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”
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.



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.


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.”

# # # # #

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.

# # # # #

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

Boulder’s rich abundance of orchestra concerts

No fewer than five resident orchestras offer seasons for 2014–15  

By Peter Alexander

Of this you can be certain: there is no shortage of orchestra concerts in Boulder.

With the end of the summer and the departure of the area’s best orchestra—that of the Colorado Music Festival—now’s a good time to look at Boulder’s resident orchestras that perform during the main season, between September and May. In fact, there are no fewer than five of them. This means there is a remarkable richness of orchestra concerts for a city the size of Boulder. It is one of the true blessings of living here, and with so many different orchestras and conductors contributing to the mix, it also creates a diversity of programming that would be the envy of many larger cities.

The Boulder orchestras vary widely in professionalism and experience, but each offers it own rewards. So before the season gets under way with the opening concert of the Boulder Philharmonic in Macky Auditorium on Sept. 14, here is a quick survey of area orchestras and their pending seasons. (More information on individual concerts will appear here throughout the year.)


Michael Butterman

The Boulder Philharmonic (BPO) is Boulder’s fully-professional orchestra. Considered a regional symphony, the Boulder Phil has an annual budget just over $1 million. The orchestra has a negotiated contract with its players, who are paid union scale. In these respects, the BPO leads the orchestra pack in Boulder.

The conductor is Michael Butterman, who also conducts the Shreveport (La.) Symphony, and is now the inaugural music director of the Pennsylvania Philharmonic, leading its very first season in 2014-15. It should be noted that regional orchestras are not full-time and do not pay anyone from the director on down through the sections a full-time wage.

For example, BPO has six concerts on its 2014–15 season, plus performances of The Nutcracker with Boulder Ballet. This is not full-time work, and members of the orchestra generally have other income, either from teaching, from other orchestras, or from free-lance work—or a combination of all three.

The same is true of the music director: In addition to the three orchestras listed above, Butterman is resident conductor of the Jacksonville (Fl.) Symphony and principal conductor for education and community engagement for the Rochester (N.Y.) Philharmonic. This summer, he was guest conductor for the opening concert of the Colorado Music Festival.

Butterman is a skilled and thoughtful conductor. Under his direction, the Phil presents worthy, professional-quality performances of programs tailored to the Boulder audience. Often that means a careful combination of challenging new works and familiar favorites. Past explorations have included concerts accompanied by aerial artists, music by the original mother of invention Frank Zappa, and the premiere of CU faculty member Jeffrey Nytch’s First Symphony, inspired by Colorado’s geological formations.

Conforming to the pattern, the opening concert of the ‘14–15 season features the world premiere of Gates of the Arctic by Stephen Lias and the perennially popular Scheherazade by Rimsky-Korsakov. Other highlights of the season will include works inspired by birds; a pops concert featuring music by piano men Billy Joel and Elton John; concertos for timpani, violin and piano; and ending with Bartók’s virtuoso showpiece Concerto for Orchestra. (Season information and tickets available here.)

Cynthia Katsarellis and the Pro Music Colorado Chamber Orchestra

Cynthia Katsarelis and the Pro Music Colorado Chamber Orchestra

The Pro Musica Chamber Orchestra is fully professional orchestra, although operating at a more modest scale than the BPO. With only three concerts in a season and a much smaller number of musicians, their budget for the coming year is $63,000.

Still, the orchestra, under the direction of Cynthia Katsarelis, presents some terrific performances and offers intriguing repertoire for smaller orchestra. For example, one of last year’s program paired Vivaldi’s much loved Seasons with the fascinating, tango-inflected Four Seasons of Buenos Aires by Astor Piazzolla.

Players in the Pro Musica come from the CU faculty and professional orchestras on the front range. Katsarelis is a first-rate conductor who probably does not get enough recognition locally. She has conducted at the Colorado Music Festival, Rocky Ridge Music Festival and Loveland Opera Theatre. Every year since 2004 she has traveled to Haiti to conduct the Orchestre Philharmonique Sainte Trinité and to teach at the Holy Trinity School of Music in Port-au-Prince.

Katsarellis likes to explore themes in her concerts; building on the success of last year’s “Seasons,” the coming year will include a performance of Philip Glass’ Violin Concerto No. 2, “American Seasons.” There will also be a concert titled “American Voice” featuring Samuel Barber’s idyllic Knoxville: Summer of 1915 and a special performance with the silent film The Passion of Joan of Arc. (Season opens Oct. 17; information and tickets available here.)

