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.

Tickets

“A CELLO-BRATION”: THE CELLO TAKES THE SPOTLIGHT

Soloist Zuill Bailey joins the Boulder Phil for an intimate, cello-centric program. 

By Izzy Fincher March 11 at 9:35 p.m.

“Why write for violin when there is cello?” Rachmaninov asked. 

There is something particularly captivating about the cello, with its sonorous tenor and subtle grandeur. It is wildly expressive—lyrical, passionate and romantic, yet also mournful and solemn, and profound in a way that captures the heart and soul.

Zuill Bailey

To celebrate this instrument, the Boulder Phil will present “A Celebration of Cello” with soloist Zuill Bailey, streamed from 7:30 p.m., on Saturday, March 13.

The cello-centric program includes a reduced instrumentation of Schumann’s Cello Concerto and a double-cello concerto by contemporary Italian composer Giovanni Sollima. Other works on the program are a violin trio by the Phil’s own Paul Trapkus, plus works by Debussy and Wagner.

Bailey, a Grammy-award winning cellist, will lead the “cello-bration.” He will appear on two contrasting concertos, which displays the cello’s multifaceted personality. In Schumann’s Concerto in A minor, the cello’s sensitive lyricism is shown, while Sullima’s double- concerto, to be performed with Boulder Phil principal cellist Charles Lee, exhibits more of the cello’s boldness and virtuosity.

“In Schumann’s concerto, the cello is refined and elegant,” Boulder Phil conductor Michael Butterman says. “Whereas in Sollima’s (double concerto), the cello is an outgoing, extroverted rebel. The cadenza feels like rock’n’roll—it shreds. It’s crazy, with a lot of flash, energy and edginess.”

Lee believes the energetic double-cello concerto, titled “Violencelles, Vibrez!” (Cellos, vibrate!), will be a highlight of the program. Sollima, an Italian cellist and post-minimalist composer, juxtaposes the cello’s different moods, moving from brooding, dark echoes to a sweet, lyrical duet to a brisk, vivacious cadenza. 

Charles Lee at rehearsal with the Boulder Phil

“It starts very mysterious and lyrical with long, romantic lines, using lots of vibrato, sustaining sounds,” Lee says. “The added element of two cellists alternating gives it a special effect, like an echoing cave.” 

In the opening, the two cello lines weave together, nearly indistinguishable from each other. “At first, it’s not so striking that there are two cellos when you don’t focus on the visuals,” Lee says.

Later, the distinct cello parts emerge in captivating musical dialogue, riffing off each other’s energy in a virtuosic display. Lee described the cadenza with Bailey as exciting but very challenging to play. 

The rest of the program focuses on orchestral works, adapted for a smaller chamber setting, including Debussy’sPrelude to the Afternoon of a Faun and Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll,” an intimate musical love letter to his wife Cosima. 

Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun has been arranged for chamber orchestra, created by Schoenberg’s student Benno Sachs during World War I. It was first played for Schoenberg’s Society for Private Musical Performances, a chamber concert series held in Vienna from 1918 to 1921. 

During the war and the 1918 Flu Pandemic, chamber series like this one were popular in Europe due to limited financial resources and available musicians. Now, in our current pandemic, the reorchestration is once again ideal for a smaller, socially-distanced orchestra. 

Though the cello isn’t directly in the spotlight in either work, it still plays a more prominent role than usual. “When you adapt a large work for a smaller ensemble, the cellos become even more noticeable and exaggerated,” Lee says.

“We usually aren’t the go-to melody instrument (in larger works). When the cellos take the melody, it’s a treat.”

The violin, however, does snatch back the orchestral spotlight with Trapkus’ Trio for 3 Violins. Trapkus, a former violinist for the Boulder Phil, is also an active composer, who has written four works for string quartet and string ensemble. “Trio for 3 Violins,” written in 2012, features the three violins as equal soloists, and its energetic, minimalistic aesthetic is similar to Sullima’s Violencelles, Vibrez!.  

Paul Trapkus

Butterman is excited for the Boulder Phil to perform Trapkus’s trio for the first time. He believes the Boulder Municipal Airport’s hangar, where the concert was filmed last fall, is an ideal setting for the trio, far more intimate than Macky Auditorium.  

“(The trio) is a work that I found interesting, tuneful and appealing on first hearing,” Butterman says. “It uses a lot of repeated, minimalistic patterns. There’s a lot of interplay, exchanges of ideas and taking turns between the three equal violin parts.”

Despite the brief violin interlude, the concert is still a “cello-bration” through and through. For cello lovers, it should be a special treat—a musical extravaganza with two talented soloists.

As Bailey comments, “I always say the only thing better than a cello is two cellos.”

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“A Celebration of Cello”
The Boulder Philharmonic, Michael Butterman, conductor. with
Zuill Bailey and Charles Lee, cellos

Debussy, arr. Schoenberg: Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun
Schumann, arr. Philip Lasser: Cello Concerto in A minor, Op. 129
Paul Trapkus: Trio for 3 Violins
Giovanni Sollima: Violencelles, Vibrez!
Wagner: Siegfried Idyll

Tickets can be purchased for $40 here. The concert can be streamed starting at 7:30 p.m., on Saturday, March 13. 

Boulder Phil will stream concert with pianist Simone Dinnerstein Saturday

“Mozart and Mendelssohn” program includes “a perfect piece of music”

By Peter Alexander Feb. 11 at 9:10 p.m.

Dinnerstein, near her home in Brooklyn. Photo by Lisa Marie Mazzucco

Pianist Simone Dinnerstein was in Boulder last September, but since then she has hardly left her home in Brooklyn. A prisoner of COVID, she has had to cancel planned trips for concerts and recordings. 

