Boulder Philharmonic brings “Music of Resistance” to Macky

Pieces by Benjamin Britten, Beethoven and Shostakovich

By Peter Alexander

The Boulder Philharmonic calls their next concert “Music of Resistance,” but it might more accurately be called “Music of Conscience.”

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Boulder Philharmonic

The concert, at 7:30 p.m. Saturday (Oct. 14) in Macky Auditorium, features three pieces, each of which expresses a message of conscience from the composer—two of them explicit, one more murky and controversial. Music director Michael Butterman will conduct.

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Tenor Matthew Plenk

The first piece will be Benjamin Britten’s Ballad of Heroes for tenor, chorus and orchestra, composed in 1939 for a “Festival of Music for the People” held in London. A setting of poetry by W.H. Auden and Randall Swingler, it is a response to the Spanish Civil War. The overtly political text roundly condemns the “numberless Englishmen” who have forgotten those who “fight for peace, for liberty, for you.” Matthew Plenk, a faculty member at the University of Denver’s Lamont School of Music, will be the tenor soloist.

The second is Beethoven’s Fantasy for Piano, Vocal Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra, composed in 1808 for a massive concert that included the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, the Fourth Piano Concerto, two movements from the Mass in C major. The Fantasy was hurriedly composed as a concert-ending piece that would bring all of the performers together.

The text, suggested by Beethoven and written mostly by the poet Christoph Kuffner, expresses the composer’s idealistic conviction that music can bestow “outer peace and inner bliss,” and the blessings of the gods upon mankind. CU music professor David Korevaar will be the soloist.

The final and more controversial piece is Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5, composed in 1937. The score was written after the composer was sharply criticized and threatened under orders from Stalin. Shostakovich stated that the subsequent symphony was “a Soviet artist’s creative response to justified criticism,” and it ends with a march that expresses either the triumph of the Soviet state, or its brutality, depending on the interpretation.

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Michael Butterman

“There are different views of this,” Butterman says. “Certainly one of the more prevalent is the notion that Shostakovich was more or less pinned against the wall and told, ‘it would be a shame if anything happened to your career.’ So the question is, did he just say, ‘You want something that’s life-affirming? I can do that.’ Or was it a veiled protest?

“There is a way that rings in the Shostakovich that could be interpreted as compelled, or rejoicing that is done for show. Of course I don’t know, but I tend to think it’s that.”

The other two works are unfamiliar, but both can be seen as early, small-scale versions of larger and more familiar works written later in the composer’s career. Britten’s Ballad of Heroes shares many traits with the composer’s War Requiem, written in 1962, including the textual contrast between the quiet British homefront and the horror of war, brass fanfares, and Britten’s characteristic style of vocal writing for the soloist.

Similarly, Beethoven’s Fantasy sounds very much like the Ninth Symphony written 16 years later. The regular phrasing and simple outline of the theme, the combination of chorus, soloists and orchestra, and the use of variations leading to a triumphant close inevitably remind listeners of the symphony’s famous finale.

In spite of being unfamiliar, both works are “worth hearing and also interesting because of their better known analogs,” Butterman says. “You get some insight into the world views and the frames of mind of these two (composers), through the text and the quality of the music carrying the text.”

The Britten was suggested to Butterman by an orchestra member. He didn’t know the score, but once he listened, he said, “I thought it was really effective.

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Benjamin Britten

“It’s fascinating because Britten was a pacifist, and yet this piece is celebrating those who went off in the International Brigade to fight in the Spanish civil, against fascism. He’s saying, If you believe in something, you’ve got to stand up for it.”

Plenk had not heard the piece before, either. As in much of Britten’s music, he says, “there’s a somewhat instrumental character to the way he writes for tenor.”

As for the political content of the text, “any time you’re performing, you’re trying to express what the composer intended, whether it’s political or not,” he says. “I’d urge people to let the text lead them (in how they listen to the music). I would say that with any music, but this was written for a specific purpose, to memorialize the fallen soldiers from the International Brigade of the Spanish Civil War.”

