Wonderfully modulated Mendelssohn is star of CMF opening night

Festival premieres a work for our times, gives a driven Beethoven performance

By Peter Alexander July 2 at 12:40 a.m.

The 2021 Colorado Music Festival got off to a splendid start last night (June 1).

After the two-year pause from the pandemic, both the audience and the players on the Chautauqua Auditorium stage were clearly thrilled to be sharing music together again. That joy was briefly expressed by CMF executive director Elizabeth McGuire, and then music director Peter Oundjian strode out to get back to business.

Peter Oundjian and the CMF Orchestra.

The concert opened with the world premiere of the strings, harp and timpani version of Aaron Jay Kernis’s Elegy (to those we’ve lost). Originally written for piano, the music came from a deep well of personal experience on the part of the composer, who contracted COVID-19 himself and lost several friends. (You may hear the piano version together with a film by Esther Shubinski here.)

Aaron Jay Kernis

Elegy is music of relative simplicity and comfort, one that recalls other pieces played for memorial occasions. It is consoling throughout except for a brief moment just before the end, when a tumultuous passage briefly evokes the anguish of the pandemic. Oundjian elicited a sweet and flexible performance that captured well the consoling nature of Kernis’s score which has all the ingredients of a work for these times. 

After Kernis took a bow with Oundjian, the conductor introduced violinist Augustin Hadelich for a performance of the Mendelssohn Concerto in E minor. An increasingly celebrated soloist, Hadelich does not overwhelm with volume or sheer flash, but rather with the beauty, precision and delicacy of his playing.

In a wonderfully modulated performance, Hadelich took an overtly Romantic approach to the concerto. He used tempo, dynamics and tone quality to evoke all the kaleidoscopic moods of the score, and he gave the most dramatic and magically captivating reading of the first movement cadenza I have heard. Throughout the concerto, he brought out the sweetness and delicacy of the solo part to an extraordinary degree. 

Augustin Hadelich

In the lyrical second movement, Hadelich showed his ability to sustain attention and the tension of the longest melodic lines. The finale was quite fast, with no loss of accuracy on the soloist’s part. There was one moment of imprecision with the wind players at the very beginning, but otherwise the movement was exceptionally brilliant, as is intended.

For an encore, Hadelich showed that his skills extend well beyond the Classical/Romantic repertoire, playing the “Louisiana Blues Strut” by Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson with an idiomatic and raucous sense of fun that was well appreciated by the CMF orchestra as well as the audience.

The concert concluded with a driven performance of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony—a holdover from the planned 2020 festival that would have coincided with the 250th anniversary of the composer’s birth. Wagner called the Seventh “the apotheosis of the dance,” and indeed every movement is based on strongly rhythmic ideas. Oundjian—conducting without a score—and the CMF orchestra gave a performance that was always bustling, even if it did not always quite dance.

The pace was brisk from the beginning of the slow introduction, which was precise and efficient, leading to a rushing allegro movement that happily observed the repeats Beethoven expected to hear, but that are often omitted today. Changes of volume or dynamics were used to great effect in the slow movement, although for my taste it has more suspense and pays off better at a slower tempo.

The same was true of the Scherzo and Finale, where the very fast tempos contributed to a loss of detail. Both would dance better with a slightly slower tempo and cleaner texture. The massive ritard in the middle of the Scherzo only emphasized how fast the rest of the movement was. The dynamics were well handled in these movements as well, with one exception. 

Near the end of the finale, for the first time ever Beethoven calls for three f’s in the orchestra, a moment underlined by the full brass section. Clearly intended as the climax of the entire symphony, this moment should startle with its impact. But Oundjian had driven the entire movement so powerfully that Beethoven’s triple-f was just more of the same.

