Concerts June 3–5 feature new work by Theofanidis and Pizzetti’s 1922 Requiem
By Peter Alexander May 23 at 9:12 p.m.
Guitarist and CU music professor Nicolò Spera was shocked by things going on the U.S. after the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. He wanted to respond in the best way he knew—with music.
The musical work that came from that desire, Door Out of the Fire by Pulitzer Prize-winning American composer Christopher Theofanidis, will be the centerpiece of a concert by Boulder’s Ars Nova Singers, under the direction of Thomas Edward Morgan. The Ars Nova performance will be the Colorado premiere, following a performance by Spera in Michigan in October, 2021.
Also on the program is the Requiem of Italian composer Ildebrando Pizzetti. Performances will be June 3, 4 and 5, in Denver, Boulder and Longmont, respectively (see details below). In addition to the live performances, the concert will also be available by livestream. Information and tickets for the concerts, which close out Ars Nova’s 2021–22 season, are available here.
After Ginsburg’s death, “I wanted a composer to write some ‘postcards to the future,’ in music,” Spera wrote in a recent email. He turned to Theofanidis, who had recently written an orchestral work, On the Bridge of the Eternal, for the 2020 centennial of the CU Boulder College of Music.
Writing for and with Spera, Theofanidis composed four choral “messages in a bottle” based on poems by Melissa Studdard. Each of the four choral settings is preceded by a prelude for guitar.
The texts reflect some of the major issues of our time, including the threat posed by climate change. They are titled “Burning Cathedral,” “The Book of Rahul,” “Ruth’s Aria”—to be sung by CU music faculty member Abigail Nims, mezzo soprano—and “Migration Patterns.” The work is dedicated to “le nostre speranze”—our hopes—Spera’s children, Julia and Giacomo.
Pizzetti’s Requiem will be presented in observance of the 100th anniversary of its composition. The Requiem, Pizzetti’s only liturgical music, is written for a-capella choir. The musical setting includes Gregorian chant as well as movements that recall Renaissance madrigals. The texture varies from single-line chant to eight voices to multiple choirs in the manner of 17th-century Venetian polychoral music.
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Made Real Ars Nova Singers, Thomas Edward Morgan, director With Nicolò Spera, guitar, and Abigail Nims, mezzo-soprano
Christopher Theofanidis: Door Out of the Fire
Ildebrando Pizzetti: Requiem
7:30 p.m. Friday, June 3 St. Paul Community of Faith, Denver
7:30 p.m. Saturday, June 4 First United Methodist Church, Boulder
7 p.m. Sunday, June 5 Stewart Auditorium, Longmont Museum
Thirty-fifth festival returns to near-normal with five days of activities
By Peter Alexander May 16 at 10:20 p.m.
It has only been nine months since the COVID-postponed 34th Colorado MahlerFest, but the festival is returning in its usual May slot and with a full schedule this week.
Performances in the 35th festival include the usual Sunday afternoon Stan Ruttenberg Memorial Concert (May 22) in Macky Auditorium featuring a Mahler Symphony—this year the Third— as well as a symposium Saturday. Other events include music for piano (Tuesday), a film screening (Wednesday), chamber music (Thursday), a free concert of film music at the Boulder Bandshell (Friday) and an opera performance (Saturday; see full schedule below). There are also open rehearsals and social events during the week.
“We’re really excited to do a quote ‘normal’ festival,” MahlerFest’s artistic director Kenneth Woods says. “It will be the biggest festival we’ve done so far.”
The signature event of the festival is the annual performance of a Mahler symphony. That is how the festival was started, and it remains the culmination of the week’s activities. The Third Symphony “is the biggest of the big pieces, the most Mahler-ish of the Mahler symphonies,” Woods says. It will be presented in the first U.S. performance of a new critical edition from the publisher Breitkopf & Härtel.
The Third is indeed a sprawling work in six movements divided into two parts: An opening march, titled “Pan Awakes; Summer Marches In” that lasts 30 minutes or more; and a series of five movements in differing styles and for differing forces, titled respectively “What the flowers in the meadow tell me,” “What the animals in the forest tell me,” “What man tells me,” “What the angels tell me” and “What love tells me.”
In Woods’s words, the opening movement is “a creation myth. It’s incredibly epic.” That exuberant, bold march is followed by a series of more intimate reflections that grew out of Mahler’s reverence for nature. The flowers inspire a graceful minuet, the animals an energetic scherzo that includes a nostalgic offstage posthorn solo.
“What man tells me” is an ominous alto solo using a text from Nietzsche, “O Man! Take heed!” The angels are represented with a folk-like tune accompanied by a children’s chorus imitating bells, and in the final movement the full orchestra without singers brings love’s message in the form of a broad, lyrical slow movement.
