Composers go into the wild and come home transformed

By Peter Alexander

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Composers in the Wilderness, Denali National Park and Preserve

There is a wildness in the natural world that most of us never meet. But when we do, we are likely to be transformed.

“I definitely feel changed as a person,” Alondra Vega says after brushing against the Alaskan wilderness. “The experience almost seems like it was too extraordinary to have happened,” Cassie To writes.

13690752_594538287385367_7602763590110916242_nFor Sam Young, an ex-Boulderite living in Los Angeles, touching the wild was an epiphany: “Whenever I come to a place like this, I re-evaluate my entire life and think, ‘Is it all wrong, what I’m doing?’”

Vega, To and Young were three of nine participants in “Composing in the Wilderness,” a workshop led by composer Stephen Lias in Alaska this past summer. The goal of the workshop, Lias says, is to give composers the transformative experience that comes from stepping into the natural world.

“Going into the backcountry of Alaska, I know the experience will change people,” he says. “I wouldn’t presume to guess in what way, but the art that they create will be a manifestation of whatever the change was.

“My favorite thing is putting these composers in that environment and just watching Alaska do its thing on them.”

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Composer Stephen Lias

Lias is known to Boulder audiences for his orchestral piece Gates of the Arctic, premiered by the Boulder Philharmonic in 2014 — a product of Alaska doing its thing on him. He will be back this year, when his All the Songs that Nature Sings will be premiered by the orchestra and conductor Michael Butterman March 25, 2017, and subsequently performed by them at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., March 28.

Working in cooperation with Alaska Geographic, the National Park Service and the Fairbanks Arts Festival, Lias has presented the workshop every year since 2012. It is designed as both an outdoors and an artistic adventure. The composers gather in Denali National Park, where they hike and explore the backcountry. They learn about the wilderness environment from rangers and naturalists.

After Denali, the composers transfer to the remote Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve, where they have four days to compose a new piece inspired by their experiences. Written for performers from the Fairbanks Arts Festival, the pieces are all trios or quartets, but adding to the musical adventure, the composers don’t know in advance what instruments they will write for.

The pieces have to be fairly short and simple, because they have to be written quickly and learned even more quickly by the performers. That forms the third and final segment of the workshop: in just a few days the completed pieces are rehearsed and performed, first in Denali National Park, and then as part of the Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival.

The workshop takes nine participants on a first-come, first-served basis. This year there were five women and four men, ranging in age from early 20s to AARP-eligible. They came from all over: two from Australia, one from New Zealand by way of New York, one from Cuba by way of Canada, the rest from around the U.S.

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The author in Alaska with sons Michael (l) and Ivan (r): Kenai Fjords National Park

As it happens, I had my own Alaskan adventure this summer, driving, hiking and flightseeing in the state with my two oldest sons. I timed my trip to hear this year’s workshop concert, “Sounds of Nature: Alaska Premieres,” July 26 at the Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival. I saw glaciers larger than counties, and stretches of boreal forest larger than several states. And like the composers in the workshop, the vast land profoundly moved me.

When you face such an overwhelming immensity of nature, full of life but devoid of visible human presence, it’s hard not to be affected.

. . . . .

We are often told that nature is cruel, but that is not really true. Nature understands neither kindness nor cruelty; it is indifferent. That is the great lesson of the wilderness, as I was reminded in Anaktuvuk Pass and the composers, well cared for as they were, encountered in Denali: When we leave our well insulated lives to venture into the real world of nature, we have to be prepared to take responsibility for ourselves.

13718714_594543404051522_4074485623699253369_nWashington, very much a city-dweller from New York, had an experience that captures just what Lias hopes the composers will discover in their brush with nature. “We hiked up this high mountain pass and we were given space to go out on our own and just sit quietly and reflect,” she recalls. “I felt like an intruder in some ways — like my breathing was too loud.

“A moth came and landed on my hand, and I didn’t want to move because I was interrupting its space. It was really peaceful, and really real because everything has been undisturbed for so long. Being able to trespass there for a couple of days has been really calming.”

13718623_594538980718631_7012257335267384579_nOf all the participants, David John Lang may have captured the power of wilderness most eloquently. After returning to his home, in Adelaide, South Australia, he writes: “I took my journal, in which I often write letters to God, but I was surprised at how little I wrote while I was in Alaska. It was like I was too busy being a listener for once, hearing and seeing and loving God’s creation.

“I felt really, really small, and it was awesome.”

