Longmont and Boulder orchestras return to live performances for grateful audiences

Abbreviated concerts featured careful COVID protocols, no intermissions

By Peter Alexander Oct. 3 at 11:30 p.m.

For a short time this past weekend, you could have believed that concert life in Longmont and Boulder had returned to normal.

Of course, no one knows what tomorrow will bring. But both the Longmont Symphony and the Boulder Philharmonic presented their first in-person concerts in nearly two years, and sitting in the audience hearing live music was a welcome return to near-normal.

Longmont Symphony Saturday (Oct. 2) with soloist Hsing-ay Hsu and conductor Elliot Moore in Vance Brand Auditorium

Both concerts—the LSO at Vance Brand Auditorium at 7 p.m. Saturday, and the Boulder Phil at Mountain View Methodist Church at 4 p.m. Sunday—had restrictions that for now we might consider the “new normal.” In both cases, patrons were met outside by orchestra representatives checking proof of vaccination and ID, masks were required at all times, and seating was limited to less than full capacity of the respective venues. Conductors and orchestral string players wore masks for the performances as well. Both concerts were presented without intermission, so that the audience did not have the chance to mix and mingle. 

Both conductors, Elliot Moore with the LSO and Michael Butterman with the Boulder Phil, commented on how good it felt to be back, and both were greeted with enthusiasm. I would add that both concerts received standing ovations, but that has long since become normal, so it is not really anything new.

The Longmont Symphony began with a rousing performance of Brahms’s Academic Festival Overture. In his introduction, Moore noted that in spite of its name, the overture is not really academic in nature, because it is actually based on student drinking songs of Brahms’s era. As Moore intended, it started the post-pandemic musical scene with infectious energy. 

Brahms was followed by Mozart’s Piano Concerto in A major, K414, featuring soloist Hsing-ay Hsu. She introduced the concerto with heartfelt remarks about the opportunity to perform again before an audience, and played with solid confidence and sensitivity. The concert of orchestral repertory standards ended with Robert Schumann’s Symphony No. 4 in D minor. Any minor lapses of intonation or ensemble were easily forgiven for musicians who had not played together for so many months. Shouts of “Bravo” were heard through the standing ovation.

Michael Butterman leads the Boulder Philharmonic in Haydn’s Symphony No. 1 at Mountain View Methodist Church

Butterman chose much less standard works for the Boulder Phil’s return to the stage. Two works by Haydn were featured, none of them among the composer’s better known symphonies or concertos. In fact, the concert started at the very beginning, one could say, with Haydn’s Symphony No. 1 of 1759. A three-movement work of about 12 minutes in length, it has the tunefulness and energy, if not the sophistication, of Haydn’s larger late Symphonies. “If you liked that piece,” Butterman quipped, “there are 100 more like it!” (For the record, current research has identified 108 symphonies by Haydn.)

The symphony was paired with Haydn’s Sinfonia Concertante written for London in 1792, a larger and more mature work that features violin, oboe, cello and bassoon soloists with orchestra. The principal players from the orchestra played the solo parts with elan and polish. Using modern instruments, and heard in a church that has only a cement floor due to ongoing renovations, the orchestral sound struck me as a little on the thick side, not as transparent as Haydn would have expected.

Butterman’s final work for the program is one that he particularly loves, the Petite symphonie concertante by the 20th-century Swiss composer Frank Martin. It was a treat to hear this genuine rarity live in concert. It is scored for a double string orchestra with harpsichord, piano and harp soloists, creating an utterly unique sound world. Although written using 12-tone techniques, the music is often consonant, always enjoyable, and unlike any other piece I know. 

Butterman led the orchestra with obvious relish. The size and full-bodied sound of the Phil’s strings was ideal for a 20th-century work. In his analytical introduction to the score, Butterman said that he hoped that the audience would enjoy the Petite symphonie concertante as much as he does. I can’t speak for the rest of the audience, but hearing a committed live performance of an intriguing rarity was the weekend’s highlight for me. 

