Boulder Philharmonic receives its first NEA grant

Funds will commission a new work by Stephen Lias celebrating Rocky Mountain National Park

By Peter Alexander

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The Boulder Phil onstage at Mackey Auditorium

The Boulder Philharmonic Orchestra has received its first-ever grant from the country’s premiere arts granting agency, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA).

The $15,000 award was announced by the NEA and the National Park Service as part of the “Imagine Your Parks” initiative. The grant will fund a commission from adventurer-composer Stephen Lias of a new 20-minute orchestral work inspired by Rocky Mountain National Park and celebrating the centennial of the National Park Service.

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Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Washington, D.C.

The Boulder Philharmonic and conductor Michael Butterman will premiere the new work at Macky Auditorium as part of their 2016–17 subscription concert series, and subsequently at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., as part of the inaugural SHIFT Festival of American Orchestras in March, 2017. The Boulder Phil is one of only four orchestras selected to participate in the festival.

“This recognition that we’re honored to receive feels like an affirmation of the work we have been doing for the past decade or more,” Butterman says. “We’ve been trying to reflect our community and find entry points for people to engage with classical music who had not regularly encountered it before.

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Boulder Phil Music Director Michael Butterman

“The focus in particular on the natural world and the relationship that people in Boulder have to it is something that is very special for the orchestra, and we’re just delighted to be able to bring a brand new piece like this to life, both in Boulder and then of course on the national stage at the Kennedy Center.”

Of course, there are many classical pieces inspired by nature, dating back to Bach’s “Peasant” Cantata, Seasons by Vivaldi and Haydn, Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony No. 6 and Smetana’s musical description of the river The Moldau. “The idea of being inspired by your natural surroundings is as old as humanity,” Butterman says. “But there’s something different when we do it in Boulder, just because hiking and being outside is so much a part of the daily life of most Boulderites.”

Lias expressed excitement at receiving the grant-supported commission from the Boulder Phil. “It’s just a dream come true,” he says.

Lias has a long association with the national parks. He has received several artistic residency grants in national parks, and has written several pieces inspired by these residencies. The first was his “Timberline Sonata” for trumpet and piano, written following a 2010 residency in Rocky Mountain National Park and premiered in Estes Park. Other pieces have been inspired by Big Bend, Kings Canyon, Sequoia, Denali, Wrangell-St. Elias, Carlsbad Cavern and Mesa Verde national parks, among others. Several of these works have been compiled onto a CD recording, “Encounters.”

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Stephen Lias in Gates of the Arctic National Park

In Sept. 2014, the Boulder Philharmonic presented the premiere of Lias’s orchestral work Gates of the Arctic, inspired by a residency and backpacking journey in America’s northernmost and second-largest national park. “(Lias) had both a great experience in Boulder and a very positive reception from our audience,” Butterman says of the premiere. “So for us he’s someone whose aesthetic will produce something special.”

Lias said that the new work will build on the success of Gates of the Arctic. “(Butterman and the orchestra) were so pleased with how Gates of the Arctic was received that our plan is to use that framework again,” Lias says. “Probably it will be grouped into thematic ideas where certain musical sections will be related to some event or experience that people have in the park, or perhaps a location or time of day or season.

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Composer Stephen Lias

“The stature of the situation in which this will be premiered demands a piece of greater heft from me, so I suspect that I will lace this piece with broader contrasts, and I may dig a little deeper compositionally.”

Lias admits to being a little nervous every time he starts a new piece, and this commission will be no different. “I approach each major new project with a certain amount of trepidation about how I’m going to come up with new music ideas,” he says.

“The order of events will be not to worry about what kind of piece I’ll write, but instead start thinking about what makes Rocky Mountain National Park such an inspiring subject. And as I answer that question, suddenly I’ll discover that I have a list of things that will inform the shape of the piece. And at that moment, the piece is already begun.”

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