Santa Fe Opera I: Three well imagined and beautifully rendered productions

Madama Butterfly, Candide and Ariadne auf Naxos 

By Peter Alexander Aug. 5 at 4:50 p.m.

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Santa Fe Opera Theater with Jemez Mountains. Photo by Robert Godwin.

A highlight of the Santa Fe Opera’s 2018 season is a beautiful and well-conceived production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly.  

The design features a simple and utilitarian unit set, with a rotating cube to which sliding walls are attached to create the house. The New Mexico landscape behind the stage provides a backdrop from which Butterfly and her family climb up to the house in the first act. The night I was there nature outdid any lighting man could design, as the stage gradually darkened into twilight, ending with real stars in the sky as Pinkerton and Butterfly sang their ecstatic love duet.

No greater magic could be created.

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Butterfly’s house, Acts II and III. Ana María Martínez as Butterfly. Photo by Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera.

The production is firmly placed in the time the opera was written, the early years of the 20th century. One of the themes is the passage of time between Acts I and II. In those three years, industrialization is taking place in Japan, represented by the replacement of the garden outside Butterfly’s house by light poles and telephone wires. The neighborhood is going downhill and the house itself is visibly getting shabby.

Butterfly is dressed in simple western clothes in the final acts—a blouse and straight skirt—representing her claim to be an American. Suzuki looks more frail and care-worn. Pinkerton, when he enters at the end of the opera, is in a grander uniform than in the first act, suggesting promotion in the past three years. This kind of attention to detail is reflected in many other touches that add meaning and deepen characterization.

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Ana María Martínez (Butterfly) and Joshua Guerrero (Pinkerton). Photo by Ken Howard  for Santa Fe Opera.

Ana María Martínez (replacing Kelly Kaduce, who took the role June 30 and July 20) was a stunning Butterfly, especially in the second and third acts when she showed more maturity and resolve than the first-act child bride that we are familiar with. She floated her high notes flawlessly, especially in the quintessential “Un bel dì,” and was moving throughout.

Joshua Guerrero’s Pinkerton negotiated the tricky but essential line between the callow and thoughtless cad who uses Butterfly for his pleasure and the Romantic lover who sings one of opera’s great duets at the end of Act I. In this he was helped by director Matthew Ozawa, who gave Pinkerton two silent buddies with whom he could play the average joe before Butterfly’s entrance, at which point he spruced up his dress and his manners. In this context his tenderness toward Butterfly seemed neither insincere nor affected, but rather the normal behavior of a heedless young naval officer.

Guerrero (another replacement, for A.J. Glueckert who performed earlier) made these different aspects of Pinkerton believable. His voice was solid, soaring when needed, earnest and expressive throughout.

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Megan Marino as Suzuki. Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera

In an affecting performance, Lyons resident Megan Marino brought some real individuality to Suzuki, both wise and caring. During Butterfly’s vigil for Pinkerton’s return, she stayed apart, observing Butterfly and her son, rather than taking part herself. Later, a moment apart with Kate Pinkerton showed that she was more than a bystander. She sang with deep expression, making her a crucial element of the story.

Nicholas Pallesen was a sympathetic Sharpless, compassionate but helpless to prevent the tragedy that he so clearly foresees. His solid voice supported the characterization well. Matthew DiBattista was appropriately obsequious in voice and manner as Goro the marriage broker. Kenneth Stavert was effective as the besotted Prince Yamadori, and Soloman Howard brought vocal heft and menace to the Bonze. The orchestra under John Fiore played with flexibility and style.

Two other decisions need comment. For some reason, the performance returns to the text of the very first performance in using the name F.B. Pinkerton, announced by the Imperial Commissioner as the utterly non-American “Sir Francis Blummy Pinkerton.” Today, we usually hear “Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton,” which was introduced for the opera’s successful second run. Authenticity is fine, but Puccini accepted Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton, which is more familiar, and sounds better as well.

