Frequent Flyers join Boulder Phil for ‘Butterfly Lovers’

Concert April 30 includes music celebrating rebirth and reconnection

By Peter Alexander April 27 at 5 p.m.

Two years ago, conductor Michael Butterman had drafted a program to celebrate the return of spring with the Boulder Philharmonic Orchestra.

That program, originally planned for April 2020, had to be postponed, due to COVID. But now the long-planned concert celebrating renewal and rebirth has itself been resurrected for performance at 7:30 p.m. Saturday (April 30) in Macky Auditorium (tickets here).

A previous performance by Frequent Flyers Aerial Dance with the Boulder Philharmonic

“This was a program that was originally intended to reflect the notion of rebirth that happens in springtime,” Butterman says. “It still reflects that, but it has an additional layer of meaning for us—our own emergence from our pandemic isolation.”

The starting point for the program was The Butterfly Lovers Violin Concerto by Chinese composers He Zhanhao and Chen Gang, which the Philharmonic will perform with violin soloist Claude Sim and Boulder’s Frequent Flyers Aerial Dance Company. Before that performance the concert will open with Undistant by Mason Bates, which addresses our return to human interaction after the recent period of widespread self isolation.

Original costume design for Stravinsky’s Firebird by Léon Bakst (1913)

Filling out the program will be first Rimsky-Korsakov’s Russian Easter Overture, which has obvious seasonal significance. The final piece will be Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite, which Butterman selected because it ends with the rebirth of knights and 13 princesses who have been under a magic spell—another connection to the idea of renewal.

The Butterfly Lovers Violin Concerto was written by two Chinese students of Western music at the Shanghai Conservatory and premiered in 1959. Written for a Western orchestra, it is based on a Chinese legend of lovers who are separated by death, but reunited as butterflies. “It works very well for Western audiences,” Butterman says. “It’s extremely relatable on first hearing.”

Butterman and the Phil have done a number of performances with Frequent Flyers. He thought that The Butterfly Lovers would be a good piece for further collaboration and suggested it to Nancy Smith, Frequent Flyers’ artistic director. “It strikes me that it has a narrative arc, and certainly has potential as a work for visual interpretation,” he says.

“(Smith) agreed and they really embraced the thing. They constructed this large wing-like structure that will be hung above the stage. It acts as one fixed structure for most of the piece, but it also has hinges and it can bend like butterfly wings. It will be quite something to see!”

Violinist Claude Sim

The soloist, Claude Sim, is associate concertmaster of the Colorado Symphony. The Phil’s concertmaster, Charles Wetherbee, was first scheduled to perform the concerto, but when he became unavailable Sim stepped in to serve as soloist and as concertmaster for the concert.

The one piece that was not in the original program Butterman conceived two years ago is Bates’s Undistant. That is the piece on the program that best connects with the idea of people re-emerging from isolation as the pandemic abates—at least a little. “Undistant is a piece that (Bates) wrote in 2020, and it is a work that mirrors in some ways our separation,” Butterman says.

Michael Butterman. Photo by Jiah Kyun.

“There are two groups of musicians that are placed away from the rest of the orchestra. (Bates) has written an electronica part that incorporates static, sounds of Zoom and other communication platforms that we came to use a great deal during the pandemic. Over about seven minutes he brings these different elements back together, and there are little wisps of Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy,’ just enough that it’s recognizable. That begins to coalesce until we have an affirming and positive ending.”

Apart from the theme of rebirth and renewal, there is one thing that joins all four pieces musically, and that is their uplifting endings. It’s there in all four pieces. In Bates’s Undistant, it is the transformation from separation and static to hints of the “Ode to Joy.” In the Butterfly Lovers, it’s the overcoming of first separation and then death through the transformation of the lovers into butterflies, gently portrayed in music.

In the second half, the Russian Easter Overture opens with the solemn tones of two Russian Orthodox hymns, “Let God Arise!” and “An Angel Cried.” Rimsky-Korsakov wrote in an autobiography that “the gloomy colors of the Andante lugubre seemed to depict the holy sepulcher . . . [and] the solemn trumpet voice of the Archangel is then displaced by a tonal reproduction of the joyous, dance-like tolling of the bells.”

