Music of Tchaikovsky, Bach and Dvořák for Sunday’s concert
By Peter Alexander April 29 at 1:10 p.m.
Conductor Cynthia Katsarelis found inspiration for her next concert in poetry.
In the midst of dire events in Boulder and around the world—the pandemic, the Marshall Fire, and the war in Ukraine—“I was thinking, how are we going to find joy?” she asks. “There’s a wonderful quote by an African-American poet, Toi Derricotte, ‘Joy is an act of resistance.’ It’s really been a source of inspiration.”
With that in mind, she decided to put together a concert program for the Pro Musica Chamber Orchestra titled “Joy” that would offer joy through music. The concert will be at 3 p.m. Sunday (May 1) in the newly remodeled Mountain View Methodist Church (see details below).
The program comprises three pieces: Andante cantabile by Tchaikovsky, the Orchestral Suite in B minor by J.S. Bach, and the Serenade for Winds by Dvořák.
Katsarelis found another source of inspiration in the history of her own family, which has ancestral ties to Greece. “I thought a lot about my family in World War I and in World War II,” she says. “They found joy in their lives in the middle of all this, so I was thinking, how are we going to find joy?
“You can find joy going to a concert and hearing great music, connecting to your own humanity but also connecting to the humanity around you—people in the audience, the musicians (and) the artists. So it was really out of the depths that I decided to put on a concert called ‘Joy.’”
Tchaikovsky’s Andante cantabile is a string orchestra version of the slow movements from the composer’s First String Quartet. “It’s just this really beautiful work,” Katsarelis says. “It opens the concert with a lovely wash of the soul and a little tug at the heartstrings.”
It’s inclusion on this program is also a subtle political statement about the war in Ukraine. Katsarelis explains: “You have to remember that Tchaikovsky was a gay man who had to hide it, and was oppressed because of it. Putin has been brutal on the LGBTQ+ community, and when the Russians invaded Ukraine they had a list of people to target (including) LGBTQ+ activists. Tchaikovsky suffered in the society that he was in, and that element’s still there.”
The Orchestral Suite in B minor for flute and strings is one of Bach’s best known works. The featured performer will be Michelle Stanley, Pro Musica’s flutist and a flute professor at Colorado State University.
Katsarelis says that Pro Musica’s approach to Bach’s work would be “historically informed on modern instruments,” meaning that all of the orchestral players will have modern instruments, with their large dynamic range and fuller sound, but they will also make use of Baroque-era conventions in the treatment of rhythms and other details of articulation and interpretation.
“There are some conventions that we follow that are part of the Baroque dance,” Katsarelis says. “There’s a lot about Baroque music that’s suggestions, but you don’t play exactly what’s on the page. We add dynamics, we add articulations, we do the rhythms and in a way that represents the movements (of the different dances).”
The final piece of the “Joy” program is Dvořák’s Serenade for Winds, a piece that Katsarelis has programmed before. She turned to music for winds because she had been able to present music for strings over the past two years, since they can play while wearing masks, but “the winds were out of work for a year and a half during the pandemic,” she says. “And so I thought it was time to do the Dvořák again.”
Dvořák wrote the Serenade in 1878 when he was 37, and included it in an application for an Austrian state award for musicians, which he won. “Brahms was on the jury of that competition and specifically mentioned that he enjoyed that piece,” Katsarelis points out. “It’s a beautiful gem of a piece.
“It’s just lovely to listen to and really nice in character and sophisticated in a way where you don’t have to work at it. It’s very satisfying emotionally and it’s almost like therapy to play and listen to this beautiful piece. And to give the wind players an opportunity to really shine for 25 minutes in a major work is really special for us.”
In fact, Katsarelis hopes that the entire program becomes “almost like therapy” for the audience. “In the depths of everything going on in the world, reaching for joy and happiness felt like the medicine we all need,” she says.
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“Joy!” Pro Musica Chamber Orchestra Cynthia Katsarelis, conductor, with Michelle Stanley, flute
Tchaikovsky: Andante cantabile, op. 11
J.S. Bach: Orchestral Suite No. 2 in B minor
Antonín Dvořák: Serenade for Winds in D minor, op. 44
3 p.m. Sunday, May 1 Mountain View Methodist Church, Boulder
Concert April 30 includes music celebrating rebirth and reconnection
By Peter Alexander April 27 at 5 p.m.
