Pro Musica Chamber Orchestra gives worthy performance of important music

By Peter Alexander

Denver and Boulder audiences have much for which to thank Cynthia Katsarelis and the Pro Musica Colorado Chamber Orchestra.

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Cynthia Katsarelis

Friday night in Denver and last night in Boulder (Jan. 20 and 21) they presented Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 14. This somewhat gloomy meditation on death is not often given live, partly because of the difficult assignments facing the soprano and bass soloists, but mostly because of the difficult subject matter. But it is a major statement from a great composer—what Katsarelis calls “a piece that needs to be heard”—and so the rare performances are to be treasured.

For the most part, then, Katsarelis and the Pro Musica gave us a worthy performance of an important piece. The soloists, soprano Jennifer Bird-Arvidsson and bass Ashraf Sewailam, sang with deep expression and careful attention to the texts. They ably handled the Spanish, French and German of the original poetry by Garcia Lorca, Apollinaire, Rilke and Wilhelm Kuchelbecker.

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Jennifer Bird-Arvidsson

Bird-Arvidsson was bright and incisive from her first entrance. She enticed expression from the chant-like phrases, especially in the haunting movement on Apollinaire’s Le Suicidé. Sewailam sang the more brooding texts with great weight and power. At times his notes seemed more placed that phrased, and his sound was rough in the lowest range. Both singers were appropriately dramatic in the dialogue portions of the text.

The orchestral music reflects and amplifies the words of the texts. Katsarelis and the players capably managed the many swings of mood, from deep gloom to poignant sadness to sardonic despair, and provided the singers with expressive and well balanced support.

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Ashraf Sewailam

The Pro Musica strings provided a meaty and resonant sound, while the two percussionists capably provided the precise punctuation points the score requires. The lower strings were particularly weighty, and the duo between Bird-Arvidsson and the solo cello at the beginning of the fourth movement provided one of the evening’s high points.

Alas, last night’s Boulder performance was marred by what seemed to be noisy air handling at the First United Methodist Church. (I did not hear it in Denver.) The performers did their professional best to not be distracted, but for listeners the noise unavoidably covered musical details and moments that should slowly die into silence. It was equally distracting when the sound suddenly stopped in the middle of a movement. I have never heard this before in the many performances I have attended in this venue; it was most unfortunate for it to happen in any concert, and even more so in a piece that builds so much out of silence.

The concert ended with Schubert’s Fifth Symphony, selected by Katsarelis as a frolicking antidote to Shostakovich’s morbid meditations. For me, this was less successful; whether it was the boomy acoustics in the shoe-box-shaped sanctuary, or the ghost of Shostakovich still haunting the room, the performance was heavy-footed when it should be fleeting. The orchestra, otherwise well balanced, often sounded bottom heavy and murky in the middle register. The winds and upper strings sparkled, but could not always cut through the texture.

Nonetheless, the symphony was played with enthusiasm and a sense of fun. It was well paced from beginning to end, and clearly left the audience in a happier place than where Shostakovich had left them.

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As a final thought, the room acoustics and the noisy air handling in the church both serve to point to Boulder’s need for an easily available, acoustically superb, professionally managed concert hall. Many performances take place in churches, and both the performing groups and the churches are to be thanked for their creativity. But such performances are always compromises in one way or another. The performers deserve our gratitude for the musical riches they provide, but they also deserve better performance conditions.

Edited for clarity 1.22.17

Butterman and Boulder Phil shine in Romantic program

Brahms, Schumann and Dame Ethel Smyth were on the bill

By Peter Alexander

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Michael Butterman and the Boulder Philharmonic

In a program of Romantic and very late Romantic music, the Boulder Philharmonic sounded as good last night (Jan. 14) as I have ever heard them.

Most satisfying were two works from the heart of the Romantic era, Brahms’s darkly brooding Tragic Overture of 1880, and Robert Schumann’s Symphony No. 4 in D minor from 1851. These are pieces that suit the orchestra and its conductor, Michael Butterman, particularly well, and they both received warm, suitably emotive interpretations. The third work on the program, Ethel Smyth’s stylistically Romantic Concerto for Violin and Horn, composed in the 1920s, was a more complicated case.

