Pro Musica Colorado opens season with bustle and energy

Larry Graham plays Mozart concerto on a program with a world premiere

By Peter Alexander

Photography by Glenn Ross.

Cynthia Katsarelis, conductor of Pro Musica Colorado

Pro Musica Colorado Chamber Orchestra, the last of the local orchestras to launch the 2015–16 season, got underway in Boulder last night (Nov. 21) with a bustling, energetic program featuring the world premiere of Kurt Mehlenbacher’s Flying Crooked and two major pieces by Mozart.

Cynthia Katsarelis directed the performance in the First United Methodist Church with her usual focus on the overall architecture and momentum of the pieces, and retired CU prof. Larry Graham gave a fluid, nuanced reading Mozart’s C-minor Concerto, K491. The same program had been played Friday night in Denver.

In remarks before the concert began, Mehlenbacher explained that the title Flying Crooked was only applied after the piece was completed. Based on a suggestion from his roommate, it carries no implication that the music should be seen as deliberately descriptive or programmatic.

Be that as it may, the propulsive rhythms that dominate the texture do suggest flying, or other kinds of movement—by turns rushing, loping, flitting and soaring. The thoroughly enjoyable score contains many short episodes that are sometimes contrasting, but the impulsive motor rhythms are rarely absent from the background. Based on this performance, I would urge other smaller orchestras to take up Flying Crooked as an energetic and effective way to open any program.

For better or worse, Mozart’s C-minor Concerto sounded just like what it was: a performance on modern instruments and piano in a highly reverberant space. The First United Methodist sanctuary is a long, rectangular shoebox, perfectly suitable for services but less than ideal for orchestras.

Bass notes in particular tend to spread and muddy the texture, so that every timpani stroke, for example, threatens to cover details in the music. This is not a question of orchestral numbers—with only one string bass and three cellos, the ensemble is well balanced. The timpanist used the appropriate hard mallets for an incisive sound. But there is little players can do when notes continue to resonate too long after they are sounded. Unfortunately, Boulder does not have an ideal small auditorium, so Pro Musica and other groups will continue to rely on churches for the foreseeable future.

(I did not hear the Friday performance in Denver’s First Baptist Church, but I heard reports that the sound was much less problematic there.)

Larry Graham2_Dale_Steadman

Larry Graham. Photo by Dale Steadman.

The lack of clarity aside, Graham played with great facility. He had full command of dynamics and control of the individual voices in the texture, providing as much clarity as possible in the space. His playing was especially lovely in the slow movement, where the softer and thinner orchestral texture allowed him to be distinctly heard throughout. His sparkling performance of the sprightly finale was enhanced by lovely playing from the Pro Musica winds.

Graham has long been a popular fixture on the Boulder classical music scene. It has been reported that this might be his last performance with orchestra, although he seems to be less than emphatic on that subject. His playing is more than effective, and he continues to enjoy intimate concerts, so there should be no hint that he is loosing any ground as a performer. Perhaps the right concerto will be found to entice him back onto the concert stage.

Pro Musica

Pro Musica Colorado

The other Mozart on the program was the Symphony in D major, K504, known as the “Prague” Symphony because of where it was written. It begins with a brooding slow introduction that contains more than a hint of the D minor of Don Giovanni, the opera Mozart was soon to write for the theater in Prague. Katsarelis and Pro Musica brought out all the pathos of the opening gestures before launching on a rhythmically energized performance of the main movement.

The contrast between the dramatic, driven first allegro theme and the tenderness of the second theme was carefully managed and highly effective. Here, the drama inherent in the formal structure of the 18th-century symphony came vividly to life. In the contrapuntal development section, the entrances were well marked, leading to a satisfying climax before settling back down into a gentle transition back to the first theme for the recapitulation.

The slow movement flowed comfortably and smoothly, and as it should the symphony ended with an exuberant romp. Katsarelis’s wise decision to honor the repeats in the finale provided a touch of humor when the piece came scurrying to a definite end, only to launch suddenly and busily back into a developmental passage. The ending was consequently all the more effective the second time.

Pro Musica Colorado looks ahead and back

Opening program may be pianist Larry Graham’s farewell orchestra concert — or not

By Peter Alexander

Larry Graham_Dale_Steadman

Larry Graham. Photo by Dale Steadman.

