Violinist returns for third round in Boulder, second with the Phil
By Peter Alexander March 23 at 6:40 p.m.
Stefan Jackiw (STE-fahn ja-KEEV) last performed in Boulder pre-Covid, when he was part of a Mozart mini-festival at the Colorado Music Festival in the summer of 2019.
Leaping a century and across several borders, he returns to Boulder Saturday to play the Scottish Fantasy composed in 1880 by Max Bruch with the Boulder Philharmonic and conductor Michael Butterman. This will be his second appearance with Butterman and the Phil, after a 2018 performance of Prokofiev’s Second Violin Concerto.
Maintaining the British flavor, Saturday’s program also includes The Banks of Green Willow by English composer George Butterworth. And in observance of the 150th anniversary of Rachmaninoff’s birth, the program concludes with that composer’s Symphonic Dances, his last completed composition, written around 1940.
In the 19th century, Scotland and the Romantic novels of Sir Walter Scott captured the imagination of composers across Europe. Mendelssohn visited Scotland in 1829 and wrote his Hebrides Overture and his “Scottish” Symphony (Symphony No. 3 in A minor). Operas based on Scott’s novels are legion, including Rossini’s La Donna del Lago (The Lady of the Lake) and Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, and many others less well known.
Among the composers enchanted by Scott’s stories was the German Max Bruch, who conducted the Liverpool Philharmonic for three years (1880-83). Bruch paid homage to the wild beauty and romance of Scotland by writing his Scottish Fantasy for violin and orchestra. Bruch studied and incorporated Scottish folk melodies into his score, which soon became just about his most popular piece.
Based on two folk songs that he collected in 1907, Butterworth’s Banks of Green Willow has been popular as a musical representation of the English countryside. The songs tell a sad, and even shocking, tale about an English country girl who runs away to sea to cover up an illegitimate pregnancy, but the music nevertheless remains mostly cheerful. Known for only a handful of works, Butterworth was tragically killed in World War I at the age of 31.
Sergei Rachmaninoff was born just about 150 years ago, on April 1, 1873 (Gregorian calendar; March 20 O.S.). In honor of the 150th anniversary of his birth, the Boulder Phil will perform his Symphonic Dances.
Rachmaninoff had long wanted to write music for a ballet when he composed the Dances. He had shown the score to the great Russian choreographer Michel Fokine, who unfortunately died before he could realize them as a ballet. Rachmaninoff himself died in 1943, not long after the 1941 premiere of the score by Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra. Today the score is known primarily as concert music, although it has been set by Peter Martins on the New York City Ballet (1994), and by other choreographers.
Jackiw himself is nearly as multicultural as the program. The grandson of one of Korea’s greatest poets, Pi Chun-Deuk, he is of both Korean and Ukrainian descent. A native of Boston, he attended Harvard and the New England Conservatory. In addition to his international touring as a solo violinist, he has played with Ensemble Ditto, a popular Korean chamber music group that also features CU faculty member Richard O’Neill.
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“Jackiw Plays Bruch” Boulder Philharmonic Orchestra, Michael Butterman, conductor With Stefan Jackiw, violin
George Butterworth: The Banks of Green Willow Max Bruch: Scottish Fantasy Rachmaninoff: Symphonic Dances
Not just fast-paced Vivaldi, program is ‘more floating than serious’
By Peter Alexander March 20 at 6:10 p.m.
If you think all Vivaldi sounds the same—fast-paced, chugga-chugga “sewing-machine music”—the Jupiter Ensemble has a surprise for you.
The youthful early-music ensemble brings an all-Vivaldi program to Macky Auditorium as part of the CU Presents Artist Series Wednesday (7:30 p.m. March 22). When they played the same program in New York’s Weill Hall, the Times critic Zachary Woolfe characterized their performance as “slow, serene, more floating than serious. . . . A broad range of (Vivaldi’s) artistry was on display.”
Formed in 2018 by French lutenist Thomas Dunford, the Jupiter Ensemble is a flexible group of early-music specialists based in France. In addition to Jupiter’s roster of instrumental players, the Vivaldi program also features the youthful, 30-something mezzo-soprano Lea Desandre singing arias from four of Vivaldi’s underappreciated operas.
The group is taking their all-Vivaldi program (listed below) on tour around the United States. In addition to the virtuoso arias that Desandre will sing, the program includes concertos for lute and cello, interspersed between the vocal numbers to give Desandre some much needed breaks between numbers.
Continuing his NYT “Critic’s Pick” review of Jupiter’s Vivaldi, Woolfe wrote, “the young early music ensemble . . . made a delightful debut in Carnegie Hall’s intimate Weill space.” About mezzo-soprano Desandre, he wrote that her “fast runs emerged with smooth legato flow” and “her clarinet-mellow voice provided the spine of the evening.”
Woolfe was equally complimentary of the group‘s leader. “The lute is not a loud instrument, but Dunford makes it speak,” he wrote. “He wove a subtle but clear, golden filament of sound.”
