Boulder Philharmonic continues exploring music for small orchestra

Streamed concert available April 3 will feature Stravinsky’s “Soldier’s Tale”

By Peter Alexander April 2 at 1 p.m.

The past year has been the year of the chamber orchestra.

To respect the need for safe distancing between players, orchestras including the Boulder Philharmonic have presented entire programs of music written, or arranged, for reduced orchestra or chamber ensembles. Each of the Philharmonic’s 2020-21 performances has been recorded and streamed for ticket purchasers to access from the safety of their homes—as most orchestras have done.

That trend continues with the Phil’s next concert, but with a twist. The one piece on the program for Saturday (April 3, available from 7:30 p.m.), Stravinsky’s theater piece L’Histoire du soldat (The soldier’s tale), is ideal for performance during a pandemic—because it was in fact written during the last global pandemic, the Spanish Flu of 1918–19.

Stravinsky sat out World War I in Switzerland. As the war was coming to an end, the production of large-scale works, such as his previous ballets The Firebird, Petrushka and The Rite of Spring, was no longer possible. Instead, Stravinsky thought of creating a theater piece for a small group of musicians and actors that could be toured to Swiss villages. 

Stravinsky and the Swiss writer C.F. Ramuz collaborated to write L’Histoire du soldat, based on a Russian folk tale and written for seven players (violin, string bass, clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, trombone and percussion), three actors and a dancer—ideal numbers for safely distanced performances. In the end, the flu defeated Stravinsky’s plan for a tour, but L’Histoire was premiered in Lausanne, Switzerland, in 1918. The music has retained a place in the chamber orchestra repertoire, and the score is important as a bellwether of the transition from the massive musical works of the pre-war period to the neo-classicism of the late 19-teens and ‘20s.

The folktale that provided the plot is one that Stravinsky knew from Russia, but it is found in many different cultures: A lonely soldier engages in a contest with the devil. This is a well known story, from legends of Paganini selling his soul for unnatural fiddle skills, to Blues musicians being in league with the devil, to the Charlie Daniels Band’s “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.”

C.F. Ramuz and Stravinsky

In the story worked up by Stravinsky and Ramuz, the soldier trades his fiddle—representing his soul—to the devil for knowledge that will make him wealthy. The soldier prospers and marries a princess, but the devil returns and triumphs in the end. 

“I think it’s a confusing story to follow,” Michael Butterman, conductor of the Boulder Phil, says. “It helps to have some frame of reference. I’m going to give a brief outline of what’s happening, so that people understand that the devil keeps coming back in different guises and disguises.”

The basic moral of the story, Butterman says, is that the soldier gets lots of stuff, but stuff doesn’t make him happy. “It’s all nothing without the fiddle—that’s your soul,” Butterman says. This is essentially the message of a passage from the Gospel According to Mark, “What shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” Butterman suggests.

Although 20th-century modernist in style, the music is easily grasped by listeners. “We have marches,” Butterman explains. “Although they are not totally regular in their march rhythm, they still feel like left, right, left, right. You have three dances that are stylized, but clearly identifiable. And there’s chorales that sound like chorales.”

The dances are a tango, a waltz, and one titled “Ragtime”—but, Butterman observes, “it’s not going to remind anybody of Scott Joplin.” Stravinsky had never heard American jazz performed, although he had some printed copies. He used the rhythms as he saw them on the page and listeners will likely recognize the syncopations.

Michael Butterman. Photo by Rene Palmer.

“Stravinsky sees everything through his own unique prism,” Butterman says. “What’s interesting about the piece to me is that it sounds less complex that it appears on the page. It’s a very complicated piece to put together and to conduct, just technically speaking. Much of the music does not line up at all with the meter that he’s [notated].”

Those are complications for the performers, but not necessarily for the listeners. “There’s enough familiar both in terms of the story and in terms of the musical forms that you know where to glom onto it” Butterman says. “The music is accessible, it’s not highly dissonant, it’s downright tuneful, quite clever, and always given to you in digestible chunks.”

The performance is presented in collaboration with the CU Department of Theater and Dance and the Boulder Ballet. The performance, which has already been recorded, was staged by Bud Coleman, department chair. Theater students fill the roles of four actors—a narrator, the soldier, and two actors to portray the devil. Boulder Ballet has provided the dancer and choreography.

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Members of the Boulder Philharmonic Orchestra
Michael Butterman, conductor
Staged by Bud Coleman with actors from the CU Dept. of Theater and Danc
Dance from the Boulder Ballet

Stravinsky: L’Histoire du soldat (The Soldier’s Tale)

Available at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, April 3 (through April 17)

Pre-concert discussion at 7 p.m.

Tickets

“A CELLO-BRATION”: THE CELLO TAKES THE SPOTLIGHT

Soloist Zuill Bailey joins the Boulder Phil for an intimate, cello-centric program. 

By Izzy Fincher March 11 at 9:35 p.m.

“Why write for violin when there is cello?” Rachmaninov asked. 

There is something particularly captivating about the cello, with its sonorous tenor and subtle grandeur. It is wildly expressive—lyrical, passionate and romantic, yet also mournful and solemn, and profound in a way that captures the heart and soul.

Zuill Bailey

To celebrate this instrument, the Boulder Phil will present “A Celebration of Cello” with soloist Zuill Bailey, streamed from 7:30 p.m., on Saturday, March 13.

The cello-centric program includes a reduced instrumentation of Schumann’s Cello Concerto and a double-cello concerto by contemporary Italian composer Giovanni Sollima. Other works on the program are a violin trio by the Phil’s own Paul Trapkus, plus works by Debussy and Wagner.