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Paulino Rivera-Torres (Trouble), Ana María Martínez (Butterfly), and Joshua Guerrero (Pinkerton). Photo by Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera.

And at the very end, when Pinkerton rushes in to find the lifeless Butterfly, their son (“Trouble” in the cast list, called “Sorrow” in the performance) picks up the knife that she has just used for her suicide and points it toward his father. This is unlikely, perhaps, from a child who according to the timeline is only two, but it reminds us that he does not know his father, and the reunion may not have a happy outcome for the traumatized child. We can imagine that his life may have both trouble and sorrow

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Leonard Bernstein’s Candide has a difficult history, and it remains a difficult work to bring off. The Santa Fe Opera is presenting what they identify as the “Scottish Opera—Old Vic Version,” and they credit no fewer than seven authors, “after Voltaire.” The original Broadway production in 1956 was considered a flop, and since then there have been many attempts to revise and fix the show, up through this version from 1988, leading to the multiple credited authors.

There is no question that the show contains some brilliant music, at least half a dozen numbers as good as anything Bernstein ever wrote. It’s the rest of the show that is the problem, leading to endless choices of what to include and what to leave out, and how to get from one scene to the next in the episodic plot line.

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Alek Shrader (Candide), Brenda Rae (Cunegonde) and Kevin Burdette (Voltaire/Pangloss). Photo by Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera

Not only is the plot episodic, the characters are cardboard cutouts serving a satirical purpose, in both the original Voltaire novella and the Broadway show. They are always amusing, with many laughs in the text, but they are not real people that we can identify with as they bounce from Westphalia to Portugal to Paris to South America to Constantinople to Venice.

At Santa Fe I heard all the music that I expected to hear, and quite a bit I had never heard before. Some of the material new to me is first-rate, but some is only serviceable. In the end, the show could be trimmed by 20 or 30 minutes and not lose any impact.

That said, Santa Fe Opera’s Candide is pure entertainment. Conductor Harry Bicket keeps it all moving at a Broadway pace that never flags. The production hits the right satirical tone, and the cast is uniformly very good. Not all the jokes are in good taste, but neither was Voltaire in his day. In that way, the script honors its source.

The set designed by Chantal Thomas uses oversized books and sheaves of paper as screnes for vivid projections. Director Laurent Pelly’s costumes are over-the-top 18th-century, turning the beautiful Cunegonde and her supercilious brother Maximillian into a pair of Dresden figurines. The Baron and Baroness were hilariously costumed as their own singing portraits. Voltaire/Pangloss, the narrator that fills in gaps in the story, changes costumes so often he is hard to keep up with, but all to comic effect—every time he takes off his wig you know something new and more outrageous is coming.

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Helene Schneiderman (Old Lady) and the Santa Fe Opera chorus. Photo by Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera.

Cunegonde is even more crucial to the success of Candide than the title character, and Brenda Rae has the brilliant high range and boundless energy to illuminate the part. Her “Glitter and Be Gay” was scintillating. Alek Shrader was a fine Candide, making the transition from utter naïveté at the outset to the wisest person onstage by the end, when he launches the well known resolution, that everyone should chill and “Make Our Garden Grow.”

Kevin Burdette I found a trifle mannered as Voltaire, perhaps to differentiate the French satirist from the other half of his role as the foolish Dr. Pangloss, whose philosophy of optimism was Voltaire’s target. Jarrett Ott was every bit as ridiculous as he needed to be as Maximilian. Helene Schneiderman was delightful in the wonderful character role of The Old Lady who has only one buttock. The jokes write themselves, but she delivered them with comic aplomb and sang her signature piece, “I am Easily Assimilated,” with earthy relish. Gina Perregrino was deliciously flirty as Paquette. The rest of the cast, many of them filling multiple roles, were all first-rate Broadway-style singer/actors.

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“Make our Garden Grow”: The Cast of Candide and SFO Chorus. Photo by Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera.

