Santa Fe Opera premieres remarkable, powerful opera about Steve Jobs

‘Total work of art’ from composer Mason Bates and librettist Mark Campbell

By Peter Alexander

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Santa Fe Opera; The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs. Photo by Ken Howard.

The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, premiered July 22 by the Santa Fe Opera and performed last Friday (Aug. 4), is a remarkable first opera by the composer and electronic DJ Mason Bates.

Equally remarkable are the high-tech and musical resources that the Santa Fe Opera assembled for the production, which is eloquent testimony to the company’s unmatched commitment to new opera. I have no doubt that this work will be high on the list of important premieres in the SFO’s history, both for the quality of the work and for the excellence of its execution.

The opera itself and Santa Fe’s production in particular represent an impressive monument to the marriage of arts and technology. Performances feature an extensive sound design that blends lightly amplified voices, guitar and other naturally produced sound with electronics into an overall sound scheme, and a scenic design using projections on a series of movable screens that seamlessly transport the locale from the Jobs family’s famous garage to the Apple boardroom to Yosemite National Park.

The result is a powerful work that immerses the viewer in an artistic and emotionally charged sensory experience that is in some ways more than a performance. It is a 21st-century Gesamtkunstwerk (“total work of art,” Wagner’s term for his own works) and a definitive statement of what can be accomplished in theaters today. And it suggests what might be achieved in the future.

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The real Steve Jobs

One of the most performed composers in the United States today, Bates lives and works at the intersection of art and technology. This made him an ideal choice to write an opera about Steve Jobs, who once said “I think our major contribution was in bringing a liberal arts point of view to the use of computers.” It was Bates who suggested Jobs as the subject of his commission from the Santa Fe Opera, which was then completed with librettist Mark Campbell.

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Garrett Sorenson as Woz and Edward Parks as Steve Jobs in the famous garage. Photo by Ken Howard for the Santa Fe Opera.

One problem that Campbell and Bates confronted was the absence of obvious opera-worthy drama in Jobs’s life. Product design and the distribution of corporate stocks are not usually operatic. In a way, The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs unfolds as a series of powerful character portrayals, of Jobs himself, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, Jobs’ early girlfriend Chrisann Brennan, the Zen monk Kōbun Chino Otogawa, and Jobs’ wife Laurene Powell Jobs.

But Campbell and Bates also found ways to build an effective dramatic arc of rising tension, punctuated with humor and quieter lyrical moments. A single act of 90 minutes is arrayed in 18 scenes plus a prologue and epilogue. Many iconic scenes from Jobs’ life are included: the development of the first Apple, his attraction to Zen Buddhism, his initial denial of his paternity of his daughter Lisa, and others.

Recognizing that Jobs was a showman and his product announcements were very theatrical, Campbell placed the first scene at the greatest of these, the 2007 unveiling of Apple’s transformative “one device,” the iPhone. This pulls the audience in from the first, launching the opera directly into the story of a man we remember and a product that has profoundly touched our lives.

The remaining events are carefully arranged not in chronological order, but in a taut dramatic structure with a powerful emotional climax near the end. Borrowing the Japanese concept of ensō, the hand-drawn circle that represents enlightenment and the minimalist aesthetic that Jobs embraced, the libretto often circles back to earlier scenes, reinforcing the most important events while creating a kind of musical structure.

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Sasha Cooke as Laurene and Edward Parks as Steve Jobs at the opera’s emotional climax. Photo by Ken Howard.

The most dramatic moments—Jobs’s denial of paternity of his daughter Lisa, his brutal abuse of employees and his departure from Apple in 1985—are placed together about two-thirds of the way through. This forms the opera’s climactic scene, and in a perfectly constructed pattern of tension and release, it is immediately followed by a return to 2007 and the opera’s emotional core, when Laurene forces Jobs to face his own mortality.

The opera ends with gestures of symmetry. In the final scene at Jobs’ memorial service, Laurene recalls the first scene and the iPhone launch when she sings “The very second this is over, for better or worse, everyone will reach in their pockets or purses and . . . look at their ‘one device’.” Completing the symmetry, the epilogue briefly recapitulates the prologue, when Paul Jobs gives his young son a work bench as ”a fine place to start.”

Bates expertly combines the acoustic orchestra and electronics, as in his previous works. He creates a different sound world for the different characters: guitar and electronica for Steve Jobs, flute and Tibetan bowls for Kōbun, strings for Laurene Jobs. These are arrayed skillfully, and the build-up of sound in the climactic scenes integrates well with the visual electronics and the rising dramatic arc.

