Oundjian returns to CMF for memorable concert

Pieces by Shostakovich and Berlioz are not to be missed

By Peter Alexander July 26 at 12:30 a.m.

CMF - Oundjian - credit Michael Quam

Peter Oundjian with the CMF Orchestra. Photo by Michael Quam.

Music Director Peter Oundjian has been absent from the Colorado Music Festival podium for the past two weeks, but last night (July 25) he returned for a memorable concert with music by Shostakovich (Cello Concerto No. 1 with soloist Kian Soltani) and Berlioz (Symphonie Fantastique).

The concert will be repeated tonight. If you love those composers as I do, you will not want to miss it.

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Vivan Fung

The program began with a little known piece by Vivian Fung, a Canadian composer of mixed heritage who combines western and various Asian and other folk musical idioms. Dust Devils begins with bright, whirling sounds built from fragments and outbursts of sound that do indeed recall a progression of dust devils. A central section of static chords, marked by slowly changing colors and eerie wails rises to a clouded culmination in the brass.

This entertainingly descriptive piece was played with verve and energy by the Colorado Music Festival Orchestra, who were all smiles at the end. So were many in the audience.

Born in Austria to a family of Persian musicians, Soltani has recently risen to prominence as a soloist with Daniel Barenboim’s West Eastern Divan Orchestra. I had not heard him before, but Oundjian has described him as “an extraordinary talent and a very intense player,” which was evident in his performance of the Shostakovich Concerto.

One of the most demanding pieces in the cello repertoire, the concerto is far more powerful when heard live. The spatial element, separating the voices and putting the cellist full view of the audience, makes both the musical textures and the virtuoso demands of the concerto visible.

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Kian Zoltani. Photo by Juventino Mateo.

Soltani attacked the Concerto with confidence and élan from the very first solo introduction. His playing was full of fire when it needed to be, particularly throughout the intense first movement.

For the second movement Soltani, Oundjian and the orchestra slipped into an entirely different world—one of calm and beauty, with meditative moments bordering on melancholy. The warmth of the cello sound and the delicacy of Soltani’s phrasing made this a high point—at least until the written out cadenza of the third movement, where Soltani’s perfect sense of drama kept the audience rapt. Here the most delicate pianissimos drew the audience in, lest they miss a single nuance.

The finale went off in a burst of energy, ending with an almost shocking series of timpani strokes followed by silence. Soltani’s mastery of the Concerto’s demands was unmistakable throughout, and earned a standing ovation that for once seemed more than routine.

Parts of the Concerto, particularly in the first movement, are virtually a double concerto for cello and horn. Special mention should be made of the orchestra’s outstanding principal horn Catherine Turner, whose clarion calls rang out repeatedly. With no place to hide, she was splendid.

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Hector Berlioz

In introducing Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, Oundjian noted that it was written only three years after Beethoven’s death. What orchestra players in 1830 could have made of Berlioz’s psychedelic masterpiece with its revolutionary instrumental colors, its unprecedented demands on the players, its startling syncopations, the sheer buildup of orchestral sound, its fantastic story of love, death and insanity—much less how they could have played it—is hard to imagine.

The list of innovation in the score is long—violins using the wood of the bow, multiple timpani, two harps, enlarged wind sections, use of the piercing E-flat clarinet—and a testament to Berlioz’s unconstrained imagination. This is a work of staggering originality when it was premiered.

Whatever the players thought then, the Symphonie Fantastique is well within players’ experience and ability today, and I can only believe that Berlioz would have been thrilled with last night’s performance. To mention only a few high points, the introduction was beautifully dreamy and delicate, with Oundjian finding all the momentary outbursts of intensity that needed emphasis.

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Conductor Peter Oundjian

Once the movement got moving, the rhythmic momentum became irresistible, carrying everyone with it. Oundjian perfectly managed the flow and pauses of the second movement waltz. The solo oboe and English Horn of the third movement (“Scene in the country,” the movement with the most obvious precedents in its time) were played beautifully. Throughout the movement, the quietest and most delicate moments were carefully balanced and nuanced.

From the beginning of the “March to the Scaffold” through the following “Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath” the momentum grew inexorably to the final chord. Oundjian carefully controlled both volume and tempo, so that the final, culminating crescendo never became distorted and the final accelerando was achieved without loss of clarity or precision.