Bailey, a Grammy-award winning cellist, will lead the “cello-bration.” He will appear on two contrasting concertos, which displays the cello’s multifaceted personality. In Schumann’s Concerto in A minor, the cello’s sensitive lyricism is shown, while Sullima’s double- concerto, to be performed with Boulder Phil principal cellist Charles Lee, exhibits more of the cello’s boldness and virtuosity.

“In Schumann’s concerto, the cello is refined and elegant,” Boulder Phil conductor Michael Butterman says. “Whereas in Sollima’s (double concerto), the cello is an outgoing, extroverted rebel. The cadenza feels like rock’n’roll—it shreds. It’s crazy, with a lot of flash, energy and edginess.”

Lee believes the energetic double-cello concerto, titled “Violencelles, Vibrez!” (Cellos, vibrate!), will be a highlight of the program. Sollima, an Italian cellist and post-minimalist composer, juxtaposes the cello’s different moods, moving from brooding, dark echoes to a sweet, lyrical duet to a brisk, vivacious cadenza. 

Charles Lee at rehearsal with the Boulder Phil

“It starts very mysterious and lyrical with long, romantic lines, using lots of vibrato, sustaining sounds,” Lee says. “The added element of two cellists alternating gives it a special effect, like an echoing cave.” 

In the opening, the two cello lines weave together, nearly indistinguishable from each other. “At first, it’s not so striking that there are two cellos when you don’t focus on the visuals,” Lee says.

Later, the distinct cello parts emerge in captivating musical dialogue, riffing off each other’s energy in a virtuosic display. Lee described the cadenza with Bailey as exciting but very challenging to play. 

The rest of the program focuses on orchestral works, adapted for a smaller chamber setting, including Debussy’sPrelude to the Afternoon of a Faun and Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll,” an intimate musical love letter to his wife Cosima. 

Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun has been arranged for chamber orchestra, created by Schoenberg’s student Benno Sachs during World War I. It was first played for Schoenberg’s Society for Private Musical Performances, a chamber concert series held in Vienna from 1918 to 1921. 

During the war and the 1918 Flu Pandemic, chamber series like this one were popular in Europe due to limited financial resources and available musicians. Now, in our current pandemic, the reorchestration is once again ideal for a smaller, socially-distanced orchestra. 

Though the cello isn’t directly in the spotlight in either work, it still plays a more prominent role than usual. “When you adapt a large work for a smaller ensemble, the cellos become even more noticeable and exaggerated,” Lee says.

“We usually aren’t the go-to melody instrument (in larger works). When the cellos take the melody, it’s a treat.”

The violin, however, does snatch back the orchestral spotlight with Trapkus’ Trio for 3 Violins. Trapkus, a former violinist for the Boulder Phil, is also an active composer, who has written four works for string quartet and string ensemble. “Trio for 3 Violins,” written in 2012, features the three violins as equal soloists, and its energetic, minimalistic aesthetic is similar to Sullima’s Violencelles, Vibrez!.  

Paul Trapkus

Butterman is excited for the Boulder Phil to perform Trapkus’s trio for the first time. He believes the Boulder Municipal Airport’s hangar, where the concert was filmed last fall, is an ideal setting for the trio, far more intimate than Macky Auditorium.  

“(The trio) is a work that I found interesting, tuneful and appealing on first hearing,” Butterman says. “It uses a lot of repeated, minimalistic patterns. There’s a lot of interplay, exchanges of ideas and taking turns between the three equal violin parts.”

Despite the brief violin interlude, the concert is still a “cello-bration” through and through. For cello lovers, it should be a special treat—a musical extravaganza with two talented soloists.

As Bailey comments, “I always say the only thing better than a cello is two cellos.”

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“A Celebration of Cello”
The Boulder Philharmonic, Michael Butterman, conductor. with
Zuill Bailey and Charles Lee, cellos

Debussy, arr. Schoenberg: Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun
Schumann, arr. Philip Lasser: Cello Concerto in A minor, Op. 129
Paul Trapkus: Trio for 3 Violins
Giovanni Sollima: Violencelles, Vibrez!
Wagner: Siegfried Idyll

Tickets can be purchased for $40 here. The concert can be streamed starting at 7:30 p.m., on Saturday, March 13. 

Boulder Phil season takes flight from Boulder Airport

First concert of an all-online season

By Peter Alexander Oct. 18 at 1 a.m.

The Boulder Philharmonic successfully launched their 2020-21 season of online concerts, “2020-21 Reimagined,” last night (Oct. 17).

Or should I say the season took flight, since the performance was recorded in an airplane hangar at boulder Municipal Airport? The stream, which premiered at 7:30 p.m., will remain available for the next two weeks to people who hold tickets.

Screenshot: The Boulder Philharmonic streaming from the Brungard Aviation hangar at Boulder Municipal Airport

To allow for responsible safety precautions, the program was entirely music for strings—string players can wear masks—and a small ensemble—if too many are spaced too far apart, the players cannot see and hear one another. Music director Michael Butterman lead the group in three pieces: Strum by Jesse Montgomery; the Simple Symphony of Benjamin Britten; and Max Richter’s recomposition of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons,

In addition to being written for strings, the pieces have another feature in common: like the season, each work has been reimagined in some way. Strum was first written for string quintet, then string quartet, and lastly for string orchestra. Britten mined pieces he wrote as a child for the themes of his Simple Symphony. And post-minimalist composer Richter has created a striking tapestry of music taken from one of the most popular works of the Baroque era, sometimes played as Vivaldi wrote it, sometimes manipulated rhythmically, harmonically, or in other more subtle ways.