The vocal part are never less than serviceable, and they get better as the opera goes along. The distribution of the voice parts and the strategic placement of songs for the individual singers adds to the characterizations. The songs, or arias if one prefers, emerge comfortably from the musical fabric, and they are all expressive. Jobs’ “Something we play,” Kōbun’s “Take one step,” and Laurene’s passionate “”When will you let in the truth?” stand out in my memory, but there were other equally enjoyable numbers.

Jobs has to carry the opera: he is on stage almost every minute, and the opera largely takes place within his mind. In Edward Parks Santa Fe Opera has a singer who has a solid baritone voice and looks enough like the later Steve Jobs to satisfy audiences who remember him—tall, bearded, balding, and of course wearing a black turtleneck.

Parks’s movements, gestures and poses accurately captured what we remember from Jobs’ photos and public appearances. He was strong enough to dominate scenes vocally and physically when required, but he was able to turn softer at the end. His successful performance was one ingredient the opera could not survive without.

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Jobs (Parks) and Chrisann (Jessica E. Jones) in the apple orchard. Photo by Ken Howard.

As the women in Steve Jobs’s life, Sasha Cooke as Laurene Powell Jobs and Jessica E. Jones as Chrisann Brennan sang well and were effective character actors. In her several scenes, Cooke found just the right level of dignity, loving compassion, and flirtatiousness when she first meets Steve. Jones was pert and funny when she and Steve took LSD in an apple orchard, and she was even better when she faced Steve Jobs’s final rejection, going from wounded and needy to crushed and defiant

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Jobs (Parks) and Kobun (Wei Wu). Photo by Ken Howard.

Wei Wu, a 2013 University of Colorado graduate whose blossoming career has taken him to major opera companies around the world, sang with a deep resonant bass as Kōbun. In a role filled with both wisdom and wry humor, he captured the changing nuances perfectly. Garrett Sorenson brought a soaring, resonant tenor and some passion at the climactic moments to the relatively small but essential role of Wozniak. Kelly Markgraf as Paul Jobs and Mariya Kaganskaya as a calligraphy teacher made solid contributions.

Michael Christie, well known in Boulder as the music director of the Colorado Music Festival for 13 years, held the ensemble expertly together. There is a lot to manage, and he seemed in control every minute, managing the flow of the complex score and getting the big moments right where they should be. The chorus under the direction of Susanne Sheston sang Bates’s complex music with precision.

The previously praised sound design by Rick Jacobsohn and Brian Loach was expertly done and always well balanced. Opera singers generally hate amplification of voices, but here it is part of an overall electronic concept, and it was subtle enough that I often could not hear that the singers were amplified.

Victoria “Vita” Tzykun’s scenic design and the projections from the London and New York-based international firm 59 Productions created an appropriately high-tech feel along with the various sites of the story. It is probably the highest praise to say that the costumes of Paul Carey and direction of Kevin Newbury fit the familiar times so well as to be almost unnoticeable: everything looked exactly right.

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Edward Parks as Steve Jobs. Photo by Ken Howard for the Santa Fe Opera.

There are still four performances of The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs to come in Santa Fe, including one Aug. 22 that was added to the schedule due to demand and that has the most seats available; click here for ticket information. The last Santa Fe performance is Aug. 25. The opera will later be presented by co-commissioners the Seattle Opera, the San Francisco Opera, and the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music.

 

Three musical triumphs at the Santa Fe Opera

Productions of Lucia, Alcina and Golden Cockerel offer musical treasures

By Peter Alexander

The Santa Fe Opera 2017 season, which continues through Aug. 26, offers three productions of remarkable musical accomplishment.

The stagings, however, are less consistently successful, ranging from one that is brilliant in conception and execution to another that is bafflingly undramatic. The operas are Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, Handel’s Alcina, and Rimsky-Korsakov’s infrequently performed masterpiece, The Golden Cockerel, all of which I saw the week of July 31.

The world premiere production of The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs by Mason Bates, performed Aug. 4, will be reviewed separately.

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Soprano Brenda Rae as Lucia. Photo by Ken Howard for the Santa Fe Opera.

Brenda Rae, singing the title role of Lucia di Lammermoor Aug. 31, gave a virtual master class in bel canto singing. She sang with uncommon control and purity of sound, achieving an unimpeachable evenness of line across all registers and levels of volume. Every note was part of a phrase. The coloratura was thrilling, even at pianissimo.

Agility, lyricism, range, expression—the whole package was present. Her portrayal of Lucia’s descent into madness was particularly effective, making the famous mad scene not a stand-alone show-piece, but as it should be the culmination of Lucia’s dramatic arc.

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Brenda Rae and Mario Chang. Photo by Ken Howard.

