MahlerFest includes works by Bartók, Casella, guest composer Christopher Gunning

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.

Kenneth Woods with the Colorado MahlerFest Orchestra. Phot by Keith Bobo.

Full details and tickets are available on the MahlerFest Web page.

“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.

Kenneth Woods. Photo by Chris Stock.

“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.

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.”

Soprano April Fredrick

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

6 p.m. Friday, May 20
Boulder Bandshell, 1212 Canyon Blvd.; Free

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.

Grammy-winning violist to play with Boulder Phil

Richard O’Neill of the Takacs Quartet will play Walton Concerto Saturday

By Peter Alexander May 12 at 1:20 p.m.

Richard O’Neill

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.

Anna Clyne. Photo by Jennifer Taylor.

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

  • Anna Clyne: Sound and Fury
  • William Walton: Viola Concerto
  • Elgar: Enigma Variations

7:30 p.m. Saturday, May 14
Macky Auditorium

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Conductor Cynthia Katsarelis and Pro Musica choose ‘Joy’

Music of Tchaikovsky, Bach and Dvořák for Sunday’s concert

By Peter Alexander April 29 at 1:10 p.m.

Conductor Cynthia Katsarelis found inspiration for her next concert in poetry.

In the midst of dire events in Boulder and around the world—the pandemic, the Marshall Fire, and the war in Ukraine—“I was thinking, how are we going to find joy?” she asks. “There’s a wonderful quote by an African-American poet, Toi Derricotte, ‘Joy is an act of resistance.’ It’s really been a source of inspiration.”

The renovated sanctuary of Mountain View Methodist Church

With that in mind, she decided to put together a concert program for the Pro Musica Chamber Orchestra titled “Joy” that would offer joy through music. The concert will be at 3 p.m. Sunday (May 1) in the newly remodeled Mountain View Methodist Church (see details below). 

The program comprises three pieces: Andante cantabile by Tchaikovsky, the Orchestral Suite in B minor by J.S. Bach, and the Serenade for Winds by Dvořák.

Katsarelis found another source of inspiration in the history of her own family, which has ancestral ties to Greece. “I thought a lot about my family in World War I and in World War II,” she says. “They found joy in their lives in the middle of all this, so I was thinking, how are we going to find joy?

Cynthia Katsarelis

“You can find joy going to a concert and hearing great music, connecting to your own humanity but also connecting to the humanity around you—people in the audience, the musicians (and) the artists. So it was really out of the depths that I decided to put on a concert called ‘Joy.’”

Tchaikovsky’s Andante cantabile is a string orchestra version of the slow movements from the composer’s First String Quartet. “It’s just this really beautiful work,” Katsarelis says. “It opens the concert with a lovely wash of the soul and a little tug at the heartstrings.”

It’s inclusion on this program is also a subtle political statement about the war in Ukraine. Katsarelis explains: “You have to remember that Tchaikovsky was a gay man who had to hide it, and was oppressed because of it. Putin has been brutal on the LGBTQ+ community, and when the Russians invaded Ukraine they had a list of people to target (including) LGBTQ+ activists. Tchaikovsky suffered in the society that he was in, and that element’s still there.”

Michelle Stanley

The Orchestral Suite in B minor for flute and strings is one of Bach’s best known works. The featured performer will be Michelle Stanley, Pro Musica’s flutist and a flute professor at Colorado State University.

Katsarelis says that Pro Musica’s approach to Bach’s work would be “historically informed on modern instruments,” meaning that all of the orchestral players will have modern instruments, with their large dynamic range and fuller sound, but they will also make use of Baroque-era conventions in the treatment of rhythms and other details of articulation and interpretation.

“There are some conventions that we follow that are part of the Baroque dance,” Katsarelis says. “There’s a lot about Baroque music that’s suggestions, but you don’t play exactly what’s on the page. We add dynamics, we add articulations, we do the rhythms and in a way that represents the movements (of the different dances).”

The final piece of the “Joy” program is Dvořák’s Serenade for Winds, a piece that Katsarelis has programmed before. She turned to music for winds because she had been able to present music for strings over the past two years, since they can play while wearing masks, but “the winds were out of work for a year and a half during the pandemic,” she says. “And so I thought it was time to do the Dvořák again.”

Dvořák wrote the Serenade in 1878 when he was 37, and included it in an application for an Austrian state award for musicians, which he won. “Brahms was on the jury of that competition and specifically mentioned that he enjoyed that piece,” Katsarelis points out. “It’s a beautiful gem of a piece.

“It’s just lovely to listen to and really nice in character and sophisticated in a way where you don’t have to work at it. It’s very satisfying emotionally and it’s almost like therapy to play and listen to this beautiful piece. And to give the wind players an opportunity to really shine for 25 minutes in a major work is really special for us.”

In fact, Katsarelis hopes that the entire program becomes “almost like therapy” for the audience. “In the depths of everything going on in the world, reaching for joy and happiness felt like the medicine we all need,” she says.

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“Joy!”
Pro Musica Chamber Orchestra
Cynthia Katsarelis, conductor, with Michelle Stanley, flute

  • Tchaikovsky: Andante cantabile, op. 11
  • J.S. Bach: Orchestral Suite No. 2 in B minor
  • Antonín Dvořák: Serenade for Winds in D minor, op. 44

3 p.m. Sunday, May 1
Mountain View Methodist Church, Boulder

TICKETS

CORRECTION 4/29: The spelling of poet Toi Derricotte’s name was corrected. It is Derricotte, not Deracotte.

