Kamala Sankaram’sJoan of the City is inspired by homelessness and Joan of Arc
By Peter Alexander June 17 at 5:23 p.m.
Composer Kamala Sankaram says that many of the pieces she writes start with her own imagination and not the way many operas get written— with a commission for a specific performing organization.
“They start with a crazy idea that I have” Sankaram says. “Then I talk to people and see who also is crazy.” She then works with the “also crazy” people to bring her idea to life.
For her latest project, an opera titled Joan of the City that combines themes of homelessness with the Joan of Arc story, those conversations led her to Leigh Holman, director of the Eklund Opera Program at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and the New Opera Workshop (CU NOW).
Sankaram has been in Boulder for the past two weeks, composing music and working with students in the opera program to start turning her “crazy idea” into a site-specific opera that will be premiered next year by Opera Omaha. Completed portions of Joan of the City will be performed at 3 p.m. Sunday (June 19) in the Music Theatre of Imig Music Building.
The performance is free and open to the public, and will take place entirely in the Music Theatre space.
The basic idea of the opera is that not one but five Joans will be fighting, not the English invaders in France, but gentrification and other forces creating homelessness in American cities. Starting in five different places within Omaha, the Joans eventually meet up, as audiences move with them through the city.
Sankaram grew up in Southern California, where the car is king, but after she moved to New York she started walking everywhere. “Whenever I go to a new city I’m walking, and I see the homeless community,” she says. “I think it’s important to have people see what does that feel like, to be walking the city, instead of driving by in a car.
“I started thinking about [homelessness] several years ago, and it has become increasingly problematic and prevalent . . . [in] all places across the United States. So the idea was how do you get people to look and see things that they normally look past.”
Another idea was the use of technology, which features in a lot of Sankaram’s work. It is technology that will allow the onsite performances in Omaha to take place in different places across the city, and also will allow audience members to participate in the performance by playing audio from their cell phones.
The final piece of Sankaram’s “crazy idea” was working with homeless agencies—Mary’s Place in Seattle and Micah House in Omaha—to connect the finished work to the homeless community. With her co-creator of Joan of the City, New York-based hybrid-theater director Kristin Marting, Sankaram and the homeless shelters presented writing workshops for the shelter clients.
The work that came from those workshops became the basis of the text for Joan of the City. “The libretto is all these poems that the shelter clients wrote, and then they’re sort of structured on this overall dramatic arc from the Joan of Arc story,” Sankaram explains. “It starts off as arias and then as the Joans meet each other, it turns into duets and trios and finally a quintet.”
Sankaram’s work is an example of the kind of creative and adventurous projects that CU NOW aims to support. Many new works go through a workshop process, but CU NOW is unique in that it offers a longer than average period for composers to work with performers while refining their work.
The program is largely Holman’s brainchild. She started CU NOW in 2010, and it has offered several composers the opportunity to refine works that were in development, including It’s a Wonderful Life by Gene Scheer and Jake Heggie, which was premiered by Houston Grand Opera in 2016 and performed by the CU Eklund Opera in 2019.
The composers and works are chosen for CU NOW largely through Holman’s contacts in the professional world. “So far nobody has ever submitted anything (for consideration),” she says. “It’s only been knowing somebody or meeting somebody through relationships, or going to see their operas. I just invite them, and they do it because they want to develop their piece and we can provide the students and the facilities and the musicians.”
In addition to the work that is done by an established composer preparing a new piece, there is simultaneously an educational component for young composers. Under the rubric Composer Fellows’ Initiative (CFI), a composer and librettist have been brought in to work with students to develop both their musical skills and their understanding of stagecraft.
This year, the students have been working with composer Tom Cipullo, whose comic opera Hobson’s Choice was featured at CU NOW in 2019, and librettist Gene Scheer, whose was in Boulder for CU NOW last year (Intelligence, with composer Jake Heggie) as well as 2016 (It’s a Wonderful Life).
“It’s a marvelously thrilling thing to be a part of,” Cipullo says of CFI. The composers in this year’s program “are extraordinary young musicians,” he says. “CFI gives them a push into writing operas. They have an interest, they’re all talented. How much they’ll pursue it, what works they’ll create, who can say, [but] they jumped in and they’re doing some really good things.”
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CU Now Opera Workshop (CUNOW) Leigh Holman, director
Kamala Sankaram: Joan of the City (portions)
3 p.m. Sunday, June 19 Imig Music Building, Music Theatre (N1B95)
Season includes Beethoven cycle, Handel’s Messiah, world premieres
By Peter Alexander June 8 at 1:54 p.m.
The Longmont Symphony recently announced their 2022–23 season of concerts. The season features six mainstage concerts, three chamber orchestra concerts, and a Messiah singalong during the Holiday season (Dec. 18; see full season listings below).
The Beethoven symphony cycle will continue with Symphony No. 8 (Oct. 22 and 23), and other familiar orchestral repertoire will be represented by works of Dvořák and Sibelius. There will also be works by less familiar composers, including two world premieres, adding up to a season with intriguing discoveries to be made on most programs.
The first of the two world premieres is Symphony for the Great Return by American composer John Hennecken on the opening night of the new season, Oct. 8. With it on the same program are Dvořák’s familiar Cello Concerto, played by Naumburg Competition winner Clancy Newman, Aaron Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man, and George Walker’s elegiac Lyric for Strings.