Rae was well supported by the rest of a remarkably strong cast. Mario Chang was vocally superb as Edgardo, matching Lucia with a strong, resonant tenor. His arias were deeply expressive and he paired well with Lucia in their duets.

As Lucia’s brother, Enrico Ashton, Zachary Nelson had a strong, weighty and when, necessary, malevolent baritone. The intensity of his increasing demands for Lucia to sacrifice herself for his honor ratcheted the dramatic tension effectively. With voice and presence, he was as villainous as the story requires.

As the chaplain Raimondo, Christian Van Horn’s powerful bass commanded the stage when he announced the discovery of the bridegroom’s lifeless body and Lucia’s madness. His character is ambivalent, first defending Lucia, then advising her to accept her destiny, and he was equally resolute in these changing declarations.

Stephen Martin was effective as the scheming Normanno, as was Carlos Santelli in the small and thankless role of Lucia’s doomed bridegroom. Sarah Coit was everything that is needed for the standard role of the soprano’s confidante.

Corrado Rovaris and the outstanding Santa Fe Opera orchestra provided strong support for the cast. One member of the orchestra deserves extra mention: Friedrich Heinrich Kern played the glass harmonica, a welcome and spooky return to the original orchestration of the mad scene, instead of the more usual flute. Kern, who works and teaches composition in New York, was hired for the summer specifically to play the glass harmonica part in Lucia—an example of the SFO’s uncompromising commitment.

I have less to say about the production, which was minimal to the point of emptiness. Designer Riccardo Hernandez created a high-walled reflective box that is supposed to represent the increasingly cramped realm in which Lucia is caught as her fate closes in on her. The barest minimum of furniture is employed, while lighting projections by Peter Nigrini represented changing locales, from forest to hall.

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Opera in a box: Scene 1 of Santa Fe’s Lucia. Photo by Ken Howard.

This might have impact if everything else was meaningful, but alas it was not. Stage director Ron Daniels often seemed to leave the singers to fend for themselves on an empty stage, with varying degrees of effectiveness. Due to space limitations in the box, the chorus often could do little more than stand in a row and sing.

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Lucia at the “fountain.” Photo by Ken Howard.

Among other infelicities, when a fountain is called for in the second act, what appeared to be a large plastic Petrie dish with a few inches of water rose noisily from below stage. The stairs that Lucia must descend for her mad scene appeared and disappeared for no evident reason. In the final scene, the chorus that reveals Lucia’s death to Edgardo was arrayed in a single curving row far above the stage, looking like judges assembled to condemn the solitary miscreant below. Doors opened and closed noisily, to the detriment of music and drama. Contradicting the force of the musical performance, none of this added up to drama.

But bel canto opera is first of all about the music, and in that regard this was a Lucia to remember.

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The production of Handel’s Alcina (which I saw Aug. 2) is highly entertaining, sometimes distracting, clever, campy, over the top and musically superb. Director David Alden, known for his politically charged, updated interpretations, has placed Alcina in the 1950s.

Clearly the era was a great source of inspiration. In Handel’s original, Ruggiero is the latest sexual slave held captive on a magical island by the sorceress Alcina, whose previous lovers have been changed to wild beasts and stones. In Adlen’s Alcina, Ruggiero has snuck into an abandoned movie theater in order to imagine Alcina as an ideal woman and seductress.

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Elza van den Heever, Jacquelyn Stucker and Anna Christy in Santa Fe’s campy, entertaining Alcina. Photo by Ken Howard.

Without that information, found in the program book, I’m not sure what the audience would make of the production—people in movie-usher uniforms who change into gorilla suits, a brownie flash camera, vaudeville acrobats with animal masks who tumble on and off stage, and at the end, a smaller-than-life model of a perfect little suburban neighborhood symbolizing Ruggiero’s return to sanity.

The clarity of the foundational symbolism aside, the performance was marked by great energy and commitment from all performers. Alden asks a lot of the singers—to sing with a cigarette between clenched teeth, while hopping about the stage, while being lifted and carried by the acrobats, while being wheeled about the stage on a dissecting cart—which the cast undertook with cheerful enthusiasm.

In his day Handel wrote for entertainment, and so it is a form of authenticity to make Handel’s operas entertaining for modern audiences. For this purpose Alden has many wonderful ideas—sometimes too many ideas. At times the constant activity upstages the  singers and subverts the Baroque ideal of placing attention on vocal prowess.

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Daniela Mack as Bradamante in the safe, sane world of ’50s suburbia, at the end of Alcina. Photo by Ken Howard.

Nonetheless, there were moments of great beauty and emotional impact, and it is telling that the greatest of these came when there was only a single singer onstage with no hijinks to upstage the music. And it certainly does not hurt that just about the entire cast sang beautifully, handling the Baroque style with aplomb.

