Music by two living composers and a piece by Beethoven, who “always will be alive”
By Peter Alexander July 23 at 1:10 a.m.
The Colorado Music Festival celebrated the “Music of Today” last night (Jul. 22) with a premiere, a second piece by a living composer, and a new arrangement of music by a composer who, in the words of artistic director Peter Oundjian, “always will be alive”: Beethoven.
The premiere was Forestallings by Hannah Lash, originally planned as part of the 2020 Beethoven 250thanniversary celebration. A CMF co-commission, it was inspired by Beethoven’s Second Symphony.
Lash was introduced by Oundjian to speak about her piece before the performance. This represented a return to the festival, since Lash played the premiere of her Second Harp Concerto, a CMF “Click” Commission, here in 2016. Last night she chose to let her music speak for itself; she said little more than that she has loved the Beethoven Second since childhood.
Except for the dramatic opening gesture, Forestallings does not quote Beethoven directly. Instead, Lash says, the score has “moments of opening a window between me and Beethoven,” after which she very much goes her own way. That way is likely shaped by Beethoven, however; the music makes use of the classical sound world, and offers a relaxed clarity that is not often heard in more intense new pieces.
This makes the development of ideas easy to follow. Lash briefly returns to the opening Beethovenian gesture, after which the first movement doesn’t so much end as just cease. The second movement begins in a Romantic, almost Mahlerian mood. In spite of lush harmonies, the texture remains open and clear, so that you can hear through the entire orchestra from top to bottom. Here Lash’s lyrical writing is particularly ingratiating.
Oundjian and the CMF players revealed the clarity of the music and brought out the strong profile of the score with a careful, attentive performance. In all, Forestallings proved an enjoyable piece that may well go on to further performances.
The second work on the program, the Marimba Concerto of Kevin Puts, was no less enjoyable. Puts may be known to some in the audience who remember that former CMF music director Michael Christie conducted and recorded Puts’s Pulitzer Prize-wining opera Silent Night at the Minnesota Opera in 2011.
Like Forestallings, Puts’s concerto draws on classical models, in this case the piano concertos of Mozart. According to the composer, that influence is found in the near-equal relationship between soloist and orchestra, but attentive listeners will hear a suggestion of Mozartian lyricism. The very opening could almost be the beginning of a Mozart concerto before Puts, like Lash, goes his own way, into a pastoral world with twittering winds and murmuring strings.
There are moments of great loveliness and gentle beauty through the concerto, qualities that were emphasized by the strong string sound of the CMF players. The final movement becomes more virtuosic, opening with a brilliant, almost epic gesture and driving on to the very fast finish.
The performance featured soloist Ji Su Jung, who is one of those true virtuosos who has the ability to make her performance look simple. (It’s not!) She flew through all the fireworks that Puts asks for, and maintained the greatest delicacy in the exquisitely controlled ending of the second movement. After the accelerating finale the audience, duly impressed, provided a standing ovation—which of course is routine at concerts today.
At Oundjian’s urging, Jung played an encore that turned out to be “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” This sudden change of direction showed Jung’s comfort with varied styles, playing an arrangement that has just enough of the lounge-pianist vibe to entertain. She handled the style with polish, and ended with a deft musical wink to the audience.
The second half of the concert was given over to Oundjian’s arrangement for string orchestra of Beethoven’s String Quartet in C-sharp minor, op. 131. This is undoubtedly one of the great works for string quartet or any medium. Oundjian’s spoken introduction reflected insights gained from more than 150 performances of the quartet as a violinist, and showed the distance between program note analysis and the deep understanding gained inside a piece of music.
The piece, and the opportunity to conduct music he can no longer play, are clearly precious to Oundjian, but I have to admit mixed feelings about arrangements of this, or any string quartet for full string orchestra. In this case, there are definite gains, but also losses. Sometimes the extra heft of the full sections yields expressive rewards, but elsewhere the intimacy of the chamber ensemble captures things that the full orchestra cannot.
The very opening of Op. 131, a chromatic line permeated with despair, is more personal played by a quartet; by full sections, the despair becomes less intimate, a larger landscape of desolation. Is one better, or the other? Is it just different? Each listener must decide.
On the negative side of the ledger are details that get muddied in a full section sound, the rapid gestures than six players cannot play as cleanly as one. The transparency that a good quartet projects, particularly in contrapuntal passages, may get lost.
On the other hand, Beethoven’s stomping fury in the final movement definitely gains from the full section sound. That passage always sounds like it needs more in a quartet performance—although the straining of just four instruments has an expressive quality, too. Full section pianissimo has its own beauty and sense of suspense. The sections where Oundjian’s arrangement alternates solo passages with full section punctuation are very effective.
I have no doubt that every member of the CMF string sections has played this work—possibly excepting the basses—and it is rewarding to see and hear them joining together for something that they all revere. It would be harsh to deny Oundjian, the players and the audience the opportunity to share this performance.
And yet, I cannot escape the thought that the piece is even better played by a great quartet.