Screenshot: Michael Butterman

The performances were what we would expect from the Boulder Phil: all at a professional level, played with commitment and expression. I don’t want to go much beyond that in reviewing the performance, however, since so much of what you hear depends on the equipment you use. Just like a play that is turned into a film, this product represents a separate medium from a live concert, one that that meets the viewer/listener on both the visual and aural levels.

I experienced the concert from a desktop iMac with Logitech Z4 speakers, including a woofer. These are moderately good speakers, certainly much better than what you will hear from built-in sound sources on most desktop or laptop computers, much less tablets or (God forbid!) your smartphone. 

Screenshot: Cellist Charles Lee

I was surprised that the lower pitches came through very well. A short passage by principal cellist Charles Lee was the richest and warmest sounding solo of the program. The sound of the violins, and particularly concertmaster Charles Wetherbee as soloist for Richter/Vivaldi, thinned out as it got higher on the instrument. While not precluding full enjoyment of the music, this does point to the limits of the online concert medium.

A word about the visual presentation: as the Phil’s first online production, I thought the concert was very successful. There were strategically placed cameras giving good visual variety, with closeups of individual players as well as longer shots that made good use of the props available in an airplane hangar (pun intended; I promise, no more aviation jokes).

For the Britten performance, there were closed captions available with information about the piece being played. This was presented as an experiment; I hope it is one that will be repeated with more sophisticated captions. Perhaps a little more explanation of the musical terms would be useful for the many members of the audience who do not have the advantage of years in music school. How many, for example, know the significance of the relative major key? Maybe online music theory lessons will be next.

Screenshot: Closed captions during the online performance

The introductions by Butterman, a conversation between Butterman and Wetherbee, and an introduction to her piece by composer Jesse Montgomery were nice supplements to the performance. Here, the video medium has the advantage over the concert hall: the communication seems more intimate and more personal than in Macky Auditorium.

Montgomery opened the program by introducing her piece, which is, as she said, full of rhythmic drive and clear melodies. Strum is enjoying a run of popularity, likely because it is a well crafted and enjoyable piece to hear, because it can be played by the kind of small ensemble that is easily featured in streaming concert, and—let’s be honest—because as an African-American woman, Montgomery is a composer that orchestras are happy to add to their repertoire in 2020.

Britten’s Simple Symphony—which is not, as Butterman said in spoken program notes, all that simple to play—is infrequently played on symphony programs. It was refreshing to hear it instead of the usual orchestral fare. 

Screenshot: Charles Wetherbee sports the Boulder Phil’s custom face mask

Richter/Vivaldi is both familiar and disorienting. There is much pure Vivaldi, or almost-Vivaldi. But then there are sudden turns, with unexpected harmonies, or most fun to hear, uneven meters. Wetherbee seemed too have mastered his part, although he said it takes extra concentration, because it is often so close to music that is familiar to his fingers.

This concert was definitely up my lonely little alley. I’m the kind of listener who would rather hear something new and unexpected than another familiar classical piece. I am looking forward to both the repertoire, and the visual production of the remainder of the Boulder Phil season. 

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Season listing with links to purchase tickets can be found here.

BOULDER PHIL’S OPENING CONCERT IN SPIRIT OF REIMAGINED SEASON

Program features works by Vivaldi/Richter, Britten and Jesse Montgomery

By Izzy Fincher Oct. 14 at 3 p.m.

A reimagined season for the Boulder Philharmonic will begin with a night of reimagined music, recorded in a hangar at the Boulder Municipal Airport.

The first concert, “Vivaldi Recomposed,” will feature modern composers’ reworkings of iconic compositions and their own works. The concert will be available beginning at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 17.

Boulder Philharmonic and conductor Michael Butterman rehearsing in the Brungard Aviation hanger at Boulder Municipal Airport. Photo by Peter Alexander

“[This concert] is really emblematic of everything we are doing this year,” Michael Butterman, music director of the Boulder Phil, says. “We have an unusual season that is reimagined, reinvented and adapted.”

The program is centered around Recomposed by Max Richter: Vivaldi, The Four Seasons, a 13-movement work inspired by Vivaldi’s famous set of concertos. Using about one-quarter of Vivaldi’s original material, Richter develops short, iconic motifs through looping and phasing, showing his minimalistic and postmodernist style. The re-composition is “very familiar but with a twist that is new and fresh,” Butterman says.  

“Richter takes the same music, but he rescores it and repeats it with different harmonies and accompaniment,” concertmaster Charles Wetherbee says. “Sometimes he takes blocks of music that we know very well and suddenly throws in a bar of 7/8. That can be really mind-bending. It is very familiar yet completely not.”

Charles Wetherbee. Photo by Peter Alexander

The rest of the program also links to the theme of reimagining. Jesse Montgomery expanded her own composition Strum, originally written for the Catalyst Quartet, to a version for string orchestra. In Strum, the orchestra builds dynamic textures through pizzicato, layered rhythms and ostinatos.

Strum is really attractive. It’s rhythmically driven with just enough tunefulness to be very listenable and fascinating,” Butterman says. 

In his Simple Symphony, Britten expanded eight short themes, which he composed as a child, into a piece for string orchestra. The four movements, “Boisterous Bourrée,” “Playful Pizzicato,” “Sentimental Saraband” and “Frolicsome Finale,” have nostalgic titles, reminiscent of childhood. Simple Symphony is one of Britten’s more conservative works stylistically, showing his early neoclassical influences.

Vivaldi Recomposed was the first concert the Boulder Phil recorded at the airport in late September. After two rehearsals the first day, they had a dress rehearsal and recording session the next day. Over the next two weeks, they recorded five more concerts with equally quick turnaround. 