It seems unfair to single out any individual from the strong cast. As the enchanted Ruggiero, Paula Murrihy sang with a clean, clear voice that was meltingly beautiful in her arias. Daniela Mack did a fierce and brilliant rage aria as Bradamante/Ricciardo. As her tutor Melisso, Christian Van Horn sang with a full rich bass and commanding expression.

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Anna Christy romps as Bradamante in Alcina. Photo by Ken Howard.

Anna Christy, known to Colorado audiences for her Lucia with Opera Colorado and Baby Doe with Central City Opera, was a bright, saucy and fully engaging Morgana, a role with great comic potential that she grasped with glee. Alek Schrader was her equal as Oronte, conveying in action and voice his changing moods alternately in love with and furious with Morgana.

In the title role, Elza van den Heever was a convincing enchantress, pink glove and all. She sang with careful control, a beautiful pianissimo and long, expressive lines, in spite of occasional discomfort with the Handelian ornamentation.

Harry Bicket, Santa Fe Opera’s chief conductor, led a stylish modern-instrument performance. Gideon Davey’s scene and costume design and Beate Vollack’s choreography supported Alden’s interpretation effectively.

Some purists will be uncomfortable with the transformation of Alcina into a semi-modern parable, and the frenetic activity behind some of the scenes. A few sexual suggestions are in questionable taste. But I found it almost entirely a delightful entertainment, first-rate musically and wonderfully provocative.

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If you have only one opera to see in Santa Fe, do not miss Rimsky-Korsakov’s gorgeous fairy-tale opera The Golden Cockerel. Scarcely known in the U.S., the opera was more than redeemed by the SFO’s brilliant production. Director Paul Curran took full advantage of the satirical aspects of the plot, creating a production that is magical, laugh-out-loud funny, and touching.

This is one of Rimsky’s most brilliant scores, full of bright colors and lush orchestration. In spite of the satirical elements, there are moments of serene beauty, as when the buffoonish Tsar Dodon is sleeping. Conductor Emmanuel Villaume led an unrushed, luxurious performance by the excellent SFO orchestra and cast. I cannot imagine a better realized, musically beautiful, or satisfying performance than I heard (Aug. 3).

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Golden Cockerel. Photo by Ken Howard.

Equally noteworthy are the ingenious scene design and colorful costumes of Gary McCann. The costumes are spectacularly beautiful recreations of authentic Russian clothing of the early 20th century. The set—a stark reflective metal spiral—was enhanced with inventive projections by Driscoll Otto and the lighting design of Paul Hackenmueller.

The opera is a double satire of the vanity and foolishness of dynastic rulers. It was first a satire of Tsar Nicholas I, known for his endless wars against Russia’s neighbors, in the form of a poem by Pushkin written in 1834. Rimsky took Pushkin’s story and made it into a satire of Nicholas II and the disastrous Russo-Japanese War 71 years later. Unsurprisingly, the Tsarist censors of 1905 forbade performances of The Golden Cockerel. Rimsky refused to make changes, and died 3 years later without ever seeing it performed.

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General Polkan (Kevin Burdette) leads Tsar Dodon (Tim Mix) gloriously to battle in The Golden Cockerel. Photo by Ken Howard.

The cast again is superb. Tim Mix did a great comic turn as the bumbling Tsar Dodon. Not only did he sing strongly, he conveyed Dodon’s pompous self-regard with every step and gesture. His wide-eyed infatuation with the Queen of Shemakha in the second act was comedy gold—and who could forget his mock-heroic exit to battle, backwards on a large hobby horse?

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The Queen of Shemakha (Venera Gimadieva) leads the wide-eyed Tsar Dodon (Tim Mix) by the beard. Photo by Ken Howard.

The second act belongs to the Queen of Shemakha, 45 minutes of glittering coloratura and high-soprano showmanship. Venera Gimadieva sang with mastery of her part. In her best moments her capricious taunting of Dodon was fearsome, although she occasionally seemed too casual in her demeanor for the flirty, haughty queen.

The other roles large and small were more than capably covered. Barry Banks brought a penetrating tenor voice to the difficult role of the Astrologer who sets the story in motion, singing with impressive control of the daunting heights demanded by the role. Meredith Arwady was a deserving audience favorite as Dodon’s ebullient housekeeper Amelfa. Kasia Borowiec sang brightly in the small, repetitive but critical role of the Cockerel. And certainly not least, Kevin Burdette was wonderful, vocally and dramatically, as General Polkan, Dodon’s unfortunate general whose severed head is handed around at the opera’s climax.