“I’ve gone to New Jersey,” she says. “That’s about as far as I’ve gone, and that was a big trip!”

Fortunately for us, she recorded two concerts with members of the Boulder Philharmonic when she was here. The first was streamed in November, and the second will be streamed starting Saturday (Feb. 13) at 7:30 p.m., remaining available through Saturday, Feb. 27. Titled “Mozart and Mendelssohn,” the program features the former’s Piano Concerto in C major, K467, in a COVID-friendly arrangement for strings and piano, as supplemented by Dinnerstein and members of the orchestra; and the latter’s joyous Octet for Strings.

The concert also features Dinnerstein playing two works by Scott Joplin. The Boulder Phil asked her if she would play something for solo piano to complete the program. She picked two of her favorite pieces by Joplin, both in order to include a composer from an under-represented group, and as an opportunity to add some Joplin to her repertoire.

“Scott Joplin was one of the great 20th-century American composers,” she says. “I’ve read it for myself but I’ve never performed it.”

The pieces she picked are not the usual rags that Joplin is best known for. “Solace, a Mexican Serenade” has been part of the Joplin revival that began with the 1973 film The Sting, but “Bethena, a Concert Waltz” remains less known. Both pieces are tinged with melancholy, which seems to be fine with Dinnerstein.

“I’ve always loved these two pieces,” she says. “I do tend to like things that are a little bit gloomy.”

In spite of the chronological, geographic and cultural distances involved, she sees a connection between Joplin and the other two composers on the program. “There is a kind of freshness to [Joplin’s] music,” she says. “The music has more layers to it than you first hear, and I think that’s true of Mozart and Mendelssohn. In that way these three composers do relate to each other.”

Dinnerstein during a recording session with the Boulder Philharmonic at Brungard Aviation, Boulder Municipal Airport. (Screenshot)

Neither the Mozart nor Mendelssohn pieces could remotely be considered gloomy. Mozart’s Piano Concerto K467 is in the sunny key of C major, and sunny it remains. “It’s been one of my favorite concertos since I was a teenager,” Dinnerstein says, adding thoughtfully, “I don’t normally relate much to music that is straightforwardly joyful.”

The version she and members of the Phil will perform was arranged for sting quintet by German composer Franz Lachner, probably to make the music available for home music making. But Dinnerstein discovered in rehearsal that Lachner’s arrangement was incomplete.

“There was no score , only the individual parts, which was slightly confusing,” she says. “When we started rehearsing I realized that certain lines were missing, and [the orchestra players] were very accommodating and wrote in some extra parts for themselves.”

The Concerto opens with a jolly march that has the usual proliferation of Mozartian themes from the very beginning. There are march rhythms, fanfares, lyrical moments, and a pervading sense of delight. 

The concerto is best known for its dreamy slow movement, which was used in the 1967 Swedish film Elvira Madigan. The movement, Dinnerstein says, “has the sense of romance to it, which may be colored by having seen the film when I was a teenager.

“Basically, the concerto is just effervescent and yet it has a weight to it as well. It’s just a perfect piece of music.”

The final piece on the program, Mendelssohn’s Octet for Strings was chosen by Boulder Philharmonic music director Michael Butterman. As Butterman has pointed out in the orchestra’s promotional materials, Mendelssohn is one of the few composers who ranked with Mozart as a youthful musical prodigy.

The Octet was written when he was 16, as a birthday present for his violin teacher. Today it is one of the composer’s most loved pieces. 

Its sheer exuberance is enjoyed by players and audiences alike. It is filled with the kind of sprightly music that Mendelssohn used to characterize the Shakespearian fairies in his music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Beneath the dazzling surface, however, Mendelssohn demonstrates his precocious mastery of counterpoint, especially in the eight-part fugue that opens the finale.

Paralleling Dinnerstein’s characterization of the Mozart Concerto, Scottish music critic Conrad Wilson wrote that the Octet’s “youthful verve, brilliance and perfection make it one of the miracles of 19th-century music.”

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“Mozart and Mendelssohn”
Members of the Boulder Philharmonic Orchestra with
Simone Dinnerstein, piano

Scott Joplin: Solace, a Mexican Serenade and Bethena, Concert Waltz
Mozart, arr. Franz Lachner: Piano Concerto in C major, K467
Mendelssohn: Octet for Strings, op. 20

Streamed starting at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 13, through Saturday, Feb. 27
Tickets available HERE

HOLIDAY CONCERTS TO STREAM AT HOME

Celebrate the holidays virtually this year with local festive concerts.

By Izzy Fincher and Peter Alexander December 3 at 10:45 a.m.

Relax with a hot cocoa, a warm blanket and your favorite holiday tunes, all from the comfort of your own home.

This year, holiday music on Boulder’s classical scene will not be the same without the decked-out concert halls and communal holiday spirit. However, the holiday celebrations will continue virtually in Boulder with CU-Boulder’s Holiday Fest and festive concerts from Pro Musica, the Boulder Phil and the Longmont Symphony. 

Holiday Festival 2020 Dec. 4

The 2013 Holiday Concert in Macky Auditorium. (Photo by Casey A. Cass/University of Colorado)

This year CU-Boulder’s Holiday Festival won’t be the usual grand event at Macky, where the auditorium is filled with students, faculty, family and other fans. Instead, 2020’s scaled-down online broadcast of the Holiday Fest will have pre-recorded performances of seasonal favorites and traditional selections from the fall semester. The holiday spirit of a festive Macky continues on from the comfort of home.