Frequent Flyers join Boulder Phil for ‘Butterfly Lovers’

Concert April 30 includes music celebrating rebirth and reconnection

By Peter Alexander April 27 at 5 p.m.

Two years ago, conductor Michael Butterman had drafted a program to celebrate the return of spring with the Boulder Philharmonic Orchestra.

That program, originally planned for April 2020, had to be postponed, due to COVID. But now the long-planned concert celebrating renewal and rebirth has itself been resurrected for performance at 7:30 p.m. Saturday (April 30) in Macky Auditorium (tickets here).

A previous performance by Frequent Flyers Aerial Dance with the Boulder Philharmonic

“This was a program that was originally intended to reflect the notion of rebirth that happens in springtime,” Butterman says. “It still reflects that, but it has an additional layer of meaning for us—our own emergence from our pandemic isolation.”

The starting point for the program was The Butterfly Lovers Violin Concerto by Chinese composers He Zhanhao and Chen Gang, which the Philharmonic will perform with violin soloist Claude Sim and Boulder’s Frequent Flyers Aerial Dance Company. Before that performance the concert will open with Undistant by Mason Bates, which addresses our return to human interaction after the recent period of widespread self isolation.

Original costume design for Stravinsky’s Firebird by Léon Bakst (1913)

Filling out the program will be first Rimsky-Korsakov’s Russian Easter Overture, which has obvious seasonal significance. The final piece will be Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite, which Butterman selected because it ends with the rebirth of knights and 13 princesses who have been under a magic spell—another connection to the idea of renewal.

The Butterfly Lovers Violin Concerto was written by two Chinese students of Western music at the Shanghai Conservatory and premiered in 1959. Written for a Western orchestra, it is based on a Chinese legend of lovers who are separated by death, but reunited as butterflies. “It works very well for Western audiences,” Butterman says. “It’s extremely relatable on first hearing.”

Butterman and the Phil have done a number of performances with Frequent Flyers. He thought that The Butterfly Lovers would be a good piece for further collaboration and suggested it to Nancy Smith, Frequent Flyers’ artistic director. “It strikes me that it has a narrative arc, and certainly has potential as a work for visual interpretation,” he says.

“(Smith) agreed and they really embraced the thing. They constructed this large wing-like structure that will be hung above the stage. It acts as one fixed structure for most of the piece, but it also has hinges and it can bend like butterfly wings. It will be quite something to see!”

Violinist Claude Sim

The soloist, Claude Sim, is associate concertmaster of the Colorado Symphony. The Phil’s concertmaster, Charles Wetherbee, was first scheduled to perform the concerto, but when he became unavailable Sim stepped in to serve as soloist and as concertmaster for the concert.

The one piece that was not in the original program Butterman conceived two years ago is Bates’s Undistant. That is the piece on the program that best connects with the idea of people re-emerging from isolation as the pandemic abates—at least a little. “Undistant is a piece that (Bates) wrote in 2020, and it is a work that mirrors in some ways our separation,” Butterman says.

Michael Butterman. Photo by Jiah Kyun.

“There are two groups of musicians that are placed away from the rest of the orchestra. (Bates) has written an electronica part that incorporates static, sounds of Zoom and other communication platforms that we came to use a great deal during the pandemic. Over about seven minutes he brings these different elements back together, and there are little wisps of Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy,’ just enough that it’s recognizable. That begins to coalesce until we have an affirming and positive ending.”

Apart from the theme of rebirth and renewal, there is one thing that joins all four pieces musically, and that is their uplifting endings. It’s there in all four pieces. In Bates’s Undistant, it is the transformation from separation and static to hints of the “Ode to Joy.” In the Butterfly Lovers, it’s the overcoming of first separation and then death through the transformation of the lovers into butterflies, gently portrayed in music.

In the second half, the Russian Easter Overture opens with the solemn tones of two Russian Orthodox hymns, “Let God Arise!” and “An Angel Cried.” Rimsky-Korsakov wrote in an autobiography that “the gloomy colors of the Andante lugubre seemed to depict the holy sepulcher . . . [and] the solemn trumpet voice of the Archangel is then displaced by a tonal reproduction of the joyous, dance-like tolling of the bells.”

The progress of Stravinsky’s Firebird is no less joyous, with “The Infernal Dance of Katschei” being followed by the “Berceuse”—a tender lullaby that lulls Katschei’s demonic minions to sleep—and the “Finale” that portrays in music the return of Katschei’s prisoners to life.

You might say these are four variations on the theme of life returning after a long winter—or a pandemic.

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“The Firebird and Frequent Flyers”
Boulder Philharmonic Orchestra, Michael Butterman, conductor
With Claude Sim, violin, and Frequent Flyers Aerial Dance

  • Mason Bates: Undistant
  • He Zhanhao and Chen Gang: The Butterfly Lovers Violin Concerto
  • Rimsky-Korsakov: Russian Easter Overture
  • Stravinsky: Firebird Suite (1919)

7:30 p.m. Saturday, April 30
Macky Auditorium

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LSO will premiere music with 6,000-year history

Michael Udow’s Ancient Echoes on Saturday’s program with Stravinsky and Brahms

By Peter Alexander April 21 at 7:10 p.m.

