Colorado Music Festival Opens 40th anniversary season with “Joy”

Pianist Olga Kern returns to the delight of a sold-out Chautauqua Auditorium

By Peter Alexander

The sign at the corner of the stage said “JOY,” a reference to the theme of the Colorado Music Festival’s 2017 40th-anniversary season: “Find Your Joy.”

Olga Kern

Olga Kern, pianist, photographed by Chris Lee at Steinway Hall

The joy was onstage in more ways than one last night (June 29). Music director Jean-Marie Zeitouni led the Festival Orchestra in their season-opening performance with an ebullience and infectious enjoyment I have not seen before. And there was joy in the audience as well, when the sold-out Chautauqua Auditorium crowd greeted pianist Olga Kern, a Boulder favorite since her 2013 festival performances.

Zeitouni began the concert with Shostakovich’s “Festive Overture,” a brilliant opener and, having been featured in the CMF”s 10th season, a nod the festival’s history at the same time. Never one to shy away from big effects, Zeitouni unleashed the Festival Orchestra brass in the opening fanfares, then took the following section at a breakneck pace that showed off the whole orchestra. From its rustling pianissimos to the thunderous climax, the “Festive Overture” was all that and more.

The apparently tireless Kern played two powerhouse Russian showpieces back-to-back, only taking enough time to catch her breath and change gowns between the Prokofiev First Concerto and the Rachmaninoff Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. (Soloists’ clothing is not the usual subject of this blog, but in this case Kern’s glittering choices were so eye-catching and perfectly a part of the opening-night vibe that they could only be admired.)

The Prokofiev Concerto is a muscular piece from the composer’s youth that gave Kern every opportunity to show off her strength and technique. She negotiated the mercurial changes of mood with precision, from the powerful chords of the opening, to the romping leaps and glittering passagework that came later, all played with relish and abandon. Only the lyrical solo passages seemed overly careful, perhaps suffering in comparison to the brilliance elsewhere in the concerto.

Jean-MarieNew1

CMS Music Director Jean-Marie Zeitouni

Zeitouni was not inclined to hold the orchestra back, so that at one climax one could see but not hear Kern’s exertions. Nonetheless, the effect was powerful and elicited cheers from the audience.

The Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, which Kern had played as part of her 2013 marathon performance of all the Rachmaninoff concertos in two nights, is a much loved piece. And calling for both power and delicacy, it is one that plays directly to Kern’s obvious strengths.

If anyone thought she was still recovering from the Prokofiev, Kern’s first robust octave entrance in the Rhapsody would have dispelled that notion. From there she went from strength to strength, bringing out all the virtuoso display of the kaleidoscopic variations.

I particularly liked the mysterious moods and emotional depths Kern found in the less showy variations. Everybody’s favorite variation, No. 18, was the essence of loveliness. After returning to a more steely interpretation, Kern ended it all with a delicacy and humor that brought first a chuckle, and then “bravas” from the audience.

Those who would like to hear more of Kern’s playing will have the opportunity at 7:30 p.m. Saturday (July 1) at Chautauqua, when she will play a solo recital of Russian and American music. Tickets are available from the Chautauqua box office.

Keeping to the Russian subject matter, Zeitouni and the Festival Orchestra ended the concert with Rachmaninoff’s lushly Romantic Symphony No. 2 in E minor. From the very first movement, Zeitouni’s interpretation emphasized the orchestra’s richness of sound, while bringing out brass section-passages and solos from the clarinet and other winds.

In the second movement, Zeitouni danced about the podium, beaming his pleasure to the players and bringing out all the exuberant energy of a Russian folk festival. In the third movement, he showed off the flexibility and responsiveness of the orchestra, and the finale was all happy hustle and bustle.

That the Festival Orchestra only occasionally showed signs of having assembled just two days before is a testament to the quality of players that come to Boulder and Chautauqua every summer. After some years of administrative uncertainty and change, last night’s outstanding concert was a reassuring sign that musically, the CMF is in good hands and going strong.

CMF founding director Giora Bernstein and pianist Olga Kern return to Boulder

Opening weekend: “high-profile guests, big orchestral pieces, variety, intensity”

Olga Kern

Olga Kern returns to CMF for the opening concert, June 29. Photo by Chris Lee.

By Peter Alexander

The opening weekend of the Colorado Music Festival’s 40th anniversary season, Thursday, June 29 through Sunday, July 2, will set the pattern for the entire 2017 season.

“It will be a microcosm of the whole festival,” music director Jean-Marie Zeitouni says. “A variety of repertoire, Baroque, Classic, Romantic, 20th-century, high-profile guest soloists, big orchestral pieces, variety, intensity; it sums it all.”

The opening concert will feature pianist Olga Kern playing two Russian concertos: Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 1 and Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. Framing Kern’s solo turns will be Shostakovich’s Festival Overture, and Rachmaninoff’s deeply Romantic Symphony No. 2 in E minor.

Kern will also appear in a solo recital of American and Russian music on July 1, featuring Rachmaninoff, Scriabin, Balakirev and several pieces by Gershwin. The next day, CMF founding director Giora Bernstein returns to Boulder for the first time in 10 years to conduct the CMF chamber orchestra. 