The Pro Musica Colorado Chamber Orchestra will look both forward and back in their 2015–26 season, which music director Cynthia Katsarelis and the orchestra call “Remembrance” (

The season will open Friday and Saturday (Nov. 21-22) with the world premiere of a new work by CU composition competition winner Kurt Mehlenbacher—looking ahead—and end (April 8–9) with Mozart’s Requiem—a work that compels us to look back. In between will be a concert of music by J.S. Bach and Dmitri Shostakovich (Jan. 22-23) that will be part of a two-year festival of all of Shostakovich’s chamber music.

This will be the program most closely tied to the theme of remembrance, since Pro Musica will play the string orchestra version of Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 8, dedicated to “the victims of fascism and war.”

The opening concert features Larry Graham, a revered former CU piano professor, playing Mozart’s C-minor Piano Concert, K491. The concert will open with Mehlenbacher’s Flying Crooked for chamber orchestra, commissioned by an endowment established by the late Thurston E. Manning, and also include Mozart’s Symphony No. 38 in D major, K504, known as the “Prague” Symphony.

Read more at Boulder Weekly.

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Pro Musical Colorado Chamber Orchestra
Cynthia Katsarelis, conductor, with Larry Graham, piano

Kurt Mehlenbacher: Flying Crooked (world premiere)
Mozart: Piano Concerto in C minor, K491
Symphony No. 38 in D major, K. 504 (“Prague”)

 7:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 20, First Baptist Church, Denver
7:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 21, First United Methodist Church, Boulder



Making music at a time of tragedy

A personal reflection in the form of a concert review.

By Peter Alexander

12239638_10153709043612365_7450372887197993418_nLast night, the Boulder Philharmonic played a concert.

They played music by Brahms and Charles Denler, the last accompanied by photographs by John Fielder. That was what was on the program, but before the announced program began, they also played the “Nimrod” variation from Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations as a moment of solace for all of us who were feeling battered by the fierce winds blowing across our world, and as a moment of tribute to those suffering after the atrocities in Paris.

And presumably, since Paris was not even mentioned, for others around the world who are suffering in these terrible times—in Lebanon, in Syria, across Europe, in Africa, and in our own country.

One of the most beautiful four minutes of music I know, “Nimrod” is as fine an offering of solace as musicians could make. It was followed by a long period of silence, as conductor Michael Butterman and members of the orchestra held their positions from the final note. And after a smattering of applause—I will take it as an expression of gratitude for the gesture, rather than anything so routine as reward for the performance—Butterman spoke some touching and very appropriate words about how we all are feeling today.

As one of those affected by the events of the past 36 hours, the past week, the past year, I was both thankful for the opportunity to hear music lovingly played, and aware what a tiny thing a concert is in the world we now live in. Sometimes, just getting on with life is the best thing that we can do—literally the best of many choices. In that respect, the people of Paris may be an example for us all. But sometimes, too, it feels insufficient.

While “Nimrod” was sounding, the familiar words of Leonard Bernstein were projected above the orchestra: ““This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.”

Sadly, these words are familiar because they seem to be quoted more and more often in these times. They are beautiful, but at some point, they are no longer enough. We will either find a way to get beyond the expression of our ideals and find a way to make a world that will accept difference, one that will make room for all of the world’s children—those of any God you prefer—or this grand experiment of human culture and civilization will come to an end.

It was a meaningful coincidence that the program opened with Brahms’s Schicksalslied (Song of destiny), performed by the orchestra with the Boulder Chorale in celebration of the group’s 50th anniversary. A setting of a poem by Friedrich Hölderlin, the work contrasts the peace of Elysium with human life, where we suffer the batterings of forces we cannot control. The central choral section, essentially a musical depiction of life in a world of chaos, is followed by music that seems to offer comfort and hope.

It turns out Boulder Phil could not have selected a better message for Nov. 14, 2015.

After a satisfying and meaningful performance of Brahms, Butterman and the orchestra turned their attention to music that strives for the same peace that Brahms suggests at the end of the Schicksalslied. The concert premiere of Denler’s Portraits in Season offered meditative music for piano supported and gently amplified by the orchestra. With the composer playing the solo piano part, the performance created a fitting mood of calm and contemplation.