Once characterized by BBC Magazine as “the Eric Clapton of the Lute,” Dunford decided four years ago to create an ensemble of virtuosos to follow in the footsteps of the early-music pioneers. “All of the artists invited to take part in the (Jupiter) project are brilliant masters of their instruments,” he wrote. “Some of them are already renowned soloists.”
As a child, Desandre joined the chorus of the Paris Opéra, where her idol was the great French singer Natalie Dessay. An early interest in dance turned more to singing, and her early-music experience included work with William Christie, founder of the superstar group Les Arts Florissants, and studies with Véronique Gens and Paul Agnew, both stars on the French early-music scene.
Many of the works on Wednesday’s program can be heard on group’s 2019 CD recording, Vivaldi/Jupiter.
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Thomas Dunford, Artistic Director and lute, with Lea Desandre, mezzo soprano; Louise Ayrton, violin; Augusta McKay Lodge, violin; Manami Mizumoto, viola; Bruno Philippe, cello; Douglas Balliett, double bass; and Tom Foster, harpsichord and organ
“Vedro con mio diletto” from Il Giustino
“Armatae face et anguibus” from Juditha triumphans
Lute concerto in C Major (arr. from Trio Sonata in C Major)
“Cum dederit” from Nisi Dominus
“Veni, veni me sequere fida” from Juditha triumphans
Lute concerto in D Major
“Gelido in ogni vena” from Il Farnace,
“Gelosia, tu già rendi l’alma mia” from Ottone in Villa
Cello concerto in G minor
“Onde chiare che sussurrate” from Ercole su’l Termodonte
“Scenderò, volerò, griderò” from Ercole su’l Termondonte
CU Boulder’s College of Music presents concert March 21 at Grusin Hall
By Peter Alexander March 18 at 5:45 p.m.
Violinist and CU music faculty member Charles Wetherbee touched people deeply—those he performed with, those he taught, and those who knew him only as audience members.
Wetherbee died at the age of 56 Jan. 9, 2023, following a battle with cancer. The College of Music will dedicate a faculty recital to his memory Tuesday, March 21 (7:30 p.m. in Grusin Music Hall and by live stream; details below).
In addition to his teaching and performing duties at the College of Music, Wetherbee was first violinist of the Carpe Diem String Quartet and concertmaster of the Boulder Philharmonic Orchestra, who dedicated a performance to his memory Jan. 22. He was a frequent collaborator with faculty colleagues and other musicians in chamber concerts on and off campus.
His faculty colleague, pianist David Korevaar described Wetherbee as “the best colleague anyone can have.” Korine Fujiwara, violist of the Carpe Diem Quartet, described him as “my best and most trusted friend . . . and a beautiful example of all that is good in the world.”
In announcing the memorial concert, CU College of Music Dean John Davis wrote, “Chas Wetherbee was a beloved colleague and friend whose influence and inspiration reached far beyond the College of Music. With his passing in January, we lost a deeply valued and cherished member of our community.”
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“A Musical Celebration to the Life and Legacy of Charles ‘Chas’ Wetherbee”
CU Boulder College of Music faculty, students, alumni, and guest artists, including members of the Carpe Diem String Quartet, Boulder Piano Quartet and Lírios Quartet
Program includes works by J.S. Bach, Antonín Dvořák, Brahms, Richard Strauss, Schubert, John Gunther and Korine Fujiwara.
7:30 p.m. Tuesday, March 21 Grusin Music Hall, Imig Music Building Free
Massenet’s Cendrillon offers more than a fairy tale, Friday and Sunday at Macky
By Peter Alexander March 16 at 4 p.m.
“She is a sweet girl with a lot of backbone.”
Leigh Holman, director of CU’s Eklund Opera Program, is talking about Cendrillon—real name Lucette—who is the Cinderella character in Jules Massenet’s opera based on the familiar Charles Perrault fairy tale. But if you only know the Disney version of Cinderella, you will meet some deeper characters in Massanet’s opera.
The Eklund Opera’s production of Cendrillon will be performed Friday and Sunday (March 17 and 19; details below) at Macky Auditorium. The cast of CU students will be stage directed by Holman; CU faculty member Nicholas Carthy will conduct the performances. Set deign is by Peter Dean Beck, costumes by Ann Piano.
In general outline, the story is the same that everyone is familiar with: after her mother’s death, Cinderella’s father remarried, and her stepmother and two stepsisters mistreat her. There is a fairy godmother, a Prince, and a ball, and Cinderella has to leave at midnight. She and the Prince fall in love and are eventually reunited. That much is familiar.
But there are important differences, too. “This is not our usual fluffy fairy story,” Carthy says. “There is great depth in what happens.” For one thing, Cinderella is a stronger character; when she comes home from the ball and hears her stepsisters gossiping about the mysterious girl at the ball, she resolves to run away and she contemplates suicide. That of course raises the emotional stakes well above the Disney version with its cartoon birds and mice.