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David Korevaar

Korevaar relishes the opportunity to play Beethoven’s Fantasy. “One of the reasons we play it is because it has this wonderful sense of uplift,” he says. “It starts in C minor, a key that Beethoven uses for drama and tragedy. And C major (where it ends) is a key of joy and light. And so there is an aspect of a ritual experience” when you hear it.

One thing Korevaar particularly enjoys is the way “the piano is given a sort of Promethean role,” he says. “When I play this piece I have the feeling of having magical powers.

“The piano begins alone, and then we add the instruments one at a time. It’s like you’re giving life to all these figures, and then once the orchestra and the piano have had their say, what more can you do? Then you conjure up human voices, first solos and then a chorus!

“It’s really marvelous.”

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Music of Resistance
Boulder Philharmonic Orchestra, Michael Butterman, conductor
Matthew Plenk, tenor, and David Korevaar, piano
CU Boulder and Western Illinois University choirs
7:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 14, Macky Auditorium

Tickets

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Boulder Phil opens their season with an outstanding soloist, great works

Pianist Jon Nakamatsu weds technique and expression for Schumann’s Concerto

By Peter Alexander

Last night (Sept. 24) conductor Michael Butterman and the Boulder Philharmonic opened their 2017–18 season with “The Boulder Phil at 60,” a successful and well balanced program that featured an outstanding soloist, two great works, and a (relatively) new piece that that was co-commissioned with 47 other orchestras around the country.

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Boulder Philharmonic Orchestra

The performance was introduced by Boulder City Council Member Jan Burton reading from a proclamation declaring Boulder Philharmonic Day, congratulating the orchestra for realizing its mission to reflect the Boulder community as well as for its longevity. While the program did not have the Boulder-centric focus of the recent seasons, it was received with enthusiasm.

The concert opened with Dreamtime Ancestors by Christopher Theofanidis. Commissioned by a consortium of orchestras in 48 of the 50 states, including the Boulder Phil for Colorado, it has been played around the country starting with its world premiere in 2015, and has now made its way to Boulder.

Dreamtime Ancestors was supposedly inspired by, and has titles reflecting, Australian Aboriginal spiritual beliefs, but you would be hard pressed to discern that in the music. The highly characteristic and mystical Aboriginal beliefs are reflected in only the most general way; about the best you can say is that Theofanidis tastefully avoids any patronizing faux-exoticism in the music.

Instead, the score is composed in a more-or-less contemporary Western orchestral style, with a discernable profile and structure that makes the music easily accessible. Avoiding any bold gestures, the music holds nothing that would disconcert a contemporary classical-music audience. Played with warmth and firm musicality by the Boulder Philharmonic, it made an unchallenging but agreeable opening for the concert.

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Pianist Jon Nakamatsu

The first of the two great works was Schumann’s familiar Piano Concerto in A minor, played by soloist Jon Nakamatsu. The pianist’s sure technique was used in service of a deeply expressive performance that clearly moved the audience. In a work of many moods, his interpretation was striking for its use of gentle lyricism in the quiet, reflective moments to contrast with the more robust portions of the concerto.

This was especially effective in the slower middle movement, which was played with great beauty and tenderness. In the first movement, however, I found the style of the quieter moments overdrawn. Nakamatsu’s lyricism was lovely, but the tempo sometimes slowed so much that these quieter passages seemed to interrupt the overall momentum and continuity of the movement.

The contrasting moods were better matched in the finale, which danced along convincingly as Nakamatsu met every expressive demand. Butterman and the orchestra provided secure support for his interpretation. A standing ovation from a nearly-full Macky Auditorium brought Nakamatsu back onstage for a lovely and touching encore performance of Chopin’s Fantasie-Impromptu.

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Michael Butterman

The orchestra came into its own for the other great work, forming the full second half of the concert: Dvořák’s Symphony No. 7 in D minor. Sometimes celebrated as the composer’s greatest symphony, the Seventh is less known, and notably more somber than either the cheerful. folkish Eighth Symphony or the ever-popular Ninth Symphony, famously composed in the New World.