The program will be repeated tonight (July 26) at 7:30 p.m. at the Chautauqua Auditorium. Tickets are available though the Chautauqua Box Office.

Central City emphasizes intimate aspects of Britten’s Billy Budd

Emotionally powerful production has impact

By Peter Alexander July 19 at 1:30 p.m.

Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd is a large-scale opera that usually receives a large-scale production.

Based on a novella by Herman Melville, it takes place on a British man-of-war in 1797, during England’s war with France. The cast is large, all male: officers, sailors, marines, midshipmen, powder monkeys. That often leads to a very large set, such as the massive 1978 Metropolitan Opera production—still in use—that revealed multiple levels and decks of the MHS Indomitable, shifted up and down by theatrical elevators.

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A portion of the large cast of Billy Budd fills Central City’s stage. Joshua Hopkins as Budd, center. Photo by Amanda Tipton, courtesy of Central City Opera.

It was all the more surprising then, when Central City Opera announced the Colorado premiere of Billy Budd in their intimate opera house. The production, now running at CCO though Aug. 2, reflects general/artistic director Pelham Pearce’s devotion to Britten’s operas.

Billy Budd offers perhaps the stiffest challenge of all of Britten’s operas for the company to mount on its small stage. The result is an emotionally powerful production, but one that has traded grandeur for a more intimate impact.

The scenic design by Takeshi Kata and David Martin Jacques is attractive, evoking a sailing ship from only ropes and tilted pieces of deck, and worked efficiently for all but the largest choral scenes. Projections by Sean Cawelti displayed on screens that doubled as ship’s sails were effective in enlarging the scope of the stage, and crisscrossing ropes became symbols of the naval regulations that confine everyone on board the ship.

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Intimate scene between Vere (Daniel Norman, left) and Billy (Joshua Hopkins). Photo by Amanda Tipton.

There are many scenes of distinct intimacy: the prologue and postlude by Edward Fairfax Vere, captain of the Indomitable; Vere with his fellow officers in his cabin; Budd with other sailors below decks; Budd with Vere and his subsequent trial; Budd in prison before his execution. In fact, the most important moments of the opera are moments of intimacy, and with the audience so close to the actors every glance and gesture had impact.

A notable aspect of the production was how powerfully it communicated the casual cruelty of an 18th-century naval ship. The flogging of a young novice sailor hit hardest, but there were many moments of routine brutality by officers toward the sailors, effectively revealing the crew’s suppressed emotions.

On the other side of the ledger, the small theater limits the range of musical dynamics and impact. Even moderately loud choral and orchestral sounds are felt viscerally in the tiny house, making distinctions among musical climaxes difficult; they’re all loud. Nonetheless, the big choral scene “This is our Moment,” when the Indomitable is chasing a French ship and the full cast comes onstage, is undeniably exciting.

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Full cast of Billy Budd singing “This is our Moment.” Photo by Amanda Tipton.

Negatively, it was so crowded that it was difficult to take in all the different parts of the crew. It was impossible to separate officers from men, for example, or to show the place onboard of the young midshipmen and the powder monkeys who bring powder to the guns. That scene turned the crew into a single mass, obscuring hierarchical nuances.

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Daniel Norman as Vere (center in officer’s uniform). Photo by Amanda Tipton.

In spite of the opera’s title, performances of Billy Budd depend most on the ambivalent character of Vere. Sympathetic to Billy, whom he knows to have been falsely accused, he is unable to free himself from routine and regulation in order to save him—a fact that haunts him to the end.

Daniel Norman brought a light, flexible, floating tenor to the part, capable of handling the meandering vocal lines eloquently. His transformation from old man (Prologue) to virile commander and back again (Postlude) was effective, in both staging and Norman’s physical appearance. His singing throughout was effective, with especially clear diction.

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Joshua Hopkins as Billy Budd. Photo by Amanda Tipton.

Joshua Hopkins was everything Budd needs to be: attractive, innocent, naive. In fact, he was so appropriately a blank slate that he registered less than other more strongly marked personalities in the cast. He portrayed Billy’s relationships with fellow sailors well. His singing was always direct and expressive. His ballad, “Billy in the Darbies”—with a text by Melville—was simple and heartfelt, if not quite beautiful.

