Boulder Philharmonic pairs ‘complementary’ composers Beethoven and Elgar

Program highlights cellist Astrid Schween, new work by Boulder native Kristin Kuster

By Peter Alexander Feb. 28 at 12:40 p.m.

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Astrind Schween will play the Elgar Cello Concerto with the Boulder Philharmonic. Photo by Steve Sherman

Michael Butterman, music director of the Boulder Philharmonic, thinks that Beethoven and the English composer Sir Edward Elgar go well together, but he’s not quite sure why.

“I always think of Beethoven and Elgar as complementary,” he says. “It’s a gut sense, and I can’t put my finger on it.”

Finger on it or not, when the guest soloist for Saturday’s concert, cellist Astrid Schween, was selected to play the Elgar Cello Concerto, Butterman picked Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony for the same program. Also on the program is the first Colorado performance of Dune Acres, a new work by Boulder native Kristin Kuster.

Read more in Boulder Weekly.

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“Elgar and Beethoven”
Boulder Philharmonic Orchestra, Michael Butterman, music director
With Astrid Schween, cello

Kristin Kuster_preview

Composer Kristin Kuster

Kristin Kuster: Dune Acres (Colorado premiere)
Edward Elgar: Cello Concerto
Beethoven: Symphony No. 4

7:30 p.m. Saturday, March 2, Macky Auditorium
Tickets

There will a free pre-performance program at 6:30 p.m. in Macky Auditorium, hosted by Marilyn Cooley of Colorado Public Radio, with Michael Butterman, Astrid Schween and Kristin Kuster.

Ars Nova Singers offer “The Earthquake Mass,” but no actual earthquake

Twelve-voice Mass setting by Antoine Brumel

By Peter Alexander Feb. 21 at 4:50 p.m.

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Thomas Edward Morgan

Conductor Thomas Edward Morgan and Boulder’s Ars Nova Singers must really like Renaissance music that has many more than the usual four or five separate voice parts.

About this time last year, they performed a 36-voice canon by Johannes Ockeghem. The year before that, it was a 19-voice motet by Robert Carver. And in 2016, it was two separate pieces for 40 voices, the largest number ever called for in the Renaissance, by Thomas Tallis and Alessandro Striggio.

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The original manuscript of Brumel’s “Earthquake Mass” (1570)

This year’s offering is not quite on that scale, but it is unusual: a Mass by Antoine Brumel for 12 voices—the only Renaissance choral setting of the Mass for such large forces (performances Saturday in Boulder and Sunday in Denver). It is known as “The Earthquake Mass,” not because of the earth-shaking nature of the music, but because it is based on a tiny bit of sacred chant, originally sung to the words “Et ecce terra motus” (“And behold, the earth moved”).

It was customary in the Renaissance to build larger pieces on a short phrase of chant. This is not unlike jazz that is based on the bass line from a standard song, except that in the Renaissance the quoted phrase would be placed in an inner voice and might not be heard or recognized by the listener.

In this way, Brumel’s Mass was composed “just from that one little snippet of chant, which is the basis of the whole thing,” Morgan says. On the other hand, he adds, “there’s a section where he probably was thinking about the ground moving or something dramatic, because there’s a couple of vigorous and dramatic shaking moments in the piece.”

Such a large number of different voices creates a rich sound that Morgan and the choir relish. “For the ensemble it’s fun because there’s not many groups that can have 12 independent lines and really be confident that they’re going to all be there,” Morgan says.

“So it’s building on the capabilities of the group, but I just find that there’s nothing quite sonically like it again until the 20th century. I find (multi-part pieces) to be very interesting, because you’re listening for small changes in texture, and being able to hear it go from large sonic structures to much more intimate things, and to hear places where the voices come together and present something at the same time.”

At the same time there is a drawback to presenting music with so many parts intricately woven together. “It’s very dense, to the point where you just hear a lot of activity in the voices, and you hear little snippets of melody that go around the choir. Some (fragments of melody) are very clearly presented one after the other and some are layered in such a way that you can’t even perceive them any more because they’re right on top of each other.”

Morgan has structured the program so that the more dense music is not heard in a single, unbroken stretch. The five movements of the Mass will be performed in three sections at the beginning, the middle, and the end of the program, with other, more intimate pieces presented in between.

