2017: The Year in Classical Music

Some outstanding concerts, and some changes of leadership in Boulder

By Peter Alexander

With the year drawing to a close, it is time to look back at 2017. It has been a tumultuous year in many realms, including some aspects of Classical music. But before that, it is good to remember the outstanding musical experiences of 2017 here in the Boulder area.

Pro Musica

The year began on an expressive high point when Pro Musical Colorado Chamber Orchestra, conductor Cynthia Katsarelis and soloists Jennifer Bird-Arvidsson, soprano, and Ashraf Sewailam, bass, presented Shostakovich’s rarely-heard Symphony No. 14.

I wrote at the time: “This somewhat gloomy meditation on death is not often given live, partly because of the difficult assignments facing the soprano and bass soloists, but mostly because of the difficult subject matter. But it is a major statement from a great composer—what Katsarelis calls ‘a piece that needs to be heard’—and so the rare performances are to be treasured.”

The February visit of Deborah (Call Me Debbie) Voigt to Macky Auditorium will be a cherished memory for fans of the classical voice. Voigt Lessons, the superstar soprano’s candid retelling of her struggles with relationships, substances, and weight that clouded her career not only showed some realities of life at the top of the opera world, it also revealed the very human person beneath the superstar image. For both reasons, this was a meaningful event.

Takasce SQ

Takacs Quartet

The Takacs Quartet always provides some of the year’s best performances. It’s hard to chose just one, but for 2017 I would single out their February concert including Beethoven’s Quartet in G major, op. 18 no. 2—performed while the Takacs was in the midst of a full Beethoven cycle at several venues—and CU music faculty Daniel Silver, clarinet, playing the Brahms Quintet in B minor, op. 115. An especially beautiful rendering of this beautiful work had at least one audience member in tears by the end.

March saw the arrival of another superstar in Boulder when Sir James Galway played at Macky Auditorium, and the departure of an important member of Boulder’s classical music community when Evanne Browne gave her farewell concert with Seicento Baroque Ensemble, the organization she founded in 2011.

BPhil.onstage

Boulder Phil at Kennedy Center

One of the biggest events of the year for Boulder performing arts was the visit in March of the Boulder Philharmonic Orchestra, conductor Michael Butterman and Frequent Flyers Aerial Dance Company to the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., for the first annual Shift Festival of American Orchestras. The Phil repeated a concert they had given in Boulder a few days earlier, including the world premiere of All the Songs that Nature Sings by Stephen Lias and Copland’s Appalachian Spring, performed with Frequent Flyers.

An audience favorite of the festival, the Boulder Phil played to a sold out house. Butterman wrote the next day, “It was a peak experience for me, and, I think, for all of us at the Phil. . . . To be there with our orchestra, with that crowd and with that repertoire—it was something I shall never forget. We had a great sense of pride in representing our hometown.”

Several important changes of personnel were announced for Boulder classical scene in the spring. In April, Jean-Marie Zeitouni announced that he was stepping down as music director of the Colorado Music Festival. He will remain with CMF as principal guest conductor, and conductor/violinist Peter Oundjian will serve as artistic advisor for the 2018 season. Later the same month, James Bailey left his position as music curator of the Dairy Arts Center, to be replaced by Sharon Park.

Elliot Moore at Lake McIntosh - credit - Photography Maestro (1)

Elliott Moore

In May, Seicento Baroque Ensemble announced the appointment of Kevin T. Padworksi as artistic director, succeeding Browne, and the Longmont Symphony announced the appointment of Elliot Moore to succeed long-time music director Robert Olson.

The same month, the Boulder Chamber Orchestra wrapped up its 2016–17 season with its largest performance to date, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony presented in Macky Auditorium. The performance under conductor Bahman Saless was unfortunately the occasion of a protest by the anti-fracking group East Boulder County United. Seven members of EBCU blew whistles, shouted slogans and left flyers before the concert to voice their opposition to the orchestra having accepted a contribution from Extraction Oil & Gas.

Olga Kern

Olga Kern, photographed by Chris Lee at Steinway Hall.

Zeitouni proved to be anything but a lame duck conductor at the Colorado Music Festival. The 2017 season started at the end of June with an all-Russian program featuring exciting performances of Shostakovich’s Festive Overture and Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony. On the same concert, one of Boulder’s favorite guest artists, pianist Olga Kern, gave scintillating performances of Prokofiev’s First Piano Concerto and Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.

