Nine intriguing premieres in Fairbanks

Stephen Lias’s Composing in the Wilderness Workshop at the Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival

By Peter Alexander

The Fairbanks (Alaska) Summer Arts Festival presented an intriguing concert of nine new works by nine composers last Tuesday (July 26) in Davis Concert Hall on the University of Alaska campus.


Davis Concert Hall at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, site of the Composing in the Wilderness concert at the Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival. Photo by Peter Alexander.

The concert was the culmination of Composing in the Wilderness, a workshop led with great success by composer Stephen Lias. Lias is known to Boulder audiences: The Boulder Philharmonic opened their 2014–15 season with the world premiere of his Gates of the Arctic, inspired by the National Park in northern Alaska, and Lias has been commissioned to write a new work for the orchestra to play next year at the Kennedy Center in Washington. That work, All the Songs that Nature Sings, will be premiered by conductor Michael Butterman and the Boulder Phil March 25 and then performed at the Shift Festival in Washington March 28.


Composer Stephen Lias. Photo by Peter Alexander

The nine works on the July 26 program were all written under the same conditions: after spending several days getting oriented to Alaska and the wilderness at Denali National Park and Preserve, the composers travel to a remote area in the Yukon Charley Rivers National Preserve, where they have four days to write a new work inspired by their experiences in Alaska.

The works were written for and premiered by members of Corvus, ensemble in residence at the Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival. The limited instrumentation of Corvus—Katie Cox, flute; Andie Springer, violin; Kate Sheeran, horn; and Owen Weaver, percussion—and the short working time imposed both a disciplined economy and a certain similarity of sound to all nine pieces. Nevertheless, the composers all found a way to express their own musical personalities in their necessarily short works, as well as the individual sources of inspiration they found in the wilderness settings.

Little Cosmos for flute, horn and percussion by Cassie To was the composer’s response to what she called “the amazing world of lichens” that she had discovered during the workshop. Opening with noble tones from the horn and pointillistic comments from the flute, the score features wide-ranging themes that effectively evoke both the openness of large spaces and the delicacy of tiny plants. This is a well crafted, carefully shaped piece of music.

Teklanika Twilight by David John Lang calls for the same ensemble. The composer acknowledged two sources of inspiration: the “constant sound track” provided by the Teklanika River, and the perpetual twilight of the midsummer Arctic. Steady rhythms in the melodic instruments suggested the steady flow of the river, while the percussionist added sleigh bells and other subtle sounds for the tinkling of the water over rocks. It all led to a delightful ending.

Out There for violin, flute and percussion by Dylan Labrande was inspired by the mysteries of the world “out there,” beyond the window in the composer’s cabin at Yukon Charley Rivers. The music left it to the listeners to decide what was “out there.” Was there a hint of threat in the building percussion sounds, some danger behind the implacable beauty of the scene? Whatever you hear, the score clearly implies a depth beyond what you can sense on the surface.

Over the High One for violin, flute and percussion by Alondra Vega-Zaldivar describes the rising of the sun over the highest mountain in North America. “I came to Alaska and I found magic,” the composer said in her introduction. For Vega, Denali is a pretty jazzy mountain. Her score puts the percussionist through his paces, occasionally overwhelming the comparatively softer melody instruments.


Composers in the 2016 Composing in the Wilderness workshop: Shelley Washington and Cassie To (seated); Elizabeth Start, Paul Safar, Sam Young, Alondra Vega-Zaldivar, Dylan Librande, David John Lang and Gemma Peacocke (standing, l-r). Photo by Peter Alexander.

. . And Water Connects . . . for violin, horn and percussion by Elizabeth Start begins haltingly, as if musical phrases are trying to come together, with a melody first emerging from the horn. Perhaps these are trickling streams that eventually build into a flood as the piece reaches its strong conclusion. Most unfortunately, the intended recordings of water sounds failed to play, leaving an incomplete impression of the composer’s intention. After the performance Start gamely observed that the score was intended to be effective with or without the electronics, but her piece still awaits its full premiere.

Refugium for flute, violin and percussion by Paul Safar is a playful piece that combines music with a text spoken by the players that was written by the composer. The phrase “step by step” becomes a repeated rhythm that invites in the percussion, then the flute, and last of all the violin. The score captures the idea of a journey, or stroll with different views and incidents—the mountains, a stream, flowers, a scampering ground squirrel—that form a pleasurable mosaic of at least the sunnier side of the Alaskan wilderness.

Polychrome for the full quartet of flute, horn, violin and percussion by Gemma Peacocke was inspired by a specific viewpoint within the Denali National Park, overlooking a scene of disparate colors spread across the valley and mountains. Lacking overt melody, the music moves slowly through a spectrum of instrumental sounds, like slowly shifting light across the broad Polychrome vista. This was one of the most original and engaging pieces on the program, inviting the listener to hear beyond the surface colors.

Thorofare Ridge for violin, flute and horn by Sam Young reflects the composer’s observation that during the brief but intense Arctic summer, “all living things go into overdrive.” This is a thoroughly engaging piece, with melodic bits that capture the ear supported by quirky rhythms and accompanying elements. The music has a definite outdoorsy feel that suggests not only a pleasant day in the mountains, climbing Denali National Park’s alpine Thorofare Ridge, but also the sourdough history of Alaska.


The Great Hall, University of Alaska, Fairbanks. Photo by Peter Alexander

Their Name is Yours for the full quartet by Shelley Washington made a strong conclusion for the program. Washington combined her experiences in Alaska with the idea of personal stories that form us all. “Tell us a story,” the players sing, sometimes singly and sometimes as a quartet, adding an additional musical challenge to the score. It is a very lively piece, with fiddling that suggests what kind of story this might be. At points there are slightly wild, slightly mysterious qualities to the composer’s story, suggesting something fundamental, something rooted in American soil.