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Ann Marie Morgan

Ann Marie Morgan, a member of Ars Nova and an internationally known instrumental performer, will play a variety of music on the viola da gamba, and at one point the singers will present a four-voice motet by Josquin Des Prez, conducted by Brian Dukeshier, Ars Nova’s new assistant conductor.

“I decided to give the singers a little break, and when you have a world-class viola da gamba player in your midst, it’s nice to use her occasionally,” Morgan says. “She’s put together a couple of little sets of (pieces). The intention is to create a context that draws the ear of the listener out of these large, dense textures and into a very intimate space.”

The viola da gamba pieces would not have been heard in services of the Mass in Brumel’s time, but it is not inauthentic to interrupt the larger musical portions of the program. In the church of the time, the various movements of the Mass would be heard at different times during the service, with chant and other events between, so that the listeners would not sit straight through 30 minutes of dense choral music.

Renaissance music is often performed that way in concerts, but listening that way “can be a bit of a challenge,” Morgan says, “because it’s just so much of the same kind of texture. Even within the mass we’re varying the texture in that we have sections that are being done by one voice on a part. So we have two little 12-tet groups that are presenting certain parts.”

Josquin’s motet introduces another kind of variety into the program. “It’s a four-part piece in the midst of all of this,” Morgan says. “It’s for choral variety, but it’s also a little bit for tessitura (voice range) variety, because it’s a considerably higher-pitched piece than the Mass. So we hear the sopranos go up in their register a little bit.”

Morgan has no hesitation recommending the Brumel Mass to new listeners of Renaissance music. “It’s so sonically lush that I think people will enjoy it,” he says. “You don’t perceive the underlying chant, but you hear the changes of harmony, and when it moves from one large tonal area into another, it has this kind of surge like a wave that arrives and then it recedes.

“It’s very gracious to listen to. I find it meditative in a way, because it does transport you into a place where you’re not trying to figure it out.”

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Music of the Renaissance: “The Earthquake Mass”
Ars Nova Singers, Tom Morgan, artistic director
With Ann Marie Morgan, viola da gamba

Antoine Brumel: Missa Et ecce terra motus (“The Earthquake Mass”)
Josquin Des Prez: Ave Maria…virgo serena
Music and arrangements for viola da gamba by various composers

7:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 23, St. John’ Episcopal Church, 1419 Pine St., Boulder
Tickets

4 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 24, St. Paul Community of Faith, 1600 Grant St., Denver
Tickets 

Pro Musica Colorado looks backward, forward and outward

Music by J.S. Bach, Haydn, and world premiere by Max Wolpert

By Peter Alexander Feb. 21 at 4:45 p.m.

The next concert by the Pro Musica Colorado Chamber Orchestra will look backward, and forward, and outward.

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Jory Vinikour. Photo by Peter Nuccio DiNuzzo.

The program, titled “Classical Evolution,” will be presented in Denver Friday (Feb. 22) and Boulder Saturday (Feb. 23) and, in a new venture for Pro Musica, in Longmont Sunday (Feb. 24).

The concert will feature works by J.S. Bach and Joseph Haydn, and the world premiere of a new work by Boulder-based fiddler/composer Max Wolpert. Music director Cynthia Katsarelis will conduct the concert, which will feature harpsichordist Jory Vinikour as soloist.

Bach’s piece on the program, the D minor Harpsichord Concerto, looks back in the sense that it probably derived from an earlier, but now lost, concerto for violin. Haydn’s Classical-era Symphony No 22 (“The Philosopher)”) looks back by starting with a movement in an earlier style from the Baroque period, and forward in the later movements by anticipating styles of the composer’s later symphonies.

And Wolpert’s Baroque in Mirror, a concerto for harpsichord and small orchestra, looks back to some revered folk performers and composers from Baroque times, outward to music of different traditions, and forward by bringing them into a contemporary setting.

Read more in Boulder Weekly.

