Boulder Phil dedicates concert to the late violinist Chas Wetherbee

Performance will be Sunday at 4 p.m.

By Peter Alexander Jan. 19 at 9:25 p.m.

Chas Wetherbee, late concertmaster of the Boulder Philharmonic

The Boulder Philharmonic will dedicate its next performance to the memory of their late concertmaster, Charles “Chas” Wetherbee, who died Jan. 9.

The concert was to have featured Wetherbee as soloist, playing Mozart’s “Turkish” Violin Concerto. The program, which also includes Anton Bruckner’s Symphony No. 7, remains unchanged. Violinist Alex Gonzalez, who joined the CU College of Music faculty in August, will substitute for Wetherbee, both as soloist and as the orchestra’s concertmaster.

Titled “Afternoon with Bruckner,” the concert will be presented at 4 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 22, in Macky Auditorium. This is a change from the orchestra’s usual schedule of Saturday evening concerts. The Phil’s music director, Michael Butterman, will conduct.

Butterman had always wanted to feature Wetherbee for this concert. In looking for a piece to pair with the Bruckner, which alone takes 70 minutes, he thought the relatively short and cheerful Mozart Concerto would be suitable.

“Something about that combination (of Mozart and Bruckner) works,” he says. While not technically an overture, Butterman says he thinks of the concerto as “an aperitif” before the main course. “And a quick Google search revealed that I was not the first person to bring those (two composers) together,” he adds.

As both soloist and guest concertmaster, Gonzalez sees his role as honoring Wetherbee. “This concert is quite special, because I’m stepping in for Chas,” he says. “I want to honor him as much as I can.

Violinist Alex Gonzalez

“He was such a generous, open musician. Particularly In the Mozart I want to bring that feeling to the concerto, and bring the freshness and open-heartedness that I’m sure he would have brought. And the piece lends itself to that.”

Gonzalez says he will bring the same respect to his role as concertmaster. The music he has received has all of the bow markings that Wetherbee had planned for the Bruckner Symphony, which is a completely new piece for Gonzalez. Normally, as concertmaster he would make his own bow markings as he learned the music, but in this case he intends to keep Wetherbee’s choices.

“While I’m given permission (as concertmaster) to change what I need to, I’m hoping to facilitate more than to change much, just because of the circumstances of this performance,” he says. “I’m really interested in playing the concert as (Wetherbee) would have.”

While the Bruckner is new for Gonzalez, it’s not for Butterman. “It’s my favorite Bruckner symphony,” he says. “Most people tend to agree that this and maybe the Ninth are his best symphonies, if one can say such a thing.”

Like most of Bruckner’s music, the symphony moves at a leisurely pace that is different from the fast pace that characterizes our world today. “It’s a slow burn,” is how Butterman puts it. “It’s not for our short-attention-span world. It’s the perfect antidote for contemporary society. But if you can relax with it, it’s incredible rewarding.”

The first two movements are especially expansive and expressive. “I just love some of the glories of the first movement,” Butterman says. 

Michael Butterman. Photo by Jiah Kyun.

The second movement was written in homage to Richard Wagner, whom Brucker idolized and who died soon after the symphony was completed. Although not a literal funeral march—Wagner was still alive when it was written—Bruckner did intend it as a tribute and it has a definite elegiac quality.

One interesting feature is the inclusion of instruments known as “Wagner tubas”—a tenor instrument that Wagner commissioned for his Ring cycle of four music dramas to fill the gap in the brass section between French horns and trombones. Their inclusion may be another homage to Wagner’s music. The Phil borrowed instruments from the CU College of Music, since few people own Wagner tubas.

Several typical characteristics of Bruckner’s style are evident in the symphony. For one, it may be a sign of his training and career as an organist that the orchestra is often used in blocks, like changing stops on the organ. The music is often built from highly regular units of four or eight measures. This can be heard particularly in the third movement, a vigorous folk-dance, and the finale, a collection of energetic ideas that each seems to stand on its own. In contrast, the first two movements are much more expansive and flexible.