The progress of Stravinsky’s Firebird is no less joyous, with “The Infernal Dance of Katschei” being followed by the “Berceuse”—a tender lullaby that lulls Katschei’s demonic minions to sleep—and the “Finale” that portrays in music the return of Katschei’s prisoners to life.

You might say these are four variations on the theme of life returning after a long winter—or a pandemic.

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“The Firebird and Frequent Flyers”
Boulder Philharmonic Orchestra, Michael Butterman, conductor
With Claude Sim, violin, and Frequent Flyers Aerial Dance

  • Mason Bates: Undistant
  • He Zhanhao and Chen Gang: The Butterfly Lovers Violin Concerto
  • Rimsky-Korsakov: Russian Easter Overture
  • Stravinsky: Firebird Suite (1919)

7:30 p.m. Saturday, April 30
Macky Auditorium

TICKETS

Michael Christie, former music director of CMF, wins Grammy for Best Opera Recording

Live Recording from Santa Fe Opera also features CU alumnus Wei Wu

By Peter Alexander Feb. 12 at 12 noon

Michael Christie, who was music director of the Colorado Music Festival 2001–2013, won a Grammy for a live recording from the Santa Fe Opera.

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Santa Fe Opera: The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs. Photo by Ken Howard.

The two-CD set of composer Mason Bates’ and librettist Mark Campbell’s The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs was recorded during the world premiere run of the opera at the Santa Fe Opera’s summer festival in 2017. It was released on the PENTATONE label. It beat a recording from the Metropolitan Opera and three other nominees to win the category.

Christie, who was recently appointed music director of the New West Symphony in Thousand Oaks, Calif., conducted the opera in Santa Fe, and later at the Indiana University Opera Theater in Bloomington, Ind.

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Wei Wu celebrates his Grammy.

Among other cast members, the recording includes a performance by bass Wei Wu, an alumnus of the CU College of Music, as Jobs’ guru Kobu. Others in the cast included tenor Garrett Sorenson, mezzo-soprano Mariya Kaganskaya, mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke, baritone Kelly Markgraf, baritone Edward Parks, and soprano Jessica Jones.

Christie is currently conducting performances of Verdi’s La Traviata at the Lyric Opera of Chicago and was unable to attend the Grammy ceremonies. He issued a statement this morning: “I can say the whole experience was quite surreal.

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Michael Christie

“I’m in Chicago at the moment getting ready to open La Traviata at the Lyric Opera of Chicago so couldn’t be present in LA for the award. I have to tell you though, I’m not sure I could have handled being in the audience waiting for that envelope to be opened! Instead, I was in Macy’s (so grateful they provided wifi in the store!!!) alternately shopping for socks and watching the live stream when the award was announced! I just started laughing.

“Any one of the five outstanding nominees should have won and yet they called out ours. I’m so grateful to Santa Fe Opera, our marvelous colleagues of the Santa Fe Opera Orchestra and its powerful chorus, (CD producer) Elizabeth Ostrow, creators Mason Bates and Mark Campbell, my amazing colleagues on stage.

“I also want to shout out to the extraordinary artists at Indiana University who gave the second performances of the opera in September. You all made an indelible impression on the piece and you share in its history.

“Congratulations to everyone involved!”

Christie joins a distinguished roster of Grammy winners in the Best Opera Recording category, including Seiji Ozawa, James Conlon, Alan Gilbert, Kent Nagano and Sir Charles Mackerras.

The recording of The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs can be purchased from ArkivMusik or Amazon.

Other nominees for Best Opera Recording were John Adams’ Doctor Atomic by the BBC Symphony and BBC Singers John Adams conducting; Jean-Baptiste Lully’s Alceste by Les Talents Lyriques and Choeur de Chamber de Namur, Christophe Rousset conducting; Richard Strauss’ Der Rosnekavalier by the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Metropolitan Opera Chorus, Sebastian Weigle conducting; and Verdi’s Rigoletto by the Kaunas City Symphony Orchestra and the Men of the Kaunas State Choir, Constantine Orbelian conducting.