The concert began with the Tragic Overture. A work that reflects the composer’s famously dour persona, it was nonetheless an effective opener. The sound was warm and plush from the very first note. The texture was clean and well balanced—a testament to the quality of players and Butterman’s preparation—even in the contrapuntal passages. Butterman controlled the momentum carefully, doing with interpretation what larger orchestras would do with weight of sound.

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Dame Ethel Smyth

Smyth’s Concerto is an interesting hybrid, a concerto for two instruments that seem not well matched in sound and character. It veers nervously from one musical idea to another, and from concerto to chamber music textures and back. At times one or the other soloist seems relegated to a secondary role, or even blends into the orchestra, while the other takes the spotlight.

Smyth seems to gradually get a handle on the combination. By the final movement they are sharing themes, playing together, and trading motives much more fluidly. Except for an overlong exit from their written-out cadenza, this is the most successful movement.

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Violinist Jennifer Frautschi

Soloists Jennifer Frautschi on violin and Eric Ruske on horn are outstanding players who had their parts well under control. Still, this may be a piece better heard in recordings, where the soloists can be electronically balanced. Certainly that was my experience; I was sitting on the left front of the house, looking straight into the bell of Ruske’s horn. There were times that was all I could hear, and Frautschi’s violin playing was muffled in comparison. I imagine that the balance was better farther back, or in the center of the hall.

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Horn player Eric Ruske

Considering that handicap, I hesitate to say more about the performance, except to note that Frautschi, Ruske and orchestra filled Macky with lovely sounds. The end of the slow movement and the shared material in the finale struck me as particularly enjoyable. The audience responded warmly.

The orchestra was again well balanced in the Schumann symphony. Some over-enthusiastic tympani playing in the first movement added punch to climactic moments, but at the cost of hearing full chords. The surging lines in the lower strings, a critical element of the score, were played with great momentum and richness of sound. The beautiful duo between cello and oboe in the slow movement was particularly effective.

Butterman responded well to Schumann’s sometimes mercurial moods, and controlled the musical flow to bring the symphony to a rousing conclusion. The enthusiasm of the audience was well earned.

The symphony was the first Schumann Butterman has programmed with the Phil. On the evidence of last night’s performance, he should do more; perhaps an orchestra that relishes portraying nature through sound will bring us the “Spring” Symphony in a future season.

The Boulder Bach Festival presents a journey of exploration in Longmont

By Peter Alexander

Last night’s concert presented by the Boulder Bach Festival at Longmont’s Stewart Auditorium (Dec. 10, “Journey to Vienna with Mario Aschauer and Friends”) represented an ideal combination of repertoire, instruments and performance space.

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Mario Aschauer

The concert featured Aschauer, a musicologist and performer on the faculty of Sam Houston State University in Texas, on harpsichord; Zachary Carrettin, the artistic director of the Boulder Bach Festival, playing Baroque violin and the cello da spalla (“shoulder cello,” a small cello played on the shoulder, like a cross between violin and guitar); and the bright, clear voice of soprano Jennifer Bird-Arvidsson. The program comprised music from the late 17th and early 18th Imperial Court in Vienna, including pieces for harpsichord alone, a sonata for violin and harpsichord, and arias from operas written for court occasions,

Most of the music was discovered by Aschauer in Viennese archives. It had been performed at the court and then set aside, making last night’s concert the modern and U.S. premieres of several pieces. The composers included the Hapsburg Emperor Leopold I as well as court composers George Muffat and his son Gottlieb, Attilio Ariosti, Antonio Caldara and Johann Joseph Fux.

The light and transparent sounds of the harpsichord and Baroque strings fit the repertoire perfectly, as did the lively, intimate space of Stewart Auditorium. Textures were clear and the audience was close enough to hear nuances that easily could be lost in larger halls. The program was presented with passion and an almost sensuous care for the sound. In short: this was as good an argument as you will hear for historical performance practice as a gateway to the sound world of the past.