“Holiday Festival 2020”
CU-Boulder College of Music students and faculty
Available from 7:30 p.m. Friday, Dec. 4
Tickets

“Holiday Moods” Dec. 5 and 6

Under the direction of Cynthia Katsarelis, Pro Musica will present “Holiday Moods,” featuring both traditional and diverse holiday tunes. Earlier this year, Katsarelis planned to collaborate with the Boulder Chorale to perform Handel’s Messiah, but due to COVID-19 restrictions she decided on an all-strings program instead. 

Yumi Hwang-Williams

The program will feature soloist Yumi Hwang-Williams, concertmaster of the Colorado Symphony. The two performances of “Holiday Moods” with a limited in-person audience at the Broomfield Auditorium and First United Methodist Church have been canceled and moved to an online broadcast, available for up to 48 hours after the concert times, 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 5, and 3 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 6.

“Holiday Moods” continues Pro Musica’s season theme of diversity and healing. The program opens with Novellette No. 1 by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, a Black composer and conductor active in England in the early 20th century. The rest of the program is composed of traditional repertoire, to offer healing and comfort to listeners, according to Katsarelis.

The second work is Corelli’s Christmas Concerto, which was composed for Christmas night (Fatto per la notte di Natale) in 1690, likely for Corelli’s patron, Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni, in Rome. Next, Hwang-Williams takes center stage for “Fall” and “Winter” from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, another Baroque classic. To end the program, Pro Musica will play Dvořák’s Serenade for Strings, one of the composer’s most popular orchestral works.

“Holiday Moods”
Pro Musica Colorado Chamber Orchestra
Cynthia Katsarelis, conductor, with Yumi Hwang-Williams, violinist
Available from 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 5, and 3 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 6
Tickets

“Happy Holidays from the Phil” Dec. 13

Michael Butterman rehearsing in the Brungard Aviation hangar at Boulder Municipal Airport

With conductor Michael Butterman, the Boulder Phil’s brass and percussion sections will present a selection of carols and other holiday tunes. Like the rest of the Boulder Phil’s fall 2020 season, this concert was recorded in a hangar at Boulder Municipal Airport, on a tight 48-hour rehearsal and recording schedule. 

The wide-ranging program is a mix of holiday favorites, including “Carol of the Bells,” “Deck the Halls,” “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” (mashed up with the French carol “Patapan”). The program also features lesser-known carols, including “Wassail Song” and “Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day”; modern holiday music, Dan Forrest’s “Jubilate Deo”; and a Hanukkah observation, “A Celebration of Hanukkah.”

“Happy Holidays from the Phil”
Boulder Philharmonic Brass and Percussion, Michael Butterman, conductor
Available from 3 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 13, through Sunday, Dec. 27
No tickets required; contributions welcomed

Vocal Concert will substitute for Messiah Dec. 13

The Longmont Symphony Orchestra (LSO) will present a Holiday Concert Sunday, Dec. 13—but not the one they had originally planned. 

The LSO previously announced pared-down selections from Handel’s Messiah with four soloists but no chorus as their seasonal offering. That performance was to have been recorded in the Longmont Museum’s Stewart Auditorium and streamed starting at 4 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 13.

With the recent announcement that Boulder County has reached COVID Dial “Red Level: Severe Risk,” Stewart Auditorium became unavailable, and no other acceptable venue for the recording was found.An announcement from the LSO states, “The restrictions made it difficult to find a venue and to safely film the performance with our musicians.”

Consequently, the LSO reluctantly decided Tuesday (Dec. 1) to cancel the performance. Instead, the LSO will present a Holiday Concert featuring pianist Spencer Myer and baritone Mario Diaz-Moresco, from their home in New York City. The performance will include classical song selections by Handel and Schubert, as well as holiday favorites.

Their performance will be streamed at the same time as was announced for Messiah—4 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 13. Season tickets for the LSO fall 2020 season and tickets purchased separately for Messiah will be honored for the Myer/Diaz-Moresco concert. For more information, see the LSO Web page

“Holiday Concert, New York—Longmont”
Spencer Myer, piano, and Mario Diaz-Moresco, baritone
Available from 4 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 13
Tickets

AN INTIMATE NIGHT OF BACH WITH THE BOULDER PHIL

Featuring guest conductor/pianist Simone Dinnerstein and soloists

By Izzy Fincher Nov. 15 at 12:45 a.m.

Bach’s expressive, animated melodies poured out of my Bluetooth speakers.

Meanwhile, on Vimeo, musicians played for an empty airport hangar, the only audience a pair of Beechcraft airplanes and a few socially-distanced recording engineers. 

The Boulder Phil launched their second online concert of 2020–21, “The Beauty of Bach,” last night (Nov. 14). The concert, which was pre-recorded at Boulder’s Municipal Airport, featured conductor/pianist Simone Dinnerstein, flutist Christina Jennings and violinist Charles Wetherbee.

Simone Dinnerstein leads the Boulder Phil in Bach (screenshot)

Throughout “The Beauty of Bach,” Dinnerstein shined both as conductor and pianist. Her reputation as a Bach interpreter, which began with her 2007 recording of the Goldberg Variations, is certainly deserved. Her interpretations of Bach are flowing, evocative and lyrical, as she draws out beautiful melodies from Bach’s dense contrapuntal texture. 

“I think that Bach was somebody who was really interested in the sonorities of different instruments,” Dinnerstein said to conductor Michael Butterman in a pre-concert interview. “When I am playing Bach on the piano, I think about lots of other instruments, and in particular, I think a lot about the voice. How would somebody sing a line? Where would they breathe?

“I think about anything besides hammers hitting strings.”

The pre-recorded format enhanced the visuals of Dinnerstein’s performance. The opening wide shot showed the typical audience perspective of a pianist-conductor, Dinnerstein’s back as she faced the orchestra, her facial expressions and at times her hands hidden from view.