Two further things need to be added to this report. One can assume that the composers did not bring their own individual cheering sections with them to Alaska, so the hoops and cheers after each piece indicate the kind of support that the Summer Arts Festival, and these new pieces created in Alaska receive in Fairbanks.

And one can not say enough about the players of Corvus. With even less time than the composers had to write them, they had to master nine completely new pieces for their premieres. They played—and sang—exceptionally through the program. How fortunate the composers, and Stephen Lias’s ongoing workshop program, are to have such support in their performers. Bravo to all!


NOTE: A longer report on the Composing in the Wilderness workshop, with interviews with the participants, will appear later this month in Boulder Weekly.

Former CMF music director Christie returns to a warm welcome

‘Up to his old tricks again,’ including a dramatic entrance from the audience

By Peter Alexander

Michael Christie.03

Michael Christie. Photo by Steve J. Sherman

Michael Christie, for 13 years music director of the Colorado Music Festival and now conductor laureate, returned to lead the Festival Orchestra last night (July 14) in a program of music by Leonard Bernstein, Charles Ives and Johannes Brahms. Appearing with him was pianist Orion Weiss, a frequent partner with Christie during his years at CMF.

In planning the program, Christie said he wanted “to come back with a presentation style that everybody would say, ‘I remember that guy! He’s up his old tricks again.’”

New tricks or old, there is no doubt that the dramatic opening of the concert caught the audience’s attention.

The program started with concert sponsor Paul Repetto introducing Christie with great warmth but more or less in absentia, since the conductor was not on the stage. But as soon as Repetto finished his remarks Christie, standing out among the audience, gave the downbeat for brass and percussion on the sides of the hall to begin Bernstein’s noisy, boisterous Shivaree, a brief, exciting program opener.

As the last note of the Bernstein faded away, the strings sitting onstage had already began Ives’s mystical Unanswered Question. The strings, playing barely audible, slow-moving chords, were led by their section leaders while a solo trumpet, posing the titular question, sounded from backstage. The woodwinds, with Christie leading them now from the side of the house, offered energetic but inconclusive non-answers that seem to not resolve anything.

At the end the trumpet is heard one last time, over slowly dying string chords, still asking, asking, asking.

This is great musical drama. I have never heard the Ives more effectively introduced: the sudden hushed chord after the last loud flourish of the Bernstein was breathtaking. May I recommend this pairing to other conductors out there?

After such a theatrical beginning, Christie needed a powerful piece to round out the first half, and he found it in the suite from Bernstein’s music for the film On the Waterfront. A gritty, jazzy precursor to the music for West Side Story, On the Waterfront is vintage Bernstein, pure big-city Americana from the 1950s.

Christie and the Festival Orchestra gave a performance bursting with the raw energy of the streets and docks of Hoboken, but also imbued with tenderness and the aching regrets of the “contender” who never was. There was one shaky moment at the beginning, and the bluesy touches seemed a little on the careful side, but otherwise the performance was exceptional.


Michael Christie and Orion Weiss. Photo by Tom Steenland.

Weiss joined Christie and the orchestra for the second half of the program, playing Brahms’s muscular Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor. Very few pieces open more stormily than this concerto, and from the opening timpani thunderclaps, the Festival Orchestra gave a vigorous performance. Mention should be made of the principal horn, who effectively negotiated exposed solos in both the Bernstein and the Brahms.

The powerful moments of the concerto’s first movement are so memorable that it is easy to forget that there are many passages of great delicacy. It is one of the delights of the Chautauqua Auditorium that music played softly has great presence throughout the hall. These portions of the concerto were especially effective; Weiss’s clean sound and control made every ripple, every filigreed decoration deliciously clear. He had an attentive partner in Christie, who allowed the soloist to shine through.

In contrast, some of the heavier passages lost transparency, as the piano was swallowed in a reverberant wash of sound. This is where recordings have spoiled our ears: it is too easy for the engineer to boost the piano, so that the soloist can dominate in even the strongest orchestral passages. In the real world, that is more difficult.

The practiced, responsive interplay between Christie and Weiss was one of the pleasures of the performance. I thought the final rondo was particularly enjoyable, as each episode had its own character, helped along by sparkling winds. The final measures built to a rousing end. The full house, happy to see two old friends back for a visit, responded with enthusiastic ovations.


NOTE: For anyone who wants to hear more of his work, Christie will be conducting at the Breckenridge Music Festival Aug. 5 and 6.

Fresh, re-imagined Baby Doe opens Central City Opera season

“A performance worthy of the company’s history”

By Peter Alexander

Central City Opera | The Ballad of Baby Doe |

Central City Opera | The Ballad of Baby Doe | Photo credit: Amanda Tipton

Central City Opera has a fresh and imaginative remake of a old friend this summer.

Their 60th-anniversary production of Douglas Moore’s The Ballad of Baby Doe—CCO’s signature piece, which the company premiered July 7, 1956—opened in the historic Central City Opera House July 9. The production, which continues in repertory through Aug. 6, features a uniformly strong cast and chorus, creative use of projections by designer David Martin Jacques, and inspired work by stage director Ken Cazan.

The orchestra, under conductor Timothy Myers, gave a nuanced and supportive performance, responding well to the many moods and styles of Americana in Moore’s effective score. The result was a performance worthy of the company’s great history with this opera.

Read more in Boulder Weekly.

Adventures in the sound spectrum from Starkland

Three new CDs from Boulders adventurous recording label

By Peter Alexander

Boulder’s Starkland recording label has issued thee CDs over the past eight months that are very, very different. Yet, all three have one thing in common: an intensive exploration of pure sound.

That exploration takes the various composers far from the familiar paths of most concert music. If your musical tastes lean more to bracing adventure than the comfort of the familiar, all three are recommended for your consideration.

