Bahman Saless will conduct works by J.C Bach, Shostakovich and Tchaikovsky
By Peter Alexander Jan. 26 at 10 p.m.
Conductor Bahman Saless will join with pianist Andrew Staupe and the Boulder Chamber Orchestra Saturday (7:30 p.m. Jan. 29 at the Boulder Adventist Church) to present “Diversions from History,” a program that balances some diversions from the usual programming with one of the most familiar works from the Romantic era.
“That’s what you do when you do programming,” Saless says. “You go ‘well, we need something that brings the audience in.’”
“Something” in this case is the Tchaikovsky Serenade for Strings, a piece that the often self-critical composer wrote “does not lack artistic worth.” It does not lack admirers, either, being one of the most performed of Tchaikovsky’s works. It has been heard in films, TV shows, and, remarkably, as the lead in to commercial breaks for an NFL playoff game.
If the Serenade provided the audience draw, the other two works on the program provided the concert’s title. And they are certainly a diversion from the standard repertoire: the Piano Concerto in E-flat, op 7 no. 5, by Johann Christian Bach, and the Concerto No. 1 for Piano by Shostakovich.
“Staupe wanted to do two small concertos,” Saless explained. This may have been a reaction to his last performance with Saless and the BCO in 2018, when he played the massive Piano Concerto No 3 of Johann Nepomuk Hummel, a contemporary of Beethoven. “It’s crazy hard!” Saless says of that concerto, suggesting that Staupe wanted something different this time.
When they started looking for shorter concertos, Saless remembered conducting music by J.C. Bach in Europe. “I was fascinated,” he says. “Also, I read that he and another composer, (Carl Friedrich) Abel, wrote the first piano concertos, the way we know them, in terms of writing for piano rather than harpsichord.”
The youngest son of J.S. Bach, Johann Christian is known as “The London Bach” from having lived there for many years. He is important in history as a transitional figure between his father’s Baroque style and the high classic style of Mozart and Haydn, and for having taught the eight-year-old Mozart in London. In fact, the young Mozart’s first concertos were modeled on works by J.C. Bach.
At a distance of more than 150 years, Shostakovich stands at a long remove from J.C. Bach. “We’re basically playing the music by a composer from the beginning of piano concerto as we’re familiar with, to the end of piano concerto as we’re familiar with,” Saless says.
But there is a musical connection, in that Shostakovich ties his concerto to earlier eras in various ways. He uses contrapuntal textures that recall the Baroque era of the elder Bach in the concerto’s fast movements, and quotes themes by Beethoven, including the “Appassionata” Sonata at the very outset, and the so-called “Rage Over a Lost Penny” in the finale.
Shostakovich originally set out to write a trumpet concerto, but at some point he decided that the music needed a piano. As he continued to compose, the piano became more prominent, until he decided it was turning into a concerto for piano—with trumpet—although it is effectively a double concerto for the two instruments. The trumpet soloist will be Derek McDonald, the principal trumpet of the BCO.
The two soloists have their work cut out for them, Saless says. “The tempos are so wild! When it’s that fast, it’s a hard piece to put together. We’re going to have to practice a lot.”
Because of the fast tempos, “the pianist makes the decisions because the jumps in the left hand between the very end of the piano and the middle are ridiculous. Most of the tempos came from (Staupe) and (McDonald) is just making sure that he can play at the tempo that Andrew wants.”
In places it goes so fast that “the best thing (for the conductor) is not to get in the way,” Saless says. “You just conduct really small and let them do it. And you pray!”
Tchaikovsky wanted a large, lush string orchestra for the Serenade. The BCO is limited in numbers, due to COVID and the small stage space of the Adventist Church where they perform. “The problem is, how many people can we fit on that stage, and how many people do we WANT on the stage during the pandemic,” Saless says.
“But we’ve got 24 strings, so this is one of our bigger string sections. We have five cellos and two basses, which is pretty big for us. It’s going to be a nice, full sound.”
It’s not obvious, but the Serenade’s rich, Romantic score has a connection to the Classical elements of the other works on the program. Tchaikovsky was an ardent admirer of Mozart, to whom he intended a tribute in the Serenade’s first movement.
Whether you hear a connection with Mozart—and it is subtle—or hear the Beethoven quotations in Shostakovich, the program of three varied works is designed to appeal to varied tastes. And Saless hopes you will want to experience all three. “Come hear,” he says, suggesting a pun.
“Come see. And listen!”
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“Diversions in History’
Boulder Chamber Orchestra, Bahman Saless, conductor
With Andrew Staupe, piano, and Derek McDonald, trumpet
- Johann Christian Bach: Piano Concerto in E-flat major, op. 7 no. 5
- Shostakovich: Concerto No. 1 for Piano
- Tchaikovsky: Serenade for Strings
7:30 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 29
Boulder Adventist Church, 345 Mapleton Ave., Boulder