The Prince is introduced before the ball. Like Cinderella, he is morose and depressed. Life at court is boring and he’s not interested in his father’s insistence that he select a mate. He also thinks about ending it all to escape his situation. And it does not take a glass slipper for Cinderella to be found; when she and the Prince meet again, they realistically recognize each other right away
Another critical difference is the character of Cinderella’s father. He overhears the stepsisters and realizes how badly they are treating his daughter. “He decides we’re not going to put up with this any more, and I’m going to take you away,” Holman explains. “We’re gong to go back to our farm [where they lived before he remarried], and they have a beautiful duet about that. It’s really gorgeous music.”
For Holman the critical point in the Perrault version of the story, and one that resonates with her personally, is that fact that Cinderella has lost her mother. “Something a lot of productions bring out, and I do, is the fact that Cinderella misses her mom so much. She sings some beautiful music about her mom and how much she misses her.
“And the Prince grew up alone—his mom’s gone, too. So the first time they meet, it’s more than physical attraction; they see themselves in each other. I don’t know if they got married nor not [since that’s not explicitly in the opera], but the great thing that Cinderella gets out of this is that they find each other. So I see Cinderella going from being very lonely, the Prince going from very lonely, to being surrounded by people that love them.”
Holman says that the two students cast in the role of Lucette/Cinderella both embraced the notion of a stronger character than they had known before. “We talked about it from the very beginning,” she says. “We had a long talk about that, and both women have addressed it in different ways, but they carried that into their character.”
Holman sees Cinderella’s dilemma in stark terms. “She’s living in a horrible, violent house, she misses her mother, she misses her former life, and so when she runs away in the woods, it’s not just because she overheard [the stepsisters]. It’s just one thing piled on top of another, and that’s what broke the camel’s back.”
The music is in the lush, romantic style of the late 19th century, with some Wagner influences thrown in. “There are lots of little Wagnerian moments,” Carthy says. “But they are lightened up. They don’t have the same sort of grimness that Wagner tends to have.”
We don’t remember him so much today, but in his time Massenet was massively popular. Carthy sees him as “the Andrew Lloyd Weber of his day,” but in a good way. “Andrew Lloyd Weber steals from everybody, and so did Massenet,” he says. “But the idea of saying that is just the importance that he had. People were all whistling his tunes and there were great Massenet aficionados who went to all of his performances.”
One final important point Holman stresses is that there is more than the usual “happily ever after” in the ending. It’s two people discovering each other in a world that has been hostile. As she explains, “all the women who were trying to get the prince to marry them see the love that they have for each other, and they all become joyful.
“There is a ‘happily every after’ in that, and not just because she found a prince.”
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Massenet: Cendrillon Libretto by Henri Caïn CU Eklund Opera Sung in French with English supertitles Nicholas Carthy, conductor, and Leigh Holman, stage director
7:30 p.m. Friday, March 17 2 p.m. Sunday, March 19
Boulder Chorale and the Longmont Symphony both strike American theme
By Peter Alexander March 15 at 1:43 p.m.
Taking inspiration from former president Obama’s description of America as “a nation of immigrants,” the Boulder Chorale will present a concert celebrating many of the cultures that have contributed to our national identity.
The concert, to be presented at 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at the First Methodist Church in Boulder (March 18 and 19), will be under the direction of Vicki Burrichter, artistic director of the Chorale. Violinist Leena Waite will play “Requiem for Ukraine” by Igor Loboda, and other guest artists will perform music from cultures around the world that have merged on the American continent.
The program opens with an homage to America’s original inhabitants. “River of Living Waters” by Karen Marrolli, the director of music ministries at a Methodist church in Albuquerque, New Mexico, is based on a Lacquiparlé Dakota melody. That is followed by two songs from Great Britain that describe the journey from the old world to the new: “The Parting Glass” and “The Water is Wide.”
Other cultures celebrated in the program include those of India and China in Asia, and Mexico and Brazil in Latin America. The tour of cultures ends with music of Broadway by Leonard Bernstein, “Take Care of This House,” which is a reminder that Americans should, as Burrichter writes in her program notes, “work together to care for our collective home.” And finally a spiritual that remembers the enslaved people of our continent, Moses Hogan’s “My Soul’s Been Anchored in the Lord.”
“Not all of us have come here by choice,” Burrichter writes. “We hope that ending our concert with a spiritual shows our deep respect for . . . . (African-Americans’) innumerable contributions to American culture and life.”
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“A Nation of Immigrants” Boulder Chorale, Vicki Burrichter, conductor With Leena Waite, violin Ensemble of world musicians
Karen Marrolli: “Rivers of Living Water” (Lacquiparlé Dakota melody)
Traditional Scottish, arr. Desmond Early: “The Parting Glass”
Traditional British, arr. Craig Helala Johnson: “The Water is Wide”
Igor Loboda: “Requiem for Ukraine”
Leonard Bernstein: “Take Care of This House” from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue
Moses Hogan: “My Soul’s Been Anchored in the Lord”
Additional repertoire from India, China, England, Mexico, and Brazil
4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, March 18 and 19 First United Methodist Church, Boulder
The Longmont Symphony will present the second of two concerts in the current season focusing on American music over the coming weekend, with performances Saturday and Sunday (March 18 and 19; details below) in the Stewart Auditorium of the Longmont Museum.