It’s not often that an orchestra premieres a piece with roots that go back 6,000 years.

Saturday (April 23) the Longmont Symphony and conductor Elliot Moore will do just that when they give the first performance of Ancient Echoes, a score by percussionist/composer and Longmont resident Michael Udow (see concert details below; tickets are available here). 

Udow’s concerto for multiple percussion instruments will feature soloist Anthony Di Sanza playing instruments including one designed by Udow, based on ancient artifacts from Colorado that date back thousands of years. As part of the same piece, Di Sanza will play a variety of instruments from cultures around the world, including Indonesia, Japan and Korea. The concert program also includes Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite and Brahms’s Symphony No. 1.

Great Sand Dunes National Park and Colorado’s San Luis Valley, where ancient lithophones have been found. Photo by Peter Alexander.

Udow’s piece has a long backstory—although not quite 6,000 years. In fact it started around 2000, when archaeologist Marilyn Mortorano was doing consulting work at Great Sand Dunes National Park. The museum at the park has a number of ground stone artifacts, shaped roughly like baguettes, up to a two feet long, in their collection. 

They had been found at archaeological sites throughout the park, including one that was standing up in the sand, and other sites in the San Luis Valley. In fact, Mortorano says, “Almost all the collectors (in the area) had them and they didn’t know what they were, and we didn’t either.”

Archaeologist Marilyn Mortorano with ancient lithophones found in Colorado. Photo by Peter Alexander.

They were carefully worked, but way too heavy to be used as grinding tools like the mano and metate sets found throughout the Southwest. But “somebody spent a lot of time making them,” Mortorano says. “It bothered me because I thought, why do we not know what these are?”

Then in 2013 she ran across a YouTube video from the Musée de l’Homme (Museum of man) in Paris, which had similar artifacts that French soldiers had brought back from Africa. At the time she had several of the Colorado stones for research purposes, so she was surprised when she learned that the stones in Paris produced a musical sound when tapped. (You can see and hear them here; narration in French.)

In fact a set of them was used for Paleomusique, written by French composer Philippe Fenelon. Those stones were used for a single series of performances in 2014, and then packed away for storage, never to be played again.

“I thought this is crazy,” Mortorano says, “but I’ll see if (the stones from Colorado) could be musical. My younger daughter is a percussionist, so she had a basket of mallets. I couldn’t believe it—they rang like bells!”

When Mortorano returned the stones to the museum at Great Sand Dunes the next day, she showed her discovery to Fred Bunch, the chief of resources. He was startled, and promised to support any further research that Mortorano could pursue with the stones. 

“We don’t know how these were used, because we don’t know the whole context,” Mortorano says. “But we know now from studying lithophones (musical instruments made of rocks), they’re all over the world. They’re in Africa, they’re in Asia, they’re in South America, they’re even in Hawaii.”

In the meantime, Mortorano had talked to Colorado Public Radio’s Ryan Warner several years earlier, before she realized that the stones could be lithophones, who told her to let him know if she figured out what they were used for. She contacted him again after discovering their musical qualities and he did a new interview that was picked up by National Public Radio and noted on other national media.

Percussionist/composer Michael Udow

And this is where Udow enters the story. When he heard about Mortorano’s research and the Colorado stones, he wanted to see and hear them. When he contacted Mortorano, he discovered that she only lived about two blocks from his home in Longmont. He went over for a visit.

“Marilyn and (her husband) Sal had them set up beautifully on a long table with a hemp chord set at the nodes so they get maximum vibration,” Udow says. “I played them and I went home and thought, this is really important. It shows the musical side of the creative human spirit from 6,000 years ago, and wouldn’t it be interesting to compose a work!”

The Longmont Symphony had previously played two pieces by Udow, so his next step was to contact LSO director Elliot Moore and propose a new piece for orchestra using the stones. When he met Mortorano and heard the stones, Moore became interested in the project, and eventually got a commitment from the LSO board to support a new piece from Udow.

“What I really have the privilege of getting to do is putting this all together,” Moore says. “You can have the idea to write a piece of music and you can find these ancient stones, but until there’s an orchestra willing to premiere this, it’s theoretical. I feel lucky that when I presented it to the Longmont Symphony, everybody said, ‘Let’s do it!’”

Udow realized that the more or less random collection of stones that had been found was not really suitable for a piece all by themselves. He decided he needed to create a new instrument that as well as possible duplicated the nature and sound of the ancient ground stones: a modern lithophone that was tuned to play with a modern orchestra.

Michael Udow’s absolute black granite lithophone

This turned out to be a lengthy process, but one that paid off in the end. He visited granite quarries in Colorado, but none of them had stone that resonated well enough to be used in a musical instrument. He discovered that the best stone was absolute black granite from India, which fortunately he could get from Colorado manufacturers of granite countertops. 

He ended up purchasing two slabs of black granite, only one of which had good acoustical qualities. He was able to have that one cut into bars of varying length, which could be tuned by delicately cutting and grinding the stone, using a circular saw with a diamond blade.