Later, alternate camera angles, including close-ups and front-facing shots, showed her expressiveness in a completely new way, from the perspective of the other musicians and Dinnerstein herself. Her facial expressions showed her intense passion for the music—sometimes her eyes even appeared to be shining with emotion.

Dinnerstein conducting from the piano (screenshot)

This perspective also highlighted her skill as a conductor, allowing the audience to see her interactions from the perspective of the Boulder Phil musicians. Using a skillful combination of subtle eye cues and whole body gestures, Dinnerstein conveyed her musical intentions clearly and powerfully, despite the black face mask obscuring her facial expressions. 

Dinnerstein played and conducted at her best when collaborating with flutist Jennings for the Orchestral Suite No. 2 in B Minor and Brandenburg Concerto No. 5. This is not surprising, considering Dinnerstein and Jennings have played this program together before, the last time in February at Columbia University, before the first COVID-19 shutdown. According to Jennings, bringing this Bach program back for the Boulder Phil has been both “eerie and wonderful.”

“(The Orchestral Suite) starts with the flute rather hidden,” Jennings said in her interview with Butterman. “Then the flute emerges more and more and becomes more prominent. I love the arrangement that we have created together with different timbres, different parts of the orchestra featured in different movements (and) a rousing finish.” 

Flutist Christina Jennings (screenshot)

Jennings’ intentions for the Orchestral Suite certainly came through. At the beginning, she blended impeccably with the orchestra, nearly inaudible above the strings, before emerging from the texture with an elegant tone and an air of self-assurance. Her expertly executed trills floated above the entire orchestral texture, naturally melting into a sensitive vibrato. Despite the lightness of touch stylistically, Jennings was still able to dominate musically, her projection almost overpowering the rest of the orchestra and even Dinnerstein at times. 

The final piece of the night, the Brandenburg Concerto would have received a standing ovation, if there had been a live audience. The vivacious melodies paired with Dinnerstein’s pyrotechnic cadenzas were impressive, creating almost palpable excitement through the screen. 

The second “Allegro,” the concerto’s last movement, featured bouncy, energetic melodies on the flute and strings, underpinned by flowing, ostentatious scales on the piano. The gigue-like feel from continuous triplet eighth notes inspired vigorous head-nodding, foot-tapping and perhaps even a bit of clapping and dancing (now acceptable outside of the concert hall).

The Boulder Phil and Jennings, under Dinnerstein’s guidance, captured both the grandeur and intimate expressiveness of Bach’s music. Even with only a computer screen, Bluetooth speaker and unreliable Wi-Fi, “The Beauty of Bach” delivered as promised: a much-needed, beautiful musical experience. 

Boulder Philharmonic continues 20–21 season Nov. 14 with ‘Beauty of Bach’

Guest conductor/pianist Simone Dinnerstein, flutist Christina Jennings, violinist Charles Wetherbee are featured

By Peter Alexander Nov. 12 at 5:30 p.m.

Simone Dinnerstein has garnered a reputation as a Bach pianist, dating at least from the 2007 release of her recording of the Goldberg Variations. And in “Beauty of Bach,” a program performed with members of the Boulder Philharmonic, she reveals a new facet of her career: Bach conductor.

Simone Dinnerstein. Photo by Lisa Marie Mazzucco

Not only does she lead the orchestra in the keyboard concertos in the program—the Concerto in D minor and the Fifth Brandenburg Concerto—she also conducts two orchestral pieces—Philip Lasser’s arrangement of the chorale prelude Erbarm’ Dich and the Orchestral Suite in B minor. The latter two she conducts from the keyboard while playing continuo, the chordal accompaniment that is a feature of Baroque performance.

“I love so much of Bach’s music, not just the keyboard music, and I’m hoping that this is going to lead to more conducting,” Dinnerstein says. “I don’t yet feel comfortable to conduct without playing the piano, but I feel like I can transmit more through playing, even if I’m playing continuo.”

Charles Wetherbee

The performance was recorded at Boulder Airport in September for live streaming, and will be available at 7:30 p.m. Saturday (Nov. 14). Soloists with her for the Brandenburg Concerto are Charles Wetherbee, the Phil’s concertmaster, and flutist Christina Jennings, who also plays the flute solos in the Orchestral Suite No. 2 in B minor.

The program is a repeat of one given by Dinnerstein and Jennings at Columbia University in February, just before the pandemic halted most concert activity. That performance, her first as conductor, featured Baroklyn, a string ensemble that Dinnerstein created for her own performances.

When Michael Butterman, music director of the Boulder Phil, asked Dinnerstein to participate in the orchestra’s ‘20–’21 streamed season, she immediately thought of the concert she had done with Jennings. “He wanted a Bach program,” she says. “I suggested that we do that program, because Christina lives (in Boulder).”

In assembling the original program for the February concert, Dinnerstein was sensitive to the flow from one piece to the next. “I think it’s interesting to start the program with something that is a very contemporary take on Bach,” she says. “And it moves very beautifully into the orchestral suite, so I like that connection between the two pieces.

Christina Jennings

Erbarm’ Dich was arranged by Philip Lasser, who is a fantastic composer and has a deep understanding of Bach’s music. This particular transcription sounds almost as much like his music as it does like Bach. He didn’t change any notes, but the way that he voices it, it’s in the style of Philip Lasser.

“I like the juxtaposition of the D minor Concerto and the D major Brandenburg Concerto. The whole program shows different sides of Bach’s music, from this very profound chorale prelude to the ebullient Fifth Brandenburg Concerto, which couldn’t be more fun.”

