Boulder Phil presents videos and Terrence Wilson plays Rachmaninoff

Saturday at Macky sees Michael Butterman’s return to lead the orchestra

By Peter Alexander March 18 at 12:10 a.m.

The next concert of the Boulder Philharmonic will feature a co-commission by the orchestra, but none of the music will be new.

Instead, the co-commission is a video created by Stephen Lias to accompany the performance of a work composed in 1955, the Symphony No. 2, “Mysterious Mountain,” by American-Armenian composer Alan Hovhaness. 

Stephen Lias in Rocky Mountain National Park. Photo by Peter Alexander

That is one of two videos that will be presented as part of the concert, which will open with a performance of Circuits by Cindy McTee with video by Aleksi Moriarty. Finishing the program is Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto, performed by pianist Terrence Wilson. The performance will be at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, March 19, in Macky Auditorium (tickets available here).

Lias is better known as a composer than a videographer. The Boulder Phil premiered his Gates of the Arctic in 2014 and commissioned his All the Songs that Nature Sings, which they premiered in 2016. In this case the Boulder Phil’s music director, Michael Butterman, wanted to perform the Hovhaness score, and to feature a video with it.

Butterman is back in Boulder to lead the concert, after having to miss the orchestra’s last performance in March due to a health concern.

“When we played (Lias’s) works before, he created visuals that would accompany the music,” Butterman explains. “I approached him about creating a video not for his own music this time, but for someone else’s. And he really ran with it.”

One of Stephen Lias’s composite images for Mysterious Mountain.

By “ran with it,” Butterman really means that Lias worked tirelessly to learn video techniques that he had never used before. “The learning curve was extremely steep for me, because I had no background in visual art or complex video effects,” Lias says. ”A lot of what I learned was very useful and fascinating, but boy it was a big investment! I had to learn to use a collection of high-end applications (and) packages of software that animators use.”

The more complex video techniques were important, Lias says, because—unlike pieces that he created videos for before—Hovhaness’ score is not about a specific location. In fact, the title Mysterious Mountain was added after the music had been written. “The title simply suited the mysterious atmospheric, meditative nature of the music,” Lias says.

Image by Stephen Lias for Mysterious Mountain

“This feels like it needs to be more amorphous and ambiguous (than Lias’s earlier video creations). My concept was to create virtual mountain ranges comprised of (pictures) from all over the world. There are animated, floating lines in space that reveal the mountain range, and then they are transformed before your eyes and you realize these are (different photos) laying over top of one another. 

“Later various virtual environments float around you, and then you end up in a place that is entirely real, but you’re not sure it’s real. The goal is a lingering ‘where are we?’ question. We are clearly not in real life, but the things from real life are mixed with things that make it clearly artificial. You’re in an invented world.”

Image by Stephen Lias for Mysterious Mountain

This fits the spiritual qualitied of Hovhaness’ music, Lias says. He describes the music and video together as “a musical and visual journey through all the things that mountains can be and might become.”

Some people in the audience may recognize some of the locations in the video. “Certainly anyone from Boulder will recognize the places that Longs Peak sticks its head out,” Lias says. “There’s some Banff, Glacier (National Park), and the Great Wall of China.”

Butterman describes the concert’s other video, accompanying McTee’s Circuits, as “entirely abstract,” but in an entirely different way. There are no concrete images at all, but rather abstract patterns.

“(Moriarty) went through the piece in an analytical way,” Butterman says. “He broke it down into a motive for a bar and a half, and then three bars, and then later on it comes back upside down. He identified these musical kernels and created a graphic representation for each one. Once he created the video translations of the musical ideas, he followed the template that the music itself played out. So theoretically, it’s a video representation of the structure and thematic content of the music.”

Butterman warns the audience that the video moves very fast, as does the music. “I would say (it’s) very fast paced,” he says. “If you are bothered by flashing, you would be wise to at least be aware of that. It’s only about five and a half minutes, but it’s very intense. I’m hoping that if anybody feels that’s a difficulty, they can simply look away.”

Both video works are engineered so that the length can be adjusted to fit individual performances. Moriarty works with a program developed by Ion Concert Media of Minneapolis, and Lias developed his own system using a sound, video and lighting control application for the Mac called QLab. Both result in a system where the conductor does not have to follow a click track or any other pre-established speed in the performance.

That’s an important issue for Butterman. “The real bane of (performing with video) is the tyranny of the click track,” he says. “Whenever you’re doing a Hollywood movie for example, you have a screen in front of you and time codes and little bars sweep across (the screen), and you have an earpiece where you can hear clicks, and it’s maddening.”

Terrence Wilson. Photo by J. Henry Fair.

While the videos will be the most unusual aspects of the March 19 concert, the Rachmaninoff Third Piano Concerto will certainly be the most familiar. It is beloved by audiences, but as a virtuoso showpiece it should never be thought to be routine. It was Rachmaninoff’s favorite of his four piano concertos, but also has the reputation of inspiring fear in pianists.

“I’m delighted to have Terrence Wilson joining us,” Butterman says. “He’s someone I’ve enjoyed collaborating with.”

Wilson performed the Grieg Piano Concerto with Boulder Phil in 2007 and has had an impressive performing career in the intervening years, including a 2011 Grammy nomination and a 2015 appearance at the Colorado Music Festival. A graduate of Juilliard, he has also received an Avery Fisher Career Grant and appeared on NPR’s “Performance Today.”

“Closing with Rachmaninoff is a little unusual,” Butterman says, “but at 43 or 44 minutes, it certainly has the heft of a symphony!”

The heft, and I would add, all the fireworks you could want for a rousing concert closer.

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Boulder Philharmonic, Michael Butterman, conductor
With Terrence Wilson, piano
Videos by Aleksi Moriarty and Stephen Lias

  • Cindy McTee: Circuits
  • Alan Hovhaness: Symphony No. 2, “Mysterious Mountain”
  • Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto No. 3

7:30 p.m. Saturday, March 19
Macky Auditorium

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