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Another opera with a complicated history is Richard Strauss’ Ariadne Auf Naxosoriginally written as a companion to Molière’s satirical comedy Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme. In this form a full performance required both stage actors and opera singers, and it never found an audience. Eventually Strauss’ Ariadne was turned into a standalone opera by the addition of a prologue that takes place backstage before a performance of the original opera.

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Set for Act II of Ariadne auk Naxos: Samantha Gossard (Dryade), Meryl Dominguez (Najade), Sarah Tucker (Echo), and Amanda Echalaz (Prima Donna/Ariadne). Photo by Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera.

That version is still challenging, because the two parts are so utterly different. First is the backstage prologue, featuring a young composer and an assortment of theatrical characters—the music master, opera singers, a wig maker, members of a commedia dell’arte troop, and servants in the home of “the richest man in Vienna” where the fictional young composer’s opera is to be performed. The backstage story is followed by a performance of the opera within the opera, also titled Ariadne auf Naxos, incongruously interrupted by the commedia players.

Like Candide, this hybrid comes out of 18th-century satire. Molière’s play skewered the smug self-satisfaction of the uncultured nouveau riche. As reimagined by Strauss and librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal, the very wealthy but tasteless patron capriciously demands that the high-art opera he commissioned be performed simultaneously with the low comedy of the commedia players.

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Liv Redpath as Zerbinetta and Amanda Majeski as the Composer. Photo by
Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera

This dramatic stew contains two major ingredients stirred together with plentiful spice from libretto and music. One ingredient, the characters in the backstage drama—especially the composer and the comic actress Zerbinetta—are real enough, but the operatic characters, based on Greek mythology, are no more than abstract philosophical propositions in human form.

In Santa Fe’s production, directed by Tim Albery, various means are used to distinguish the ingredients. The real-world prologue is performed in English, whereas the music of the opera proper is sung in German. To maintain the distinction between real and operatic worlds, the commedia dell’arte intrusions into the opera are mostly sung in English. But things get a bit confused, since Zerbinetta’s fantastic coloratura set piece in the middle of the second act (“Grossmächtige Prinzessin”) and other interruptions by the commedia players (Harlequin’s “Lieben, Hassen”) are sung in the original German, possibly because these numbers are both well known.

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The Backstage Prologue, Ariadne auf Naxos ensemble. Photo by Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera.

The distinction between real world and opera is also brought out by the set and costume designs of Tobias Hoheisel. The backstage set is literal, slightly grubby like backstages everywhere, whereas the second act opera set is as abstract as the characters, starting as shapes of white and gray, then illuminated in different colors.

The generally strong cast made the performance a pleasure. Liv Redpath was flirty and fetching in the critical role of Zerbinetta. Her seduction of the self-important composer was utterly believable, and she negotiated her daunting coloratura comfortably—even when asked to walk backwards, up a narrow and steepening ramp, in high heels, while singing! (Don’t try this at home!)

Amanda Majeski was equally impressive in the trousers role of the composer, one of many such roles that Strauss’ favored with gorgeous music, singing the soaring, lyrical lines with power and beauty of sound. Her demeanor was perfectly that of the aloof artist, deeply impressed with his own role in “The Holy Art of Song.” She made his youthful pretensions both slightly preposterous and touching.

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Amanda Echalaz (Ariadne), perched in her bowl. Photo by Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera

The Prima Donna/Ariadne role was ably filled by Amanda Echalaz. In the opera, she spent most of her time almost immobile in a steep-walled bowl, representing Ariadne’s cave, which cannot be comfortable. When her moments came to sing, she demonstrated a rich dark sound in the lower parts of her range and sang smoothly in lyrical passages, but tended to surge to the edge of control in higher registers. Her closing duet with Bacchus was especially strong.

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The commedia players with Ariadne (Amanda Echalaz). Photo by Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera.