“You just got through this recording session, but you know you need to be back the next morning with a brand new program that would be recorded in less than 48 hours,” Butterman says. “It was a lot to stay on top of.”

Michael Butterman. Photo by Peter Alexander

“It was not easy to have that many programs in your fingers, in your brain, in your heart,” Wetherbee says. “It takes a lot to assimilate that much all at once and to play it with conviction. It was a very compressed way to work.”

While recording Vivaldi Recomposed, Wetherbee found it challenging to maintain the energy of a live performance without an audience, in the middle of an airport hangar.

“We didn’t have the energy of being in the hall like a live concert,” Wetherbee says. “You hear the audience move around in their seats, applaud or draw their breath in at the end of an exciting movement. When you are playing for cameras, there is none of that energy. 

“I had to guard against the feeling that it is sterile, that you are just in a studio. In a recording, you worry about every note being perfect. In a live performance, you don’t have to worry about every note. You have to worry about the energy and about what you want to say.”

For the Boulder Phil’s first virtual concert, Butterman and Wetherbee hope the audience will enjoy the visual experience, which will be more immersive than a live concert. “I am pretty excited about the visuals,” Butterman says. 

“The setting of the airport with the different camera angles and close ups is going to be fun. Through the use of the cameras, people are going to feel like they are in the mix. I hope they feel that they are drawn into the concert.”

“There’s no way [a virtual concert] replaces the live experience,” Wetherbee adds. “Yet, we are moving toward slightly different art form, to be enjoyed for its own ends.”

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Vivaldi Recomposed
Michael Butterman, conductor
Charles Wetherbee, violin

Jesse Montgomery: Strum
Benjamin Britten: Simple Symphony
Recomposed by Max Richter: Vivaldi, The Four Seasons

Stream available from 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 17
You may purchase access here.

Boulder Philharmonic has a full season for 2020-21—all of it online

Players are currently rehearsing and recording six of the eight programs

By Peter Alexander Sept. 21 at 10:30 a.m.

There were airplanes coming and going at the Boulder Municipal Airport last week, there were mechanics working on airplanes, pilots picking up brake fluid for airplanes—all the activity you would expect.

And there was an orchestra.

Members of the Boulder Philharmonic and conductor Michael Butterman rehearse in the Brungard Aviation hangar at Boulder Municipal Airport Sept. 15.

In fact, the Boulder Philharmonic was busy rehearsing their fall 2020 season in the Brungard Aviation hangar. It’s not usual activity at the airport, but if the pilot picking up brake fluid was taken aback, he didn’t show it.

This is part of the Boulder Phil’s answer to keeping the music alive during the pandemic. As conductor Michael Butterman explains, he and the orchestra spent several months looking for a way to have a 2020–21 season.

“This is probably the 40th iteration of ‘20–‘21,” he says. “Throughout the summer we kept changing our thoughts about what we’re going to be able to do.”

They finally found a way to stream the season online. Seven of the eight concerts will be available individually or by subscription through the Boulder Phil Web page. The eighth concert, the holiday program, will be available free with voluntary contributions. Each concert will be available for a limited time after its online premier. (See the full schedule below.)

Who are those masked violinists? Rehearsals in the time of COVID.

To rehearse and record, Butterman realized, the players would have to be safely distanced and most playing with a mask. For that to be possible, they would have to use a reduced orchestra, mostly strings, and they would have to have a large space. For the former, there is a lot of available repertoire, but where would they find an appropriate space?

Michael Butterman at rehearsal in the Brungard Aviation hangar, Sept. 15

“It occurred to me that we have had galas at an airplane hangar at Rocky Mountain Airport,” Butterman says. “We ended up locating an opportunity at Boulder Municipal Airport, at Brungard Aviation’s hangar, and we’re grateful to them for that.”

Over a two week period—Sept. 15–20 and Sept. 22–27—players from the orchestra will rehearse and record for later streaming six of the eight concerts scheduled for the season. There will be three rehearsals and one three-hour recording session for each program.

The last two concerts—one a collaboration with the CU-Boulder Department of Theatre and the other with Frequent Flyers Aerial Dance—will be recorded later. That gives flexibility in working with the collaborating organizations and keeps open the possibility that some kind of live performance might be possible by the end of the season.

Simone Dinnerstein. Photo by Lisa Marie Mazzucco

Two artists who have appeared with the Boulder Phil in the past—pianist Simone Dinnerstein and cellist Zuill Bailey—were invited to collaborate in chamber or chamber orchestra performances. “Zuill and Simone are wonderful to work with,” Butterman says. “The fact that we’ve had them both to Boulder already, and that they’ve been very popular with our audience, they were obvious choices.”

Zuill Bailey

To make the video recordings, the Boulder Phil recruited the service of sound and video engineer Michael Quam. There will be 10 cameras recording each piece, providing a wide variety of camera angles for the streamed performances.

Streamed concerts offer both a challenge and an opportunity. “This season may offer opportunities for greater access for some people,” Butterman says: “anybody who has problems with transportation, who has a schedule conflict Saturdays at 7:30, who lives far enough from Boulder that they don’t want to drive in.” And of course the hope is that the convenience of being able to see concerts on demand will attract new audiences 

The necessity of limiting the number of performers led to some thoughtful  programming. For example, during the years after World War I and during the Spanish flu, Stravinsky and other composers did not have access to large orchestras. Instead, they wrote music for smaller groups, including Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du Soldat for seven players, which is ideal for the pandemic year. It will be on the April 3 program. 

Other works will be performed in arrangements for reduced ensembles, such as Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony on April 24, arranged for a string sextet, and Ellen Taaffe Zwillich’s Cello Concerto, which the composer re-arranged for chamber ensemble, on March 13.

