Zeitouni returns, bringing Romantic music, verve and excitement

Michelle DeYoung combines mezzo heft with soaring soprano

By Peter Alexander July 20 at 1 a.m.

Last night (July 19) Jean-Marie Zeitouni returned to the Colorado Music Festival, conducting a concert that had the same verve and excitement that marked so many of his performances when he was the music director.

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Michelle DeYoung

Joining Zeitouni and the Festival Orchestra on the first half of the concert was mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung, this year’s SeiSolo artist-in-residence at CMF, who contributed a powerful soprano—going well above the usual mezzo range—to a performance of the Prelude and Liebestod from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde.

Noted for a wide vocal range that opens the door to dramatic soprano roles as well as the deeper mezzo roles, DeYoung has earned a reputation as an outstanding Wagnerian singer. Onstage she has sung roles including Venus in Tannhäuser, Kundry in Parsifal and Brangäne in Tristan, among many others, and she often sings the heroic soprano excerpts including the Liebestod and Brunnhilde’s Immolation Scene from Gotterdämmerung in concert.

Her performance of the Liebestod had a Wagnerian heft as well as shimmering high notes—in effect, a mezzo sound in the lower range and a bright soprano sound up high. She could always be heard, even the middle of a massive orchestral texture. It was a performance few could match.

Zeitouni drew carefully controlled phrases and carefully shaped surges from the orchestra in the Prelude. Apart from imperfectly blended wind sounds once or twice, this was a consistently first-rate performance.

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Jean-Marie Zeitouni

After Wagner, Zeitouni turned and addressed “my beloved CMF audience,” adding a touching personal note to the evening. He introduced composer Timothy Collins, whose song cycle Buch des Sängers (The singer’s book), written for DeYoung, received its world premiere next on the concert.

The vocal lines of Buch des Sängers fall squarely in DeYoung’s mezzo range, with only a few excursions into a higher, brighter range. The first song, “Loveliness,” is indeed as lovely as anything you will hear, with beautiful vocal lines cushioned in a warm blanket of orchestral sound.

That description could apply to most of the rest of the cycle, however. The orchestral sounds are consistently warm and flowing, almost always at a moderate tempo, with added sparkle from percussion and harp to provide highlights. It is all very pleasant, very welcoming to the audience, but greater variety of sound and tempo would command closer attention.

Nevertheless, there is much to enjoy in Buch des Sängers, and DeYoung sang with a radiant conviction. This is music that audiences can embrace without difficulty. It is not hard to predict that other singers will want to take up this cycle, and that it will have many future performances.

The second half of the concert was devoted to an explosive and spectacular performance of Rimsky-Korsakov’s most brilliant orchestral showpiece, Scheherazade. This is a piece that can display the best of any orchestra, and the CMF orchestra did not disappoint.

Never afraid of dramatic gestures, Zeitouni started the performance with a powerful call to attention, reminding us that the story the music is going to tell comes from the Arabian Nights. “Now we begin!” the lower voices declaim. This was immediately followed by one of many violin solos representing Scheherazade herself, played with a beautifully sweet sound and expressive rhythmic freedom by concertmaster Calin Lupanu.

In fact, the score is filled with individual instrumental solos, and one of the pleasures of the performance was hearing so many individual members of the orchestra have the opportunity to shine. In addition to Lupanu, there were solos for cello, flute, clarinet, oboe, bassoon, horn, trumpet, trombone, harp—did I miss anyone?—all played with relish and artistry. Every one was a joy to hear.

The final movement was taken at a breakneck pace, about as fast as some parts can be played. It was almost all clean and clear, in spite of the speed, bringing the concert to a rousing close. Played with gusto, such Romantic warhorses can be great fun, and this one certainly was.

Scheherazade will be repeated tonight (July 20) at 6:30 as part of a “Fresh Fridays’ program. Zeitouni will also conduct the CMF Chamber Orchestra on Saturday in a program of Ravel and Beethoven. Purchase tickets here.

 

 

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Dramatic Trovatore, strikingly original Magic Flute in Central City

Both operas run in repertory to the first week of August

By Peter Alexander July 17 at 4:05 p.m.

Central City Opera opened a powerful, dramatic production of Verdi’s Il Trovatore Saturday (July 14) in their intimate and historic opera house.