GIora Bernstein

CMF founding director Giora Bernstein

“The greatest satisfaction is that (CMF) really has established itself,” Bernstein says. “To see it 40 years (after its founding) is just wonderful.”

The first weeks of the festival culminate with performances of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, Thursday and Friday, July 13 and 14. 

“It’s basically right in the middle of the festival so it’s a way to mark a certain apex,” Zeitouni says.

Read more in Boulder Weekly.

# # # # #

Colorado Music Festival (Classical Concerts through July 14)
Jean-Marie Zeitouni, music director

Opening Night, Festival Orchestra, Jean-Marie Zeitouni, conductor: Olga Kern Plays Rachmaninoff, 7:30 p.m. Thursday, June 29

Olga Kern solo recital: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, July 1

Mozart with CMF Founder Giora Bernstein and CMF Chamber Orchestra: 7:30 p.m. Sunday, July 2

“All-American” concert, Festival Orchestra with conductor Cristian Măcelaru and violinist Elina Vähälä: 7:30 p.m. Thursday, July 6

Young People’s Concert, directed by Scott Terrell: 10 a.m. Saturday, July 8

Chamber Music: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, July 8,

Beethoven’s Ninth, Festival Orchestras, Jean-Marie Zeitoun, conductor: 7:30 p.m. Thursday, July 13

Fresh Fridays – Beethoven’s Ninth: 6:30 p.m. Friday, July 14

Chamber Orchestra with Pianist Stewart Goodyear: 7:30 p.m. Sunday, July 16

All performances in the Chautauqua Auditorium

Tickets 

Jean-Marie Zeitouni to step down as CMF Music Director after 2017 season

Peter Oundjian will be artistic advisor for 2018

By Peter Alexander

http://www.jaimehogge.com

Renowned conductor Peter Oundjian will be artistic advisor to the Colorado Music Festival for 2018. Photo by Jaime Hogge.

The Colorado Music Festival (CMF) has announced that this summer’s 40th-anniversary season will be Jean-Marie‘s Zeitouni’s last as music director.

Zeitouni took the position for the 2015 season with a three-year contract. He has decided not to seek renewal of the contract, and instead will have a three-year engagement as principal guest conductor, starting with the 2018 season.

Peter Oundjian, music director of the Toronto Symphony and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, has been engaged by CMF as artistic advisor for the 2018 season. He will be responsible for programming the season and selecting the guest artists, and he will conduct two concerts during the summer.

He will visit Boulder this summer to meet with the musicians and others in the CMF organization.

A highly respected musician around the world, Oundjian rose to fame as a violinist, winning first prize at the International Violin Competition at Viña del Mar, Chile, in 1980, He was first violinist of the Tokyo String Quartet for 14 years, and since then he has conducted orchestras from the BBC Proms to New York, Berlin, Tel Aviv and Sydney.

Jean-MarieNew1

Jean-Marie Zeitouni

Zeitouni says that while the decision to step back from the position of music director was his alone, the fact that Oundjian was available in 2018 played a part in the timing. “When (CMF) was able to get Peter Oundjian I became more confident about (leaving the position of music director),” he says. “Peter is in a very select league of major conductors around the world. It’s a great coup for the organization.”

Elizabeth McGuire, executive director of CMF, says that the search the next music director “will be a private search. We want to utilize tactics that are employed by the top-tier orchestras, so we can attract the very highest quality applicants.”

There will be no announcement of an opening or solicitation of applications. Instead, McGuire says that CMF will work through a network of consultants to find the right person. Having someone in place for 2019 is a possibility, she says, but “what we want is to find the right fit, and if it’s going to take more than one season, that’s what it will do. In the meantime having someone like (Oundjian) is a terrific solution for us. He has agreed to advise us on the search, and we have other artistic consultants working on it.”

There will be none of the public audition concerts that were such a prominent part of the 2014 season, when Zeitouni was selected as music director, and none of the candidates or finalists will be announced. At this point, she said, no one has been either ruled in or out for the position, including Oundjian.

“Our contract with him purely is a one-year contract,” she says. “We’re not going to leave any stone unturned when it comes to the possibilities, but we have not had that conversation with him now.”

Peter Oundjian 2017-18 - 3 - credit Malcolm Cook

Peter Oundjian conducting the Toronto Symphony. Photo by Malcolm Cook.

Oundjian seems genuinely excited about his appointment at CMF. “I went online and looked at the incredible Chautauqua Hall,” he says. “And then I listened to some recordings of the orchestra, and they sounded wonderful, and I thought, well, this is fantastic! This is a place that has it’s own particular magic. I’ve been really impressed by how well it is run.”

While Boulder is not recognized as one of the world’s musical capitals, that’s not an issue. “Not everything has to be Berlin or New York,” Oundjian says. “You come to a certain point and you’re looking for things to engage you in a slightly different way. I think life should be a mosaic, and I love the mountains. I think Boulder is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been to.”

He says it is too early to say what his programming might be, but that is part of the excitement. “I’m open to pretty much anything and I can get enthusiastic about an awful lot of things,” he says. “There seems to be a tremendous amount of flexibility and interest in music of all periods (at CMF).

“I have a canvas that’s fairly open and I have a large palette of colors that I could apply to it. And that’s an exciting situation to be in.”