Bahman Saless with the Boulder Chamber Orcehstra. Photo by Keith Bobo.

Bahman Saless with the Boulder Chamber Orcehstra. Photo by Keith Bobo.

There is another mostly professional chamber orchestra here, the Boulder Chamber Orchestra (BCO).

This group was established in 2004 by music director Bahman Saless when friends suggested he start an amateur orchestra. Since then, the orchestra has become almost entirely paid (except for a few members who decline payment), and operates a season of seven concerts, a New Year’s Eve performance, and a couple of “MiniChamber” concerts on a budget of about $147,000.

A physicist-turned-conductor with a Ph.D. from CU and experience working for NASA and Jet Propulsion Laboratories, Saless is a genial presence at the BCO’s performances. He often speaks to the audience and has built a devoted following in the community. He loves to find key words—often enigmatic—to describe the orchestra’s season and concerts. For example, 2014–15, the BCO’s 11th season, is titled “Mystique” and the opening concert, Sept. 19, featuring Michael Haydn’s Requiem in C minor performed with St. Martin’s Chamber Choir, is titled “Charisma.”

Saless often invites compelling but little known soloists to join the orchestra. The coming year will feature performances by Spanish pianist Victoria Aja playing De Falla’s Nights in the Gardens of Spain and presenting a solo “Night of Spanish Piano Masterpieces,” Israeli-American cellist Inbal Segev and American violinist Andrew Sords, among others. (Season information and tickets available here.)

Devin Patrick Hughes

Devin Patrick Hughes

A community orchestra that has mostly remained so is the Boulder Symphony, formerly known as the Timberline Symphony.With an annual budget of $100,000, the orchestra has some paid members, including the string section principals, among volunteer musicians. They present six orchestra programs during the year, also offer four open rehearsals of pending concerts, and participate in educational activities.

Conductor of the Boulder Symphony is Devin Patrick Hughes, a young and dynamic personality who also leads the Arapahoe Philharmonic. He has also recently held conducting positions as Music Director of the Santa Fe Youth Symphony Association, Denver Contemporary Chamber Players, Resident Conductor of the Denver Philharmonic Orchestra, and Assistant Conductor for the Denver Young Artists Orchestra.

Hughes likes to collaborate with other local groups, such as Denver’s contemporary music Playground Ensemble, and has presented several world premieres—an unusual style of programming for a community orchestra. He has invited a number of young artists to appear as soloist with the orchestra. For example, the current season includes appearances by violinist Phoenix Avalon, a 13-year-old prodigy who has played with the Boulder Symphony in past seasons, and pianist Toku Kawata, a graduate student at CU. (Season opens Sept. 20; information and tickets available here.)

University Symphony

University Symphony in Macky Auditorium

The list of Boulder orchestras is rounded out by the CU University Symphony Orchestra, led by Prof. Gary Lewis, who is also director of Orchestral Studies in the College of Music as well as music director of the Midland-Odessa (Texas) Symphony.

Concerts by the University Symphony are held in Macky Auditorium on the CU campus and are free. Obviously a non-professional, student ensemble, the University Symphony—the top orchestral ensemble in the College of Music—presents fully satisfying performances of major orchestral repertoire.

Their first concert of the 2014–15 season, at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 18, will feature Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, and subsequent concerts this year will include Robert Schumann’s Symphony No. 3 (“Rhenish”), Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade and Respighi’s Pines of Rome.

If you look beyond the Boulder city limits, there are still more orchestras in the county. Particularly noteworthy is the Longmont Symphony Orchestra, a semi-professional orchestra with paid principal players throughout the orchestra and volunteer musicians selected by audition filling out the sections. The annual budget for six subscription concerts, two Nutcracker performances, a holiday concert and a community concert on the 4th of July is $240,000. Conductor of the Longmont Symphony is Robert Olson, known to Boulder audiences as the founding director of Boulder’s MahlerFest. Highlights of the coming season will include yet another performance of Scheherazade, a youth concert featuring music about spies led by Colorado Public Radio’s David Rutherford, an all-Sibelius evening and an all-American concert with Leonard Bernstein’s seldom heard “Jeremiah” Symphony. (Season begins Oct. 4; information and tickets available here.)

