Final weekend at CMF includes the sweet and the sour

Composer Hannah Lash is 2016 “Click” Commission winner

By Peter Alexander

The 2015 Colorado Music Festival (CMF) came to a solemn conclusion last night (Aug. 9) with music from Handel’s Ode for St. Cecila’s Day, part of a final weekend that had its ups and downs.

Or as CMF board co-president Jane Hossière said before the final concert, it was a “sweet and sour” occasion.

Composer Hannah Lash

Composer Hannah Lash

Hossière also announced that Hannah Lash, a young composer on the faculty of Yale University, has been selected by the CMF audiences as the winner of the 2016 “Click Commission.” She will receive the commission for a new work to be premiered during the 2016 festival, other works by her will be performed during the summer, and she will be in residence during the festival.

The final Festival Orchestra concert had already been presented Thursday and Friday (Aug. 6 and 7). Music director Jean-Marie Zeitouni conducted a potpourri of pieces representing the close relationship between America and France. His fellow French-Canadian, pianist Marc-André Hamelin, was the soloist. The program included the very familiar—Gershwin’s American in Paris and the Overture to Bernstein’s Candide; one genuine masterpiece—Ravel’s Concerto for the Left Hand; and the very unfamiliar—George Antheil’s Jazz Symphony and Darius Milhaud’s A Frenchman in New York.

The concert opened with a highly charged, very fast reading of the Candide Overture. It is certainly a tribute to the players that Zeitouni’s tempos were no obstacle to a clean, precise and exhilarating performance. Zeitouni seems to love the low brass, but here I thought a little less tuba would have made a better performance.

Marc-André Hamelin. Photo by Fran Kaufman.

Marc-André Hamelin. Photo by Fran Kaufman.

The real high points of the concert were the performances with Hamelin, particularly the Ravel Concerto. Hamelin is a muscular pianist who can stand up to the full CMF orchestra—with one hand tied behind his back, as it were. The sheer sound he got from the piano was impressive, if a little thick in the lower register. His commitment to the piece and technical command made this a performance to be treasured.

Hamelin and Zeitouni returned to the stage for a programmed “encore,” Antheil’s Jazz Symphony which, in its 1955 version, is small-scale piano showpiece. Antheil described himself as “the bad boy of music,” and based on the Jazz Symphony, he may have misbehaved because of ADHD. He apparently couldn’t keep his mind on any one thought, as the piece jumps from jazzy idea to jazzy idea. All are catchy and fun, though, and the whole ensemble—Zeitouni, Hamelin and the orchestra—negotiated Antheil’s many tempo and mood changes effectively.

Reversing the printed order, Zeitouni started the second half of the concert with Milhaud’s Frenchman in New York, a piece I am sure few in the audience had ever heard. Milhaud has written some jaunty, rhythmically catchy pieces—if you don’t believe me, see Le Bœuf sur le toit—but this is not one of them.

The whole piece is dominated by thick, massed chords that represent the imposing buildings of Manhattan. That may well be what most impressed Milhaud in New York, but it did not lead to great music. I heard none of the bustle and energy and none of the jazz of New York. There is a reason it is so rarely played.

The final work on the program was Gershwin’s American in Paris. The audience loved it—it’s a familiar piece, and it was performed with great energy. The exploitation of the orchestra’s full dynamic range created dramatic contrasts. But on the whole, I found the performance a mixed bag.

Going full out in tempo and giving the brass free reign leads to some exciting moments, but also to occasional passages that are out of balance, or not quite together. So while the excitement was there, the whole was not quite at the level of Zeitouni’s best performances this summer.

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The “sweet and sour” were of course the mixed feelings one has when a happy time comes to an end. With Sunday’s choral-chamber orchestra concert, the CMF said farewell to what has been a fascinating, and largely impressive, first year with a new music director. Zeitouni put a personal stamp on every concert, and achieved some very fine results.

The program, titled “A Royal Finish!”, had vocal, choral and orchestral music by Mozart and Handel. The soloist was soprano Mary Wilson, a last-minute substitute. She performed ably in pieces by both composers, some of which may not be part of her ready repertoire.

It seemed an odd choice to start with Mozart’s tender, late work for chorus, strings and organ, the Ave verum corpus. One of the gentlest and most lovely pieces ever written, it was a very soft start to the proceedings. Here it was little more than a beautiful sigh, so well controlled that it failed to rise even to a modest peak.

Soprano Mary Wilson

Soprano Mary Wilson

Wilson arrived onstage for Mozart’s virtuosic solo cantata for soprano and orchestra, Exsultate, jubilate. Here and in the following Regina Coeli for soprano with chorus and orchestra, Wilson sang with a bright, unforced sound and sparkling technique in the fioratura passages. She sang with great attention to the text and phrasing, but it was all so pretty that it ran the danger of becoming music-box Mozart. I believe there is more drama in Mozart’s music than we heard in these performances, delightful though they were.

As someone who believes that Handel, outside of the unavoidable Messiah and one or two ubiquitous instrumental pieces, is under-performed and under-appreciated, I was delighted to have the splendid coronation anthem Zadok the Priest and portions or the Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day on the program. The chorus, so restrained in Mozart’s Ave verum corpus, rang out impressively in Zadok. Their entrance will wake up sleepy listeners as surely as the chords in Haydn’s famous symphony.

This was followed by a fast and noisy performance of Music for the Royal Fireworks—and that is not a criticism. Taking full advantage of an orchestra of modern instruments, Zeitouni led a performance that achieved a greater dynamic range, and a faster tempo, than would be practical on Baroque instruments. This is not particularly “historical,” but it makes a splashy effect, which is what Handel was after in the first place.

CMF music director Jean-Marie Zeitouni

CMF music director Jean-Marie Zeitouni

Especially memorable were the rattling drum rolls and the brilliant work of the CMF trumpets. Not as noticeable but equally effective were the horns and woodwinds, adding their weight to music that was, after all, written to be played outdoors.

The concert and season ended with four of the 12 movements (why not more?) of Handel’s Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day. An homage to music, of which St. Cecilia is the patron saint, this was specially chosen by Zeitouni to end the festival. Here all the performers came together: the chorus, impressive in their dynamic control; Wilson, impressive with her brilliant technique; and the orchestra, impressive with their clean sound and sparkling flourishes.

The final movement, “As from the power of sacred lays,” is chorus with soprano celebrating the power of music until “the trumpet shall be heard on high, the dead shall live, the living die, and music shall untune the sky.” It is not a rousing finish, but a more solemn one that offers the audience more a sense of appreciation than excitement as they leave the theater: yet another way that Zeitouni put his own stamp on the festival.

Edited for clarity on Aug. 10, 2015.

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3 thoughts on “Final weekend at CMF includes the sweet and the sour

  1. The “Royal Fireworks” was actually presented in its entirety–nothing was cut, and the “Rejouissance” movement was repeated after the pair of minuets. In order to do all of “St. Cecilia,” a tenor soloist would have had to be engaged.

    • You’re right, my reference to the “Royal Fireworks Music” was careless. Yes, I know, the entire “St. Cecilia” would require a tenor. I still would like to hear it all performed together and not just excerpts. I’m not sure why my brief suggestion in passing required that detail.

      • It didn’t, but that was probably the reason it wasn’t performed in full–engaging a soloist for just that when the soprano was doing so many things on the rest of the program.

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