Soprano Mary Wilson sings songs about childhood with Boulder Phil

Samuel Barber’s Knoxville, Summer of 1915 and Maher’s Symphony No 4

By Peter Alexander Feb. 7 at 4:15 p.m.

Soprano Mary Wilson is looking forward to her appearance with the Boulder Philharmonic Saturday (7:30 pm. Feb. 9 in Macky Auditorium). “It’s a real dream program for soprano,” she says.

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Soprano Mary Wilson

Under the title “The Heavenly Life,” the program includes two pieces with soprano solo that reflect the voice of a child, but with deeper currents: Samuel Barber’s nostalgic Knoxville, Summer of 1915 and Mahler’s Symphony No. 4. The program also features portions of Mark O’Connor’s Strings and Threads with the Phil’s concertmaster Charles Wetherbee as soloist.

“It is a good concert for those of us who just take in the beautiful sonorities,” says Boulder Philharmonic music director Michael Butterman. “I’m looking forward to it.”

mbhighres2 - Jiah Kyun (1)

Michael Butterman Photo by Jiah Kyun.

Mahler’s Fourth Symphony is the most familiar of the three works on the program. It is the shortest of Mahler’s ten symphonies, and has the smallest orchestra. Lacking the emotional stress and angst of some of Mahler’s larger symphonies, the Fourth is “audience-friendly,” Butterman says. “It’s a lighter, more transparent work and one you can hear without pre-concert study. It’s rejuvenating to listen to.”

The Fourth marks the end of Mahler’s first group of symphonies that share the common feature of being related to the composer’s songs written on texts from a single collection of poetry, Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The boy’s magic horn). The finale is a setting of one of the Wunderhorn texts, a song that Mahler called “Das himmlische Leben” (The heavenly life), from which the concert takes its title.

Originally conceived as a possible finale to his previous symphony, the movement was written before the rest of the Fourth. As he worked his way toward the already completed finale, Mahler anticipated its themes and mood of gentle lyricism in the earlier movements.

The entire symphony has a cheerful cast, from the very opening with flutes and sleigh bells through to the end. Even the second movement’s macabre fiddle solo that represents “Freund Hein,” a medieval German symbol of death, is mostly lighthearted in nature.

The finale, with its lovely melodies and its text describing a child’s view of a heavenly feast in which “the angels bake the bread” is the shortest. “It is not an apotheosis,” Butterman says. “It’s a benediction.”

There are darker moments. The text describes how “we lead an innocent, dear little lamb to its death” for the meal, and “St. Luke slaughters an ox.” But in this childlike heaven, even the animals seem happy to become meals.

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Mary Wilson

“What this piece has so beautifully [is] a sense of wonder, but there’s a definite pensiveness to it,” Wilson says. “In that respect it’s very honest. Not everything is wonderful, and I think the way that Mahler gives it balance is really beautiful.”

Knoxville, Summer of 1915 is a setting for soprano and small orchestra of a prose piece by James Agee, published as a preamble to his Pulitzer Prize-winning book A Death in the Family. As such, it is both a nostalgic remembrance of an idyllic moment in Agee’s childhood and a poignant prelude to a family tragedy.

The text describes a lingering summer evening on the porch and in the backyard of Agee’s family home, where the child is surrounded by a loving family. It is presented from the perspective of both a five-year-old child and an adult looking back on his lost innocence.

In her performance, Wilson aims to capture both the child and the adult. “My goal is to get the background in the way I can shape a word, to give the idea that it’s not one dimension,” she says. “I don’t want to be histrionic and melodramatic. Agee does such a good job of spinning the poetry that my job is just to add color and zero in on the important words at the important times.”

She finds that living in Tennessee the past 11 years has given her an extra appreciation for Agee’s description of summer nights. “I live in Tennessee now and I hear the cicadas, which I didn’t have growing up in Minnesota,” she says.

“That first-person relationship to sitting on your front porch on a summer evening, I really do feel that. I find it so comforting and so homey anymore, the sound of the cicadas on a hot summer night.”