In the meantime, Zeitouni wants audiences to remember that the CMF has its 40th anniversary celebration this summer. “It’s a great celebration,” he says. “I want to welcome people and invite them for this summer. I worked very hard to put this season together, and I’m excited to perform it.

“I’m very happy with what we did the past two years at CMF. I grew to love the community and the openness of the people of Boulder. I really felt accepted and respected. It’s always been for me, and I have to say for my daughter, a very welcoming place.”

In spite of several recent major administrative changes at CMF, McGuire says emphatically that the departure of Zeitouni as music director does not present a problem for the ongoing success of the festival and the affiliated Center for Musical Arts. “We’re really excited about the future right now,” she says. “We’re financially in excellent shape, so we can say that it’s looking up.

“I think we’re dealing with this change beautifully. I’m happy to be part of it.”

Colorado Music Festival announces its 2017 40th-anniversary season

Beethoven’s Ninth, tributes to the festival’s history will be highlights

Guest artists include CMF founder Giora Bernstein, pianist Olga Kern, Time for Three

By Peter Alexander

Jean-MarieNew1

CMF Music Director Jean-Marie Zeitouni

The Colorado Music Festival will celebrate its 40th anniversary this summer, and music director Jean-Marie Zeitouni has been looking at the festival’s history.

His programs for the coming summer recall the Roman god Janus, looking backward and forward at the same time. “If you look at every series, you will see that they have a commemoration of the past, but at the same time they are moving in a new direction,” Zeitouni says. “I think almost every single work on the program has to do with the history of CMF.”

The full 2017 schedule, opening June 29 and closing Aug. 4, was announced to festival patrons last night (Jan. 22). The season includes Thursday Festival Orchestra concerts, Saturday chamber music concerts, and Sunday Chamber Orchestra concerts, as in past years. In one change from recent seasons, all concerts this summer will be in the Chautauqua Auditorium. With a few exceptions that are noted below, all will begin at 7:30 p.m.

Olga Kern

Olga Kern, photographed by Chris Lee at Steinway Hall, 12/9/13.

As part of Zeitouni’s homage to festival history, long-time  CMF patrons will recognize several guest artists who have been here before:

  • Pianist Olga Kern, who played all the Rachmaninoff piano concertos in two nights during the 2013 Festival, will return to perform with Zeitouni and the Festival Orchestra on opening night, June 29. She will also present a solo recital July 1.
  • The festival’s founder, Giora Bernstein, will return to conduct Mozart and Bach July 2.
  • The popular Time for Three string trio will return to collaborate with Steve Hackman, who led the festival’s “Music Mashup” series for two summers, performing on that series’ successor, now called “Happy Hour @Chautauqua,” July 18.

The summer’s Festival Orchestra lineup is dominated by two massive ninth symphonies:

  • A sure audience favorite, Beethoven’s Ninth will be presented July 13. It will come right in the middle of the CMF calendar, as “a way to mark a certain Apex” of the festival, Zeitouni says. Soloists for the performance will be soprano Mary Wilson, mezzo-soprano Michelle De Young, tenor Jason Baldwin and bass-baritone Keith Miller.

On the same program, De Young will perform Mahler’s Songs of a Wayfarer, and the orchestra will present the North American premiere of A Little Summer Suite by Betsy Jolas.

  • Mahler’s Ninth, the composer’s last completed symphonic work, will form the entire Festival Orchestra program Aug. 3. This concert completes a cycle of Mahler symphonies that was begun by former CMF music director Michael Christie. “The idea is that for the last week of the festival we would do something for the orchestra, and believe me this is a piece that they’ve all been dying to play,” Zeitouni says.

In addition to returning artists listed above, there are a number of notable visiting artists. These include:

  • elina-vahala_vert

    Elina Vähälä

    Finnish violinist Elina Vähälä playing John Corigliano’s “Red Violin” Concerto July 6;

  • Pianists Christopher O’Riley, the host of NPR’s “From the Top,” and Pablo Ziegler playing tangos on the “Happy Hour@Chautauqua” series July 11;
  • Pianist Stewart Goodyear playing Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 1 for piano, trumpet and strings, July 16; and
  • Italian Van Cliburn Competition medalist Benedetto Lupo, playing two Ravel piano concertos July 20. Lupo will be the CMF artist-in-residence for 2017. In addition to the Ravel concertos, he will play a solo/chamber concert with CMF musicians July 22, and a concert with the CMF Chamber Orchestra July 23.
  • Clarinetist Boris Allakhverdyan, a former member of the CMF orchestra and now principal clarinet of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, will perform chamber music with current members of the orchestra July 29, and the Copland Clarinet Concerto on a chamber orchestra concert July 30. The latter, titled “Classically Jazz,” will also feature music by Kurt Weill, Scott Joplin, Leonard Bernstein, George Gershwin and Darius Milhaud.
  • gil-left-2

    Gil Shaham

    To round out the summer, superstar violinist Gil Shaham will perform with Zeitouni and the Festival Orchestra for the Festival Finale concert, Aug. 4. One of the most recognized classical artists today, Shaham performs in recital and with orchestras worldwide. In addition to a violin concerto yet to be determined, the program for the Festival Finale will include Beethoven’s joyful and boisterous Seventh Symphony.