This symphony is a challenge for both conductor and orchestra, requiring stylistic commitment and perception, as well as musical precision and control. Butterman and the Phil met the challenges head on, with a strong conception of the work. The very beginning was a little ragged in pitch and rhythm—a reflection of the musicians having been apart for the summer?—and the orchestral sound was not initially consistent, lacking a solid core.

Happily, the players soon settled in and the performance grew stronger and stronger. Individual moments were musically expressive throughout, and the first movement ended forcefully. The second movement was stylish and well paced. The third movement, titled only “Scherzo,” has an obvious folk-dance quality throughout, a feeling that was well captured by Butterman and the Phil.

The stormy finale was the best movement, with well controlled pacing that reflected the composer’s calculated withholding of a major-key resolution until the very last measures. Individual players shone in their solo passages, including one of the best propulsive punches for a timpanist to be found anywhere in the orchestral world. Once again the audience stood, celebrating Boulder’s fine orchestra, its remarkable 60-year history, and the successful start of a new season.

Takács Quartet and Boulder Phil deliver a classical double-header

The missing composer in both concerts? Beethoven.

By Peter Alexander

Takasc String Quartet

Takacs Quartet. Photo by Keith Saunders.

Boulder will see a classical-music double-header Sunday, Sept. 24 as the Takács Quartet and the Boulder Philharmonic both open their seasons the same day.

The Takács goes first, at 4 p.m. in Grusin Music Hall on the CU campus with a program of Haydn, Mendelssohn and Brahms. And at 7 p.m. in Macky Auditorium, the Boulder Phil will open their 60th anniversary season with the music of Dvorák, Schumann and Christopher Theofanidis. The Takács will repeat their concert on Monday at 7:30 p.m.

That Takács program, and later programs during the year, are noticeably missing one composer. There are classical works during the fall (Haydn, Mozart), Romantic works (Mendelssohn, Brahms), and one new piece (Carl Vine). But there is no Beethoven.

That’s because the Takács played the full cycle of Beethoven quartets several times last year, and they decided enough was enough. “We’re definitely taking a breather from Beethoven this year,” the quartet’s first violinist, Edward Dusinberre, says.

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Jon Nakamatsu

Music director Michael Butterman and the Boulder Philharmonic will open their 60th season with a work co-commissioned with orchestras in all 50 states, Dreamtime Ancestors by Christopher Theofanidis. Other works on the program are Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A minor with pianist Jon Nakamatsu, and Dvorák’s Symphony No 7. in D minor.

Nakamatsu is looking forward to playing the Schumann Concerto, even though he has played it many times before. “People say if it’s really familiar to the audience, it’s more difficult to play because everyone has an opinion,” he says. “But I find if you don’t have to win people over with the piece, you just have to play. Playing something everyone loves already, you have happy people in the hall. That’s a good place to start.”

Read more in Boulder Weekly.

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Takacs Quartet
Haydn, Mendelssohn and Brahms
4 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 24 (sold out)
7:30 p.m. Monday, Sept. 25
Grusin Music Hall

Tickets

Boulder Philharmonic, Michael Butterman, conductor
Jon Nakamatsu, piano
“Boulder Phil at 60”
7 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 24
Macky Auditorium

Tickets

 

Boulder Phil ends remarkable season with a remarkable concert

CU faculty Charles Wetherbee and Nicolò Spera featured in world premiere

By Peter Alexander

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Michael Butterman and the Boulder Philharmonic

Last night the Boulder Philharmonic and conductor Michael Butterman ended a remarkable season with a remarkable concert, one of the most interesting they have done.

The mostly-Italian program included one of the most brilliant orchestral showpieces of all time, a world premiere, and several pieces that are rarely played. If you love making new discoveries, as I do,  this was a fun program.

First the world premiere—and the one non-Italian piece on the program: Invisible Cities, Double Concerto for violin, guitar strings and percussion by Stephen Goss. The composer is Welsh, although the concerto is based on the fascinating novel of the same title by the 20th-century Italian writer Italo Calvino. Soloists were Charles Wetherbee, violin and Nicolò Spera, guitar.