Although most live concerts since the February program in New York have been cancelled due to COVID-19, Dinnerstein has kept busy. “I’ve been doing concerts similar to the one in Boulder, where I am filmed and then they’re streamed,” she says. “So I’ve been doing a little bit of traveling.”

Whatever her reputation at this point, Dinnerstein does not want to be pigeonholed as a Bach pianist. “I don’t think of myself as a Bach specialist,” she says. “I love Bach, and I have recorded a lot of Bach, but I’m not somebody who has an encyclopedic knowledge of Bach. I would not call myself a Bach scholar.”

Simone Dinnerstein. Photo by Lisa Marie Mazzucco

As for playing on the modern piano instead of a keyboard of Bach’s time, “There is a kind of abstraction to his music which is not instrument-specific,” she says. “He thought of music in a pure way.”

Like many musicians and other performing artists, she is looking forward to the days after COVID. She doesn’t want to guess how things will have changed in the meantime, however.

“I can’t quite process how it’s going to change our perception of concerts,” she says. “I think that it will certainly make us favor live concerts when we are able to attend them and perform at them.”

Like most of us, she has found both positive and negative aspects to the Zoom experience. In some ways it has enhanced her teaching. “I teach in New York, and I have students (in Asia) that I’ve never met in real life. I’ve been teaching them over Zoom for a few months now. It’s very striking how we’re getting a lot more work done than we did before.

“I think that all of this recording has made us listen more acutely to ourselves as musicians. There’s’ so much opportunity for reflection and there’s a lot more inward-looking action taking place—musically and in our lives in general—just because of this whole period of time.”

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Photo by Lisa Marie Mazzucco

The Beauty of Bach
Simone Dinnerstein, pianist and conductor
Christina Jennings, flute, and Charles Wetherbee, violin

J.S. Bach/Philip Lasser: Erbarm Dich, S721
J.S. Bach: Orchestral Suite No. 2 in B minor, S1067
Keyboard Concerto in D minor, S1052
Brandenburg Concerto No 5 in D major, S1050

Available from 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 14. Ticket may be purchased here.

Boulder Phil season takes flight from Boulder Airport

First concert of an all-online season

By Peter Alexander Oct. 18 at 1 a.m.

The Boulder Philharmonic successfully launched their 2020-21 season of online concerts, “2020-21 Reimagined,” last night (Oct. 17).

Or should I say the season took flight, since the performance was recorded in an airplane hangar at boulder Municipal Airport? The stream, which premiered at 7:30 p.m., will remain available for the next two weeks to people who hold tickets.

Screenshot: The Boulder Philharmonic streaming from the Brungard Aviation hangar at Boulder Municipal Airport

To allow for responsible safety precautions, the program was entirely music for strings—string players can wear masks—and a small ensemble—if too many are spaced too far apart, the players cannot see and hear one another. Music director Michael Butterman lead the group in three pieces: Strum by Jesse Montgomery; the Simple Symphony of Benjamin Britten; and Max Richter’s recomposition of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons,

In addition to being written for strings, the pieces have another feature in common: like the season, each work has been reimagined in some way. Strum was first written for string quintet, then string quartet, and lastly for string orchestra. Britten mined pieces he wrote as a child for the themes of his Simple Symphony. And post-minimalist composer Richter has created a striking tapestry of music taken from one of the most popular works of the Baroque era, sometimes played as Vivaldi wrote it, sometimes manipulated rhythmically, harmonically, or in other more subtle ways.

Screenshot: Michael Butterman

The performances were what we would expect from the Boulder Phil: all at a professional level, played with commitment and expression. I don’t want to go much beyond that in reviewing the performance, however, since so much of what you hear depends on the equipment you use. Just like a play that is turned into a film, this product represents a separate medium from a live concert, one that that meets the viewer/listener on both the visual and aural levels.

I experienced the concert from a desktop iMac with Logitech Z4 speakers, including a woofer. These are moderately good speakers, certainly much better than what you will hear from built-in sound sources on most desktop or laptop computers, much less tablets or (God forbid!) your smartphone. 

Screenshot: Cellist Charles Lee

I was surprised that the lower pitches came through very well. A short passage by principal cellist Charles Lee was the richest and warmest sounding solo of the program. The sound of the violins, and particularly concertmaster Charles Wetherbee as soloist for Richter/Vivaldi, thinned out as it got higher on the instrument. While not precluding full enjoyment of the music, this does point to the limits of the online concert medium.

A word about the visual presentation: as the Phil’s first online production, I thought the concert was very successful. There were strategically placed cameras giving good visual variety, with closeups of individual players as well as longer shots that made good use of the props available in an airplane hangar (pun intended; I promise, no more aviation jokes).

For the Britten performance, there were closed captions available with information about the piece being played. This was presented as an experiment; I hope it is one that will be repeated with more sophisticated captions. Perhaps a little more explanation of the musical terms would be useful for the many members of the audience who do not have the advantage of years in music school. How many, for example, know the significance of the relative major key? Maybe online music theory lessons will be next.

Screenshot: Closed captions during the online performance

The introductions by Butterman, a conversation between Butterman and Wetherbee, and an introduction to her piece by composer Jesse Montgomery were nice supplements to the performance. Here, the video medium has the advantage over the concert hall: the communication seems more intimate and more personal than in Macky Auditorium.

Montgomery opened the program by introducing her piece, which is, as she said, full of rhythmic drive and clear melodies. Strum is enjoying a run of popularity, likely because it is a well crafted and enjoyable piece to hear, because it can be played by the kind of small ensemble that is easily featured in streaming concert, and—let’s be honest—because as an African-American woman, Montgomery is a composer that orchestras are happy to add to their repertoire in 2020.

