Jean-Marie Zeitouni launches his first festival voyage with La Mer
By Peter Alexander
“To start a voyage together, we take the sea,” Jean-Marie Zeitouni, the new music director of Boulder’s Colorado Music Festival (CMF), says over iced tea at the historic Chautauqua Dining Hall in Boulder.
He is referring to Debussy’s tone poem La Mer (The Sea), a quintessential piece of musical Impressionism that portrays the surging and ebbing of ocean waves. “I picked La Mer (to open the 2015 festival) for many reasons,” he says.
“First of all it’s a very dear piece to me, growing up in Montréal and having a wonderful orchestra there that played the French repertoire like not many others. Second, it’s part of starting a journey for me with the festival, and to me the sea is intrinsically connected to a voyage.
“And the third reason to pick La Mer is because it’s a virtuoso orchestral piece, and it’s my way of showcasing this wonderful (CMF) orchestra.”
La Mer will open “Welcome Jean Marie,” the first Festival Orchestra concert of the 2015 Colorado Music Festival, at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, July 1, in the Chautauqua Auditorium, home of the festival since 1978. The program, equally divided between French and Italian music, will also feature the orchestral song cycle Shéhérazade by Ravel, arias from Rossini’s serious operas Tancredi and Semiramide, and Respighi’s brilliant tone poem The Pines of Rome. (CMF tickets)
The soloist for the vocal works will be Canadian contralto Marie-Nicole Lemieux, a frequent musical collaborator with Zeitouni who is noted for singing Baroque opera and the serious operas of Rossini.
The July 1 program reflects Zeitouni’s unique musical personality in several ways. For one thing, he is half French, and grew up with French musical culture in Montréal. French music speaks to him naturally through language and heritage and experience.
As for the Italian half of the program, he is not Italian himself but he says he has an affinity for Italian culture through proximity. “I am half French and half Egyptian, so it’s Mediterranean,” he says.
The program—and other parts of the festival season as well—also reflect Zeitouni’s deep love and appreciation of vocal music. “I’m an avid opera conductor and opera lover and choral conductor,” he says. “Voice was always a big part of my upbringing.”
In addition to vocal works on Wednesday’s program, Zeitouni has scheduled a concert performance of Bartók’s opera Bluebeard’s Castle later in the summer (July 23 & 24). And the final CMF concert of 2015 will be “A Royal Finish: Choral Masterworks,” including works by Handel and Mozart performed by the CMF Chamber Orchestra, the CMF Chorus and soprano Karina Gauvin (Aug. 9).
“I affectionately call these the vocal pillars, and they are three facets of vocal music: the art song or song with orchestra; the operatic; and the sacred and the choral,” he says “So they are basically covering, not everything of course, but different genres of vocal music.”
Returning to Wednesday’s opening concert, Zeitouni says that working with the Festival Orchestra this summer “is very meaningful. I was happy to reunite with the orchestra. Last year I was a guest conductor, but there was a connection, so I’m looking forward to opening night. In a more formal way, (the orchestra and I) are embracing each other for this relationship. This group is really special.”
Following La Mer, which is familiar to many classical music listeners, Zeitouni, the orchestra and Lemieux will present a work that is not familiar to many: Ravel’s Shéhérazade, a setting of three poems by Léon Leclère. A friend of the composer, Leclère took the pen name Tristan Klingsor from two of Wagner’s characters. Under that name he published 100 poems that were inspired by reading the collection One Thousand and One Nights, and by Rimsky-Korsakov’s well known symphonic suite Scheherazade.
Ravel in turn picked three poems to set for voice and orchestra: Asie (Asia), La flûte enchantée (The enchanted flute) and L’indifférent (The indifferent one). Tim Orr from the Colorado Shakespeare Festival will read each poem before it is performed.
Rossini is best known to American audiences for his comic operas, including The Barber of Seville, but he also had a very successful career writing serious operas that are marked by dramatic and vocally demanding arias for the main characters. Two of his greatest works of this type, Trancredi and Semiramide are both based on works by Voltaire.
Finally, the program closes with a work as familiar, at least, as the Debussy with which it opens: Respighi’s orchestral showpiece The Pines of Rome. As disparate as the program seems at first glance, Zeitouni sees a common thread throughout.
“If you look at the concert as a whole,” he says, “you have La Mer and you have Shéhérazade and you have Rossini epic arias and then the Pines of Rome. All of these pieces evoke images, they are tableaus—tableaus of nature, tableaus of civilization, tableaus of exotic lands. So there’s the idea of images and of going places that are new to us, that are foreign, that are exotic.”
# # # # #
Debussy: La Mer
Rossini: Arias from Tancredi and Semiramide
Respighi: Pines of Rome
7:30 p.m. Wednesday, July 1, Chautauqua Auditorium
A preview of more events in the Colorado Music Festival will appear in Boulder Weekly Thursday, July 2.
To see the full CMF program or purchase tickets, visit the CMF Web page.