Michael Christie will conduct world premiere at the Santa Fe Opera in 2017

Santa Fe’s 2016 season has also been announced

By Peter Alexander

Michael Christie conducts the Minnesota Opera

Michael Christie conducts the Minnesota Opera

Santa Fe Opera (SFO) general director Charles McKay has announced that The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, a new opera by Mason Bates, will have its world premiere as part of the company’s 2017 season.

The announcement was made Aug. 5 at a press conference in Santa Fe. The opera’s libretto will be by Mark Campbell, who is well known as the librettist of the Pulitzer Prize-winning opera Silent Night. The stage director will be Kevin Newberry, and the conductor will be Michael Christie, music director of the Minnesota Opera and former music director of Boulder’s Colorado Music Festival. This will be Christie’s Santa Fe Opera debut.

The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs has been commissioned by the SFO, where it will be the company’s 15th world premiere.

Santa Fe's unique opera house

Santa Fe’s unique opera house

Known as an adventurous company, the Santa Fe Opera has attracted both audiences and press from around the world for their world premieres, including this year’s production of Jennifer Higdon’s Cold Mountain, co-commissioned with Opera Philadelphia and the Minnesota Opera, in collaboration with North Carolina Opera. (Limited seats are still available for Cold Mountain performances Aug. 17, 22 and 14.)

The company has also recently announced their 2015–16 season, which will not include premieres, but will feature several operas that are not often heard. The operas scheduled for July and August 2016 are Romeo et Juliette by Charles Gounod; Capriccio by Richard Strauss; Vanessa by Samuel Barber; La Fanciulla del West (The girl of the golden West) by Giacomo Puccini; and Don Giovanni by Mozart. Tickets will be on sale on the SFO Web page in the fall.

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Librettist ark Campbell (left) and composer Mason Bates (right) at the Santa Fe Opera press conference announcing the premiere of Bates's

Librettist Mark Campbell (left) and composer Mason Bates (right) at the Santa Fe Opera press conference announcing the premiere of Bates’s “(R)evolution of Steve Jobs.”

Mason Bates is known both as a composer and as a DJ in the San Francisco Bay Area. His compositions are characterized by the inclusion of electronic effects into orchestral works and other music. His “Observer in the Magellanic Cloud” for chorus with electronic sounds was performed last year by Boulder’s Ars Nova Singers and director Thomas Edward Morgan.

For The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, Bates said that he will include electronic elements, some based on samples of early computing gear, and acoustic guitar, an instrument that Jobs especially loved. “You will not have heard these sounds before in an opera house,” he said at the press conference.

In a statement on his Web page, Bates wrote “What fascinates me about the story of Steve Jobs is that it exists at the intersection of creativity, technology, and human communication—and I think that can make for thrilling opera.

Mason Bates. Photo by Lydia Danmiller.

Mason Bates. Photo by Lydia Danmiller.

“Imagine, for example, the possibilities for bringing to life Kobun, the spiritual advisor to Steve Jobs—an important and overlooked figure who receives stunning treatment by librettist Mark Campbell. A panoply of Tibetan prayer bowls and Chinese gongs drift across the electronics, sometimes sounding purely ‘acoustic,’ sometimes imaginatively processed as if in a nirvana-esque limbo. Think of how eerily beautiful those sounds can sound when supporting the mystical textures of a low bass voice.

“In fact, Jobs’ search for inner peace is the story of the opera—which, in a sentence, is about a man who learns to be human again. The key role in this journey is his wife Laurene, who acted as the electrical ‘ground’ to the positive and negative charges of Jobs. . . .

“Because the subject is so well known, we’ve taken a poetic and non-linear approach. Anchoring this imaginative, non-chronological telling are numbers—real musical numbers—and a clear-as-crystal through-line: how can you can simplify human communication onto sleek beautiful devices, when people are so messy? We’ll travel with Jobs on his journey from hippie idealist to techno mogul and, ultimately, to a deeper understanding of true human connection.”

NOTE: Edited Aug. 16 to include that fact that The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs will be Michael Christie’s debut with the SFO.