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“Classical Evolution”
Pro Musica Colorado Chamber Orchestra, Cynthia Katsarelis Music Director
With Jory Vinikour, harpsichord

Max Wolpert: Baroque in Mirror (World Premiere)
J.S. Bach: Harpsichord Concerto in D minor, BWV1052
Haydn: Symphony No. 22 in E-flat major (“The Philosopher”)

7:30 p.m. Friday, Feb. 22, First Baptist Church of Denver, 1373 Grant St.
7:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 23, Mountain View Methodist Church, 355 Ponca Pl., Boulder
2 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 24, Stewart Auditorium, Longmont Museum, Longmont

Tickets

Longmont Symphony presents “Sounds of America”

Soprano Christie Conover inspired the program with a Cowboy Song

By Peter Alexander Feb. 20 at 6:30 p.m.

The next concert of the Longmont Symphony started with, of all things, the notorious outlaw Belle Starr.

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Belle Starr (l)

The program includes composer Libby Larsen’s Cowboy Songs, a set of three songs for voice and orchestra that opens with “Bucking Bronco,” a text loosely attributed to Starr. A warning to young girls, the text concludes “Now all young maidens, where e’er you reside/Beware of the cowboy who swings rawhide/He’ll court you and pet you and leave you to go/In the spring up the trail on his bucking bronco.”

Elliot Moore - credit - Photography Maestro

Elliot Moore, by Photography Maestro.

Elliot Moore, conductor of the Longmont Symphony, heard soprano Christie Conover sing the song at an audition and fell in love with it. “She sang stunningly beautifully,” he says. “I thought (the song) was fantastic and I thought that she really sold it.”

Deciding that he wanted to have Conover perform the Cowboy Songs with the LSO, Moore thought that another piece that would fit her voice would be Samuel Barber’s sweet recollection of childhood, Knoxville, Summer of 1915.  

With an American theme starting to come together, he decided that Aaron Copland’s ballet Rodeo would be the perfect companion to the Cowboy Songs. The final piece of the puzzle—or the program—is an American piece that is little known but that Moore really wanted to present, the Symphony No. 2 of Robert Kurka.

Robert Kurka

Robert Kurka

“It is an amazing American symphony that has been forgotten and deservers a spot in the repertoire,” Moore says. “Kurka was born in 1921 and died at 36, in 1957. He was being compared to Copland, (as) the next great American composer, but he died, so there’s very little of his work performed.”

The Symphony is a relatively short work in three movements. “The first movement has a gravitas to it, the second movement has kind of a lilting, dance feeling to it, and the last movement is just super, super joyful,” Moore says. “It’s been recorded I think twice, and it has remained on the shelf for 60 some odd years. It’s exciting that we have an opportunity to bring it out.”

A graduate of the CU Boulder College of Music , Conover relates naturally to the Cowboy Songs. “I’m from Montana, and a lot of my family is still out on the farm and the ranch,” she says. “My parents both grew up on farms and ranches, and I grew up going to the farms and ranches of my family.”

After the first song, which Moore describes as “cute and fun,” the second has a bluesy quality “It’s called ‘Lift me Into Heaven,’ and it is more (about) the physical aches that come from working on the farm. It’s not about dying and going into heaven, simply ‘I need you to lift me into bed so that I can go to sleep after a hard day.’ That to me sounds like what heaven is in this song.”

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Christie Conover

Moore and Conover both describe the third song as “sassy.” It’s very short, about Billy the Kid and all the people he shot, “one every morning.” “Billy was a bad man,” the song states. “One day he met a man who was a whole lot badder/And now he’s dead and we ain’t none the sadder.”

As a true Westerner, Conover knows that some of the wild-west mythology is exaggerated. “But there has to be some truth to legend, in order for the stories to take shape,” she says. “I think there’s some truth to it.”

She also believes American audiences should hear music of their own culture on concerts. “It’s our repertoire, and it is important that we experience our own culture through music,” she says. “This is who we are.”

For many Americans, so is Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915, a setting of James Agee’s description of a idyllic summer evening on the front porch and in the back yard with his family. It was published as a prologue to Agee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning autobiographical novel A Death in the Family.

Ostensibly the description of a time of happiness, the poem takes on a darker meaning in connection with the novel, which relates how the death of the author’s father shatters the family. It is both a depiction of innocence through the eyes of a child, and a premonition of the loss of innocence, through the eyes of the adult recalling childhood.

