Boulder Phil guest pianist/composer López-Gavilán elicits cheers and applause

Butterman flavors an intriguing program with fiery expression

By Peter Alexander Nov. 4 at 12:15 a.m.

Last night (Nov. 3), conductor Michael Butterman and the Boulder Philharmonic brought their audience a remarkable piece of music that is likely unlike anything they had heard before.

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Aldo López-Gavilán

The piece in question is Emporium: Concerto for Piano and Orchestra by the Cuban composer/pianist Aldo López-Gavilán. Butterman first heard Emporium on the radio and was captivated. His description of the piece as having bits and pieces of Philip Glass, Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” Prokofiev, and the Downton Abbey theme music, among other things, is both intriguing and apt.

As the title suggests, Emporium contains many things, all presented with a Cuban accent. With so much going on, it expands most listeners’ understanding of what a piano concerto might sound like. Last night it was performed by Phil with the composer as the engaging soloist.

The opening movement is dramatic and powerfully scored for both orchestra and piano. At one point I was thinking, ‘are we supposed to hear the piano?’ As the music built to a crashing climax, López-Gavilán, for all his obvious strength as a pianist, disappeared into the overall sound, only to emerge again as the music subsided toward a gentle close.

The impressionistic second movement blends, according to the composer’s notes, a Cuban revolutionary song with American country music as a symbol of peace between peoples. It is a beautiful, impressionistic movement and was beautifully played with lyrical exchanges between pianist and orchestra. The driven, exciting finale got an incisive performance from orchestra and soloist, and elicited raucous approval.

López-Gavilán is an exciting and energetic performer of stunning technical ability, and he is a composer of imagination. He returned to hold the audience spellbound with an astonishing, dense, intricately rhythmic encore that again was unlike anything you are I have likely heard. More cheers, whistles and shouts followed.

The concert opened with Ryan Alaniz, a 9-year-old 4th-grader, delighting the audience as guest conductor while the orchestra played “America the Beautiful.” The audience was invited to sing along, but no one in my section took up the invitation.

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Michael Butterman

Next was Astor Piazzolla’s Tangazo, a piece that Butterman likes to perform. It is one of the few pieces he has repeated with the Phil, but this time there was a twist: dancers Gustavo Naveira and Giselle Anne of the Boulder Tango Studio performed their own choreography in the narrow space between the orchestra and the edge of the stage.

Their performance was a free dance that responded to the changing moods and tempos of Piazzolla’s music. Like the score, the dance had tango elements throughout. I am not a dance critic, and I am not going to prove it by writing more, except that it was fun to see how artists from another medium responded to Piazzolla’s music. I and the rest of the audience enjoyed their dramatic flair.

After intermission, the orchestra performed Argentinian composer Alberto Ginastera’s Variaciones Concertantes. With each variation devoted to specific solo instruments, it gives the orchestra’s section leaders an opportunity to display their virtuoso skills.

From the opening soulful theme presented by harp and solo cello, through the sequence of variations for woodwinds, strings and brass soloists, the players responded to the challenge. Every solo dazzled. The final variation for full orchestra, set in the style of the high-voltage gaucho dance the malambo, was particularly dynamic.

The concert concluded with Ravel’s ubiquitous Bolèro. Everyone has heard this, in concert, in films and TV, in ice-skating competitions, and almost anywhere else music is used. The Phil’s performance provided what it is called for: a long, slow, carefully controlled crescendo, from the whisper of snare drum at the beginning until the sudden key change that is now so familiar it no longer surprises. Butterman and the players paced the performance nicely, never letting tempo or volume get out of control.

After the appropriately noisy conclusion, Butterman brought forward the snare drummer—who was stationed center stage throughout—for his own bow. After alternating two variations of the same one-measure rhythmic pattern for 15 minutes (or 16 or 17 depending on tempo), he deserved to be applauded.

The Boulder Philharmonic sounded as good last night as I have heard. The strings sound was smooth and warm and at times glossy. The winds played with precision and all the necessary flair in their solos. Butterman brought out the colors and the fiery expression of this intriguing program, which made for a fascinating and enjoyable evening.

CORRECTED Nov. 4 to add the name of the guest conductor, Ryan Alaniz.

Takacs Quartet starts the fall season with near perfect program, beautifully played.

Music by Mozart, Bartók and Dvořák will be repeated tonight

By Peter Alexander Sept. 9 at 1:05 a.m.

Last night (Sept. 8) the Takacs Quartet began the 2019–20 season of major classical music events in Boulder with a near-perfect program: three truly great pieces of music, of contrasting periods and styles, offering different demands to the performers.

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Takács Quartet. Photo by Amanda Tipton,

As mixed programs often do, it began with music from the classical period: Mozart’s String Quartet in C major K465, one of his greatest works. Known as the “Dissonance” Quartet from the chromatic harmonies of the slow introduction, it does not sound particularly dissonant to ears that have heard Wagner and Schoenberg—not to mention Berio and Boulez.