Bruce Sledge brought a ringing heldentenor sound to the role of The Tenor/Bacchus, standing and singing effectively enough but too often physically static. The male quartet of commedia players sang and acted with comic panache. Baritone Jarrett Ott sang strongly as Harlequin and bass Anthony Robin Schneider was impressive as Truffaldino, alongside praiseworthy tenors Matthew DiBattista and Terrence Chin-Loy as Scaramuccio and Brighella. The trio of Meryl Dominguez, Samantha Gossard and Sarah Tucker managed their parts well as Najade, Dryade and Echo.

Appearing only in the prologue, Brenton Ryan was a stylish and pleasing dancing master. Rod Gilfry was effectively commanding as the music master, and Kevin Burdette was appropriately condescending in the spoken role of the Major-Domo.

The orchestra under conductor James Gaffigan was outstanding. The intricate woodwind solos that provide color and buoyancy to the score were wonderfully played, and the sound was well controlled, rich but never overbearing.

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Photo by Kate Russell for Santa Fe Opera

The Santa Fe Opera season continues through August 25, with performances of all of the season’s operas in repertory (see full calendar). Reviews of the summer’s other operas—John Adams’s Dr. Atomic and Rossini’s Italian Girl in Algiers—will appear here soon.

Michelle DeYoung in an intimate voice-and-piano recital at CMF

World premiere of songs by Timothy Collins a highlight of the program

By Peter Alexander July 29 at 12:20 a.m.

Mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung, the 2018 SeiSolo artist-in-residence at the Colorado Music Festival, lent her impressive voice to an intimate song recital, last night (July 28) in the Chautauqua Auditorium. Performing with her was pianist Cody Garrison.

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Michelle DeYoung

The highlight of the recital was the world premiere of a cycle of songs written for DeYoung by Australian composer Timothy Collins. Earlier in the residency, DeYoung had given the world premiere of an orchestral song cycle by Collins, Buch des Sängers (The singer’s book), also composed for DeYoung.

Collins, himself a singer, clearly knows DeYoung’s voice. The four songs of the new cycle, Love’s Crusade, fit her strengths very well. Just as clearly, DeYoung also knows that; these were the most relaxed, the most natural performances of the evening.

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Timothy Collins

The texts of the four songs are taken from four very different sources: one a translation of a poem by German poet Friedrich Rückert; one a setting from Shakespeare; and two texts newly written by Collins. Of the four, the Rückert song (“If you love me”) was by far the sweetest, the most gently affecting. DeYoung sang with great conviction and unforced expression.

The final song, with Collins’ text, was inspired by DeYoung’s Wagnerian credentials. The composer introduced it by observing that she is “the ideal Brunnhilde.” Titled “Warrior Queen,” it is a Viking-like call to arms by a queen who defends her husband’s realm. I found the text rather conventional for this genre (“Lift your hearts, we ride together! . . . . For country! For the King!”). Dramatic as it is, this is the least interesting music of the cycle, static and declamatory. But unquestionably, DeYoung has the voice and the demeanor for this song, and the final cries “For the King!” rang clear and full throughout the large Chautauqua Auditorium.

The two central songs of the set—“Fear No More” on Shakespeare, and Collins’ “Kentucky Coffee Tree”—set the texts sensitively, and elicited expressive performances from DeYoung. The cycle as a whole is nicely varied, and received a warm response from the audience.

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Michelle DeYoung

Earlier on the program, DeYoung had presented sets of songs by Brahms, Strauss and Samuel Barber. The “ideal Brunnhilde” is not a natural lieder (art song) singer, and at times she was audibly restraining the power in her voice, as though her dramatic force might overflow at any moment. She was at her best in the more dramatic songs, where she could open up more.

The majority of the songs she selected were moderate to slow in tempo and melancholic in temperament. The darkness and natural richness of her voice fits these moods well, giving weight to the music. Nevertheless, the emotional sameness made the exceptions all the more enjoyable: Brahms’ “Mein Liebe ist grün” (My love is green) and Barber’s “Green Lowland of Pianos,” on a witty text by the Polish poet Czesław Miłosz.