Other high points over the summer included the return of CMF’s founding director Giora Bernstein to lead a concert of Mozart, Zeitouni conducting Beethoven’s Ninth as the CMF centerpiece, and the visit of violinist Gil Shaham at the end of the summer season. Up in the mountains, Central City Opera’s Downton-Abbey-inspired Victorian-era production of Mozart’s Così fan tutte was one of the year’s highlights for opera lovers.

Another delight for the opera crowd came in the fall, with the CU Eklund Opera Program’s serio-comic production of Lehar’s Merry Widow. In November, Saless and the Boulder Chamber Orchestra returned to its core repertoire with a lively concert featuring two youthful works for smaller ensemble: the Concerto for piano, violin and strings by the 14-year-old Mendelssohn, with violinist Zachary Carrettin and pianist Mina Gajić, and Janáček’s Idyll for Strings.

Zachary & Mina

Carrettin and Gajic

Carrettin and Gajić were featured performers in December when the Boulder Bach Festival gave one of its most intriguing and adventurous concerts in its increasingly adventurous schedule. With guest artist Richie Hawley, the program offered insight into the instruments and performance practices of the early 20th century, performed on Hawley’s 1919 Buffet clarinet, Gajić’s 1895 Érard piano, and Carrettin’s violin set up with strings typical of the period.

 

# # # # #

For the classical music world outside of Boulder, the biggest news was certainly the intrusion of a long-overdue reckoning for sexual misconduct that is going on in our society generally. The first bombshell, not unexpected by people in the business but a bombshell nonetheless, landed Dec. 3 with the suspension of conductor James Levine from the Metropolitan Opera and other organizations, including the Boston Symphony and the Ravinia Festival. Accusations against Charles Dutoit, artistic director and principal conductor of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in London, surfaced later in the month.

levine

James Levine

Both conductors are in the twilight of long careers. Rumors about Levine have been widely known in the classical music world; indeed I first heard them in the 1980s. Every music journalist I know has heard the same stories, but so far as I am aware, no one who experienced Levine’s assaults was previously willing to speak publicly. In the case of Dutoit, I had not heard the rumors, but I do know one of the women who spoke publicly about what happened to her, and I believe her unquestioningly.

As the controversy has swirled about the subject of sexual abuse, harassment and assault in classical music, several critics have written powerfully about the subject: Anne Midgette of the Washington Post, Jennifer Johnson of the Guardian, Andrew Riddles of Classical Ottawa to name three. Singer Susanne Mentzer has written about her personal experiences in the opera world for the Huffington Post, as has Dan Kempson for Medium.

There are certain to be more revelations. One major journalist has more first-hand information, with names including some of the of the most famous classical artists, and is preparing an article. I have no doubt that several men are nervously awaiting that story, or some other revelation that reveals past misdeeds.

Will this tidal wave reach Boulder?

It’s hard to say with certainty. I have spoken with many on the classical scene here, and the only rumor I have heard, from several sources, has been of inappropriate comments and behavior by one person, none of which reached the level of abuse or assault. “He might not have been hired today,” one person speculated, but as so often happens, the people who heard the comments preferred not to make an issue of it.

Another person told me he had never heard any rumor from the College of Music, so Boulder may escape the worst of this necessary but unhappy process. In the meantime, it is my wish for 2018 that society in general and the music world specifically create a safe environment, where powerful men do not feel free to behave like adolescent boys.

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Edited for clarity 12.31.17

News on the boil in the World of Classical Music

Controversy and a milestone at the MET; Trouble in Atlanta

By Peter Alexander

It’s the unwatched pot that boils, and if you haven’t been watching, there’s been lots of boiling going on in the classical music world this fall.

Lincoln Center Plaza and the Metropolitan Opera House

Lincoln Center Plaza and the Metropolitan Opera House

This summer I reported several times on the labor dispute that threatened to cause a lockout and the cancellation of the season for the Metropolitan Opera. Happily, the lockout was averted, but that has not kept the Met from being a center of controversy.

As part of their season, the Met had announced performances of The Death of Klinghoffer by John Adams. This opera was composed in 1991 on the subject of the 1985 hijacking of the cruise ship the Achille Lauro by members of the Palestinian Liberation Front and the subsequent murder of Leon Klinghoffer, a wheelchair-bound 69-year old Jewish American tourist whose body was dumped into the Mediterranean.

