Wall of Sound at the Britt Festival

Next Stop: Santa Fe Opera

By Peter Alexander

Last week I was in Oregon visiting family. While I was there, I took the opportunity to attend the opening orchestra concert of the Britt Festival in Jacksonville, Ore.


Teddy Abrams with the Britt Orchestra. Photo by Peter Alexander.

The concert featured an attractive program of West Coast composers, including John Adams, Andrew Norman, Mason Bates, Henry Cowell and John Williams. During a break, there was a humorous nod to John Cage’s 4’33”. Darius Milhaud was included, courtesy of Mills College in Oakland, Calif. And there was an attractive world premiere of Song of Sasquatch by Oregon native Kenji Bunch—a Britt commission that gives humorous acknowledgment to the festival’s and composer’s home region.

Teddy Abrams was the conductor. Joshua Roman, who has appeared several times in Boulder, was the soloist for Bates’s Cello Concerto.

I was not there as a critic, and so this is not a review of their performances. But I wanted to make one observation: the concert, held in an outdoor venue, was heavily amplified. By heavily, I mean that the winds and the bass especially were over-amplified, and sometimes the percussion as well. The balance was seriously distorted, and at times the blend muddied the interior voices and blended complex textures into a single Phil Spector-ish wall of sound.

Every sound engineer has his or her ideal sound, so I can only assume that was exactly what the engineer at Britt wanted. If so, it is not a sound that is appropriate for complex classical orchestral music. The clarity of textures and the precision of balances that we take for granted at the Colorado Music Festival was nowhere to be heard—which served to remind me how lucky we are in Boulder.

My next travels, to the Santa Fe Opera, will be as a critic. Watch here for reviews of the 2017 season productions, including the world premiere production of Mason Bates’s The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, conducted by former CMF music director Michael Christie.


“The (R)evelution of Steve Jobs” at the Santa Fe Opera. Photo by Ken Howard for the Santa Fe Opera.

CMF ends on a high note

‘Classically Jazz,’ Mahler’s Ninth and violinist Gil Shaham will end the season

By Peter Alexander


Gil Shaham

When you plan a summer festival, you want to end on a high note. And this year, Jean-Marie Zeitouni and the Colorado Music Festival (CMF) will end on three separate high notes that bring the 40th anniversary season to a grand conclusion, July 30–Aug. 4.

The first: former CMF first-clarinetist Boris Allakhverdyan returns to Boulder to perform the Copland Clarinet Concerto on a program titled Classically Jazz, Sunday, July 30; the second: Zeitouni leads the Festival Orchestra in Mahler’s Symphony No. 9, last performed at CMF more than 20 years ago, Thursday, Aug. 3; and the third: Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, performed by super-star soloist Gil Shaham, described by Zeitouni as “a wonderful man and musician,” Friday, Aug. 4.

“The idea for the last week is to do something for the orchestra — and [Mahler’s Ninth] is a piece that they’ve all been dying to play — and something for our patrons in the form of a major guest artist,” Zeitouni says. “One concert is more about the orchestra, and one is a gift to the audience.”

Read more in Boulder Weekly.

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Colorado Music Festival Final Week
All performances 7:30 p.m. in Chautauqua Auditorium


Boris Allakhverdyan

CMF Presents: Chamber Music
Boris Allakhverdyan, clarinet, with members of the CMF Orchestra
Saturday, July 29

Classically Jazz
CMF Chamber Orchestra, Jean-Marie Zeitouni, conductor, with Boris Allakhverdyan, clarinet
Sunday, July 30

Mahler’s Ninth
Festival Orchestra, Jean-Marie Zeitouni, conductor
Thursday, Aug. 3

Festival Finale
Festival Orchestra, Jean-Marie Zeitouni, conductor, with Gil Shaham, violin
Friday, Aug. 4


Central City offers splendid mainstage productions of ‘Così fan tutte’ and ‘Carmen’

By Peter Alexander

The 2017 season of the Central City Opera (CCO) is well launched, with two splendid productions in the main theater: a musically solid and entertaining production of Bizet’s Carmen and a revelatory production of Mozart’s Così fan tutte.

Carmen opened the season July 8 and continues through Aug. 6. Using sets stored since CCO’s 2011 season, it had an all-new cast and director. Carmen is a tricky show to pull off on Central City’s small stage. The act set in Lillas Pastia’s tavern works well, but the other three force compromises that are not always effective, including an awkward ballet in place of the bullfighters’ parade in the final act.