# # # # #

Kern’s performances fit nicely into Zeitouni’s plan of commemorating the old alongside the new. On the Opening Night program June 29, Kern will reprise her 2013 performances of Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, but that will be paired with a completely new work for the festival, Prokofiev’s First Piano Concerto.

olga-kern

Olga Kern

The two concertos are part of an all-Russian program, opening with Shostakovich’s brash and colorful Festive Overture and ending with Rachmaninoff’s lushly Romantic Symphony No. 2 in E minor. Both works are part of the festival’s history, but neither has been heard at CMF since the 1990s.

Another example of joining commemoration with new directions will be the CMF’s “mini-festival.” The idea of a series of concerts arranged around a single theme and performed in the same week was started by Christie. Zeitouni brought the model back last year with a Brahms mini-festival. This year, the mini-festival will reflect Zeitouni’s background and specialty: French music.

JMZBowtie

Jean-Marie Zeitouni

“I grew up with the Montreal Symphony playing Ravel and Debussy, so I have a special love for it,” Zeitouni says. “It is repertoire with which I have intimate affinities, but it is also repertoire in which the orchestra is allowed to shine.”

The mini-festival of French music comprises three concerts, July 20–23:

  • A Festival Orchestra concert July 20, featuring Debussy’s impressionist scores Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun and Iberia; Lupo playing Ravel’s Concerto in G and Concerto for the Left hand; and the orchestral showpiece La Valse.
  • A chamber music concert July 22 will feature Lupo playing a half-recital of Debussy’s music for solo piano, followed by Fauré’s Quartet No. 1 for piano and strings with CMF musicians.
  • The July 23 chamber orchestra concert will present some little known works by Fauré, Dukas, Saint-Saëns and Cecile Chaminade, with orchestra members as featured soloists. The concert will end with music from Offenabch’s saucy comic opera Orpheus in the Underworld.

# # # # #

One new feature of the festival will be “Symphony Sampler” concerts, a series of abridged repeats of Thursday night Festival Orchestra programs presented Fridays at 6:30 p.m. July 14, 21 and 28. These informal concerts will offer only one or two major works from the previous night’s full program, with Zeitouni presenting an introduction to the music for people who might be new to classical performances. The early start time and shortened program leave time for a post-concert dinner, either at the Chautauqua Dining Hall or elsewhere in Boulder.

christopher-oriley

Christopher O’Riley

Another modification of past summers appears with the “Happy Hour@Chautauqua” events, Tuesdays July 11, 18 and 25. An outgrowth of previous Music Mashup events, these concerts are designed to bring classical and popular music together. Presented without intermission, each concert will be preceded by a “happy hour” offering complementary food and drinks.

After performances by pianists Christopher O’Riley and Pablo Ziegler July 11, and Time for Three July 18, the series culminates with Hackman conducting an all-new mashup with the orchestra July 25. Unlike Hackman’s previous scores for CMF, this will not feature just one classical work or pop group, but under the title “Classicalapalooza” it will being together music by various artists from both genres.

The 2017 Click Commission winner by composer Julian Wachner will be performed on the Festival Orchestra concert July 27, along with Scriabin’s Poem of Ecstasy (1908) and The Planets by Gustav Holst (1914–15). There will be little other new music during the summer, however: Corigliano’s Red Violin Concerto from 1997 will be performed on an American program July 6 and Jolas’s Little Summer Suite will precede Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony July 13, but no other works later than the middle of the 20th century are on the schedule.

header-logo

This is only a summary of the full 2017 CMF calendar. A complete listing of the summer’s concerts and ticket information can be found on the CMF’s newly redesigned Web page. Tickets will go on sale to the general public March 20, including season subscriptions, ticket packages and single tickets.

Carmen Without Context at Chautauqua

Brook’s Tragedy of Carmen flattens a great opera

By Peter Alexander

Peter Brook

Director Peter Brook, who conceived The Tragedy of Carmen

Colorado Music Festival’s performance of The Tragedy of Carmen, Peter Brook’s radical reduction of Bizet’s opera, gave me heightened respect for the work great theater composers do, fitting their music to the demands of the stage.

Unfortunately, that is because so much of the slimmed down work fails to match music and drama as effectively as Bizet did in his original.

To be clear, that was not the fault of the performers. Under the direction of CMF music director Jean-Marie Zeitouni, and with a strong cast of singers, last night’s performance at the Chautauqua Auditorium (July 10) was delivered with emotional force and musical skill. But their commitment was not enough to overcome the limitations of the work.

Bizet

Composer Georges Bizet

Zeitouni has described The Tragedy of Carmen as “the pure essence of Carmen, . . . not the regular 40% scotch but more like 97% alcohol, distilling the essence of the passion of the opera.” But for me, the CMF program notes hit closer, saying this version “is best labeled as Carmen Light. Like Bud Light (it) is less filling. But whether the new product tastes great depends on each listener’s palate.”

Fair enough. And my palate, honed by great operas including Bizet’s Carmen (and Colorado’s great craft beers), found the low-calorie version, just like light beers, lacking in taste.

There are several specific shortcomings that I found in the work itself. First, removing so much of the original takes away much of the context in which the drama is played. This has the effect of flattening the characters and their emotions.