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Chalres Wetherbee

O’Connor’s Strings and Threads is a set of 13 short movements written to trace a thread of American folk music, and reflecting the history of his own family, moving from Ireland to Appalachia and westward across the continent. “The work is for string orchestra and violin solo, you might call it fiddle solo, because the pieces are written in this kind of folk idiom,” Butterman says.

Wetherbee will only play a selection of O’Connor’s complete work. “We’ve chosen a few movements that are appealing and ordered them in a way that contrasts slow and fast,” Butterman explains. “We’re treating them more as stylistic references to other parts of the program, the Appalachian locale of Knoxville, and also the reference to fiddling in the second movement of the Mahler, rather than a travelogue as a chronological presentation.”

The combination of O’Connor, Barber and Mahler is an unusual variation on the usual orchestral program of overture, concerto and symphony, but Wilson has no doubts. “It’s brilliant programming!” she says.

“It’s really stunningly beautiful.”

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The Heavenly Life

Boulder Philharmonic in Macky

Boulder Philharmonic Orchestra, Michael Butterman, conductor
With Mary Wilson, soprano, and Charles Wetherbee, violin
7:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 9, Macky Auditorium

Mark O’Connor: Strings and Threads
Samuel Barber: Knoxville, Summer of 1915
Mahler: Symphony No. 4

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Final weekend at CMF includes the sweet and the sour

Composer Hannah Lash is 2016 “Click” Commission winner

By Peter Alexander

The 2015 Colorado Music Festival (CMF) came to a solemn conclusion last night (Aug. 9) with music from Handel’s Ode for St. Cecila’s Day, part of a final weekend that had its ups and downs.

Or as CMF board co-president Jane Hossière said before the final concert, it was a “sweet and sour” occasion.

Composer Hannah Lash

Composer Hannah Lash

Hossière also announced that Hannah Lash, a young composer on the faculty of Yale University, has been selected by the CMF audiences as the winner of the 2016 “Click Commission.” She will receive the commission for a new work to be premiered during the 2016 festival, other works by her will be performed during the summer, and she will be in residence during the festival.

The final Festival Orchestra concert had already been presented Thursday and Friday (Aug. 6 and 7). Music director Jean-Marie Zeitouni conducted a potpourri of pieces representing the close relationship between America and France. His fellow French-Canadian, pianist Marc-André Hamelin, was the soloist. The program included the very familiar—Gershwin’s American in Paris and the Overture to Bernstein’s Candide; one genuine masterpiece—Ravel’s Concerto for the Left Hand; and the very unfamiliar—George Antheil’s Jazz Symphony and Darius Milhaud’s A Frenchman in New York.

The concert opened with a highly charged, very fast reading of the Candide Overture. It is certainly a tribute to the players that Zeitouni’s tempos were no obstacle to a clean, precise and exhilarating performance. Zeitouni seems to love the low brass, but here I thought a little less tuba would have made a better performance.

Marc-André Hamelin. Photo by Fran Kaufman.

Marc-André Hamelin. Photo by Fran Kaufman.

The real high points of the concert were the performances with Hamelin, particularly the Ravel Concerto. Hamelin is a muscular pianist who can stand up to the full CMF orchestra—with one hand tied behind his back, as it were. The sheer sound he got from the piano was impressive, if a little thick in the lower register. His commitment to the piece and technical command made this a performance to be treasured.

Hamelin and Zeitouni returned to the stage for a programmed “encore,” Antheil’s Jazz Symphony which, in its 1955 version, is small-scale piano showpiece. Antheil described himself as “the bad boy of music,” and based on the Jazz Symphony, he may have misbehaved because of ADHD. He apparently couldn’t keep his mind on any one thought, as the piece jumps from jazzy idea to jazzy idea. All are catchy and fun, though, and the whole ensemble—Zeitouni, Hamelin and the orchestra—negotiated Antheil’s many tempo and mood changes effectively.