In fact, Butterman says, “the idea of this being a re-imagined season is embodied in each of the programs. We’re presenting pieces that themselves have undergone some amount of transformation. In the case of Vivaldi (recomposed by Max Richter, on the Oct. 17 concert), that’s obvious. The least obvious example is the Bach concert (Nov. 14), but any time you’re playing Bach on piano, that is a bit of a re-imagining.

“We’re obviously retooling the concert experience. I think there’s some very, very strong upsides to that, including bringing you inside the experience, and making the access wider.”

And if they find new fans among the mechanics at Brungard Aviation, or pilots that need brake fluid, so much the better.

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Boulder Phil 2021: Reimagined
All performances streamed online
Tickets available through the Boulder Phil Web page

Vivaldi Recomposed
Michael Butterman, conductor
Charles Wetherbee, violin

Jesse Montgomery: Strum
Benjamin Britten: Simple Symphony
Recomposed by Max Richter: Vivaldi, The Four Seasons

Available from 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 17

The Beauty of Bach
Simone Dinnerstein, pianist and conductor
Christina Jennings, flute, and Charles Wetherbee, violin

J.S. Bach/Philip Lasser: Erbarm’ Dich
J.S. Bach: Orchestral Suite No. 2 in B minor
Keyboard Concerto in D minor
Brandenburg Concerto No 5 in D major

Available from 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 14

Happy Holidays from the Phil
No tickets required; contributions welcomed
Available from 3 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 13

Zuill and Zwillich
Zuill Bailey, cello, with Michael Butterman and Jennifer Hayghe, piano

Rachmaninoff: Vocalise  for cello and piano
Ellen Taaffe Zwillich: Cello Concerto (chamber version)
Schubert: Piano Quintet in A major (“The Trout”)

Available 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 23

Mozart and Mendelssohn
Simone Dinnerstein, piano

Scott Joplin: “Solace” and “Bethena”
Mozart/Ignaz Lachner: Piano Concerto in C major, K467
Mendelssohn: Octet for Strings

Available from 7:30 Saturday, Feb. 13

A Celebration of Cello
Michael Butterman conductor, with Zuill Bailey, cello

Debussy/Schoenberg: Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun
Schumann/Philip Lasser: Cello Concerto in A minor
Paul Trapkus: Trio for Three Violins
Giovanni Sollima: Violencelles, Vibrez!
Wagner: Siegfried Idyll

Available 7:30 p.m. Saturday, March 13

The Soldier’s Tale
Michael Butterman, conductor 
CU Department of Theatre and Boulder Ballet

Stravinsky: L’Histoire du soldat (The soldier’s tale)

Available 7:30 p.m. Saturday, April 3

Beethoven 6 and Frequent Flyers
Michael Butterman, conductor
Frequent Flyers Aerial Dance

George Walker: Lyric for Strings
Korine Fujiwara: Suite from Claudel
Beethoven: Symphony No. 6 in F major (“Pastoral”; arr. for string sextet by M.G. Fischer)

Available 7:30 p.m. Saturday, April 24

Musicians in their Lairs III: Michael Butterman

Busier than ever, and figuring it all out as he goes

By Peter Alexander May 1 at 9:40 p.m.

“The biggest difference is that I’m not traveling,” says Michael Butterman, conductor of the Boulder Philharmonic.

Screen Shot 2020-04-17 at 2.15.23 PM

Michael Butterman, speaking by Zoom from his home office in Shreveport, La.

He is speaking from his home in Shreveport, La., where he is spending his time with his wife and daughter during the COVID-19 pandemic. During a normal year, the Shreveport Symphony, with the Boulder Phil, is one of three orchestras he leads. He is also conductor of the Pennsylvania Philharmonic, a regional orchestra that presents educational programs and concerts in central and southeastern Pennsylvania. When you add in guest conducting gigs, that creates a lot of travel.

“Typically about 10% of my time is spent performing and in rehearsals, and the other 90% is divided between administrative details, phone calls and emails,” Butterman says. “And studying scores, which I do at home. That’s what you do as a conductor, more than wave your arms around: look at dots on the page and try to figure out what they’re all about.”

When he first found himself at home full time, Butterman thought he would have lots of time for new musical projects. “When this first started, I thought, this is going to be a blessing in disguise,” he says.

“There’s so many scores that I haven’t cracked the code of yet, or things that are coming up that I want to get a jump on. And there’s all these other things, like practice piano—two hours a day even, which would be about 1 hour and 45 minute more than I had been doing for the past 10 years. All of that sounded like I could make good use of the time.”

The reality turned out differently, as all three orchestras had planning to do for the post-pandemic world. Since no one knows what to expect, or when, the planning had to encompass various scenarios. “I have found myself occupied with re-inventing what we do in these orchestras,” Butterman says.

“First dealing with the immediate fallout of all of this. How we’re going to re-budget for the rest of the season. Then there’ve been issues of how to reschedule next season, how many plan Bs and Cs and Ds do we need.”

The planning had to encompass several unknowns: when and under what conditions will they be able to invite people back into concert halls? Will there be a maximum occupancy imposed? And when will their audience be willing to gather in a full auditorium? Performing arts groups are grappling with those questions world-wide, the Boulder Phil as much as the Chicago Symphony or the Metropolitan Opera.

“More immediately, how can we continue to be a presence in our communities and in the lives of our patrons?” Butterman asks. The obvious answer is through the sharing of performances online, but most American orchestras were not well prepared for that possibility, both because of the lack of archival material in hand and because of union contracts that limit how electronic material can be shared.