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Il Trovatore: Ashraf Sewailam (Ferrando), Lindsay Ammann (Azucena) and ensemble. Photo by Amanda Tipton.

Intimate is not just a descriptor; it is a significant reason for the production’s impact. With it’s rousing choruses, virtuoso arias, violent passions and gruesome deaths, Il Trovatore meets all the expectations of grand opera, fit for the grandest houses. And yet Central City proved that thoughtfully presented, it can thrive and land a powerful punch in a smaller house. In this space, the music is loud; occasionally I thought it could have been scaled back, but grand opera is meant to overwhelm the emotions. This is a Trovatore to remember.

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Il Trovatore: Jonathan Burton (Manico) and Lindsay Ammann (Azucena). Photo by Amanda Tipton.

Director Joachim Schamberger’s creative production design uses projections—he is also a video designer—to visually expand the limited space of the Central City stage, making a unit set serve effectively as gypsy camp, a palace garden, a gloomy dungeon. Scenes mimed on a bridge above the back of the stage helped fill out the action, much of which is described after the fact. These scenes were effective supplements to the narrations of past events, but at other times distractions from the singers on the main stage below.

Schamberger’s direction served the drama well. The convoluted story of switched babies, misfired revenge and long-nurtured hatreds can be confusing, but the direction, including some well calculated pieces of stage business, the mimed scenes, the acting of the cast, and texts that were projected between scenes all served to clarify the story.

The cast featured top-rank singer-actors. In the title role, tenor Jonathan Burton had a powerful Italianate sound, ideal for the role. From his plaintive offstage serenades to his violent fight scenes with his rival DiLuna, to his climactic cabaletta near the end he handled the vocal demands handily. He carried the lyrical lines effectively, and sang the climatic high notes with a strong, ringing sound. There is no genuine love duet in the opera, but his tenderness in the quieter moments with Leonora was expressive.

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Il Trovatore: Michael Mayes (DiLuna), Jonathan Burton (Manico), Alexandra Loutsion (Leonora) Photo by Amanda Tipton.

As Leonora, Alexandra Loutsion has the power from top to bottom to handle one of the most difficult soprano roles in the repertoire. Her sound was most beautiful in softer passages, but when pushed in volume or intensity she developed a wobbly vibrato that slightly muddied some lines. The fearsome coloratura was dispatched with surety and aplomb.

Baritone Michael Mayes warmed into the role of DiLuna vocally, but was dramatically a force of nature throughout. His characterization, both physically and vocally, conveyed DiLuna’s mad obsession with Leonora compellingly. His brooding anger gave depth to his character and to the drama. At times, the intensity of his passion was vocally over the top, and I thought the music would have been better served by a more modulated, lyrical handling of some phrases.

The character whose obsession drives the drama is the gypsy Azucena. In this searing role, mezzo-soprano Lindsay Amman rose to the big moments in her part, but was fitfully effective elsewhere. Her voice has the dark, smoky quality for the part, but transitions to the lowest notes were not always graceful. Azucena is, frankly, a monstrous character—she throws her own baby in the fire and raises the brother of the man she despises largely to seek revenge by seeing either of them kill the other—and a daunting challenge to any singer. Amman was carefully directed, and often conveyed Azucena’s fury, but at other times was not crazed enough next to the violent passions of the other characters.

Ashraf Sewailam, a CU graduate and well known to Boulder audiences, was a commanding Fernando, as he should be. From his sudden appearance at the very beginning, where he has one of the best scenes ever written for a secondary character, his deep bass sounded strongly. His well dramatized interactions with DiLuna strengthened both characters.

I should spare a word for the chorus, which was superb. As well as an opera for big voices, this is a choral opera, with the Anvil Chorus and the Soldiers’ Chorus of Act III only the two best known moments of many. I loved seeing the gypsy women pounding the anvils in the second act. I’m not sure that fits the medieval setting of the opera, but it was a great moment, and seemed to be relished by the actors.

Dana Tzvetkova’s neo-medieval costumes matched the production well, delineating the characters without any fussy affectations. John Baril led an effective performance, supporting the singers and keeping the performance moving at full tilt. Apprentice artists Michelle Siemens, Zachary Johnson and Fidel Angel Romero, and studio artist Griffen Hogan Tracy were all pleasing in their smaller roles.

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The summer’s other major production in the Central City Opera House is a radical and fascinating re-imagination of Mozart’s Magic Flute. This strikingly original interpretation deserves a careful response.

