Boulder Philharmonic continues exploring music for small orchestra

Streamed concert available April 3 will feature Stravinsky’s “Soldier’s Tale”

By Peter Alexander April 2 at 1 p.m.

The past year has been the year of the chamber orchestra.

To respect the need for safe distancing between players, orchestras including the Boulder Philharmonic have presented entire programs of music written, or arranged, for reduced orchestra or chamber ensembles. Each of the Philharmonic’s 2020-21 performances has been recorded and streamed for ticket purchasers to access from the safety of their homes—as most orchestras have done.

That trend continues with the Phil’s next concert, but with a twist. The one piece on the program for Saturday (April 3, available from 7:30 p.m.), Stravinsky’s theater piece L’Histoire du soldat (The soldier’s tale), is ideal for performance during a pandemic—because it was in fact written during the last global pandemic, the Spanish Flu of 1918–19.

Stravinsky sat out World War I in Switzerland. As the war was coming to an end, the production of large-scale works, such as his previous ballets The Firebird, Petrushka and The Rite of Spring, was no longer possible. Instead, Stravinsky thought of creating a theater piece for a small group of musicians and actors that could be toured to Swiss villages. 

Stravinsky and the Swiss writer C.F. Ramuz collaborated to write L’Histoire du soldat, based on a Russian folk tale and written for seven players (violin, string bass, clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, trombone and percussion), three actors and a dancer—ideal numbers for safely distanced performances. In the end, the flu defeated Stravinsky’s plan for a tour, but L’Histoire was premiered in Lausanne, Switzerland, in 1918. The music has retained a place in the chamber orchestra repertoire, and the score is important as a bellwether of the transition from the massive musical works of the pre-war period to the neo-classicism of the late 19-teens and ‘20s.

The folktale that provided the plot is one that Stravinsky knew from Russia, but it is found in many different cultures: A lonely soldier engages in a contest with the devil. This is a well known story, from legends of Paganini selling his soul for unnatural fiddle skills, to Blues musicians being in league with the devil, to the Charlie Daniels Band’s “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.”

C.F. Ramuz and Stravinsky

In the story worked up by Stravinsky and Ramuz, the soldier trades his fiddle—representing his soul—to the devil for knowledge that will make him wealthy. The soldier prospers and marries a princess, but the devil returns and triumphs in the end. 

“I think it’s a confusing story to follow,” Michael Butterman, conductor of the Boulder Phil, says. “It helps to have some frame of reference. I’m going to give a brief outline of what’s happening, so that people understand that the devil keeps coming back in different guises and disguises.”

The basic moral of the story, Butterman says, is that the soldier gets lots of stuff, but stuff doesn’t make him happy. “It’s all nothing without the fiddle—that’s your soul,” Butterman says. This is essentially the message of a passage from the Gospel According to Mark, “What shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” Butterman suggests.

Although 20th-century modernist in style, the music is easily grasped by listeners. “We have marches,” Butterman explains. “Although they are not totally regular in their march rhythm, they still feel like left, right, left, right. You have three dances that are stylized, but clearly identifiable. And there’s chorales that sound like chorales.”

The dances are a tango, a waltz, and one titled “Ragtime”—but, Butterman observes, “it’s not going to remind anybody of Scott Joplin.” Stravinsky had never heard American jazz performed, although he had some printed copies. He used the rhythms as he saw them on the page and listeners will likely recognize the syncopations.

Michael Butterman. Photo by Rene Palmer.

“Stravinsky sees everything through his own unique prism,” Butterman says. “What’s interesting about the piece to me is that it sounds less complex that it appears on the page. It’s a very complicated piece to put together and to conduct, just technically speaking. Much of the music does not line up at all with the meter that he’s [notated].”

Those are complications for the performers, but not necessarily for the listeners. “There’s enough familiar both in terms of the story and in terms of the musical forms that you know where to glom onto it” Butterman says. “The music is accessible, it’s not highly dissonant, it’s downright tuneful, quite clever, and always given to you in digestible chunks.”

The performance is presented in collaboration with the CU Department of Theater and Dance and the Boulder Ballet. The performance, which has already been recorded, was staged by Bud Coleman, department chair. Theater students fill the roles of four actors—a narrator, the soldier, and two actors to portray the devil. Boulder Ballet has provided the dancer and choreography.

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Members of the Boulder Philharmonic Orchestra
Michael Butterman, conductor
Staged by Bud Coleman with actors from the CU Dept. of Theater and Danc
Dance from the Boulder Ballet

Stravinsky: L’Histoire du soldat (The Soldier’s Tale)

Available at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, April 3 (through April 17)

Pre-concert discussion at 7 p.m.


Boulder Phil offers Americana, east and west

“Dance, American Style” features collaboration with Boulder Ballet

By Peter Alexander

They will be dancing in the aisles, and on the stage of Macky Auditorium when the Boulder Philharmonic presents its first concert of 2016.


Photo by Keith Bobo

The program, titled “Dance, American Style,” will be presented at 7:30 p.m. Saturday (Jan. 16; tickets). Boulder Ballet will perform the complete ballet Rodeo by Aaron Copland, with choreography by artistic director Ana Claire.

Music director Michael Butterman will conduct the performance, which will also feature concert performances of music from Copland’s Billy the Kid ballet, the Symphonic Dances from West Side Story by Leonard Bernstein, and the New England Triptych of American composer William Schuman.