In the end Udow estimates he spent about $5000 of his own money for the granite, the shop time to produce the bars, the frame that holds them and special cases to protect the bars. But he ended up with a playable instrtrument.

The completed score is virtually a concerto for multi percussion with orchestra. Udow’s lithophone will be featured, along with a number of other instruments: a marimba, a vibraphone, gongs from Korea, drums from Japan, a bamboo rattle from Java and German cowbells. For the one performance Saturday, the soloist will also briefly play four of the original ancient stones before they are returned to their museum collection.

Udow decided to use instruments from other cultures because in his travels as a percussionist, he had played instruments all over the world and he wanted to capture not only the timelessness of the original stones, but the universal quality of music. 

Percussion soloist Anthony Di Sanza

That also inspired Moore. “One of the main things that have kept me going is remembering that we’re bringing these things to life,” he says. “A fundamental human characteristic that we all share is, we love music. That’s been one of the great things about this whole process.”

The soloist for the performance, Anthony Di Sanza, is a former student of Udow who currently teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In fact, he will bring instruments that used to be Udow’s with him to fill out the solo percussion array. 

One issue that Di Sanza will have to deal with is the width of the bars on Udow’s new lithophone. It turns out that the bars have never been standardized by percussion makers. “Michael sent me all of the dimensions of the instrument, including the overall length and height, and also the bar width,” Di Sanza says. “The bar width (of other instruments) can vary to small increments or great increments, so we get used to making that adjustment.”

Di Sanza has had at least some of the music since last summer. Talking by phone from his home last week, he reported “I am at the stage now where I’m playing through the piece, listening to the midi (digital recording). That’s really fun because there are three-and-a half different physical setups on the stage. I start at one place, move to a different place for another part, come back for a different part, move to a third setup.

“A particularly challenging thing is as you move from one place to the next, knowing here’s where I’m going next! So that’s really fun, and fairly common with multiple percussion in the western classical tradition. And we thought a lot about how the instruments are grouped, to make sure the audience could see into the setups, and see what’s happening.”

LSO conductor Elliot Moore

Moore selected the rest of the program to go with Udow’s piece, with some very specific reasons for both the Stravinsky and the Brahms. “I thought that Stravinsky’s Firebird, with the idea of the rising phoenix, was something that could work well with this concerto,” he says. “It was the idea of matching Michael’s piece with the Stravinsky where I thought we had a winning program.

“And the other thing (is), I haven’t done a Brahms symphony (in Longmont). We have a wonderful cellist that retired pre-pandemic, Carmen Olguin, and as she was walking offstage with me for the retirement, she said, ‘Elliot, if you ever program a Brahms symphony, would you let me come back and play it?’ And I said ‘Sure.’

“I’ve always had in my mind this woman who wanted to play a Brahms symphony so bad, and I never programmed one, and I thought this was a good time to do it. So she joined us again, for her first rehearsal in probably three years.”

Brahms’s First Symphony is very standard orchestral repertoire, but Moore says the audience will hear some new things Saturday. “We are looking at this with fresh eyes and fresh ears, and I think it’s going to feel fresh. We’re taking a direction that is little bit leaner and a little bit closer to what the score indicates, not über Romantic.”

“People are going to be interested to hear it if for no other reason, that reason.”

In case you wonder about the new instrument, Di Sanza will take it back to Wisconsin, and eventually take it to a percussion museum in Indianapolis where he and others can use it for performances. Udow also hopes that some day, someone else might want to write music for it.

“That would be a hope of mine, to share it,” he says.

# # # # #

“Soundings: Past and Present”
Longmont Symphony Orchestra, Elliot Moore, conductor
With Anthony Di Sanza, percussion

  • Michael Udow: Ancient Echoes (World Premiere)
  • Stravinsky: Firebird Suite (1919 version)
  • Brahms: Symphony No. 1 in C major

7:30 p.m. Saturday, April 23
Vance Brand Civic Auditorium, Longmont

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NOTE: Effective immediately and until further notice, the Longmont Symphony no longer requires patrons to show proof of COVID vaccination, and masks will remain optional. This decision has been made with guidance from local, state, and federal officials.

The unfamiliar familiar by Seicento

Baroque Ensemble celebrates it 10th anniversary at the weekend

By Peter Alexander April 21 at 1:30 pm.

Boulder’s Seicento Baroque Ensemble celebrates its 10th anniversary this weekend (April 22–24) performing a piece that is both familiar—and not.

The piece is the Magnificat by J.S. Bach, which as the Magnificat in D is one of the most celebrated works of the Baroque master. But they will not perform that Magnificat, but a lesser known, earlier version in E-flat that has much of the same music, with interesting twists.

Artistic director Amanda Balestrieri with Seicento. Photo courtesy of Seicento.

Completing the program, titled “Magnificent Magnificats,” are two other settings of the same sacred Christian text, known as the Canticle of Mary. One is anonymous, although previously attributed to the German composer Dietrich Buxtehude, and the other is by the 17th-century French composer Marc-Antoine Charpentier. Performances will be Friday through Sunday in Longmont, Arvada and Boulder.

Read more in Boulder Weekly.