The novel imagines a series of conversations between Marco Polo and the Mongol Emperor Kublai Khan. In an intricate design, the novel has Polo describe 55 cities to the Emperor, all of which turn out to be facets of Venice, his home. Dispersed among the cities are a series of conversations, in which Polo and Kublai Khan are gradually able to communicate more clearly across their linguistic and cultural barriers.

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Stephen Goss

In a similarly intricate design, the concerto alternates between orchestrally accompanied movements representing cities and duos without orchestra representing the conversations. Particularly ingenious are the duos, which represent musically the growing accord between Polo and the Emperor through music of growing lyrical beauty.

The musical design is clever but not cryptic, and it is executed without ever seeming forced. The piece as a whole is accessible, expressively convincing and well constructed. This is a work of significance that should be taken up by other guitar-violin duos.

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Charles Wetherbee

The style is largely based in conventional gestures of contemporary orchestral music. If not original, the musical elements are used to good effect, as listeners can recognize and enter the expressive realm of each movement. Where the music is more imaginative, as in the interaction between the soloists, the creativity is never originality for originality’s sake; it always serves the expressive goals.

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Niccolò Spera

The soloists played with sweet expression together, and with greater intensity when required. Their sounds were well balanced, reflecting prior work together as a duo. At their best they rose to all the demands of Goss’s pleasing new work.

The two works preceding the concerto were undoubtedly new discoveries for most in the audience, and both were 20th-century pieces based on older music. The first was Stravinsky’s Monumentum pro Gesualdo, orchestral arrangements of uniquely strange and adventurous Renaissance madrigals by Carlo Gesualdo.

Stravinsky’s setting is strange in its own way, with discontinuous bits of harmonic and instrumental color shifting about the orchestra and managing to sound like both Gesualdo and Stravinsky. This score, nicely played last night, fits the Boulder Philharmonic and its outstanding individual players well.

That was followed by Luciano Berio’s Four Original Versions of Boccherini’s Return of the Nightwatch from Madrid. Sometimes an enfant terrible of modern music, Berio also wrote highly approachable scores built from older music, of which this is one.

Four different versions of a movement by the 18th-century Italian composer Boccherini are arranged for modern orchestra and layered on top of one another. At times they match perfectly, but at other times they do not, creating delicious and unexpected dissonances that pass quickly.

Depicting the approach and departure of the Nightwatch, the score culminates in a rousing setting of the tune, and then dissipates into silence. It was played with verve, as once again the individual contributions of the players fit well into the orchestral mosaic.

After intermission, Butterman and the orchestra gave an invigorating reading of Verdi’s Overture to Nabucco, with all the turns of mood well traversed and quite a bit of excitement for the explosive ending. Puccini’s Chrysanthemums, an ingratiating minor work, was played with expression, if not the plush, ermine-fringed sound one would like to hear.

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Ottorino Respighi

The concert ended with a sure bet, Respighi’s Pines of Rome, a piece guaranteed to rouse the audience from their seats. In the hands of the Boulder Phil, Respighi’s orchestra worked its magic: it shone when it should shine and sparkled when it should sparkle, the sudden contrasts were contrasting and the abrupt changes of scene were well delineated.

The winds deserve special recognition, from the brass flourishes in “The Pines of the Villa Borghese,” to the delicate woodwind solos of “The Pines of the Janiculum,” to the massive fanfares of “The Pines of the Appian Way.” Once again the Roman Legions advanced, a brass choir sounded from the balcony—although how effectively depended on where you were sitting—and Respighi brought the crowd to its feet.

You could not have a more rousing ending for a season.

Boulder Phil in D.C., episode II

“A great sense of pride in representing our hometown”—Michael Butterman

By Peter Alexander

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Boulder Philharmonic warming up on the Kennedy Center stage (March 28)

Michael Butterman, music director of the Boulder Philharmonic, reported his thoughts late last night (March 28), after the orchestra’s concert in the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C, where they were playing as part of the inaugural Shift Festival of American Orchestras.

“It was a peak experience for me, and, I think, for all of us at the Phil,” he wrote. “I have conducted quite a number of concerts on that stage, but to be there with our orchestra, with that crowd and with that repertoire—it was something I shall never forget.

