Boulder Phil boldly goes to Orion Nebula for Saturday’s concert

Program centers on piano-and-orchestra works by Ravel, Rachmaninoff, with pianist Angela Cheng

By Peter Alexander April 20 at 5:10 p.m.

Conductor Michael Butterman, pianist Angela Cheng and the Boulder Philharmonic will visit France and Russia for their concert Saturday (7 p.m. April 22 in Macky Auditorium; details below).

Image taken by the Advanced Camera for Surveys (ACS) aboard NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, the sharpest view ever taken of the Orion Nebula, including more than 3,000 stars of various sizes. Image from 2006.

Those are the native countries of composers Ravel and Rachmaninoff, whose works are featured. But if you add in the subjects of the other programmed works by Tchaikovsky and Boulder native Leigha Amick, the itinerary expands to Shakespeare’s Verona and the Orion Nebula as seen by the Hubble telescope.

The concert will open with the world premiere of Amick’s Gossamer Depths, the 2022 winner of the “Resound Boulder” composition competition. Now a graduate student at the Curtis Institute, Amick grew up in Boulder, where she began her composition studies with CU faculty member Daniel Kellogg. One of her earlier pieces was played at a Boulder Phil Discovery Concert when she was still in high school.

Gossamer Depths was inspired by a photo taken from the Hubble Telescope. “I saw that and thought it needed to be depicted in an orchestra setting,” Amick says. Her music portrays different elements that can easily be seen in the photo: “The different (harmonic) layers of the piece represent the different layers of color within the photograph,” she says.

Boulder native and composer Leigha Amick

On top of those layers of chords that move independently of one another, Amick explains, “swirls of dust and space gasses are represented by 16th-note runs throughout the orchestra. And then there are stars on top of all this, and those are accented notes, mostly in winds, brass and percussion.”

Amick’s evocative score will be followed by two separate piano solo works with orchestra, played by Angela Cheng: first Ravel’s Concerto in G major before intermission, and then Rachmaninoff’s popular Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini opening the second half. Although both works were written around 1930, Ravel’s restrained, jazz-influenced concerto contrasts strongly with Rachmaninoff’s deeply romantic Rhapsody.

Angela Cheng

“They are such different kinds of music—different sonorities, different kinds of touch required of pianists,” Cheng says. “The one similarity is the orchestra is fully an equal partner. In the Ravel Concerto, the orchestra part is just as difficult for some of the wind instruments—it’s almost like concerto for orchestra and Piano. And the same thing with the Rachmaninoff, you really feel like the orchestra is a full partner.

“Of course the sound that needs to come out of the piano is completely different—the (Ravel Concerto) is much lighter, much more transparent. In the Rachmaninoff, the lushness, the richness of the sonorities in the writing and what is required of the pianist, is great in the piano.”

Beyond the differences in playing technique, Cheng struggles to find just the right metaphor to describe the two pieces. Clearly she loves both, each in its own way. “I don’t know very much about wine, but what I know, how whites can be a little bit lighter, maybe that’s Ravel? And a richer red for the Rachmaninoff.

“Or you could compare it to food, even Chinese cooking: Cantonese, where there’s a lot of steaming, lightness, fresh vegetables, would be the Ravel. Rachmaninoff has heavier sauces, maybe northern cooking where it’s richer. Something like that, but they’re both delicious.”

Michael Butterman. Photo by Jiah Kyun

The Rhapsody is a series of variations on a theme used by the violin virtuoso Paganini for his own set of challenging variations in his Caprice No. 24 for solo violin. A simple harmonic outline, it is so well suited for creating variations that dozens of composers have used the same framework for their own variations. 

The most familiar of Rachmaninoff’s variations is No. 18, in which the melodic outline is inverted—turned upside down—and turned into a dreamy, Romantic tune out of character with the dramatic nature of other parts of the score. “It seems to come from a completely different world than the rest,” Butterman says. “It’s marvelous!”

The combination and contrast of Ravel and Rachmaninoff was the starting point of the program, Butterman says. “Originally this was going to be a French and Russian thing,” he says. “I have always thought (there were) color similarities between French and Russian music.”

The concert will conclude with Tchaikovsky’s well known Romeo and Juliet: Fantasy-Overture, which Butterman describes as “an example of music that has made its way into the popular awareness of filmmakers and more. I find it a really effective piece that doesn’t attempt to trace the narrative arc, but gives you the emotional arc of the play, from tragedy, of course, to the overwhelming sense of being head over heels in love. You can go through this whole gamut of emotions in 20 minutes.

“It’s marvelous, and people will love it and I think it pairs well with the Rachmaninoff.”

The concert will be dedicated to the memory of violist Megan Edrington, a member of the Boulder Philharmonic who died March 16 at the age of 43.

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Boulder Philharmonic, Michael Butterman, conductor 
With Angela Cheng, piano

Concert dedicated in loving memory of Megan Edrington (1979–2023)

Leigha Amick: Gossamer Depths (World premiere; Resound Boulder Commission)
Ravel: Piano Concerto in G
Rachmaninoff: Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini
Tchaikovsky: Romeo and Juliet: Fantasy-Overture

7 p.m. Saturday, April 22
Macky Auditorium


CORRECTIONS: The original post was incorrectly dated April 22. April 22 is the date of the concert, not of the blog post. April 20 is the correct date.
The correct title of Leigha Amick’s piece is Gossamer Depths. And earlier version of this story misstated the title as Gossamer Depth.