Matthew Plenk (Ferrando), Hailey Clark (Fiordiligi) and David Adam Moore (Guglielmo). Photo by Amanda Tipton, courtesy of Central City Opera.

Opening last Saturday, July 15, and continuing through Aug. 4, the production of Così fan tutte takes its cue from the opera’s subtitle: the school for lovers. By placing it in a Victorian-era boarding school, the production appropriately brings out the youth and inexperience of the lovers; it creates wonderful opportunities for humor, and it appeals to the Victorian vogue stoked by Downton Abbey.

In this context, Don Alfonso is a fusty professor teaching a needful lesson. Despina is a “house-mistress” whose cynicism comes from years of exasperation with the follies of adolescents. And the four lovers, described in the program as “students” who are “dating,” are clearly in the throes of self-dramatizing first love.

This setting fits Così perfectly. The Central City cast conveyed this interpretation wonderfully.

Read more in Boulder Weekly.



CMF’s mid-summer mini-fest puts the focus on French music

Artist-in-residence Benedetto Lupo will play both Ravel piano concertos in one evening

By Peter Alexander

The mid-summer mini-festival, happily restored to the Colorado Music Festival season, this year will fill Chautauqua Auditorium with the sounds of French music — Ravel, Debussy and others less familiar.


Pianist Benedetto Lupo will be artist-in-residence for the CMF French Music mini-festival.

This is a welcome opportunity for Boulder audiences. The orchestral repertoire is so dominated by German and Russian composers that we can easily forget that France too had a vital musical culture.

The choice is also unsurprising: French music is the natural home of Jean-Marie Zeitouni, the CMF’s music director. “This is a repertoire with which I have intimate affinities,” he says. “I grew up with the Montreal Symphony playing Ravel and Debussy, so I have a special love for it.”

In addition to Zeitouni’s affinity for the repertoire, the other factor in the programming was the availability of pianist Benedetto Lupo. Although he is Italian, Lupo says he “always had an interest” in French music. He studied with Aldo Ciccolini, another Italian who was renowned for his performances of French music.

Lupo will be the CMF artist-in-residence during the mini-festival week and will be part of all four concerts — a Festival Orchestra concert July 20, an abbreviated repeat for “Fresh Fridays” July 21, a solo and chamber concert July 21 and a CMF Chamber Orchestra concert July 25.

Read more in Boulder Weekly.

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Colorado Music Festival
French Mini-Festival
All performances in Chautauqua Auditorium

Festival Orchestra, Jean Marie Zeitouni, conductor, with Benedetto Lupo, piano
7:30 p.m. Thursday, July 20

Fresh Friday performance
Festival Orchestra, Jean Marie Zeitouni, conductor, with Benedetto Lupo, piano
6:30 p.m. Friday, July 21

Benedetto Lupo, piano, with Joseph Meyer, violin; Elizabeth Jaffe, viola; and Aaron Merritt, cello.
7:30 p.m. Saturday, July 22

Fauré’s French Soirée
CMF Chamber Orchestra, Jean-Marie Zeitouni, conductor
Benedetto Lupo, piano; Calin Lupano, violin; Catherine Turner, horn; Vivian Cumplido Wilson, flute.


Beethoven’s monumental 9th Symphony enjoys a mid-season triumph at CMF

Zeitouni, orchestra, chorus and soloists deliver an immaculate performance

By Peter Alexander

Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is a piece burdened with so much projected significance that it is difficult to hear it just as a piece of music.

Unquestionably a great symphony, it has also become the preferred piece for any major occasion. It has been played for memorials of all kinds, for the reopening of Germany’s Bayreuth Festival after World War II, as the European anthem, for the demolition of the Berlin Wall, to mark the millennium, for Olympic ceremonies and presidential inaugurations, for orchestras opening or closing anniversary seasons, and just this year for the meeting of the G-20 in Hamburg, Germany.


Jean-Marie Zeitouni

In that context, it was surprising and a bit refreshing that Jean-Marie Zeitouni programmed the Ninth not as the opening or closing gesture of the Colorado Music Festival’s 40th anniversary season, but right the middle of the summer, as if it were just another piece on the program. I believe that is a good thing: it is a better piece when taken off its pedestal and heard as a great artistic product instead of a weighty political or social statement.

I suspect that was Zeitouni’s intention. “I thought, let’s put it right in the middle,” he says. “It’s a way to connect with the people and to offer something familiar.”

However familiar it is, Zeitouni tries to approach the symphony anew each time he conducts it. “Each time I buy a brand new score, I get rid of all the markings that I have and I start fresh,” he says. “And each time I find something new, something I haven’t seen before.”