“More than anything, we had a great sense of pride in representing our hometown.  The audience seemed to absolutely love every piece, and got a real taste of how deeply we value the natural world.”

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Michael Butterman (r) performs in front of the Jefferson Memorial with violinist Jennifer Carsillo (l) (March 29)

Butterman and others who attended the concert have reported that the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, with a capacity of 2,155, was full last night, and that the audience response was more than enthusiastic. “There was incredible energy from the crowd,” Butterman wrote.

“It felt like a pep rally. The orchestra sounded like a million bucks—they were in top form and clearly gave it their all in terms of concentration and focus.”

In a Facebook posting, Boulder Phil executive director Kevin Shuck wrote, “No words. Boulder Phil and [Boulder’s] Frequent Flyers bring down the (PACKED) house at the Kennedy Center!”

Today (March 29), small ensembles from the Boulder Phil performed “pop-up concerts” at various locations around Washington’s Tidal Basin.

On Monday (March 27), Boulder Open Spaces and Mountain Parks naturalist Dave Sutherland led guided musical hikes in Rock Creek Park, similar to the musical hikes he has presented in connection with Boulder Phil concerts in recent seasons.

 

Boulder Phil at the Kennedy Center

“An amazing evening”—Holly Hickman

By Peter Alexander

The Boulder Philharmonic Orchestra played tonight (March 28) in the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C, as part of the very first Shift Festival of American Orchestras.

The program was the same one they played in Boulder March 25.

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Shift Festival banner in Washington, D.C.

“It was really an amazing evening,” reports Holly Hickman, a longtime arts supporter in Boulder who accompanied the orchestra on their trip to D.C. Hickman is the founder of Up Tempo Marketing, specializing in “spirited marketing for music organizations,” and serves as marketing consultant to the Boulder Phil.

She sent several pictures of the evening.

“The audience loved the concert,” she wrote after the performance. “The orchestra sounded great. We came across as a high-energy, non-stuffy orchestra.”

Further reports from composer Stephen Lias and others with the Boulder Philharmonic will appear here as soon as I hear from them.

“Nature and Music”: one of Boulder Phil’s best performances

Green bandanas waving, the orchestra departs for Washington, D.C.

By Peter Alexander

The concert opened with the swirling, magical sounds of a new score from Stephen Lias, and ended with the players waving green bandanas in the air.

Last night (March 25), the Boulder Philharmonic and conductor Michael Butterman presented “Nature and Music,” the same program they will perform Tuesday, March 28, in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall in the nation’s capital as part of the first Shift Festival for American Orchestras.

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Michael Butterman and the Boulder Philharmonic

The Boulder Phil is one of only four orchestras invited to the festival, and the only regional orchestra. As reported earlier in Boulder Weekly, their application to the festival, based on the orchestra’s programming, community outreach, and collaborative performances, was considered by the festival panel to be the “gold standard” of what they were looking for.

To represent the Boulder Phil’s recent emphasis on music written to celebrate nature, their program for the festival featured a new orchestral score commissioned from Lias as part of the National Endowment of the Arts’ “Imagine Your Parks” initiative, celebrating the 2016 centennial of the National Parks Service. Titled All the Songs that Nature Sings, it was inspired by Rocky Mountain National Park.

Other works on the program were drawn from previous concert programs: Jeff Midkiff’s Mandolin Concerto, with Midkiff as soloist; Ghosts of the Grassland by Steve Heitzig; and Copland’s Appalachian Spring, performed with choreography by Boulder’s Frequent Flyers Aerial Dance company.

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Stephen Lias in Rocky Mountain National Park

Lias took his title from the writings of Enos Mills, “The Father of Rocky Mountain National Park.” Accompanied by slides of the park selected by Lias, the music suggests a cinematic view of the park’s high country, starting with streams and lakes, culminating with rocky crags and ridges, and ending with mountain wildflowers.

