Boulder Phil and Rachel Barton Pine present premiere

Guest conductor Gary Lewis steps in at last minute to hold things together

By Peter Alexander Feb. 13 at 12:10 a.m.

Billy Childs, versatile jazz pianist and composer of concert music, finally saw the premiere of his Second Violin Concerto in Macky Auditorium last night (Feb. 12), courtesy of violinist Rachel Barton Pine and the Boulder Philharmonic.

Guest conductor Gary Lewis stepped in at the last minute for the Phil’s music director, Michael Butterman, who was unable to travel due to COVID restrictions. But that was not the only impact COVID had on the concerto. Two earlier planned premieres at the Grant Park Festival in Chicago—Pine’s hometown—were postponed, making Boulder’s the very first performance.

Like Butterman, I was unable to attend the performance, having been exposed to someone who tested positive for COVID last weekend in St. Paul, Minn. (See my reviews from that trip here.) I’m fine, but I was only able to experience the Boulder Phil concert by live stream. My impressions are necessarily limited by the quality of the sound through the speaker attached to my desktop computer. Normally I would not write a review under those circumstances; for a world premiere, some kind of report is appropriate.

As finally presented last night, the concerto fittingly evokes the mood of the last two years during the COVID pandemic. That was in fact, the strongest impression made by the concerto—a sequence of moods, from consoling, to elegiac, to nervous and jittery. In creating these moods the piece is effective, but beyond that there were no themes nor specific musical gestures that remained in the memory.

Rachel Barton Pine played the premiere of Billy Childs’s Second VIolin Concerto with the Boulder Phil. Photo by Lisa-Marie Mazzucco.

Childs’s classically-based music—as opposed to his jazz work—is as he has said, “in the style of the mid-20th-century composers.” He has given Ravel and Barber as models, but his orchestra lacks the brilliance of those examples. Today the style seems like something out of the past, and as such it sounds derivative, imitative rather than strongly individual in any way.

It should be stated, however, that this relatively weak impression cannot be laid at the feet of the soloist. Pine played with a passion and commitment that came through the live feed loud and clear. The technical passages were played with extraordinary precision and clarity, while the lyrical passages were all rendered with beautiful tone and deep expression. Pine is an exceptional artist, and it was  a pleasure to hear her perform.

She concluded the first half of the concert with a lovingly played movement from a Bach Sonata for solo violin. This is of course music of great depth, and far more than the concerto it revealed the artistry of the performer.

The second half of the concert was taken by Beethoven’s ever-popular Symphony No. 7. Lewis led a performance that seemed safe, straightforward, but lacking the excitement and the textural clarity the symphony wants. This may be a reflection of limited rehearsal time having been given to a piece that is, after all, familiar to most of the musicians. 

But here’s where the quality of the live stream becomes an issue. What came through my speakers sounded cautious, murky, sometimes plodding. The themes and gestures were under-characterized, and the tempo dragged in spots, particularly in the highly energized, onrushing third movement. Only in the finale did the orchestra start to generate real excitement, but from what I heard, a lack of precision and control got in the way of clarity.

But Beethoven wins in the end. The finale provided the conclusion that everyone wanted for the program. Lewis deserves thanks and credit for holding the concert together under challenging conditions.