Whatever Zeitouni has found new, last night’s performance at Chautauqua Auditorium (July 13) more than justified his thinking. He and the CMF Festival Orchestra, joined by the St. Martin’s Festival Singers and an outstanding quartet of soloists delivered an immaculate performance of the Ninth Symphony, from the portentous opening haze of the first movement to the triumphant “Ode to Joy” Finale.

Among the strengths of the performance were the clarity and transparency of the orchestra throughout, a result of well controlled intonation and balance. Zeitouni’s management of the volume and pacing of the performance were remarkable. One of the most powerful moments was the return of the first movement’s primary theme. First heard as a whisper, it comes back with crashing D-minor chords that were, as they should be, the powerful culmination of all that came before. Without careful pacing and management of dynamics, that moment misfires.

The precipitous scherzo movement was marked by great economy of gesture from the conductor and absolute precision across all the tempo changes by the orchestra. The slow movement was deliciously warm, with Beethoven’s extended phrases, passages, whole paragraphs of music beautifully sustained.


Soprano Mary Wilson

The finale, some of the most familiar music in the repertoire, was marked by many wonderful expressive touches, making the music as fresh to the listener as it must be for Zeitouni with a clean new score. The chorus, prepared by Timothy J. Krueger—who got deserved recognition at the end of the performance—was exceptional, with sopranos that really can sustain those high As that Beethoven cruelly asks for, and in tune.

The four solo parts are some of the most thankless roles in the repertoire, written with no mercy, but they were made as beautiful as possible by the quartet of soprano Mary Wilson, mezzo Michelle DeYoung, tenor Jason Baldwin, and bass Timothy Collins—a last-minute replacement for CU alumnus Keith Miller. Only Collins had a moment of unease, perhaps as the new guy in the quartet, but beyond that they all sang with great assurance, even with some very brisk and exhilarating tempos.


Composer Betsy Jolas

The Symphony benefited from being played after a short opening portion of the concert, comprising two contrasting pieces: the American premiere of A Little Summer Suite by Betsy Jolas, and Mahler’s early Lieder eines Fahrenden Gesellen (Song of a wayfarer) with De Young as soloist.

Jolas’ Suite, with seven short movements in 12 minutes, reflects the atonal, atomistic style of the mid-20th century—not surprising for a composer born in 1926 and soon to turn 91. It is an assured score, but the summer she seems to be writing about struck me as a little bit sinister, with ominous clouds always on the horizon. The shifting moods were convincingly conveyed by the Festival Orchestra.

Great Performances at the Met: Tannhäuser

Michelle DeYoung as Venus in Wagner’s Tannhauser at the Met. Photo by Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera

DeYoung, a dramatic soprano with upcoming Wagnerian roles as Kundry in Parsifal, Fricka in Rheingold and Sieglinde and Die Walküre, sang Mahler’s songs with great dramatic import. If slightly overdone for early Mahler, it was nonetheless very effective, especially in the final two movements. Her expressiveness charmed the audience, while Zeitouni and the orchestra provided comfortable support.

The concert was sheer pleasure from beginning to end. I especially commend Zeitouni for allowing us to hear the Ninth as a great piece of music, fresh and powerful, but unburdened of any unnecessary weight.

The Ninth Symphony will be repeated at 6:30 p.m. tonight (July 14) on the CMF “Fresh Friday” series. Tickets from the Chautauqua Box Office.

“All-American” program at CMF is big, bold, brassy

Violinist Elina Vähälä scores with Corigliano’s “Red Violin” Concerto.

By Peter Alexander

Conductor Cristian Măcelaru likes loud, brassy climaxes, and last night (July 6) the Colorado Music Festival (CMF) Orchestra was able to deliver.


CMF guest conductor Cristian Măcelaru

A guest artist at the CMF, Măcelaru led a program of American music—more or less, depending on how American you consider Dvořák’s “New World” Symphony. The concert was filled with big moments for the brass, resulting in a performance that was exciting, always dramatic, but sometimes over the line into a sound that was pushed and raw.

Măcelaru and the Festival Orchestra opened the concert with the Three Dance Episodes from On the Town by Leonard Bernstein. From the first note, the performance was bold, incisive and jazzy. In fact, the playing was so brash, so perfectly in character throughout that one might wish for more jazz-inflected American music from the orchestra.

Which, in fact ,the CMF offers later in the summer! The concert scheduled for July 30 is titled “Classically Jazz,” and will feature music by Aaron Copland, George Gershwin, Scott Joplin and more Bernstein, as well as jazz-influenced music by Kurt Weill and Darius Milhaud. Take my word: you will be sorry if you miss it!