Fischer.Carmen

Abigail Fischer, who portrayed the title character in CMF’s Tragedy of Carmen

A pertinent example is the scene in Lilas Pastia’s tavern. In the original, the gypsy dances that open the scene establish the kind of place it is, and provide the atmosphere for the following scene between Carmen and Don Jose. Reducing those dances to a brief flourish by Carmen not only removes the context, the setting and the atmosphere, it forces the story to lurch without respite from emotional punch to emotional punch.

A second problem is the repurposing of music that was written for a specific dramatic or stage context to another, as when the music written for a riot among the cigar girls is used for a fight between Carmen and Micaëla. Such repurposing of music discounts the skill with which the composer tailors his music for the stage. If we have a fight between two characters, it would be better to hear the music Bizet would have written for that more intimate scene, rather than what he wrote for a stage full of people.

de Slayden

Tenor Jason Slayden (not in Carmen)

The extreme condensation results in scenes not having time to breathe and build. In Bizet’s opening scene, there is a long buildup of tension from the moment Carmen throws a flower at Don Jose, to her arrest and her escape. Brook reduces this to a much shorter span of time, dissolving most of the suspense that Bizet so carefully builds in his score.

Brook has made some capricious changes in the plot. For one, there is a mysterious man from Carmen’s past who suddenly interrupts a love scene between Carmen and Don Jose, shouting “She belongs to me.” Only moments later he is killed by Don Jose, offstage. I still don’t know what dramatic purpose he serves. If it were not for the dark music, this would be almost comical.

The most shocking change comes near the end, when a funeral march—not from Carmen—interrupts the dramatic final scene between Carmen and Don Jose, while a projected title tells us that Escamillo has died in the bull ring. This change eviscerates the ending of the story and denies the audience a great musical-dramatic stroke, when the cheers from the bull ring punctuate Jose’s passionate appeals and murder of Carmen.

de-bique_01-304x312

Soprano Janine De Bique

Brook’s version does remove some absurdities of plot that we have tolerated because of the dramatic truth of the opera. For example, we do not have the mountainous, secret smuggler’s lair that everyone in Seville can easily find. But we loose some of Bizet’s best music in the process, and we do not get any compensating dramatic truth, either.

While the work seems questionably conceived, the performers addressed their parts with intensity and commitment. Zeitouni led a decisive performance by the CMF Chamber Orchestra. The singers do not have named roles, only voice types, of which Abigail Fischer was a strong mezzo soprano, essentially the Carmen of the show. The abbreviated performance did not give her the chance to build a fiery, luminous character, but she dominated her scenes, as she should.

BOGDANOV-PHOTO-1-254x300

Baritone Aleksey Bogdanov

Jeanine De Bique’s soprano/Micaëla sang warmly, darkly, strongly in a role that is not made more rewarding by Brook’s changes. Baritone Aleksey Bogdanov had the unenviable task of playing two different characters who die before the end, Zuniga and Escamillo. I thought he was especially effective in one of opera’s great star turns, his entrance as the toreador. Tenor Jason Slayden was vocally passionate, if a little stiff dramatically in his scenes as Don Jose.

Chautauqua Auditorium may not be a great venue for theater. Many of the spoken lines were scarcely audible, particularly when the orchestra was playing. The limited performance space left the actors to move almost randomly, with no setting to indicate destination or motivation, and I found their movements around and behind the conductor to be distracting.

I suspect this show is best for people who do not know the original Carmen well and want a distilled taste of the story. Clearly, many in the audience enjoyed it. I cannot begrudge them any pleasure taken from the music and the performance, but you will more likely find me at a future production of Bizet’s full opera—or enjoying a strong local brew.

____________

EDITORIAL NOTE (7/11/16): The CMF program notes for The Tragedy of Carmen do not credit an author. However, it has come to my attention that the portion that I quoted above—Brook’s version “is best labeled as Carmen Light. Like Bud Light (it) is less filling. But whether the new product tastes great depends on each listener’s palate.”—appeared in an Oct. 13, 2013 review by David Abrams of a performance of The Tragedy of Carmen at Syracuse Opera, published online at Opera Today.

‘The most profound music for orchestra’ rounds out Brahms mini-fest at CMF

Wrapping up two nights of full, burnished orchestral sounds at Chautauqua

By Peter Alexander

Johannes_Brahms_portraitFour symphonies in two days is a lot of Brahms, but Jean-Marie Zeitouni and the Colorado Music Festival Orchestra pulled it off to the full satisfaction of their audience. Last night’s (July 8) nearly-full house for the second of two concerts stood and cheered and whistled and—was that a horse whinny I heard behind me?

It’s safe to say the audience showed its robust approval.

The second program was shared by the Third Symphony in F major and the 4th Symphony in E minor—two works that, Zeitouni said, “speak to someplace where mortals are not even invited.” Happily, he did invite his mortal audience into the elevated—if not quite otherworldly—performance.

The orchestra filled the Chautauqua Auditorium with the rich tones and well balanced chords of the brass section from the very first notes of the Third Symphony. Their bright, burnished sounds characterized both evenings’ performances, and they particularly suited this work.

The first movement, with its complex textures and overlapping lines, is particularly challenging for conductors and players alike. To their credit, the CMF orchestra played with great transparency, making every inner line in the woodwinds, every passing theme audible.