# # # # #

Magnificent Magnificats
Seicento Baroque Ensemble, Amanda Balestrieri, conductor
Choir, soloists and orchestra

  • Anonymous (attr. Buxtehude): Magnificat
  • Marc-Antoine Charpentier: Magnificat
  • J.S. Bach: Magnificat (original version in E-flat)

7 p.m. Friday, April 22
Longmont Museum Stewart Auditorium

7 p.m. Saturday, April 23
Arvada Methodist Church, Arvada

3 p.m. Sunday, April 24
First United Methodist Church, Boulder

6 p.m. Friday, May 6
Streamed Virtual Performance

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CU Eklund Opera presents colorful ‘Postcard from Morocco’

Surrealistic opera by Dominick Argento Friday through Sunday in the Music Theatre

By Peter Alexander April 18 at 5:35 p.m.

Dominick Argento and John Donahue’s one-act opera Postcard from Morocco definitely doesn’t feature a postcard, it may not take place in Morocco, and it does not really have a plot.

Colorful characters in the CU Eklund Opera’s Postcard from Morocco by Dominick Argento

What it does have is seven curious and colorful characters who collide and interact while waiting for a train that may, or may not—shades of Waiting for Godot—ever arrive. The next production of CU’s Eklund Opera Program, this unique opera will be presented Thursday through Sunday in the Music Theater space of the Imig Music Building (see details and ticket information below).

The student performances are stage directed by Leigh Holman and conducted by Nicholas Carthy. Stage design is by Ron Mueller, with costumes by Ann Piano based on drawings by Maya Hairston-Brown.

If you think this does not sound like any other opera you’ve seen, you might be right. “In a normal opera, we get a plot and hints of a character,” Carthy says. “And in this one we get the character and hints of a plot.”

“We wanted to dig into this piece because it was different,” Holman says. “It’s a way for our singers to dig into a whole genre of opera that’s completely different from other things they’ve done. They have the freedom to really search for the characters they want to develop.”

The CU Eklund Opera’s set for Dominick Argento’s Postcard from Morocco

In many ways, it is an ideal piece for a university opera program. “As an educational project it is perfect,” Carthy says. “Everybody’s onstage all the time. Everybody has an aria. People sing alone, people sing together, people sing in ensemble—basically it’s all there, and [the opera] is so astonishingly well put together.”

Beyond the educational advantages, Holman emphasizes the sheer fun of the piece. “There is a ton of humor in it,” she says. “There are many really funny moments. [During rehearsals] we are just guffawing. There are some very serious moments too, but it’s a nice ride for the audience.”

For Holman one of the pleasures of performing Postcard from Morocco is the fact that it is not often done. “There are no traditions to adhere to,” she says. “That opens up the students and the direction and the music to just do what you would like to do with it. It gives [the singers] space to dig in and find things” in each character.

The central conceit of the opera is that each character is carrying some kind of luggage or box with them. These vary from a cornet case to a paint box to a cake box, but none of the characters is willing to show the others what’s in their luggage. “Everyone has their little secret,” Carthy says. 

The seven characters of Postcard from Morocco with their luggage

This is a clear metaphor for the “baggage” that we all carry with us through life, which is one of the covert subjects of the opera. “We put on a facade of who we are and what we do, but very few people know what’s really going on inside,” Holman says. 

The characters—three women and four men—are deliberately kept mysterious, and only one of them has a name. “An eclectic bunch of characters demands an eclectic score,” Carthy says, and the score features a kaleidoscope of musical styles, from tap dancing to Richard Wagner. The latter appears several times, including a vaudeville scene ironically titled “Souvenirs de Bayreuth.”

Postcards is scored for a chamber ensemble of eight players, who will be costumed and placed onstage. In addition to the singing characters, there are two mimes, and “the maestro is one of the characters onstage, too,” Holman says. “He’s interacting [with the others].”

Carthy points out the many literary references in the libretto—everything from Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, to James Joyce’s Ulysses, to The Odyssey, to Robert Louis Stevenson’s Child’s Garden of Verses. “You could spend a lifetime deconstructing it,” Carthy says. As for Stevenson’s poetry, “There’s little quotes, but [the opera] has nothing to do with that,” he says. “It’s far away from that.”

Ann Piano’s costumes feature drawings by Maya Hairston-Brown and a distinctive color for each character

The CU production aims for a kind of timelessness and placelessness that is neither Morocco nor not  Morocco. The sets and costumes will be as colorful as the characters, literally. Early in the design process, Holman studied the characters and assigned a color to each. “I had someone sketch little picture of the various things they supposedly hold in their containers, so you’ve got hats, shoes, a cornet,” she explains.

That artist, Maya Hairston-Brown, sent the sketches to a company that printed them on fabric, a different color for each character, and then costume designer Ann Piano turned the fabric into costumes. “This is really amazing,” Holman says. “We never loose sight of who’s who and who is connected to what.”

At the end of the opera, either a train arrives, or it doesn’t, depending on your interpretation. Everyone leaves the waiting room to go onto the outside platform, but, Holman says, “We don’t know if this is a fantasy, or what it is.”

You also get a small hint of what everyone has been hiding, but like so much else in the opera, it’s enigmatic. “It’s really up to the audience to figure out what it means,” Holman says.