This was an early-summer performance—great players coming together for the first time in nearly two years, playing with great skill and precision, but not yet quite coalescing into a totally polished product. Clearly, the audience caught the excitement of the fast tempos and the joy the players felt at being back on stage. With a little more time together, I expect even more.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article stated that the “Louisiana Blues Strut” is by the Black English composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. That is incorrect. The composer is American Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson.

2021 CMF opening night marks return to live concerts

On the program: Beethoven, Kernis world premiere, Hadelich plays Mendelssohn

By Peter Alexander June 29 at 11:30 p.m.

There will be much to celebrate when the 2021 Colorado Music Festival gets underway Thursday and Friday (July 1 and 2) at Chautauqua Auditorium in Boulder.

Peter Oundjian and the CMF Festival Orchestra. Photo by Michael Ensminger.

The return to the stage of CMF music director Peter Oundjian and the Festival Orchestra would be special in any music lover’s calendar. Imagine, being at a concert again—in person! with live performers!—after the past 15 months. 

But there’s even more to love. There will be the world premiere of music in memory of those we lost to the pandemic, Elegy (to those we’ve lost) by Aaron Jay Kernis. And there will be a rising superstar performer, violinist Augustin Hadelich.

What more do you want?

Kernis wrote his Elegy, not from a commission but out of his own experience with COVID-19. CMF artistic director and conductor Peter Oundjian says, “He wrote to me and said ‘I’ve written this elegy to those we’ve lost.’ He got COVID and got pretty sick, and he lost friends. I said I’d love to open the festival with it, I think it’s just so perfect. It’s very beautiful, sad but in a way uplifting as well, because it’s so tender.”

The rest of the program will be Hadelich playing the much-loved Mendelssohn Violin Concerto and Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, always among the top two or three orchestral works in popularity. 

Augustin Hadelich

Hadelich gets asked to play the Mendelssohn Concerto often, but he can’t imagine ever saying no “Mendelssohn is a concerto where the violinist is really in charge,” he says. “You start playing right away and it’s a very dramatic role. And also very virtuosic.

“I would say that the Mendelssohn is harder than people think it is. You can’t underestimate it, but it’s very much worth it. Mendelssohn wastes no time, not a single second. It’s just so compact, because it’s not that long as a piece, but every second there’s something exciting or very beautiful going on.”

The Seventh Symphony is the first of several Beethoven pieces on the summer’s program. Later Oundjian will conduct the Third (Aug. 5) and Fifth (Aug. 7) symphonies, there will be a program of Beethoven chamber music (Aug. 7) and Hadelich will return to play the Violin Concerto (July 29 and 30). Oundjian has contributed his own arrangement of the String Quartet in C-sharp minor, op. 131, to the program on July 22.

Oundjian admits that Beethoven is hardly slighted by classical musicians around the world, but the celebration of his 250th birthday planned for 2020 was canceled by the pandemic. “Poor guy, he was going to have about a million performances last year, and they were all cancelled,” he says. Laughing, he adds “nobody knows who he is.

“But the truth is that he’s not 251 until December, so he’s still 250 this year.”

Between his two appearances, Hadelich will spend two weeks in Boulder as CMF artist-in-residence. Not all of his activities have been decided yet, but Hadelich says “I’m going to be doing whatever they have me doing—a masterclass and then some other activities. As long as I’m there I go wherever {the CMF] decides.”

He was in Boulder once before during the 2018 festival, and looks forward to having more time here. “It’s nice to come back and just enjoy for longer,” he says. “It’s a beautiful place, [and] I thought it was a wonderful hall. It sounds really good. I felt great on stage and I really enjoyed it.”

Several other events in the opening two weeks are noteworthy (see full listing below). One that is dear to Oundjian’s heart as a former violinist in the Tokyo String Quartet is the launching of a new Tuesday evening chamber music series named in honor of Robert Mann, founding violinist of the Juilliard Quartet. 

That concert series will open July 6 with a program of string quintets by Mozart and Brahms, played by members of he CMF orchestra, followed by the current iteration of the Juilliard Quartet on July 13. Other chamber performers will appear on Tuesdays through Aug. 3.