“I think that Barber did such an incredible job that the sense of nostalgia and innocence paired with loss of innocence comes out in the harmonies,” Moore says.

Barber paints the images of the summer evening in the music. “As an example, the rocking of the rocking chair is painted with a triplet figure in the flute,” Moore says. “(The text) talks about street cars being noisy in the traffic, and he puts in the French horn that makes a clanging sound. There’s a lot that Barber has put into the music to really bring the text into musical relief.”

Since beginning her study to Knoxville: Summer of 1915, Conover has found a deeper meaning from becoming a mother. “I have a 5-month-old now, and it’s a child talking,” she says. “He speaks about how his mother and his father are good to him, and how amazing that we are put on this earth at the same time, and I kind of easily well up.”

She read the text over and over before learning the notes. “It has to be me singing the (words of the text), whether the specific part I think about my son, or the part I think about my own mother and my own memories. You have to have those sensations in your mind as you’re singing it.

“If you’re feeling it and you’re visualizing it, the way the music comes out of you is different. That’s what’s so great about live music!”

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Agnes de Mille’s choreography for Rodeo. Pennsylvania Ballet, photo by Alexander Ilziliaev.

Following up the cowboy theme of Larsen’s songs, Moore and the LSO will perform the entire score of Copland’s ballet Rodeo. The ballet tells the story the courting of a shy cowgirl during a party with the ranch hands. The score includes a number of folk songs and fiddle tunes from American history, including “If He’d be a Buckaroo,” “Sis Joe,” “I Ride an old Paint,” “Bonaparte’s Retreat,” and “Miss McLeod’s Reel.”

“We’re performing is the complete ballet, which includes a movement that features a saloon-style solo piano called ‘Ranch-House Party,’ and that movement is generally omitted,” Moore says. “There’s also a big clarinet solo in the ‘Ranch House Party’ that is rarely heard.

“I think it’s neat that we’re bringing the complete music of the ballet to Longmont.”

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elliotandlso-1Sounds of America
Longmont Symphony Orchestra, Elliot Moore, music director
With Christie Conover, soprano

Robert Kurka: Symphony No. 2 (Colorado premiere)
Samuel Barber: Knoxville, Summer of 1915
Libby Larsen: Cowboy Songs
Aaron Copland: Rodeo

7:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb 23
Vance Brand Civic Auditorium, Longmont

Tickets

CU Theatre and Dance Department presents Sondheim’s ‘Into the Woods’

A modern perspective on what happens after ‘happily ever after’

By Peter Alexander Feb. 14 at 3:15 p.m.

“Anything can happen in the woods,” Stephen Sondheim wrote.

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That lyric tells one premise of Sondheim’s modern fairy-tale musical Into the Woods, which will be performed by the University of Colorado Department of Theatre and Dance over two weekends, Feb. 22–March 3. Theatre professor Bud Coleman directs the production, and CU alumnus Adam Ewing conducts the freelance orchestra.

In addition to all the magical things that can happen in the woods, another premise of the show is the question, just what happens after “happily ever after”? To answer that question, Sondheim and book author James Lapine imagine some very familiar fairy-tale characters all together in a single story. Each of the characters has a backstory before the fairy tale begins, and each one faces the unintended consequences of their wishes.

“You’re going to see Cinderella and her step-sisters, Jack [from] Jack and the Beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood, but Sondheim and Lapine take their story past the traditional Grimm fairy tale,” Coleman says. “We’ll actually find out one version of what might have happened to them after they get their wish.”

Read more in Boulder Weekly.

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Into the Woods
By Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine
CU Department of Theatre and Dance

7:30 p.m. Friday & Saturday, Feb. 22 & 23
2 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 24
7:30 p.m. Wednesday–Saturday, Feb. 27–March 2
2 p.m. Sunday, March 3
University Theatre

Tickets

Based on classic fairy tales, Into the Woods contains multiple acts of thievery, murder, accidental death, amputation, infidelity, kidnapping, family arguments, and child neglect.