Like both audiences, I was thrilled to hear live music again, and to be back in the hall with musicians who love what they are doing. More, please!

NOTE: Minor typos and editing errors corrected Monday, 10/4.

Longmont Symphony returns to live in-person performances Saturday

Program of music by Brahms, Mozart and Schumann launches 2021–22 season

By Peter Alexander Sept. 30 at 9:45 p.m.

The Longmont Symphony Orchestra (LSO) will return to the Vance Brand Auditorium stage for its first live, in-person performance in 20 months at 7:30 p.m. Saturday (Oct. 2). The program will feature music by three of the most loved classical composers: Brahms, Mozart and Schumann.

Elliot Moore and the Longmont Symphony onstage at Vance Brand Auditorium

“This is an exceptional opportunity for the musicians of the Longmont Symphony to come together again,” LSO music director Elliot Moore says. “It’s an amazing thing we are able to gather and have a live audience. And it’s another amazing thing that we’re able to have a venue to rehearse in, and to perform in. 

“When you combine all of these elements, I think it’s really going to be a celebration that we are able to continue lifting people up through music.”

Securing Vance Brand Auditorium for the series of rehearsals and full orchestra concerts this year was complicated by several factors. For one, there were shifting COVID protocols that the St. Vrain Valley School District, who control the use of the facility, had to consider. Then there was new staff for both the school district and the LSO working together for the first time to make the schedule work. “I’d like to take my hat off to our new executive director, Catherine Beeson, for the exceptional work she did,” Moore says.

In addition to Saturday’s concert, the LSO will present a second Masterworks Concert during the fall, at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 13, also in Vance Brand Auditorium. In between, there will be a concert for smaller orchestra in Stewart Auditorium at the Longmont Museum Saturday and Sunday, Oct. 16 and 17. The fall portion of the season will conclude with “A Baroque Christmas” Sunday, Dec. 19 (see full schedule and programs below).

LSO music director Elliot Moore

Moore wanted to select just the right piece to open the first concert after the pandemic. When he selected Brahms’s Academic Festival Overture he had two thoughts, one whimsical and one serious. “I did happen to think the Academic Festival Overture is really about drinking songs,” he admits, then adds more seriously that “it uses the largest orchestra that Brahms ever used. It gives us the most possibility to use all of our musicians, so that everybody plays together. This (program) is about being together and offering something to our community that is uplifting, engaging, fun, and creates a common experience.”

The overture, written for a German university that gave Brahms an honorary degree, uses a variety of spirited student songs of the time, ending with one that is treated in appropriately academic counterpoint. Whether or not one recognizes the songs, the mood is clearly one of good cheer.

Mozart began his career in Vienna as a piano virtuoso. Consequently, his piano concertos were mostly written for the composer himself to play. A few however were written with an eye to possible sales to the public as well, particularly three that were written in 1782, soon after Mozart had moved to the imperial capital. The Concertos K413, 414 and 415 were written so that they could be performed either with full orchestra or, in private homes with only a string quartet accompaniment. 

In a famous letter to his father, Mozart wrote that the concertos “are a happy medium between too heavy and too light. They are very brilliant, pleasing to the ear, and natural, without being insipid. There are parts here and there from which connoisseurs alone can derive satisfaction, but these passages are written in such a way that the less learned cannot fail to be pleased, albeit without knowing why.”

Pianist Hsing-ay Hsu

Soloist for the Mozart concerto will be pianist Hsing-ay Hsu, a Steinway Artist and winner of the William Kapell International Piano Competition, among other awards. A former member of the CU College of Music faculty, Hsu was also director of the Pendulum New Music Series at the college.

The concluding piece on Saturday’s concert will be Schumann’s Symphony No. 4 in D minor. First completed in 1841, it was revised by the composer ten years later. That later version was published and is the form in which the symphony is usually performed today. However, that version has been criticized as too heavily orchestrated, even though it was preferred by Schumann’s widow Clara. Because Schumann was first of all pianist and not an orchestral player, conductors and others have often revised the scoring of his symphonies, aiming to make them lighter.