Titled “The Art of Influence—America: Part II” the program features works that reflect some of the influences that have shaped the sound of American music. Under the direction of conductor Elliot Moore, the orchestra will present the Colorado premiere of Cover the Walls by Ursula Kwong-Brown, Gershwin’s Lullaby, and Aron Copland’s jazzy Clarinet Concerto with soloist Jason Shafer. The program will be filled out by Maurice Ravel’s tribute to the French Baroque tradition, Le Tombeau de Couperin (The tomb of Couperin).
The versatile Kwong-Brown describes herself as “a composer, sound designer and arts technologist” who also is active as research scientist and political activist. A 2010 honors graduate of Columbia University in music and biology, she has had works performed across the United States and overseas. Her catalog includes music for orchestra, chamber ensembles, vocal and choral works, as well as sound design for dance and theater.
A graduate of the Eastman School of Music, Shafer is principal clarinet of the Colorado Symphony and a member of the adjunct faculty at the University of Northern Colorado. He previously appeared with the LSO in 2021, when he performed Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto. Aaron Copland’s Concerto was commissioned by Benny Goodman, who played the premiere with the NBC Symphony and conductor Fritz Reiner. If not exactly a reflection of Goodman’s jazz style, the concerto is a tribute to his virtuosity.
Originally composed for piano and later orchestrated by the composer, Ravel’s Tombeau de Couperin was written during the difficult years of World War I. Described by the composer as an homage “less to Couperin himself than to French music of the eighteenth century” generally, the colorful orchestral suite includes movements titled Prélude, Forlane, Menuet and Rigaudon.
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“Made in American 2: The Art of Influence” Longmont Symphony Orchestra, Elliot Moore, conductor With Jason Shafer, clarinet
Ursula Kwong-Brown: Cover the Walls (Colorado premiere)
Copland: Concerto for Clarinet and String Orchestra with Harp and Piano
Ravel: Le Tombeau de Couperin (The Grave of Couperin)
7 p.m. Saturday, March 18, and 4 p.m. Sunday, March 19 Stewart Auditorium, Longmont Museum
Sondheim’s 1970s musical; “The Good, the Bad, the Music!”
By Peter Alexander March 9 at 2:40 p.m.
The CU Department of Theatre and Dance is presenting the quintessential 1970s musical, Stephen Sondheim’s Company, but over the past 24 hours the show sold out.
The story of a bachelor whose married friends want him to get married and settle down, Company won six Tony awards, including Best Musical, Best Score, Best Lyrics and Best Book. The original ensemble cast starred Dean Jones as Robert (“Bobby”) and Elaine Stritch as Joanne. That 1970 performance featured one of the iconic Broadway performances of the time, Stritch’s rendition of “Ladies who Lunch.”
Although firmly planted in the social mores of the times, Company continues to be popular, and three Broadway revivals—the most recent in 2021 with gender reversals in the cast—and numerous regional performances have kept the show before the public.
The CU production was designed by Annika Radovcich and stage directed by Bud Coleman. Adam Ewing is the music director.
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Company by Stephen Sondheim Book by George Furth Orchestration by Jonathan Tunick University of Colorado Department of Theatre and Dance
7:30 p.m. Friday, March 10; Saturday, March 11, Wednesday, March 15; Thursday March 16; Friday, March 17; and Saturday, March 18 2 p.m. Sundays March 12 and March 19
Charlotte York Irey Theatre, University Theatre Building
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It’s not Clint Eastwood, but it is the local Sheriff of Musical Harmony.
The “Curiosity Concert,” programmed for children and families, will feature classical, pop and movie music associated with the West, including Rossini’s Overture to William Tell,, the “Hoe-Down” from Aaron Copland’s ballet Rodeo, and Johnny Cash’s “Get Rhythm.” The concert’s plot features the loser of the orchestra’s recent “Best Conductor in the West” contest derailing the concert and taking the orchestra hostage. It will be up to the Sherriff of Musical Harmony to re-establish order in the concert hall.
The sheriff will be present when the Boulder Symphony and conductor Devin Patrick Hughes present “The Good, the Bad and the Music” at 3 p.m. Saturday (March 11) at Grace Commons Church, 1820 15th St. in downtown Boulder.
For 30 minutes before and after the concert, Boulder’s HB Woodsongs will sponsor an “instrument petting zoo” for children to try out instruments. Boulder Symphony’s Curiosity Concerts have sold out in the past, so potential audience members are encouraged to order their tickets soon (see below).