There is another community orchestra in the county, the Flatirons Community Orchestra in northeast Boulder County, and youth orchestras in Boulder and Longmont. All of these groups deserve support. I doubt that anyone will get to all of the concerts presented by these orchestras, but if you don’t find an orchestral program that appeals to you, you’re not looking. With so much to choose from, there’s a limit to what anyone can do, but I will try to preview all the major orchestras of Boulder throughout the year, either here or in the pages of Boulder Weekly.

In the meantime, let the music begin! I’ll see you in the audience.

Winners and Losers

One last assessment of the Metropolitan Opera’s labor agreements

By Peter Alexander

Who won and who lost at the Met? It depends.

THe Metropolitan Opera House (interior)

The Metropolitan Opera House (interior)

On Wednesday (Aug. 20), the New York Times reported on the agreement that was reached with the third of the Metropolitan Opera’s three major unions, Local 1 of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, representing stagehands, carpenters and electricians.

The other two major unions, representing the orchestra and the chorus members, had reached agreement with the Met early on Monday. (See my post on that agreement here.) And an agreement with the remaining unions at the Met was reached on Thursday night, as reported again by the New York Times. These include unions representing scenic artists and designers, the costume department, and others.

These agreements end the conflict between management that has raged for several months and resulted in Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager, withdrawing the threat of a lockout. He has confirmed that the Met will open its fall season as scheduled on Sept. 22, with a performance of The Marriage of Figaro conducted by James Levine.

Lincoln Center Plaza and the Metropolitan Opera House

Lincoln Center Plaza and the Metropolitan Opera House

The deal with the musicians’ unions called for an immediate 3.5 percent pay cut, followed by another 3.5 percent six months later, and no raise until the fourth year of the contract. The agreement with the stagehands has been reported to provide comparable cuts in labor costs, although the deal had to be written differently because of the different work rules and benefits packages in the contract with that union’s workers, and because their agreement is for six years instead of four.

But if it sounds like the concessions from the unions—the first pay cut accepted by the Met’s union workers in many years—represent a win by the management, that would be a hasty conclusion, for three reasons. In the first place, Peter Gelb had demanded a 17 percent pay cut from labor, and said that the Metropolitan would have to close otherwise. So the much smaller size of the pay cut than what Gelb was demanding makes his “win” look much less significant.

In the second place, the unions won some battles as well, in that the settlement calls for management to make its own, comparable cuts in the budget. The unions had argued that extravagant production expenses were part of the problem, and while there simply were not enough savings to be made in production costs to solve the Met’s budget woes, the fact that the final agreement took the form it did implies that the federal mediator for the negotiations with the musicians found merit in the union’s complaints. (The stagehands had separate negotiations that did not involve a mediator.)

Finally—and this speaks directly to the union’s complaints about Gelb’s leadership—the deal calls for an independent

Peter Gelb, general manager of the Met

Peter Gelb, general manager of the Met

monitor to keep an eye on the Met’s budget and expenses. This must be a particularly galling concession for Gelb, whose rather freewheeling, pop culture approach to opera was supposed to bring in larger, younger audiences and save the Met.

Apparently he has not accomplished either of those goals.

The question remains what effect this will have on regional opera throughout the country and here in Colorado. Will this settlement make it possible for other companies to ask for pay cuts from their employees, and to reign in costs in other ways? Will it put pressure on other companies to trim their production costs, or to make their finances more transparent, as the Met was forced to do in the course of negotiations?

For now, leaders of opera companies in this area have declined to comment on the Met’s settlement, although they do say they are keeping an eye on the situation.

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For other perspectives of the Metropolitan Opera and it’s labor settlement, read these articles:

Jennifer Maloney’s highly complementary evaluation of Peter Gelb’s leadership of the Met can be read here.

Her previous, more balanced, assessment of the deal is here.

Blogger Greg Sandow’s more critical take on Gelb can be found in three installments linked from here.

The cheeky opera-fanatic blog “Parterre Box” has posted a copy of the agreement between the Met and the American Guild of Musical Artists, representing the Met Chorus, here.