After the premiere of the Collins cycle, DeYoung returned to sing as an encore an arrangement of another song written for her by Collins, one of the songs from Buch des Sängers. Completely at ease with music written to suit her individual voice, she sang comfortably and with expression. She was rewarded with cheers from the audience and the obligatory standing ovation.

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Pianist Cody Garrison

A multi-talented artist, Cody Garrison is staff accompanist at Metropolitan State University in Denver and the Boulder Symphony, and the principal collaborative pianist for the Boulder Music Institute, in addition to maintaining a dental practice in Denver. His performance with DeYoung was ever discreet and restrained. While attentive to the leading lines in his part, he never brought out more than necessary or pushed the soloist in any way.

DeYoung will perform one more time at CMF this summer, when she sings the “Abschied” movement from Mahler’s Lied von der Erde (Song of the earth) with conductor Peter Oundjian and the CMF orchestra tonight. Her recording of this deeply moving, elegiac piece is one of the best I have ever heard. Tickets are still available at the Chautauqua box office.

Central City Opera one-acts offer fun, joy

Mollicone’s Face on the Barroom Floor, Handel’s Acis and Galatea

By Peter Alexander July 27 at 12:45 p.m.

Central City Opera is offering two one-act operas this summer, in addition to their two full-scale productions in the main opera house (Verdi’s Il Trovatore and Mozart’s Magic Flute).

Handel’s Acis and Galatea is receiving its first CCO production, while The Face on the Barroom Floor by Henry Mollicone was written for the company 40 years ago and was performed annually until a few years ago. It is being revived this year for its fortieth anniversary. Both shows are cast with members of the Bonfils-Stanton Foundation Artists Training Program.

FaceI may be the last person in Colorado who has not seen Face on the Barroom Floor, but if you find yourself in the same category, it’s too late this year; remaining performances of this modest 25-minute work are all sold out. The opera is presented in the Williams’ Stables, an intimate theater space across the street from the main Central City Opera House. And that is both the joy and the one drawback of the performance.

It is a joy, because everyone in the 90-seat Williams’ Stables performance space is close enough to interact with the singers. In fact, members of the audience are recruited to stand in as the barroom’s patrons for about half of the opera. But the drawback is that it is a small space, with a low ceiling, easily filled by operatic voices. Between pure volume and some imperfect diction, not all of the text can be understood.

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Williams’ Stables in Central City

That aside, the performance is great entertainment. It is a young person’s story, brim full of youthful passions, ideally suited for the young artists of the training program. The cast I saw had Gillian Hollis as Isabelle/Madeline, who becomes the face; Zachary Johnson as the hotheaded barman of past and present (Tom/John), and Martin Luther Clark as his sarcastic, skeptical rival for Isabelle/Madeline’s attentions (Larry/Matt). All were delightful.

Hollis was pert, pretty and bright-voiced in the central role—can we call it the title role? She sang with convincing expression throughout, capturing the audience’s sympathies as she tries to keep the testosterone-fueled macho outbursts of the men under control. Of course, sopranos often have to die in opera, but it must be a record that she, poor thing, is shot dead twice in about 15 minutes.

Johnson was the very image of the bartender, solicitous of the guests from the audience, then on alert both times Larry/John came into his bar. His voice is clear and strong, his acting effective and believable. In spite of his morally ambiguous role in both scenes, he remained a sympathetic character.

Clark has a solid tenor voice, with clear diction throughout; not a word was lost. He put across Larry’s sarcasm in the present-day scenes so well that one understood the bartender’s antagonism but not why Isabelle was with him in the first place. His fights with Tom/John were well done, by both actors and in both eras.

The small accompanying ensemble (piano, flute, cello) played well, the costumes are effective in both delineating character and distinguishing eras, the staging fitting. If you missed it, you may need to lobby CCO to produce it again; it is a Central City tradition well worth enjoying.