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Meredith Arwady as Amelfa in The Golden Cockerel. Photo by Ken Howard,

Like everything else in the opera, the severed head is only an illusion. In the brief epilogue, the astrologer comes back to life—after being summarily dispatched by Dodon—to assure the audience that only he and the queen are real. Everything else has been conjured—and magically realized on the Santa Fe Opera stage.

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All three operas reviewed here have performances left, ending with Lucia di Lammermoor on Aug. 26. For dates of performances, visit the Santa Fe Opera 2017 calendar. Ticket information and pries can be seen here.

Central City offers splendid mainstage productions of ‘Così fan tutte’ and ‘Carmen’

By Peter Alexander

The 2017 season of the Central City Opera (CCO) is well launched, with two splendid productions in the main theater: a musically solid and entertaining production of Bizet’s Carmen and a revelatory production of Mozart’s Così fan tutte.

Carmen opened the season July 8 and continues through Aug. 6. Using sets stored since CCO’s 2011 season, it had an all-new cast and director. Carmen is a tricky show to pull off on Central City’s small stage. The act set in Lillas Pastia’s tavern works well, but the other three force compromises that are not always effective, including an awkward ballet in place of the bullfighters’ parade in the final act.

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Matthew Plenk (Ferrando), Hailey Clark (Fiordiligi) and David Adam Moore (Guglielmo). Photo by Amanda Tipton, courtesy of Central City Opera.

Opening last Saturday, July 15, and continuing through Aug. 4, the production of Così fan tutte takes its cue from the opera’s subtitle: the school for lovers. By placing it in a Victorian-era boarding school, the production appropriately brings out the youth and inexperience of the lovers; it creates wonderful opportunities for humor, and it appeals to the Victorian vogue stoked by Downton Abbey.

In this context, Don Alfonso is a fusty professor teaching a needful lesson. Despina is a “house-mistress” whose cynicism comes from years of exasperation with the follies of adolescents. And the four lovers, described in the program as “students” who are “dating,” are clearly in the throes of self-dramatizing first love.

This setting fits Così perfectly. The Central City cast conveyed this interpretation wonderfully.

Read more in Boulder Weekly.

 

 

Beethoven’s monumental 9th Symphony enjoys a mid-season triumph at CMF

Zeitouni, orchestra, chorus and soloists deliver an immaculate performance

By Peter Alexander

Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is a piece burdened with so much projected significance that it is difficult to hear it just as a piece of music.

Unquestionably a great symphony, it has also become the preferred piece for any major occasion. It has been played for memorials of all kinds, for the reopening of Germany’s Bayreuth Festival after World War II, as the European anthem, for the demolition of the Berlin Wall, to mark the millennium, for Olympic ceremonies and presidential inaugurations, for orchestras opening or closing anniversary seasons, and just this year for the meeting of the G-20 in Hamburg, Germany.

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Jean-Marie Zeitouni

In that context, it was surprising and a bit refreshing that Jean-Marie Zeitouni programmed the Ninth not as the opening or closing gesture of the Colorado Music Festival’s 40th anniversary season, but right the middle of the summer, as if it were just another piece on the program. I believe that is a good thing: it is a better piece when taken off its pedestal and heard as a great artistic product instead of a weighty political or social statement.

I suspect that was Zeitouni’s intention. “I thought, let’s put it right in the middle,” he says. “It’s a way to connect with the people and to offer something familiar.”

However familiar it is, Zeitouni tries to approach the symphony anew each time he conducts it. “Each time I buy a brand new score, I get rid of all the markings that I have and I start fresh,” he says. “And each time I find something new, something I haven’t seen before.”

Whatever Zeitouni has found new, last night’s performance at Chautauqua Auditorium (July 13) more than justified his thinking. He and the CMF Festival Orchestra, joined by the St. Martin’s Festival Singers and an outstanding quartet of soloists delivered an immaculate performance of the Ninth Symphony, from the portentous opening haze of the first movement to the triumphant “Ode to Joy” Finale.

Among the strengths of the performance were the clarity and transparency of the orchestra throughout, a result of well controlled intonation and balance. Zeitouni’s management of the volume and pacing of the performance were remarkable. One of the most powerful moments was the return of the first movement’s primary theme. First heard as a whisper, it comes back with crashing D-minor chords that were, as they should be, the powerful culmination of all that came before. Without careful pacing and management of dynamics, that moment misfires.

The precipitous scherzo movement was marked by great economy of gesture from the conductor and absolute precision across all the tempo changes by the orchestra. The slow movement was deliciously warm, with Beethoven’s extended phrases, passages, whole paragraphs of music beautifully sustained.