The next installment of the LSO’s Beethoven cycle will feature the Eighth Symphony, possibly the least familiar of the canonical nine symphonies (Oct. 22 and 23 in Stewart Auditorium). Sharing the same chamber orchestral program is a symphony by Anton Reicha, a contemporary and friend of Beethoven. An adventurous and experimental composer for his times, Reicha is little known today, but his work serves to fill in the context in which Beethoven worked.
The major work on the November mainstage concert (Nov. 19) will be Dvořák’s Symphony No. 8 in G major, a cheerful and upbeat piece that was written shortly before the composer’s 1892–93 visit to the United States. It will be preceded by three works that reflect the native American experience: Overture to the choral-orchestral Song of Hiawatha by the black British composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor; American composer Michael Daugherty’s Trail of Tears for flute, strings and harp, inspired by the forced removal of Cherokees from their homeland; and Chokfi’ (Rabbit) for strings and percussion by Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate, a composer who is a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation in Oklahoma. Flute soloist for Trail of Tears will be Brice Smith.
The LSO will celebrate the Holidays with a complete performance of Handel’s Messiah (Dec. 17), followed by an audience-participation truncated Messiah “singalong.”
The new year begins with a family concert (“Painting the Orchestra,” Jan. 21, 2023), followed by an all-Sibelius program (Feb. 18, 2023). Sibelius is generally under-represented in orchestra repertoire now, so it’s good to have a complete concert of his music, even if the program sticks to his more familiar works—Finlandia, the Violin Concerto with soloist Judith Ingolfsson, and the Symphony No. 2 in D major.
March 18 and 19 will see the second concert of the “Made in America” series, opening with Alcancías (Penny banks) for chamber orchestra by the 20th-century Mexican composer Silvestre Revueltas. Jason Shafer, principal clarinet with the Colorado Symphony and a previous soloist with the LSO, returns to play Copland’s Clarinet Concerto. Completing the program are Gershwin’s Lullaby and Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin, written for piano as a tribute to the Baroque composer François Couperin and later transcribed for orchestra.
The season’s second world premiere will be the Symphony No. 3 by pianist/composer and CU, Boulder, alumnus Tyler Harrison. It will be paired with Tchaikovsky’s brooding Symphony No. 6, “Pathétique,” in a program titled “Darkness and Light” (April 15).
The 2022–23 concert season wraps up May 6 with a lighter program, “LSO Goes to the Movies,” featuring music by John Williams, Ennio Morricone and Hans Zimmer. Subscriptions are available through the LSO Web page. Tickets to individual concerts will go on sale Friday, July 29.
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2022–23 Concert Season Longmont Symphony Orhestra
“The Great Return” Elliot Moore, conductor, with Clancy Newman, cello
Copland: Fanfare for the Common Man
George Walker: Lyric For Strings
John Hennecken: Symphony for the Great Return (World premiere)
Concerts June 3–5 feature new work by Theofanidis and Pizzetti’s 1922 Requiem
By Peter Alexander May 23 at 9:12 p.m.
Guitarist and CU music professor Nicolò Spera was shocked by things going on the U.S. after the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. He wanted to respond in the best way he knew—with music.
The musical work that came from that desire, Door Out of the Fire by Pulitzer Prize-winning American composer Christopher Theofanidis, will be the centerpiece of a concert by Boulder’s Ars Nova Singers, under the direction of Thomas Edward Morgan. The Ars Nova performance will be the Colorado premiere, following a performance by Spera in Michigan in October, 2021.
Also on the program is the Requiem of Italian composer Ildebrando Pizzetti. Performances will be June 3, 4 and 5, in Denver, Boulder and Longmont, respectively (see details below). In addition to the live performances, the concert will also be available by livestream. Information and tickets for the concerts, which close out Ars Nova’s 2021–22 season, are available here.
After Ginsburg’s death, “I wanted a composer to write some ‘postcards to the future,’ in music,” Spera wrote in a recent email. He turned to Theofanidis, who had recently written an orchestral work, On the Bridge of the Eternal, for the 2020 centennial of the CU Boulder College of Music.
Writing for and with Spera, Theofanidis composed four choral “messages in a bottle” based on poems by Melissa Studdard. Each of the four choral settings is preceded by a prelude for guitar.
The texts reflect some of the major issues of our time, including the threat posed by climate change. They are titled “Burning Cathedral,” “The Book of Rahul,” “Ruth’s Aria”—to be sung by CU music faculty member Abigail Nims, mezzo soprano—and “Migration Patterns.” The work is dedicated to “le nostre speranze”—our hopes—Spera’s children, Julia and Giacomo.
Pizzetti’s Requiem will be presented in observance of the 100th anniversary of its composition. The Requiem, Pizzetti’s only liturgical music, is written for a-capella choir. The musical setting includes Gregorian chant as well as movements that recall Renaissance madrigals. The texture varies from single-line chant to eight voices to multiple choirs in the manner of 17th-century Venetian polychoral music.
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Made Real Ars Nova Singers, Thomas Edward Morgan, director With Nicolò Spera, guitar, and Abigail Nims, mezzo-soprano
Christopher Theofanidis: Door Out of the Fire
Ildebrando Pizzetti: Requiem
7:30 p.m. Friday, June 3 St. Paul Community of Faith, Denver
7:30 p.m. Saturday, June 4 First United Methodist Church, Boulder
7 p.m. Sunday, June 5 Stewart Auditorium, Longmont Museum
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.
“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.
“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.
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.”
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
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.
Richard O’Neill of the Takacs Quartet will play Walton Concerto Saturday
By Peter Alexander May 12 at 1:20 p.m.
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.
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
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.”
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?
“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.”
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
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).
“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.
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!”
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.
“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
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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“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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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!”
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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