“Modern-day fascination with this piece for me is trying to understand what Mahler means when he says, ‘What the flowers tell me’,” Woods says. “It’s quite remarkable that he’s taking these almost naive ideas and writing huge movement after huge movement of intricate, sophisticated music.
“I see the piece almost as a call to action. It ought to inspire us to listen as Mahler listened, (and) to listen to Mahler’s music as he listened to the flowers. It’s so timely—what was once gentle warnings are now urgent cries of alarm. When you think about Mahler’s evocation of the flora and fauna, and what no longer exists, there is an element of a prophetic warning in the Third Symphony, but a whole lot of hope.”
Since taking over as director of the festival in 2015, Woods has expanded the scope of the festival to include music by composers related to Mahler in one way or another. In addition to the Third Symphony of Mahler, the Sunday concert will feature the world premiere of the 10th symphony of British composer Christopher Gunning.
A prominent composer of film scores who has turned more to the writing of symphonies, Gunning is related to Mahler through the world of film music. Woods points out that the earliest film composers—Franz Waxman, Max Steiner and Erich Wolfgang Korngold—were all Austrian- or German-born musicians who brought the style of Mahler and his contemporaries to Hollywood.
And now, he says, Gunning is returning the film-music style to the symphony, “a kind of musical arc of the last 100 years coming full circle. Gunning is taking where film music got to and going back into that large-scale exploration of sonata form (of the symphony) using the language that it evolved through to him.”
The presence of Mahler’s style in film music will be explored in more depth in the free Friday evening concert at the Boulder Bandshell, in a program titled “Mahler and the Movies.”
Another work with a distant relationship to Mahler is the opera Bluebeard’s Castle by Bartók, which will be presented in a chamber version Friday. Half a generation younger than Mahler, Bartók wrote the opera in 1911, the year of Mahler’s death, and saw its first performance in 1918.
“It is the most amazing of operas,” Woods says. “I would not try to convince anyone that Bartók and Mahler are in any way the same, but they’re breathing the same air, and feeding from the same streams. What fascinates me is stylistically how far they diverge, but the role of vernacular music in both composers is provocative for its time, and that’s something that does link them in an interesting way.”
The chamber version of Bluebeard’s Castle will be presented in a concert performance, featuring soprano April Fredrick as Judith and bass Gustav Andreassen as Bluebeard. Fredrick will speak about the opera at Saturday’s symposium in a talk titled “Self-will and missed connections in Bluebeard’s Castle.”
The rest of the symposium program, and the programs of the other concerts are listed in full below. There is a great deal of music not by Mahler—pieces by Bruckner, Casella, George Crumb, Beethoven, John Williams and others—but for Woods the focus remains firmly on Mahler’s symphonies, regardless of the program content.
“This will be the first year that you can hear some of every single Mahler symphony in the festival, if you come to every event,” he says. “In fact, I can guarantee listeners that they’ll hear some of every Mahler symphony on Friday night (“Mahler and the Movies”)—just not in the way they are used to hearing it.”
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Colorado MahlerFest XXXV “What Mahler Tells Me”
Mahler at the Piano David Korevaar and Jeremy Reger, piano
Bruckner: Symphony No. 3, movements II and IV (arranged by Mahler)
Mahler: Symphony No. 3, “Menuetto aus der III. Symphonie” (arranged by Ignaz Friedman)
Mahler: Symphony No. 4, movement IV ”Das himmlische Leben” (arranged for piano by Mahler; played by Mahler via piano roll)
Mahler: Symphony No. 5, movement I “Trauermarsch” (arranged by Stadl)
Mahler: Symphony No. 6, movements II and III (arranged by Alexander Zemlinsky)
Mahler: Symphony No. 7, movement V (arranged by Alfredo Casella)
7:30 p.m. Tuesday, May 17 Grusin Hall, CU Imig Music Building
Movie: Under Suspicion Film Screening of Under Suspicion, starring Liam Neeson and Laura San Giacomo Film score by MahlerFest guest composer Christopher Gunning
3 p.m. Wednesday, May 18 Boedecker Theater, Dairy Arts Center
Quartets and More Zachary De Pue, Karen Bentley Pollick and Suzanne Casey, violin; Lauren Spaulding, viola; Kenneth Woods and Parry Karp, cello; and Jennifer Hayghe, piano
Christopher Gunning: Piano Trio
Alfredo Casella: Cello Sonata No. 1
George Crumb: Sonata for solo cello
Beethoven: String Quartet No. 16 in F major, op. 13 III. Lento assai, cantabile e tranquilla
Bartók: String Quartet No. 1
4 p.m. Thursday, May 19 Mountain View United Methodist Church
Mahler and the Movies Colorado MahlerFest Chamber Orchestra, Kenneth Woods, conductorMax Steiner: Music from King Kong (arr. Steven Stanke)
Christopher Gunning: The Belgian Detective: Theme from Angela Christie’s Poirot (arr. Kenneth Woods)
Franz Waxman: Suite from Sunset Boulevard (arr. Matthew Lynch)
Mahler: Adagietto from Symphony No. 5 (arr. Kenneth Woods)
Korngold: Suite from Captain Blood (arr. Luciano Williamson)
John Williams: Theme from Schindler’s List
Gunning: Music from Under Suspicion (arr. Kenneth Woods)
George Morton: Mahler, A Final Frontier, Fantasy on themes of Mahler and Courage
NOTE: An alternate venue in case of inclement weather will be the Mountain View United Methodist Church.