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Soprano Mary Wilson

The finale, some of the most familiar music in the repertoire, was marked by many wonderful expressive touches, making the music as fresh to the listener as it must be for Zeitouni with a clean new score. The chorus, prepared by Timothy J. Krueger—who got deserved recognition at the end of the performance—was exceptional, with sopranos that really can sustain those high As that Beethoven cruelly asks for, and in tune.

The four solo parts are some of the most thankless roles in the repertoire, written with no mercy, but they were made as beautiful as possible by the quartet of soprano Mary Wilson, mezzo Michelle DeYoung, tenor Jason Baldwin, and bass Timothy Collins—a last-minute replacement for CU alumnus Keith Miller. Only Collins had a moment of unease, perhaps as the new guy in the quartet, but beyond that they all sang with great assurance, even with some very brisk and exhilarating tempos.

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Composer Betsy Jolas

The Symphony benefited from being played after a short opening portion of the concert, comprising two contrasting pieces: the American premiere of A Little Summer Suite by Betsy Jolas, and Mahler’s early Lieder eines Fahrenden Gesellen (Song of a wayfarer) with De Young as soloist.

Jolas’ Suite, with seven short movements in 12 minutes, reflects the atonal, atomistic style of the mid-20th century—not surprising for a composer born in 1926 and soon to turn 91. It is an assured score, but the summer she seems to be writing about struck me as a little bit sinister, with ominous clouds always on the horizon. The shifting moods were convincingly conveyed by the Festival Orchestra.

Great Performances at the Met: Tannhäuser

Michelle DeYoung as Venus in Wagner’s Tannhauser at the Met. Photo by Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera

DeYoung, a dramatic soprano with upcoming Wagnerian roles as Kundry in Parsifal, Fricka in Rheingold and Sieglinde and Die Walküre, sang Mahler’s songs with great dramatic import. If slightly overdone for early Mahler, it was nonetheless very effective, especially in the final two movements. Her expressiveness charmed the audience, while Zeitouni and the orchestra provided comfortable support.

The concert was sheer pleasure from beginning to end. I especially commend Zeitouni for allowing us to hear the Ninth as a great piece of music, fresh and powerful, but unburdened of any unnecessary weight.

The Ninth Symphony will be repeated at 6:30 p.m. tonight (July 14) on the CMF “Fresh Friday” series. Tickets from the Chautauqua Box Office.

“All-American” program at CMF is big, bold, brassy

Violinist Elina Vähälä scores with Corigliano’s “Red Violin” Concerto.

By Peter Alexander

Conductor Cristian Măcelaru likes loud, brassy climaxes, and last night (July 6) the Colorado Music Festival (CMF) Orchestra was able to deliver.

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CMF guest conductor Cristian Măcelaru

A guest artist at the CMF, Măcelaru led a program of American music—more or less, depending on how American you consider Dvořák’s “New World” Symphony. The concert was filled with big moments for the brass, resulting in a performance that was exciting, always dramatic, but sometimes over the line into a sound that was pushed and raw.

Măcelaru and the Festival Orchestra opened the concert with the Three Dance Episodes from On the Town by Leonard Bernstein. From the first note, the performance was bold, incisive and jazzy. In fact, the playing was so brash, so perfectly in character throughout that one might wish for more jazz-inflected American music from the orchestra.

Which, in fact ,the CMF offers later in the summer! The concert scheduled for July 30 is titled “Classically Jazz,” and will feature music by Aaron Copland, George Gershwin, Scott Joplin and more Bernstein, as well as jazz-influenced music by Kurt Weill and Darius Milhaud. Take my word: you will be sorry if you miss it!

Returning to last night’s concert, the Bernstein dances were great fun, but even here the loud climaxes seemed just overplayed. A more restrained, carefully blended sound would serve the music well.

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Elina Vähälä

After the Bernstein, the concert’s second guest artist, Finnish violinist Elina Vähälä, gave a passionate, committed performance of John Corigliano’s “Red Violin” Concerto, music taken from the 1998 film The Red Violin. Vähälä, Măcelaru and the orchestra seemed well matched to bring out the contrasting moods of the four movements.

The dramatic first movement suffered somewhat from Măcelaru’s high-volume style, which sometimes covered the violin, but the dramatic contrasts of sounds were effective. The second movement was all cinematic foreboding, a ghostly chasing of shadows by soloist and orchestra alike. The more lyrical third movement, the expressive soul of the concerto, elicited Vähälä’s most lovely playing. The finale seemed building toward a certain collapse, until a sudden moment of calm, beautifully conveyed by the CMF players, interrupted the manic forward motion.