Because of their length and orchestral size, Bruckner symphonies have not often been heard in Boulder. “There were a number of reasons this was important to do,” Butterman says. “Not the least is that it’s a chance for the brass to play with a roundness and warmth, and more bloom to the sound.”

While playing a less familiar symphony provides challenges for the players, Butterman concedes that Bruckner poses him a challenge as well. “Just managing the rehearsal will be a challenge,” he says. “The first two movements are so long I have to be conscious of not getting too deep in the weeds and running out of time.

“That’s my challenge.”

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“Afternoon with Bruckner”
Dedicated to the memory of the orchestra’s late concertmaster, Charles Wetherbee
Boulder Philharmonic Orchestra, Michael Butterman, conductor
With Alex Gonzalez, violin

  • Mozart: Violin Concerto No. 5 in A major, K219 (“Turkish”)
  • Bruckner: Symphony No. 7 in E major

4 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 22
Macky Auditorium

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Charles (Chas) Wetherbee (July 14, 1966–Jan. 9, 2023)

Violinist, CU faculty member, father of three dies after battle with cancer

By Peter Alexander Jan. 11 at 12:45 p.m.

Some few special musicians go beyond the ability to reach listeners with their performances, and touch people with their generous and kind personalities. One of those was Charles (Chas) Wetherbee, concertmaster of the Boulder Philharmonic Orchestra, first violinist of the Carpe Diem String Quartet, and faculty member of the University of Colorado, Boulder, College of Music.

Wetherbee died Monday (Jan. 9) following a battle with cancer. He was 56.

Many tributes have been stated for Wetherbee, and a common theme has been going beyond his his great musical skills to recognize his human qualities. Korine Fujiwara, violist of the Carpe Diem Quartet, described him as “my best and most trusted friend . . . and a beautiful example of all that is good in the world.” Pianist David Korevaar, with whom Wetherbee collaborated on CU faculty concerts and other chamber music performances, wrote “You were a generous, open-hearted, wise, and patient friend. You were the best colleague anyone can have.”

Announcing that the next concert of the Boulder Philharmonic on Jan. 22 would be dedicated to Wetherbee’s memory, conductor Michael Butterman wrote that Wetherbee “brought out the best in everyone. . . . He radiated generosity, kindness and a selfless spirit that anyone in his presence could feel. The impact of his legacy is impossible to overstate.”

CU College of Music dean John Davis noted that “Chas brought a wealth of expertise and experience from his varied career as a soloist, chamber musician, orchestral concertmaster, teacher, coach and collaborator. . . . He was also a consummate mensch, widely known and loved for his kindness, enthusiasm, unwavering optimism and overall graciousness.”

A GoFundMe campaign that was started in December to support Wetherbee’s family has raised more than $200,000 from 1,200 donors, indicating both the breath and the depth of affection Wetherbee had in the local community of music lovers. Donations have ranged from $20 to $15,000.

Charles Tyler Wetherbee was born in Buffalo, New York, July 14, 1966. He made his debut with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra under Semyon Bychkov, and since then has performed with the National Symphony under Mstislav Rostropovitch, as well as the Japan Philharmonic, the Concerto Soloists of Philadelphia, the Philharmonic Orchestra of Bogota (Columbia), the National Repertory Orchestra, the Orquesta Sinfónica Nacional de Mexico, the Symphony Orchestra of the Curtis Institute, the Buffalo Philharmonic, and the Virginia Symphony, among others.