Read the entire article in Boulder Weekly.

New CMF music director Jean-Marie Zeitouni: “Don’t call me maestro!”

The conductor wants to build a relationship with the orchestra

Jean-Marie Zeitouni

Jean-Marie Zeitouni

By Peter Alexander

Jean-Marie Zeitouni, the new music director of the Colorado Music Festival, finds Boulder a very comfortable place to fit in and make friends.

Just don’t call him “maestro.”

He made this clear when he introduced the 2015 festival season Thursday evening (Feb. 26) at the Chautauqua Community House. “You can call me Jean-Marie or JMZ,” he said. “You can call me many things behind my back. But don’t call me maestro.”

When asked about that a couple of days later, he shook his head and made a sour face. “No,” he said. “I have played in an orchestra. There is not one master and the rest are slaves.”

This experience as an orchestra member is a very important part of the way Zeitouni thinks about his job here in Boulder. “I try to be the conductor I would want as a member of the orchestra,” he says. “The greatest goal for me this year (at the Colorado Music Festival) is to develop my relationship with the orchestra.”

One part of that relationship is to be found in the repertoire that Zeitouni, as music director, selects for the players, as members of the orchestra, to rehearse and perform. And in the season that was announced Thursday night, Zeitouni has included pieces that the musicians may be expected to relish.

For example, in addition to the usual Beethoven and Tchaikovsky and Sibelius symphonies, which the orchestra members have probably played many times, there are pieces such as Charles Ives’s Symphony No. 3 and Michael Daugherty’s Deus ex Machina that are outside the standard repertoire.

Surely some of the orchestra members will look forward to the French Baroque music of Jean-Philippe Rameau’s Les Boréades. A rarity like George Antheil’s Jazz Symphony will have its advocates. And next to the perennially popular American in Paris there is the rare opportunity to play Darius Milhaud’s response, A Frenchman in New York.

But probably nothing will be more exciting for the players than Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle. As with much of Bartók’s orchestral music, this is a virtuoso score that gives the players a chance to really show their worth. Although it has two singing characters, Zeitouni describes Bluebeard’s Castle as “an opera where the orchestra is the main character.” (It will be performed in Hungarian with English surtitles.)

Andrew Bradford

Andrew Bradford

Indeed, Zeitouni and CMF executive director Andrew Bradford confirm that they have already heard from members of the orchestra that this is the piece that they are most looking forward to.

Zeitouni, who lives in Montreal, will spend the summer in Boulder with his family. He readily cites Boulder’s concern for health, the environment, and the presence of many different cultural—and counter-cultural—elements as aspects of the city that he likes. “Like in Canada, you can be whoever you are,” he says. “I feel comfortable here.”

“It reminds me of the places I have been most joyous, in the Rockies of Canada, especially Banff.”

Speaking of their vision of the CMF, Zeitouni and Bradford point out that there were some limitations to what they could do in the first year. There was not time to develop partnerships that could be assets to the festival, and many potential soloists were not available on relatively short notice. That will change as they have more time to plan coming seasons.

2015-festival-icon-with-dates-300x213As for the future, Zeitouni says there is no fixed version of what any festival should be. He is clear that taking the heritage and the strengths of the CMF in consideration, they expect to move in new directions, aiming to make the summers more exciting, and to gain more national recognition for a festival that has already achieved a great deal in its history.

“We have many ideas” Zeitouni says. “We have big things in mind that we are starting to organize, but we want people to focus on what is there this year.

“What we have put together is quite good and we want to people to get excited about that.”

# # #

Read my season preview, and view a complete listing of the summer’s concert, below.

Je suis Charlie

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Cartoon by Rob Tornoe in response to the killings in Paris.

By Peter Alexander

What happened is Paris today (Jan. 7) has nothing to do with classical music and nothing to do with Boulder. But some principles transcend artistic categories and borders.

In that spirit, and as a journalist in my own little corner of the media world, I declare my absolute solidarity with the cartoon artists and journalists of Charlie Hebdo, of France, and of the world. Freedom of expression, which is enshrined in the very first amendment to the U.S. Constitution, is an irreplaceable cornerstone of democracy and freedom in a progressive society.

Are some of the cartoons that Charlie Hebdo has published offensive? Yes. But the magazine offended widely, not narrowly; to use an overworked phrase, they were truly an “equal opportunity offender,” far more so that most who claim that title. Do some of them cross a line that I would not want to cross? Yes. But the right of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists to offend and to cross lines is part of the freedom that we cherish. Freedom of expression is no freedom at all if it only applies to opinions that are endorsed by social convention. Which is why I am posting this on sharpsansflatirons.