Two years ago, conductor Michael Butterman had drafted a program to celebrate the return of spring with the Boulder Philharmonic Orchestra.
That program, originally planned for April 2020, had to be postponed, due to COVID. But now the long-planned concert celebrating renewal and rebirth has itself been resurrected for performance at 7:30 p.m. Saturday (April 30) in Macky Auditorium (tickets here).
“This was a program that was originally intended to reflect the notion of rebirth that happens in springtime,” Butterman says. “It still reflects that, but it has an additional layer of meaning for us—our own emergence from our pandemic isolation.”
The starting point for the program was The Butterfly Lovers Violin Concerto by Chinese composers He Zhanhao and Chen Gang, which the Philharmonic will perform with violin soloist Claude Sim and Boulder’s Frequent Flyers Aerial Dance Company. Before that performance the concert will open with Undistant by Mason Bates, which addresses our return to human interaction after the recent period of widespread self isolation.
Filling out the program will be first Rimsky-Korsakov’s Russian Easter Overture, which has obvious seasonal significance. The final piece will be Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite, which Butterman selected because it ends with the rebirth of knights and 13 princesses who have been under a magic spell—another connection to the idea of renewal.
The Butterfly Lovers Violin Concerto was written by two Chinese students of Western music at the Shanghai Conservatory and premiered in 1959. Written for a Western orchestra, it is based on a Chinese legend of lovers who are separated by death, but reunited as butterflies. “It works very well for Western audiences,” Butterman says. “It’s extremely relatable on first hearing.”
Butterman and the Phil have done a number of performances with Frequent Flyers. He thought that The Butterfly Lovers would be a good piece for further collaboration and suggested it to Nancy Smith, Frequent Flyers’ artistic director. “It strikes me that it has a narrative arc, and certainly has potential as a work for visual interpretation,” he says.
“(Smith) agreed and they really embraced the thing. They constructed this large wing-like structure that will be hung above the stage. It acts as one fixed structure for most of the piece, but it also has hinges and it can bend like butterfly wings. It will be quite something to see!”
The soloist, Claude Sim, is associate concertmaster of the Colorado Symphony. The Phil’s concertmaster, Charles Wetherbee, was first scheduled to perform the concerto, but when he became unavailable Sim stepped in to serve as soloist and as concertmaster for the concert.
The one piece that was not in the original program Butterman conceived two years ago is Bates’s Undistant. That is the piece on the program that best connects with the idea of people re-emerging from isolation as the pandemic abates—at least a little. “Undistant is a piece that (Bates) wrote in 2020, and it is a work that mirrors in some ways our separation,” Butterman says.
“There are two groups of musicians that are placed away from the rest of the orchestra. (Bates) has written an electronica part that incorporates static, sounds of Zoom and other communication platforms that we came to use a great deal during the pandemic. Over about seven minutes he brings these different elements back together, and there are little wisps of Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy,’ just enough that it’s recognizable. That begins to coalesce until we have an affirming and positive ending.”
Apart from the theme of rebirth and renewal, there is one thing that joins all four pieces musically, and that is their uplifting endings. It’s there in all four pieces. In Bates’s Undistant, it is the transformation from separation and static to hints of the “Ode to Joy.” In the Butterfly Lovers, it’s the overcoming of first separation and then death through the transformation of the lovers into butterflies, gently portrayed in music.
In the second half, the Russian Easter Overture opens with the solemn tones of two Russian Orthodox hymns, “Let God Arise!” and “An Angel Cried.” Rimsky-Korsakov wrote in an autobiography that “the gloomy colors of the Andante lugubre seemed to depict the holy sepulcher . . . [and] the solemn trumpet voice of the Archangel is then displaced by a tonal reproduction of the joyous, dance-like tolling of the bells.”
The progress of Stravinsky’s Firebird is no less joyous, with “The Infernal Dance of Katschei” being followed by the “Berceuse”—a tender lullaby that lulls Katschei’s demonic minions to sleep—and the “Finale” that portrays in music the return of Katschei’s prisoners to life.
You might say these are four variations on the theme of life returning after a long winter—or a pandemic.
