Music by Mendelssohn and Janáček with soloists Mina Gajić and Zachary Carrettin
By Peter Alexander
The Boulder Chamber Orchestra (BCO) calls its current season “Fourteeners,” in honor of the their 14th season and their goal of “reaching new heights.”
It may or may not be a coincidence, then, that conductor Bahman Saless chose a piece by the 14-year-old Mendelssohn for the next concert, to be performed Friday in Broomfield and Saturday in Boulder (Nov. 10 and 11). The program features pianist Mina Gajić and violinist Zachary Carrettin playing Mendelssohn’s Concerto for piano, violin, and strings from 1823.
Joining the Mendelssohn on the program is another youthful piece, the Idyll for Strings by Leoš Janáček, written when the composer was 24—a relatively young age for someone who lived and worked into his 70s.
Mendelssohn’s concerto is a youthful work, but it should not, Saless maintains, be considered an immature piece. “It gives the audience the chance to see the charm that you find in early Mendelssohn, and quite frankly his genius at that age,” he says. “It’s a pretty fascinating snapshot of what he was able to do at the time, and what he will be doing later.”
Carrettin agrees. “It’s an early work, but not that early,” he says. “He wrote it at 14, but at 16 he wrote the String Octet, which is considered by all to be a complete, mature masterpiece. In these two years, Mendelssohn becomes a fully formed master composer.”
Gajić and Carrettin are known for their historically informed performances with the Boulder Bach festival, of which he is the artistic director. The performance with Saless and the BCO will be entirely on modern instruments, including the piano, but Gajić and Carrettin, who are married to one another, have been practicing the concerto at home with their own historical pianos and violin bows. Using instruments from Mendelssohn’s time, they have found, gives insights into the music.
One of the pianos that they rehearsed with dates from 1845, during Mendelssohn’s lifetime. “It’s just a whole world of colors and possibilities for phrasing that come naturally on an instrument like this,” Gajić explains. “Because they’re so related to the instrument’s nature, it’s revealing to look into special colors, timings, pedaling. It’s wonderful to see how certain pieces unlock themselves on a piano like this.”
“Every time we go back to the 1845 (piano) in rehearsal, it reveals something that the other pianos didn’t reveal,” Carrettin adds.
One difference using earlier pianos and bows is tempo. To Carrettin and Gajić it feels right to play faster on the older, lighter instruments. “For us, the later the instrument, the more resonance, the thicker the sound, the more we find that if we go just a couple of clicks slower, the sonorities make more sense with the character of the music,” he says.
That character, Carrettin explains, falls between the Classic and Romantic styles. “It has a little bit of tension between classical rhetoric and Romantic expression,” he says. “There’s a sense of walking between two worlds at a particular time in history, which I love.”
The score combines expressive melodies with virtuosic flourishes, all in a chamber music texture of exchange between soloists and orchestra. “It’s really exciting to bring the chamber music aspect into a concerto,” Gajić says. “We’ll have a great time performing with the Boulder Chamber Orchestra.”
Saless is equally excited. “It’s always a pleasure and an honor to work with Zachary and Mina,” he says. “It’s a charming piece, and performing with a husband and wife couple also makes it intriguing, because it’s like the violin and piano could be one instrument.”
Saless and the BCO played the Janáček Idyll before, and it’s a piece that he feels a special connection with. “The first time I conducted it was in the Czech Republic and I fell in love with it,” he says. “It’s such a [cultural] identity piece, especially the last movement that brings this absolute joy of Czech culture. I think if there is such a thing as reincarnation, I was Czech in my last life!”
We think of Janáček as a 20th-century composer, because his best known works were composed after 1900, but the Idyll was written in 1878, more than 20 years before the new century. The first performance was heard by Dvořák, a friend of the younger composer who is often cited as an influence on the Idyll. But Saless isn’t sure about the influence.
“It’s hard to say if it’s Dvořák’s influence or just Czech influence,” he says. “Because it’s so Czech, it sounds like Dvořák.”
Some of Janáček’s later and better known pieces are fairly complex and spiky, but the Idyll is very straightforward. “It’s much more approachable,” Saless says. “It’s a suite of seven movements like folk songs, and that’s really all it is. It’s pretty simple.”
That doesn’t mean it’s easy to play, however. “There are some parts that are just impossibly hard,” Saless says. “There are some really hard cello parts. I’ve done quite a few Janáček pieces in the Czech Republic, and every orchestra complains how hard it is.”
The difficulty of the string writing probably reflects Janáček’s training as a pianist and organist and not a string player. “My guess is that he was so young that he was writing more as a composer that was not so familiar with the limitations (of the instruments),” Saless says.
“Having said that, it’s just gorgeous. Don’t miss it!”
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Boulder Chamber Orchestra, Bahman Saless, conductor
With Mina Gajić, piano, and Zachary Carrettin, violin
7:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 10
Broomfield Auditorium, 3 Community Park Rd., Broomfield
7:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 11
Boulder Seventh-Day Adventist Church, 345 Mapleton Ave., Boulder
Mendelssohn: Concerto for piano, violin, and strings
Leoš Janáček: Idyll for Strings