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“The Good, the Bad, the Music” Boulder Symphony, Devin Patrick Hughes, conductor
Rossini: Overture to William Tell
Copland: “Hoe-Down” from Rodeo
Scott Joplin: “Maple Leaf Rag”
Johnny Cash: “Get Rhythm”
Original song by Devin Patrick Hughes, Dana Vachharajani, Andrew Haller, and Liz Comninellis
Story of a friendship that bridges suffering during Afghan wars
By Peter Alexander March 6 at 11:48 p.m.
Seattle Opera has premiered a powerful and deeply affecting new opera by the composer Sheila Silver.
A Thousand Splendid Suns, which premiered at McCaw Hall Feb. 25, is based on the novel of the same name by Afghan-American writer Khaled Hosseini. It tells the story of Mariam and Leila, two Afghan women a generation apart who share the same abusive husband and forge a friendship that bridges deep suffering and personal sacrifice.
Hosseini’s novel has been skillfully adapted by librettist Stephen Kitsakos, keeping the major characters and focusing the emotional arc of the story. A tough read, the book vividly describes the suffering, especially of women, amidst the horrors of the Soviet-Afghan war and the takeover by the Taliban.
The opera portrays the same events, but Silver’s evocative music provides a sense of beauty that allays some of the brutality inherent in the plot. Silver—a composer previously unknown to me—studied Hindustani music in India for this opera and skillfully incorporates south Asian elements to evoke the setting.
The orchestra, enhanced by various hand drums, Tibetan bowls, bansuri flutes and sparkling percussion, creates moods convincingly. This is especially notable in the beautiful passages depicting nighttime, and at the end, when the otherwise bleak final scene is infused with a bright serenity and hope.
If the vocal lines are less memorable, they fit the text well and are imminently singable, with no treacherous leaps or jagged lines. Extreme registers are reserved for extreme emotions. Duets between Mariam and Laila are especially moving. This is an opera that communicates directly with the audience and should be accessible to most listeners.
Mariam, the older of the two women, carries the emotional weight of the opera, as she progresses from a spirited teenager, through disillusionment to seething resentment and a final moment of fury. Seattle Opera is fortunate to have mezzo-soprano Karin Mushegain for this crucial role. The night I attended (March 3), Mushegain not only carried the opera handily; she provided a vivid portrayal of Mariam at every stage, singing with conviction and strength. Hers is an impressive talent, vocally and dramatically.
Laila is a more conventional operatic part—a young girl overcome with a love that she holds onto and that gives her the courage to survive. Soprano Maureen McKay brought a lovely sound to this more limited role, singing brightly and sensitively. Her love interest, Tariq, has the most conventional music of all. Rafael Moras sang his ardent declarations of love with a soaring Italianate tenor that was not out of place. Laila’s and Tariq’s duets were among the highlights.
Another crucial role is Rasheed, the brutal husband of Mariam and Laila. He is the opera’s villain, treating both women with cruelty. John Moore used his baritone to convey Rasheed’s roughness, but moderated his sound to a more tender, lyrical style, first for Laila and then for his son, whom he favors above his wives and daughter. He so effectively conveyed the ugliness of Rasheed’s character that his death was the first I have seen applauded in an opera house.
Ashraf Sewailam, known to some readers here as a CU graduate and veteran of Central City Opera, portrayed one of the few likable male characters—Laila’s refined and progressive father, Hakim. He sang beautifully, using his resonant bass to create contrast with the violence that surrounds his family. The smaller parts were all filled effectively, raising the entire cast to a high level.
The production was stage directed by Roya Sadat, an Afghan film producer and director who was chosen for her insight into the culture and environment of Afghanistan. She made good use of the space provided by set designer Misha Kachman.
The realism of Kachman’s designs contributed to the impact of the opera, as they recalled photos we have seen of the violence in Afghanistan. Coincidentally, the opera appears just as Taliban control, apparently broken after the opera ends, has returned with renewed oppression of women. Thus A Thousand Splendid Suns is again as timely as ever.
The sets were at times minimal but always highly effective. One scene set in a neighborhood market was especially eye-catching. Deft touches included the turning of the wall of Rasheed’s house to show how the blank exterior conceals the troubled interior. A swing, hung from a disembodied tree branch, served to remind the audience that there were always children near the center of the action.
A special word about lighting designer Jen Schriever: there were moments of mesmerizing beauty in her lighting plot, particularly in the portrayal of night and the colors of the sky. In the splendidly lit final scene, Mariam seemed both radiant and weightless.
Conductor Viswa Subbaraman held the disparate musical threads together well: singers, orchestra, south Asian instruments. Hearing an opera for the first time it is difficult to judge interpretation, but the momentum never flagged. Thanks to Silver’s effective scoring, the singers were largely audible, with heavy brass sounds reserved for moments of violence or threat. Sound designer Robertson Whitmer should be recognized for pulling the hand drums and the bansuri flutes, each in isolated spaces that were miked, into balance with the full orchestra.