A devoted chamber musician, Wetherbee was first violinist of the Carpe Diem String Quartet and performed in recital with pianist David Korevaar of the CU College of Music faculty. Wetherbee’s first orchestral appointment was as principal second violin with the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C. Following five years at the NSO, he served as concertmaster of the Columbus Symphony for 16 years. He joined the faculty of the CU College of Music in 2012 and became concertmaster of the Boulder Philharmonic in 2014. He directed the Snake River Music Festival in Dillon, Colorado, for many years 

Wetherbee is survived by his wife, Karina, a professional photographer and writer, and their three children, Tristan, Sebastian and Tessa. After Wetherbee’s death, Karina wrote on the GoFundMe page, “Chas composed his final note last night. . . . I know now that his life’s work was a symphony, of the most grand and sweeping and lyrical beauty, and each note of that music was made up of all the millions of interactions he had with every person who entered his life.”

Boulder Phil features two living composers Saturday

Jennifer Higdon and Xavier Foley share concert program with Dvořák and Bottesini

By Peter Alexander Nov. 10 at 2:53 p.m.

The Boulder Philharmonic Orchestra will perform two new pieces born from the drama of American history on Saturday (7 p.m. Nov. 12 in Macky Auditorium; details below).

Boulder Philharmonic and Michael Butterman in Macky Auditorium

Both are by living composers: the orchestral Suite from Jennifer Higdon’s opera Cold Mountain, based on the popular Civil War novel by Charles Frazier; and For Justice and Peace, music by Xavier Foley written to mark the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first slaves in the United States. Other works on the program will be the Gran Duo Concertante for violin, double bass and orchestra by Giovanni Bottesini; and Dvořák’s Symphony No. 8 in G major.

Boulder Phil music director Michael Butterman will conduct the concert, which also features violinist Eunice Kim, Foley playing double bass, and a quartet of singers from the Boulder Philharmonic Chorus.

Jennifer Higdon

Higdon’s opera Cold Mountain had its premiere at the Santa Fe Opera in 2015. The opera was so popular that an additional performance was scheduled. Since then there have been performances in North Carolina and Minnesota, as well as Higdon’s home town of Philadelphia, where it sold out five performances in the 2,400-seat Academy of Music. 

The Boulder Philharmonic is one of 37 co-commissioners for the Suite from Cold Mountain, which has been performed several places since its premiere by the Delaware Symphony in September, with many more performances scheduled. “I’m looking forward to doing it,” Butterman says. “I’m sure (the suite) will allow (music from Cold Mountain) to be more widely heard than if it just all remained within the opera.”

When she returned to the opera score to create the suite, Higdon re-discovered her own music. “I had to really go back in,” she says. “It surprised me when I opened the score and started looking. I kept saying, ‘I can’t believe I wrote this!’

“I went through all the emotions of the characters, which is what I used to guide me in picking music for the suite. I took it from the viewpoint of what would be the most interesting progression of pieces, what would stand strongly on its own, and how to vary the music so it’s not always intense. I looked for the biggest variety, really contrasting quiet and loud, and agitated and dissonant and soft and melodic.”

Xavier Foley

You don’t need to read the book or know the story to enjoy the music. “That’s one of the things people have been asking me,” Higdon says. “The music is set up in a way to speak to you even if you don’t have a clue what this novel is about. It will stand on its own.”

A graduate of the Curtis Institute of Music, Foley has become known both as a virtuoso bass player and a composer. He won First Prize in the 2014 Sphinx Competition, a national award for young Black and Latinx string players, and the 2016 Young Concert Artists Auditions. As a player, Butterman says, “his virtuosity is amazing! I became intrigued about working with him as soloist, and then got to know that he was also a composer.”

For Justice and Peace was commissioned by the Sphinx Organization to mark the 400th anniversary of the arrival the slave ship “White Lion” in Jamestown, Virginia. It is a small-scale concerto for violin, double bass and strings, with two additions that link the music to the subject: the sounds of a gavel, representing the auction of slaves, and a brief text sung by a vocal quartet that asks “Your Honor, where is my freedom?”

Giovanni Bottesini

To pair with that piece, Butterman selected another work for the same players, the Gran Duo Concertante for violin, double bass and strings by Giovanni Bottesini. Once widely celebrated, Bottesini is largely unknown today except to bass players. Known as “The Paganini of the Bass,” he was the first celebrated virtuoso of the instrument. Also an opera composer and conductor, he was selected by Verdi to conduct the premiere of Aida in 1871.