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Magic Flute: Katherine Manley (left, Pamina) and Joseph Dennis (right in tan suit, Tamino), with Kevin Langan (center, Sarastro) and ensemble. Photo by Amanda Tipton.

Director Alessandro Talevi conceives of the opera’s fairy-tale plot as seen through the eyes of children, specifically the three boys who serve as the opera’s spirit guides. In a pantomime during the overture, the three boys are shown in a Victorian-era bedroom dominated by a grim portrait of the boys’ mother—the Queen of the Night.

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Magic Flute: Two boys from the Colorado Children’s Chorale and the dollhouse theater. Photo by Amanda Tipton.

Downstage right, and onstage throughout the opera, is a dollhouse theater with cutout characters the boys are playing with. Sent to bed by three stern servants—who become the three ladies who serve the Queen of the Night—they sneak back to the theater for after-hours play. Everything that happens from that point until just before the end comes from their imaginations, as symbolized by characters coming in and out through the bedroom fireplace.

This conception accomplishes several things. For one, it makes the magical aspects of the story seem natural as the product of boys’ imaginations. This solves, for example, the problem of how to portray the later trials by fire and water. Usually rather lame—sweet music played by the flute while two singers walk in front of colored projections—this is here shown as the boys playing in their theater. For modern viewers, this scene makes more sense as a child’s game than as reality.

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Magic Flute: Will Liverman (Papageno) with Tascha Koontz, Kira Dills-DeSurra and Melanie Ashkar (three ladies). Photo by Amanda Tipton.

Talevi’s interpretation also makes more palatable the misogynistic aspects of the text. Pre-adolescent boys would naturally expect a hero to have women fawning over him and a chosen mate who needed his guidance. In other boyish innovations, Tamino’s sidekick Papageno rides an ostrich and Sarastro, the philosopher king of Mozart’s and librettist Emanuel Schickaneder’s Masonic-inspired plot, becomes the father the boys wish they had—the ringmaster of a wondrous carnival.

Talevi also aims to explain the supposed confusion in the original story, that the Queen of the Night starts as a good character and Sarastro evil; then they switch places, with the Queen becoming evil and Sarastro good. This reversal has never bothered me, since the libretto makes it clear that part of Tamino’s quest is learning to see the truth about both characters.

For Talevi, the subject of The Magic Flute is growing up. Tamino symbolically, and the boys more literally, reject their punishing mother and grow into adults over the course of the opera. This change is made manifest in the production, and Talevi’s sense of theater makes it especially touching at the end

As written, there is a great deal of silliness in The Magic Flute. This production adds silliness on top of silliness, which may not be to everyone’s taste, but which the Central City audience clearly relished Sunday afternoon (July 15). The silliness does have one drawback: it detracts from the moments that Mozart and Shickaneder took more seriously. Particularly discomfiting were the two arias sung by Sarastro; the texts are those of a philosopher, not a ringmaster.

Obscured in the reinvention is the fact that The Magic Flute was part of a long Viennese operatic tradition of questing heroes and comic sidekicks. Mozart and Schickaneder simply superimposed Masonic ideals on that template. They were both Masons, as were many of Vienna’s leading citizens, and there is every reason to believe that their audiences took the opera more seriously in 1791 than we are likely to in 2018. Sarastro’s texts were not bland bromides at a time when the Enlightenment ideals underlying our Declaration of Independence were still fresh.

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Jeni Houser (Queen of the Night) and Katherine Manley (Pamina) Photo by Amanda Tipton.

But whatever the strengths and weaknesses of the production, Talevi is to be applauded for taking a fresh look at the opera and pursing his conception to its logical conclusion. Ultimately, he has taken the opera’s message seriously, and given us a serious new way of looking at it. If you go, don’t be afraid to think!

The cast is generally strong. As Tamino, Joseph Dennis has a pleasant voice that was sometimes pinched in the upper register, particularly earlier in the evening. Pamina was portrayed by Katherine Manley, who expressed her character’s fluctuating emotions—melancholy, love at first sight, joy, despair—very effectively.

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Fidel Angel Romero (Monastotos) and Katherine Manley (Pamina) Photo by Amanda Tipton.

