Season opening concert features world premiere
By Peter Alexander Oct. 9 at 12:15 a..m.
The Boulder Philharmonic opened their 2022-23 season last night with a carefully curated and varied program that brought Colorado Governor Jared Polis to Macky Auditorium.
Speaking from the stage before the concert, Governor Polis honored the orchestra for its 65th anniversary season and thanked the players for their artistry during the COVID pandemic. Polis was there with Jonathan Koehn, Boulder’s chief sustainability and resilience officer, also to recognize the concert’s environmental theme, “Hymn to the Earth.”
Michael Butterman then led the orchestra through a program designed to consider climate change as a challenge and a result of hubris and heedlessness. That message was most conspicuous in the world premiere of Ozymandias: To Sell a Planet by composer Drew Hemenger. Identified as an “environmental oratorio,” the score calls for orchestra, chorus and tenor soloist. The music encompasses a wide range of moods, so that the transition from one movement to the next is often dramatic.
In five movements it traverses an arc from coexistence with nature to the damage done by the industrial revolution, to a portrait of a society on the verge of collapse, the current state of the environment and finally, a warning of a potential apocalypse to come. The first movement, “Spring is Come,” uses a text from Chief Sitting Bull. This movement essentially an environmental anthem, declaring that “our animal neighbors [have] the same right as ourselves to inhabit the land.” This movement could easily stand alone as an effective choral/orchestral piece with a benign environmental message.
This jaunty and affirming movement is followed by a setting of Wordsworth’s “The World is Too Much With Us,” an impassioned plea to recognize that “we are out of tune” with the natural world, written at the outset of the industrial revolution. Here tenor Matthew Plenk made a strong impression, managing well transitions from intense anguish to quiet despair. His voice has a penetrating quality that gets edgy when pushed too far, but is otherwise effective.
I had to step out for a moment and so missed the rhythmically charged third movement for orchestra alone, but caught the rest of the oratorio. The third movement incorporates a pedantic UN panel report on the environment (“Oceanic uptake of CO2 has resulted in acidification”), spoken by the chorus. This academic verbiage is effectively combined with words from environmental activist Greta Thunberg and saddened words from Chief Tecumseh.
Alas, this movement cannot avoid pounding away at the moral, and it casts a didactic shadow over the rest of the piece. The final movement, a setting of Shelley’s darkly prophetic sonnet, Ozymandias, is again very emphatic.
Hemenger employs a loosely tonal/modal style that speaks directly to the audience with no difficulty. He translates the message of the text directly into musical expression, but the preachy message will not be to everyone’s taste. A few people walked out during the fourth movement and at the end, but whether it was a political or aesthetic protest is uncertain. A handful in the audience stood at the end, and their numbers grew with each curtain call by Butterman and Plenk.
On the whole I judge Ozymandias to be a skillful score that accomplishes just what it aims at. The message will be welcome in some venues, but whether the piece as a whole will go on to more extensive familiarity remains to be seen. It was played well by the Phil and sung with conviction by the newly formed Boulder Philharmonic Chorus.
The concert had begun with Global Warming by Michael Abels, a piece infused with folkish-tunes and intricate rhythms. The solos in the wind section and percussion were notable, and the opening and ending exchanges between concertmaster Charles Wetherbee and assistant principal cellist Ethan Blake were played with elan. This is a pleasing, short piece that made an ideal opening for the program.
The second half of the concert began with an aptly dark reading of the Overture to Mozart’s Don Giovanni, the first of two pieces that expressed the dangerous heedlessness of the legendary Don Juan figure. The performance was a little muddy where lightness and clarity are called for, leaving some of the inner voices unclear.
Next up was Siegfried’s Trauermusic (Funeral march) from Wagner’s music drama Götterdämmerung. Here the Philharmonic’s brass section shone, playing with great depth and darkness of tone. The Phil does not have the number of strings to match the weight of the brass, but this was a well paced and pleasing performance.
Butterman saved the best for last with Richard Strauss’ orchestral tone poem Don Juan. The outstanding quality of the performance showed that the Phil’s wind players will rise to the challenges of a virtuoso orchestral score. Individual solos were outstanding, and the horn section clearly relished playing the soaring theme that portrays Don Juan’s charismatic presence—a ringing tune all horn players know from student days and truly love to perform, just as audiences love to hear it.
For the most part, Butterman’s construction of the program worked well. His pacing and control of each piece seemed convincing. Nevertheless, the extreme variety of styles on the program was double-edged: the wide range of moods was always interesting, but it created a slightly fractured effect overall.