Boreal CoverElliott Sharp: The Boreal. Music of Elliott Sharp: The Boreal, performed by the JACK Quartet; Oligosono, performed by Jenny Lin, piano; Proof of Erdös, performed by Orchestra Carbon, David Bloom, conductor; On Corlear’s Hook, performed by the Janáček Philharmonic Orchestra, Peter Rundel, conductor. Starkland ST-222.

The name may not be familiar in Colorado, but Elliott Sharp is well known on the experimental music scene in New York. According to his Web bio, his 85 recordings include work in “blues, jazz, noise, no-wave rock and techno music.” As an instrumentalist, he has worked with many experimental performers in New York and has had work performed by Kronos, the FLUX Quartet, Ensemble Modern, and other stars of the new-music world.

In the four works compiled on this album, Sharp’s music is atomized and the separate elements—particularly sonority and rhythm—are examined in isolation and in collisions with one another.

The first piece on the album is the title track, The Boreal. Performed by the ever adventurous JACK Quartet, the score calls for what are described as “bows made from ball chains and metal springs,” making sounds utterly unlike the warm and cushiony sounds of conventional bows on stringed instruments.

With startling control of these unconventional bows, the JACK Quartet produces vibrating, shattered and edgy sonorities. The four movements of The Boreal feature rhythmic patterns on often static pitches. Musical interest resides largely in the utterly unexpected and unique sounds being produced by the instruments.

Oligosono was composed for the Taiwanese-born American virtuoso pianist Jenny Lin, who is heard on this recording. The title, derived from Greek, means “few sounds,” and the score is again an intense exploration of a limited, specific set of sonorities. Steady, motoric, repeated-note rhythms predominate; long passages on a single pitch and its octaves suddenly break into little explosions that extend across the range of the keyboard. Lin gives a virtuoso performance, apparently undaunted by Sharp’s extensive demands

Proof of Erdös, an homage to the late mathematician Paul Erdös, is ably played by the Orchestra Carbon, directed by David Bloom. With a larger variety of instruments, Sharp wields a correspondingly greater variety of sounds. Here, one whole sound world succeeds another, suggesting distant planets, or perhaps the abstract world of mathematics.

You do not feel that these worlds are pretty places. But that is the point: the conventional laws of beauty do not apply in these distant worlds, just as the conventional laws of physics seem to be suspended in the far reaches of the universe.

On Corlear’s Hook, performed by the Janáček Philharmonic Orchestra of Ostrava, Czech Republic, and conductor Peter Rundel, is the most conventionally approachable work on the disc. It is named for a district on the lower east side of Manhattan where Sharp once lived, a place of old tenement buildings and a sordid history. But the music is not really of that mundane place, “neither programmatic nor pictorial,” Sharp writes.

Instead, Sharp takes the listener deep into his own fantastic imagination. The sounds he creates through the orchestra seem to collide in some vast, cosmic drama. The score is by turns delicate, mysterious, evocative: an aural expression of Sharp’s adventurous spirit. The score is performed with great precision and élan.

Nature of thingnessOn The Nature of Thingness. Music by Phyllis Chen and Nathan Davis, performed by the International Contemporary Ensemble. Starkland ST-223

The Music of Phyllis Chen and Nathan Davis inhabits a very different soundworld than that of Elliott Sharp. Rather than a realm of aggressive experimentation, theirs is a world just beyond the familiar, filled with bright and tinkly sounds. Prepared pianos, toy pianos, music boxes, tuning forks, jaw harps and electronic effects are combined with conventional classical instruments, including piano, clarinet, flute, bassoon and violin.

These works were created through ICElab, a commissioning program of the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) notable for the close collaboration between composers and performers. Invoking the idea of “divine play,” ICE’s co-artistic director Claire Chase refers to ICElab as the ensemble’s “in-house playground,” and indeed the spirit of play pervades the CD.

Of the CD’s 10 tracks, one of the most striking is the very first, Davis’s Ghostlight for prepared piano. There is a delightful, teasing variety of sounds from the prepared piano that keep the listener slightly off balance. These sounds are evocative of the idea of a “mischievous spirit” possessing the instrument, or, as the composer suggests, a performance when a mechanical breakdown affects the piano so that notes fail to sound correctly.

The title refers to the bare light bulb left on in otherwise dark theaters to frighten away the ghosts that every theater possesses (or more prosaically, to keep workers coming into theater at night from falling into the pit). Ghostlight was written for pianist Jacob Greenberg, who here delivers an enchanting performance.

Phyllis Chen’s Hush is dedicated to her first child, who inspired the sounds that seem to come from a slightly off-kilter nursery. As performed by the composer, the cheerful, jaunty sounds of the prepared piano, toy pianos and music boxes have only the slightest hint of a haunting spirit.

Chen’s Chimers inhabits a similar world of shimmery, twittering sounds. Inspired by the magic chimes played by Papageno in Mozart’s Magic Flute, the sore combines clarinet and violin with toy piano, toy glockenspiel and tuning forks.

Mobius for music box and electronics, credited to Chen and Robert Dietz, evokes rustling insects, delicate chiming and distant fairy bells, suggesting scenes of tiny creatures who come out at night on the forest floor. It is an utterly engaging piece, and utterly unlike anything I have heard before.

The title work, which concludes the disc, goes in a slightly different direction, into what the liner notes describe as the “hysterical fury of the ‘Dada’ movement.” Written for soprano and small ensemble, with each player also doubling on jaw harp, Davis’s On the Nature of Thingness combines a consonant-heavy Polish text best appreciated for its sound with a word-centric “Dada manifesto.”

The most haunting of the four remarkable movements is the third, titled “Vowels.” Delicate, chiming chords create an aura of harmony and reflection against which the vowel sounds, vocalized on a single pitch, seem to float, like clouds over a distant, misty landscape. Like the rest of the CD, it’s an intriguing and enchanting aural experience.

IoH coverInstruments of Happiness. Music by Tim Brady, Rainer Wiens and Antoine Berthiaume, performed by the electric guitar quartet Instruments of Happiness. Starkland ST-224.