“It’s Dadaist, it’s surrealist, it’s fun,” Carthy says, referring to artistic movements from the mid-20th century when the opera was written. “And it is such an incredible ride to go and see!”

# # # # #

Postcard from Morocco by Dominick Argento and John Donahue

CU Eklund Opera Program
Leigh Holman, director, and Nicholas Carthy, conductor

7:30 p.m. Thursday, April 21
7:30 p.m. Friday, April 22
7:30 p.m. Saturday, April 23
2 p.m. Sunday, April 24
Music Theatre, CU Imig Music Building

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Boulder Chamber Orchestra and Chorale present a Requiem for the Living

Howard Goodall’s Eternal Light: A Requiem Saturday at 8

By Peter Alexander March 31 at 11:35 p.m.

Howard Goodall

Howard Goodall wanted to write a Requiem for the living.

The English composer was not interested in creating a piece about the terrors of the last judgment that often feature heavily in older settings of the Latin Requiem. Instead, he composed a piece “intended to provide solace to the grieving,” he writes, comparing it in this respect to Brahms’s German Requiem.

Goodall’s 2008 work Eternal Light: A Requiem will be performed by the Boulder Chamber Orchestra (BCO) and Boulder Chamber Chorale—probably a Colorado premiere—at 8 p.m. Saturday (April 2) at the Boulder Adventist Church. Bahman Saless will conduct.

Also on the program is one the BCO’s most popular pieces from past concerts, the Suite Antique by John Rutter. The performance will feature flutist Rachelle Crowell, a member of the BCO (full details below).

When Saless first heard Eternal Light, he was captivated by the piece for two reasons. For one, it is a contemporary piece that should have broad appeal. “The piece is so approachable and so beautiful,” he says. “It has beautiful melodies, gorgeous violin solos and arias, and I thought here’s a piece that we can bring to the world and say ‘Hey, look! There is something really awesome here! Listen!’”

Bahman Saless

The second reason was more personal. “(Goodall) uses poetry from England, and also brings Church of England hymn tunes into it,” Saless explains. “I went to high school in England, and every morning we had to get up and sing these beautiful hymn tunes. So a couple of the pieces hit me directly in my heart and in my past of being a schoolboy in England. That was another reason I fell in love with it.”

The inclusion of English poetry was part of Goodall’s aim of creating a Requiem that focuses on consolation for the grieving. “The writing of a Requiem is a special challenge for any composer,” he writes. “For me, a modern Requiem is one that acknowledges the unbearable loss and emptiness that accompanies the death of loved ones, a loss that is not easily ameliorated with platitudes about the joy awaiting us in the afterlife.”

Goodall’s solution was to create his own text for the Requiem, using English poetry to comment on the liturgical text, and adding movements not part of the usual liturgy. Some movements that juxtapose the Latin liturgical text with English poetry recall Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem (“Kyrie: Close now thine eyes”). Other movements stick entirely to the Latin text—e.g., “Agnus Dei” (Lamb of God). 

The “Dies Irae” (Day of wrath) movement drops the Latin text describing the agonies of the final judgment entirely, setting in its place John McCrae’s well known First World War-era poem “In Flanders Fields.” The “Lacrimosa” (Tearful) movement does the same, using the 17th-century poem by Phineas Fletcher “Drop, drop slow tears,” which was set by the Renaissance composer Orland Gibbons and used as a hymn text in the English church.

Another unusual aspect of the Requiem is that it was commissioned as a dance piece as well as a choral-orchestral piece. None of the movements are labelled as dances, but Saless notes that parts are “somewhat dance-y. It’s really a new concept,” he says.

The score calls for chorus and string orchestra, with other parts that can be handled with some flexibility. For the BCO performance, the strings will be supplemented by a piano and an electronic keyboard with harp and organ sounds.

Goodall’s compositional output marks him as a composer who can write accessible music for a broad audience. In addition to his choral works, he has composed musical theater pieces and music for film and television. These include the film Mr. Bean and the highly popular Mr. Bean television series, two of Goodall’s many collaborations with the actor and comedian Rowan Atkinson.

John Rutter

Saless decided to fill out the program with Rutter’s Suite Antique. BCO has performed the suite several times, and their YouTube video with flutist Cobus DuToit has received more than 77,000 hits. “This is our most popular YouTube video,” Saless says.

Flutist Rachelle Crowell

The score is nearly a flute concerto, with the instrument featured as soloist in each of the six movements. Scored for strings, harpsichord and flute, it is reminiscent of Baroque dance suites, with movements titled Prelude, Ostinato, Aria, Waltz, Chanson and Rondeau. The score adheres comfortably to Rutter’s usual accessible and unchallenging style.

“The other nice thing about the concert choice is that it’s basically a British composers concert,” Saless says. “And they’re both alive, so you can chalk that against performing contemporary music!”

Saless originally planned to perform Eternal Light two years ago, as a consoling musical gesture to audiences during the pandemic. “It’s been one of my goals to bring this to Boulder,” he says, but the original plans had to be postponed. Now that it finally will be performed, he says, “I’m really excited.”

# # # # #

“Eternal Light”
Boulder Chamber Orchestra, Bahman Saless, conductor
With Rachelle Crowell, flute, and Boulder Chamber Chorale, Vicki Burrichter, director

  • John Rutter: Suite Antique
  • Howard Goodall: Eternal Light: A Requiem

8 p.m. Saturday, April 2
Boulder Adventist Church, 345 Mapleton Ave.