Moore admits that he too will make some slight changes. “I do alter a couple of things,” he says. “I change a couple of dynamics. I do it in the spirit of hopefully clarifying the musical discourse, not to put my own stamp on it.”

Moore also notes that while it numbered fourth among Schumann’s symphonies, based on the revised version, it was originally the second to be written. “His first symphony is glorious, (but) this one has darker overtones,” he says. “At the same time, to me, it still ends in joy and exuberance.

“Right now, I’m OK with a symphony that has some darkness in it and takes us into the light.”

# # # # #

Longmont Symphony Orchestra
Elliot Moore, music director
2021 fall season of concerts

7:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 2
Vance Brand Auditorium

Hsing-ay Hsu, piano

  • Brahms: Academic Festival Overture
  • Mozart: Piano Concerto in A major, K414
  • Schumann: Symphony No. 4

7 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 16, and 4 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 17
Stewart Auditorium, Longmont Museum

Matthew Zalkind, cello

  • Jessie Montgomery: Starburst
  • Tchaikovsky: Variations on a Rococo Theme, Op. 33
  • Richard Strauss: Serenade for 13 Winds
  • Joseph Haydn: Symphony No. 96 “The Miracle”

7:30 Saturday, Nov. 13
Vance Brand Auditorium

Leberta Lorál, mezzo-soprano

  • Samuel Barber: Knoxville: Summer of 1915
  • Dvořák: Symphony No. 9, “From the New World”

Candlelight: A Baroque Christmas
4 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 19
Westview Presbyterian Church, Longmont

  • Archangelo Corelli: Concerto Grosso Op. 6. No. 8. (“Christmas Concerto”)
  • Gustav Holst: “Christmas Day”
  • J.S. Bach: Brandenburg Concerto No. 3
  • Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring”
  • Ottorino Respighi: “Adoration of the Magi” from Trittico Botticelliano (Three Botticelli pictures)

Season and individual LSO concert tickets are available through the LSO webpage

“A crazy piece” tops off Boulder Chamber Orchestra’s season

After Rossini and Chopin, season-ending concert ends with Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony

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

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

By Peter Alexander

First it’s serious, and then it’s not; then it seems not, but it is.

That’s more or less the way Bahman Saless, music director of the Boulder Chamber Orchestra, describes Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony. Saless and the BCO end their 2014–15 season with that energetic symphony, Saturday in Broomfield and Sunday in Boulder (May 9 and 10, both concerts at 7:30 p.m.; details).

In addition to Beethoven’s symphony—one that is less well known than the Third or the Fifth or Seventh or Ninth— the program features the rollicking Overture to La Scala di seta (The Silken Ladder) by Rossini and Chopin’s Second Piano Concerto, performed by soloist Hsing-ay Hsu. This adds up to a comfortable and enjoyable evening—a humorous Rossini overture, an elegant, decorative piano concerto, and a cheerful Beethoven symphony that Robert Schumann compared to a “slender Greek maiden.”

I’ll get back to Beethoven and that Greek maiden in a moment, but first the concert opens with the overture by Rossini. It is easy to think of all of those bubbly Rossini overtures as being almost interchangeable, but Saless had a reason for choosing the one he did.

“I picked La Scala di seta because we’ve done many of the other ones, and this one seemed just fun to do,” he says. “I listened to three or four of them and I thought it fits the character of this concert, just because it’s kind of comical.”

Next on the program will be Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2—actually the first to be written, while the composer was still studying at the Warsaw Academy and first performed in 1830. It is not modeled on the heroic concerto of Beethoven and the later 19th century, but is more lyrical, decorative and free-flowing.

Hsing-ay Hsu. Photo by Cyrus McCrimmon.

Hsing-ay Hsu. Photo by Cyrus McCrimmon.

The concerto was the choice of the soloist, Hsing-ay Hsu. “I think that every great composer has his own voice and there is a lot of poetry in Chopin. It’s emotionally very approachable, and for an audience to experience that kind of soaring and that kind of blissful energy is a great experience.”