Once in a great while, I come across music that is so unexpected, so strikingly original that I cannot quite find the words to describe it. Hearing this album was one of those occasions.

Instruments of Happiness calls itself an “electric guitar collective” and offers performances by their basic quartet—Tim Brady, Gary Schwartz, Antoine Berthiuame, Michel Héroux—as well as a 20-piece orchestra and a 100-piece ensemble. This album represents the CD debut of the quartet.

There are a handful of electric guitar quartets in the world today, several based on the east coast. This is not a scene that I am familiar with, but I was happy to be introduced to this thriving sub-genre of music.

In this recording, Instruments of Happiness (IoH) draws heavily on art-rock influences reaching back several years. I can’t identify all of those sources, but fortunately, you don’t have to know the influences to enjoy the music. Otherwise, most older music would be beyond our appreciation, since so much of it draws on sources now forgotten.

The largest portion of the recording is given over to two works—or if you prefer, two versions of the same work—by IoH member Tim Brady. Titled The Same River Twice: Symphony #5.0 and The Same River Twice: Symphony #5.Solo, they can easily be appreciated as two separate pieces, one for the quartet and one for solo guitar with much use of pedals and electronic enhancements.

But as the title suggests, the two versions sprang from a shared well of inspiration. As Brady explains in his liner notes, the solo version “takes many of the same ideas but explores them with solo guitar.” On the surface, they seem to be separate pieces: the movement structure is different, and the common ideas go in different directions. But deep listening for the shared elements returns rewards, too.

Brady says he started with the question, “What kind of music can a composer actually make with four electric guitars?” He clearly came up with lots of answers. The very first track, a movement of Symphony 5.0 titled “Riff,” starts with ponderous chords that seem to say “Pay attention now!” It quickly moves into an ear-capturing riff that grows and spreads through the ensemble, into a mesmerizing blur of sound that is part minimalist trance, part rock solo explosion, and all original.

Other movements sure to capture the attention are “Solo 2,” a whirlwind blend of bits and pieces that keep coming together in unexpected ways, and “A somewhat eccentric waltz,” which ends with an ironic voiceover challenging, “Is this the best you can do?” And who can resist the final movement of Symphony #5.0, “Count,” with the irregularities—and some regularities, too—literally counted out by the players.

Since I can’t quite describe this CD, I will just say: Find it. Buy it. Listen to it. I can promise that you will find it full of surprises. And if you don’t like it, you certainly know someone who will.


All Starkland recordings may be purchased through the label’s Webpage.

Carmen Without Context at Chautauqua

Brook’s Tragedy of Carmen flattens a great opera

By Peter Alexander

Peter Brook

Director Peter Brook, who conceived The Tragedy of Carmen

Colorado Music Festival’s performance of The Tragedy of Carmen, Peter Brook’s radical reduction of Bizet’s opera, gave me heightened respect for the work great theater composers do, fitting their music to the demands of the stage.

Unfortunately, that is because so much of the slimmed down work fails to match music and drama as effectively as Bizet did in his original.

To be clear, that was not the fault of the performers. Under the direction of CMF music director Jean-Marie Zeitouni, and with a strong cast of singers, last night’s performance at the Chautauqua Auditorium (July 10) was delivered with emotional force and musical skill. But their commitment was not enough to overcome the limitations of the work.


Composer Georges Bizet

Zeitouni has described The Tragedy of Carmen as “the pure essence of Carmen, . . . not the regular 40% scotch but more like 97% alcohol, distilling the essence of the passion of the opera.” But for me, the CMF program notes hit closer, saying this version “is best labeled as Carmen Light. Like Bud Light (it) is less filling. But whether the new product tastes great depends on each listener’s palate.”

Fair enough. And my palate, honed by great operas including Bizet’s Carmen (and Colorado’s great craft beers), found the low-calorie version, just like light beers, lacking in taste.

There are several specific shortcomings that I found in the work itself. First, removing so much of the original takes away much of the context in which the drama is played. This has the effect of flattening the characters and their emotions.


Abigail Fischer, who portrayed the title character in CMF’s Tragedy of Carmen

A pertinent example is the scene in Lilas Pastia’s tavern. In the original, the gypsy dances that open the scene establish the kind of place it is, and provide the atmosphere for the following scene between Carmen and Don Jose. Reducing those dances to a brief flourish by Carmen not only removes the context, the setting and the atmosphere, it forces the story to lurch without respite from emotional punch to emotional punch.

A second problem is the repurposing of music that was written for a specific dramatic or stage context to another, as when the music written for a riot among the cigar girls is used for a fight between Carmen and Micaëla. Such repurposing of music discounts the skill with which the composer tailors his music for the stage. If we have a fight between two characters, it would be better to hear the music Bizet would have written for that more intimate scene, rather than what he wrote for a stage full of people.

de Slayden

Tenor Jason Slayden (not in Carmen)

The extreme condensation results in scenes not having time to breathe and build. In Bizet’s opening scene, there is a long buildup of tension from the moment Carmen throws a flower at Don Jose, to her arrest and her escape. Brook reduces this to a much shorter span of time, dissolving most of the suspense that Bizet so carefully builds in his score.

Brook has made some capricious changes in the plot. For one, there is a mysterious man from Carmen’s past who suddenly interrupts a love scene between Carmen and Don Jose, shouting “She belongs to me.” Only moments later he is killed by Don Jose, offstage. I still don’t know what dramatic purpose he serves. If it were not for the dark music, this would be almost comical.

The most shocking change comes near the end, when a funeral march—not from Carmen—interrupts the dramatic final scene between Carmen and Don Jose, while a projected title tells us that Escamillo has died in the bull ring. This change eviscerates the ending of the story and denies the audience a great musical-dramatic stroke, when the cheers from the bull ring punctuate Jose’s passionate appeals and murder of Carmen.