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Familiar Fauré Requiem anchors Ars Nova Singers program April 1–2

“Made Fragile” welcomes a fragile spring season with consoling music

By Peter Alexander March 29 at 10:20 p.m.

It’s a common theme: Boulder conductors look to program music that recognizes the stress and trauma their audiences have been through in the past two years.

Reena Esmail

For Thomas Morgan and the Ars Nova Singers, that means turning to music that is more comfortably familiar than much of the Renaissance and contemporary music that they usually perform: the gentle, consoling Requiem by French composer Gabriel Fauré. On the same program will be Fauré’s popular Pavane, in a version for orchestra and chorus; Brahms’s choral song “Abendständchen” (Evening serenade); and four works by Indian/American composer Reena Esmail.

The program, titled “Made Fragile,” will be performed at 7:30 p.m. Friday in Denver (April 1) and Saturday in Boulder (May 2; details below).

Featured performers with Ars Nova will be flutist Christina Jennings; violist Matt Dane, who will be concertmaster of the orchestra; Ars Nova assistant conductor Brian Dukeshier, who will lead the Brahms; and soprano Magdalena Kadula, a senior at Tara Performing Arts High School in Boulder who won a competition to sing a solo with Ars Nova.

The Fauré Requiem is probably the most familiar work Morgan and the Ars Nova Singers have performed. “We did it in our second season, 1987, and haven’t done it since,” Morgan says. “It is outside where our usual repertoire is. But one of the things we realized coming out of the pandemic is that there’s so much community grief that’s left unprocessed.

“We wanted to do something that would really appeal both to the audiences and to our singers. And Fauré’s really gentle that way.”

Ars Nova likes to include educational activities in their schedule, but during the pandemic they have been unable to go into schools. Instead, Morgan decided to reach out to students by offering the opportunity to sing “Pie Jesu,” the soprano solo movement of the Requiem. It is relatively short and not difficult, which made it ideal for young singers.

Magdalena Kadula

“We had a competition,” Morgan explains. “We sent it out to public music teachers and private voice teachers and offered a little scholarship (and) we had 13 entrants. It’s just a two-page piece and we had the first round where the kids recorded it on their phones. We evaluated those 13 entries and selected five to do in-person auditions.

“From that we selected Magdalena Kadula, who will be our soprano. She’s a senior at the Tara High School of the Arts here in Boulder. It was a good way for us to outreach to young people at a time that’s very challenging.”

The other major element of the program is a selection of four pieces by Reena Esmail. An Indian-American composer, she has studied at Juilliard and Yale in this country, and with Hindustani music teachers in India. She often incorporates elements of Hindustani music into her compositions, along with Western classical music.

Matt Dane

Esmail’s music was added to the program through a suggestion by violist Matt Dane. The orchestra for Fauré’s Requiem only calls for violas and cellos, with no violins, so Dane serves as concertmaster. He suggested Esmail’s “When the Violin” for chorus and viola as a good companion piece to the Requiem.

That led to adding another piece by Esmail for viola and flute, which Dane will play with his wife, flutist Christina Jennings from the CU faculty. That in turn led to adding two other pieces by Esmail, “She Will Transform You” for flute and chorus, and “Tarekita” for a capella chorus, which will open the concert.

Esmail wrote “TaReKiTa” for a choir of homeless people in Los Angeles that she was working with. “It’s taken off in the choral world,” Morgan says. “A number of people have recorded it. It’s very accessible, kind of like Indian scat singing. It’s a short piece that sets the stage well for the rest of her music, (which is) infused with who she is as an Indian-American.”

Christina Jennings

With Jennings included on the program, Morgan then decided to add Fauré’s Pavane, which is popular in a version for small orchestra and featuring a prominent flute solo. Originally written for piano, it was adapted by Fauré for orchestra and chorus, including a text that Morgan says “is not high art in terms of poetry,” about men’s and women’s romantic helplessness. “The beautiful melody carries the whole thing,” he says.

Morgan chose the Brahms “Abendständchen” to complete the program, both for its musical qualities and the opening line, “‘Hark the flute laments again, and the cool springs murmur,” which fits the occasion perfectly. The performance is a farewell for Dukeshier, who has been Ars Nova’s assistant conductor for several years, and recently completed a doctorate at the University of Northern Colorado.

Morgan says that the COVID protocols for the two performances are always subject to change. “We’re watching week to week as to how we implement our COVID strategies,” he says. “At the moment we’re planning to go with the singers masks-optional, but we’re also watching what’s happening. It makes for an interesting time right now.”

In other words, be sure to check the Ars Nova Health and Safety page on the Web before attending the concert. Or as Morgan puts it, “As the name of the program says, everything’s very fragile.”