I also want to express my deepest sympathy to the family and friends of the French journalists and police who were slaughtered. I cannot imagine the anguish that is being felt. But I have been heartened by the response of the French people and the world’s press.

Here are links to a few of the responses that I have found, and that I urge readers to look at and consider. There is much duplication among the cartoons, but it is valuable to observe how widely they are being shared around the world today. That is, if nothing else, an indication of how universal the response has been to this horrible—but sadly no longer unthinkable—tragedy.

onislam: “What Muslim Scholars Say About Paris Attack”

Buzzfeed: “23 Heartbreaking Cartoons From Artists Responding to the Charlie Hebdo Shooting”

BBC: “Charlie Hebdo Attack: the response in pictures”

Vox: “12 Powerful Political Cartoons responding to the Charlie Hebdo attack”

Washington Post: “#JeSuisCharlie: Cartoonists react to the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris”

Toronto Globe and Mail: “Cartoonists Around the World Respond”

Starkland’s new CD features music that is both accessible and deeply emotional

Boulder-based CD label releases acclaimed album of music by Martin Bresnick

By Peter Alexander

Pryaers cover“Prayers Remain Forever,” a new CD release from Boulder-based Starkland, is a wonderfully varied and deeply satisfying collection of six works by composer Martin Bresnick.

The six pieces on the album spring from very different sources: One was inspired by a personal experience, one by a painting by Goya, and three by literary sources. They are also diverse in instrumentation, ranging from solo violin and solo piano to a mixed quartet of violin, oboe, viola and cello. What they have in common is their expressivity. Bresnick, who teaches composition at Yale, is represented here by music that is personal, has an emotional depth, and is accessible to the listener.

Tom Steenland, who operates the Starkland CD label (which is under the umbrella of Spruceland Music, Inc., in case you were not already confused), is delighted to be issuing music that is easily appreciated. “I’m probably more excited about [new music today] than ever,” he says.

“In the mid-70s when I was studying composition, new music was pretty esoteric and not enjoyed much by the general public, but there’s been sort of a revolution since then. Music is more accessible, it’s exciting. People are interested in what composers are composing.

“It’s been a tremendous change I never would have envisioned.”

Tom Steenland

Tom Steenland

Steenland started the Starkland label in 1991 as a way of transferring music by Tod Dockstader from vinyl LPs to more up-to-date CDs. From that very first release, Steenland has seen the mission of his label to be the “promotion of alternative classical, experimental, and avant-garde music through the production of high-quality recordings.”

Composers in the Starkland catalogue include Jay Cloidt, Paul Dresher, Aaron Jay Kernis, Meredith Monk, Pauline Oliveros, John Zorn, and others. The label typically releases 3 or 4 recordings a year of about 1000 CDs each.

Martin Bresnick. Photo by Marc Ostow

Martin Bresnick. Photo by Marc Ostow

“Prayers Remain Forever” opens with “Going home – Vysoke, My Jerusalem” for oboe, violin, viola and cello. A mournful meditation on a visit to his ancestral home in Russia, where his immigrant grandparents had witnessed the murder of family members, this is a wonderful opening track that draws the listener in and prepares the emotional ground that Bresnick covers throughout the album. To my ears, this is the most deeply moving piece on the album, with the plaintive oboe weaving in and out of sustained strings, seeking but never quite finding repose.

“Ishi’s Song” for piano is based on a fragment of song recorded by Ishi, the last of California’s Yahi-Yani Indians, who died in 1916. The song fragment, sung by the pianist at the outset, is transformed into a bright, rhythmic minimalist sketch colored by pentatonic elements.

“Josephine The Singer” for solo violin is based on a Kafka story about a mouse who is—or fancies herself?—a great singer, although the fragmented, sketchy sounds from the violin do not suggest a singer of great lyrical qualities.

Francisco Goya: "Strange Devotion," Plate 66 of "Disasters of War"

Francisco Goya: “Strange Devotion,” Plate 66 of “Disasters of War”

“Strange Devotion” for piano was inspired by a Goya etching from “Disasters of War” in which peasants are kneeling before a cart of corpses drawn by a donkey. The plodding chords and the jingling of the donkey’s bells in the piano part both illustrate the image and convey the remorseless futility of war.