Jeni Houser’s Queen of the Night commanded all the heights and leaps of her notorious part. Will Liverman was especially outstanding as Papageno, vocally solid and funny. Ashraf Sewailam was an imposing Speaker of the Temple, full voiced and effective. Apprentice artist Fidel Angel Romero provided all the villainy required for the role of Monastatos.

Disclosure: When Kevin Langan sang his very first Sarastro 40 years ago, I was in the audience and reviewed his performance. I am certainly not objective, but I enjoyed his continuing command of the role and his adaptation, after so many years, to the unfamiliar notion of Sarastro-as-ringmaster. For the record, this is his 20th  production as Sarastro.

Apprentice artists Tasha Koontz, Kira Dills-DeSurra and Melanie Ashkar were pleasing in every way as the Three Ladies. Studio artist Véronique Filloux was cheerful and bright-voiced in the tiny role of Papagena.

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Joseph Dennis (Tamino) with three boys from the Colorado Children’s Chorale. Photo by Amanda Tipton.

The boys from the Colorado Children’s Chorale were onstage more than any other singers, and they carried off their parts with enthusiasm and energy. One of my favorite moments is when they appear alongside Tamino, costumed as a Victorian explorer, in the uniforms of Boy Guides, map in hand, but they were delightfully in tune with both music and concept throughout. Conductor André de Ridder lead the very solid orchestra with finesse and style.

Both Il Trovatore and The Magic Flute continue in repertory in the Central City Opera House  through Aug. 3 and Aug. 5 respectively. Tickets may be purchased through the CCO Website.

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Central City Opera House interior

Oundjian debuts at CMF with stunning program, riveting performance

Pianist Yefim Bronfman adds luster to the evening

By Peter Alexander July 13 at 12:25 a.m.

Peter Oundjian, the current artistic advisor of the Colorado Music Festival, last night (July 12) made his first appearance leading the Festival Orchestra. He had selected a stunning program and delivered a vivid and riveting performance.

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Peter Oundjian, artistic advisor to CMF

Oundjian and the orchestra opened with a brash, zesty performance of Leonard Bernstein’s well known Overture to Candide. This bustling overture won the audience from the first notes, as it always does, getting the concert started on a bright note.

Next on the program, Oundjian brought on a friend from his student days at Juilliard, the widely esteemed Soviet-born Israeli-American pianist Yefim Bronfman, for a performance of Brahms’ First Piano Concerto in D minor. Oundjian explained the esoteric relationship to the Bernstein Overture: That Bernstein had given a speech before a notorious 1962 performance of the same concerto with pianist Glenn Gould, disavowing Gould’s interpretation while endorsing his right as a performer.

He reassured the audience, however, that he and Bronfman would not duplicate the conflict between Bernstein and Gould.

After Bernstein, the orchestra produced a noticeably darker sound for Brahms. From the very beginning, Oundjian established the contrast between the power of Brahms’ opening phrase and the lyrical sections that followed. In particular, he showed an ability to spin out melodies over a long musical span, a skill that Bronfman duplicated in his playing. Oundjian’s support for the soloist was exemplary.

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Pianist Yefim Bronfman

For his part, Bronfman demonstrated both the strength and the lyrical warmth that Brahms demands of the soloist, while producing a beautiful sound from the piano. His playing was carefully controlled, down to the most delicate passages. This is a killer concerto—Bronfman called it “terrifying”—but he more than survived; he conquered.

Bronfman has said that playing the second movement is almost a religious experience. He conveyed that depth of feeling throughout, once again elegantly spinning out phrase after long lyrical phrase.

The rousing finale wants to drain all of a performer’s energy, but Bronfman seemed to rise comfortably to the challenge—and then to prove the point, tossed off a muscular performance of Chopin’s “Revolutionary” Etude as encore. His grand virtuosity and musicianship added luster to the evening.

Is this the season for hijinks between movements? On both of his concerts earlier, guest conductor Marcelo Lehninger offered comments between movements of larger works. Last night, Bronfman acknowledged a scattering of applause after the admittedly virtuosic and impressive first movement with a quick bow from the bench. This elicited laughter, and in turn he and Oundjian—old pals—chatted briefly between themselves.

The concert closed with a work that is not well known, as I heard audience members saying on the way from the auditorium: Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances. The last work he completed, these fantastic dances (as Rachmaninoff initially proposed naming the work) are a sort of reflection on mortality. In fact, the last of the three includes the Gregorian Chant for the Requiem Mass, Dies Irae, a theme that Rachmaninoff brought into a number of his works.