After intermission, Măcelaru and the orchestra returned for one of the most popular works in the orchestra repertoire, and the first great work written in the United States: Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9 in E minor, known by the note that the composer casually jotted on the score, “From the New World.” The performance was very dramatic, and enjoyed by the audience, but I found it often too pushed in both tempo and volume. This was particularly true in the first and last movements: withholding the full impact of the brass until the true climax of each movement allows more of the inner voices and string parts to be heard along the way—the brass can cover just about everyone else—and gives that final climax more impact.

The inner movements were the most effective. In the slow movement, Măcelaru heightened the drama by bringing the softest passages down to a mere whisper of sound, wonderfully played by the orchestra. The woodwinds as a whole played this movement beautifully, especially the solos by the brooding English horn and the scampering oboe. The scherzo was about as fast as I would want to hear it, but never out of control. Here again the woodwinds acquitted themselves well, and the movement never flagged.

Whatever you think of Măcelaru’s interpretation, you cannot question the quality of the CMF players, nor of the performances they deliver from one week to the next. Măcelaru himself said it well from the podium: Boulder is fortunate to have such an ensemble in residence every summer.

Colorado Music Festival Opens 40th anniversary season with “Joy”

Pianist Olga Kern returns to the delight of a sold-out Chautauqua Auditorium

By Peter Alexander

The sign at the corner of the stage said “JOY,” a reference to the theme of the Colorado Music Festival’s 2017 40th-anniversary season: “Find Your Joy.”

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Olga Kern, pianist, photographed by Chris Lee at Steinway Hall

The joy was onstage in more ways than one last night (June 29). Music director Jean-Marie Zeitouni led the Festival Orchestra in their season-opening performance with an ebullience and infectious enjoyment I have not seen before. And there was joy in the audience as well, when the sold-out Chautauqua Auditorium crowd greeted pianist Olga Kern, a Boulder favorite since her 2013 festival performances.

Zeitouni began the concert with Shostakovich’s “Festive Overture,” a brilliant opener and, having been featured in the CMF”s 10th season, a nod the festival’s history at the same time. Never one to shy away from big effects, Zeitouni unleashed the Festival Orchestra brass in the opening fanfares, then took the following section at a breakneck pace that showed off the whole orchestra. From its rustling pianissimos to the thunderous climax, the “Festive Overture” was all that and more.

The apparently tireless Kern played two powerhouse Russian showpieces back-to-back, only taking enough time to catch her breath and change gowns between the Prokofiev First Concerto and the Rachmaninoff Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. (Soloists’ clothing is not the usual subject of this blog, but in this case Kern’s glittering choices were so eye-catching and perfectly a part of the opening-night vibe that they could only be admired.)

The Prokofiev Concerto is a muscular piece from the composer’s youth that gave Kern every opportunity to show off her strength and technique. She negotiated the mercurial changes of mood with precision, from the powerful chords of the opening, to the romping leaps and glittering passagework that came later, all played with relish and abandon. Only the lyrical solo passages seemed overly careful, perhaps suffering in comparison to the brilliance elsewhere in the concerto.

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CMS Music Director Jean-Marie Zeitouni

Zeitouni was not inclined to hold the orchestra back, so that at one climax one could see but not hear Kern’s exertions. Nonetheless, the effect was powerful and elicited cheers from the audience.

The Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, which Kern had played as part of her 2013 marathon performance of all the Rachmaninoff concertos in two nights, is a much loved piece. And calling for both power and delicacy, it is one that plays directly to Kern’s obvious strengths.

If anyone thought she was still recovering from the Prokofiev, Kern’s first robust octave entrance in the Rhapsody would have dispelled that notion. From there she went from strength to strength, bringing out all the virtuoso display of the kaleidoscopic variations.

I particularly liked the mysterious moods and emotional depths Kern found in the less showy variations. Everybody’s favorite variation, No. 18, was the essence of loveliness. After returning to a more steely interpretation, Kern ended it all with a delicacy and humor that brought first a chuckle, and then “bravas” from the audience.

Those who would like to hear more of Kern’s playing will have the opportunity at 7:30 p.m. Saturday (July 1) at Chautauqua, when she will play a solo recital of Russian and American music. Tickets are available from the Chautauqua box office.

Keeping to the Russian subject matter, Zeitouni and the Festival Orchestra ended the concert with Rachmaninoff’s lushly Romantic Symphony No. 2 in E minor. From the very first movement, Zeitouni’s interpretation emphasized the orchestra’s richness of sound, while bringing out brass section-passages and solos from the clarinet and other winds.

In the second movement, Zeitouni danced about the podium, beaming his pleasure to the players and bringing out all the exuberant energy of a Russian folk festival. In the third movement, he showed off the flexibility and responsiveness of the orchestra, and the finale was all happy hustle and bustle.