Britten’s Simple Symphony—which is not, as Butterman said in spoken program notes, all that simple to play—is infrequently played on symphony programs. It was refreshing to hear it instead of the usual orchestral fare. 

Screenshot: Charles Wetherbee sports the Boulder Phil’s custom face mask

Richter/Vivaldi is both familiar and disorienting. There is much pure Vivaldi, or almost-Vivaldi. But then there are sudden turns, with unexpected harmonies, or most fun to hear, uneven meters. Wetherbee seemed too have mastered his part, although he said it takes extra concentration, because it is often so close to music that is familiar to his fingers.

This concert was definitely up my lonely little alley. I’m the kind of listener who would rather hear something new and unexpected than another familiar classical piece. I am looking forward to both the repertoire, and the visual production of the remainder of the Boulder Phil season. 

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Season listing with links to purchase tickets can be found here.

BOULDER PHIL’S OPENING CONCERT IN SPIRIT OF REIMAGINED SEASON

Program features works by Vivaldi/Richter, Britten and Jesse Montgomery

By Izzy Fincher Oct. 14 at 3 p.m.

A reimagined season for the Boulder Philharmonic will begin with a night of reimagined music, recorded in a hangar at the Boulder Municipal Airport.

The first concert, “Vivaldi Recomposed,” will feature modern composers’ reworkings of iconic compositions and their own works. The concert will be available beginning at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 17.

Boulder Philharmonic and conductor Michael Butterman rehearsing in the Brungard Aviation hanger at Boulder Municipal Airport. Photo by Peter Alexander

“[This concert] is really emblematic of everything we are doing this year,” Michael Butterman, music director of the Boulder Phil, says. “We have an unusual season that is reimagined, reinvented and adapted.”

The program is centered around Recomposed by Max Richter: Vivaldi, The Four Seasons, a 13-movement work inspired by Vivaldi’s famous set of concertos. Using about one-quarter of Vivaldi’s original material, Richter develops short, iconic motifs through looping and phasing, showing his minimalistic and postmodernist style. The re-composition is “very familiar but with a twist that is new and fresh,” Butterman says.  

“Richter takes the same music, but he rescores it and repeats it with different harmonies and accompaniment,” concertmaster Charles Wetherbee says. “Sometimes he takes blocks of music that we know very well and suddenly throws in a bar of 7/8. That can be really mind-bending. It is very familiar yet completely not.”

Charles Wetherbee. Photo by Peter Alexander

The rest of the program also links to the theme of reimagining. Jesse Montgomery expanded her own composition Strum, originally written for the Catalyst Quartet, to a version for string orchestra. In Strum, the orchestra builds dynamic textures through pizzicato, layered rhythms and ostinatos.

Strum is really attractive. It’s rhythmically driven with just enough tunefulness to be very listenable and fascinating,” Butterman says. 

In his Simple Symphony, Britten expanded eight short themes, which he composed as a child, into a piece for string orchestra. The four movements, “Boisterous Bourrée,” “Playful Pizzicato,” “Sentimental Saraband” and “Frolicsome Finale,” have nostalgic titles, reminiscent of childhood. Simple Symphony is one of Britten’s more conservative works stylistically, showing his early neoclassical influences.

Vivaldi Recomposed was the first concert the Boulder Phil recorded at the airport in late September. After two rehearsals the first day, they had a dress rehearsal and recording session the next day. Over the next two weeks, they recorded five more concerts with equally quick turnaround. 

“You just got through this recording session, but you know you need to be back the next morning with a brand new program that would be recorded in less than 48 hours,” Butterman says. “It was a lot to stay on top of.”

Michael Butterman. Photo by Peter Alexander

“It was not easy to have that many programs in your fingers, in your brain, in your heart,” Wetherbee says. “It takes a lot to assimilate that much all at once and to play it with conviction. It was a very compressed way to work.”

While recording Vivaldi Recomposed, Wetherbee found it challenging to maintain the energy of a live performance without an audience, in the middle of an airport hangar.

“We didn’t have the energy of being in the hall like a live concert,” Wetherbee says. “You hear the audience move around in their seats, applaud or draw their breath in at the end of an exciting movement. When you are playing for cameras, there is none of that energy. 

“I had to guard against the feeling that it is sterile, that you are just in a studio. In a recording, you worry about every note being perfect. In a live performance, you don’t have to worry about every note. You have to worry about the energy and about what you want to say.”

For the Boulder Phil’s first virtual concert, Butterman and Wetherbee hope the audience will enjoy the visual experience, which will be more immersive than a live concert. “I am pretty excited about the visuals,” Butterman says. 

“The setting of the airport with the different camera angles and close ups is going to be fun. Through the use of the cameras, people are going to feel like they are in the mix. I hope they feel that they are drawn into the concert.”

“There’s no way [a virtual concert] replaces the live experience,” Wetherbee adds. “Yet, we are moving toward slightly different art form, to be enjoyed for its own ends.”

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Vivaldi Recomposed
Michael Butterman, conductor
Charles Wetherbee, violin

Jesse Montgomery: Strum
Benjamin Britten: Simple Symphony
Recomposed by Max Richter: Vivaldi, The Four Seasons

Stream available from 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 17
You may purchase access here.

Boulder Philharmonic has a full season for 2020-21—all of it online

Players are currently rehearsing and recording six of the eight programs

By Peter Alexander Sept. 21 at 10:30 a.m.

There were airplanes coming and going at the Boulder Municipal Airport last week, there were mechanics working on airplanes, pilots picking up brake fluid for airplanes—all the activity you would expect.

And there was an orchestra.