The other major character, master-at-arms John Claggart, is one of the great villains of opera. He even has a solo number to rival Iago’s famous “Credo” from Verdi’s Othello, singing “O beauty, o handsomeness, goodness . . . I will destroy you.”

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Kevin Burdette (r) as Claggart; Joseph Gaines (l) as Squeak. Photo by Amanda Tipton.

Kevin Burdette seemed to relish this juicy role—and the boos that came with his curtain call. His voice took on a menacing edge, well conveying Claggart’s evil, but unremittingly so. He was effective in showing Claggart’s fundamental malignity, but the portrayal was one-dimensional. There was never the smooth, seductive sound that would have mitigated the vocal harshness and lent more depth to his cunning.

The many smaller roles surrounding these main characters were all ably handled by the cast. As Vere’s fellow offices Mr. Redburn and Mr. Flint, Dennis Jesse and Federico De Michelis were vocally solid and appropriately reserved and aloof. They brought a welcome moment of humor to their duet “Don’t like the French.”

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Joshua Hopkins as Billy Budd (front) with Matthew Burns as Dansker. Photo by Amanda Tipton.

Joseph Gaines was a tellingly whiny Squeak and Jonas Hacker suffered convincingly in the unhappy role of the Novice. Benjamin Werley (Red Whiskers), Jonathan Hayes (Donald), Sean Stanton (Bosun) and Brian Kontes (Lt. Ratcliffe) were all fine in their smaller roles. Matthew Burns brought warmth and sympathy as Billy’s truest friend, Dansker. Ethan Conklin made a good impression as the cabin boy, and the Midshipmen and Powder Monkeys were valuable to the success of the production.

Stage director Ken Cazan made creative use of the small stage, using levels and spaces to delineate differences of rank. There was never any doubt where every character stood in the moral hierarchy that lies at the heart of the story.

One negative note, for me: Vere’s apparent heart attack as he was singing his final words struck me as melodramatic and grotesque. It would be better to let the words speak of the approaching end without unnecessarily pounding the point home.

Conductor John Baril, who is CCO’s music director, led the excellent orchestra with great sensitivity. He maintained a careful balance between pit and stage—with help from Britten’s expert orchestration—and kept the opera moving resolutely to its tragic end. He moved more resolutely than most through the sequence of 32 chords that represents Vere’s private conversation with Billy after his trial, a choice possibly shaped by the unusual staging that left Vere onstage throughout.

A special word must be said for the orchestra, who handled Britten’s score beautifully. Although Billy Budd calls for large orchestra, and it was heard with great force when needed, much of the scoring is delicate. There are many wind solos, by saxophone, by flute, by clarinet, by bassoon, and all were wonderfully played.

One final note about the summer’s pair of mainstage productions: Madama Butterfly and Billy Budd are both stories of innocence betrayed. It is fascinating to see this common theme explored in such different musical styles and contexts. This may be just a happy coincidence, but seeing both in one summer deepens the experience of each opera.

Billy Budd continues through Aug. 2 with both evening performances and matinees. Anyone who loves Britten or cares about opera should take the drive up to Central City to hear this relative rarity live.

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Central City Opera
Benjamin Britten: Billy Budd
Libretto by Eric Crozier and E.M. Forster
John Baril, conductor; Ken Cazan, director

CCO House by Ashraf Sewaiilam

Central City Opera House. Photo by Ashraf Sewailam

Remaining performances:

8 p.m. July 19 and 25
2:30 p.m. July 21, 23, 27, 31; Aug. 2

Central City Opera House

Full cast, credits and tickets at the CCO Web page.

Clean and businesslike, Danzmayr leads CMF orchestra

Pianist Gabriella Montero plays Grieg Concerto and spectacular improvisation

By Peter Alexander July 19 at 12:30 a.m.

Guest conductor David Danzmayr teamed with an impressive Gabriela Montero last night (July 18) at the Colorado Music Festival for an utterly enjoyable Grieg Piano Concerto. Also on the program were Sideriusby Osvaldo Golijov and the Sixth Symphony (Pathétique) of Tchaikovsky.

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David Danzmayr

Danzmayr is a very clear, very business-like conductor. He does not emote on the podium, leaving the emotion largely to the players, which the CMF Festival Orchestra for the most part provided. Like his manner, his performances were distinctly business like—professional, very direct in their interpretation, but not always refined or carefully balanced. At times, he allowed the middle of the texture to become muddy, to the detriment of his interpretations.