The Takacs took their cue for their interpretation from the cheerful and engaging music that comes after the slow introduction, which they played in a straightforward way. Where some performers prefer to wring all the drama and angst they can from the harmonies, the Takacs takes a more matter-of-fact approach that fits well with all the music that follows. This interpretation makes the quartet comfortably enjoyable, but it risks missing the real challenge that Mozart’s harmonies, extreme for their time, would have posed to his audiences.

Mozart was followed by the Fourth Quartet of Bartók, one of the great works of the early 20thcentury. So well does this work distill all of the core elements of Bartók’s style, it can (and has done) serve for a whole course on the composer. After a brief and witty spoken introduction by first violinist Ed Dusinberre, who outlined the key structural features of the quartet’s five movements, the Takacs players launched into a driven, compelling reading of the quartet.

This is music that requires great energy and rhythmic command, and the Takacs provided that in spades. Thematic relationships that bind the quartet and its symmetrical form together were clearly audible, not buried in the complex textures. The devilish fourth movement conveyed all the wit inherent in Bartók’s headlong, propulsive pizzicato, even if the players were momentarily revealed to be human, after all. The final movement delivered the wild party that Dusinberre promised, ending the quartet with a wonderful flourish straight out of the first movement.

The final piece on the program was Dvořák’s String Quartet in F major, op. 96, known as the “American” Quartet. Written during an idyllic summer in Spillville, Iowa, it one of the composer’s most delightful and perfect works. This is music that smiles.

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Spillville, Iowa, in 1893, the year of Dvořák’s visit.

As pure music it is thoroughly enjoyable, but for those who know the Spillville legends, the evocation of the open, empty spaces of the American prairie—which Dvořák found to be “sad unto despair”—in the second movement, the quotation of the Scarlet Tanager’s song in the third, and the sound of the organ that Dvořák played in church every morning during the summer in the final movement, the deep nostalgia of the music becomes all the more meaningful.

Once again the Takacs shifted gears to capture the melded American/Bohemian qualities of Dvořák’s most American work, a piece that revels in the countryside and displaced Bohemians Dvořák found in Iowa as well as his love for the countryside and people of his homeland. Written in the open air of the prairie, the music came from deep within Dvořák’s soul. The Takacs’ performance was exemplary.

In fact, it was a joy to hear the whole concert, from first note to last. The Takacs revealed the individuality and character of all three works.

The program will be repeated tonight at 7:30 p.m. in Grusin Music Hall. Limited tickets are available here.

Santa Fe Opera: the familiar, the unfamiliar, and a world premiere

Poul Ruder’s Thirteenth Child is “an opera of expressive breadth and depth”

By Peter Alexander Aug. 4 at 11:45 p.m.

Santa Fe Opera has five operas in production this summer, continuing through Aug. 24. Reviews of three of those productions—Puccini’s La bohème, Bizet’s Pearl Fishers and the world premiere of The Thirteenth Child by Poul Ruders—are below. Reviews of the remaining two productions will appear in a later blog post.

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Soloman Howard (Colline), Zachary Nelson (Marcello), Dale Travis (Benoit), Will Liverman (Schaunard), supernumerary, and Mario Chang (Rodolfo) in La Bohème. Photo by Ken Howard for the Santa Fe Opera.

La bohème, the most familiar of the operas on Santa Fe’s 2019 schedule, is certainly enjoyable. The firmly realistic set and production are mostly serviceable, if not spectacular, and the singers range from reliable to impressive. Conductor Jader Bignamini knows when to stretch the tempo and when to push ahead. If he sometimes took the faster bits a little too fast, the excellent orchestra stayed with him, responding well to every push and pull. Their performance was thoroughly idiomatic, always giving the lyric moments time to blossom.

My one criticism of Bignamini’s work is that he was not careful enough to maintain a good balance between stage and pit. He has conducted in Santa Fe before—Rigoletto in 2015—so he should know the theater’s acoustics, but he sometimes allowed the voices to be swallowed by the orchestra.

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Eliot Page as Parpignol with the Santa Fe Opera Chorus and Children’s Chorus. Photo by Ken Howard.

Scenic designer Grace Laubacher had mixed success adapting to the Santa Fe stage. Her garret, a stand-alone piece that was pushed on for the first act and that visibly cracked apart at Mimi’s death in the third act (symbolizing the emotional shattering of the remaining characters?), was effectively evocative of 19th-century Paris. The second act, using movable pieces that were miniature buildings from one side and flat semi-reflective surfaces on the other, were an uncomfortable solution for the streets outside the Café Momus, with the toymaker Parpignol popping above a multi-story building like Godzilla in Tokyo.

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Mario Chang (Rudolfo), Gabriella Reyes (Musetta), Vanesssa Vasques (Mimi) and Zachary Nelson (Marceloo) in Act III of La Bohème. Photo by Ken Howard.

Most successful was the third act. The minimal set pieces—the outside of the cafe, the city gate and a snow-covered tree—were all that was needed. The spare set contributed to the bleakness of the winter scene.