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“The Firebird and Frequent Flyers” Boulder Philharmonic Orchestra, Michael Butterman, conductor With Claude Sim, violin, and Frequent Flyers Aerial Dance
Mason Bates: Undistant
He Zhanhao and Chen Gang: The Butterfly Lovers Violin Concerto
Masterworks concerts for 2022-23 will all be in Macky Auditorium
By Peter Alexander April 27 at 12:15 a.m.
The Boulder Philharmonic announced programming for its 2022–23, 65th anniversary season Tuesday evening (April 26). All subscription concerts for the coming year will be once again in Macky Auditorium
The season introduced by music director Michael Butterman includes some warhorses— Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini and Richard Strauss’ Don Juan—some less familiar standard works—Bruckner’s Symphony No. 7 and Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G—and a healthy dose of new and unfamiliar works (see full programs below). Particularly noteworthy will be two world and one Colorado premiere of commissioned works.
Some features of the season will be familiar to current and past Boulder Phil patrons. One will be the return to Macky. The annual Nutcracker performances with Boulder Ballet are scheduled for Nov. 25 and 27. There will be a seasonal special event, “Holiday Brass with the Phil,” Dec. 18. The Phil’s Executive Director, Sara Parkinson, announced the resumption of the educational Discovery Concerts for school students.
Long-time concertgoers will welcome the return of former CU faculty member and audience favorite Angela Cheng April 22, who has not appeared in Boulder since 2009. Other soloists during the season will include tenor Matthew Plenk, on the opening night concert Oct. 8; double bassist Xavier Foley and violinist Eunice Kim Nov. 12; and violinist Stefan Jakiw March 25.
Boulder Phil concertmaster Charles Wetherbee has been on medical leave, but is expected back next season and will play Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 5 with the orchestra Jan. 22.
One prominent change for the season is that the Saturday evening concert time has been moved to 7 p.m. from 7:30 p.m., in response to feedback from ticket buyers. That change affects all the masterworks concerts except “Afternoon with Bruckner,” at 4 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 22. In conjunction with the change of curtain time, the Phil will try different forms of related programming for its concerts, including pre-concert lectures, intermission features and post-concert talk-back sessions.
One special event in the season will bring the popular Denver-based multi-instrumental band DeVotchKa to Macky Auditorium to perform with the Phil. That performance will take place at the “old” time of 7:30 p.m. Saturday, May 6, 2023. Further details of that concert are pending.
The opening night concert Oct. 8, titled “Hymn to the Earth,” includes the first of the season’s premieres, a Boulder Phil co-commission that was postponed from a planned earlier season due to COVID: Ozymandias: To Sell a Planet. This musical alarum for threats to the planet was composed by the American composer Drew Hemmenger and uses Percy Shelley’s poem “Ozymandias,” as well as texts from native American sources, United Nations climate reports and speeches by Greta Thunberg.
The Colorado premiere of another co-commission, Jennifer Higdon’s Suite from Cold Mountain, follows on Nov. 12, and another world premiere of a new work by Boulder High School graduate Leigha Amick will be presented April 22, 2023.
Season tickets will go on sale Monday, May 2, and tickets to individual concerts will be available Monday, Aug. 22. Purchases can be made by calling the box office at 303-449-1343, or through the Boulder Phil web page.
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Boulder Philharmonic Orchestra Michael Butterman, music director 2022-23 Season All performances in Macky Auditorium except as otherwise noted
Opening Night: Hymn to the Earth Boulder Philharmonic, Michael Butterman, conductor With Boulder Phil Chorus and Matthew Plenk, tenor
Michael Abels: Global Warming
Drew Hemenger: Ozymandias: To Sell a Planet (Co-Commission & World Premiere)
Mozart: Overture to Don Giovanni
Wagner: Trauermusik from Götterdämmerung
Richard Strauss: Don Juan
7 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 8
Gran Duo: Higdon and Foley Boulder Philharmonic, Michael Butterman, conductor With Xavier Foley, double bass, and Eunice Kim, violin
Jennifer Higdon: Suite from Cold Mountain (Co-Commission & Colorado Premiere)
Xavier Foley: For Justice and Peace
Giovanni Bottesini: Gran Duo Concertante
Dvořák: Symphony No. 8 in G major
7 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 12
The Nutcracker with Boulder Ballet Boulder Philharmonic, Gary Lewis, conductor
Longmont resident Michael Udow’s Ancient Echoes inspired by archaeological finds
By Peter Alexander April 24 at 12:15 a.m.