The concert opened with Siderius, an eight-minute “Overture for Small Orchestra,” as the composer’s subtitle calls it. Starkly contrasting material—dark menacing chords from the brass and fluttering, repetitive passages in strings and woodwinds—were well delineated. The performance was clean and solid, if cut and dried in effect.

For Grieg, Danzmayr was an attentive accompanist, taking cues from Montero’s Romantic approach to the score. Throughout the first movement, she was at her best in the lyrical, more gentle passages. I heard lovely parts and pieces, but not a whole.

The slow movement opened with gorgeous string sounds and a lovely horn solo, preparing Montero’s delicate, sparkling piano entrance. Long passages of distilled Romantic dreaminess, effectively evoked by the soloist, dominated the movement, with a lively middle interruption.

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Gabriela Montero

In the dance-like finale, Danzmayr found the drama to support Montero’s energetic performance. Except for another lovely, dreamy interlude at the center of the movement, her playing was infectiously buoyant and bouncy, full of contained energy. Here it all added up, making for a delightful performance.

But for Montero, one suspects that the concerts are merely an excuse for what she most likes to do, which is to play improvised encores. Entirely on her own ground, she was spectacular, taking a suggestion from the audience to improvise on “Blue Moon.” After a delicate opening, where she was finding her footing and no doubt thinking of possibilities, she gave first an impressively contrapuntal Bach/Liszt version, followed by a raggy Scott Joplin variation that was breathtaking.

The second half of the concert was taken with the Tchaikovsky symphony. In the first movement, Danzmayr led the orchestra through the shifting sands of Tchaikovsky’s many contrasting musical episodes with a clear sense of the road map. From the beginning the orchestra pulsed with a nervous energy that paid off as the movement continued; many delicate moments were beautifully shaped. But once again a murky texture marred many passages.

The five-beat “waltz” of the second movement was workmanlike, elevated by moments of great grace and flow. The third movement march was brisk, with a lot of compelling forward motion but an absence of careful balance among sections. The movement built impressively to the climactic ending, with the usual result—a burst of applause from the audience.

The finale was rough-hewn but passionate. Danzmayr was attuned to the tragic impulses and suggestions in the music. With careful attention to the destination, Danzmayr let symphony end, as it must, fading mysteriously and fatally into silence.

The program will be repeated tonight (July 19) at 7:30 p.m. at the Chautauqua Auditorium—most likely with an all new, unique, one-time-only improvisation by Montero. Tickets are available though the Chautauqua Box Office.

Note to readers

By Peter Alexander July 14, 2019

If you read Sharpsandflatirons often you may notice that I have not posted any reviews in the past few days—right in the middle of Boulder’s Colorado Music Festival at Chautauqua, the flagship classical music event of the summer in Boulder County! There is a reason, and it is not that I am snubbing the festival.

A few days ago I was out hiking with my grandson and foolishly took my eyes off the trail for a few seconds. My left foot found a steeply slanted rock that was covered with dirt, and down I slid, doubling my right knee back and landing in some terrible way on my right foot and ankle.

The bruises are remarkable to behold, but apart from their artistic merit, I experienced quite a bit of pain and still have considerable swelling in my foot and lower leg. There is no doubt that the ankle has been severely sprained. The best advice is to stay off my right foot as much as possible.

So I am staying home, my foot propped up and frequently iced (RICE=Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation). Consequently  I have had to miss more than one concert I had hoped to review. I expect to return to my usual routine of concerts and reviews within the next week. Until then, I appreciate your wishes for a quick recovery!

Jean-Marie Zeitouni, David Danzmayr return to CMF

Guest conductors will lead orchestra concerts for the next two weeks

By Peter Alexander July 11 at 4 p.m.

The Colorado Music Festival hosts the return of two guest conductors for the central portion of the six-week festival, July 11–23.

For orchestral concerts July 11-12 and July 14, Jean-Marie Zeitouni, principal guest conductor of the festival, returns to lead the Festival Orchestra and Chamber Orchestra. David Danzmeyer, who appeared as guest conductor in 2015 and 2018, will lead the CMF orchestra July 18-19 and 21.