The shifting chords at the recapitulation—a particular hazard of the movement—were all carefully balanced and matched. In many ways, the performance of this movement was exemplary: Zeitouni and the Festival Orchestra at their very best.

Both the second and third movements gave the players a chance to revel in a relaxed fullness of sound. These movements are perhaps too much the same, but both were played with great delicacy of phrasing and beauty of sound. The Horn solo in the third was especially memorable.

The many thematic fragments of the finale were successfully pulled together and wrapped in a full and cushioning orchestral fabric. Zeitouni’s characteristic transparency of texture made it all work. Once again, the horn playing was beautiful, if slightly overbalancing the rest of the orchestra. The end subsided, as it is written, into a vanishing whisper that became another of the challenges of this symphony successfully overcome.

Jean-Marie-Casual

Jean-Marie Zeitouni

The Fourth Symphony is one of my favorite pieces, even if I don’t quite share Zeitouni’s belief that it is “the most beautiful and profound music ever written for orchestra.” Nonetheless, it is unmistakably beautiful and profound and always welcome on an orchestral program.

The first movement provides a great example of tradeoffs in interpretive decisions. Zeitouni sought out different sound qualities in the different layers of the orchestral texture, with the strings ranging from brilliant to a warm, sustained and singing sound, punctuated by raspy, pecking chords from the woodwinds, and the brass always chorale-like in their warmth and resonance. This brings out the separate lines and ideas, but the tradeoff is a loss of unity and blend.

This was a soaring, lyrical reading of the first movement, not tortured or dramatized as it is sometimes heard. All the layers and sections came together for a surging climax that could have—but didn’t quite—upstage the final close of the symphony.

Sometimes you have to just sit back and enjoy the sound of an orchestra. That was largely the case in the second movement, even when the horns seemed again just more than was needed in contrast to the hushed pianissimos.

The third movement was played in a very direct and straightforward style. Sometimes played with a halting quality, as if there were a gravitational pull holding back the momentum, here it was brisk and bracing, an approach that is in alignment with the rest of Zeitouni’s interpretation.

A set of variations on a simple chord progression, the finale is a throwback to the German Baroque music that Brahms studied and loved. It is certainly one of the great orchestral movements, with the Baroque and Classical and Romantic techniques all coming together in a kind of ideal synthesis that seems to transcend time and styles. This movement does occupy another plane.

The trick is to recognize the joints between the many individual variations, but to get through them without a loss of tension and forward movement. The slower, softer middle variations seemed to relax a little too much, particularly as a beautiful brass chorale died into silence. But—another tradeoff?—the impact was stunning when the full wind section proclaimed the return of the original chords, allegro, forte, fortissimo, kicking the whole thing into an extra gear. You will not hear a more effective ending of Brahms’s Fourth.

Zeitouni has said this is the first of many single-composer mini-festivals to come at CMF. That is the kind of programming that raises the festival above the ordinary, providing both musical pleasure and illumination for Boulder’s audiences. I applaud Zeitouni and the CMF for this commitment and look forward to future installments.

Zeitouni and Festival Orchestra embark on a Brahms voyage

Symphonies 1 & 2 open a two-day mini-festival

By Peter Alexander

Brahms_GardenSeat

Johannes Brahms

Last night (July 7), Jean-Marie Zeitouni and the Colorado Music Festival Orchestra opened a mini-festival of music by Brahms with mostly satisfying performances of the symphonies No. 1 in C minor and 2 in D major.

The mini-festival, titled “Boulder Brahms,” concludes tonight (Friday, July 8) with the two later symphonies, Nos. 3 in F major and 4 in E minor (7:30 p.m., Chautauqua Auditorium). Even more Brahms is on offer next week, when Music Director Laureate Michael Christie returns to Chautauqua for “Bernstein and Brahms,” a concert featuring the Piano Concerto No. 1 D minor with pianist Orion Weiss.

Last night’s performance was marked by an exquisite control of dynamics, with beautiful pianissimos and powerful fortissimos, which is becoming a hallmark of Zeitouni’s performances in Boulder. This was true of both symphonies, but particularly stunning in the Second, which had several passages at a beautiful whisper.

Before the concert began, Zeitouni praised the orchestra for doing “four weeks’ work in four days” with the symphonies. Perhaps that explains why the first three movements of the First Symphony were not fully in the groove. They were unusually ragged for the usually excellent Festival Orchestra, with a few uneven entrances and imprecise intonation. The end of the second movement, with a lovely violin solo from concertmaster Calin Lupanu, was marred by a muffed trumpet entrance.

The finale was another story. The tricky accelerando pizzicati at the beginning were perfectly controlled, creating a great sense of suspense. The famous alp horn theme in the horn section rang out heroically, setting the stage for the Beethovenish allegro theme. Zeitouni’s careful control of tempo and dynamics gave the music all the momentum it needed to forge a powerful ending.

There is a joke that when cheerful, Brahms, known for a melancholy temperament, would sing “The Grave is my Joy.” That does not seem to be Zeitouni’s approach. While very sensitive to surface details, he did not go looking for hidden shadows or probe deeply into the darker moments of the First Symphony, which is marked by Beethoven’s influence.