Lias has written a thoroughly engaging piece. The almost impressionistic haze of sound of the opening measures pulls the listener into a world of nature at its most lovely and benign. As the music swells, lyrical melodies and powerful chordal passages are enlivened by rippling lines and repeated chords, forming a musical metaphor for scenes in nature that are always in motion: water rippling, leaves fluttering, light flickering.

The score reaches a rugged climax with stark brass chords, accompanied by views of the park’s most impressive peaks. It then ends gently, with a tender violin solo that was ably played by the Phil’s concertmaster, Charles Wetherbee.

Butterman and the Boulder Phil had the music well under control from the beginning to the end. As played last night, the cinematic sweep of the score created a clear outline. This is a thoroughly successful piece that should find appreciative audiences wherever it is performed.

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Jeff Midkiff

Midkff’s Mandolin Concerto, subtitled From the Blue Ridge, is a mix of classical idioms with folk and bluegrass, all of it sounding comfortably American. The lightening lines of the first movement do not have much to suggest music from the Blue Ridge Mountains, other than the folksy sound of the mandolin. The second movement recalls Copland ‘s Americana, filled with a nostalgic sweetness. The finale settles into a jazzy bluegrass groove that fits the mandolin and its natural idioms perfectly.

From the rapid fire opening, to the plaintive slow movement, to the down-home finale, Midkiff was on top of every mood, and his final virtuoso flourish brought the audience to their feet. He rewarded the cheering crowd with his own arrangement of “Monroe’s Hornpipe” by the great bluegrass mandolinist/songwriter Bill Monroe.

It does no dishonor to Heitzig’s Ghosts of the Grassland to say that it has the emotional immediacy of a good film score. It is easy to imagine the dramatic gestures and mood changes representing—what exactly? The dramatic weather of the American prairie, or a primordial scene of bison and prairie grass (both represented in the percussion section)?

But everyone has their own imagination. Once again the Boulder Phil conveyed the musical drama well, and piping squeals notwithstanding, I believe that no prairie dogs were harmed in the performance.

Originally written as a ballet, Copland’s Appalachian Spring is obviously suited to various forms of interpretation, of which Frequent Flyer’s aerial dance represents one of the more original. As realized by Nancy Smith, the choreography has some magical moments that are almost ritualistic in effect, especially the beginning and the end.

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Frequent Flyers with the Boulder Philharmonic

In between, the dancers, for all their impressive strength and grace, did not always avoid an element of spectacle. What they do is so obviously difficult, so unimaginable to most in the audience, that it becomes hard to translate admiration for the athleticism of the performance into appreciation for its artistry. Nonetheless, their Appalachian Spring is a remarkable achievement.

As impressive as Frequent Flyers were, it would be a mistake to overlook the orchestra. Clearly primed for the festival, they presented just about the finest standard work I have heard them perform. You may hear more splashy performances, but Butterman’s restrained approach is more in keeping with Copland’s original conception, and it brings out all of the score’s considerable tenderness.

This is a very attractive program, and one that fits the orchestra’s strengths. Word is that the Boulder Phil is outselling the other orchestras in the festival, and they stand to make a very solid impression.

As for the green bandanas: The Shift Festival sent bandanas to every orchestra—”because we like bandanas,” Butterman said, sounding bemused. And so as the audience stood and cheered its well wishes to the orchestra for their trip to Washington, the players stood and waved their bandanas in response.

Maybe that’s what they were for: I could not imagine a more cheerful bon voyage than 80 green bandanas waving from the Macky stage. I join all of Boulder in wishing them a safe trip and a great reception at the Shift Festival.

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Shift Festival of American Orchestras

Nature & Music
Boulder Philharmonic Orchestra, Michael Butterman, music director

All the Songs that Nature Sings by Stephen Lias (world premiere)
Mandolin Concerto, From the Blue Ridge by Jeff Midkiff
Jeff Midkiff, mandolin
Ghosts of the Grassland by Steve Heitzig
Appalachian Spring by Aaron Copland
With Frequent Flyers Aerial Dance
Nancy Smith, choreographer

Kennedy Ctr

John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Art, Washington, D.C.

8 p.m. Tuesday, March 28, Kennedy Center Concert Hall, Washington, D.C.
Tickets: 202-467-4600