Mary Birnbaum’s direction was ideal for the highjnks of the four artists sharing the garret, capturing their camaraderie well. At other times, however, her ideas got in the way of the story. Having the characters pass downstage of the garret to reach its door proved distracting. Characters did not always seem to interact.

The visual pun of having Musetta enter on inline skates, suggesting how she glides through life and the streets of Paris, might work if the Musetta were comfortable on the skates, but soprano Gabriella Reyes seemed not to be as she careened from light post to light post, sometimes supported by waiters and street people. This was a gimmick too far, both wildly anachronistic and painful to watch.

I have still not puzzled out what was symbolized by having both Mimi and Musetta wander through the garret before their actual entrances in Act IV—perhaps that they are always with Rudolfo and Marcelo even when they aren’t?—nor Musetta’s obvious pregnancy in the same act.

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Vanessa Vasquez (Mimi) and Mario Chang (Rodolfo). Photo by Ken Howard.

As Mimi, soprano Vanessa Vasquez was a standout, bringing radiance and beauty to her voice in the early acts, and great expression when she is dying. If her coughing attacks seemed pasted into her interpretation, one cannot fault her vocal expression in the most poignant scenes. Her substantial voice soared easily, bloomed into striking moments of beauty, and became well controlled as she warmed into the role.

Mario Chang had some lovely, ringing high notes as Rodolfo. His voice shone in his duets with Mimi, but he was not consistent. Some entrances were a little rough, the occasional note hit too hard. Nevertheless, he was affecting throughout, and particularly through the Act III reconciliation duet with Mimi.

Zachary Nelson’s Marcello lacked passion. He sang pleasingly but seemed only intermittently engaged in the Act II and III quarrels with Musetta. The other Bohemians—Soloman Howard as Colline and Will Liverman as Schaunard—were solid and effective. Howard’s strong, robust voice could be more consistently controlled, but was used expressively for his “Overcoat” aria in Act IV. Schaunard’s jolly entrance in Act I, bearing money and food for his cold, starving garret-mates, was outstanding, bringing vocal warmth and good cheer to the stage.

I suggested earlier that Reyes as Musetta did not seem comfortable on skates. This must have affected her singing, which was a little cautious in Act II, but much stronger and more expressive in her fight with Marcello in Act III, and even when pregnant in Act IV. She was a solid Musetta who would be better without the skates.

Dale Travis hit all the conventional comic notes, first as the landlord Benoit in Act I and then as the hapless Alcindoro in Act II. Elliot Page was a clear-voiced Parpignol, offering his toys from above the doll houses of the miniature Paris.

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Loved by opera aficionados but little known to the broader public, Bizet’s Pearl Fishers is a worthy work by any standards. Written several years before the composer’s final work, Carmen, it is filled with glorious melodies, striking choruses and instrumental numbers that point ahead to that masterpiece.

Santa Fe Opera’s Pearl Fishers, a revival of a production first seen in 2012, brought all of those the musical strengths to the fore. Conductor Timothy Myers elicited beautiful playing from the orchestra while finding all the dramatic high points in the score. The woodwinds in particular were noteworthy, with extraordinary solos from clarinet, flutes and horns.

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Ilker Arcayürek (Nadir), Corinne Winters (Leila, veiled), Anthony Clark Evans (Zurga) with the Santa Fe Opera Chorus. Photo by Ken Howard for the Santa Fe Opera.

The choral scenes represent some of Bizet’s best music, anticipating the greats choruses of Carmen.They were powerfully sung, outlining the drama that sets the community of fisherfolk against the forbidden love between Leila, a priestess of Brahma, and Nadir, a hunter. Their liaison that interrupts Leila’s prayer vigil brings disaster on the village and leads to the opera’s dramatic, if unlikely, conclusion.

Pearl Fishers is one of those Romantic operas, along with such better known works as Madama Butterfly, Turandot  and Aida, whose treatment of “exotic” subjects is problematic today. Pearl Fishers is supposedly set in Ceylon, although the locale was originally Mexico and the opera belongs authentically to neither locale.

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Ceylon viewed through the frame of 19th-century Paris: Ilker Arcayürek (Nadir), Corinne Winters (Leila) and the Santa Fe Opera Chorus. Photo by Ken Howard.

Jean-Marc Puissant’s scenic design for the SFO stage deals with issues of cultural voyeurism in a creative way: the set features a massive picture frame, with everything beyond the frame representing a kind of generic “other” of stone temples and ruins, and everything in front representing the more specific milieu of 19th-century France. In other words, we see the setting through the frame of Bizet’s own time and place.

The stage direction of Shawna Lucey served the plot well. There were distancing elements of ritual that sometimes kept the chorus in front the frame, distracting from action farther upstage, but not to the point of interfering with the singers. She used the spaces onstage well, particularly in the scene when Leila and Nadir are discovered together inside the temple.

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Corinne Winteres (Leila). Photo by Ken Howard.