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Jennifer Bird-Arvidsson

The entire program was both unfamiliar and fascinating. The arias were sung by Bird-Arvidsson with a seamless flow and elegant phrasing that was nicely matched by Aschauer and Carrettin in their obbligato accompaniments. Their committed advocacy for the music suggests that this unknown vocal repertoire is worthy of further exploration.

Of the instrumental works, Georg Muffat’s Sonata for Violin was strikingly strange, with passages of more or less normal Baroque phrases interrupted by sudden and unexpected  harmonic deviations. With the weirdness clearly brought out by the scoring, one wonders: was Muffat showing off for his imperial employer? It is certainly a piece that keeps both performers and listeners engaged.

Aschauer played a Plainte by Gottlieb Muffat in memory of the scholar Allison Dunlop, who tragically died just after completing a groundbreaking study of the composer. He performed this strange little lament with great feeling.

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Zachary Carrettin with his cello da spalla

Carrettin introduced his cello da spalla to the audience, explaining how it might have been used in Baroque times, and why the instrument disappeared in the later 18th century. Built to order and based on historical models, his is a one-of-a-kind instrument that Carrettin admitted he is still learning. When played with vigor, it produces a gruff, dark sound, but Carrettin showed that it is also capable of more lyrical expression.

With this program, the Boulder Bach Festival has continued its theme using Bach “as a compass,” as Carrettin says, while exploring the musical past with fresh eyes and ears. Aschauer, Carrettin and Bird-Arvidsson made the “Journey to Vienna” one to be relished.

With BCO, comfortably familiar Americana takes many forms

By Peter Alexander

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Bahman Saless and the Boulder Chamber Orchestra

“The Americans,” the current program of the Boulder Chamber Orchestra (BCO), offers comfortably familiar Americana in several different guises.

The program, led by conductor Bahman Saless and featuring violinist Karen Bentley Pollick, was performed last night (Nov. 11) in the Broomfield Auditorium. It will be repeated at 7:30 p.m. tonight in the Boulder Adventist Church, 345 Mapleton Ave. (tickets).

The program opens with genteel music from America’s “Gilded Age” of the late 19th century, the Air and Gavotte from Bostonian Arthur Foote’s Serenade for Strings. Here, the American-ness resides mostly in Foote’s careful homage to the music of Europe and avoidance of anything overtly American—characteristic of American high culture at the time, especially in New England.

Tenderly played by the BCO, the Air made a gentle start to the program. The following Gavotte is a Romanticized, drawing-room version of the Baroque dance, but none the less pleasant for that. Both were played with care.

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Composer David Jaffe

Leaping more than 120 years, the BCO followed with the American premiere of David Jaffe’s Violin Concerto, How Did it Get so Late so Soon? This highly personal but unmistakably American work received a vigorous performance from the orchestra and Pollick, for whom the concerto was written, and by whom it was premiered in Lithuania Aug. 27.

A former bluegrass musician, Jaffe has filled the score with quotes and references to American music from the blues to the protest music of the 1930s. You may not hear the Woody Guthrie song he quotes, but the overall tone will be familiar to American audiences. The blues inflections, the outbreaks of Appalachian fiddling, the folk-tune-like melodies all come from a world we recognize.

There are portions of the concerto that sound as American as anything by Copland. But these ideas are always refracted thought a Charles Ives-ian sensibility, so that the music never settles into an extensive folkish groove. To my ears, that makes it all the more interesting: you never know what will happen next, but it all hangs together in a fascinating mélange. Bravo to Saless and the BCO for programming a work that deserves to be heard widely.

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Violinist Karen Bentley Pollick

The orchestra played with a natural and relaxed understanding of Jaffe’s style. The small string section was always solid, and the second movement in particular featured some outstanding wind playing.

An enthusiastic advocate of the music she performs, Pollick played with great energy and conviction. Disclosure: I have known her since we were both music students in the 1980s, but to my entirely non-objective ear, she handled the concerto with virtuosic ease.