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AcisHandel is a world away from the old West and Mollicone’s gritty barroom drama, but Acis and Galatea is another opera well suited to young singers. Populated by shepherds, nymphs and a monstrous cyclops from Greek mythology, it has the same central conflict as Face: two men fighting for a woman’s love. Performed before a house of 120 seats set up in an open rehearsal room of the Martin Foundry in Central City, Acis is as intimate as Face, with members of the audience invited the help during the performance.

In Handel’s “Pastoral Entertainment” (as it was billed in 1718), Acis and Galatea are deeply in love and pine for one another when separated. The cyclops Polyphemus desires Galatea, and in his raging jealousy he kills Acis. But just as the spirit of Madeline haunts the barroom in Face, Acis lives on in a stream so that Galatea can swim in his love forever.

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Acis and Galatea cast, left to right: Chris Mosz (Damon), George Milosh (Acis), Matthew Peterson (Polyphemus), Graycen Gardner (Galatea), Benjamin DaCosta-Kaufman (Corydon). Photo by Amanda Tipton

Director Ken Cazan has cleverly updated the setting to a Woodstock-like ‘60s hippie haven, an effective modern analogue to the pleasure-seeking Arcadian world evoked by the pastoral poetry of Handel’s time. Lines such as “Love on her breast sits panting” and “When he returns, no more she mourns, but loves the live-long day” certainly suggest the era of “make love, not war.” Cazan even takes in the modern sense the words of the opening chorus: “Happy nymphs and happy swains, harmless, merry, free and gay, dance and sport the hours away.”

The set—a long, narrow platform that runs the full diagonal length of the hall—, the costumes by Stacie Logue, and the hippy-dippy manner of the five-member cast all support the transformation to the sixties. The music, however, is pure Handel, and some of his most gorgeous music at that—stylishly played and sung by the cast and a small orchestra under the able direction of Christopher Zemliauskas. It was a joy to hear.

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Graycen Gardner (Galatea) and George Milosh (Acis). Photo by Amanda Tipton.

The 18th-century English of the libretto does not lend itself to easy understanding by a modern audience. Texts such as “Ye verdant plains and woody mountains, purling streams and bubbling fountains,” and “Where shall I seek the charming fair?” are not easily grasped, especially when diction is compromised by elaborate twists and turns of the vocal lines, but the simple plot is easily conveyed through action.

The cast were all strong and well rehearsed, keeping ensembles together even when wide apart on the runway set and facing different directions. (A mirror at one of the room allowed them to see Zemliauskas even with their back to him.) Phrasing and sound were all fit well to Handel’s style.

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Matthew Peterson (Polyphemus). Photo by Amanda Tipton.

As Galatea, Graycen Gardner sang with a flexible soprano, handling leaps and flourishes with apparent ease. Her musicality and exquisite phrasing were a source of pleasure. George Milosh brought a light, lyrical tenor voice to the role of Acis. His command of the text was evident, as almost every word came through. Baritone Matthew Peterson coped well with the rapid coloratura lines of “the monster Polypheme,’ keeping his musical focus even while being wheeled up and down the set, standing on a chair. Chris Mosz and Benjamin DaCosta-Kaufman, the designated “free and gay” members of the hippy band, were effective in their smaller parts as Damon and Corydon.

The orchestra provided more than support for the singers. From a stylishly played overture to the closing chorus (“Galatea, dry thy tears, Acis now a god appears!”) they performed the Baroque score on the highest level—the more credit to conductor Zemliauskas, whose barefoot entrance, flashing peace signs to the audience set the scene as well as his leadership set the musical level.

Acis and Galateais a great opportunity to hear some little known, enchanting music by Handel. Tickets are still available for the performance at 8 p.m. Aug. 1.

CMF concert has four highlights, each presented with great polish

Augustin Hadelich a soloist to remember in the Barber Violin Concerto.

By Peter Alexander July 27 at 1:15 a.m.