In “A Message From the Emperor,” two percussionists both recite and provide decoration for another short story by Kafka. Rattling marimba and xylophone capture the truly Kafka-esque tale of a messenger dispatched by a dying emperor with a critical message than can never be delivered.

The CDs final, title track, “Prayers Remain Forever” for cello and piano, takes its inspiration from a poem by Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai, “Gods Come and Go, Prayers Remain Forever.” A virtuoso passage of accumulating momentum suddenly breaks down into a long, intense section that seems to illustrate the poem’s opening line, “Tombstones crumble.” The virtuosic, headlong rush into destruction ends the CD with a powerful image of finality.

I don’t listen to a lot of new CDs, but this strikes me as one of the best recordings of new music that I have heard in a long time. I am not alone in that evaluation: “Prayers Remain Forever” has been selected one of the best albums of new music in 2014 by Sequenza21, an important new music Web site; and received glowing reviews in the classical music publications Gramophone and Fanfare.

“Prayers Remain Forever”
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Music of Martin Bresnick: Going Home – Vysoke, My Jerusalem; Ishi’s Song; Josephine the Singer; Strange Devotion; A Message from the Emperor; Prayers Remain Forever. Performers: Double Entendre (Christa Robinson, oboe; Caleb Burhans, violin; John Pickford Richards, viola; and Brian Snow, cello); Lisa Moore, piano; Sarita Kwok, violin; Michael Compitello and Ian Rosenblum, percussion and speakers; Ashley Bathgate, cello.

Starkland ST-221 (60:38)

Available from Amazon, Arkiv and iTunes.

2014 in Review: The classical music scene in Boulder

Now in the rear-view mirror, 2014 was a busy year in classical music.

2014-Monthly-CalendarBy Peter Alexander

It was a time of stability, it was a time of change.

With apologies to Charles Dickens, 2014 brought the classical institutions of Boulder both stability and change, and happily there was “the spring of hope” in the changes rather than a prolonged “winter of despair.”

In other words, there was a lot of news in 2014.

Andrew Bradford

Andrew Bradford

The most significant news came from the Colorado Music Festival, which underwent perhaps not a winter but a few days of despair in January when their newly hired executive director backed out before a single day on the job. But hope was certainly in the offing by summer, when new Executive Director Andrew Bradford was on hand and three well qualified candidates to replace Michael Christie as music director led concerts in the Chautauqua Auditorium.

Jean-Marie Zeitouni

Jean-Marie Zeitouni

In September CMF announced the selection of Jean-Marie Zeitouni, a dynamic young conductor from Montreal as music director. Putting words to the hopes that many Boulder residents have for the future of the festival, Zeitouni said “I feel blessed to have been given the opportunity to serve as music director of this wonderful organization, and . . . I take this responsibility with great respect and care.

“I think I am coming to understand the great love and passion so many people in this community have for CMF and CMA, and I intend not only to create new, exciting programs for their enjoyment but also to be a steward of the organization.”

Since then, Bradford and Zeitouni have been hard at work planning the 2015 festival season. We will know more what their leadership will mean for the festival and Boulder audiences when the summer schedule is announced in February. That announcements already looks to be near the top of the classical music news for 2015.

Zachary Carrettin with electric violin. Photo by Michelle Maloy Dillon.

Zachary Carretin with electric violin. Photo by Michelle Maloy Dillon.

Boulder’s Bach Festival also has a new director, now in his second year. Zachary Carretin moved permanently to Boulder this year, which allows the festival to expand its offerings outside of the traditional one week in the spring. “We are continuing that tradition,” Carretin said of the festival week, “and that definitely centers around the great masterworks of Johann Sebastian Bach. But we are expanding the season throughout the academic year to include more concerts, and of varying sizes from solo to chamber to orchestral.”

One important aspect of the expanded offerings is the Compass Series, designed to present Bach’s music in non-traditional ways. “I consider the music of Bach to be a compass from which I view and hear all other music,” Carretin says. “It serves as a point of reference from which one can peer into the distance, travel backward in time or examine how those old music forms influenced subsequent sounds.”

In effect, the Compass Series will re-imagine Bach’s music, presenting it with unexpected media and in unexpected contexts. Good examples will be found in the coming months, with concerts of Bach on electric violin in February and Bach paired with the music of John Cage in March, both presented at the Dairy Center.