“Most European orchestras were video recording all of their concerts, for archival purposes or for broadcast,” he explained. “But most American orchestras—no.”

The Boulder Phil has a few performances on video, and eventually those will be made available one way or another. And going forward, the possibility of streaming concerts is something that almost every orchestra and performer is thinking about. But it takes serious equipment for that to work above a very rudimentary level.

In the meantime, Butterman is doing what he can to keep the orchestras alive online. For all three he has already posted some combination of conversation and performance. You can see these posts for the Boulder Phil, Shreveport Symphony and the Pennsylvania Philharmonic online. Numerous posts are available on Butterman’s Youtube channel.

Negotiating this new world has taken more of Butterman’s time and energy than the familiar world of rehearsals and concerts. “I find myself busier now than I was before,” he says. “I knew how to do everything before. I knew how to study scores, I know how to plan rehearsals, I knew where to be at what time. And now we’re just figuring it out.”

Like everyone else these days, he is facing new tasks at home, too. “I do a lot more laundry than I ever did before,” he says, laughing. “Taking more walks, riding my bike—that’s all good.”

His daughter is in high school, so he does not find himself facing the homeschooling challenges that parents of younger children do. “I don’t think in some ways my role has changed much,” he says. “In fact, in many of the classes she’s studying now I’m not going to be much help, other than I’m a decent proofreader of English sentences.”

He and his wife, violinist Jennifer Carsillo, have already posted one performance on Youtube, and he hopes to post more performances. Making music is important for him.

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Michael Butterman and violinist Jennifer Carsillo, performing on Youtube from their home in Shreveport, La. 

“I really do hope to play more piano, because it allows me to create,” he says. “I’m never able to produce sound as a conductor, but at least I’m around sound that I have some influence over. But now nothing. So I have to get back to pressing keys and making sound myself. There is joy in that, of course, and that will make me a better musician the more I do “

The current crisis has led Butterman, like many musicians around the world, to think about the place of music in our culture, both in the current situation and beyond. “To put it bluntly, does it matter that we’re not able to get together and play a Beethoven symphony right now?” he asks.

“I think it does to some extent, but I also understand the larger context in which all of this is taking place.”

Boulder Phil announces 2020–21 Season

High drama from Hollywood to Peter Schaefer’s Amadeus to Wagner’s Ring Cycle

By Peter Alexander March 9 at  3 p.m.

The Boulder Philharmonic’s recently announced 2020–21 season will feature a full production of Peter Schaeffer’s Tony-winning play Amadeus, with live actors and orchestra; the return to Boulder of popular soloists Rachel Barton Pine (violin) and Jake Shimabukuro (ukulele); and two new works that were co-commissioned by the Boulder Phil.

Boulder Philharmonic in Macky

Boulder Philharmonic

Other highlights of the season will include concert music by Hollywood composers, an orchestral compilation of the most popular music from Richard Wagner’s epic four-opera cycle, The Ring of the Nibelungen, and a quirky 10-minute mashup of all nine Beethoven symphonies by Dutch composer Louis Andriessen.

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Charlie Chaplin in “Modern Times”

The orchestra’s 63rd season opens Oct. 3 with “From Vienna to Hollywood,” a concert featuring music by Charlie Chaplin, written for the film Modern Times; a violin concerto by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, a transplanted Austrian composer of film and concert music who lived in United States in the 1930, ‘40s and ‘50s, performed by violinist Philippe Quint; and Brahms’s First Symphony.

The remainder of the season comprises five further main season concerts, including the live performance of Amadeus Jan. 23, 2021, plus the annual performances of Nutcracker with Boulder Ballet Nov. 27 and 29, and “Jake Shimabukuro & the Boulder Phil” Feb. 6. (See the full listing of concerts and dates, below.)

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Rachel Barton Pine

The first of the two co-commissions will be performed Feb. 3, as part of a program titled “Ravishing Rachmaninoff.” Rachel Barton Pine, who was last in Boulder in 2014, will play the new Violin Concerto written for her by jazz pianist/arranger Billy Childs, which was commissioned by a number of orchestras around the country. The concerto is one of several projects Pine has undertaken to amplify African-American voices in classical music.

The season’s other new piece, Drew Hemenger’s Ozymandias, was initiated by the Boulder Phil and commissioned together with the Rogue Valley Symphony of Ashland, Medford and Grants Pass, Ore. A musical response to climate change, Ozymandias will feature tenor Matthew Plenk, faculty member at the University of Denver, and the University of Colorado Festival Chorus.

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Scenic design from the 1876 first performance of Wagner’s Ring Cycle

Ozymandias will be part of a program titled “Epic Tales,” although it might as well have been titled “Downfalls.” In addition to Hemenger’s score about climate change, the concert will include two other works that illustrate tales about bad choices that lead to bad results: Richard Strauss’ epic tone poem Don Juan, whose protagonist ends up in hell; and a 45-minute compilation of orchestral highlights from Wagner’s Ring Cycle, which ends with Brunnhilde’s fiery immolation and the collapse of Valhalla.

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Michael Butterman

The selection includes the most popular excerpts from Wagner’s four-opera cycle, presented in order: “The Entry of the Gods into Valhalla,” “The Ride of the Valkyries,” “Magic Fire Music,” “Forest Murmurs,” “Siegfried’s Rhine Journey” and “Brunnhilde’s Immolation Scene.” “It runs about 45 minutes, so we’ve cut out about 14 hours,” writes Boulder Phil music director Michael Butterman by email.

“Come to think of it, “ he adds, “We’re doing a lot of distilling this season: Mozart’s life in one evening, all of The Ring Cycle in 45 minutes; and Beethoven’s Nine Symphonies in 10 minutes.”