Members of the Boulder Philharmonic and conductor Michael Butterman rehearse in the Brungard Aviation hangar at Boulder Municipal Airport Sept. 15.

In fact, the Boulder Philharmonic was busy rehearsing their fall 2020 season in the Brungard Aviation hangar. It’s not usual activity at the airport, but if the pilot picking up brake fluid was taken aback, he didn’t show it.

This is part of the Boulder Phil’s answer to keeping the music alive during the pandemic. As conductor Michael Butterman explains, he and the orchestra spent several months looking for a way to have a 2020–21 season.

“This is probably the 40th iteration of ‘20–‘21,” he says. “Throughout the summer we kept changing our thoughts about what we’re going to be able to do.”

They finally found a way to stream the season online. Seven of the eight concerts will be available individually or by subscription through the Boulder Phil Web page. The eighth concert, the holiday program, will be available free with voluntary contributions. Each concert will be available for a limited time after its online premier. (See the full schedule below.)

Who are those masked violinists? Rehearsals in the time of COVID.

To rehearse and record, Butterman realized, the players would have to be safely distanced and most playing with a mask. For that to be possible, they would have to use a reduced orchestra, mostly strings, and they would have to have a large space. For the former, there is a lot of available repertoire, but where would they find an appropriate space?

Michael Butterman at rehearsal in the Brungard Aviation hangar, Sept. 15

“It occurred to me that we have had galas at an airplane hangar at Rocky Mountain Airport,” Butterman says. “We ended up locating an opportunity at Boulder Municipal Airport, at Brungard Aviation’s hangar, and we’re grateful to them for that.”

Over a two week period—Sept. 15–20 and Sept. 22–27—players from the orchestra will rehearse and record for later streaming six of the eight concerts scheduled for the season. There will be three rehearsals and one three-hour recording session for each program.

The last two concerts—one a collaboration with the CU-Boulder Department of Theatre and the other with Frequent Flyers Aerial Dance—will be recorded later. That gives flexibility in working with the collaborating organizations and keeps open the possibility that some kind of live performance might be possible by the end of the season.

Simone Dinnerstein. Photo by Lisa Marie Mazzucco

Two artists who have appeared with the Boulder Phil in the past—pianist Simone Dinnerstein and cellist Zuill Bailey—were invited to collaborate in chamber or chamber orchestra performances. “Zuill and Simone are wonderful to work with,” Butterman says. “The fact that we’ve had them both to Boulder already, and that they’ve been very popular with our audience, they were obvious choices.”

Zuill Bailey

To make the video recordings, the Boulder Phil recruited the service of sound and video engineer Michael Quam. There will be 10 cameras recording each piece, providing a wide variety of camera angles for the streamed performances.

Streamed concerts offer both a challenge and an opportunity. “This season may offer opportunities for greater access for some people,” Butterman says: “anybody who has problems with transportation, who has a schedule conflict Saturdays at 7:30, who lives far enough from Boulder that they don’t want to drive in.” And of course the hope is that the convenience of being able to see concerts on demand will attract new audiences 

The necessity of limiting the number of performers led to some thoughtful  programming. For example, during the years after World War I and during the Spanish flu, Stravinsky and other composers did not have access to large orchestras. Instead, they wrote music for smaller groups, including Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du Soldat for seven players, which is ideal for the pandemic year. It will be on the April 3 program. 

Other works will be performed in arrangements for reduced ensembles, such as Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony on April 24, arranged for a string sextet, and Ellen Taaffe Zwillich’s Cello Concerto, which the composer re-arranged for chamber ensemble, on March 13.

In fact, Butterman says, “the idea of this being a re-imagined season is embodied in each of the programs. We’re presenting pieces that themselves have undergone some amount of transformation. In the case of Vivaldi (recomposed by Max Richter, on the Oct. 17 concert), that’s obvious. The least obvious example is the Bach concert (Nov. 14), but any time you’re playing Bach on piano, that is a bit of a re-imagining.

“We’re obviously retooling the concert experience. I think there’s some very, very strong upsides to that, including bringing you inside the experience, and making the access wider.”

And if they find new fans among the mechanics at Brungard Aviation, or pilots that need brake fluid, so much the better.

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Boulder Phil 2021: Reimagined
All performances streamed online
Tickets available through the Boulder Phil Web page

Vivaldi Recomposed
Michael Butterman, conductor
Charles Wetherbee, violin

Jesse Montgomery: Strum
Benjamin Britten: Simple Symphony
Recomposed by Max Richter: Vivaldi, The Four Seasons

Available from 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 17

The Beauty of Bach
Simone Dinnerstein, pianist and conductor
Christina Jennings, flute, and Charles Wetherbee, violin

J.S. Bach/Philip Lasser: Erbarm’ Dich
J.S. Bach: Orchestral Suite No. 2 in B minor
Keyboard Concerto in D minor
Brandenburg Concerto No 5 in D major

Available from 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 14

Happy Holidays from the Phil
No tickets required; contributions welcomed
Available from 3 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 13

Zuill and Zwillich
Zuill Bailey, cello, with Michael Butterman and Jennifer Hayghe, piano

Rachmaninoff: Vocalise  for cello and piano
Ellen Taaffe Zwillich: Cello Concerto (chamber version)
Schubert: Piano Quintet in A major (“The Trout”)

Available 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 23

Mozart and Mendelssohn
Simone Dinnerstein, piano

Scott Joplin: “Solace” and “Bethena”
Mozart/Ignaz Lachner: Piano Concerto in C major, K467
Mendelssohn: Octet for Strings