Pianist Olga Kern, always a CMF audience favorite, returns to play concertos by Haydn and Shostakovich, the latter also featuring CMF principal trumpet Jeffrey Work playing the prominent trumpet solos (July 15 and 16). Pianist Conrad Tao, scheduled for the cancelled 2020 festival and a soloist with the Boulder Philharmonic in 2015, will play a concerto on an all-Mozart program July 18.

But the collaboration between Oundjian and Hadelich would be the highlight of any season. “I’m thrilled, he’s absolutely remarkable on every level,” Oundjian says of the violinist. “He’s an inspiration, he really is. He’s so thoughtful and he’s also a wonderful teacher and very generous.”

Hadelich is equally complimentary to Oundjian. “I’m thrilled to come back,” he says. “I always love playing with Peter because he’s such a great collaborator and musician, and always so sensitive. He’s just such a great character. 

“I can’t wait to come to Boulder again.”

# # # # #

Colorado Music Festival
Schedule through July 18
All concerts in Chautauqua Auditorium

Peter Oundjian. Photo by Michael Ensminger.

7:30 p.m. Thursday, July 1
6:30 p.m. Friday, July 2
Opening Night
Peter Oundjian, conductor, with Augustin Hadelich, violin

  • Aaron Jay Kernis: Elegy (to those we’ve lost) (world premiere)
  • Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto in E minor, op. 64
  • Beethoven: Symphony No. 7 in A major, op. 92

11 a.m. Saturday, July 3
Family Concert: The Story of Babar
Really Inventive Stuff, Erina Yashima, conductor

  • Leopold Mozart: Toy Symphony
  • Francis Poulenc: The story of Babar, the Little Elephant

7:30 p.m. Tuesday, July 6
String Quintets
CMF Orchestra Members

  • Mozart: Viola Quintet in G minor, K516
  • Brahms: Viola Quintet in G major, op. 111

7:30 p.m. Thursday, July 8 
6:30 p.m. Friday, July 9
David Danzmayr, conductor, with Stewart Goodyear, piano

  • Jessie Montgomery: Strum
  • Saint-Saëns: Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor, op. 22
  • Brahms: Symphony No. 4 in E minor, op. 98

6:30 p.m. Sunday, July 11
David Danzmayr, conductor, with Angelo Xiang Yu, violin

  • Samuel Coleridge-Taylor: Novelletten for string orchestra, nos. 3 and 4
  • Mozart: Violin Concerto No. 3 in G major, K216
  • Haydn: Symphony No. 104 in D major (“London”)
Juilliard Quartet. Photo by Lisa Marie Mazzucco

7:30 p.m. Tuesday, July 13
Juilliard String Quartet

  • Ravel: String Quartet in F major
  • Henri Dutilleux: Ainsi la Nuit (Thus the night)
  • Dvořák: String Quartet No. 12 in F major, Op. 96 (“American”)

7:30 Thursday, July 15
6:30 Friday, July 16
Ludovic Morlot, conductor, with Olga Kern, piano

  • Dvořák: Legends, op. 59 (6, 7 and 9)
  • Prokofiev: Symphony No. 1, op. 25 (“Classical”)
  • Haydn: Piano Concerto in D major, Hob. XVIII:11
  • Shostakovich: Piano Concerto No. 1 in C minor, op. 35

6:30 p.m. Sunday, July 18
Ludovic Morlot, conductor, with Conrad Tao, piano

  • Mozart: Ballet Music from Idomeneo, K367
  • Mozart: Piano Concerto in A major, K488
  • Mozart: Symphony No. 40 in G minor, K550

The full calendar for the 2021 CMF season can be seen here. Tickets may be purchased through the Chautauqua Web page. Because health restrictions are subject to change over the summer, be sure to check the CMF 2021 tickets FAQ page.