That the Festival Orchestra only occasionally showed signs of having assembled just two days before is a testament to the quality of players that come to Boulder and Chautauqua every summer. After some years of administrative uncertainty and change, last night’s outstanding concert was a reassuring sign that musically, the CMF is in good hands and going strong.

Boulder Phil ends remarkable season with a remarkable concert

CU faculty Charles Wetherbee and Nicolò Spera featured in world premiere

By Peter Alexander

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Michael Butterman and the Boulder Philharmonic

Last night the Boulder Philharmonic and conductor Michael Butterman ended a remarkable season with a remarkable concert, one of the most interesting they have done.

The mostly-Italian program included one of the most brilliant orchestral showpieces of all time, a world premiere, and several pieces that are rarely played. If you love making new discoveries, as I do,  this was a fun program.

First the world premiere—and the one non-Italian piece on the program: Invisible Cities, Double Concerto for violin, guitar strings and percussion by Stephen Goss. The composer is Welsh, although the concerto is based on the fascinating novel of the same title by the 20th-century Italian writer Italo Calvino. Soloists were Charles Wetherbee, violin and Nicolò Spera, guitar.

The novel imagines a series of conversations between Marco Polo and the Mongol Emperor Kublai Khan. In an intricate design, the novel has Polo describe 55 cities to the Emperor, all of which turn out to be facets of Venice, his home. Dispersed among the cities are a series of conversations, in which Polo and Kublai Khan are gradually able to communicate more clearly across their linguistic and cultural barriers.

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Stephen Goss

In a similarly intricate design, the concerto alternates between orchestrally accompanied movements representing cities and duos without orchestra representing the conversations. Particularly ingenious are the duos, which represent musically the growing accord between Polo and the Emperor through music of growing lyrical beauty.

The musical design is clever but not cryptic, and it is executed without ever seeming forced. The piece as a whole is accessible, expressively convincing and well constructed. This is a work of significance that should be taken up by other guitar-violin duos.

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Charles Wetherbee

The style is largely based in conventional gestures of contemporary orchestral music. If not original, the musical elements are used to good effect, as listeners can recognize and enter the expressive realm of each movement. Where the music is more imaginative, as in the interaction between the soloists, the creativity is never originality for originality’s sake; it always serves the expressive goals.

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Niccolò Spera

The soloists played with sweet expression together, and with greater intensity when required. Their sounds were well balanced, reflecting prior work together as a duo. At their best they rose to all the demands of Goss’s pleasing new work.

The two works preceding the concerto were undoubtedly new discoveries for most in the audience, and both were 20th-century pieces based on older music. The first was Stravinsky’s Monumentum pro Gesualdo, orchestral arrangements of uniquely strange and adventurous Renaissance madrigals by Carlo Gesualdo.

Stravinsky’s setting is strange in its own way, with discontinuous bits of harmonic and instrumental color shifting about the orchestra and managing to sound like both Gesualdo and Stravinsky. This score, nicely played last night, fits the Boulder Philharmonic and its outstanding individual players well.

That was followed by Luciano Berio’s Four Original Versions of Boccherini’s Return of the Nightwatch from Madrid. Sometimes an enfant terrible of modern music, Berio also wrote highly approachable scores built from older music, of which this is one.

Four different versions of a movement by the 18th-century Italian composer Boccherini are arranged for modern orchestra and layered on top of one another. At times they match perfectly, but at other times they do not, creating delicious and unexpected dissonances that pass quickly.

Depicting the approach and departure of the Nightwatch, the score culminates in a rousing setting of the tune, and then dissipates into silence. It was played with verve, as once again the individual contributions of the players fit well into the orchestral mosaic.

After intermission, Butterman and the orchestra gave an invigorating reading of Verdi’s Overture to Nabucco, with all the turns of mood well traversed and quite a bit of excitement for the explosive ending. Puccini’s Chrysanthemums, an ingratiating minor work, was played with expression, if not the plush, ermine-fringed sound one would like to hear.

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Ottorino Respighi

The concert ended with a sure bet, Respighi’s Pines of Rome, a piece guaranteed to rouse the audience from their seats. In the hands of the Boulder Phil, Respighi’s orchestra worked its magic: it shone when it should shine and sparkled when it should sparkle, the sudden contrasts were contrasting and the abrupt changes of scene were well delineated.

The winds deserve special recognition, from the brass flourishes in “The Pines of the Villa Borghese,” to the delicate woodwind solos of “The Pines of the Janiculum,” to the massive fanfares of “The Pines of the Appian Way.” Once again the Roman Legions advanced, a brass choir sounded from the balcony—although how effectively depended on where you were sitting—and Respighi brought the crowd to its feet.

You could not have a more rousing ending for a season.