 

 

Michael Christie, former music director of CMF, wins Grammy for Best Opera Recording

Live Recording from Santa Fe Opera also features CU alumnus Wei Wu

By Peter Alexander Feb. 12 at 12 noon

Michael Christie, who was music director of the Colorado Music Festival 2001–2013, won a Grammy for a live recording from the Santa Fe Opera.

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Santa Fe Opera: The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs. Photo by Ken Howard.

The two-CD set of composer Mason Bates’ and librettist Mark Campbell’s The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs was recorded during the world premiere run of the opera at the Santa Fe Opera’s summer festival in 2017. It was released on the PENTATONE label. It beat a recording from the Metropolitan Opera and three other nominees to win the category.

Christie, who was recently appointed music director of the New West Symphony in Thousand Oaks, Calif., conducted the opera in Santa Fe, and later at the Indiana University Opera Theater in Bloomington, Ind.

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Wei Wu celebrates his Grammy.

Among other cast members, the recording includes a performance by bass Wei Wu, an alumnus of the CU College of Music, as Jobs’ guru Kobu. Others in the cast included tenor Garrett Sorenson, mezzo-soprano Mariya Kaganskaya, mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke, baritone Kelly Markgraf, baritone Edward Parks, and soprano Jessica Jones.

Christie is currently conducting performances of Verdi’s La Traviata at the Lyric Opera of Chicago and was unable to attend the Grammy ceremonies. He issued a statement this morning: “I can say the whole experience was quite surreal.

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Michael Christie

“I’m in Chicago at the moment getting ready to open La Traviata at the Lyric Opera of Chicago so couldn’t be present in LA for the award. I have to tell you though, I’m not sure I could have handled being in the audience waiting for that envelope to be opened! Instead, I was in Macy’s (so grateful they provided wifi in the store!!!) alternately shopping for socks and watching the live stream when the award was announced! I just started laughing.

“Any one of the five outstanding nominees should have won and yet they called out ours. I’m so grateful to Santa Fe Opera, our marvelous colleagues of the Santa Fe Opera Orchestra and its powerful chorus, (CD producer) Elizabeth Ostrow, creators Mason Bates and Mark Campbell, my amazing colleagues on stage.

“I also want to shout out to the extraordinary artists at Indiana University who gave the second performances of the opera in September. You all made an indelible impression on the piece and you share in its history.

“Congratulations to everyone involved!”

Christie joins a distinguished roster of Grammy winners in the Best Opera Recording category, including Seiji Ozawa, James Conlon, Alan Gilbert, Kent Nagano and Sir Charles Mackerras.

The recording of The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs can be purchased from ArkivMusik or Amazon.

Other nominees for Best Opera Recording were John Adams’ Doctor Atomic by the BBC Symphony and BBC Singers John Adams conducting; Jean-Baptiste Lully’s Alceste by Les Talents Lyriques and Choeur de Chamber de Namur, Christophe Rousset conducting; Richard Strauss’ Der Rosnekavalier by the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Metropolitan Opera Chorus, Sebastian Weigle conducting; and Verdi’s Rigoletto by the Kaunas City Symphony Orchestra and the Men of the Kaunas State Choir, Constantine Orbelian conducting.

Soprano Mary Wilson sings songs about childhood with Boulder Phil

Samuel Barber’s Knoxville, Summer of 1915 and Maher’s Symphony No 4

By Peter Alexander Feb. 7 at 4:15 p.m.

Soprano Mary Wilson is looking forward to her appearance with the Boulder Philharmonic Saturday (7:30 pm. Feb. 9 in Macky Auditorium). “It’s a real dream program for soprano,” she says.

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Soprano Mary Wilson

Under the title “The Heavenly Life,” the program includes two pieces with soprano solo that reflect the voice of a child, but with deeper currents: Samuel Barber’s nostalgic Knoxville, Summer of 1915 and Mahler’s Symphony No. 4. The program also features portions of Mark O’Connor’s Strings and Threads with the Phil’s concertmaster Charles Wetherbee as soloist.

“It is a good concert for those of us who just take in the beautiful sonorities,” says Boulder Philharmonic music director Michael Butterman. “I’m looking forward to it.”

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Michael Butterman Photo by Jiah Kyun.