Denler explained before the performance that the piece was not really about the seasons, but about the passages of life and the pleasure that one can find from growing older. This too seemed to fit the mood of the first half of the concert. The beautiful photography of John Fielder projected above the orchestra, and the quotes from Henry David Thoreau that appeared on some slides, added greatly to the pleasure of the occasion, and provided still more food for reflection.

The concert concluded with a mostly satisfying performance of Brahms’s Second Symphony. Here the key of D major casts a layer of light and serenity over the entire work. The audience responded with warmth.


Candles and flowers outside La Belle Equipe restaurant in Paris, Nov. 14, 2015.

Leaving the concert hall, one re-enters a world that is not as safe or well ordered as a Brahms symphony. On a personal note, I was all the more thoughtful about humanity’s capacity for inflicting horror because just the day before—near the same time as the attacks in Paris—I happened to visit the site of one of the worst tragedies in our own country’s history: the Sand Creek Massacre by U.S. volunteers of Cheyenne and Arapahoe women, children, and men who were flying the stars and stripes and a white flag.

Suffering, it seems, is ageless. So as we enjoy the best fruits that human culture has to offer, whether it be in the music of Johannes Brahms and Charles Denler, or the photos of John Fielder, or whatever art, music and literature you may enjoy in the coming weeks, we should all take the time to reflect on how precious and fragile is the world we imagine that we live in. If we fail to do so, we may pay a terrible price.


Lightly edited for clarity Nov. 15, 2015.


Brahms’ destiny, Denler’s melodies and Fielder’s photos at Boulder Phil.

Thoreau quotes compliment world concert premiere of Denler’s Portraits in Season.

By Peter Alexander

Charles Denler

Charles Denler

Composer Charles Denler has always felt close to nature, so it makes sense that the world concert premiere of his Portraits in Season for piano and orchestra would be supplemented by the work of two other nature-loving artists: the American essayist Henry David Thoreau and Colorado photographer John Fielder.

Saturday’s performance by the Boulder Philharmonic and conductor Michael Butterman will feature Denler as piano soloist (7:30 p.m. Nov. 14 in Macky Auditorium; tickets). During the performance, Fielder’s photographs will be projected on a screen above the orchestra, where quotes from Thoreau will appear before each of the score’s movements.

Denler’s Portraits will be bookended by two pieces by Brahms, a composer who also enjoyed the natural world on his solitary walks in the Vienna woods. The concert will open with the Schicksalslied (Song of Destiny), performed with the Boulder Chorale in celebration of their 50th anniversary, and end with the Symphony No. 2 in D major.

Sneffels Range Spring, San Juan Mountains. Colorado. Photo by John Fielder

Sneffels Range Spring, San Juan Mountains. Colorado. Photo by John Fielder

Butterman says that the idea of having images accompany Denler’s music occurred to him the very first time he heard it. Denler had compiled digital recordings of the music—now released on an album—as he was working on it.

“I thought it was very fun music,” Butterman says. “But as I was listening to it, I wanted to see something. I wrote back and said this fits with our focus on local composers, and also nature and music together, but what about adding some visuals? He said ‘fantastic!’”

Adding images to Denler’s music was more than logical, since he is best known as a film composer. And Fielder, known for his nature photography throughout Colorado, seemed an ideal choice, too. For one thing, his photos have often been featured with music: this will be the fourth performance by a Colorado orchestra this year to use his photos.

Boulder audiences will remember that Fielder’s work was featured by the Colorado Music Festival last summer in performances of music by Sibelius and Beethoven. His photos were also featured in performances in Breckenridge and Steamboat Springs.

John Fielder. Photo by Cari Linden.

John Fielder. Photo by Cari Linden.

“I’ve been putting music to my slides for years,” Fielder says. “I love the experience—the whole is greater than the sum of the parts when you put music and imagery together.”

Fielder, who is recognized for his books and calendars of Colorado scenes, is deeply devoted to the outdoors. “I regard nature as not just views,” he says. “I enjoy being outdoors in the wilderness. The sound, the smell, the taste and the touch, as well as the views, are what make nature sublime for me.”

Portraits in Season has movements that pass through two complete years, and then suggest the start of another of life’s continuing cycles. And Denler intends this very much as a metaphor.