NOTE: I usually do not review ensembles that are not fully professional. This performance by the semi-pro Longmont Symphony rates an exception because it includes a world premiere, which always deserve media attention.
Last night (April 23) the Longmont Symphony Orchestra (LSO) gave the first performance of a piece that was inspired by archaeological discoveries in the state of Colorado. Michael Udow’s Ancient Echoes makes use of four stones discovered in Great Sand Dunes National Park and elsewhere in the San Luis Valley that archeologist Marilyn Mortorano discovered to be ancient lithophones, or musical instruments made of stone. (Read the full story here.)
Under conductor Elliot Moore, the LSO gave a careful reading of Udow’s atmospheric score. Soloist Anthony Di Sanza, once Udow’s percussion student at the University of Michigan, was all over the front of the stage, switching among four different percussion setups that included the four ancient stones, a modern mallet instrument with tuned granite bars—Udow’s personal creation for this one piece—a vibraphone, drums from North Africa and Japan, German cowbells and temple gongs, among other instruments.
There can be no doubt that Udow knows the percussion instruments intimately that he writes for. They were all used effectively, and Di Sanza gave a virtuosic performance on all of them. It was clearly as much fun for him running from one setup to another, as it was for the audience watching and listening.
The score opens with a dreamy, evocative passage that made good use of the quiet plinking sounds of the ancient stones. From there the score moves from one set of instruments to another, each representing a different culture or part of the world. The score is highly episodic, as each set of instruments brings forth its own musical style and mood.
Udow used the orchestra well, but did not resist falling into Hollywood-style Orientalist cliches to support some of the instruments, and I am not sure that his series of musical vignettes adds up to more than the sum of its highly individual parts. But the result is certainly a showpiece for the soloist, and one that may prove irresistible to other percussionists in the future.
Udow’s modern granite lithophone is bound for a percussion collection in Indianapolis, where it will be available for Di Sanza and other professional percussionists who wish to perform Udow’s score. With it containing so many fun licks, I would not dare to guess where we will hear it next.
Following a standing ovation, Di Sanza and his former teacher Udow gave an energetic handclapping encore that was great fun, if perhaps a minute too long.
For the rest of the concert, Moore led the LSO in first Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite, and later to close the program Brahms’s Symphony No. 1. The Firebird performance had a strong expressive profile, capturing well the essence of each scene. There were some especially nice solos in the woodwinds, if a few issues of balance overall.
The Brahms was the least satisfying of the three pieces, needing better balance—again—and more rhythmic precision, especially within the string sections. In a modern concert hall and with modern winds, Brahms really needs a larger string section than most small-budget orchestras can provide, and that was the case here. But it should be noted that the LSO has grown in quality over Moore’e five years in Longmont, and Moore brought the symphony to an energetic conclusion. It was greeted warmly by the audience.
Michael Udow’s Ancient Echoes on Saturday’s program with Stravinsky and Brahms
By Peter Alexander April 21 at 7:10 p.m.
It’s not often that an orchestra premieres a piece with roots that go back 6,000 years.
Saturday (April 23) the Longmont Symphony and conductor Elliot Moore will do just that when they give the first performance of Ancient Echoes, a score by percussionist/composer and Longmont resident Michael Udow (see concert details below; tickets are available here).
Udow’s concerto for multiple percussion instruments will feature soloist Anthony Di Sanza playing instruments including one designed by Udow, based on ancient artifacts from Colorado that date back thousands of years. As part of the same piece, Di Sanza will play a variety of instruments from cultures around the world, including Indonesia, Japan and Korea. The concert program also includes Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite and Brahms’s Symphony No. 1.
Udow’s piece has a long backstory—although not quite 6,000 years. In fact it started around 2000, when archaeologist Marilyn Mortorano was doing consulting work at Great Sand Dunes National Park. The museum at the park has a number of ground stone artifacts, shaped roughly like baguettes, up to a two feet long, in their collection.
They had been found at archaeological sites throughout the park, including one that was standing up in the sand, and other sites in the San Luis Valley. In fact, Mortorano says, “Almost all the collectors (in the area) had them and they didn’t know what they were, and we didn’t either.”
They were carefully worked, but way too heavy to be used as grinding tools like the mano and metate sets found throughout the Southwest. But “somebody spent a lot of time making them,” Mortorano says. “It bothered me because I thought, why do we not know what these are?”