Symposium MahlerFest XXXV Symposium
Leah Batstone: “Mahler’s Nietzsche: Philosophical Resonances in the Early Symphonies”
April Fredrick: “’Now all is darkness’: Self-Will and missed connections in Bluebeard’s Castle”
Peter Franklin: “Mirroring the world? What a sentimental trombone, a distant posthorn and The Bird of the Night tell us about a symphony”
Kenneth Woods: “Interpreting Mahler’s Third Symphony”
Nick Pfefferkorn: “Mahler Third Symphony: Insights on the first critical edition from the editor’s desk”
9 a.m.–4 p.m. Saturday, May 21 Mountain View United Methodist Church; Free
Bluebeard’s Castle Colorado MahlerFest Chamber Orchestra, Kenneth Woods, conductor April Fredrick, soprano, and Gustav Andreassen, bass
Bartók: Bluebeard’s Castle Arranged for chamber orchestra by Christopher van Tuinen and Michael Karcher-Young
7:30 p.m. Saturday, May 21 Mountain View Methodist Church
Mahler’s Third Symphony Colorado MahlerFest Orchestra, Kenneth Woods, conductor With Stacey Rishoi, mezzo-soprano, Women of the Boulder Concert Chorale and Boulder Children’s Chorale Festival Choir
Christopher Gunning: Symphony No. 10 (World premiere)
Mahler: Symphony no. 3
3:30 p.m. Sunday, May 22 Macky Auditorium
More information and tickets for all MahlerFest performances are available HERE.
CORRECTIONS (May 17 at 12 noon): April Fredrick’s family name was corrected; it is not Frederick. Violist Mario Rivera has replaced Lauren Spaulding on the “Quartets and More” program May 19. Due to technical constraints in the venue, there will be no lighting effects in the performance of Bluebeard’s Castle as was originally stated.
All-English program features Walton Viola Concerto, works by Elgar and Anna Clyne
By Peter Alexander May 15 at 12:10 a.m.
The Boulder Philharmonic finished the 2021–22 classical concert series with sound and fury last night (May 14).
No, that is not a criticism. The first piece listed on the program was Anna Clyne’s Sound and Fury, inspired in part by Macbeth’s soliloquy featuring that phrase. In practice, though, Clyne was preceded by an “off-menu special,” in the words of conductor Michael Butterman: Elgar’s familiar “Pomp and Circumstance” March No. 1, in honor of the region’s recent graduates.
The performance was led by an honorary guest conductor, Boulder’s outstanding arts patron Gordon Gamm. Looking dapper in a fedora, Gamm did a creditable job of getting things started and holding the orchestra together. Indeed, the only audible error—one out-of-place note—cannot be laid to the conductor.
Butterman preceded Clyne’s Sound and Fury with a helpful music-appreciation style introduction, with an explanation of it’s connection to “The Scottish Play” and illustrations from a Haydn symphony quoted in the score. The performance was strongly profiled, with contrasting sections nicely characterized and distinguished, lacking only the precision necessary for clarity in the skittering string parts and the full depth of sound that a larger orchestra could provide.
The recorded voice speaking the “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow” soliloquy near the end was not always intelligible, but it did show how those words fit into the scheme of the piece. This is a new piece (2019) that is definitely comprehensible and enjoyable for the classical audience, and I would welcome hearing it again.
A friend told me about this concert, “The Walton Concerto won’t sell any tickets.” If that’s right, I’m sorry for anyone who was not sold a ticket because they don’t know Walton’s music. They missed a fun piece, and a stunning performance by violist Richard O’Neill, the newest member of the Takács Quartet. Where is their sense of fun, of adventure, interest in new things? This is not difficult music.