Soprano Corinne Winters was a radiant Leila, her singing secure and bright, carrying easily over the orchestra in all of her biggest moments. Her Act III duet with Anthony Clark Evans’s Zurga, the leader of the fishers who is Nadir’s rival for her love, is one of the high points of the opera and the season. The rising arc of dramatic intensity is perfectly controlled, leading to a shattering climax. Equally memorable was her Act I aria and prayer at the beginning of her vigil.

Ilker Arcayürek has a light and delicate high tenor voice that is ideal for Nadir, but he struggled with the highest notes, easing into them or reaching for the tops of phrases. He was ardent in his declarations of love and expressive in the most dramatic moments of the opera.

Evans was a solid and forthright Zurga who occupied his critical role well. The best known piece from the opera, his Act I duet with Nadir, “Au fond de temple saint,” was as rousing as called for. In other scenes he was a convincing village leader whose jealousy of Nadir momentarily overcomes his love for Leila and affection for Nadir.

As Nourabad the high priest, Robert Pomakov used his powerful bass voice to dominate the scenes where he denounces Leila and Nadir, and calls for their execution. Elsewhere the character is a cipher, although Pomakov was reliably able in the role.

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Danish composer Poul Ruders has written several operas on dark subjects—Kafka’s Trial, Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale and and Lars von Trier’s film Dancer in the Dark—but he wanted something different for his fifth opera. He turned to fairy tales, finding a little known story that fit his aim.

The Thirteenth Child, receiving its world premiere production at Santa Fe this summer, is based on a story by the brothers Grimm, and it takes Ruders in a different direction than those earlier works. The combination of fairy-tale magic, lightly comic moments and a happy ending have elicited a score marked with lyric elements, glowing, consonant orchestral interludes, generally light textures and one delightfully humorous male ensemble for the 12 older brothers of the title character.

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David Leigh (King Hjarne) and Tamara Mumford (Queen Gertrude). Photo by Ken Howard.

Ruders was able to draw on a reservoir of dark and threatening orchestral music when needed, but that vein, so evident in his earlier work, is leavened by the lyrical writing. As presented in Santa Fe, The Thirteenth Child is an accomplished and entertaining work, a fitting achievement for a composer who describes opera as “an emotional affair wrapped in show biz.”

Not all the vocal music is graceful, however. The jagged lines, wide leaps and extreme ranges characteristic of many newer operas are used for emotive passages. Hjarne, the King of Frohagord, is one of the lowest bass roles in the repertoire, and the part of Drokan, the fairy tale’s requisite evil element of the plot, also lies very low, with sudden leaps into falsetto—executed with varying success—to symbolize madness.

I thought the best music in Thirteenth Child surrounded the moments of fairy-tale magic, and the orchestral interludes that set the emotional temperature for the ups and downs of the plot. Human emotions, so often the heart of opera, struck me as less effectively conveyed, particularly the intense moments when Ruders resorted to wide-leaping vocal lines that are hard to distinguish one from another.

Conductor Paul Daniel had the orchestra well in hand, shaping dynamics carefully to reflect the moments of tension and create an effective emotional profile. All of Ruders’s shifting moods, in response to the twists of the plot, were well delineated.

Alexander Dodge’s interesting unit set serves the opera well. The blank walls are used for engaging projections by Aaron Rhyme, including snakes when Drokan is plotting, ravens when the 12 brothers are turned to birds, and red flowers for the magical lilies that protect the kingdom of Frohagord. Other, less specific projections add sparkling beauty to several scenes.

The costumes by Rita Ryack are cinematic medieval on steroids—too much had the opera been realistic but just colorful and flamboyant enough for a fairy tale. My favorite visual effect was Hjarne’s funeral, with black-robed characters—nuns and monks?—with white collars and bright red spears held vertically. This is the best kind of spectacle.

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Bradley Galvin (Drokan) with elaborate projections. Photo by Ken Howard.

As Hjarne, David Leigh has the shortest time on stage—just the first scene—but his deep bass, clearly heard except for the very lowest notes, was solid and effective. He managed his leaps into falsetto and madness well, providing motivation for all that follows.

Hjarne is driven to obsession by Drokan, the truly evil element of the plot. As portrayed by Bradley Garvin, Drokan was the personification of scheming villainy, hoping to overturn Hjarne’s family, marry his daughter—the thirteenth child of the title—and rule Frohagord. He conveyed Drokan’s dark role in the plot through vocal timbre, ranging from subtle suggestions of evil to overt threat. So effective was he in the role that there was a smattering of applause at his demise.

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Jessica Jones (Lyra). Photo by Ken Howard.

Tamara Mumford lent her rich, warm mezzo-soprano sound to Queen Gertrude, who is a guiding spirit to the story before and after her death. Critical to the first half of the opera, she was a steady presence dramatically and vocally outstanding. The spectral echoes and playback loops of her singing as a spirit are pretty conventional film and TV ghost effects, but reasonably effective in context.

As Lyra, the thirteenth child and heir of Hjarne, Jessica E. Jones was everything  a fairy tale asks a princess to be: winsome, lovely and brave. Her bright and clear voice only complemented the portrayal.