Then in 2013 she ran across a YouTube video from the Musée de l’Homme (Museum of man) in Paris, which had similar artifacts that French soldiers had brought back from Africa. At the time she had several of the Colorado stones for research purposes, so she was surprised when she learned that the stones in Paris produced a musical sound when tapped. (You can see and hear them here; narration in French.)
In fact a set of them was used for Paleomusique, written by French composer Philippe Fenelon. Those stones were used for a single series of performances in 2014, and then packed away for storage, never to be played again.
“I thought this is crazy,” Mortorano says, “but I’ll see if (the stones from Colorado) could be musical. My younger daughter is a percussionist, so she had a basket of mallets. I couldn’t believe it—they rang like bells!”
When Mortorano returned the stones to the museum at Great Sand Dunes the next day, she showed her discovery to Fred Bunch, the chief of resources. He was startled, and promised to support any further research that Mortorano could pursue with the stones.
“We don’t know how these were used, because we don’t know the whole context,” Mortorano says. “But we know now from studying lithophones (musical instruments made of rocks), they’re all over the world. They’re in Africa, they’re in Asia, they’re in South America, they’re even in Hawaii.”
In the meantime, Mortorano had talked to Colorado Public Radio’s Ryan Warner several years earlier, before she realized that the stones could be lithophones, who told her to let him know if she figured out what they were used for. She contacted him again after discovering their musical qualities and he did a new interview that was picked up by National Public Radio and noted on other national media.
And this is where Udow enters the story. When he heard about Mortorano’s research and the Colorado stones, he wanted to see and hear them. When he contacted Mortorano, he discovered that she only lived about two blocks from his home in Longmont. He went over for a visit.
“Marilyn and (her husband) Sal had them set up beautifully on a long table with a hemp chord set at the nodes so they get maximum vibration,” Udow says. “I played them and I went home and thought, this is really important. It shows the musical side of the creative human spirit from 6,000 years ago, and wouldn’t it be interesting to compose a work!”
The Longmont Symphony had previously played two pieces by Udow, so his next step was to contact LSO director Elliot Moore and propose a new piece for orchestra using the stones. When he met Mortorano and heard the stones, Moore became interested in the project, and eventually got a commitment from the LSO board to support a new piece from Udow.
“What I really have the privilege of getting to do is putting this all together,” Moore says. “You can have the idea to write a piece of music and you can find these ancient stones, but until there’s an orchestra willing to premiere this, it’s theoretical. I feel lucky that when I presented it to the Longmont Symphony, everybody said, ‘Let’s do it!’”
Udow realized that the more or less random collection of stones that had been found was not really suitable for a piece all by themselves. He decided he needed to create a new instrument that as well as possible duplicated the nature and sound of the ancient ground stones: a modern lithophone that was tuned to play with a modern orchestra.
This turned out to be a lengthy process, but one that paid off in the end. He visited granite quarries in Colorado, but none of them had stone that resonated well enough to be used in a musical instrument. He discovered that the best stone was absolute black granite from India, which fortunately he could get from Colorado manufacturers of granite countertops.
He ended up purchasing two slabs of black granite, only one of which had good acoustical qualities. He was able to have that one cut into bars of varying length, which could be tuned by delicately cutting and grinding the stone, using a circular saw with a diamond blade.
In the end Udow estimates he spent about $5000 of his own money for the granite, the shop time to produce the bars, the frame that holds them and special cases to protect the bars. But he ended up with a playable instrtrument.
The completed score is virtually a concerto for multi percussion with orchestra. Udow’s lithophone will be featured, along with a number of other instruments: a marimba, a vibraphone, gongs from Korea, drums from Japan, a bamboo rattle from Java and German cowbells. For the one performance Saturday, the soloist will also briefly play four of the original ancient stones before they are returned to their museum collection.
Udow decided to use instruments from other cultures because in his travels as a percussionist, he had played instruments all over the world and he wanted to capture not only the timelessness of the original stones, but the universal quality of music.
That also inspired Moore. “One of the main things that have kept me going is remembering that we’re bringing these things to life,” he says. “A fundamental human characteristic that we all share is, we love music. That’s been one of the great things about this whole process.”
The soloist for the performance, Anthony Di Sanza, is a former student of Udow who currently teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In fact, he will bring instruments that used to be Udow’s with him to fill out the solo percussion array.