The flighty beginning of the first dance was exquisitely played, and the vast contrasts of dynamics, rising from the slightest gestures to powerful climaxes and fading back into nothingness gave great drama to the music. Oundjian has said this is one of his favorite pieces, and as he performs it, finding all the expressive depth and beauty it contains, it is easy to see why.

The powerful performance showed just what the CMF orchestra is capable of. The score requires a rich string sound and great virtuosity from the winds, all within a musical fabric of great flexibility. It is a sure sign of Oundjian’s orchestra leadership that the performance succeeded at such a high level.

A special word should be said for the woodwind, horn and trumpet sections, in both Brahms and Rachmaninoff. I heard the delicate horn solos in the Brahms, the saxophone solo in the first Rachmaninoff dance, the exposed trumpet entrances, the rare (and no doubt relished) star turns by the bass clarinet, the bassoons and all the other woodwinds with great pleasure.

Last night’s program will be repeated tonight at the Chautauqua Auditorium. You may purchase tickets here.

NOTE: Edited for clarity July 13.

 

 

Guest conductor Danzmayr leads an energetic concert at CMF

Music by Bartók, Piazzolla and Schubert—all drawn from folk sources

By Peter Alexander July 9 at 12:35 a.m.

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David Danzmayr, guest conductor at CMF

David Danzmayr, the summer’s second guest conductor at the Colorado Music Festival (CMF), selected three pieces for last night’s chamber orchestra concert (July 8), all with roots in folk music.

In comments before the concert began, he noted that the three composers—Bartók, Piazzolla and Schubert—seem to have little in common, but the common thread is music reflecting their individual national cultures—from Hungary, Argentina and Austria, respectively.

The specific pieces he selected were Bartók’s Romanian Folk Dances, based on dances that the composer recorded in Hungarian villages as part of his folk music research; Piazzolla’s Four Seasons of Buenos Aires, drawn from the native tango music of Argentina; and Schubert’s Symphony No. 3, incorporating music of the Austrian countryside.

All are pieces that benefit from high energy, and that Danzmayr provided. Not that the performance was unblemished, but the energy comfortably overcame any imperfections.

Originally composed for piano, Bartók’s seven Romanian Folk Dances were performed in the composer’s own setting for small orchestra. The challenge is to create the rhythmic freedom of eastern European folk dances within orchestral sections. This is well accomplished in three movements, where Bartók hands the melody to solo players—clarinet in the second dance, piccolo in the third, and solo violin in the fourth. The soloists played with appropriate verve, with firm orchestral support.

Danzmayr gave the full ensemble portions of the score all the rhythmic impulse that a folk dance needs, driving right past a few moments when the texture became thick and murky.

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Philippe Quint. Photo by Lisa Marie Mazzucco

The hit of the evening was the Piazzolla Seasons of Buenos Aires, a response to Vivaldi’s famous set of concertos, performed by the CMF strings with soloist Philippe Quint. A player who has his own ties to the style of Piazzolla’s music, Quint delivered a passionate performance. This is music that should be enjoyed, and everyone on stage seemed to be having fun. The audience’s enjoyment was evident by the applause, hesitantly between movements and raucously at the end.

The program had the seasons listed out of order—Summer, Winter, Fall, Spring—but in the event Quint played them in the usual order: Summer, Fall, Winter Spring. This is music of rapidly shifting moods, sometimes capturing the rough tango of Buenos Aires dance halls, sometimes more sultry, sometimes fiery. Quint seems to have them all in his hip pocket, moving from one mood to the next with no visible strain, and then filling the hall with a beautiful tone in the last movement’s lyrical moments. Conductor, orchestra and soloist danced together without a stumble.

To close the concert, Danzmayr and the orchestra gave a sparkling performance of Schubert’s Third Symphony. A native of Salzburg, Danzmayr said in an earlier interview that when you grow up playing the music of the Austrian countryside, as he did, “you have [the style] in your bones and in your feelings.”

He also said that this symphony is one of his favorites, and that was reflected in the performance. His enthusiasm for the music was evident, while his attention to detail, in the selection of tempos, in the phrasing, in the application of dynamics, made every gesture and phrase effective. The solemn slow introduction was followed by a cheerful romp and the sprightly, folkish “slow” movement positively danced along.