# # # # #

“Made Fragile“
Ars Nova Singers, Thomas Morgan, director
With Christina Jennings, flute, and Matt Dane, viola
Magdalena Kadula, soprano
Brian Dukeshier, asst. conductor

  • Reena Esmail: TaReKiTa for chorus
    —“When the Violin” for chorus and solo viola
    —“She Will Transform You” for chorus and solo flute
    —“Nadiya” for flute and viola
  • Brahms: “Abendständchen” (Evening serenade)
  • Gabriel Fauré: Pavane (arr. Thomas Morgan)
    —Requiem

7:30 p.m. Friday, April 1
Central Presbyterian Church, 1660 Sherman St., Denver

7:30 pm. Saturday, April 2, 
First United Methodist, 1421 Spruce St., Boulder
Also available by livestream

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CORRECTION, March 30: The spelling of TaKeKiTa, with alternating upper case letters was corrected, as well as the spelling of Christina Jennings’s first name.

Violinist MinTze Wu brings ‘Death of the Pugilist’ back to Lyons Sunday

Music/storytelling production was presented at first ‘Sound of Lyons’ in 2009

By Peter Alexander March 23 at 2:24 p.m.

The very first season of Sounds of Lyons, the adventurous and imaginative music festival managed by violinist MinTze Wu in Lyons, Colo., from 2009 through 2017, included a collaborative performance combining storytelling and music.

That performance was based on “Death of the Pugilist,” a story by Daniel Mason. A narrator read the full story, and a group of musicians provided musical commentary with composed pieces by J.S. Bach, Philip Glass and Steve Reich, as well as improvised music that drew from a variety of styes and sources.

Musicians (L-R) MinTze Wu Jem Moore, Joy Adams, Blayne Chastain and Eric Thorin will perform ’Death of the Pugilist’ in Lyons Sunday.

Thirteen years later, Wu is bringing “Death of a Pugilist” back to Lyons under the aegis of BenFeng Productions, the successor to Sounds of Lyons. The new version will use the same script, the same composed pieces by Bach, Glass and Reich, but a new set of musicians who will provide their own newly improvised music to fill out the performance.

This revived and renewed performance will take place at 4 p.m. Sunday, March 27, at the Lyons Middle/Senior High School Auditorium.

The narrator reading Mason’s story will be Jem Moore, who will also be part of the musical ensemble. The other musicians, all playing multiple instruments, will be Wu, Joy Adams, Blayne Chastain and Eric Thorin. Instruments featured by the ensemble include—but are not necessarily limited to—flute, violin, banjo, mandolin, tuba, cello, string bass, drum and keyboard. In addition to the composed pieces, the musical styles will range from traditional Irish to blues.

“We really want to honor the tradition of storytelling,” Wu says of the production. “It’s almost like a campsite when somebody starts sharing a story that he has heard.”

Wu says she was not initially attracted to a story about boxing, but the quality of the writing won her over. “I started by reading it, and it gave me so much opportunity to imagine a production,” she says.

The plot concerns Jacob Burke, a young man who grows up on the docks in 1820s England and is such a ferocious brawler that he ends up being lured into in illegal bare-knuckle boxing matches. The climax of the story is his fight with “Blindman” McGraw, which takes up the largest portion of the story.

MinTze Wu

Wu selected pieces by Bach to open and close the performance, and particularly the Sarabande from the D-minor Suite for solo cello, which is played before the narration of the fight. “The central piece is the Sarabande,” Wu says. “That is at the pivotal part, the most raw, emotional moment. I love taking the most intense moment emotionally and have the most simple sound there.”

In contrast to the written-out pieces, Wu says that the improvised music is “very much like cooking. You can follow the recipe, but it’s really cooking it every time.” And if the music develops too fast, “somebody will go, ‘Oh, I cook it too hot!’ We understand what that means: we have to cook it slower, longer.”

Although Bach forms the bookends and the central piece of the performance, the players come from various musical backgrounds. A graduate of the Cleveland Institute, Wu has the most extensive classical training. Cellist and plucked strings player Joy Adams is a member of an all-female neo-acoustic quartet, Big Richard, who are performing at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival in June. 

Bass player Eric Thorin teaches folk and bluegrass bass at the University of Northern Colorado and has performed both jazz and bluegrass with leading artists. Flutist Blayne Chastain studied traditional music at the Berklee College of Music in Boston before moving to Colorado. Narrator Jem Moore has pursued careers as musician, airline and private pilot, and independent film maker.

Wu says the improvisation occurs within clearly defined limits. “It’s just so organic when the five of us sit down to decide our roadmap,” she explains. “We know our destination, but on the way, where are we going to go? There is freedom but it’s within very defined limits. It’s a very tight ensemble piece, very lean.”

Lean may be the keyword. When she approached the piece again 13 years after first developing it, Wu found that she wanted to trim it down to essentials. “When I started Death of the Pugilist 13 years ago, that was my first ensemble piece with a story,” she says. 

“Now having done so many other big productions with literature, and looking at it and still loving the simplicity but being more informed, I realize that all along, what I’m exploring is not confining our imagination. There is always more to discover. If we tap into that curiosity there is just a lot more.

“For me, it’s coming back to it and taking out more things, because they are not necessary. We’re trying to say more by saying less. That really is our passion this time.”

# # # # #

Death of the Pugilist
Based on a story by Daniel Mason
Presented by Peter Baumgartner and BenFeng Productions
Performed by Jem Moore, MinTze Wu, Eric Thorin, Joy Adams and Blayne Chastain

4 p.m. Sunday, March 27
Lyons Middle/Senior High School Auditoriu

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