Chopin: Piano Concerto No. 2 in F minor
Beethoven: Symphony No. 4 in B-flat major

7:30 p.m. Saturday, May 9, Broomfield Auditorium, Broomfield
7:30 p.m. Sunday, May 10, Seventh-Day Adventist Church,
345 Mapleton Ave., Boulder


Boulder Symphony launches “Love’s Arrow” straight at the heart

Concert performance of Bizet’s Carmen is a big undertaking

By Peter Alexander

The Boulder Symphony enters new territory this week.

Boulder Symphony conductor Devin Patrick Hughes

Boulder Symphony conductor Devin Patrick Hughes

Under the zingy title “Love’s Arrow,” the orchestra and conductor Devin Patrick Hughes will present a semi-staged performance of Bizet’s Carmen—the first time they have undertaken an entire opera. Featuring a cast of mostly local singers, Carmen will be performed at 7 p.m. Saturday, May 9, in Boulder’s Symphony usual home, the First Presbyterian Church in Boulder (see cast list below).

Putting an opera into a church is a challenge, but Hughes has found a way to make it work. “There’s a lower stage and a higher stage, and the lower stage is almost like a pit,” he says. “It’s not low enough (to be a real pit), so balance is a little bit of an issue, but we have a slightly reduced orchestra to account for that.”

The singers, on the higher level, will be dressed mostly in black, with only a few other elements of costume and a few props. There will be minimal stage direction by Michael Travis Ringer, who also has a role in the opera.

“We are focusing on the music and the drama of Carmen, which of course are my favorite elements,” Hughes says. “We’re a small organization made up of mostly volunteers, and this is a big and exciting undertaking. We’re really blessed to have highly seasoned singers who have done (their roles) before.”

Semi-staged and concert performances of operas have become more common for orchestras in recent years, but there have been relatively few in Boulder. The most recent I could find was a concert performance of Ainadamar by Osvaldo Golijov at the Colorado Music Festival in 2007, and the CMF is scheduled to perform Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle July 23 and 24 as part of the 2015 summer festival.

Georges Bizet

Georges Bizet

In case you don’t know the story, love’s arrow is fatal in Carmen. The naive young soldier Don José falls for Carmen, a feisty and independent gypsy woman whom he is supposed to arrest. Instead he lets her escape, and after serving time in jail he joins Carmen and the band of smugglers in their hideout. By then, Carmen has fallen for another man, the handsome torreador Escamillo. In a fit of jealousy, Don José confronts Carmen, with fatal results.

“For me, this opera is all about woman power,” Hughes says. “Carmen gets killed in the end, but she dictates the entire course of events. She’s totally in control of the entire story, to the point that she goes the way that she wants to go and all the male characters are pawns. I think society has been catching up to Carmen for the last 150 years.”

But of course the plot is only one part of the opera. “What drew me to Carmen initially is not the story but it’s how the music conveys the story,” Hughes says. “To me the music is just as powerful as the character of Carmen and Don José.”

The musical appeal makes Carmen an ideal first opera for audiences. Many of the melodies are familiar—such as Escamillo’s “Torreador’s Song” and Carmen’s “Habanera”—and the rest of the score is equally tuneful.

Asheville_Lyric_Opera_Carmen“I would aim (the performance) at people who know these themes, and would like to experience this for the first time and see the entire version,” Hughes says. “That’s what the Boulder Symphony is. We’re trying to build excitement for classical music, which includes opera and orchestral works.”

Hughes believes that opera is a greater challenge for Boulder Symphony than most orchestra programs. “We’re trying to expand on what we’ve done in the past,” he says. “Operatic literature is incredibly difficult for orchestras, because the tempos are changing constantly, you’re having to not only watch the conductor but listen to the singer.”

This expanded challenge to the players is one reason Hughes is wants to perform opera with the Boulder Symphony. Another is what it can mean for the audience: “You hear symphonic music all the time and you hear these cadences and these chord progressions. Opera actually puts a human emotional element (on those sounds). It tells you exactly what that music is saying.”

Hughes and the Boulder Symphony will perform Carmen with spoken dialog between the musical numbers. This is the original version of the opera, which was written for the middle-class audiences of Paris’ Opéra-Comique rather than the aristocratic audiences of the Grand Opera. In this way Carmen is more like a Broadway show, which also enhances its appeal to audiences by making the story easy to follow.

Although Boulder Symphony’s next season has not yet been announced, Hughes lets drop a hint: “Carmen is the first of a planned multi-year operatic exploration,” he says, suggesting there will be other semi-staged operas in the future.

But in the meantime there is Carmen. “When you say Carmen, everybody gets excited,” Hughes says.

To share the excitement, you may purchase tickets here.

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20_event“Love’s Arrow”
Boulder Symphony, Devin Patrick Hughes, conductor
With vocal soloists and chorus

Carmen by Georges Bizet (semi-staged performance)
7 p.m. Saturday, May 9
First Presbyterian Church, 16th & Canyon, Boulder


CarmenErica Papillion-Posey, Carmen
Jason Baldwin, Don José
Mica Dominguez-Robinson, Micaëla
Tom Kittle, Escamillo
Tom Sitzler, Moralès
Darci Lobdell, Mercédès
Molly Kittle, Frasquita
Zachary Garcia, Zuniga
Humberto Barboa, Remendado
Michael Travis Risner, Stage Director, Dancaïre