Robert Olson

Robert Olson

One more change on the local scene is on the way, although not for another year. In March 2014, Robert Olson announced that the 2015 Mahler Festival will be his last. As the founding director of the festival, he has been a part of Boulder’s musical life for 27 years. Thus far, no announcement has been made about the festival’s future without Olson.

Michael Butterman

Michael Butterman

If 2014 was a time of change for CMF and the Bach Fest, it was a time to celebrate stability for the Boulder Philharmonic, which renewed the contract of maestro Michael Butterman. Always a thoughtful and provocative programmer, Butterman well deserved the confidence reflected in his new five–year contract, through the 2018–19 season.

In 2014 there were also some noteworthy performances in Boulder.

You will have your own favorites, which you are invited to share in comments. Here are eight performances that I found particularly memorable at the end of the year:

Venice Baroque Orchestra

Venice Baroque Orchestra

Feb. 13: Venice Baroque Orchestra brought their fresh and energetic playing into Macky Auditorium. With hometown ties to Vivaldi and a commitment to the excitement of playing Baroque music, Venice Baroque showed how far “authentic” performance has come in the 21st century. The days are long gone of “sewing-machine” Baroque music. This was a virtuoso performance that raised Vivaldi to the ranks of the great 18th-ceturey composers, where he belongs.

July 17–18: The orchestral concert conducted at CMF by Carlos Miguel Prieto, one of the three candidates for music director, was a wonderful exploration of music both familiar and not quite familiar. It included the full ballet The Three Cornered Hat by Manuel de Falla, which includes some slightly familiar excepts. Heard in full, the score emerged as a fascinating display of Spanish culture and music. On the same program, Prieto presented the brash and colorful original scoring of Stravinsky’s Petrushka. I was delighted to hear one of my favorite pieces in different garb, blazing with all the colors Stravinsky first imagined.

Aug. 1: Andrew Grams, not a candidate for the CMF position but clearly well liked by orchestra and audience alike, led a program of Russian masterworks as part of the CMF season. Under his baton, Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4, a hoary evergreen of the orchestral repertoire that too easily descends into melodramatic excess, emerged as an exciting showpiece that had musicians and listeners alike wowed at concert’s end.

Aug. 7–8: The third, and successful candidate for the music director’s position at CMF, Jean-Marie Zeitouni, conducted a committed, energetic reading of two great tone poems by Richard Strauss, Don Juan and Ein Heldenleben. So much Strauss in one evening can be heavy going, but it was a rare treat to hear Ein Heldenleben live. True virtuoso orchestral music, these two scores elicited the best virtuoso orchestra playing from the CMF’s wonderful orchestra and showcased Zeitouni’s orchestral leadership.

Stephen Lias in Gates or the Arctic National Park. Photo courtesy of the composer.

Stephen Lias in Gates or the Arctic National Park. Photo courtesy of the composer.

Sept. 13: Boulder Philharmonic and Michael Butterman chose to open their 2014–15 season with the world premiere of Stephen Lias’s Gates of the Arctic. Something of a musical travelogue that the composer acknowledges is almost film music, Gates of the Arctic is, I wrote in my review, “thoroughly entertaining” but also “a well crafted and skillfully designed piece that features strong contrasts and great musical drama, woven into an effective orchestral score.” The same concert also introduced the Boulder Phil’s new concertmaster, Charles Weatherbee, in a skillful and satisfying performance of Rimsky-Korsakov’s orchestral showpiece Scheherazade.

Kronos Quartet performing Beyond Zero. Photo courtesy of Kronos Quartet

Kronos Quartet performing Beyond Zero. Photo courtesy of Kronos Quartet

Oct. 8: Kronos Quartet’s performance in Macky Auditorium was a treat for fans of new music, or anyone who loves a good musical adventure. I thought the performance of Aleksandra Vrebalov’s Beyond Zero: 1914–1918, a multi-media remembrance of World War I, was one of the most powerful musical experiences of the year. The program also included a notable premier of Speak, Time by Boulder native Yuri Boguinia, and a number of pieces that draw upon Eastern European folk song. As always with Kronos, the entire concert was a fascinating musical journey. Love ‘em or hate ‘em, they are never dull.

Aeris: Avi Stein, Zachary Carrettin, William Skeen

Aeris: Avi Stein, Zachary Carretin, William Skeen

Oct. 16: The Baroque-instrument trio Aeris’ program of virtuoso sonatas by Italian composers Vivaldi, Veracini, Stradella, Valentini, Locatelli and Nicola Matteis, and a very Italianate and wildly virtuosic sonata by J.S. Bach, was a telling opening for the 2014­–15 Bach Festival. The program reflected the intention of the festival’s director, Zachary Carretin, to put Bach into new and exciting contexts, giving audiences a deeper appreciation of his role in the musical world; and it also showed Carretin’s virtuoso abilities as the trio’s violinist. More from that menu will be welcome.