The “Season Finale” will take place May 2, 2021, with Andriessen’s 10-minute mashup of all nine Beethoven symphonies, The Nine Symphonies of Beethoven; Beethoven’s full, unexpurgated Third Symphony, the “Eroica”; and new Takacs Quartet member Richard O’Neill playing William Walton’s Viola Concerto.

Richard O'Neill Music Stand

Violist Richard O’Neill

“Our goal is to create programs and experiences that resonate with the artistic and intellectual pulse of our audience,” Butterman writes. “A work about our changing planet, a hybrid concert-play, a quirky condensation of Beethoven’s symphonies in 10 minutes—these are experiences that I believe Boulderites will enjoy.”

Additional events in the 2020-2021 season include concerts at Boulder Public Library, “Events of Note” featuring guest artists in intimate venues, pre-concert talks with Butterman, the #nophilter Happy Hour series with a string quartet of Boulder Phil musicians playing pop, rock, and metal, and the continuation of the “Nature & Music” guided hikes with Boulder Open Space & Mountain Parks naturalist Dave Sutherland.

Subscription packages are now available,. For more information, call 303-449-1343 or click here. Single tickets will go on sale June 1.

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Boulder Philharmonic: 2020–21 Season
(All performances in Macky Auditorium unless otherwise indicated)

B.Phil

“From Vienna to Hollywood”
7:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 3
2 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 4, Pinnacle PAC
Michael Butterman, conductor
Philippe Quint, violin

Charlie Chaplin: “Smile” from the film Modern Times
Erich Wolfgang Korngold: Violin Concerto
Brahms: Symphony No. 1 in C Minor, pp. 68

“Royal Fireworks!”
2 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 8, Pinnacle PAC
7 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 8 (note early start time)
Michael Butterman, conductor

Francis Poulenc: Suite française
Kurt Weill: Suite from The Threepenny Opera
Gounod: Petite Symphonie
Handel: Music for the Royal Fireworks

Tchaikovsky: The Nutcracker
With Boulder Ballet
Gary Lewis, conductor
2 & 7 p.m. Friday, Nov. 27
2 p. m Sunday, Nov. 29

Amadeus by Peter Schafer
With CU Department of Theater and Dance, Boulder Chamber Chorale
Michael Butterman, conductor
Bud Coleman, Director
7:30 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 23

Jake Shimabukuro & the Boulder Phil
7:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 6
Program TBA

“Ravishing Rachmaninoff”
7:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 13
Michael Butterman, conductor
Rachel Barton Pine, violin

Sergei Rachmaninoff: Vocalise
Billy Childs: Concerto for Violin and Orchestra
Rachmaninoff: Symphony No. 2 in E Minor, op. 27

“Epic Tales: Music to Honor the Earth”
7:30 p.m. Saturday, March 20
Michael Butterman, conductor
Matthew Plenk, tenor, and the CU Festival Chorus

Richard Strauss: Don Juan
Drew Hemenger: Ozymandias: To Sell a Planet
Richard Wagner: The Symphonic Ring

“Season Finale: Eroica”
7 p.m. Sunday, May 2 (note early start time)
Michael Butterman, conductor
Richard O’Neill, viola

Louis Andriessen: The Nine Symphonies of Beethoven
William Walton: Viola Concerto
Beethoven: Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Major (“Eroica”)

Boulder Phil guest pianist/composer López-Gavilán elicits cheers and applause

Butterman flavors an intriguing program with fiery expression

By Peter Alexander Nov. 4 at 12:15 a.m.

Last night (Nov. 3), conductor Michael Butterman and the Boulder Philharmonic brought their audience a remarkable piece of music that is likely unlike anything they had heard before.

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Aldo López-Gavilán

The piece in question is Emporium: Concerto for Piano and Orchestra by the Cuban composer/pianist Aldo López-Gavilán. Butterman first heard Emporium on the radio and was captivated. His description of the piece as having bits and pieces of Philip Glass, Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” Prokofiev, and the Downton Abbey theme music, among other things, is both intriguing and apt.

As the title suggests, Emporium contains many things, all presented with a Cuban accent. With so much going on, it expands most listeners’ understanding of what a piano concerto might sound like. Last night it was performed by Phil with the composer as the engaging soloist.

The opening movement is dramatic and powerfully scored for both orchestra and piano. At one point I was thinking, ‘are we supposed to hear the piano?’ As the music built to a crashing climax, López-Gavilán, for all his obvious strength as a pianist, disappeared into the overall sound, only to emerge again as the music subsided toward a gentle close.

The impressionistic second movement blends, according to the composer’s notes, a Cuban revolutionary song with American country music as a symbol of peace between peoples. It is a beautiful, impressionistic movement and was beautifully played with lyrical exchanges between pianist and orchestra. The driven, exciting finale got an incisive performance from orchestra and soloist, and elicited raucous approval.

López-Gavilán is an exciting and energetic performer of stunning technical ability, and he is a composer of imagination. He returned to hold the audience spellbound with an astonishing, dense, intricately rhythmic encore that again was unlike anything you are I have likely heard. More cheers, whistles and shouts followed.

The concert opened with Ryan Alaniz, a 9-year-old 4th-grader, delighting the audience as guest conductor while the orchestra played “America the Beautiful.” The audience was invited to sing along, but no one in my section took up the invitation.

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Michael Butterman

Next was Astor Piazzolla’s Tangazo, a piece that Butterman likes to perform. It is one of the few pieces he has repeated with the Phil, but this time there was a twist: dancers Gustavo Naveira and Giselle Anne of the Boulder Tango Studio performed their own choreography in the narrow space between the orchestra and the edge of the stage.

