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