Representatives of other opera companies attended Seattle’s performances. I hope they will take up A Thousand Splendid Suns in the coming seasons. A powerful telling of an ultimately beautiful story, it delves into the human tragedy that often accompanies the news. The Seattle audience’s response, whether applauding Rasheed’s death or gasping at the unexpected reappearance of a character, showed how deeply they were drawn into the story.
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A Thousand Splendid Suns by Sheila Silver Libretto by Stephen Kitsakos Seattle Opera Viswa Subbaraman, conductor Roya Sadat, stage director
Remaining performances: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, March 8 TICKETS
“Choral Dances” concert sponsored by Boulder’s Ars Nova Singers
By Peter Alexander Feb. 27 at 3:30 p.m.
In 2005 brothers Paul and Barnaby Smith, who had both been choristers at Westminster Abbey, formed their own a capella vocal group. With eight members, they drew on their classical Latin learning and called the group Voces8 (Voices8).
Today the group tours internationally, commissions new works, has released more than a dozen recorded albums, has their own educational foundation, a composer-in-residence, and now has a Grammy nomination to their name. Comprising two sopranos, one alto, one countertenor, two tenors, a baritone and a bass, they perform a variety of styles from folk to pop, from music of the Renaissance to classic jazz, often in their own arrangements.
Thanks to sponsorship by Boulder’s Ars Nova Singers, Voces8 will appear in Colorado this week: at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at Macky Auditorium in Boulder and Thursday at St. John/s Cathedral in Denver (March 1 and 2). The Denver performance is sold out, but tickets for Wednesday’s Macky Auditorium performance are still available HERE.
Under the title “Choral Dances,” the Macky program offers what the group calls “a rare mix of ethereal and angelic,” and will include performances by Ars Nova, under the direction of Tom Morgan. Both groups will present music that reflects their individual traditions of performing music from the Renaissance to the current day.
Voces8 will open with a celebratory sacred piece from the Renaissance, “Buccinate in Neomenia Tuba” (Blow the trumpet when the moon is new) by Giovanni Croce. Characteristic of their eclectic programming, that will be followed by an eight-part motet by Mendelssohn (“Denn er hat seinen Engeln befohlen”—For He shall give his angels charge), music by group co-founder Paul Smith (“Nunc Dimittis”—Now depart) and the great cellist Pablo Casals (“O vos omnes”—O all ye).
“Drop, drop, slow tears,” one of the best known songs of the English Renaissance composer Orland Gibbons, is paired with a setting of “The deer’s cry,” a sacred poem also known as “St. Patrick’s Breastplate,” by Estonian composer Arvo Pärt. Ars Nova closes the first half of the concert with three pieces from their repertoire, by English Renaissance composer John Shepherd, late Renaissance Italian composer Carlo Gesualdo, and contemporary American composer Caroline Shaw.
In the second half of the concert Voces8 will sing one of their most popular numbers, a setting of Elgar’s famous “Nimrod” variation from The Enigma Variations to the text “Lux Aeterna” (Eternal light). Other composers on their program are Arthur Sullivan of Gilbert and Sullivan fame, and the great early Baroque composer Claudio Monteverdi. The program closes with another piece by Orlando Gibbons, the joyful “O Clap Your Hands.”
The group’s Voces8 Foundation is a registered charity in the United Kingdom. It was set up by Paul and Barnaby Smith in 2006 to develop the ensemble’s music education and outreach programs.Located in London, the foundation works with choral and small vocal groups in both performance and education. It presents workshops and masterclasses, and awards choral scholarships to young singers. There is a separate Voces8 USA Foundation.
Opera Colorado opened their new production of Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s Die tote Stadt under difficult circumstances Saturday (Feb. 26): last- minute vocal paralysis of the star soprano, Sara Gartland.
Her indisposition was capably overcome with the help of dramatic soprano Kara Shay Thomson and some artful directorial sleight-of-hand. Thomson, who didn’t have time to learn the staging but knew the music, sang from the pit while Gartland acted the role onstage.
Korngold wrote Die tote Stadt in 1920, when he was only 23, and later went on to write hugely successful Hollywood film scores, winning two Academy Awards. Unsurprisingly, the score of Tote Stadt has an expressive immediacy that connects with audiences.
The opera, too long neglected, soared in a beautifully designed and conceived production that featured a generally strong cast. Conductor Ari Pelto kept things well under control. He and the orchestra seemed comfortable with Korngold’s cinematic and emotionally descriptive style.
Robert Perdziola’s beautiful and evocative designs colorfully combined the interior of protagonist Paul’s apartment and a replica the O.L.V.-Kerk (Church of Our Lady) church tower in Bruges, Belgium, the symbolically “dead city” of the opera’s title. A large scrim at the back allowed for spectral appearances from his fantasies, including his beloved late wife Marie and a procession of nuns that appear during his fevered dreams.