The minuet’s bumptious beginning suggests that Schubert had heard some Beethoven, but it then settled into a pleasingly pastoral second theme and trio. The bustling finale suffered only the occasional smudge in the strings, showing how close to the edge Danzmayr’s tempo really was. As so often in Schubert the composer’s delight in his own music made it hard for him to let go, as the movement rushed to a rousing finish.

The good cheer, the light orchestra texture, the sheer joy of the music makes the symphony seem less impressive than it really is, but careful attention to last night’s performance revealed its beauty.

Colorado Music Festival opens with fun, beauty, and excitement

Violinist Vadim Gluzman shines in Bernstein Serenade

By Peter Alexander June 29, 12:30 a.m.

The Colorado Music Festival opened its 2018 season last night (June 28) with a program that had generous supplies of fun, beauty and excitement.

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Marcelo Lehninger

Guest conductor Marcelo Lehninger faced the challenge of launching the festival, conducting an unfamiliar orchestra in a hall where he had never performed. It is a testament to him and to the players that he acquitted himself with great success. He is a conductor who exudes a calm confidence and who leads with clarity and restraint.

Lehninger began the concert with John Corigliano’s Promenade Overture, which starts with a near-empty stage. Players and sections enter gradually until the stage is full (or nearly: the tuba player, in a humorous nod to the instrument’s bulk, enters oompahing breathlessly at the very end). Lehninger selected this score the represent the reunion of the orchestra players, who reconvene every summer in Boulder from their main-season jobs all over the country.

Promenade is a great concert and season opener: the percussion riffs, the brass fanfares, the woodwind noodling all give the players a chance to show their virtuosity, and the culminating broad, lyrical theme gives the strings their due as well. It was done with great brilliance and precision, announcing “THIS is an orchestra!” For future seasons, opening with Promenade would make a great Chautauqua tradition.

That bit of fun was followed by the beauty of Leonard Bernstein’s Serenade after Plato’s Symposium, featuring violinist Vadim Gluzman. Effectively a five-movement concerto for violin with strings, percussion and harp, the Serenade was written in 1954, before West Side Story made Bernstein a popular sensation. The style is mostly conservative mid-century modernist, with hints of Shostakovich, Britten and others of the time, with the jazzy, hip “Lenny” that we expect only showing up in the final movement.

Plato’s Symposiumdepicts a series of discourses on the subject of love. Fittingly, the five contrasting movements of the Serenade are dominated by a lyrical spirit, with the particularly beautiful fourth movement suggesting Bernstein’s expansive love of humanity.

Vadim Gluzman Photo: Marco Borggreve

Violinist Vadim Gluzman

Gluzman was a sheer joy to hear. The lyrical solo that opens the Serenade filled the hall with beautiful sound, even at a piano volume, and the tricky pyrotechnics of the third movement were precise and flawless. The fourth movement was the expressive heart of the performance, and the finale had just the right amount of jazzy spirit.

I particularly enjoyed the way Gluzman interacted with the violin section behind him, frequently turning to face them rather than the audience, sharing the joy of performance with the players. Equally captivating was his interaction with the principal cellist during a joint cadenza. I have heard this piece live before, but never has it made a greater impression.

Lehninger closed the concert with Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony, one of the most viscerally exciting pieces in the repertoire. This was the first real test for the full orchestra, and with a few reservations they passed handily. This is the CMF orchestra we have heard before, with great individual virtuosity, a full sound, (mostly) impeccable intonation, and a wide range of dynamics and expressive potential. From the very first notes, the brass was bold, full and thrilling. The movement displayed the flexibility of the ensemble, with extensive tempo modifications and well controlled phrasing.

A few entrances were slightly blurred, but only a few, and from where I sat the balance was not ideal. The powerful brass section sometimes overwhelmed other sections, the middle of the texture was a little too thick, and some details were lost in the wash of sound. It may have sounded differently elsewhere in the hall.

In a moment of surprise, Lehninger turned to the audience between the first two movements to apologize that he had not spoken earlier, and to say “Welcome.” What could have been an awkward moment was made charming by his relaxed, affable personality.

The remainder of the symphony was played with great expression, notable flexibility and well marked expressive contours. The finale was taken at a driven tempo, but one that the players managed well. The movement was irresistibly exciting and did what it is supposed to do: Drive the audience to their feet. And so the 2018 CMF is well launched.