Their performance was a free dance that responded to the changing moods and tempos of Piazzolla’s music. Like the score, the dance had tango elements throughout. I am not a dance critic, and I am not going to prove it by writing more, except that it was fun to see how artists from another medium responded to Piazzolla’s music. I and the rest of the audience enjoyed their dramatic flair.

After intermission, the orchestra performed Argentinian composer Alberto Ginastera’s Variaciones Concertantes. With each variation devoted to specific solo instruments, it gives the orchestra’s section leaders an opportunity to display their virtuoso skills.

From the opening soulful theme presented by harp and solo cello, through the sequence of variations for woodwinds, strings and brass soloists, the players responded to the challenge. Every solo dazzled. The final variation for full orchestra, set in the style of the high-voltage gaucho dance the malambo, was particularly dynamic.

The concert concluded with Ravel’s ubiquitous Bolèro. Everyone has heard this, in concert, in films and TV, in ice-skating competitions, and almost anywhere else music is used. The Phil’s performance provided what it is called for: a long, slow, carefully controlled crescendo, from the whisper of snare drum at the beginning until the sudden key change that is now so familiar it no longer surprises. Butterman and the players paced the performance nicely, never letting tempo or volume get out of control.

After the appropriately noisy conclusion, Butterman brought forward the snare drummer—who was stationed center stage throughout—for his own bow. After alternating two variations of the same one-measure rhythmic pattern for 15 minutes (or 16 or 17 depending on tempo), he deserved to be applauded.

The Boulder Philharmonic sounded as good last night as I have heard. The strings sound was smooth and warm and at times glossy. The winds played with precision and all the necessary flair in their solos. Butterman brought out the colors and the fiery expression of this intriguing program, which made for a fascinating and enjoyable evening.

CORRECTED Nov. 4 to add the name of the guest conductor, Ryan Alaniz.

‘Bamboozling’ piece anchors Boulder Phil concert

Cuban composer Aldo López-Gavilán performs his ‘Emporium’

By Peter Alexander Oct. 31 at 3:15 p.m.

Michael Butterman, conductor of the Boulder Philharmonic, was sitting in his driveway, thinking “What on earth is going on?”

“It was just an amazing mix,” he says of the music he was hearing on American Public Media’s radio program Performance Today. “I was trying to guess what it was. Whatever it was, it was exciting and intriguing.”

Lopez Gavilan

Aldo Lopez-Gavilán

It turned out to be Emporium for piano and orchestra by Cuban pianist/composer Aldo López-Gavilán, and Butterman decided he wanted to perform the piece with the composer on the Boulder Phil’s season.

The title gave Butterman the key to the wildly eclectic style of the piece. “When they said that the title was Emporium,” he says, “I thought, OK, it’s a cornucopia. It has influences from every possible genre and place that I could imagine.”

The title also suggested to Butterman that one could play almost anything with it, but he settled on music that had a stylistic relationship to López-Gavilán’s Latin American roots: Tangazo by Astor Piazzolla, the Variaciones Concertantes by Alberto Ginastera and Ravel’s Boléro.

Read more in Boulder Weekly.

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“Latin Fire and Boléro”
Boulder Philharmonic, Michael Butterman, conductor
With Aldo Lopez-Gavilán, pianist/composer
Gustavo Naveira and Giselle Anne, tango dancers

Astor Piazzolla: Tangazo
Lopez-Gavilán: Emporium for piano and orchestra
Alberto Ginastera: Variaciones concertantes
Ravel: Boléro

7 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 3 [PLEASE NOTE: SUNDAY AT 7, not Saturday]
Macky Auditorium
Tickets

 

Unexpected and unfamiliar

Boulder Phil opens with music by Rock & Roll Hall of Famers

By Peter Alexander

The Boulder Philharmonic Orchestra somewhat unexpectedly opens its 2019-20 season Saturday, Oct. 12, with music by two members of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead and Jon Lord of Deep Purple.

Michael Butterman conducts the Boulder Phil - Glenn Ross Photo

Michael Butterman with the Boulder Phil. Photo by Glenn Ross.

Or maybe it’s not unexpected. “That sense of experimentation, of providing something offbeat — that is part of our identity,” Boulder Phil music director Michael Butterman says. “This program adheres to the approach that we’ve taken of presenting well-known works from the classical canon along with pieces likely to be a surprise.”

The work from the classical canon in this case is Schubert’s Fifth Symphony. Written when the composer was only 19, it is a lively and pleasant work that reflects Schubert’s admiration for Mozart.

In other words, it is worlds away from the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

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Flutist Elizabeth Sadilek-Labenski

The program is titled “Gritty/Pretty,” of which the gritty part is the suite from Greenwood’s score for the brutal film epic There Will Be Blood. “I didn’t come up with the [“Gritty/Pretty” title], Butterman says. “That’s marketing, but I kind of like it. I think it’s appropriate.”

If Greenwood is gritty, Lord’s suite for flute, strings and piano, To Notice Such Things, is pretty. The suite comprises six movements that range from sweetly lyrical to fast and virtuosic in the flute part, which will be played by the Boulder Phil’s principal flutist, Elizabeth Sadilek-Labenski.

Read more in Boulder Weekly.

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“Gritty/Pretty”
B.Phil logoBoulder Philharmonic Orchestra, Michael Butterman, director
With Elizabeth Sadilek-Labenski, flute

Johnny Greenwood: Suite from There Will Be Blood
Jon Lord: To Notice Such Things, Suite for flute, piano and strings
Schubert: Symphony No. 5 in B-flat major

7:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 12, Macky Auditorium

Tickets