One issue that Di Sanza will have to deal with is the width of the bars on Udow’s new lithophone. It turns out that the bars have never been standardized by percussion makers. “Michael sent me all of the dimensions of the instrument, including the overall length and height, and also the bar width,” Di Sanza says. “The bar width (of other instruments) can vary to small increments or great increments, so we get used to making that adjustment.”
Di Sanza has had at least some of the music since last summer. Talking by phone from his home last week, he reported “I am at the stage now where I’m playing through the piece, listening to the midi (digital recording). That’s really fun because there are three-and-a half different physical setups on the stage. I start at one place, move to a different place for another part, come back for a different part, move to a third setup.
“A particularly challenging thing is as you move from one place to the next, knowing here’s where I’m going next! So that’s really fun, and fairly common with multiple percussion in the western classical tradition. And we thought a lot about how the instruments are grouped, to make sure the audience could see into the setups, and see what’s happening.”
Moore selected the rest of the program to go with Udow’s piece, with some very specific reasons for both the Stravinsky and the Brahms. “I thought that Stravinsky’s Firebird, with the idea of the rising phoenix, was something that could work well with this concerto,” he says. “It was the idea of matching Michael’s piece with the Stravinsky where I thought we had a winning program.
“And the other thing (is), I haven’t done a Brahms symphony (in Longmont). We have a wonderful cellist that retired pre-pandemic, Carmen Olguin, and as she was walking offstage with me for the retirement, she said, ‘Elliot, if you ever program a Brahms symphony, would you let me come back and play it?’ And I said ‘Sure.’
“I’ve always had in my mind this woman who wanted to play a Brahms symphony so bad, and I never programmed one, and I thought this was a good time to do it. So she joined us again, for her first rehearsal in probably three years.”
Brahms’s First Symphony is very standard orchestral repertoire, but Moore says the audience will hear some new things Saturday. “We are looking at this with fresh eyes and fresh ears, and I think it’s going to feel fresh. We’re taking a direction that is little bit leaner and a little bit closer to what the score indicates, not über Romantic.”
“People are going to be interested to hear it if for no other reason, that reason.”
In case you wonder about the new instrument, Di Sanza will take it back to Wisconsin, and eventually take it to a percussion museum in Indianapolis where he and others can use it for performances. Udow also hopes that some day, someone else might want to write music for it.
“That would be a hope of mine, to share it,” he says.
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“Soundings: Past and Present” Longmont Symphony Orchestra, Elliot Moore, conductor With Anthony Di Sanza, percussion
Michael Udow: Ancient Echoes (World Premiere)
Stravinsky: Firebird Suite (1919 version)
Brahms: Symphony No. 1 in C major
7:30 p.m. Saturday, April 23 Vance Brand Civic Auditorium, Longmont
NOTE: Effective immediately and until further notice, the Longmont Symphony no longer requires patrons to show proof of COVID vaccination, and masks will remain optional. This decision has been made with guidance from local, state, and federal officials.
Baroque Ensemble celebrates it 10th anniversary at the weekend
By Peter Alexander April 21 at 1:30 pm.
Boulder’s Seicento Baroque Ensemble celebrates its 10th anniversary this weekend (April 22–24) performing a piece that is both familiar—and not.
The piece is the Magnificat by J.S. Bach, which as the Magnificat in D is one of the most celebrated works of the Baroque master. But they will not perform that Magnificat, but a lesser known, earlier version in E-flat that has much of the same music, with interesting twists.
Completing the program, titled “Magnificent Magnificats,” are two other settings of the same sacred Christian text, known as the Canticle of Mary. One is anonymous, although previously attributed to the German composer Dietrich Buxtehude, and the other is by the 17th-century French composer Marc-Antoine Charpentier. Performances will be Friday through Sunday in Longmont, Arvada and Boulder.
Surrealistic opera by Dominick Argento Friday through Sunday in the Music Theatre
By Peter Alexander April 18 at 5:35 p.m.
Dominick Argento and John Donahue’s one-act opera Postcard from Morocco definitely doesn’t feature a postcard, it may not take place in Morocco, and it does not really have a plot.
What it does have is seven curious and colorful characters who collide and interact while waiting for a train that may, or may not—shades of Waiting for Godot—ever arrive. The next production of CU’s Eklund Opera Program, this unique opera will be presented Thursday through Sunday in the Music Theater space of the Imig Music Building (see details and ticket information below).