Poetry suggests a certain freedom for the soloist, which Hsu identifies as the greatest challenge of the concerto. “What I find really challenging is that on one hand it has to feel completely free and improvised, and on the other hand the rhythmic integrity is very important,” she says. “There’s the sense of very long-reaching lines and having that flexibility within this larger structure is something that is really exciting and really challenging at the same time.”

That flexibility is in turn a challenge for the conductor, who has to follow the soloist without constraining her expressivity. “The pianist can take all of these elaborations on every phrase, with a lot of freedom if they want to, so the rubato (alteration of tempo) is going to challenge any conductor to make sure they play together,” Saless says.

Because he wrote the concerto before leaving Poland, Chopin did not have the Parisian drawing room in mind. In fact, Hsu hears a lot of the composer’s native culture in the music.

“I think of the third movement as a mazurka,” she says, referring to a Polish folk dance. “You might not dance to it because it’s quite complex music, but I think that understanding the rhythm is crucial to the performance, and having that feeling of lifting your dress up and twirling and all that is part of the character of the third movement.

“I think it’s music of the people. It’s a movement that’s meant to be a joyful family gathering.”


Beethoven around the time of the Fourth Symphony. Portrait by Christian Horneman.

After intermission it’s time for Schumann’s “slender Greek maiden,” a phrase suggesting that Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony is graceful and ingratiating, and avoids the drama of some of his music.

But maybe not. Saless sees far more going on in the symphony than the cheerful surface Schumann describes. “It’s a crazy piece,” Saless says. “It’s lighter and folksier, but at the same time in many ways crazier than even the Third Symphony, in the sense that he’s just pushing the boundaries and experimenting with extremes.”

Saless points to the very beginning of the symphony. It opens with a very somber slow introduction that seems to be building to a dramatic climax when suddenly, a fast and bumptious allegro seems to explode out of nowhere.

In other words, first it’s serious and then it’s not.

“Beethoven tries at first to kind of fool you into thinking this is going to be a serious piece of music,” Saless says. “The first 12, 15 bars is very serious. You think ‘Oh my God, what’s going to happen,’ but then suddenly, brrum! It’s like a horse race!”

Saless compares this beginning, seeming so solemn before bursting into a raucous romp, to Beethoven’s private piano recitals, when he would practically mock his audiences. “He would perform something and purposefully make the music deep,” Saless explains. “Everybody was drawn in, their complete attention was to the music, and then he would suddenly stop and laugh at them!”

The slow movement moves in another direction, from placid beauty to something more troubling. “I think the slow movement has a lot more depth than people have thought,” Saless says.

Bahman Saless.

Bahman Saless. Photo by Keith Bobo.

The movement is dominated by one of Beethoven’s most serene melodies. It seems perfectly calm, but it is accompanied by a constant rhythmic figure that, to Saless, represents the composer’s heartbeat. “Why would you put that against this legato melody?” Saless asks. “He obviously wants to keep you unsettled.”

At one point, the heartbeat figure takes over completely, and is played in unison and forte by the whole orchestra. “It seems like the whole idea of this beautiful melody gets dropped and he’s really concerned about his heart,” Saless says. “What’s that about? It’s nothing musical, it’s not fate knocking on the door, it’s just really amazing.”

So now it doesn’t seem serious, but it is.

After that, the last movement poses virtuoso challenges to the players, but refreshingly few complications to the audience. It moves like the wind from beginning to the end, and is one of the great movements of Beethovenian exuberance. It is, Saless says, “as showoff a piece as anything, if you can pull it off!”

Making a great ending for a concert or a season.

# # # # #

Boulder Chamber Orchestra
Bahman Saless, conductor, with Hsing-ay Hsu, piano

Rossini: Overture to La Scala di seta
Chopin: Piano Concerto No. 2 in F minor
Beethoven: Symphony No. 4 in B-flat major

7:30 p.m. Saturday, May 9, Broomfield Auditorium, Broomfield
7:30 p.m. Sunday, May 10, Seventh-Day Adventist Church,
345 Mapleton Ave., Boulder