Soprano Janine De Bique

Brook’s version does remove some absurdities of plot that we have tolerated because of the dramatic truth of the opera. For example, we do not have the mountainous, secret smuggler’s lair that everyone in Seville can easily find. But we loose some of Bizet’s best music in the process, and we do not get any compensating dramatic truth, either.

While the work seems questionably conceived, the performers addressed their parts with intensity and commitment. Zeitouni led a decisive performance by the CMF Chamber Orchestra. The singers do not have named roles, only voice types, of which Abigail Fischer was a strong mezzo soprano, essentially the Carmen of the show. The abbreviated performance did not give her the chance to build a fiery, luminous character, but she dominated her scenes, as she should.


Baritone Aleksey Bogdanov

Jeanine De Bique’s soprano/Micaëla sang warmly, darkly, strongly in a role that is not made more rewarding by Brook’s changes. Baritone Aleksey Bogdanov had the unenviable task of playing two different characters who die before the end, Zuniga and Escamillo. I thought he was especially effective in one of opera’s great star turns, his entrance as the toreador. Tenor Jason Slayden was vocally passionate, if a little stiff dramatically in his scenes as Don Jose.

Chautauqua Auditorium may not be a great venue for theater. Many of the spoken lines were scarcely audible, particularly when the orchestra was playing. The limited performance space left the actors to move almost randomly, with no setting to indicate destination or motivation, and I found their movements around and behind the conductor to be distracting.

I suspect this show is best for people who do not know the original Carmen well and want a distilled taste of the story. Clearly, many in the audience enjoyed it. I cannot begrudge them any pleasure taken from the music and the performance, but you will more likely find me at a future production of Bizet’s full opera—or enjoying a strong local brew.


EDITORIAL NOTE (7/11/16): The CMF program notes for The Tragedy of Carmen do not credit an author. However, it has come to my attention that the portion that I quoted above—Brook’s version “is best labeled as Carmen Light. Like Bud Light (it) is less filling. But whether the new product tastes great depends on each listener’s palate.”—appeared in an Oct. 13, 2013 review by David Abrams of a performance of The Tragedy of Carmen at Syracuse Opera, published online at Opera Today.

Central City Opera reaches out for new audiences

A conversation with general director Pat Pearce

By Peter Alexander

Central City Opera Opening Night 2006- Page 2 of Book

Opening Night at Central City Opera. Featured in Central City Opera’s 75th anniversary book, “Theatre of Dreams, The Glorious Central City Opera- Celebrating 75 Years.”

Central City Opera opens its 2016 Summer Season tonight (July 9) with their 60th anniversary production of Douglas Moore’s Ballad of Baby Doe, which premiered at the Central City Opera House July 7, 1956. (A review will appear in Boulder Weekly July 14).

Other works on the summer season will be Puccini’s Tosca and two shorter works—The Impresario by Mozart and Later the Same Evening by John Musto—which will be performed both in Central City and on the road in Boulder and Colorado Springs, respectively. Those shorter works take the place in the company’s schedule of a third production in Central City, and they represent an effort to reach out and build new audiences for opera.

I recently had the opportunity to speak with Pelham (Pat) Pearce, general/artistic director of Central City Opera, about the motivations for taking those shorter works on the road, and on the condition of opera in American today. Here is part of that conversation, lightly edited for clarity:

Alexander: Over the past few seasons, you have been looking for the right menu for Central City Opera—is that fair to say?


Pelham “Pat” Pearce

Pearce: I think so. These days, everybody is having to adjust and in many cases, shift and change for the environment we’re living in. But ultimately everything we’ve done over these past oh-so-many-years has been about finding and developing new audiences for this art form. That’s really what it’s been about.

Some of it involved taking a show that we were doing up here (in Central City) down to Denver. Other things involved us actually creating down in Denver in the music theater vein. And what we’ve done in the last year, and what we’re doing this is year, is taking one of our slots and devoting it to an effort to find and drive new audiences for this art form.

We’ve come up with a list of things that we felt were barriers for people, and we think we’re right about this. One of them is price, and opera tickets everywhere can run to be fairly expensive, mostly because it’s the most expensive art form in the world—and even with those expensive tickets that’s still only a small percentage of what it actually costs to do it. But for something that you either don’t know or don’t think you’re going to like in the first place, you’re hesitant to spend a lot of money to try something out. So price was a deal.

Length was a deal—perceptions about how long opera is, how long the sit is, so we created things that were around an hour in length.

The fact that it’s in a foreign language is another perception, and so we tried to basically focus on things that were written in English. This year we have one piece, the Mozart Impresario, that we will be doing in translation, from its original German to English.


Historic Central City Opera House, interior

And the other thing is making people come to you. Doing opera in spaces that were created for doing that is the easiest way to do it. We have everything we need—dressing rooms, lighting, pit—all of those things we need to produce the art form. But we find that crossing that threshold is problematic for some people. So, we have said that we will do these pieces in non-traditional places, so that any pre-conception about what you have to be, who you have to be, what you have dress like—all of those things are shifted to the side and we’ll do these pieces in nontraditional places.

So those four things are sort of the drivers for us, in addressing how we take this third of our offerings in the summer and translate it into something we think will address all of those barriers. So this year that happens to be Mozart’s Impresario and John Musto’s Later the Same Evening. That was a long answer to your question, but I think that’s absolutely the correct answer in the end.

This fascinates me, because there are areas of opera that are thriving right now. For example, I’ve been to some very successful premieres in the past year: Manchurian Candidate by Kevin Puts at the Minnesota opera; Cold Mountain by Jennifer Higdon at Santa Fe; and The Shining by Paul Moravec, again at the Minnesota Opera. And we had Scarlet Letter by Lori Laitman at Opera Colorado this spring.

 People do seem to respond to new work, at least the first time. There’s always a cachet with a world premiere, especially these days. It becomes an event, a “thing” that everybody feels like they need to be there, which is great, especially for the original commissioner and presenter. The subsequent productions of it, in other places, (are another matter).