This unit set served all three acts effectively, with plenty of room for the scene to shift from Paul’s artist’s studio to the canals of Bruges. A boat with dancers and commedia dell’arte characters and the procession of nuns parade in and out of the scene, as they do through Paul’s nightmares.
With a ringing sound and a secure top, tenor Jonathan Burton was effective in the long and difficult role of Jonathan, a young artist who suffers delusions that Marie has returned to life. His belief that the dancer Marietta is Marie reincarnated is the dramatic crux of the opera and places Paul at the emotional center. The Heldentenor demands of the part stressed his voice by the end, although the resigned reflection of his final scene came through affectingly.
He was a better singer than actor; the intensity of his role, as Paul spins into madness, came through more potently in his singing than his movements or posture. That may be why a moment that should be chilling—when a maddened Paul dreams that he has strangled Marietta and, imagining the corpse at his feet, sings “now she is exactly like Marie”—elicited out-of-place laughter from the audience.
Singing as Maria/Marietta, Kara Shay Thomson was at a disadvantage standing in a corner of the pit. Neither elevated above the orchestra nor singing out toward the audience, she was not always clearly audible. If the words were sometimes muffled, she sang the role with confidence and solid sound, ascending comfortably to the highest reaches of the part.
The vocally indisposed Sara Gartland was the very image of the dancer Marietta. She moved comfortably about the stage, and her emotions were often visible in her posture. It is difficult to maintain the intensity of a role when only mouthing the words, and she did not always succeed, but her dance scene in Act II was effective.
Baritone Daniel Belcher has a bright, steely voice well suited to his part as Frank, Paul’s friend. He ably conveyed Frank’s stability and groundedness in dealing with Paul’s delusions. As Brigitte, Paul’s housekeeper, Elizabeth Bishop’s warm, plush voice helped shape her role as a caretaker. She had the best diction of the cast; otherwise you would have had difficulty relying on the German text to follow the story. Young tenor Jonathan Johnson made a solid impression as Viktorin, director of Marietta’s dance company.
Stage direction by Chas Rader-Shieber served the story. The large stage area never looked too wide as the singers interacted. Only when the singing Marietta was in the pit on one side of the stage while the acting Marietta was on the other was there any (unavoidable) awkwardness.
NOTE: In the second act, Marietta dances a scene with shrouded nuns that might not make sense to modern viewers. This scene comes from a French grand opera, Robert le diable (Robert the devil) by Giacomo Meyerbeer. In that original scene—a third-act ballet that would have been familiar to Korngold’s 1920s audiences—dead nuns rise from their graves to perform a scandalous dance celebrating drinking, gambling and lust. The choice of this scene to fuel Paul’s imagination of Marietta and her company is deliberately provocative and suggests Marietta’s debased character, Paul’s derangement, or both.
Before the curtain, Opera Colorado artistic director Greg Carpenter came onstage to thank the opera company’s board for agreeing to present his “favorite opera.” I join in his appreciation, for being able to see an opera that I had never before seen live, produced on a high professional level.
If you love opera, you should not miss the opportunity to see this engaging, late-Romantic work that is rarely performed in the United States. Three performances remain at Opera Colorado (Feb. 28, Match 3 and March 5; details and tickets HERE).
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Opera Colorado Die tote Stadt by Erich Wolfgang Korngold Libretto by Paul Schott (Erich and Julius Korngold) Ari Pelto, conductor; Chas Rader-Shieber, director
REMAINING PERFORMANCES: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 28, and Friday, March 3 2 p.m. Sunday, March 5
Ellie Caulkins Opera House, Denver Performing Arts Complex
Die tote Stadt: A saga of love and delusion by the first great Hollywood composer
By Peter Alexander Feb. 23 at 5:15 p.m.
Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s opera Die tote Stadt (The dead city) is rarely performed today, but it was one of the greatest hits of the 1920s.
Korngold’s lush, Romantic score and the tale of love and madness resonated with European audiences after World War I. Even though the composer was only 23, Die tote Stadt was premiered simultaneously in two cities in 1920, and within two years had been performed world wide, including performances at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.
Suppressed by Nazi authorities because of Korngold’s Jewish heritage, the opera disappeared. But with its early record of success, Die tote Stadt is ripe for revival, and Opera Colorado is stepping up with a production that opens this weekend at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House in Denver (7:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 25; additional performances will be Tuesday, Feb. 28, Friday, March 3, and Sunday, March 5. See full details below).
Opera Colorado’s original production of Tote Stadt was designed by Robert Perdziola. The performances will be conducted by Opera Colorado’s music director Ari Pelto. Stage director is Chas Rader-Shieber.
Born in Austria in 1897, Korngold was one of many central European musicians of his generation who enriched the musical life of the U.S. when they fled the Nazi regime. Though not as well known today as Schoenberg or Bartók, he had immense impact on American musical life. He was the first great composer of music for Hollywood films, notably several swashbucklers starting Errol Flynn including Captain Blood (1935), The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), and The Sea Hawk (1940). Korngold won Academy awards for his scores for Anthony Adverse (1936) and The Adventures of Robin Hood.