JMZBowtie

Jean-Marie Zeitouni

The sound, particularly in the brass, was very bright and forward, sometimes a little edgy. Considering Zeitouni’s heritage, it would be too easy to say that this is a French rather than German sound—bright, transparent winds and fleeting strings, as opposed to a more blended, dark and brooding quality. This would not be completely inaccurate, but it would not be the whole picture: Zeitouni’s interpretation is consistent and of a piece, a careful rendering of the symphonies as he hears them.

Gallic, Canadian or personal, the sound worked well in the sunnier Second Symphony. The pastoral opening of the first movement was spun out beautifully, with exquisite dynamic control. The players were untroubled by Zeitouni’s rather brisk tempo, never sounding rushed or frantic. The solo flutist gets extra credit for making the lengthy triplet passage near the end of the exposition and the end of the movement sound utterly calm and peaceful.

The two following movements were fully in the groove, with good balance, clear textures and solid intonation. The second was an oasis of Brahmsian repose, and the third was as graziozo (graceful) as Brahms could ask for, with the winds dancing happily along.

The finale showed all the beauties and limitations of the performance. The opening sotto voce strings perfectly set up the orchestral outburst that the CMF program notes compared to Brahms leaping out and shouting “BOO” to the audience. The whole movement rushed by in a delightful romp, untroubled by any bumps or disturbances that might suggest gloomy depths. It was thoroughly enjoyable. It will surprise no-one that it garnered the expected standing ovation.

The wind players deserved the bows that Zeitouni granted them at the end of the program. I have already mentioned the horns, who were excellent throughout, and the flute. The bassoon, all the other woodwinds, and the full trombone choir were all first rate.

The chance to hear all four Brahms symphonies in two nights is a rare and welcome opportunity. As Zeitouni has said, “By listening to them all together, we get in closer contact with him as a man.” For Boulder’s devoted classical audience, that is more than worth a trip to Chautauqua.

# # # # #

Colorado Music Festival
Jean-Marie Zeitouni, Music Director

Boulder Brahms
Jean-Marie Zeitouni, conductor
Part 2: Symphonies 3 & 4
7:30 p.m. Friday July 8, Chautauqua Auditorium

Brahms and Bernstein
Michael Christie, conductor, with Orion Weiss, piano
Program including Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor
7:30 p.m. Thursday, July 14
Chautauqua Auditorium

Tickets

 

 

Return of CMF mini-festival and former director

Zeitouni offers Brahms, while Christie’s ‘up to his old tricks again’

By Peter Alexander

Michael Christie.03

Former Music Director Michael Christie returns to CMF July 8.   Photo by Steve J. Sherman

Fans of Brahms’s warm Romanticism (and who in the classical audience isn’t?) have much to look forward to.

In three concerts, the Colorado Music Festival (CMF) will present five of his most popular works. First, CMF music director Jean-Marie Zeitouni will lead the Festival Orchestra in a cycle of the four symphonies on two nights, July 7 and 8. Then a week later, former director Michael Christie makes his first return to the festival to conduct a program including the Brahms First Piano Concerto with pianist Orion Weiss July 14.

The performances of the four symphonies — Nos. 1 and 2 on July 7, 3 and 4 on July 8 — represents a return of the CMF’s mini-festival concept of works by a single composer.

Read more in Boulder Weekly.

# # # # #

Colorado Music Festival
Jean-Marie Zeitouni, Music Director

Jean-MarieNew1

Jean-Marie Zeitouni

Boulder Brahms
Jean-Marie Zeitouni, conductor

Part I: Symphonies 1 & 2
7:30 p.m. Thursday, July 7, Chautauqua Auditorium

Part 2: Symphonies 3 & 4
7:30 p.m. Friday July 8, Chautauqua Auditorium

 

Brahms and Bernstein
Michael Christie, conductor, with Orion Weiss, piano
Program including Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor
7:30 p.m. Thursday, July 14
Chautauqua Auditorium

Tickets
CMF 2016 season schedule

Zeitouni, Koh and Festival Orchestra dazzle in CMF opener

Dramatic performances highlight a memorable concert

By Peter Alexander

Jean-MarieNew1

Jean-Marie Zeitouni

Jean-Marie Zeitouni and the Festival Orchestra opened the 2016 Colorado Music Festival (CMF) in dramatic fashion last night (June 30).

The first piece on the program was Beethoven’s Overture to Egmont—literally dramatic music in that it was written to open performances of Goethe’s play of that title. Springing from the same well of passionate idealism as Goethe’s drama of political oppression and martyrdom, Beethoven’s overture adumbrates many of the themes of the play. And from the bold opening unison to the final celebratory coda, Zeitouni squeezed every bit of drama out of the score.

Most impressive were the control of dynamics and phrasing, with carefully placed phrase climaxes and well controlled crescendos throughout. This overture is a bit of a chestnut, but when played as well as it was by the Festival Orchestra, it is a pleasure to hear.

7-Jennifer-Koh-by-Juergen-Frank

Jennifer Koh

Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Violin Concerto is a work of many extremes, from the most delicate softs of violin harmonics to violent percussion explosions. There were two heroes of last night’s performance: violinist Jennifer Koh, who gave a brilliant, committed performance; and the acoustics in the Chautauqua Auditorium, which accommodated every nuance of the performance and every degree on the dynamic spectrum.