Reversing the printed order, Zeitouni started the second half of the concert with Milhaud’s Frenchman in New York, a piece I am sure few in the audience had ever heard. Milhaud has written some jaunty, rhythmically catchy pieces—if you don’t believe me, see Le Bœuf sur le toit—but this is not one of them.

The whole piece is dominated by thick, massed chords that represent the imposing buildings of Manhattan. That may well be what most impressed Milhaud in New York, but it did not lead to great music. I heard none of the bustle and energy and none of the jazz of New York. There is a reason it is so rarely played.

The final work on the program was Gershwin’s American in Paris. The audience loved it—it’s a familiar piece, and it was performed with great energy. The exploitation of the orchestra’s full dynamic range created dramatic contrasts. But on the whole, I found the performance a mixed bag.

Going full out in tempo and giving the brass free reign leads to some exciting moments, but also to occasional passages that are out of balance, or not quite together. So while the excitement was there, the whole was not quite at the level of Zeitouni’s best performances this summer.

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The “sweet and sour” were of course the mixed feelings one has when a happy time comes to an end. With Sunday’s choral-chamber orchestra concert, the CMF said farewell to what has been a fascinating, and largely impressive, first year with a new music director. Zeitouni put a personal stamp on every concert, and achieved some very fine results.

The program, titled “A Royal Finish!”, had vocal, choral and orchestral music by Mozart and Handel. The soloist was soprano Mary Wilson, a last-minute substitute. She performed ably in pieces by both composers, some of which may not be part of her ready repertoire.

It seemed an odd choice to start with Mozart’s tender, late work for chorus, strings and organ, the Ave verum corpus. One of the gentlest and most lovely pieces ever written, it was a very soft start to the proceedings. Here it was little more than a beautiful sigh, so well controlled that it failed to rise even to a modest peak.

Soprano Mary Wilson

Soprano Mary Wilson

Wilson arrived onstage for Mozart’s virtuosic solo cantata for soprano and orchestra, Exsultate, jubilate. Here and in the following Regina Coeli for soprano with chorus and orchestra, Wilson sang with a bright, unforced sound and sparkling technique in the fioratura passages. She sang with great attention to the text and phrasing, but it was all so pretty that it ran the danger of becoming music-box Mozart. I believe there is more drama in Mozart’s music than we heard in these performances, delightful though they were.

As someone who believes that Handel, outside of the unavoidable Messiah and one or two ubiquitous instrumental pieces, is under-performed and under-appreciated, I was delighted to have the splendid coronation anthem Zadok the Priest and portions or the Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day on the program. The chorus, so restrained in Mozart’s Ave verum corpus, rang out impressively in Zadok. Their entrance will wake up sleepy listeners as surely as the chords in Haydn’s famous symphony.

This was followed by a fast and noisy performance of Music for the Royal Fireworks—and that is not a criticism. Taking full advantage of an orchestra of modern instruments, Zeitouni led a performance that achieved a greater dynamic range, and a faster tempo, than would be practical on Baroque instruments. This is not particularly “historical,” but it makes a splashy effect, which is what Handel was after in the first place.

CMF music director Jean-Marie Zeitouni

CMF music director Jean-Marie Zeitouni

Especially memorable were the rattling drum rolls and the brilliant work of the CMF trumpets. Not as noticeable but equally effective were the horns and woodwinds, adding their weight to music that was, after all, written to be played outdoors.

The concert and season ended with four of the 12 movements (why not more?) of Handel’s Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day. An homage to music, of which St. Cecilia is the patron saint, this was specially chosen by Zeitouni to end the festival. Here all the performers came together: the chorus, impressive in their dynamic control; Wilson, impressive with her brilliant technique; and the orchestra, impressive with their clean sound and sparkling flourishes.

The final movement, “As from the power of sacred lays,” is chorus with soprano celebrating the power of music until “the trumpet shall be heard on high, the dead shall live, the living die, and music shall untune the sky.” It is not a rousing finish, but a more solemn one that offers the audience more a sense of appreciation than excitement as they leave the theater: yet another way that Zeitouni put his own stamp on the festival.

Edited for clarity on Aug. 10, 2015.