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Jean-Marie Zeitouni. Photo by David Curleigh

“I’m excited about coming back” says Zeitouni, who was the festival music director 2015–17. “I share so much beautiful music making with the CMF orchestra, that it’s really heartwarming for me. And I have my favorite spot for good coffee, a good meal, a good hike, a good sunset, so this is fun.”

Zeitouni opens his CMF visit with a pair of concerts titled “Romantic Duos,” Thursday and Friday (July 11–12. Three of the pieces have romantic couples in their titles: Pelleas et Mélisande by Gabriel Fauré,Romeo and Julietby Tchaikovsky, and Bacchus et Arianeby Albert Roussel. Also on the program is Brahms’s Double Concerto for violin and cello, played by the real-life romantic duo of Mira Wang and Jan Vogler, who are married.

Zeitouni’s second CMF concert is part of the summer series tracing Beethoven’s reach into the future. Titled “Beethoven’s Path to Neoclassicism,” it will feature Beethoven’s First Symphony and Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements played with alternating movements. Completing the program is Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto played by pianist Lilya Zilberstein.

Read more in Boulder Weekly.

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Colorado Music Festival
July 11–23
All performances at 7:30 p.m. in the Chautauqua Auditorium

Thursday & Friday July 11 & 12, 7:30 PM
ROMANTIC DUOS
Jean-Marie Zeitouni, conductor, with Mira Wang, violin, and Jan Vogler, cello

Fauré: Pelleas et Mélisande Suite
Brahms: Concerto for Violin and Violoncello
Tchaikovsky: Romeo and Juliet Overture
Roussel: Bacchus et Ariane, Suite No. 2

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Lilya Zilberstein

Sunday, July 14
BEETHOVEN’S PATH TO NEOCLASSICISM
Conductor: Jean-Marie Zeitouni, with Lilya Zilberstein, piano

Beethoven: Symphony No. 1 and Stravinsky: Symphony in Three Movements (movements played alternately)
Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No. 3

Tuesday, July 16
QUINTESSENTIAL HARP
CMF Chamber Players

Arnold Bax: Quintet for Harp and String Quartet
Ravel: Introduction and Allegro for Harp, Flute, Clarinet
Ravel: String Quartet
Brahms: String Sextet No. 1 in B-flat Major

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Gabriela Montero. Photo by Colin Bell

Thursday & Friday, July 18 & 19
TCHAIKOVSKY’S SYMPHONY NO. 6 “PATHETIQUE”
David Danzmayr, conductor, with Gabriela Montero, piano

Golijov: Sidereus
Grieg: Piano Concerto
Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 6 (“Pathétique”)

Sunday, July 21
MAGNIFICENT MOZART MINI-FESTIVAL I
David Danzmayr, conductor, with Stefan Jackiw, violin

Mozart: Symphony No. 32
Violin Concerto No. 5 (“Turkish”)
Overture from Don Giovanni
Symphony No. 38 (“Prague”)

Tuesday, July 23
RUSSIAN MASTERS
CMF Chamber Players

Shostakovich: Piano Trio No. 1 in C Minor
Tchaikovsky: Piano Trio in A Minor

Tickets from the Chautauqua Box office.

 

Central City opens 2019 festival with a deeply moving Butterfly

In title role, Raquel Gonzáles leads a strong cast

By Peter Alexander July 8 at 2:45 p.m.

Central City Opera opened its 2019 festival season Saturday (July 6) with a powerful and dramatic Madama Butterfly.

The scene and costume design by Dany Lyne were first used in 2005, in a production directed by the soprano Catherine Malfitano. She has sung the role of Butterfly, and she appeared in her first operatic role at the CCO in 1972 so it was natural for her to return to Central City 33 years later for her directorial debut. The physical production was used again in 2010, and for this year’s production directed by Alison Moritz.

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Butterfly’s Entrance, Act I of Madama Butterfly. Photo by Amanda Tipton, courtesy of Central City Opera.

The scenery is minimal but lovely, and the open design allows for considerable flexibility in representing different spaces in Butterfly’s house, where all action takes place. The costumes are effective and appropriate throughout; those for Butterfly’s family in the first act are strikingly colorful, standing out beautifully against the set. Moritz made creative use of the limited space available on the Central City stage, giving the audience an effective and deeply moving interpretation.