Joshua Dennis as Frederic, who searched for Lyra for seven long years, successfully negotiated the leaps and twists of his challenging part, especially in his lengthy narration of his search. Apprentice artist Bille Bruley was appropriately sympathetic as Benjamin, the youngest of the 12 brothers. His voice was strong, and his diction unusually clear.

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Jessica Jones (Lyra) and Bille Bruley (the dying Benjamin). Photo by Ken Howard.

Benjamin’s heroic death is the only real tragedy of the fairy tale, but it sets up the moral that is told at the end: “No joy without sorrow. . . . Dark days always come, in love we find the light.” This message has inspired Ruders to write an opera of expressive breadth and depth, one that I look forward to seeing and hearing again.

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Santa Fe Opera. Photo by Robert Goodwin.

Tickets for the remaining performances in Santa Fe can be purchased through the calendar on the Santa Fe Opera Web page.

NOTE: This story was corrected 8.7.19. The Thirteenth Child is Poul Ruder’s fifth opera, not his sixth.

CMF ends 2019 with spectacular performance

Sold out Chautauqua Auditorium cheers orchestra, conductor, choirs and soloist

By Peter Alexander Aug. 4 at 12:23 a.m.

The Colorado Music Festival ended its 2019 season in spectacular fashion last night (Aug. 3).

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Peter Oundjian

Music Director Peter Oundjian led the Festival Orchestra in a wonderful performance of a wonderful symphony, Mahler’s Symphony No. 3 for large orchestra, alto soloist, women’s chorus and children’s chorus. At the end of this very long work—about 100 minutes of music—the sold-out Chautauqua Auditorium was cheering, and no doubt already looking forward to Oundjian’s next season with the festival.

Many factors made this a splendid performance, but two in particular should be mentioned. The first was Oundjian’s management of the sprawling work. His control of sound and dynamics across long stretches of music gave impact to every climax of orchestral sound—and there are many. The performance was more than a series of splendid moments—though it could also be heard that way. More than that, it was a whole, each phrase driving to a destination and the whole driving to the end.

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Peter Oundjian. Photo by Sian Richards.

In particular, Oundjian and the players maintained near perfect balance among the parts across long crescendos, so that the orchestra swelled and subsided, bloomed and retracted as one. This is a specially great achievement since so many phrases started from near silence, with remarkably controlled pianissimo phrases that grew over long, long spans of time.

Particularly in the final movement, a long slow movement, he kept careful control as the sound grew to a high point, then fell back to near silence, ascended to an even higher point and fell back again, all with the goal of making the final cadence, with timpani pounding and brass sustaining almost to the point of collapse, the true destination and end point of the entire symphony.

Oundjian exercised a similar control of dynamics and tempo in the other movements, with their many moods from a dawn-like awakening, to a jubilant march, to a pastoral delicacy, The fourth movement’s portent of doom and the fifth movement’s simple joys were equally well achieved.

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Concertmaster Calin Lupanu

The second factor is the quality of the individual players in the orchestra, not only to play individual solos beautifully, but to give and take with others in chamber music fashion, and then to play in a section with unanimity of pitch and phrasing and dynamics. There were many wonderful solos, by trombone, by horn, by clarinet and piccolo and on through the wind sections, and including the concertmaster, Calin Lupanu.

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CMF Principal Trumpet Jeffrey Work

One solo needs special notice, the long offstage posthorn solo that lends a note of nostalgia and melancholy to the third movement. Principal trumpet Jeffrey Work floated the high notes beautifully, while shaping the individual phrases with exquisite control.

I should also mention the wonderful CMF percussion section, who were in my direct line of sight. Parts of the symphony were a masterclass in soft percussion playing. Everyone noticed the loud climaxes, but who knew that a bass drum could be heard at such a soft level, and make such a delicate musical effect?

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Janice Chamdler-Eteme

The outstanding vocal soloist for the fourth and fifth movements, Janice Chandler-Eteme, is generally billed as a lyric soprano, even though Maher asks for an alto. Clearly the lower range is no obstacle. She found the right sound and expressive palette for both movements, bringing an ominously dark tone to the fourth movement, appropriate for a text that begins “O Man! Take Heed!” And then her sound was enjoyably bright and more forward for the cheerful fifth movement.

The women of the St. Martin’s Festival Singers were solid in their small part, and the Boulder Children’s Chorale rang out bravely with their “Bimm Bamm” imitations of church bells.

But it is the final movement that is the key to the symphony. Under the title “What Love Tells Me,” it is one of Mahler’s longest and most beloved slow movements. Oundjian and the CMF orchestra achieved what everyone aims for, a long arc of sheer beauty leading to an overwhelming finish.

After that, what can we expect next year? You will have to wait for the announcement of the CMF 2020 season after the first of the year to answer that question. In the meantime, there are many fine musical groups in Boulder who would welcome your support.

Oundjian returns to CMF for memorable concert

Pieces by Shostakovich and Berlioz are not to be missed

By Peter Alexander July 26 at 12:30 a.m.

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Peter Oundjian with the CMF Orchestra. Photo by Michael Quam.