“The underlying meaning is walking through life,” he says. “I want people to think about that— to listen to this music and see that growing older is a gift. We should celebrate every single day and embrace the idea of aging.”

Denler’s music is often inspired by visual images, whether films that he is writing for, or personal experiences for his concert music. “This particular suite is based on visuals that I have from hiking the ponds and lakes (of) South Platte Park, walking along the Highline Canal, and even in my backyard,” he says.

Each movement is associated with a specific memory, even though the listeners will not know the locations they are associated with. And the Thoreau quotes are not directly associated with the locations, either.

“I’m a native New Englander, and I always gravitated toward (Thoreau’s) work,” Denler explains. “He wrote about nature from the context of living inside of it, and I wanted that reflected in the music. Sometimes, the quote just made sense for that season, (so) it may not reflect particular areas here in Colorado.”

Johannes Brahms

Johannes Brahms

Butterman chose Brahms for Denler’s companion on the program, because he sees a connection between Denler, nature, and the Viennese composer. “Brahms never wrote anything that he called ‘Babbling Brook’ or something,” he says. “But yet, when I think about composers who drew nourishment from nature, he’s actually the first composer that comes to my mind.

“The energy and the centeredness that he drew from long walks in the Vienna Woods strikes me as a little bit like Thoreau—somebody who needed to be away from people and by himself in nature. They (both) found their batteries recharged by the experience.”

Of the two works by Brahms, the Second Symphony will be the most familiar. “It’s full of all of the hallmarks of Brahms’s music that I really love,” Butterman says. “The rhythmic ambiguity, his ability to mix the serenade-like quality of his woodwind writing with much more accented and aggressive writing in the strings. But there’s an overlaying of sort of a placid character to it.”

Michael Butterman

Michael Butterman

The Schicksalslied, on the other hand, has placid moments, but they are definitely not part of Brahms’s depiction of human destiny, which is one of turbulence and forces beyond human control. “I love the beauty of the outer segments,” Butterman says, “and then the turbulence of what the chorus sings in the middle is a dramatic contrast.”

The beginning seems to be a description of Elysium, but that peaceful realm is contrasted with our life on earth. In the central choral section, “we are buffeted by fate, thrown hither and yon by forces that we have no ability to influence or control,” Butterman says. “It basically says that things are really nice up above, wherever that may be, but down here it’s every man for himself.”

Henry David Thoreau


The text ends there, but Brahms has added a closing orchestral section that provides a ray of hope for a better existence at the end. Which brings us back to Denler’s contemplative and comforting Classical/New Age score, which seems to evoke the peace that Brahms only hinted.

Or in the words from Thoreau’s Walden that Denler has chosen for one of the movements, when “the day and night are such that you greet them with joy, and life emits a fragrance like flowers and sweet-scented herbs . . . all nature is your congratulation and you have cause momentarily to bless yourself.”

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Portraits in Seasons

Boulder Philharmonic Orchestra, Michael Butterman, music director,
with Boulder Chorale, Charles Denler, piano, and photos by John Fielder

World concert premiere of Portraits in Season for piano and orchestra, by Charles Denler
Johannes Brahms: Schicksalslied and Symphony No. 2 in D major

7:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 14
Macky Auditorium


Related events:
7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 11: Free Café Phil open rehearsal at the Dairy Center for the Arts
6:30 p.m. Saturday Nov. 14, before the concert: Pre-concert talk at Macky

Charles Denler’s CDs and John Fielder’s books will be on sale in the lobby before and after the performance.

Michael Butterman debuts with Philadelphia Orchestra, in costume

Boulder Phil music director is guest conductor for a family concert

By Peter Alexander

Verizon Hall, home of the Philadelphia Orchestra

Verizon Hall, home of the Philadelphia Orchestra

“When you image your debut with a great orchestra,” Michael Butterman, music director of the Boulder Philharmonic says, “you don’t usually imagine yourself wearing a Jack Skellington costume.”

I certainly don’t. But Butterman recently did just that with the renowned Philadelphia Orchestra—with a concertmaster dressed as the Pope, and other costumes among the players. You will be relieved to know that it was a Halloween family concert.