Composed in 1929, the Viola Concerto shows the composer’s quirky style to good advantage. At times lush, at times shifting, surging and dying away, its kaleidoscopic episodes and unexpected turns provide an ideal palette for an instrumental soloist of O’Neill’s qualities.
His performance was glittery (and no, I don’t mean his shoes) and perfectly assured. Visibly reacting to every twist and turn of the orchestra part, he showed in both gesture and musical interpretation his connection with the players. Utterly at ease playing all the virtuoso material the concerto throws at the soloist, O’Neil gave a solo performance of the highest caliber.
Here the issues were of balance, both within the orchestra and (from where I was sitting) with the soloist. The boisterous second movement was my favorite, but the more gentle moments were equally well played. Two profound tributes to O’Neil: he held the audience in silence for at least 20 second at the end of the concerto, and it was the orchestra, stamping their feet, that brought him back for his final curtain call.
Again channeling his inner Leonard Bernstein, Butterman gave an insightful introduction to Elgar’s “Enigma” Variations, showing how the variations brought their subjects—the composer’s friends—to life. This to me is a better preparation for the audience than program notes about “the return of the subsidiary theme” or “remote tonalities.”
Elgar’s “Enigma,” one of the greatest sets of orchestral variations of the Romantic or any period, received the best orchestral performance of the evening—maybe because it is a piece well known to all orchestral pros. Rehearsal time then can be devoted to details of interpretation, of unity, of sound. Butterman found the telling elements in each variation and brought out their individual characters.
As one hopes and expects, the familiar “Nimrod” variation swelled calmly from shimmering pianissimo strings to a rich, full orchestral climax before falling back. Other variations had the sparkle, or the weight, to communicate character and meaning. This is a fun piece for brass, who enjoyed their moments of grandeur, and for the timpanist, who brought both visual and aural flash to the performance.
Finally, this program had many of the ingredients of a successful concert: some exploration, a dazzling soloist, a great piece of music. I happily note the inclusion of a living female composer in the stew. It’s a recipe musical organizations should follow.
Richard O’Neill of the Takacs Quartet will play Walton Concerto Saturday
By Peter Alexander May 12 at 1:20 p.m.
It was in the middle of the pandemic and a massive blizzard when Richard O’Neill won a Grammy award.
The Grammy awarded in 2021 was for his recording of the Viola Concerto by American composer Christopher Theofanidis—during the same year that he joined the Takács Quartet, moved to Boulder and joined the CU faculty. “This has been a long haul,” he said at the time.
Hopefully, things are closer to whatever can be called normal for a performing musician/recording artist, as O’Neill takes the stage Saturday (May 14) to perform William Walton’s Viola Concerto with the Boulder Philharmonic and conductor Michael Butterman (concert details below; tickets here).
A demanding and dramatic work. Walton’s concerto was composed in 1929, when the composer was 27 years old, and premiered that year by the composer/violist Paul Hindemith. Since then it has become one of the landmarks of the viola repertoire.
Composer Anna Clyne has drawn on a variety of sources for inspiration in her compositions, from the paintings of Mark Rothko to music by Beethoven. Her Sound and Fury was inspired by Shakespeare’s soliloquy for Macbeth and by Haydn’s unusual and quirky six-movement Symphony No. 60, Il distratto (The distracted one), which began as incidental music for a comic play.
In a program note, Clyne wrote: “My intention with Sound and Fury is to take the listener on a journey that is both invigorating—with ferocious string gestures that are flung around the orchestra—and reflective—with haunting melodies that emerge and recede.”
Sir Edward Elgar’s Variations on an Original Theme, known as the “Enigma Variations” from the word Elgar wrote at the top of the score, remains one of the most popular works in the orchestral repertoire, more than 120 years after its premiere. Each of the 14 variations has an inscription that refers to one of Elgar’s friends.
Those subjects of the individual variations have been identified. The larger enigma, however, is what Elgar wrote in his program note: “The Enigma I will not explain. Its ‘dark saying’ must be left unguessed. . . . Over the whole set another and larger theme ‘goes,’ but is not played.”
Whether that “larger theme” is a musical or a philosophical one is one of the many mysteries that surround the piece. Guesses as to the musical theme have ranged from “Rule Britannia” to “Pop Goes the Weasel” to Luther’s “A Might Fortress is Our God,” to Liszt’s Les Preludes, none of which have convinced a majority of musical scholars.
And so that enigma remains unsolved. Feel free to go to the concert and devise your own solution.
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Boulder Philharmonic Orchestra, Michael Butterman, conductor With Richard O’Neill, viola