The student performances are stage directed by Leigh Holman and conducted by Nicholas Carthy. Stage design is by Ron Mueller, with costumes by Ann Piano based on drawings by Maya Hairston-Brown.
If you think this does not sound like any other opera you’ve seen, you might be right. “In a normal opera, we get a plot and hints of a character,” Carthy says. “And in this one we get the character and hints of a plot.”
“We wanted to dig into this piece because it was different,” Holman says. “It’s a way for our singers to dig into a whole genre of opera that’s completely different from other things they’ve done. They have the freedom to really search for the characters they want to develop.”
In many ways, it is an ideal piece for a university opera program. “As an educational project it is perfect,” Carthy says. “Everybody’s onstage all the time. Everybody has an aria. People sing alone, people sing together, people sing in ensemble—basically it’s all there, and [the opera] is so astonishingly well put together.”
Beyond the educational advantages, Holman emphasizes the sheer fun of the piece. “There is a ton of humor in it,” she says. “There are many really funny moments. [During rehearsals] we are just guffawing. There are some very serious moments too, but it’s a nice ride for the audience.”
For Holman one of the pleasures of performing Postcard from Morocco is the fact that it is not often done. “There are no traditions to adhere to,” she says. “That opens up the students and the direction and the music to just do what you would like to do with it. It gives [the singers] space to dig in and find things” in each character.
The central conceit of the opera is that each character is carrying some kind of luggage or box with them. These vary from a cornet case to a paint box to a cake box, but none of the characters is willing to show the others what’s in their luggage. “Everyone has their little secret,” Carthy says.
This is a clear metaphor for the “baggage” that we all carry with us through life, which is one of the covert subjects of the opera. “We put on a facade of who we are and what we do, but very few people know what’s really going on inside,” Holman says.
The characters—three women and four men—are deliberately kept mysterious, and only one of them has a name. “An eclectic bunch of characters demands an eclectic score,” Carthy says, and the score features a kaleidoscope of musical styles, from tap dancing to Richard Wagner. The latter appears several times, including a vaudeville scene ironically titled “Souvenirs de Bayreuth.”
Postcards is scored for a chamber ensemble of eight players, who will be costumed and placed onstage. In addition to the singing characters, there are two mimes, and “the maestro is one of the characters onstage, too,” Holman says. “He’s interacting [with the others].”
Carthy points out the many literary references in the libretto—everything from Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, to James Joyce’s Ulysses, to The Odyssey, to Robert Louis Stevenson’s Child’s Garden of Verses. “You could spend a lifetime deconstructing it,” Carthy says. As for Stevenson’s poetry, “There’s little quotes, but [the opera] has nothing to do with that,” he says. “It’s far away from that.”
The CU production aims for a kind of timelessness and placelessness that is neither Morocco nor not Morocco. The sets and costumes will be as colorful as the characters, literally. Early in the design process, Holman studied the characters and assigned a color to each. “I had someone sketch little picture of the various things they supposedly hold in their containers, so you’ve got hats, shoes, a cornet,” she explains.
That artist, Maya Hairston-Brown, sent the sketches to a company that printed them on fabric, a different color for each character, and then costume designer Ann Piano turned the fabric into costumes. “This is really amazing,” Holman says. “We never loose sight of who’s who and who is connected to what.”
At the end of the opera, either a train arrives, or it doesn’t, depending on your interpretation. Everyone leaves the waiting room to go onto the outside platform, but, Holman says, “We don’t know if this is a fantasy, or what it is.”
You also get a small hint of what everyone has been hiding, but like so much else in the opera, it’s enigmatic. “It’s really up to the audience to figure out what it means,” Holman says.
“It’s Dadaist, it’s surrealist, it’s fun,” Carthy says, referring to artistic movements from the mid-20th century when the opera was written. “And it is such an incredible ride to go and see!”
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Postcard from Morocco by Dominick Argento and John Donahue
CU Eklund Opera Program Leigh Holman, director, and Nicholas Carthy, conductor
7:30 p.m. Thursday, April 21 7:30 p.m. Friday, April 22 7:30 p.m. Saturday, April 23 2 p.m. Sunday, April 24 Music Theatre, CU Imig Music Building