Longmont Symphony presents “Sounds of America”

Soprano Christie Conover inspired the program with a Cowboy Song

By Peter Alexander Feb. 20 at 6:30 p.m.

The next concert of the Longmont Symphony started with, of all things, the notorious outlaw Belle Starr.

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Belle Starr (l)

The program includes composer Libby Larsen’s Cowboy Songs, a set of three songs for voice and orchestra that opens with “Bucking Bronco,” a text loosely attributed to Starr. A warning to young girls, the text concludes “Now all young maidens, where e’er you reside/Beware of the cowboy who swings rawhide/He’ll court you and pet you and leave you to go/In the spring up the trail on his bucking bronco.”

Elliot Moore - credit - Photography Maestro

Elliot Moore, by Photography Maestro.

Elliot Moore, conductor of the Longmont Symphony, heard soprano Christie Conover sing the song at an audition and fell in love with it. “She sang stunningly beautifully,” he says. “I thought (the song) was fantastic and I thought that she really sold it.”

Deciding that he wanted to have Conover perform the Cowboy Songs with the LSO, Moore thought that another piece that would fit her voice would be Samuel Barber’s sweet recollection of childhood, Knoxville, Summer of 1915.  

With an American theme starting to come together, he decided that Aaron Copland’s ballet Rodeo would be the perfect companion to the Cowboy Songs. The final piece of the puzzle—or the program—is an American piece that is little known but that Moore really wanted to present, the Symphony No. 2 of Robert Kurka.

Robert Kurka

Robert Kurka

“It is an amazing American symphony that has been forgotten and deservers a spot in the repertoire,” Moore says. “Kurka was born in 1921 and died at 36, in 1957. He was being compared to Copland, (as) the next great American composer, but he died, so there’s very little of his work performed.”

The Symphony is a relatively short work in three movements. “The first movement has a gravitas to it, the second movement has kind of a lilting, dance feeling to it, and the last movement is just super, super joyful,” Moore says. “It’s been recorded I think twice, and it has remained on the shelf for 60 some odd years. It’s exciting that we have an opportunity to bring it out.”

A graduate of the CU Boulder College of Music , Conover relates naturally to the Cowboy Songs. “I’m from Montana, and a lot of my family is still out on the farm and the ranch,” she says. “My parents both grew up on farms and ranches, and I grew up going to the farms and ranches of my family.”

After the first song, which Moore describes as “cute and fun,” the second has a bluesy quality “It’s called ‘Lift me Into Heaven,’ and it is more (about) the physical aches that come from working on the farm. It’s not about dying and going into heaven, simply ‘I need you to lift me into bed so that I can go to sleep after a hard day.’ That to me sounds like what heaven is in this song.”

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Christie Conover

Moore and Conover both describe the third song as “sassy.” It’s very short, about Billy the Kid and all the people he shot, “one every morning.” “Billy was a bad man,” the song states. “One day he met a man who was a whole lot badder/And now he’s dead and we ain’t none the sadder.”

As a true Westerner, Conover knows that some of the wild-west mythology is exaggerated. “But there has to be some truth to legend, in order for the stories to take shape,” she says. “I think there’s some truth to it.”

She also believes American audiences should hear music of their own culture on concerts. “It’s our repertoire, and it is important that we experience our own culture through music,” she says. “This is who we are.”

For many Americans, so is Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915, a setting of James Agee’s description of a idyllic summer evening on the front porch and in the back yard with his family. It was published as a prologue to Agee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning autobiographical novel A Death in the Family.

Ostensibly the description of a time of happiness, the poem takes on a darker meaning in connection with the novel, which relates how the death of the author’s father shatters the family. It is both a depiction of innocence through the eyes of a child, and a premonition of the loss of innocence, through the eyes of the adult recalling childhood.

“I think that Barber did such an incredible job that the sense of nostalgia and innocence paired with loss of innocence comes out in the harmonies,” Moore says.

Barber paints the images of the summer evening in the music. “As an example, the rocking of the rocking chair is painted with a triplet figure in the flute,” Moore says. “(The text) talks about street cars being noisy in the traffic, and he puts in the French horn that makes a clanging sound. There’s a lot that Barber has put into the music to really bring the text into musical relief.”

Since beginning her study to Knoxville: Summer of 1915, Conover has found a deeper meaning from becoming a mother. “I have a 5-month-old now, and it’s a child talking,” she says. “He speaks about how his mother and his father are good to him, and how amazing that we are put on this earth at the same time, and I kind of easily well up.”

She read the text over and over before learning the notes. “It has to be me singing the (words of the text), whether the specific part I think about my son, or the part I think about my own mother and my own memories. You have to have those sensations in your mind as you’re singing it.

“If you’re feeling it and you’re visualizing it, the way the music comes out of you is different. That’s what’s so great about live music!”

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Agnes de Mille’s choreography for Rodeo. Pennsylvania Ballet, photo by Alexander Ilziliaev.

Following up the cowboy theme of Larsen’s songs, Moore and the LSO will perform the entire score of Copland’s ballet Rodeo. The ballet tells the story the courting of a shy cowgirl during a party with the ranch hands. The score includes a number of folk songs and fiddle tunes from American history, including “If He’d be a Buckaroo,” “Sis Joe,” “I Ride an old Paint,” “Bonaparte’s Retreat,” and “Miss McLeod’s Reel.”

“We’re performing is the complete ballet, which includes a movement that features a saloon-style solo piano called ‘Ranch-House Party,’ and that movement is generally omitted,” Moore says. “There’s also a big clarinet solo in the ‘Ranch House Party’ that is rarely heard.