The event was part of a series of outreach concerts that Butterman conducted throughout the northeastern states over about a 30-day period, including a week of young people’s concert’s with the National Symphony in Washington, D.C.; a week of education concerts with the Pennsylvania Philharmonic, a regional orchestra of which he is music director; a family concert in Rochester, N.Y.; and the Oct. 31 “Halloween Costume Party” with the Philadelphia Orchestra in Verizon Hall.

Michael Butterman, not in costume as Jack Skellington

Michael Butterman, not in costume as Jack Skellington

“It’s kind of invigorating to see that you can still make a difference to people when you present things in a fun and attractive way,” Butterman says about the concerts. “I think people are interested in what orchestras are doing. And that makes me feel a little bit optimistic anyway about the future.”

But the culmination was the opportunity to lead one of the nation’s “Big Five” orchestras in their home concert hall in Philadelphia. “It was a nice compliment,” he says. “The audience was great, it was a nice full house and a lot of enthusiastic young people there.”

In addition to Danny Elfman’s Suite from Nightmare before Christmas, Butterman’s program with the Philadelphia Orchestra included music by Khachaturian, Prokofiev and Rimsky-Korsakov; Adam Glaser’s March of the Little Goblins; and Liadov’s Baba-Yaga, from a Russian folk tale about a witch who lives in a hut on chicken’s legs.

Big-name orchestras sometimes have the reputation of being hostile to guest conductors, but Butterman says there was nothing like that in Philadelphia. “Quite the opposite,” he says. “They were very collegial and I really felt great afterwards. I felt appreciated. Being able to work very efficiently and quickly, I think they valued that.

“Obviously there are still things you can work on even with a great orchestra, but whatever it is you’re asking for they just do it immediately and it’s a real pleasure. What was really nice was they had a great attitude, and you wouldn’t necessarily be expecting that, coming in on a Saturday morning and putting something together really quickly, but they really did.”

Butterman was especially pleased and honored that the Pope—that is, the orchestra’s concertmaster—volunteered to play the concert, even though he could have taken the afternoon off. “That just set a really beautiful tone for the whole event,” Butterman says.

As for the Jack Skellington costume: Boulder should ask the maestro to wear it here. It’s something our audience deserves to see.

Takács-Nagy: home again, after 20 years

As a conductor, leading the Irish Chamber Orchestra in Bartók, Haydn, and cello concertos

By Peter Alexander

Gábor Takács-Nagy. Photo courtesy of CU, Boulder.

Gábor Takács-Nagy. Photo courtesy of CU, Boulder.

Gábor Takács-Nagy is coming home.

The founding first violinist of CU’s resident Takács Quartet lived in Boulder for six years, 1986–92, until a hand problem forced him to withdraw from playing. He returns to Boulder Friday as a conductor, leading the Irish Chamber Orchestra (ICO) in a concert of music by Haydn, C.P.E. Bach and Bartók (7:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 6, in Mackey Auditorium).

Takács-Nagy’s place in the Takács Quartet was taken in 1993 by English violinist Edward Dusinberre, who remains the quartet’s first violinist. Of the original quartet, violinist Károly Schranz and cellist András Fejér remain.

The Nov. 6 concert will also feature cellist István Várdai playing Haydn’s Cello Concerto in C major and C.P.E. Bach’s Cello Concerto in A major, Wq. 172. Also on the program are the Symphony No. 49 in F minor by Haydn (“La Passione”) and the Divertimento for String Orchestra by Bartók.

“The Irish Chamber Orchestra are really good, close friends, all of them in the orchestra,” Takács-Nagy says. “The orchestra is fantastic with this (program). I’m really very happy to go back to Boulder after so many years. It will be a homecoming. We will have a dinner after, and I’m so happy I’m counting the days.

“I’m really so happy and grateful to [members of the quartet] that they continue what we started together, on such an unbelievably high level.”

Read more in Boulder Weekly

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Irish Chamber Orchestra. Photo courtesy of CU, Boulder.

Irish Chamber Orchestra. Photo courtesy of CU, Boulder.

CU Presents: Irish Chamber Orchestra
Gábor Takács-Nagy, conductor, with István Várdai, cello

Haydn: Symphony No. 49 in F minor
C.P.E. Bach: Cello Concerto in A major, Wq. 172
Haydn Cello Concerto in C major
Bartók: Divertimento for String Orchestra

7:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 6
Macky Auditorium