Available from 7:30 Saturday, Feb. 13

A Celebration of Cello
Michael Butterman conductor, with Zuill Bailey, cello

Debussy/Schoenberg: Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun
Schumann/Philip Lasser: Cello Concerto in A minor
Paul Trapkus: Trio for Three Violins
Giovanni Sollima: Violencelles, Vibrez!
Wagner: Siegfried Idyll

Available 7:30 p.m. Saturday, March 13

The Soldier’s Tale
Michael Butterman, conductor 
CU Department of Theatre and Boulder Ballet

Stravinsky: L’Histoire du soldat (The soldier’s tale)

Available 7:30 p.m. Saturday, April 3

Beethoven 6 and Frequent Flyers
Michael Butterman, conductor
Frequent Flyers Aerial Dance

George Walker: Lyric for Strings
Korine Fujiwara: Suite from Claudel
Beethoven: Symphony No. 6 in F major (“Pastoral”; arr. for string sextet by M.G. Fischer)

Available 7:30 p.m. Saturday, April 24

Musicians in their Lairs III: Michael Butterman

Busier than ever, and figuring it all out as he goes

By Peter Alexander May 1 at 9:40 p.m.

“The biggest difference is that I’m not traveling,” says Michael Butterman, conductor of the Boulder Philharmonic.

Screen Shot 2020-04-17 at 2.15.23 PM

Michael Butterman, speaking by Zoom from his home office in Shreveport, La.

He is speaking from his home in Shreveport, La., where he is spending his time with his wife and daughter during the COVID-19 pandemic. During a normal year, the Shreveport Symphony, with the Boulder Phil, is one of three orchestras he leads. He is also conductor of the Pennsylvania Philharmonic, a regional orchestra that presents educational programs and concerts in central and southeastern Pennsylvania. When you add in guest conducting gigs, that creates a lot of travel.

“Typically about 10% of my time is spent performing and in rehearsals, and the other 90% is divided between administrative details, phone calls and emails,” Butterman says. “And studying scores, which I do at home. That’s what you do as a conductor, more than wave your arms around: look at dots on the page and try to figure out what they’re all about.”

When he first found himself at home full time, Butterman thought he would have lots of time for new musical projects. “When this first started, I thought, this is going to be a blessing in disguise,” he says.

“There’s so many scores that I haven’t cracked the code of yet, or things that are coming up that I want to get a jump on. And there’s all these other things, like practice piano—two hours a day even, which would be about 1 hour and 45 minute more than I had been doing for the past 10 years. All of that sounded like I could make good use of the time.”

The reality turned out differently, as all three orchestras had planning to do for the post-pandemic world. Since no one knows what to expect, or when, the planning had to encompass various scenarios. “I have found myself occupied with re-inventing what we do in these orchestras,” Butterman says.

“First dealing with the immediate fallout of all of this. How we’re going to re-budget for the rest of the season. Then there’ve been issues of how to reschedule next season, how many plan Bs and Cs and Ds do we need.”

The planning had to encompass several unknowns: when and under what conditions will they be able to invite people back into concert halls? Will there be a maximum occupancy imposed? And when will their audience be willing to gather in a full auditorium? Performing arts groups are grappling with those questions world-wide, the Boulder Phil as much as the Chicago Symphony or the Metropolitan Opera.

“More immediately, how can we continue to be a presence in our communities and in the lives of our patrons?” Butterman asks. The obvious answer is through the sharing of performances online, but most American orchestras were not well prepared for that possibility, both because of the lack of archival material in hand and because of union contracts that limit how electronic material can be shared.

“Most European orchestras were video recording all of their concerts, for archival purposes or for broadcast,” he explained. “But most American orchestras—no.”

The Boulder Phil has a few performances on video, and eventually those will be made available one way or another. And going forward, the possibility of streaming concerts is something that almost every orchestra and performer is thinking about. But it takes serious equipment for that to work above a very rudimentary level.

In the meantime, Butterman is doing what he can to keep the orchestras alive online. For all three he has already posted some combination of conversation and performance. You can see these posts for the Boulder Phil, Shreveport Symphony and the Pennsylvania Philharmonic online. Numerous posts are available on Butterman’s Youtube channel.

Negotiating this new world has taken more of Butterman’s time and energy than the familiar world of rehearsals and concerts. “I find myself busier now than I was before,” he says. “I knew how to do everything before. I knew how to study scores, I know how to plan rehearsals, I knew where to be at what time. And now we’re just figuring it out.”

Like everyone else these days, he is facing new tasks at home, too. “I do a lot more laundry than I ever did before,” he says, laughing. “Taking more walks, riding my bike—that’s all good.”

His daughter is in high school, so he does not find himself facing the homeschooling challenges that parents of younger children do. “I don’t think in some ways my role has changed much,” he says. “In fact, in many of the classes she’s studying now I’m not going to be much help, other than I’m a decent proofreader of English sentences.”

He and his wife, violinist Jennifer Carsillo, have already posted one performance on Youtube, and he hopes to post more performances. Making music is important for him.

Screen Shot 2020-05-01 at 3.42.01 PM

Michael Butterman and violinist Jennifer Carsillo, performing on Youtube from their home in Shreveport, La. 

“I really do hope to play more piano, because it allows me to create,” he says. “I’m never able to produce sound as a conductor, but at least I’m around sound that I have some influence over. But now nothing. So I have to get back to pressing keys and making sound myself. There is joy in that, of course, and that will make me a better musician the more I do “

The current crisis has led Butterman, like many musicians around the world, to think about the place of music in our culture, both in the current situation and beyond. “To put it bluntly, does it matter that we’re not able to get together and play a Beethoven symphony right now?” he asks.

“I think it does to some extent, but I also understand the larger context in which all of this is taking place.”