In the most delicate moments—the virtuoso filigree of the opening passages, and the softest violin harmonics that shaded into silence—the hall allowed every note to be heard. And in the moments of manic energy, when the full percussion section opened up at full volume, the wooden walls and roof turned the hall into a vibrating, resonant instrument in its own right. The visceral impact was something that no recording, however powerful, could match.

Of course, even the greatest halls needs great performers, and I don’t want to shortchange Koh’s mastery of this difficult score, or the quality of the Festival Orchestra. The performance was impressive by any standard, and it was one to be remembered.

After intermission, Zeitouni returned to conduct a work from the heart of the French repertoire that is especially close to his heart, the Symphonie Fantastique of Hector Berlioz. Before the concert, Zeitouni had said that the symphony is a kind of a test case for “where an orchestra is as far as its virtuosity and its capacity to express emotional content and color content.”

By those standards, I can only imagine that he was pleased. He was certainly smiling throughout the performance. The Festival Orchestra performed wonderfully, with wide dynamic levels, brilliant orchestra colors, and full-throated fortissimos that filled the hall without distortion.

If a music critic is expected to criticize, I can note that the balance was occasionally less than perfect, as when some lovely horn playing in the introduction covered the first violins. Elsewhere, there was a brief moment of questionable woodwind intonation in the slow movement.

The duo between English horn and oboe at the beginning of the slow movement was magical, with the oboe answers, representing a more distant shepherd, coming from outside the hall. The oboe was not clearly audible at the front of the hall, but there is little else to criticize.

The beautiful playing of the English horn throughout the slow movement was one of the joys of the performance. The unanimity of pitch and articulation within the winds shows what can be accomplished by the best orchestral players. Such purity of intonation led in turn to crystal clear orchestra textures, which reaps benefits for every section.

The multiple timpani of the slow movement evoked distant thunder, and then thundered powerfully for the “March to the Scaffold.” The orchestral outbursts throughout the march were almost shocking in their forcefulness.

Zeitouni’s control of dynamics and tempo led to a nearly crazed “Witches’ Sabbath” movement that Berlioz surely would have loved. The brass, overpowering through sheer volume, earned great applause, but the woodwind parts are just as difficult, and were played equally well. I have never heard a more powerful and convincing close to this symphony, one of the great and original works of the 19th century.

CMF/CMA appoints new executive director

Elizabeth McGuire comes to Boulder from the Cheyenne Symphony

By Peter Alexander

The Colorado Music Festival and Center for Musical Arts (CMF/CMA) has announced the appointment of Elizabeth McGuire as their new executive director, effective May 9.

CMUSIC-Logo-Horizontal1024x192-withJMZ-1024x192

McGuire is currently executive director of the Cheyenne Symphony. She will succeed Andrew Bradford, who left the CMF/CMA on March 25. Bradford had been executive director for 18 months. Before Bradford, the position had been open for a full year, during which time there had been one failed search for executive director (ED), and the position of musical director (MD) was also open.

“I feel honored to be chosen to do this,” McGuire says.

Lupberger.2

Ted Lupberger

In a statement from the CMF/CMA, board president Ted Lupberger commented, “We’re delighted that we were able to move quickly to bring Liz on board before the summer Festival season gets underway. Liz comes to us with extensive orchestra management experience that’s grounded in a solid understanding of the challenges and opportunities of the nonprofit sector.”

McGuire has been ED of the Cheyenne Symphony since 2013. Prior to that she was ED of the Tuscaloosa, Alabama, Symphony Orchestra for more than 5 years and orchestra manager of the Greater Dallas Youth Orchestras. She began her musical career as a horn player, earning a bachelor’s degree in horn performance from Western Carolina University.

“I have not played professionally in a while,” she says. “There are several reasons—one is I don’t have time. Once you’ve been pretty decent on an instrument, it’s all or nothing. You either play at that level or you regret not being able to play at that level.”

Zeitouni_2

Jean-Marie Zeitouni

Music director Jean-Marie Zeitouni noted McGuire’s professional playing experience as a valuable asset. “Liz demonstrates an intuitive understanding of programming, and she’s a professional musician in her own right. That’s exciting—and it’s requisite to help fulfill out top priorities.”

McGuire says she is excited about the future of the CMF/CMA. “What I’ve seen more than anything is an organization that’s really done their homework and gone through a large strategic planning process,” she says. “They have that ready to go now. There were some really great ideas in the strategic plan that I’m excited about.”

Above all, it was the level of music making at the CMF and CMA that drew McGuire to the job. “What motivates me to do what I do has always been about music itself.

“When I saw the extent of the programs offered by the Festival and Center, and how they provide opportunities not only to participate in music-making, but also attend live performances and interact with some of the world’s greatest musicians, I was blown away.

“In some ways it’s maybe selfish, because I think I’m going to enjoy (the music) as much as (people in the audience) do.”

She recognizes the importance of the festival to Boulder’s musical life, and to its audiences. “I know how important it is,” she says. “I can see speaking to the board and the staff how much of a heart and soul that organization has, and how important it is for me to make sure I’m the best caretaker that I can be.”