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Raquel González as Butterfly

As Butterfly, Raquel González shone within a generally strong cast. Her beautiful voice was used to good effect for both musical and dramatic expression. To mention but a few details: she started softly and hesitantly, befitting a 15-year-old girl who has been sold into marriage. But once she and Pinkerton were alone, both her singing and Moritz’s sensitive direction revealed her growing passion.

Her strength and volume grew throughout the long love duet, symbolizing her growing confidence, swelling to her greatest volume on the very last note of the act. In the second act, her voice was aglow when she thought Pinkerton was returning, then lost all warmth and color when she realized that he was not coming back.

One final note: her death scene is hard to get right, but her hesitation when she heard Pinkerton’s voice, her resolve to go ahead with suicide, the staging of her ritual death were terribly realistic, avoiding the empty clichés that too many productions resort to. This amplifies the impact of the ending, which was reserved, tellingly, for just Pinkerton and Butterfly.

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Cody Austin as Pinkerton. Photo by Amanda Tipton, courtesy of Central City Opera.

Cody Austin’s Pinkerton was strong, direct, and touched with the swagger of a feckless young naval officer. His voice was powerful and well heard throughout, with a bright tenor sound that developed a harsher edge when pushed at the top. The thoughtless Pinkerton is not an ingratiating role, but Austin managed to make him both attractive enough in his casual manner to be a believable lover, and callous enough to heighten the pitch of Butterfly’s tragedy. This is a difficult and crucial line to observe, and both Moritz as director and Austin as actor/singer found a good balance.

Troy Cook was a forthright, steady presence, vocally and dramatically, as the American consul Sharpless. His part contains no vocal fireworks, since he suffers none of the violent passions, but his solid baritone was comfortingly smooth throughout. The conscience of the opera, he came across as sympathetic, frustrated, then angry with Pinkerton, in this respect standing in for the audience.

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Act II: Raquel González (l), Annie Rosen (r), and Isla Burdette (kneeling). Photo by Amanda Tipton, courtesy of Central City Opera.

Suzuki is an absolutely vital role that is too easy to take for granted. Annie Rosen was exemplary as Butterfly’s servant, her warm sound as comforting and reliable as Suzuki’s love and support for her mistress. In the context of Butterfly’s Japanese environment, she is the understanding common woman who observes Butterfly’s unwavering love for an American with sympathy and apprehension. She was in fact the ideal comprimario, as roles are called that are identified as being “with the primary” characters—musically supportive, solid as a duet partner, never outshining the star.

Joseph Gaines was just obsequious and servile enough as Goro the marriage broker. He sang clearly, with just a touch of the oily flatterer in his sound. Brian Kontes made a very strong impression as the Bonze. His denunciation of Butterfly’s conversion to Christianity was imperious, vocally the curse of a religious tyrant. Thaddeus Ennen sang well in the thankless role of Prince Yamadori, and Christina Pezzarossi was effective in the even more thankless role of Kate Pinkerton.

I should devote a few words to Isla Burdette, the child who played “Trouble,” Butterfly’s son. She had more to do than is often the case, and she carried it off like a pro—perhaps reflecting the fact that her father, Kevin Burdette, is an opera singer? (He will be heard later in the CCO production of Britten’s Billy Budd.) I cannot resist the emotional tug of children on stage, and she is one of the best I have seen.

Conductor Adam Turner had all of the flexibility, the push and pull of tempos and emotional turns of Puccini’s score well in hand. The orchestra played with sensitivity and great expression, especially in the tender moments of the score. The humming chorus and orchestra interlude in Act II were especially beautiful.

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Stage director Alison Moritz

But it is the stage direction and deeply human, emotive performances that carried the night. There were many small touches that brought the characters to life—the photographer who records the marriage party, so that Butterfly later has a framed photo on hand; the costumes that showed the westernization of Japan in the early years of the 20thcentury, thus highlighting the cultural clash that underlies the story.

For me, the most telling detail was Butterfly’s mother, clinging tearfully to her daughter when the family abandons her after the Bonze’s denunciation. This wrenching moment makes clear the totality of Butterfly’s isolation when Pinkerton leaves Japan. In comments before the performance, Moritz said that she wanted to make Madama Butterfly “a story about a family.” In this and other moments she succeeded, devastatingly.

Madama Butterfly continues at Central City Opera through Aug. 4 (see dates below). Tickets are available through the CCO Web page.