Klinghoffer protesters

Protesters outside the Metropolitan Opera House in Lincoln Center

The opera was originally created with the cooperation of Klinghoffer’s family, who later objected that it glorified the hijackers. Nevertheless, the opera has been performed uneventfully in several locations—but the Metropolitan is not just any opera company, and New York is always in the spotlight. And it is an especially important location for American Jews. So when Met General Manager Peter Gelb announced that The Death of Klinghoffer would be featured on the Met’s Live in HD series broadcast live to movie theaters around the world, there were protests and loud criticism of the Met. The claim was repeatedly made that the opera, by humanizing, or glorifying (depending on your point of view) the killers, was anti-semitic.

Scene from 'The Death of Klinghoffer.' Photo by Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

Scene from ‘The Death of Klinghoffer.’ Photo by Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

Eventually, The Death of Klinghoffer was dropped from the Live in HD broadcast series, but it remained on the Met season. It opened last Monday (Oct. 20), with a phalanx of protesters filling the Lincoln Center plaza, some minor disturbances inside the house, and generally glowing reviews for the work and the performance.

For anyone who cares about opera, or gives much thought to contemporary art forms, The Death of Klinghoffer has been a remarkable case study. Regardless of your personal opinion, the decision to write an opera on such a volatile contemporary subject, and the decision to produce it at the Met, are worthy of serious consideration and discussion. Rather than reconstruct what people who have seen the production have said, here are links to more about this remarkable opera and production.

Just about the best review and report of opening night was that written by Alex Ross for The New Yorker.  Anthony Tommasini wrote an even longer report in the New York Times.  And David Patrick Stearns had a slightly different take on the events for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

There are many more reviews. The Chicago Tribune complied a handy list of reviews and articles. Almost all are worth reading.

James Levine leading the Met Orchestra in 2013. (AP Photo/Metropolitan Opera, Marty Sohl)

James Levine leading the Met Orchestra in 2013. (AP Photo/Metropolitan Opera, Marty Sohl)

But not all the news from the Metropolitan Opera has been disturbing, or even controversial. This past weekend, James Levine conducted his 2,500th performance at the Met—a staggering number that is just about beyond comprehension. It is more than twice as many as the next most prolific conductor in the Met’s history, the long-forgotten Arthur Bodanzky. The milestone performance was Mozart’s Nozze di Figaro (Marriage of Figaro) Saturday night—only the 77th time he has conducted that particular work. (Those and other numbers from Levin’s remarkable Met career were reported by the New York Times.)

This would be a remarkable milestone for any conductor, but in Levine’s case, it is especially noteworthy since it was only two years ago that it appeared his conducting career might be over. But he has come back from serious injuries, and is back at work in the opera house—to the relief of his fans and fans of the Met who have a hard time imagining how anyone can follow him and maintain the reputation Levine has created for the Met and its orchestra.

Daniel Laufer was among the supporters of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra musicians who was picketing outside the Woodruff Arts Center in Atlanta. (Michael A. Schwarz/For the Washington Post)

Daniel Laufer was among the supporters of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra musicians who was picketing outside the Woodruff Arts Center in Atlanta. (Michael A. Schwarz/For the Washington Post)

While the Met was resolving a labor dispute and averting a lockout this summer, the Atlanta Symphony has been dealing with a lockout and at least a partial cancellation of their season.

The sticking point in Atlanta is the proposal by management to further cut the size of the orchestra, which had previously been reduced to 88 musicians from an original compliment of 95 players. As a means of fighting deficits, the management wanted full control of the orchestra’s size and proposed cutting the orchestra—largely by leaving positions unfilled—to 76 players. Both the players and the orchestra’s conductors said that the Atlanta Symphony, an honored ensemble that has counted Robert Shaw and Yoel Levi among its music directors, could not maintain it’s standing with only 76 players.

After a bitter battle that eventually led to mediation, this one issue seems to have brought all negotiations to a halt. After the 15-month lockout nearly closed the Minnesota Orchestra permanently, this is very disheartening news. The most recent news about the ASO comes from the Atlanta Arts and Culture Blog, here and here. Earlier articles from NPR and the Washington Post provide more of the background.

A second major orchestra lockout in only a few years is bad news for America’s musicians, and those who support them and their work. The only silver lining from here is that we are not facing a similar crisis in Boulder, and we still have great riches of orchestral music to chose from. But it is interesting background for the still unfolding issue in Denver, concerning the Colorado Symphony’s future in Boettcher Concert Hall—where the pot, watched or not, boils on.