A belated look back at classical music in Boulder during the past year
By Peter Alexander
Here’s wishing all of my readers a Happy New Year!
I hope your Holiday Season was filled with good cheer as mine was, with family coming to Colorado from north and south and three other time zones. And if it was, I hope you recovered faster than I have, since this story was on my schedule for a week ago!
Better late than never, here is my wrap-up of the events and the concerts that made 2015 memorable for classical music audiences in Boulder.
Near the top of the list would have to be the arrival of Jean-Marie Zeitouni as the new music director of the Colorado Music Festival. An accomplished orchestra leader, he put his stamp on the summer season from start to finish, programming more French music than we have heard here for some time, and also featuring vocal music—a special love—on several occasions. These interests gave us some of the memorable concerts of the year, noted below.
The other big news on the Boulder orchestra scene was the selection of the Boulder Philharmonic as one of only four orchestras from across North America that will participate in the inaugural SHIFT Festival at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C, in March 2017. The selection was announced May 28, but the story did not end there. In December, the orchestra received its first-ever grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, making it possible to commission a brand new work from adventurer/composer Stephen Lias. The work, which is to be inspired by Rocky Mountain National Park, will be premiered by the Boulder Phil in Boulder and at the SHIFT Festival.
Among the many memorable performances of the past year were a number of intriguing discoveries—a new venue, and old instrument, and great masterpieces that are broadly underappreciated. (Of course, I am unable get to all the first-rate classical concerts in Boulder, so if you had any favorite performances that you think should have been included, I would love to have your comments at the end of the article.)
Feb. 28: The Boulder Bach Festival returned to its original pattern of offering one of Bach’s monumental works as its centerpiece, in this case an imaginative and provocative interpretation of the Mass in B minor. Leading his first performance of a major work since becoming musical director of the festival, Zachary Carrettin delivered a performance that was musically solid, with immaculate choral singing, superb orchestral playing, and five well matched soloists. But what made it especially memorable was that Carrettin carefully rethought the work from beginning to end, from the placement of the “intermission” break to the allocation of choral and solo parts.
March 14: Conductor Cynthia Katsarelis and Pro Musica Colorado Chamber Orchestra, chorus and soloists lovingly performed Richard Einhorn’s oratorio Voices of Light as it was intended to be heard, accompanying a screening of Carl Theodore Dreyer’s 1928 silent film The Passion of Joan of Arc. Noted particularly for the acting of Renée Jeanne Falconetti as Joan, the film is regarded as one of the greatest silent films ever made, and it is greatly enhanced by Einhorn’s evocative score.
April 23–26: The CU Eklund Opera Program presented one of the first masterpieces of the operatic repertoire, Claudio Monteverdi’s Coronation of Poppea from 1643, in a musical realization by the conductor, Nicholas Carthy. A great work of dramatic imagination and musical genius that is not often performed today, Coronation of Poppea is always welcome. But it was the production concept from stage director Leigh Holman that made the performances especially memorable. I don’t often enjoy “updated” productions of operas and plays, but in this case the transposition into modern times worked very well. “Coronation of Poppea is all about sex and politics and power, and if you’ve seen House of Cards, it’s the exact same thing,” Holman said, explaining her decision to place the opera in modern Washington, D.C.. “It’s about a power hungry, vicious man and his power-hungry, vicious girlfriend.”
May 16–17: Founding director Robert Olson appropriately ended his 28-year tenure at the helm of Boulder’s Mahlerfest with a moving performance of the Ninth Symphony, the last of the composer’s symphonies to be completed. It was, he said, “not only the most perfect piece to end on, but may be one of the most perfect pieces, period.”
At the same time it was announced that Kenneth Woods, artistic director and principal conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra located in Worcestershire, UK, would succeed Olson as music director and conductor. Woods will direct the 29th MahlerFest later this year, with performances of the Symphony No. 7 scheduled for May 21 and 22.
July 1: The Colorado Music Festival opened the Jean-Marie Zeitouni era with a concert reflecting two of the conductor’s passions: the music of France, represented by Debussy’s orchestral showpiece La Mer; and music for the voice, represented by Ravel’s ravishing Shéhérazade and a grouping of Rossini arias, brilliantly sung by the Canadian contralto Marie-Nicole Lemieux. Zeitouni delivered sensitively crafted performances, Lemieux delivered the requisite vocal fireworks, and it all ended with a loud, brassy Pines of Rome by Respighi that sent everyone home happy.
July 23–24: A second highlight from the CMF was the evening that featured Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite and a concert performance of Bartók’s one-act opera Bluebeard’s Castle. The latter featured the distinguished American baritone Samuel Ramey as a last-minute stand-in for Bluebeard. Bluebeard’s Castle was a work that Zeitouni was especially eager to share with CMF audiences, and he saw it as a centerpiece of the festival from the time the schedule was announced in February. Here is another operatic work that deserves to be better known: It is a brilliant and disturbing psychological work, and it was given a stunning performance by Zeitouni, the CMF orchestra, and singers Ramey and soprano Krisztina Szabó.
Oct. 16–17: The Boulder Bach Festival made another memorable contribution to musical life by bringing attention to something that Boulder doesn’t have: a first-rate concert hall for chamber music. The BBF opened the 2015–16 season with the kind of eclectic concert that Carrettin often puts together—music not only by J.S. Bach but also Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber, Jacques Arcadelt, Dario Castello, Johann Jakob Froberger, Biagio Marini, Marco Uccelini and Johann Christoph Bach. But the concert was not in Boulder; it was in the Longmont Museum’s splendid new Stewart Auditorium, a lovely facility that offers excellent sound, clean modernist lines and a welcoming feel.
Oct. 24: Like the Boulder Bach Festival, the composer Claudio Monteverdi makes a second appearance on this list, with another work of great scope and ambition that really should be more widely known for the masterpiece that it is: the Vespers of 1610. Conductor Evanne Browne, the Seicento Baroque Ensemble, and artists gathered from the world of historical performance gave us a splendid realization of Monteverdi’s score, which is virtually an anthology of early-Baroque virtuoso styles and techniques.
Oct. 30: A 120-year-old debutante made a strong impression on a concert by the Boulder Chamber Orchestra and conductor Bahman Saless. In this case, the debutante wasn’t a person; it was a piano, made in Paris in 1895 by the firm of Sébastien Érard. It was played by the evening’s outstanding soloist, Mina Gajić, who purchased the piano in Amsterdam in 2014 and brought it to Boulder. The concert was the first performance on the instrument in the U.S. Because the strings all run parallel to one another, instead of the bass strings beings crossed over the higher strings as in most modern pianos, the instrument has an unusually clear and transparent sound. Under Gajić‘s hands, it was a revelation to hear a piano that combined clarity and power in a way we are not accustomed to hearing.
Nov. 6: Boulder welcomed an old friend back to town when Gábor Takács-Nagy, a founding member of the Takacs Quartet, came through town on tour with the Irish Chamber Orchestra. It was his first visit to Boulder in nearly 20 years. Takács-Nagy no longer performs in public as a violinist, but maintains a thriving career as conductor. As conductor of the Irish Chamber Orchestra, he led a thoroughly enjoyable program of Haydn, C.P.E. Bach, and some idiomatically performed music from his homeland in Hungary, Bartók’s Divertimento for String Orchestra. “I talked with the orchestra about the Hungarian language, and even sang them Hungarian folk songs,” Takács-Nagy said. “Somehow they feel it very, very well!”