Returning to last night’s concert, the Bernstein dances were great fun, but even here the loud climaxes seemed just overplayed. A more restrained, carefully blended sound would serve the music well.


Elina Vähälä

After the Bernstein, the concert’s second guest artist, Finnish violinist Elina Vähälä, gave a passionate, committed performance of John Corigliano’s “Red Violin” Concerto, music taken from the 1998 film The Red Violin. Vähälä, Măcelaru and the orchestra seemed well matched to bring out the contrasting moods of the four movements.

The dramatic first movement suffered somewhat from Măcelaru’s high-volume style, which sometimes covered the violin, but the dramatic contrasts of sounds were effective. The second movement was all cinematic foreboding, a ghostly chasing of shadows by soloist and orchestra alike. The more lyrical third movement, the expressive soul of the concerto, elicited Vähälä’s most lovely playing. The finale seemed building toward a certain collapse, until a sudden moment of calm, beautifully conveyed by the CMF players, interrupted the manic forward motion.

After intermission, Măcelaru and the orchestra returned for one of the most popular works in the orchestra repertoire, and the first great work written in the United States: Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9 in E minor, known by the note that the composer casually jotted on the score, “From the New World.” The performance was very dramatic, and enjoyed by the audience, but I found it often too pushed in both tempo and volume. This was particularly true in the first and last movements: withholding the full impact of the brass until the true climax of each movement allows more of the inner voices and string parts to be heard along the way—the brass can cover just about everyone else—and gives that final climax more impact.

The inner movements were the most effective. In the slow movement, Măcelaru heightened the drama by bringing the softest passages down to a mere whisper of sound, wonderfully played by the orchestra. The woodwinds as a whole played this movement beautifully, especially the solos by the brooding English horn and the scampering oboe. The scherzo was about as fast as I would want to hear it, but never out of control. Here again the woodwinds acquitted themselves well, and the movement never flagged.

Whatever you think of Măcelaru’s interpretation, you cannot question the quality of the CMF players, nor of the performances they deliver from one week to the next. Măcelaru himself said it well from the podium: Boulder is fortunate to have such an ensemble in residence every summer.

‘Carmen’ and ‘Così’ highlight Central City Opera’s summer season

For 2017, all performances will be in Central City

By Peter Alexander

Central City Opera Opening Night 2006- Page 2 of Book

Opening Night at Central City Opera. Photo courtesy of Central City Opera.

Central City Opera (CCO) is offering two operatic mainstays in their historic 1878 opera house this summer, Bizet’s Carmen (July 8–Aug. 6) and Mozart’s Così fan tutte (July 15–Aug. 4).

Carmen and Così are joined on the Central City season by limited performances of three short operas presented in smaller venues in Central City (July 26–Aug. 4): The Burning Fiery Furnace by Benjamin Britten, The Cabildo by Amy Beach, and Gallantry by Douglas Moore. Though little known, these works are an important part of CCO’s long-term goal.

“We’re doing this to build new audiences,” Pat Pearce, CCO’s artistic director, says. “Come up and see one of these one-acts! You’re out in an hour, and it’s in English.”

The two mainstage productions appear to be worlds apart. Carmen is a gritty story about a decent man destroyed by his fatal passion for an untamed Gypsy, Così fan tutte an artificial semi-comedy about two pairs of lovers. But beneath the surface, both works explore the same emotions: love, jealousy, anger.

Read more in Boulder Weekly

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CCOperaLogoPreferredCentral City Opera
Summer 2017

Georges Bizet: Carmen
Central City Opera House
Matinees at 2:30 p.m.: July 12, 14, 16, 18, 22, 26, 30, Aug 3, 6
Evenings at 8 p.m.: July 8, 20, 28; Aug. 1

Mozart: Così fan tutte
Central City Opera House
Matinees at 2:30 p.m.: July 19, 23, 25, 19, Aug. 2, 4
Evenings at 8 p.m.: July 15, 21, 27

Benjamin Britten: The Burning Fiery Furnace
The Martin Foundry, Central City
12 noon July 26 and Aug. 2
5 p.m. July 27

Amy Beach: The Cabildo
Williams Stables, Central City
8 p.m. July 26, 29, Aug. 2 (Double feature with Gallantry)

Douglas Moore: Gallantry
Williams Stable
8 p.m. July 26, 29, Aug. 2 (Double feature with The Cabildo)
12 noon Aug. 3 and 4