Mahler’s Fourth Symphony is the most familiar of the three works on the program. It is the shortest of Mahler’s ten symphonies, and has the smallest orchestra. Lacking the emotional stress and angst of some of Mahler’s larger symphonies, the Fourth is “audience-friendly,” Butterman says. “It’s a lighter, more transparent work and one you can hear without pre-concert study. It’s rejuvenating to listen to.”

The Fourth marks the end of Mahler’s first group of symphonies that share the common feature of being related to the composer’s songs written on texts from a single collection of poetry, Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The boy’s magic horn). The finale is a setting of one of the Wunderhorn texts, a song that Mahler called “Das himmlische Leben” (The heavenly life), from which the concert takes its title.

Originally conceived as a possible finale to his previous symphony, the movement was written before the rest of the Fourth. As he worked his way toward the already completed finale, Mahler anticipated its themes and mood of gentle lyricism in the earlier movements.

The entire symphony has a cheerful cast, from the very opening with flutes and sleigh bells through to the end. Even the second movement’s macabre fiddle solo that represents “Freund Hein,” a medieval German symbol of death, is mostly lighthearted in nature.

The finale, with its lovely melodies and its text describing a child’s view of a heavenly feast in which “the angels bake the bread” is the shortest. “It is not an apotheosis,” Butterman says. “It’s a benediction.”

There are darker moments. The text describes how “we lead an innocent, dear little lamb to its death” for the meal, and “St. Luke slaughters an ox.” But in this childlike heaven, even the animals seem happy to become meals.

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Mary Wilson

“What this piece has so beautifully [is] a sense of wonder, but there’s a definite pensiveness to it,” Wilson says. “In that respect it’s very honest. Not everything is wonderful, and I think the way that Mahler gives it balance is really beautiful.”

Knoxville, Summer of 1915 is a setting for soprano and small orchestra of a prose piece by James Agee, published as a preamble to his Pulitzer Prize-winning book A Death in the Family. As such, it is both a nostalgic remembrance of an idyllic moment in Agee’s childhood and a poignant prelude to a family tragedy.

The text describes a lingering summer evening on the porch and in the backyard of Agee’s family home, where the child is surrounded by a loving family. It is presented from the perspective of both a five-year-old child and an adult looking back on his lost innocence.

In her performance, Wilson aims to capture both the child and the adult. “My goal is to get the background in the way I can shape a word, to give the idea that it’s not one dimension,” she says. “I don’t want to be histrionic and melodramatic. Agee does such a good job of spinning the poetry that my job is just to add color and zero in on the important words at the important times.”

She finds that living in Tennessee the past 11 years has given her an extra appreciation for Agee’s description of summer nights. “I live in Tennessee now and I hear the cicadas, which I didn’t have growing up in Minnesota,” she says.

“That first-person relationship to sitting on your front porch on a summer evening, I really do feel that. I find it so comforting and so homey anymore, the sound of the cicadas on a hot summer night.”

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Chalres Wetherbee

O’Connor’s Strings and Threads is a set of 13 short movements written to trace a thread of American folk music, and reflecting the history of his own family, moving from Ireland to Appalachia and westward across the continent. “The work is for string orchestra and violin solo, you might call it fiddle solo, because the pieces are written in this kind of folk idiom,” Butterman says.

Wetherbee will only play a selection of O’Connor’s complete work. “We’ve chosen a few movements that are appealing and ordered them in a way that contrasts slow and fast,” Butterman explains. “We’re treating them more as stylistic references to other parts of the program, the Appalachian locale of Knoxville, and also the reference to fiddling in the second movement of the Mahler, rather than a travelogue as a chronological presentation.”

The combination of O’Connor, Barber and Mahler is an unusual variation on the usual orchestral program of overture, concerto and symphony, but Wilson has no doubts. “It’s brilliant programming!” she says.

“It’s really stunningly beautiful.”

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The Heavenly Life

Boulder Philharmonic in Macky

Boulder Philharmonic Orchestra, Michael Butterman, conductor
With Mary Wilson, soprano, and Charles Wetherbee, violin
7:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 9, Macky Auditorium

Mark O’Connor: Strings and Threads
Samuel Barber: Knoxville, Summer of 1915
Mahler: Symphony No. 4

Tickets