Music Director Peter Oundjian has been absent from the Colorado Music Festival podium for the past two weeks, but last night (July 25) he returned for a memorable concert with music by Shostakovich (Cello Concerto No. 1 with soloist Kian Soltani) and Berlioz (Symphonie Fantastique).

The concert will be repeated tonight. If you love those composers as I do, you will not want to miss it.

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Vivan Fung

The program began with a little known piece by Vivian Fung, a Canadian composer of mixed heritage who combines western and various Asian and other folk musical idioms. Dust Devils begins with bright, whirling sounds built from fragments and outbursts of sound that do indeed recall a progression of dust devils. A central section of static chords, marked by slowly changing colors and eerie wails rises to a clouded culmination in the brass.

This entertainingly descriptive piece was played with verve and energy by the Colorado Music Festival Orchestra, who were all smiles at the end. So were many in the audience.

Born in Austria to a family of Persian musicians, Soltani has recently risen to prominence as a soloist with Daniel Barenboim’s West Eastern Divan Orchestra. I had not heard him before, but Oundjian has described him as “an extraordinary talent and a very intense player,” which was evident in his performance of the Shostakovich Concerto.

One of the most demanding pieces in the cello repertoire, the concerto is far more powerful when heard live. The spatial element, separating the voices and putting the cellist full view of the audience, makes both the musical textures and the virtuoso demands of the concerto visible.

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Kian Zoltani. Photo by Juventino Mateo.

Soltani attacked the Concerto with confidence and élan from the very first solo introduction. His playing was full of fire when it needed to be, particularly throughout the intense first movement.

For the second movement Soltani, Oundjian and the orchestra slipped into an entirely different world—one of calm and beauty, with meditative moments bordering on melancholy. The warmth of the cello sound and the delicacy of Soltani’s phrasing made this a high point—at least until the written out cadenza of the third movement, where Soltani’s perfect sense of drama kept the audience rapt. Here the most delicate pianissimos drew the audience in, lest they miss a single nuance.

The finale went off in a burst of energy, ending with an almost shocking series of timpani strokes followed by silence. Soltani’s mastery of the Concerto’s demands was unmistakable throughout, and earned a standing ovation that for once seemed more than routine.

Parts of the Concerto, particularly in the first movement, are virtually a double concerto for cello and horn. Special mention should be made of the orchestra’s outstanding principal horn Catherine Turner, whose clarion calls rang out repeatedly. With no place to hide, she was splendid.

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Hector Berlioz

In introducing Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, Oundjian noted that it was written only three years after Beethoven’s death. What orchestra players in 1830 could have made of Berlioz’s psychedelic masterpiece with its revolutionary instrumental colors, its unprecedented demands on the players, its startling syncopations, the sheer buildup of orchestral sound, its fantastic story of love, death and insanity—much less how they could have played it—is hard to imagine.

The list of innovation in the score is long—violins using the wood of the bow, multiple timpani, two harps, enlarged wind sections, use of the piercing E-flat clarinet—and a testament to Berlioz’s unconstrained imagination. This is a work of staggering originality when it was premiered.

Whatever the players thought then, the Symphonie Fantastique is well within players’ experience and ability today, and I can only believe that Berlioz would have been thrilled with last night’s performance. To mention only a few high points, the introduction was beautifully dreamy and delicate, with Oundjian finding all the momentary outbursts of intensity that needed emphasis.

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Conductor Peter Oundjian

Once the movement got moving, the rhythmic momentum became irresistible, carrying everyone with it. Oundjian perfectly managed the flow and pauses of the second movement waltz. The solo oboe and English Horn of the third movement (“Scene in the country,” the movement with the most obvious precedents in its time) were played beautifully. Throughout the movement, the quietest and most delicate moments were carefully balanced and nuanced.

From the beginning of the “March to the Scaffold” through the following “Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath” the momentum grew inexorably to the final chord. Oundjian carefully controlled both volume and tempo, so that the final, culminating crescendo never became distorted and the final accelerando was achieved without loss of clarity or precision.

The program will be repeated tonight (July 26) at 7:30 p.m. at the Chautauqua Auditorium. Tickets are available though the Chautauqua Box Office.

Central City emphasizes intimate aspects of Britten’s Billy Budd

Emotionally powerful production has impact

By Peter Alexander July 19 at 1:30 p.m.

Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd is a large-scale opera that usually receives a large-scale production.

Based on a novella by Herman Melville, it takes place on a British man-of-war in 1797, during England’s war with France. The cast is large, all male: officers, sailors, marines, midshipmen, powder monkeys. That often leads to a very large set, such as the massive 1978 Metropolitan Opera production—still in use—that revealed multiple levels and decks of the MHS Indomitable, shifted up and down by theatrical elevators.

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A portion of the large cast of Billy Budd fills Central City’s stage. Joshua Hopkins as Budd, center. Photo by Amanda Tipton, courtesy of Central City Opera.

It was all the more surprising then, when Central City Opera announced the Colorado premiere of Billy Budd in their intimate opera house. The production, now running at CCO though Aug. 2, reflects general/artistic director Pelham Pearce’s devotion to Britten’s operas.