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CCO House by Ashraf Sewaiilam

Central City Opera House. Photo by Ashraf Sewialam

Giacomo Puccini: Madama Butterfly
Adam Tuner, conductor; Allison Moritz, director

Remaining performances:
8 p.m. 18, 26 and 30
2:30 p.m. July 10, 12, 14, 16, 20, 24, 28; Aug. 1 and 4
Central City Opera House

Full cast, credits, and tickets here.

 

Revised 7.10.19 to include production photos, courtesy of Central City Opera.

CMF: Jazz, pizzazz, patriotism and a lot of fun

Pianist Jon Kimura Parker performs Gershwin, plus Billy Joel

By Peter Alexander July 6 at 12:25 a.m.

The Colorado Music Festival offered a concert titled “Revolution and Freedom” for its not-quite-the-Fourth of July concert last night (July 5). The program offered equal bits of jazz, pizzazz and patriotism, and a whole lot of fun.

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Peter Oundjian

After starting with a brisk performance of the National Anthem, conductor Peter Oundjian and the Festival Orchestra took up the more serious parts of the program, starting with Aaron Copland’s Outdoor Overture. The performance was bright and forceful, with more vigor than clarity in the opening section. The following lyrical passages were enhanced by lovely solos from flute and clarinet.

Oundjian delineated the contrasting sections well, and brought precision and a welcome energy to the performance. Though Canadian-English-Scottish by ancestry, Oundjian shows that he understands American styles of music—or at least how to unleash an American orchestra.

The American theme continued with Gershwin’s Concerto in F for piano and orchestra, with the assured and spirited Jon Kimura Parker as soloist. From the very beginning, he made the concerto his with a strong and sure interpretation. Listening, you might think, “This is what Gershwin wanted his Concerto to sound like!”

Oundjian was an attentive accompanist, finding both playful moments and powerful climaxes in the score. He maintained a truly precise connection between soloist and orchestra: I did not hear a single moment when they were not right together. Several times he and Parker—friends since their student days at Juilliard—exchanged beaming smiles.

The bluesy second movement offers its own challenge. The CMF performance was nicer than real blues—but was it a cautious interpretation, or Gershwin’s desire to write concert music that created that result? It was atmospheric, expressive, but stayed well away from anything that could be mistaken for dirty blues.

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Jon Kimura Parker. Courtesy of Colorado Music Festival.

The final movement was all energy and (that word again!) precision. Parker commanded attention with every entrance, driving the performance as a soloist should. After a rapturous ovation, he played a virtuosic version of Billy Joel’s “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” as an encore, while a beaming Oundjian stood beside the piano.

The second half of the concert was all dessert, starting with a bouncy and bumptious Overture to La Gazza Ladra by Rossini. From the multiple snare drums trading off the solos that open the overture, it was all a good show, with great individual playing through the wind sections—horns, piccolo, and clarinet being especially noticeable—and as loud as it needed to be at climaxes. It was all, Rossini would agree, “stupendo!”

If any piece in the repertoire can be called a potboiler, it is Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. Played for Independence Day concerts everywhere, it is an easy piece for orchestras and conductors to toss off thoughtlessly, but Oundjian took pains to say that it is “always a joy to play this piece! It is remarkable and beautiful, even before the canons come in.”

His interpretation lived up that statement. He showed great attention to musical details from the very opening hymn played by solo cellos and violas through to the end. While parts of it were “very noisy,” as the composer himself once said, with occasional blare in the brass sound, it was never less than thrilling.

The remainder of the program comprised three marches by John Philip Sousa, Washington Post, The Liberty Bell  and of course, Stars and Stripes Forever. All were spirited and great fun to hear in the concert hall, if a little toned down from the best band performances. Stars and Stripes was faster than I am used to hearing it, but did not suffer from the tempo.

A word about the central march: Oundjian selected an enthusiastic audience member from the back of the hall, to conduct The Liberty Bell. A young percussionist with some band experience, the impromptu conductor showed that he had played the piece before. He gave appropriate cues throughout, including offbeat chimes near the end, and got the orchestra to follow a dramatically slower tempo for the very final strain.

Loud cheers followed the final, conclusive “stinger.” Did I say it was a lot of fun? Clearly a good time was had by all. What more could you want for a holiday concert?