In the 1980s and ‘90s Opera America and the National Endowment for the Arts gave out money for people to commission new work. And what they found was that people were willing to commission new work, but the work was not really going anywhere because there weren’t subsequent productions. It didn’t have the opportunity to grow and to evolve, and for more people to see it. And so in the next couple of decades they gave money to encourage people to take the risk of that second production of the work.

In many cases these days, people have co-commissioned new works and they’ve set up, like they did with Moby Dick (by Jake Heggie), and like they did with Cold Mountain, multiple presenters. That cuts down on the risk and the cost of the original commission. As part of doing that, they have first dibs (on subsequent productions in other places). And so Cold Mountain went from Santa Fe last summer to Philadelphia over the course of this past season. The largest one in recent memory was Moby Dick, which started off in Dallas and it took it almost two and a half years to get through all of the co-commissioners.


Dead Man Walking execution scene. Photo by Mark Kiryluk. Central City Opera, 2014.

Today, some pieces do go on to have real success around the country. Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking, which you produced in 2014, is a good example.

 Dead Man Walking is a really wonderful piece. It works, and nine times out of ten, new work is not going to work. I mean, that’s the reason most people don’t present new productions of works after the premiere—because having everything come together and have a piece actually work is hard, and it’s rare. Even back in the heyday of opera, there were lots of operas written, but the ones that we still see today are the ones that rose to the top.

There are many operas we’ve never heard of, for good reason.

 There are a lot of different ways to develop a new audience. And in addition to people that are commissioning these new works, in big houses, and doing them in their home theaters, there are also a plethora of new, very small opera companies that are popping up in larger cities, usually, that do work in non-traditional places—in warehouses, that sort of thing. Nobody gets paid much and they don’t charge much for the tickets, but people show up to see it. And so far they’ve managed to do it.

So everybody’s trying a lot of different things, and we’re all trying to learn as quickly as we can, from other people’s risk-taking, about what seems to work, and we try to adapt our offerings to that. Or at least a portion of our offering, so that at the same time we’re producing standard repertoire and interesting repertoire for our current audiences, we’re also working to develop new audiences. We set out a goal last year of having at least 50% of the people that bought tickets to the shows be new audience. We actually did 55%, so we did really well with that last year.

My concern was that our current audiences would want to see everything that we were doing, and would fill up all of the seats—which is a wonderful thing, but ultimately wasn’t the reason specifically we were doing it. Which is why we’ve taken at least a few of these performances off the hill, away from here. Last year we went up to Ft. Collins and down to Colorado Springs. This year, we’re going to go down to Colorado Springs and to Denver with Later the Same Evening, and to Boulder with two performances of The Impresario. So we’re taking it off the hill on purpose, and that’s often where we get the new audience.

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Central City Opera
2016 Summer Season

CCOperaLogoPreferredThe Ballad of Baby Doe by Douglas Moore
2:30 p.m. July 13, 15, 17, 19, 21, 23, 27, 31; Aug. 2, 4
8 p.m. July 9, 29; Aug. 2, 6
Central City Opera House

Tosca by Giacomo Puccini
2:30 p.m. July 20, 24, 26, 30; August 3, 5, 7
8 p.m. July 16, 22
Central City Opera House

The Impresario by W.A. Mozart
12 noon July 27 and Aug. 3, William’s Stables Theater, Central City (sold out)
6 and 8 p.m. Thursday, July 28, Nomad Playhouse, 1410 Quince Ave., Boulder

Later the Same Evening by John Musto
7 p.m. Thursday, July 28, Pikes Peak Center Studio Bee, 190 S. Cascade Ave., Colorado Springs
8 p.m. Saturday, July 30, Denver Art Museum, Denver
7 p.m. Friday, Aug. 5, Gilman Studio, Lanny and Sharon Martin Foundry Rehearsal Center, Eureka St., Central City


Edited 7/10/16 to correct typos


‘The most profound music for orchestra’ rounds out Brahms mini-fest at CMF

Wrapping up two nights of full, burnished orchestral sounds at Chautauqua

By Peter Alexander

Johannes_Brahms_portraitFour symphonies in two days is a lot of Brahms, but Jean-Marie Zeitouni and the Colorado Music Festival Orchestra pulled it off to the full satisfaction of their audience. Last night’s (July 8) nearly-full house for the second of two concerts stood and cheered and whistled and—was that a horse whinny I heard behind me?

It’s safe to say the audience showed its robust approval.

The second program was shared by the Third Symphony in F major and the 4th Symphony in E minor—two works that, Zeitouni said, “speak to someplace where mortals are not even invited.” Happily, he did invite his mortal audience into the elevated—if not quite otherworldly—performance.

The orchestra filled the Chautauqua Auditorium with the rich tones and well balanced chords of the brass section from the very first notes of the Third Symphony. Their bright, burnished sounds characterized both evenings’ performances, and they particularly suited this work.

The first movement, with its complex textures and overlapping lines, is particularly challenging for conductors and players alike. To their credit, the CMF orchestra played with great transparency, making every inner line in the woodwinds, every passing theme audible.

The shifting chords at the recapitulation—a particular hazard of the movement—were all carefully balanced and matched. In many ways, the performance of this movement was exemplary: Zeitouni and the Festival Orchestra at their very best.

Both the second and third movements gave the players a chance to revel in a relaxed fullness of sound. These movements are perhaps too much the same, but both were played with great delicacy of phrasing and beauty of sound. The Horn solo in the third was especially memorable.

The many thematic fragments of the finale were successfully pulled together and wrapped in a full and cushioning orchestral fabric. Zeitouni’s characteristic transparency of texture made it all work. Once again, the horn playing was beautiful, if slightly overbalancing the rest of the orchestra. The end subsided, as it is written, into a vanishing whisper that became another of the challenges of this symphony successfully overcome.