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Chautauqua Auditorium from the CMF Orchestra. Photo by Eric Berlin.

Dates, programs and tickets for CMF performances here.

Dusinberre, Katsarelis and Pro Musica premiere concerto by Jeffrey Nytch

Powerfully expressive work, written from the heart, reaching out to hearts

By Peter Alexander April 15 at 12:15 a.m.

A remarkable new work by Jeffrey Nytch, the Violin Concerto: Costa Concordia, has been brought to Colorado audiences by the Colorado Pro Music Chamber Orchestra, conductor Cynthia Katsarelis and violinist Edward Dusinberre.

The official premiere was Friday (April 13) in Denver, with a second performance, which I attended, last night in Boulder (April 14). Both performance and work were assured, polished, and deeply moving.

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Composer Jeffrey Nytch. Courtesy CU photo archive.

Nytch is an associate professor of composition and director of the Entrepreneurship Center for Music at the CU College of Music. He was inspired to write the concerto by the fate of the Hungarian violinist Sandor Feher, who died when the cruise ship Costa Concordia sank in 2012. When the ship collided with the rocky shore, Feher first assisted other passengers, including children, and then went to retrieve his violin. He never came back.

“I heard this story and felt that I had to respond to it in a musical way,” Nytch has said. What he chose to do was to tell the story of the violin, not the violinist. This is a highly original creative decision, one that led Nytch away from the events of Feher’s story, toward the moods the story passes through. The concerto is thus more universal, and more deeply moving.

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Sandor Feher

Looked at in another way, the concerto is programmatic, but not in the usual sense. That is, it does not have a program of events, with music representing the collision or Feher’s descent back into the ship. Instead it has an emotional program, portraying in turn the jollity of the fiddle and its player in good times, the loneliness of their separation, and finally a vision of their reunion in another realm.

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The Costa Concordia sinking (2012)

The result is a powerfully expressive work, because Nytch found effective musical means to convey each step of this emotional journey. And that emotional program, written from the composer’s heart, pulls the listeners in and reaches out to their hearts.

The concerto starts with a deep and foreboding prologue, with a ”churning,” the section title tells us, that could be the ship’s propellers swirling beneath the waves. This is followed by an impassioned cadenza that dramatically invokes the unity of player and instrument. Here Dusinberre became the ideal interpreter, playing with intensity and technical brilliance.

The next section of the work, titled “Dancing, lighthearted,” has hints of Eastern European rhythms and dances that Feher might have played, but without sounding like quotes of folk music or specific Gypsy tunes. The lighter mood gives away to ever more frantic fiddling until a furious climax is reached.

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Edward Dusinberre. Courtesy CU photo archive.

The remainder of the concerto contains the most arresting and original music of the piece. First there is a lengthy passage of utter emptiness, suggesting loneliness yet without despair. Borrowing from Dusinberre’s description, “there’s an extraordinary disembodied quality to it, (as if) the violinist ceases to be there, (leaving only) the sound of the instrument.”

Slow moving, tonal chords used to represent a sweet, consoling ending is one of the most obvious clichés of Western music, and yet Nytch makes them fresh and effective. The sheer beauty of the final section feels like the inevitable outcome of the concerto’s emotional journey. This, I thought, is the story that Nytch had to tell: not the specifics of Feher’s heroism and sacrifice, but a universal yearning for transcendence.

Dusinberre, more often heard as first violinist of the Takacs Quartet, was an inspired interpreter of the concerto. He had mastered the concerto’s many technical demands, playing with a consistency and beauty of tone. He easily soared above the texture, in spite of the sometimes urgent activity of the orchestra. Based on this riveting performance, I would like to hear him more often as a concerto soloist, if only his other far-flung commitments would allow it.

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

Cynthia Katsarelis. Photo by Glenn Ross.

Katsarelis and the players of Pro Musica gave solid and committed support, ideally matching the composer’s moods. Before Costa Concordia, they gave an assured and well prepared performance of Bartók’s Divertimento for String Orchestra. Throughout, the different episodes from which the score is constructed were well characterized, all of the changes of mood clearly delineated.

They did not hold back for the more bumptious sections or the most piercing climaxes, which were well contrasted with moments of near silence. The Divertimento represented a satisfying performance of a piece that Katsarelis and the players obviously enjoy. Sometimes, that’s just what you want.