Billy Budd offers perhaps the stiffest challenge of all of Britten’s operas for the company to mount on its small stage. The result is an emotionally powerful production, but one that has traded grandeur for a more intimate impact.

The scenic design by Takeshi Kata and David Martin Jacques is attractive, evoking a sailing ship from only ropes and tilted pieces of deck, and worked efficiently for all but the largest choral scenes. Projections by Sean Cawelti displayed on screens that doubled as ship’s sails were effective in enlarging the scope of the stage, and crisscrossing ropes became symbols of the naval regulations that confine everyone on board the ship.

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Intimate scene between Vere (Daniel Norman, left) and Billy (Joshua Hopkins). Photo by Amanda Tipton.

There are many scenes of distinct intimacy: the prologue and postlude by Edward Fairfax Vere, captain of the Indomitable; Vere with his fellow officers in his cabin; Budd with other sailors below decks; Budd with Vere and his subsequent trial; Budd in prison before his execution. In fact, the most important moments of the opera are moments of intimacy, and with the audience so close to the actors every glance and gesture had impact.

A notable aspect of the production was how powerfully it communicated the casual cruelty of an 18th-century naval ship. The flogging of a young novice sailor hit hardest, but there were many moments of routine brutality by officers toward the sailors, effectively revealing the crew’s suppressed emotions.

On the other side of the ledger, the small theater limits the range of musical dynamics and impact. Even moderately loud choral and orchestral sounds are felt viscerally in the tiny house, making distinctions among musical climaxes difficult; they’re all loud. Nonetheless, the big choral scene “This is our Moment,” when the Indomitable is chasing a French ship and the full cast comes onstage, is undeniably exciting.

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Full cast of Billy Budd singing “This is our Moment.” Photo by Amanda Tipton.

Negatively, it was so crowded that it was difficult to take in all the different parts of the crew. It was impossible to separate officers from men, for example, or to show the place onboard of the young midshipmen and the powder monkeys who bring powder to the guns. That scene turned the crew into a single mass, obscuring hierarchical nuances.

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Daniel Norman as Vere (center in officer’s uniform). Photo by Amanda Tipton.

In spite of the opera’s title, performances of Billy Budd depend most on the ambivalent character of Vere. Sympathetic to Billy, whom he knows to have been falsely accused, he is unable to free himself from routine and regulation in order to save him—a fact that haunts him to the end.

Daniel Norman brought a light, flexible, floating tenor to the part, capable of handling the meandering vocal lines eloquently. His transformation from old man (Prologue) to virile commander and back again (Postlude) was effective, in both staging and Norman’s physical appearance. His singing throughout was effective, with especially clear diction.

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Joshua Hopkins as Billy Budd. Photo by Amanda Tipton.

Joshua Hopkins was everything Budd needs to be: attractive, innocent, naive. In fact, he was so appropriately a blank slate that he registered less than other more strongly marked personalities in the cast. He portrayed Billy’s relationships with fellow sailors well. His singing was always direct and expressive. His ballad, “Billy in the Darbies”—with a text by Melville—was simple and heartfelt, if not quite beautiful.

The other major character, master-at-arms John Claggart, is one of the great villains of opera. He even has a solo number to rival Iago’s famous “Credo” from Verdi’s Othello, singing “O beauty, o handsomeness, goodness . . . I will destroy you.”

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Kevin Burdette (r) as Claggart; Joseph Gaines (l) as Squeak. Photo by Amanda Tipton.

Kevin Burdette seemed to relish this juicy role—and the boos that came with his curtain call. His voice took on a menacing edge, well conveying Claggart’s evil, but unremittingly so. He was effective in showing Claggart’s fundamental malignity, but the portrayal was one-dimensional. There was never the smooth, seductive sound that would have mitigated the vocal harshness and lent more depth to his cunning.

The many smaller roles surrounding these main characters were all ably handled by the cast. As Vere’s fellow offices Mr. Redburn and Mr. Flint, Dennis Jesse and Federico De Michelis were vocally solid and appropriately reserved and aloof. They brought a welcome moment of humor to their duet “Don’t like the French.”

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Joshua Hopkins as Billy Budd (front) with Matthew Burns as Dansker. Photo by Amanda Tipton.

Joseph Gaines was a tellingly whiny Squeak and Jonas Hacker suffered convincingly in the unhappy role of the Novice. Benjamin Werley (Red Whiskers), Jonathan Hayes (Donald), Sean Stanton (Bosun) and Brian Kontes (Lt. Ratcliffe) were all fine in their smaller roles. Matthew Burns brought warmth and sympathy as Billy’s truest friend, Dansker. Ethan Conklin made a good impression as the cabin boy, and the Midshipmen and Powder Monkeys were valuable to the success of the production.

Stage director Ken Cazan made creative use of the small stage, using levels and spaces to delineate differences of rank. There was never any doubt where every character stood in the moral hierarchy that lies at the heart of the story.