Bernstein and Copland, 1945

The program is an attractive anthology of American music from the mid-20th century. Copland was one of the most prominent composers of that era, with his folkish American style represented by both Billy the Kid and Rodeo, two staples of the orchestral repertoire to this day. Leonard Bernstein was both a champion of Copland’s music and a composer of protean abilities who made a mark on Broadway—the ultimate American musical genre of the 20th century—and in the concert hall. And William Schuman was the composer of acclaimed, accessible concert works, winner of the Pulitzer Prize in music, and a leader of American music for many years as president of first the Juilliard School and later Lincoln Center.

But as the title suggests, the program can also be seen as a tribute to the personalities and companies who established an American world of dance. In fact, it touches many of the legendary dance figures of the mid-20th century.

Billy the Kid was commissioned from Copland by dance impresario Lincoln Kirstein and premiered in 1938 by Kirstein’s Ballet Caravan. That company preceded the New York City Ballet, co-founded by Kirstein and Georges Balanchine. Billy was choreographed by Eugene Loring, who also danced in the premiere and later joined American Ballet Theater.


De Mille’s Rodeo; photo by Peter Shields

Rodeo was commissioned for the Ballet Russes de Monte Carlo. The choreographer was Agnes de Mille, who also danced the lead role at the 1942 premiere at the Metropolitan Opera House. In the audience that night were Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein, who in turn invited de Mille to choreograph the dance sequences for their upcoming show, Oklahoma, thereby transforming the Broadway musical.

 Symphonic Dances from West Side Story is a suite for symphony orchestra taken from the score for Bernstein’s 1957 Broadway hit. It was compiled in 1961 by Bernstein in collaboration with his colleagues Sid Ramin and Irwin Kostal, who had just finished producing the orchestral score for the film version of the show, employing a much larger orchestra than the original Broadway pit band.


Robbins rehearsing West Side Story

The score incorporates West Side Story’s top hits, “Somewhere” and “Maria,” alongside the many dance sequences from the show. Director and choreographer of the original Broadway production was Jerome Robbins, whose innovative dances for the rival street gangs won the 1957 Tony Award for best choreography. Robbins was for many years one of the most influential American directors, choreographers and producers of ballet, Broadway, film and television.

For the Jan. 16 concert, Rodeo will be the only dance that is brought onto the stage. The performance will conclude with Boulder Ballet performing the full ballet—slightly longer than the familiar orchestral suite—on the front of the stage and in the aisles. Even though the full orchestra will be onstage with the dancers, “we’re going to give them as much room as we can,” Butterman says.

In any case, he adds, “It’s an uncommon chance to experience great concert music and see a short ballet on the same night!”

Butterman (old)

Michael Butterman

The rest of the program, Americana of several types—the “great concert music”—all seems to fit together in a very coherent way. But in fact, Butterman says, “this concert came together in kind of a bizarre way,” with each of the other pieces having been originally planned for another concert. “But I do think the program itself works rather nicely,” he adds.

The least familiar work will be Schuman’s New England Triptych, a work that is deeply rooted in America’s early history. It is based on the work of William Billings, a colonial-era song- and hymn-writer. Three of his songs—“Be glad then America,” “When Jesus Wept” and “Chester”—are the sources of the three movements.

“This is music that a lot of wind players encounter through the wind ensemble literature,” Butterman says. “It’s really attractive, it’s splashy when it needs to be, and yet that middle movement is beautifully introspective. The outer movements are very difficult—quick and very demanding.”


William Schuman

In fact, he says, the whole concert will be difficult playing. “As I was studying this program over the past few days, I began almost kicking myself,” he says. “What was I thinking? In spite of the fact that the music is pretty familiar, it’s all difficult!”

That would be most obviously true of the Symphonic Dances from West Side Story, which was clearly designed as a jazzy virtuoso showpiece for the musicians of the New York Philharmonic. “A member of a prominent orchestra (told me) a few years ago he thought this was one of the hardest pieces in the standard repertoire,” Butterman says.

“You have to get the swinging right, you have a real sort of screaming trumpet, and you’ve got lots of percussion. It’s really hard stuff to get together. It will be a challenge—it’s a challenge for any orchestra. It just takes some work.”

Fortunately, he adds, the orchestra will have four rehearsals in Macky Auditorium before the concert, instead of having part of their rehearsal week in the Dairy Center or some other location with different acoustics. “We’ll be able to hear it the same way four times in a row,” he says. “That will help a lot, I think.”

Once all the pieces are put in place, Butterman has no doubts that the audience will love the program. It fits Boulder Phil’s winning formula: some familiar pieces, even some pop and jazz-inflected music from Broadway, and a chance for people to discover something new in the New England Triptych.

“It’s all high energy and colorful, fun Americana,” he says, “with the added appeal of seeing the Copland brought to life in the way it was originally conceived—as dance music.”

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Dance, American Style
Boulder Philharmonic Orchestra, Michael Butterman, music director
With the Boulder Ballet, Ana Claire, artistic director

7:30 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 16, 2016
Macky Auditorium

William Schuman: New England Triptych
Leonard Bernstein: Symphonic Dances from West Side Story
Aaron Copland: “Prairie Night, “ “Waltz” and “Celebration Dance” from Billy the Kid
Aaron Copland: Rodeo (complete ballet)
Boulder Ballet performing choreography by Ana Claire, artistic director