The rest of the program is too familiar to require extensive comment. In these fractious times, the Barber Adagio for Strings could be heard as an expression of sorrow for our broken country, and Copland’s Appalachian Spring as the hope that if we follow our hearts, things can be mended. But I doubt that anyone really wants to hear music as political metaphor.

The Barber was played with warmth and careful dynamic control. When played by a chamber orchestra, Appalachian Spring becomes less rugged, more delicate. There were a few bobbles, but Copland’s tender lyricism and robust energy were well conveyed. When everyone was having as much fun as Saless broadcast from the podium, further criticism seems irrelevant.

Boulder Phil in fine form for Mozart, Beethoven and Adés

Dusinberre and Walther delightful in Mozart Sinfonia Concertante

By Peter Alexander

The Boulder Philharmonic was in fine form last night (Nov. 6), as they presented two exquisite soloists as part of a season of duo-solo performances.

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Edward Dusinberre and Geraldine Walther

Violinist Edward Dusinberre and violist Geraldine Walther, members of the Takacs Quartet, played Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante for violin and viola with the orchestra. Conductor Michael Butterman also led the Phil in a fascinating work by British composer Thomas Adés and a bracing performance of Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony.

But first things first: Mozart. The interplay of the two soloists is central to the Sinfonia Concertante, and it is here that Dusinberre and Walther elevated their performance to the highest level. They are of course great individual players, but as members of a world-class string quartet, chamber music partners who play together professionally virtually every day, they have honed the ability to respond to one another in tone, mood, phrasing and pitch—all the myriad details that make a great performance.

Of all the delights they offered, I will single out one: There is a joint cadenza in the first movement, with the parts written out for the players. Walther and Dusinberre were so perfectly aligned in pitch and rhythm and the freedom of their phrasing that it sounded like one person on two instruments. I have never heard that passage better.

Their experienced partnership made the performance a pleasure to watch as well as hear. You could see the communication between them, as they shared their enjoyment of Mozart’s playful interchanges between soloists in the outer movements, and the beautiful sharing of extended melodies of the slow movement. And through their interactions, they shared that enjoyment with the audience.

It has to be said that Macky is not a great venue for this work There is a reason that Butterman has programmed more Romantic works than Mozart, in order to achieve what he calls “a sonic size appropriate for Macky Auditorium.” At times the Mozart sounded distant—and if it sounds that way from Row M, what must it sound like from the back or the mezzanine?

The concert began with Adés’s Three Studies from Couperin, orchestrations of harpsichord works by the French Baroque composer François Couperin. Himself a keyboard player, Adés has said that the best day he could imagine would be playing Couperin all day. I expect few in the audience have that degree of enthusiasm for the composer, but last night’s performance may well have boosted the appreciation for his strongly characterized and characteristic works.

Like the originals, Adés’s orchestrations are highly individual, offering a wondrous mix of colors. These are watercolors to the bright paintings of some orchestra arrangements—subtle and subdued hues that were given a well blended and warm interpretation by Butterman and the orchestra.

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Michael Butterman. Photo by Glenn Ross

Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony was the first orchestral score I ever owned, so the rare performances are always both musical and nostalgic treasures for me. I admit I am prejudiced in favor of anyone who programs the Eighth, but I was definitely not disappointed by last night’s performance. Even though the Eighth is scored for a smaller classical orchestra, without trombones or doubled winds, the Phil’s sound was full enough to create a real presence in the hall.

Butterman’s interpretation was highly energetic, a bit on the muscular side, but none the less enjoyable for that. He found a good balance between Beethovenian outbursts, aided and abetted by a vigorous timpanist, and the more lyrical and light-hearted moments of the symphony. The second movement, marked Allegretto scherzando, was very brisk, more scherzando than allegretto. A slightly slower pace would allow the listener to enjoy Beethoven’s good cheer a bit more in this cheeky, clucking stand-in for a slow movement.