One negative note, for me: Vere’s apparent heart attack as he was singing his final words struck me as melodramatic and grotesque. It would be better to let the words speak of the approaching end without unnecessarily pounding the point home.

Conductor John Baril, who is CCO’s music director, led the excellent orchestra with great sensitivity. He maintained a careful balance between pit and stage—with help from Britten’s expert orchestration—and kept the opera moving resolutely to its tragic end. He moved more resolutely than most through the sequence of 32 chords that represents Vere’s private conversation with Billy after his trial, a choice possibly shaped by the unusual staging that left Vere onstage throughout.

A special word must be said for the orchestra, who handled Britten’s score beautifully. Although Billy Budd calls for large orchestra, and it was heard with great force when needed, much of the scoring is delicate. There are many wind solos, by saxophone, by flute, by clarinet, by bassoon, and all were wonderfully played.

One final note about the summer’s pair of mainstage productions: Madama Butterfly and Billy Budd are both stories of innocence betrayed. It is fascinating to see this common theme explored in such different musical styles and contexts. This may be just a happy coincidence, but seeing both in one summer deepens the experience of each opera.

Billy Budd continues through Aug. 2 with both evening performances and matinees. Anyone who loves Britten or cares about opera should take the drive up to Central City to hear this relative rarity live.

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Central City Opera
Benjamin Britten: Billy Budd
Libretto by Eric Crozier and E.M. Forster
John Baril, conductor; Ken Cazan, director

CCO House by Ashraf Sewaiilam

Central City Opera House. Photo by Ashraf Sewailam

Remaining performances:

8 p.m. July 19 and 25
2:30 p.m. July 21, 23, 27, 31; Aug. 2

Central City Opera House

Full cast, credits and tickets at the CCO Web page.

Clean and businesslike, Danzmayr leads CMF orchestra

Pianist Gabriella Montero plays Grieg Concerto and spectacular improvisation

By Peter Alexander July 19 at 12:30 a.m.

Guest conductor David Danzmayr teamed with an impressive Gabriela Montero last night (July 18) at the Colorado Music Festival for an utterly enjoyable Grieg Piano Concerto. Also on the program were Sideriusby Osvaldo Golijov and the Sixth Symphony (Pathétique) of Tchaikovsky.

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David Danzmayr

Danzmayr is a very clear, very business-like conductor. He does not emote on the podium, leaving the emotion largely to the players, which the CMF Festival Orchestra for the most part provided. Like his manner, his performances were distinctly business like—professional, very direct in their interpretation, but not always refined or carefully balanced. At times, he allowed the middle of the texture to become muddy, to the detriment of his interpretations.

The concert opened with Siderius, an eight-minute “Overture for Small Orchestra,” as the composer’s subtitle calls it. Starkly contrasting material—dark menacing chords from the brass and fluttering, repetitive passages in strings and woodwinds—were well delineated. The performance was clean and solid, if cut and dried in effect.

For Grieg, Danzmayr was an attentive accompanist, taking cues from Montero’s Romantic approach to the score. Throughout the first movement, she was at her best in the lyrical, more gentle passages. I heard lovely parts and pieces, but not a whole.

The slow movement opened with gorgeous string sounds and a lovely horn solo, preparing Montero’s delicate, sparkling piano entrance. Long passages of distilled Romantic dreaminess, effectively evoked by the soloist, dominated the movement, with a lively middle interruption.

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Gabriela Montero

In the dance-like finale, Danzmayr found the drama to support Montero’s energetic performance. Except for another lovely, dreamy interlude at the center of the movement, her playing was infectiously buoyant and bouncy, full of contained energy. Here it all added up, making for a delightful performance.

But for Montero, one suspects that the concerts are merely an excuse for what she most likes to do, which is to play improvised encores. Entirely on her own ground, she was spectacular, taking a suggestion from the audience to improvise on “Blue Moon.” After a delicate opening, where she was finding her footing and no doubt thinking of possibilities, she gave first an impressively contrapuntal Bach/Liszt version, followed by a raggy Scott Joplin variation that was breathtaking.

The second half of the concert was taken with the Tchaikovsky symphony. In the first movement, Danzmayr led the orchestra through the shifting sands of Tchaikovsky’s many contrasting musical episodes with a clear sense of the road map. From the beginning the orchestra pulsed with a nervous energy that paid off as the movement continued; many delicate moments were beautifully shaped. But once again a murky texture marred many passages.

The five-beat “waltz” of the second movement was workmanlike, elevated by moments of great grace and flow. The third movement march was brisk, with a lot of compelling forward motion but an absence of careful balance among sections. The movement built impressively to the climactic ending, with the usual result—a burst of applause from the audience.

The finale was rough-hewn but passionate. Danzmayr was attuned to the tragic impulses and suggestions in the music. With careful attention to the destination, Danzmayr let symphony end, as it must, fading mysteriously and fatally into silence.

The program will be repeated tonight (July 19) at 7:30 p.m. at the Chautauqua Auditorium—most likely with an all new, unique, one-time-only improvisation by Montero. Tickets are available though the Chautauqua Box Office.