Oct. 17: The performance of Samuel Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915 by the Pro Musica Colorado Chamber Orchestra under conductor Cynthia Katsarellis and soprano Amanda Balastrieri gave a depth and dark poignancy to a score that is often treated as simple nostalgia. The rest of the concert—Sibelius and Mozart—was delightful, but the reading of Barber will stay with me and color every other performance I hear of the evocative score.

I apologize to anyone not mentioned here; there were many wonderful and worthy performances that just fell short of making the list. (And then there were the concerts I didn’t get to!) When it comes to memorable concerts, there are no wrong answers. Your experience is as valid as anyone’s, which is why I would love to hear everyone’s reflections on the past year. In the meantime, Happy New Year and many musical returns to all!

NOTE: The story was edited 12/3/15 to clarify sentences that readers found unclear, and to change the spelling of Petrushka to conform with previous stories.

With engineers in the cab, it’s time to fix the tracks

My thoughts and recommendations for the future of the Colorado Music Festival

By Peter Alexander

Boulder’s Colorado Music Festival is now back to full administrative strength. The railroad that is the CMF was not running as smoothly this past summer as it had in the past, largely due to the the lack of a music director  and the need to bring in multiple conductors to try out for the music director slot. But now that there are permanent musical and executive directors back running the railroad, the train can once again get up to speed. But first, it would be a good idea to clear the tracks of any unnecessary obstacles.

So to speak.

Andrew Bradford

Andrew Bradford

Metaphors aside, it is time for the CMF’s two recent hires, Musical Director Jean-Marie Zeitouni and Administrative Director Andrew Bradford, to start shaping the future of the festival. Since they are both new to Boulder, I offer here six suggestions that would draw on what I believe have been the strengths of the festival, as I experienced it over several years.

Reinstate the “Click” Commission. This was one of the most creative approaches to commissioning new music I have seen. If you have not taken part, the festival chose three composers each year, one of whom would be commissioned a new piece to open the next year’s festival. Each composer’s biography and sample works were posted on the CMF Web page, and audience members could vote for their preferred composer—by making donations to the commission. All donations went into a common pot to fund the commission, and the composer who raised the most money in their name received the commission—and the full pot.

This ingenious approach got the audience involved much more than in traditional commissioning schemes, where the festival would say, ‘We’ve selected a terrific composer (whose music you may not have heard). Trust us—it will be wonderful, if you give us some money for the commission.’

With the “Click” Commission, the contributors were part of the selection process, and they felt a great sense of ownership when the piece was premiered the next year. And the CMF received some pretty terrific pieces from composers who knew that they were a popular choice from the audience. Everyone benefited: the composer got a commission from a prominent musical institution, the festival got a new piece written for its opening concert each year, and the audience got the satisfaction of being involved from the choice of composer to the premiere.

Jean-MarieZeitouni

Jean-MarieZeitouni

Treasure the orchestra. Just about all of the guest conductors have I talked to have mentioned the orchestra as one of the strengths of the CMF. The quality of the orchestral performances is the main thing that brings audiences to Chautauqua in the summer. You may disagree about repertoire—more new music, less new music; more Beethoven, less Beethoven; more mashups, fewer mashups—but without first-rate orchestral performances of the repertoire, the discussions are irrelevant. No one travels to hear mediocre performances of their favorite pieces.

The quality of orchestra that we have enjoyed at CMF is extraordinarily high, but it is also very delicate. Such quality can easily be lost very quickly, but it can only be built over a long time. It would represent a long-term setback for the festival if the quality of the orchestra was allowed to slip. Among other things, that means treating the orchestral players as equal partners in the festival. It is not clear whether that was the case over the search process. I have heard many stories, not all reliable, but it appears that players were included in some parts of the search process but not others. But whatever the truth about the search process, everyone at CMF should remember that the trust and confidence of the players is not a commodity than should be spent carelessly.