Simone Dinnerstein brings performance magic and a new piece to Boulder

Concerto by Philip Glass receives standing ovation at Macky Auditorium

By Peter Alexander

Simone.D.2.by Lisa-Marie Mazzucco

Simone Dinnerstein. Photo by Lisa-Marie Mazzucco

Pianist Simone Dinnerstein brought her deep sensitivity and considerable magic to Macky Auditorium last night, performing a remarkable new piano concerto by Philip Glass with the string sections of the Boulder Philharmonic and conductor Michael Butterman.

Glass’s Piano Concerto No. 3 was written for Dinnerstein, and her Boulder performance was part of the world premiere tour of the concerto. It is a major work that should achieve considerable success with audiences in the years to come, as it did last night in Macky.

Glass’s characteristic gestures are easily found in the score, but they have been transfigured. His usual pulsing rhythms are more gentle, serving and supporting melody and harmony. The music has an emotional immediacy throughout, and the third movement in particular has moments of seductive beauty. The ending is extended, creating a hypnotic, almost ritualistic quality around lovely bits of melody. The slow unfolding of these final thoughts quietly recalls compelling passages from Glass’s previous works.

Glass-Photo

Philip Glass

At 80, Glass is entitled to write with a more valedictory and consoling tone, but there are likely two specific reasons for the nature of this piece. First, it was written for Dinnerstein. When she told Glass how much it fit her playing and her personality, he said “Well, I wrote it for you.” It’s hard to know how her influence manifests itself, but I heard a deep poeticism and introspective lyricism, qualities associated with Dinnerstein’s playing that also mark many moments in the concerto.

The other reason is the influence of J.S. Bach, a composer Dinnerstein is renowned for playing and whose Keyboard Concerto in G minor will be paired with the Glass on the current tour. There are no quotes or direct echoes of that specific piece in the Glass score, but I found it notable that the music is shaped largely by harmonic patterns, as if it were based on a Bach-like chorale, but one that wanders into unpredictable turns and paths.

Dinnerstein had both the notes and the inner life of the piece well under her fingers. Playing with evident love for the concerto, she found depths of expression in the music, including some of the simpler moments technically. Her playing was ably supported by Butterman and the Phil.

Not everyone loves Glass, but for me the performance was deeply moving, revealing both the quiet humanity of the composer and the commitment of the soloist. Standing ovations are de rigueur in Boulder, but this one seemed especially heartfelt.

The rest of the program was musically fascinating—a symphony by C.P.E., son of J.S. Bach, and Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night) on the fist half, and J.S. Bach’s G minor Concerto preceding the Glass. However, all three works, calling for only strings, suffered the same fate of being swallowed by Macky Auditorium’s unforgiving acoustics. Small ensembles, and strings in particular, invariably sound distant and a little cold in the hall.

The C.P.E. Bach Symphony received a refined performance, with transparent textures, and a smooth transition between the first two movements. But the characteristics of C.P.E. Bach’s mid-18th-century Rococo style, the use of sudden and shocking harmonic jolts and unexpected stops and starts, lost the larger share of its impact in the hall. The more’s the pity: C.P.E. Bach is a fascinating composer who should spice up any program—but only if the effects land with the audience.

Butterman introduced Schoenberg’s piece with a useful listener’s guide to the main ideas of the music, and how they are laid out in the score. One of the great musical/emotional outpourings of the late Romantic musical style, Verklärte Nacht portrays a passionate story of forgiveness and redemption, in which a dark and gloomy forest path is transfigured into a glittering scene of starlit beauty by the power of love.

The audience is meant to be enveloped in the lush harmonies of the score, and indeed I could see that the orchestra was playing with great intensity. Alas, the sound again was swallowed by the hall. It was well conducted and well played by the orchestra, but from Row U, it sounded all too polite and restrained to fit a story of passion.

The performance of J.S. Bach’s G-minor Concerto was a little cotton-woolish in the orchestra when more lean muscle would serve the music better, but likely this is another manifestation of Macky’s acoustics. Dinnerstein played with a clear sense of line and overall form. With a Steinway grand and modern string instruments, this was not a historically-informed performance, but Bach’s music is so ideal in conception that it does not depend on the medium.

All other issues aside, Dinnerstein, Butterman and the Boulder Phil scored a great success with the Glass Concerto. It’s only January, but that should be on any list of the year’s highlights.