“I think it’s neat that we’re bringing the complete music of the ballet to Longmont.”

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elliotandlso-1Sounds of America
Longmont Symphony Orchestra, Elliot Moore, music director
With Christie Conover, soprano

Robert Kurka: Symphony No. 2 (Colorado premiere)
Samuel Barber: Knoxville, Summer of 1915
Libby Larsen: Cowboy Songs
Aaron Copland: Rodeo

7:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb 23
Vance Brand Civic Auditorium, Longmont

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Colored socks lead to Boulder Chamber Orchestra concert

Concerto by Hummel, incidental music by Beethoven on the program Feb. 23–24

By Peter Alexander Feb. 21 at 2:45 p.m.

The program for the next concert by the Boulder Chamber Orchestra began with a pair of socks.

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Bahman Saless and the Boulder Chamber Orchestra. Photo by Keith Bobo.

There are two works on the program, both written in the 1810s and both just outside the central Classical repertoire. The first will be Beethoven’s complete incidental music for Goethe’s drama Egmont, composed in 1810—a less-known work by a major composer. The Third Piano Concerto of Beethoven’s younger contemporary Johann Nepomuk Hummel was written only a little later, in 1819—a major work by a less-known composer.

Joining conductor Bahman Saless and the BCO for the concert will be soprano Christie Conover to sing two arias from the Egmont music, and pianist Andrew Staupe for the Hummel Concerto. Performances will be Friday, Feb. 23, in Lone Tree, and Saturday, Feb 24, in Boulder.

But back to those socks.

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Pianist Andrew Staupe. His socks intrigued conductor Bahman Saless.

Saless first met pianist Andrew Staupe when he played with the Colorado Symphony. “He invited me to his concert, and I think he did Beethoven’s 4th Piano Concerto,” Saless says. “I met him there, and I was intrigued by his socks.”

His socks? “He wears colored, very obviously different socks on each leg, and he purposely wears shorter pants so you can see the socks. I liked this guy already!”

Thanks to those socks, Saless and Staupe became friends, and one day Staupe asked about playing the Hummel Third Concerto. It’s not performed often, partly because it is so difficult, but it was a piece he really wanted to do. “He knew I’m the kind of person who likes to do things that are not often played,” Saless explains.

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Johann Nepomuk Hummel. Painting after Möller. Original in the Goethemuseum, Düsseldorf.

Hummel lived in Vienna at the same time as Beethoven, and the two of them studied with the same teachers when they were starting their careers. An informal but mostly respectful rivalry developed between them as pianists, and Hummel wrote his concertos as virtuoso showpieces for his own performances.

As a result the Hummel piano concertos have the reputation of being extremely difficult to learn. Saless recalls talking to another pianist who said he might be able to learn one of them in two or three years.

The Third Concerto in particular is, Saless says, “a crazy piano marathon. I don’t know how anybody performs it. The soloist rarely stops playing, and it is unbelievably hard. It’s inhuman!” In fact, the piece is so rarely performed that there is no full score available; Saless will conduct from a two-piano score.

A link between the classical and Romantic periods, Hummel wrote in a highly decorative piano style that anticipated later composers. “The forecasting of Chopin is ridiculous,” Saless says. “So you hear Chopin, and you hear a little bit of Rossini here and there.”

Beethoven received a commission for music to accompany a performance of Goethe’s play Egmont, to be presented in the summer of 1810. The play, about a nobleman who was executed in the 16th century for resisting Spanish tyranny in the Netherlands, appealed to Beethoven’s own political idealism, and he wrote some of his most powerful music for the performance. The Overture is especially well known, and was associated with the 1956 Hungarian uprising against the Soviet Union.

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Soprano Christie Conover will sing two arias from Beethoven’s music for Goethe’s Egmont.

Beethoven wrote 10 pieces for the play, including the Overture, two songs for the character Klärchen, and dramatic entr’actes to be played between the five acts of the play. Because Egmont’s death leads to a victorious uprising, the final piece is titled “Victory Symphony.” Played as Egmont is led offstage to his execution, it repeats the final triumphant section of the Overture.

Saless first heard the complete music to Egmont at the Colorado Music Festival in 2003, and since the two composers knew one another, he thought it would be a good piece to share the program with Hummel. The entr’actes are more than just filler between acts, often being part of the drama as it unfolds. “Some are very theatrical, as you might guess,” Saless says

“A couple of movements are literally oboe concertos, following the theme of the previous aria by the soprano. Other movements are militaristic, with snare drum playing like soldiers marching.

“The arias are absolutely beautiful—very tuneful arias. Some of the movements have the sudden changes of mood that we’re so used to in Beethoven. He does such a good job [of telling the story].”

To make sure that the storytelling is not lost on the audience, Saless will provide projections to explain the drama as it unfolds in the music. Between Beethoven’s explicitly theatrical music and the challenges of Hummel’s “inhuman” concerto, it should be a dramatic concert. And Saless has some cogent advice for the audience:

“Pay attention to his socks!”

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Boulder Chamber Orchestra, Bahman Saless, conductor
With Andrew Staupe, piano, and Christie Conover, soprano

Beethoven: Incidental Music to Goethe’s Egmont
Johann Nepomuk Hummel: Piano Concerto No. 3

7:30 p.m. Friday, Feb. 23, Lone Tree Arts Center, Lone Tree
7:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 24, Boulder Adventist Church, Boulder

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