Jean-Marie Zeitouni

The Fourth Symphony is one of my favorite pieces, even if I don’t quite share Zeitouni’s belief that it is “the most beautiful and profound music ever written for orchestra.” Nonetheless, it is unmistakably beautiful and profound and always welcome on an orchestral program.

The first movement provides a great example of tradeoffs in interpretive decisions. Zeitouni sought out different sound qualities in the different layers of the orchestral texture, with the strings ranging from brilliant to a warm, sustained and singing sound, punctuated by raspy, pecking chords from the woodwinds, and the brass always chorale-like in their warmth and resonance. This brings out the separate lines and ideas, but the tradeoff is a loss of unity and blend.

This was a soaring, lyrical reading of the first movement, not tortured or dramatized as it is sometimes heard. All the layers and sections came together for a surging climax that could have—but didn’t quite—upstage the final close of the symphony.

Sometimes you have to just sit back and enjoy the sound of an orchestra. That was largely the case in the second movement, even when the horns seemed again just more than was needed in contrast to the hushed pianissimos.

The third movement was played in a very direct and straightforward style. Sometimes played with a halting quality, as if there were a gravitational pull holding back the momentum, here it was brisk and bracing, an approach that is in alignment with the rest of Zeitouni’s interpretation.

A set of variations on a simple chord progression, the finale is a throwback to the German Baroque music that Brahms studied and loved. It is certainly one of the great orchestral movements, with the Baroque and Classical and Romantic techniques all coming together in a kind of ideal synthesis that seems to transcend time and styles. This movement does occupy another plane.

The trick is to recognize the joints between the many individual variations, but to get through them without a loss of tension and forward movement. The slower, softer middle variations seemed to relax a little too much, particularly as a beautiful brass chorale died into silence. But—another tradeoff?—the impact was stunning when the full wind section proclaimed the return of the original chords, allegro, forte, fortissimo, kicking the whole thing into an extra gear. You will not hear a more effective ending of Brahms’s Fourth.

Zeitouni has said this is the first of many single-composer mini-festivals to come at CMF. That is the kind of programming that raises the festival above the ordinary, providing both musical pleasure and illumination for Boulder’s audiences. I applaud Zeitouni and the CMF for this commitment and look forward to future installments.

Zeitouni and Festival Orchestra embark on a Brahms voyage

Symphonies 1 & 2 open a two-day mini-festival

By Peter Alexander


Johannes Brahms

Last night (July 7), Jean-Marie Zeitouni and the Colorado Music Festival Orchestra opened a mini-festival of music by Brahms with mostly satisfying performances of the symphonies No. 1 in C minor and 2 in D major.

The mini-festival, titled “Boulder Brahms,” concludes tonight (Friday, July 8) with the two later symphonies, Nos. 3 in F major and 4 in E minor (7:30 p.m., Chautauqua Auditorium). Even more Brahms is on offer next week, when Music Director Laureate Michael Christie returns to Chautauqua for “Bernstein and Brahms,” a concert featuring the Piano Concerto No. 1 D minor with pianist Orion Weiss.

Last night’s performance was marked by an exquisite control of dynamics, with beautiful pianissimos and powerful fortissimos, which is becoming a hallmark of Zeitouni’s performances in Boulder. This was true of both symphonies, but particularly stunning in the Second, which had several passages at a beautiful whisper.

Before the concert began, Zeitouni praised the orchestra for doing “four weeks’ work in four days” with the symphonies. Perhaps that explains why the first three movements of the First Symphony were not fully in the groove. They were unusually ragged for the usually excellent Festival Orchestra, with a few uneven entrances and imprecise intonation. The end of the second movement, with a lovely violin solo from concertmaster Calin Lupanu, was marred by a muffed trumpet entrance.

The finale was another story. The tricky accelerando pizzicati at the beginning were perfectly controlled, creating a great sense of suspense. The famous alp horn theme in the horn section rang out heroically, setting the stage for the Beethovenish allegro theme. Zeitouni’s careful control of tempo and dynamics gave the music all the momentum it needed to forge a powerful ending.

There is a joke that when cheerful, Brahms, known for a melancholy temperament, would sing “The Grave is my Joy.” That does not seem to be Zeitouni’s approach. While very sensitive to surface details, he did not go looking for hidden shadows or probe deeply into the darker moments of the First Symphony, which is marked by Beethoven’s influence.


Jean-Marie Zeitouni

The sound, particularly in the brass, was very bright and forward, sometimes a little edgy. Considering Zeitouni’s heritage, it would be too easy to say that this is a French rather than German sound—bright, transparent winds and fleeting strings, as opposed to a more blended, dark and brooding quality. This would not be completely inaccurate, but it would not be the whole picture: Zeitouni’s interpretation is consistent and of a piece, a careful rendering of the symphonies as he hears them.

Gallic, Canadian or personal, the sound worked well in the sunnier Second Symphony. The pastoral opening of the first movement was spun out beautifully, with exquisite dynamic control. The players were untroubled by Zeitouni’s rather brisk tempo, never sounding rushed or frantic. The solo flutist gets extra credit for making the lengthy triplet passage near the end of the exposition and the end of the movement sound utterly calm and peaceful.

The two following movements were fully in the groove, with good balance, clear textures and solid intonation. The second was an oasis of Brahmsian repose, and the third was as graziozo (graceful) as Brahms could ask for, with the winds dancing happily along.

The finale showed all the beauties and limitations of the performance. The opening sotto voce strings perfectly set up the orchestral outburst that the CMF program notes compared to Brahms leaping out and shouting “BOO” to the audience. The whole movement rushed by in a delightful romp, untroubled by any bumps or disturbances that might suggest gloomy depths. It was thoroughly enjoyable. It will surprise no-one that it garnered the expected standing ovation.