The finale was, as it should be, even faster, but here the tempo worked entirely to Beethoven’s advantage. The Boulder Philharmonic stayed right with Butterman’s galloping pace right to the end. Beethoven’s Eighth is perhaps too light hearted to elicit cheers, but the performance was more than worthy of a hearty “Bravo!”

Pro Musica and Masterworks Chorus deliver a joyful “Creation”

By Peter Alexander

Conductor Cynthia Katsarelis and her musical colleagues—the Pro Musica Colorado Chamber Orchestra, the Colorado Masterworks Chorus and three outstanding soloists—presented a joyful and enjoyable performance of The Creation by Joseph Haydn last night (Oct. 29).

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Amanda Balestrieri

This was the first performance of the 2016–­17 season for Pro Musica, and the only the second outing for the Masterworks Chorus, a new entry into Boulder’s crowded classical music scene. The well matched soloists appearing with them were soprano Amanda Balestrieri, tenor Steven Soph and bass-baritone Jeffrey Seppala. Following a performance Friday in Denver, last night’s performance was in Boulder’s First United Methodist Church.

With the chorus on the broad but shallow sanctuary “stage,” the orchestra had to adopt an unusual seating arrangement, with woodwinds behind the strings on one side, brass behind the strings on the other. In a more complex work with tricky coordination among the winds this might have been a problem, but in this case it seemed to work quite well. The woodwinds in particular sounded bright and clear. In the church’s shoebox space the brass had to be restrained to avoid thickening the texture, but for the most part they succeeded.

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Jeffrey Seppala

The long, deep space of the church favors the lower frequencies. The timpani, for example, had to be discreet to avoid muddying the sound, and usually succeeded. Katsarelis visually restrained the players throughout, generally keeping the orchestra and singers well balanced and the texture transparent.

The choral sound was solid and clear, even with all forces combined, as in the final fugue to the words “The Lord is great, his praise shall last for aye.” While the words from the chorus were not always understandable, the audience had the full text and the lights were, appropriately, left on.

This also benefitted the soloists, who were not always understandable, either. This is not entirely the singers fault, however: it is hard to be clearly understood when singing lines like “Softly purling glides on thro’ silent vales the limpid brook,” or “Most beautiful appear, with verdure young adorn’d, the gently sloping hills.” For this you can blame the Austrian Imperial Court Librarian, Baron Gottfried van Swieten, who wrote Haydn’s English text. Alas, his command of the language was not as fine as he thought.

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Steven Soph

All three soloists should be commended for their performances. They have fine oratorio voices and sang their solo recitatives and arias with careful attention to expression. One of the highlights was surely the duet between Adam and Eve—Balestrieri and Seppala—with chorus, “By thee with bliss.” Likewise, their lengthy closing duet “Graceful consort!” drew a spontaneous “Bravo!” from the audience. And I could not suppress a chuckle at Seppala’s solemn delivery of the text “In long dimension creeps with sinuous trace the worm,” one of many delightful moments of text painting in Haydn’s score.

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Joseph Haydn

One of the hallmarks of Katsarelis’s performances with the Pro Musica has been her careful control of dynamics. From the pianissimo whispers in the “Representation of chaos” and the fourth-day sunrise, to the full climaxes, the large-dimension contours were highly effective, with something held in reserve for the major climaxes. This was particularly evident at the end of the oratorio’s Part I, the much-sung chorus “The heavens are telling,” and the final “Amen.”

Finally, I have to return to Haydn, the genial genius whose lifelong humility and ability to learn paved the way for this great work. Inspired by the London Handel Festival performances of the 1790s, he wrote in his 60s a work unlike anything he had done before—to our eternal benefit. To quote the oratorio’s final chorus, “Let his name resound on high!”

Boulder Bach Festival goes exploring in an intriguing concert

Unfamiliar works and an unfamiliar instrument are unexpected treasures

By Peter Alexander

compass-logo-plusThere is a reason that the Boulder Bach Festival (BBF) uses a compass in its logo.