The story of Tote Stadt is derived from a novel by the Belgian symbolist Georges Rodenbach, Bruges-la-Morte (The dead city of Bruges). Korngold’s father knew the translator of Rodenbach’s novel into German, and suggested the story to his son as an opera. Father and son wrote the libretto together, under the name Paul Schott.
The plot concerns Paul, an artist living in Bruges, Belgium, whose wife Marie had died before the opera begins. Unable to accept his wife’s death, Paul keeps a morbid memorial to her in his apartment. One day he becomes convinced that a woman he saw in the street, a dancer named Marietta, is Marie reincarnated. He tells his friend Frank about this delusion.
Marietta visits Paul, and dances for him, then leaves for a rehearsal. Paul has an extended vision that involves a meeting with Frank and various members of Marietta’s dance company, and a liaison with Marietta. Later Paul imagines that he strangles Marietta rather than allow her to leave, but in the end he realizes that it was all an illusion.
With such an intriguing story, Tote Stadt might seem a good candidate for a return to the popularity it achieved in the 1920s. But there are reasons beyond Nazi suppression that it is not performed often. “I understand one reason why it’s not done very much, because it’s difficult music,” cast member Jonathan Johnson says. “The orchestra has to be on top of their game, we have to be on top of our game.”
In addition to Johnson, who sings the relatively minor roles of Viktorin, head of the dance company that features Marietta, and Gaston, who sings from offstage, the cast includes tenor Jonathan Burton, who recently appeared in Puccini’s Turandot at the Metropolitan Opera, in the leading role as Paul. Frank will be sung by Daniel Belcher, who has sung at the Met as well as houses in Paris, London, Berlin, Tokyo and other cities around the world. Elizabeth Bishop, another Met soloist, will sing the role of Brigitte, Paul’s maid who leaves his service to join a convent.
The role of Marietta and the spectral Marie, taken by a single soprano, is more complicated. Sara Gartland, who has sung major soprano roles with companies across the U.S., was engaged for Marietta/Marie but developed severe vocal fatigue after arriving in Colorado. She was diagnosed with laryngeal nerve paresis, paralysis of the vocal cords, possibly a result of a past COVID-19 infection. As a result, Kara Shay Thomson, another experienced soprano, will sing Marietta/Marie while Gartland acts the role onstage.
This arrangement is not unusual when singers develop severe problems late in the preparation of a production. It happened at Opera Colorado in 2013 when bass Kevin Langan was unable to sing the role of Frère Laurent in Gounod’s Romeo et Juilliette. Langan acted onstage, while an apprentice singer sang the role from the side of the stage. The same thing happened at the 2011 world premiere of Kevin Puts’s Silent Night at Minnesota Opera, when tenor William Burden was unable to sing the lead role of Sprink on opening night and chorus member Brad Benoit sang the part while Burden acted and lip-synced. Many opera singers have had similar experiences.
Although he has a relatively small role in the production, Johnson may be on his way to greater renown. He was featured in the February 2023 issue of Opera News magazine. “I was thrilled,” he says about the article. “It puts my name in front of people who don’t know who I am.”
The article came as a surprise, Johnson says, probably as the result of a principal role he took in Stewart Wallace’s opera Harvey Milk at the Opera Theatre of St. Louis last summer. As for his role in Tote Stadt, “I’m the ringleader of the cacophony that happens in the second act,” he says.
Even though Viktorin is onstage for only about 10 minutes, Johnson is committed to making the role more than a walk-on. “Small roles don’t know that they’re small roles, and that’s how you should play them,” he says. “I try to never rest when I’m onstage, and think about my relationship to all of these other characters.”
But in this case you shouldn’t take what you see literally. “It’s a dream-like sequence where we’re all in Paul’s mind,” he explains. “The version of us that you see is not necessarily the version that exists offstage.”
Before being cast in the Opera Colorado production, Johnson had only heard a single aria from Tote Stadt, and he is relishing learning the opera. “I have such appreciation for Korngold, how he weaves the themes throughout,” he says. “It’s an express train that you have to get on, and if you miss your stop, good luck getting back on! It just rolls. And because of that I find it incredibly compelling to hear.
“This music is so beautiful and film-like, in a way that I think people will respond to. There are parts that still give me chills.”
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Opera Colorado Die tote Stadt by Erich Wolfgang Korngold Libretto by Paul Schott (Erich and Julius Korngold) Ari Pelto, conductor; Chas Rader-Shieber, director
7:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 25, Tuesday, Feb. 28, and Friday, March 3 2 p.m. Sunday, March 5
Ellie Caulkins Opera House, Denver Performing Arts Complex
NOTE: Opera Colorado has announced their 2023–24 season, featuring productions of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Wagner’s Flying Dutchman and Saint Saëns’s Samson and Delilah. Information about season tickets may be found on the Opera Colorado Web page.