World premiere and first appearance of the Boulder Phil Chorus Oct. 8
By Peter Alexander Oct. 6 at 7:10 p.m.
Conductor Michael Butterman and the Boulder Philharmonic Orchestra will open their 2022–23 season Saturday evening (7 p.m. Oct. 8, Macky Auditorium) with a program aimed straight at Boulder’s social and environmental heart.
Titled “Hymn to the Earth,” the program includes the world premier of Ozymandias: To Sell a Planet by Drew Hemenger, an environmental oratorio for orchestra, chorus and tenor co-commissioned by the Phil and the Rogue Valley Symphony of Oregon. Its five movements create an arc leading from a vision of unspoiled nature, through the industrial revolution to the current global climate crisis and culminating with Shelley’s dire warning about human arrogance in his great poem “Ozymandias.”
The program opens with Global Warming by Michael Abels, a composer best known for his scores for the films of Jordan Peele. Not referring to climate, the title refers to the warming global relations at the end of the Cold War, and in in this context suggests the planetary unity required to face an environmental crisis.
Works on the second half of the program have the theme of hubris and the consequences of humans’ heedlessness: the Overture to Mozart’s Don Giovanni; Siegfried’s funeral music from Wagner’s Götterdämmerung; and Richard Strauss’ tone poem Don Juan.
The concert will be the first appearance of the Boulder Philharmonic Chorus, the newly-formed choral partner of the Phil, under the direction of Gregory Gentry. Tenor Matthew Plenk, a faculty member at the University of Denver’s Lamont School of Music, will be soloist for Ozymandias.
Ozymandias is a score of remarkable diversity, of both textual sources and musical style. The text draws on poetry by Shelley and William Wordsworth, as well as texts from Native Americans, speeches by climate activist Greta Thunberg, and a definitively unpromising text for music, the 2014 Fifth Assessment Report of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). (Trust me; Hemenger makes it work.)
The commissioning of Ozymandias started with Butterman, who remembers reading Shelley’s poem many years ago. “I’ve loved that poem since I was a kid,” he says. “It’s short, but the irony of it smacks you in the face. He wrote this not thinking of climate change, but it’s the same hubris.”
The first movement of Hemenger’s score is titled “The Spring is Come,” and is taken from the words of Chief Sitting Bull in 1877, describing a time when the Lakota people lived in harmony with the earth. The second movement is a setting of Wordsworth’s poem from around 1802, “The World Is Too Much with Us.” At the beginning of the industrial revolution, Wordsworth is pointing out that man’s greed is leading to the loss of a connection to nature: “Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;/Little we see in Nature that is ours.”
The rhythmically driven third movement is entirely orchestral. The title is a Shawnee word, “Migeloti” (pronounced mah-jee-lo-ta), “which means a person who goes around disrespecting and destroying,” Hemenger says. Representing a society of decadence, “it’s like (Ravel’s) La Valse, filled with ecstasy and then collapse at the end.”
The fourth movement contains the chorus speaking text from the IPCC report and Thunberg’s speeches (“all you can talk about is money . . . how dare you!”), and sung texts from Shawnee Chief Tecumseh in 1810, “To Sell a Country.” “That is a preachy movement,” Hemenger admits, but “when you’re going to put that clear language (of the report), there didn’t seem to be any way around it.”
The finale is the setting of “Ozymandias,” ending with the forlorn words “the lone and level sands stretch far away.” The music, Hemenger writes in his program notes, “like the poem, fades away like the blowing dust in the desert.”
In spite of this message, Butterman hopes the program is not a downer. “I worry that the pieces are saying when you act as if things have no consequences, it doesn’t end well,” he says. “But since climate change is a huge issue that the world needs to pay attention to, and it’s something that many people in Boulder are sensitive to, it strikes me as a natural fit for this orchestra.”
He admires the music that resulted from his initial suggestions to the composer. “The fact that he went into Native American texts, the middle movement which is a latter-day La Valse, all of that was his idea, and I think it’s brilliant. There’s a lot of stuff in a relatively short piece, and I’m very pleased with how it turned out.”
The second half of the concert comprises pieces by Mozart, Wagner and Strauss that are known to classical audiences. While their composition had nothing to do with environmental issues, Butterman hopes the context can add meaning to those works. Particularly the Strauss will add brilliance to the overall program. “It’s so cinematic,” he says. “You get a very good image of this character (Don Juan), his personality, his swagger. Whether you like him or not, there might be something about him that you almost envy.”
For the concert, the Boulder Phil has partnered with the City of Boulder Climate Initiative Department. Members of the city’s climate team will be present at the performance to share climate action ideas and resources, and to collect submission to heir climate audio collage report.
Please note that the Boulder Phil has changed the starting time of their concerts for the season to 7 p.m., instead of 7:30 p.m.
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“Hymn to the Earth”
Boulder Philharmonic, Michael Butterman, conductor
With Matthew Plenk, tenor, and the Boulder Philharmonic Chorus, Gregory Gentry, chorus master
- Michael Abels: Global Warming
- Drew Hemenger: Ozymandias: To Sell a Planet (world premiere)
- Mozart: Overture to Don Giovanni
- Wagner: Trauermusik from Götterdämmerung
- Richard Strauss: Don Juan
7 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 8
CORRECTION: The original version of this post gave the start time of Boulder Phil concerts as 8 p.m. The correct time this season will be 7 p.m.