Going forward, every effort should be made to honor the players in the way they are treated, from consulting and respecting their opinions, to pay and housing and other forms of support.

eTown Hall, Boulder

eTown Hall, Boulder

Speaking of honoring the orchestra, start by expanding the chamber music performances. The chamber concerts at eTown Hall have become one of the great jewels of the CMF. They give audiences access to a wholly different repertoire than the rest of the festival, and they present the musicians in a much more intimate setting. They give the players the opportunity to make their individual contributions as artists, to select what they want to play, and to craft their own interpretations. There is no better way to support and honor the players than giving them opportunities to perform chamber music. The musicians win and the audiences win; what could be better?

Find challenging and intriguing ways to explore music by living composers. I have said this before, but it is worth saying again: Everyone loves to talk about taking risks, but risk means the real possibility of failure. If you have no failures, you have not taken any risks. In music, this means any commissioning or presenting program for new music will include some pieces that don’t find an audience or just turn out to be duds. So it goes. CMF has to decide: does it want to stick to predictable, unexciting programming and watch the audience slowly shrink away, or do they want to find exciting and challenging new ways of engaging with the audience, at the cost of the occasional failure?

Drop the pop-concert portions of the “Musical Mashup” series and return to the kind of diversity that was created by the “World Music” series. The CMF Mashup concerts conducted by Steve Hackman have attracted sell-out crowd and should be continued on both commercial and artistic grounds. The other two concerts on the series this year, however, attracted small audiences and did not meet their projected goals. I see no reason to continue what was, quite frankly, a very conventional approach to programming: presenting pop artists (who may or may not have a significant following in Colorado) with an under-utilized orchestra.

tf3

Time for Three

There are other ways of positioning concerts along the boundaries between Western classical music and other traditions, including jazz, pop, folk, or music of other cultures. Whether you call it “World Music” or “Blurred Lines” or “New Approaches” doesn’t matter. What does matter is the creativity it spawns and the enthusiasm it generates. CMF would benefit from having a way of presenting a group like Time for Three, new music by Chris Brubeck, or collaborations with fiddler Mark O’Connor and the klezmer clarinetist David Krakauer, to name a few of the festival’s past endeavors that were not only fascinating and engaging, but performances on the very highest technical and artistic level. The best way to grow the festival is to engage with a wider and more diverse audience, and that should remain a focus for the festival in the future as it was in the recent past.

Incidentally, it should be noted the Zeitouni, a French-Canadian whose father is Egyptian and mother is Belgian, seems well positioned to sell the importance of multiculturalism (or multi-stylism) for creating musical strength and building an audience.

Pianist Olga Kern played all the Rachmaninoff concertos over two nights in 2013

Pianist Olga Kern played all the Rachmaninoff concertos over two nights in 2013

Bring back the concept of the “mini-festival within the festival.” One of the glories of the summer has been past mini-festivals of Beethoven symphonies, violin concertos, and music from the holocaust. And who can forget hearing all of the Rachmaninoff piano concertos in two nights? That was both an amazing feat of musical athletics and a remarkable artistic experience. These are the kinds of themes that distinguish a festival from a subscription season.

But above all, what the festival needs now is imaginative, professional leadership. Let us all hope that with the new Music Director Jean-Marie Zeitouni working with new Executive Director Andrew Bradford, CMF has the team in place to provide just that. We need to get the trains back on schedule.

Zeitouni chosen as music director of Colorado Music Festival

French-Canadian maestro was “consensus choice” of the search committee

By Peter Alexander

Jean-Marie Zeitouni

Jean-Marie Zeitouni

The board of the Colorado Music Festival and Center for Musical Arts has announced the selection of Jean-Marie Zeitouni as music director for the festival, succeeding Michael Christie. He is the third music director in the festival’s history.

During an initial three-year term, Zeitouni will oversee all artistic planning for the festival, lead five weeks of Festival Orchestra concerts each summer, and be involved in the center’s music education program.

The board’s announcement states that Zeitouni emerged as a consensus choice of the search committee. He was one of three official finalists for the position, along with William Boughton and Carlos Miguel Prieto. Each of the three conducted two programs during the 2014 festival—one with chamber orchestra and one with the full symphony orchestra. These three finalists were selected from a roster of dozens of conductors who were interested in the position.

The decision comes just weeks after the CMF’s new executive director, Andrew Bradford, officially began work. The festival had been without a permanent appointee for either position since August 2013.

zeitouni.3“It is a real honor to join CMF and CMA as music director,” ZeitouniZeitouni said. “In both programs I conducted, the orchestra played sensationally and was a true pleasure to work with. It was the kind of collaboration that every conductor dreams of. With an orchestra of this caliber, an important music school in the center, and a delightful community like Boulder, I could not be more excited for the opportunity to lead this marvelous organization into the future.”