The Colorado Music Festival presented a remarkable orchestra concert last night (July 26), even by their high standards, featuring four works composed in America, all of them worth hearing and all of them presented with great polish.

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CMF artist advisor Peter Oundjian (photo by Jaime Hogge)

The CMF orchestra was conducted by the festival’s artistic advisor, Peter Oundjian, who has devoted his programs this summer to music with American connections. Appearing with Oundjian was violinist Augustin Hadelich, whose performance of the Barber Violin Concerto would be a highlight on any program. But so were, each in their own way, the other three works on the concert.

Barber’s Concerto is unquestionably one of the greatest works by an American composer. No piece starts more enticingly, with music of seductive beauty. Hadelich was in command from the first note, playing with an incomparably sweet tone that easily carried to the back of the hall without a hint of harshness, then turning on a dime to skip through the concerto’s playful moments.

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Violinist Augustin Hadelich

The expressive beauty of his playing served him well in the second movement, a distillation of the late Romantic love of pure sound, with only occasional glimpses of the darker side of the 20th century. The finale, a famously virtuosic display of perpetual motion, went in a blaze of fireworks, zipping past without a single slip. In every facet of the concerto, Hadelich was a soloist to remember.

As if that were not enough, he came back for an encore, playing a Paganini Caprice just to show that no, his fingers are not tired. After the concerto, it was striking to hear the violin alone, every sound exposed. And it sounded just the way it looks on the page, every note right where it should be. The violinist who accompanied me to the concert whispered, “Perfect. That’s all you have to say.”

The concert opened with Hindemith’s Symphonic Metamorphosis on Themes by Carl Maria von Weber, a boisterous and entertaining work that showcases just about every section of the orchestra, including percussion. Weber’s charming early-Romantic ideas are run through Hindemith’s late Romantic filter, adding a lot of instrumental color, a lot of variation, and an occasional harmonic twist to make an attractive, audience-friendly concert piece. Oundjian’s performance loved the orchestral colors of the score and let them shine. It was all great fun, as it is meant to be.

After intermission, the orchestra’s string section returned for George Walker’s Lyric for Strings. Like Barber’s Adagio for Strings, which it resembles, this is a movement from a string quartet arranged for string orchestra. Walker uses the string instruments’ ability to sustain long musical lines, expand into a rich, deep texture, and play ethereal chords that drift into silence. The CMF players filled the hall with luxurious sounds.

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Gerald Finley as Oppenheimer in Doctor Atomic at the Metropolitan Opera

The final member of the quartet of fascinating pieces was the Doctor Atomic Symphony by John Adams, comprising music from Adams’ 2005 opera about Robert Oppenheimer and the first test of an atomic bomb in 1945. The opera compellingly captures the pressures and conflicts experienced by Oppenheimer and the other scientists of the Manhattan Project as the date of the first test approached, as well as the pressure felt and exerted by Gen. Leslie Groves, the Army’s commander for the project. (Doctor Atomic is currently being produced by the Santa Fe Opera. Learn more here.)

All of this is transferred into the Symphony, which contains music of ominous intensity. To my ears, this is one of the most dramatic, most powerful, and most effective new orchestral works I have heard in recent years, and it was played with great force and sheer virtuosity by the CMF orchestra. Individual solos—especially the trumpet’s eloquent interpretation of Oppenheimer’s aria from John Donne’s sonnet “Batter my heart, three person’d God”—were all played very well.

One of the central issues and greatest sources of conflict in the opera is weather, with thunderstorms threatening to cancel the long-awaited test. Perhaps it was coincidence, but the CMF performance was powerful enough that it seemed to stir up its own sudden thunderstorm that lasted beyond a long ovation.

Just like the actual test in 1945, the audience departure from the auditorium had to be delayed. But just as in 1945, the storm passed, and to all appearances the audience went home more than satisfied with what they heard.

CMF Orch.by Eric Berlin

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.

 

 

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.

Ed Dusinberre Takacs Quartet Publicity Photo

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.