The wind players deserved the bows that Zeitouni granted them at the end of the program. I have already mentioned the horns, who were excellent throughout, and the flute. The bassoon, all the other woodwinds, and the full trombone choir were all first rate.

The chance to hear all four Brahms symphonies in two nights is a rare and welcome opportunity. As Zeitouni has said, “By listening to them all together, we get in closer contact with him as a man.” For Boulder’s devoted classical audience, that is more than worth a trip to Chautauqua.

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Colorado Music Festival
Jean-Marie Zeitouni, Music Director

Boulder Brahms
Jean-Marie Zeitouni, conductor
Part 2: Symphonies 3 & 4
7:30 p.m. Friday July 8, Chautauqua Auditorium

Brahms and Bernstein
Michael Christie, conductor, with Orion Weiss, piano
Program including Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor
7:30 p.m. Thursday, July 14
Chautauqua Auditorium




Return of CMF mini-festival and former director

Zeitouni offers Brahms, while Christie’s ‘up to his old tricks again’

By Peter Alexander

Michael Christie.03

Former Music Director Michael Christie returns to CMF July 8.   Photo by Steve J. Sherman

Fans of Brahms’s warm Romanticism (and who in the classical audience isn’t?) have much to look forward to.

In three concerts, the Colorado Music Festival (CMF) will present five of his most popular works. First, CMF music director Jean-Marie Zeitouni will lead the Festival Orchestra in a cycle of the four symphonies on two nights, July 7 and 8. Then a week later, former director Michael Christie makes his first return to the festival to conduct a program including the Brahms First Piano Concerto with pianist Orion Weiss July 14.

The performances of the four symphonies — Nos. 1 and 2 on July 7, 3 and 4 on July 8 — represents a return of the CMF’s mini-festival concept of works by a single composer.

Read more in Boulder Weekly.

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Colorado Music Festival
Jean-Marie Zeitouni, Music Director


Jean-Marie Zeitouni

Boulder Brahms
Jean-Marie Zeitouni, conductor

Part I: Symphonies 1 & 2
7:30 p.m. Thursday, July 7, Chautauqua Auditorium

Part 2: Symphonies 3 & 4
7:30 p.m. Friday July 8, Chautauqua Auditorium


Brahms and Bernstein
Michael Christie, conductor, with Orion Weiss, piano
Program including Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor
7:30 p.m. Thursday, July 14
Chautauqua Auditorium

CMF 2016 season schedule

Zeitouni, Koh and Festival Orchestra dazzle in CMF opener

Dramatic performances highlight a memorable concert

By Peter Alexander


Jean-Marie Zeitouni

Jean-Marie Zeitouni and the Festival Orchestra opened the 2016 Colorado Music Festival (CMF) in dramatic fashion last night (June 30).

The first piece on the program was Beethoven’s Overture to Egmont—literally dramatic music in that it was written to open performances of Goethe’s play of that title. Springing from the same well of passionate idealism as Goethe’s drama of political oppression and martyrdom, Beethoven’s overture adumbrates many of the themes of the play. And from the bold opening unison to the final celebratory coda, Zeitouni squeezed every bit of drama out of the score.

Most impressive were the control of dynamics and phrasing, with carefully placed phrase climaxes and well controlled crescendos throughout. This overture is a bit of a chestnut, but when played as well as it was by the Festival Orchestra, it is a pleasure to hear.


Jennifer Koh

Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Violin Concerto is a work of many extremes, from the most delicate softs of violin harmonics to violent percussion explosions. There were two heroes of last night’s performance: violinist Jennifer Koh, who gave a brilliant, committed performance; and the acoustics in the Chautauqua Auditorium, which accommodated every nuance of the performance and every degree on the dynamic spectrum.

In the most delicate moments—the virtuoso filigree of the opening passages, and the softest violin harmonics that shaded into silence—the hall allowed every note to be heard. And in the moments of manic energy, when the full percussion section opened up at full volume, the wooden walls and roof turned the hall into a vibrating, resonant instrument in its own right. The visceral impact was something that no recording, however powerful, could match.

Of course, even the greatest halls needs great performers, and I don’t want to shortchange Koh’s mastery of this difficult score, or the quality of the Festival Orchestra. The performance was impressive by any standard, and it was one to be remembered.

After intermission, Zeitouni returned to conduct a work from the heart of the French repertoire that is especially close to his heart, the Symphonie Fantastique of Hector Berlioz. Before the concert, Zeitouni had said that the symphony is a kind of a test case for “where an orchestra is as far as its virtuosity and its capacity to express emotional content and color content.”

By those standards, I can only imagine that he was pleased. He was certainly smiling throughout the performance. The Festival Orchestra performed wonderfully, with wide dynamic levels, brilliant orchestra colors, and full-throated fortissimos that filled the hall without distortion.

If a music critic is expected to criticize, I can note that the balance was occasionally less than perfect, as when some lovely horn playing in the introduction covered the first violins. Elsewhere, there was a brief moment of questionable woodwind intonation in the slow movement.

The duo between English horn and oboe at the beginning of the slow movement was magical, with the oboe answers, representing a more distant shepherd, coming from outside the hall. The oboe was not clearly audible at the front of the hall, but there is little else to criticize.

The beautiful playing of the English horn throughout the slow movement was one of the joys of the performance. The unanimity of pitch and articulation within the winds shows what can be accomplished by the best orchestral players. Such purity of intonation led in turn to crystal clear orchestra textures, which reaps benefits for every section.

The multiple timpani of the slow movement evoked distant thunder, and then thundered powerfully for the “March to the Scaffold.” The orchestral outbursts throughout the march were almost shocking in their forcefulness.

Zeitouni’s control of dynamics and tempo led to a nearly crazed “Witches’ Sabbath” movement that Berlioz surely would have loved. The brass, overpowering through sheer volume, earned great applause, but the woodwind parts are just as difficult, and were played equally well. I have never heard a more powerful and convincing close to this symphony, one of the great and original works of the 19th century.