The gossipy blogger Norman Lebrecht’s take on the settlement, which he sees as a “surrender” and a “humiliation for Peter Gelb,” can be found here

It’s a Deal at the Metropolitan Opera

Tentative agreement with two unions forestalls lockout at the Met

By Peter Alexander

Metropolitan Opera House, Lincoln Center, New York

Metropolitan Opera House, Lincoln Center, New York

The New York Times reports this morning, Monday, Aug. 18, that “the Metropolitan opera reached tentative agreements with the unions representing its orchestra and chorus.”

This agreement, which was announced about 6:15 a.m. today, forestalls the possibility of a lockout and means that the Met could still open on its scheduled date of Sept. 22. Opening night is to be a new production of Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro and a Met debut by the young American soprano Amanda Majeski, who is cast in the major role of the Countess.

Negotiations went all night Sunday night and extended several hours past the previously announced deadline of midnight. The deal was announced by Allison Beck, a federal mediator who was brought in just before the previous deadline for an agreement.

The agreement does not include the stagehands’ union, which is the third major union at the Met, nor any of the smaller unions that have contracts due for negotiation this year. However, the agreement with unions representing the orchestra and chorus likely paves the way for the other unions to reach an agreement.

Because details of the agreement have not yet been released, it is impossible to declare “winners” or “losers,” or to know how much each side gave in order to save the season. The one thing that is certain, though, is that not only opera lovers, but the American arts world wins from the resolution of a long and bitter battle between unions and Peter Gelb, the general manager of the Met.

Prince Igor poppies

The famous poppies in Price Igor. © Jonathan Tichler/Metropolitan Opera

In the runup to negotiations, Gelb, who was asking for 17-percent pay cuts from workers at the Met, traded accusations with the unions. Attention was placed on the highly expensive and critically unsuccessful productions Gelb has mounted since becoming general manager in 2006. But as extravagant as some productions have been—a $169,000 poppy field in Prince Igor has become particularly notorious—independent analyses of the Met’s budget suggested that production cuts alone could not solve the Met’s financial problems, and that the unions would have to give some ground as well.

While the Metropolitan Opera seems like it is a long way from Colorado, this resolution is important here and around the country. For one thing, the Met “Live in HD” broadcasts to movie theaters are popular all across the country. So there is a local audience for the Met in Boulder, Denver, and anywhere else movie theaters carry the broadcasts. It has been reported that the theaters were very reluctant to lose the income they receive from the broadcasts.

Beyond that, the Met is the most prominent advocate for opera in the country, and the loss of such a high-profile company, performing on the highest artistic level, would be a blow to the art form, to singers and opera lovers and musicians everywhere. The successes and failures of the Met influence the success and failure of opera companies everywhere, including Central City and Opera Colorado.

Until details are released and all the unions reach agreements with management we cannot consider the labor disputes totally resolved. But today there is room to breathe and reason for hope.

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Update: 2:40 p.m. 18 Aug. This story from the Wall St. Journal adds some details about the agreement. If these are accurate, they certainly sound reasonable, with cuts in both salaries and production costs. Not all the details are yet clear on how the cuts are to be accomplished, but presumably that will be worked out in the coming weeks.

One thing to keep in mind is that one reason labor costs that have been so high has to do with rules about overtime pay. Because the Met has mounted so many large productions of operas that are long, or have complex scenery changes, or both, it is difficult to separate production costs and labor costs. In other words, an overly complex production will cost a lot to mount, and part of that cost comes from extended hours from the stagehands and other production staff.

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Tuesday, 19 August: Today’s story from the New York Times adds more details. You should read the whole article, but here are the most critical parts:

The workers agreed to a 3.5 percent cut in wages upon ratification, and another 3.5 percent reduction six months later — either in the form of another wage cut or, if they agree in further negotiations, as a change in benefits. Part of those cuts would be restored with a 3 percent raise in the second half of the fourth year.

. . .

[T]he Met’s management agreed not only to match the value of the labor cuts on the administrative side, but also to cut $11.25 million worth of other expenses — which may include cutting costs, scheduling more carefully, or reducing rehearsals — in each of the four years of the contract. And in an unusual provision eagerly sought by the unions, the Met’s management agreed to have an independent analyst monitor its finances.

It appears everyone realized that a prolonged lockout or work stoppage would be disastrous for the Met, for opera in general, and also for them individually. Happily for everyone, rehearsals for the coming season can now continue uninterrupted.