Ted Lupberger, search committee co-chair and a CMA and CMA board member said, “From the very first time the search committee spoke with Jean-Marie during the early stages of the search process, we were thoroughly impressed with his dynamic personality, his understanding of the many roles of the 21st-century music director, his passion for music and music education, and his excitement about the Boulder community.”

Jeffrey Work, CMF principal trumpet who was involved in the search process, added, “With the appointment of Maestro Jean-Marie Zeitouni, the CMF & CMA gains not only a leader of high artistic ideals, but one with a vision for the future of this treasured institution.”

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hsJean-MarieZeitouniOf the three candidates, Zeitouni probably has the lowest profile. Outside of his two concerts at Chautauqua this summer, he remains largely an unknown quantity in Boulder. That is not necessarily a bad thing—Michael Christie was largely unknown when he took the helm at CMF, too. But we have very little to go by in judging Zeitouni’s likely qualities as a festival director.

The two concerts he led this summer offered very solid performances of demanding orchestral works, and he certainly gets high marks for those. I was not entirely convinced by the nuances of the two great Strauss tone poems that he led, Don Juan and Ein Heldenleben (A hero’s life), but two concerts are hardly enough to have an idea of his vision as the director of a major festival. Programming for all conductors this summer was circumscribed by the situation and the requests of the CMF.

Zeitouni’s conversations with the CMF board and search committee may have been extensive and revealing, and we may hope that the board learned about his long-term vision and leadership skills. But those conversations were of course confidential.

Nor does he have a past professional record that reveals much. He was conductor of the Columbus (Ohio) Symphony, a position he relinquished as of Aug. 14 of this year. It is not clear why he left Columbus, except that it was, Zeitouni said, an “amicable” parting. He remains artistic director of I Musici de Montréal and maintains an active schedule as a guest conductor, but these are not professional activities that have yet built a record of achievement.

Still, there should be no doubt about his musical qualifications. In addition to the two first-rate concerts here, Zeitouni has gotten high praise from musicians and critics alike. When he moved to Columbus, he had several strong endorsements.

Laurent Patenaude was head of artistic administration for Les Violons du Roy, a chamber orchestra in Quebec that Zeitouni has conducted. Patenaude was quoted in the Columbus Dispatch saying that Zeitouni “has a real clear idea of the sound he wants, and he’s able to create it. . . . Because he’s such a great leader and listener, he can build something with what he has in front of him and at the same time bring the musicians someplace else.”

In 2012, the Boston Globe critic wrote of Zeitouni’s performance with the Handel & Haydn Society that the conductor’s “punk-tinged ‘Eroica’ was . . . the best live performance of this symphony I’ve heard.” And in 2011 the Seattle Times praised “one of the most memorable ‘Messiahs’ this city has seen.”

So we can be comfortable with his musical skills. But the music director has to do far more than conduct the orchestra. He has to maintain relations with the executive director, the board, major contributors, and other cultural leaders in the community, and of course he has to help raise funds. He has to bring in the audience on the strength of his perceived personality.

Zeitouni.2Zeitouni has a reputation—what maestro doesn’t?—for being prickly, which might not play well in Boulder. When I interviewed him, I did not sense the same level of eagerness to engage Boulder on its own terms that I have found in the other candidates and in musicians who have been successful here. But now that he has been here and met the board, he may well have a better understanding of the town and the audience. He appears to have the kind of quick intelligence that would be up to the task.

Another critical part of the music director’s job is programming for the festival. If the programs do not consistently capture the audience’s interest, the festival cannot remain viable. And here we have very little idea what Zeitouni might bring to the task. He has no record with an event comparable to the CMF.

Concentrated in a short period of time, festivals have different programming needs than an orchestra season that is spread over eight or nine months, so Zeitouni’s tenure with the Columbus symphony is not pertinent. Nor does his record as a guest, conducting individual concerts around the world, tell us what we would like to know: what can we expect from a Zeitouni-led festival?

We will know far more when we see the program for 2015. If Zeitouni and Bradford share a common vision for the festival and work harmoniously to achieve that vision, there is reason to be hopeful. But until they get to work, we will all have to reserve judgment.

The next chapter starts now.

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My previous interview with Jean-Marie Zeitouni can be found here. A further interview will follow when Maestro Zeitouni returns from traveling in France.