As demonstrated in their 2016–­17 season-opening concert yesterday (Oct. 15), the BBF under music director Zachary Carrettin goes sailing out into Bach’s musical world, looking for new discoveries for players and audiences alike. And usually, like yesterday’s concert, they bring back unexpected treasures.

The performance, given in Boulder’s Adventist Church, was a repetition of a program given Friday evening in St. John’s Episcopal Cathedral in Denver. Titled “Concertos and Chorales Contextualized,” the program explored the many different ways Lutheran chorale tunes were arranged and used as the basis of larger works in the Baroque period (late 1500s to roughly 1750), and also how Bach’s concertos reflected compositional techniques that had been refined through settings of chorale tunes.

Photography by Glenn Ross. http://on.fb.me/16KNsgK

Boulder Bach Festival Chorus and players. Photography by Glenn Ross.

There was music on the program from the early Baroque, starting with a work by the truly obscure Bartholomeus Gesius (1562–1613), through the slightly better known Michael Praetorius (1571–1621), Johann Hermann Schein (1586–1630), and Samuel Scheidt (1587–1654), and culminating with J.S. Bach (1685–1750). (See my preview of the concert here.)

Unfortunately, the space at the Boulder Adventist Church does not lend itself to clarity of the complex counterpoint you find in much Baroque music. This was evident with both the small orchestra assembled for two of J.S. Bach’s concertos, and the Boulder Bach Festival Chorus, which sang several works on the program.

The fault is not with the performers, who sang and played confidently. Carrettin led the program decisively, with a fine sense of style. Nevertheless, works performed from the front of the church were not always as clean as one would wish. Mid- to low-range sounds tended to get murky, and the bass lines were not always clear.

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Organist Christopher Holman

The sound is better when the music originates from the choir loft, at the back of the sanctuary. The choir sounded cleaner and clearer from the loft, and the organ, played splendidly by Christopher Holman, was transparent and at times sparkling.

In spite of any acoustic limitations, it was a thoroughly worthwhile and intriguing program, and may well have been more fully satisfying in the Denver venue.

Before the second half of the concert, Carrettin gave a brief talk on how the word Ach (the German equivalent of “Ahh!”) in Bach’s motet Jesu Meine Freude corresponds to similar exhalations in other cultures and spiritual traditions around the world. This both served to make the music, firmly grounded in north German Lutheran religious practice, more universal, and personified the festival’s motto “Across Time, Across Cultures”—the spirit that underlies the adventurous direction of today’s Boulder Bach Festival.

Three parts of the program were particularly pleasing. The anonymous setting of Ach Gott, vom Himmel sieh darein (Oh God, look down from heaven) for organ was a delightful discovery, with rippling runs and a growing sense of pace. As throughout the concert, Holman’s playing brought the music energetically to life.

Of the two concertos, Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 6 was the best instrumental selection on the concert. A string ensemble with violas at the top of the texture runs the risk of being murky throughout, but the smaller ensemble and careful work by the players mostly overcame the danger. The texture was generally transparent.

The playing by viola soloists Aniel Cabán and Tal McGee was particularly lovely in the slow movement, and the finale romped along with great energy.

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BBF artistic director Zachary Carrettin with his cello de spalla

A word about the cello da spalla (shoulder cello) that Carrettin introduced in this work. He and Renee Hemsing Patten played two interior parts (originally written for viola de gamba) on this unusual and somewhat awkward looking instrument. When heard individually, they projected a solid, clean string tone, and they obviously filled their parts well. To really judge the instruments, it would be necessary to hear one in a solo role—which Carrettin has planned for the BBF concert Dec. 8 in Boulder and Dec. 9 in Longmont.

The final set of the concert comprised three works for the Christmas season, by Michael Praetorius, J.S. Bach, and Gesius. Each work was pleasing, starting with music sung by a chamber choir, and ending with the Gesius sung in surround sound with a rank of singers in each aisle. This was good program planning: ending with the fullest and clearest choral sound of the concert, and yet another fine discovery brought back from the larger musical world.