The Gran Duo seems to reflect Bottesini’s career in opera. Parts of the score resemble an operatic scene between a soprano and a bass—represented by the violin and double bass. “I do think of a dialog between me and the violin,” Foley says. Butterman hears the piece in the same way, describing it as an “operatic showcase for a couple—almost like a couple of singers.”

All of that occurs before intermission, and the second half of the concert will be occupied by one piece, Dvořák’s Symphony No. 8 in G major. “Everybody should love that piece!” Butterman says. “It’s always successful because of it’s tunefulness and the optimism and energy of that last movement (which) is one of the more joyful things in the repertoire. I love it!”

But the final words about the concert go to Foley, who says, “I hope people get their money’s worth and enjoy the show.”

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“Gran Duo”
Boulder Philharmonic Orchestra, Michael Butterman, conductor
With Xavier Foley, contrabass, and Eunice Kim, violin
Vocal quartet from the Boulder Philharmonic Chorus

  • Jennifer Higdon: Suite from Cold Mountain (Colorado premiere)
  • Xavier Foley: For Justice and Peace
  • Giovanni Bottesini: Gran Duo Concertante for violin, double bass and strings
  • Dvořák: Symphony No. 8 in G major, op. 88

7 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 12
Macky Auditorium

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Varied program, mixed results for Boulder Phil

Season opening concert features world premiere

By Peter Alexander Oct. 9 at 12:15 a..m.

The Boulder Philharmonic opened their 2022-23 season last night with a carefully curated and varied program that brought Colorado Governor Jared Polis to Macky Auditorium.

Governor Jared Polis (c) congratulates the Boulder Phil on its 65th anniversary season before last night’s concert. With him are Jonathan Koehn (l), Boulder’s chief sustainability and resilience officer, and Boulder Phil executive director Sara Parkinson (r).

Speaking from the stage before the concert, Governor Polis honored the orchestra for its 65th anniversary season and thanked the players for their artistry during the COVID pandemic. Polis was there with Jonathan Koehn, Boulder’s chief sustainability and resilience officer, also to recognize the concert’s environmental theme, “Hymn to the Earth.”

Michael Butterman then led the orchestra through a program designed to consider climate change as a challenge and a result of hubris and heedlessness. That message was most conspicuous in the world premiere of Ozymandias: To Sell a Planet by composer Drew Hemenger. Identified as an “environmental oratorio,” the score calls for orchestra, chorus and tenor soloist. The music encompasses a wide range of moods, so that the transition from one movement to the next is often dramatic.

Drew Hemmenger

In five movements it traverses an arc from coexistence with nature to the damage done by the industrial revolution, to a portrait of a society on the verge of collapse, the current state of the environment and finally, a warning of a potential apocalypse to come. The first movement, “Spring is Come,” uses a text from Chief Sitting Bull. This movement essentially an environmental anthem, declaring that “our animal neighbors [have] the same right as ourselves to inhabit the land.” This movement could easily stand alone as an effective choral/orchestral piece with a benign environmental message. 

This jaunty and affirming movement is followed by a setting of Wordsworth’s “The World is Too Much With Us,” an impassioned plea to recognize that “we are out of tune” with the natural world, written at the outset of the industrial revolution. Here tenor Matthew Plenk made a strong impression, managing well transitions from intense anguish to quiet despair. His voice has a penetrating quality that gets edgy when pushed too far, but is otherwise effective.

I had to step out for a moment and so missed the rhythmically charged third movement for orchestra alone, but caught the rest of the oratorio. The third movement incorporates a pedantic UN panel report on the environment (“Oceanic uptake of CO2 has resulted in acidification”), spoken by the chorus. This academic verbiage is effectively combined with words from environmental activist Greta Thunberg and saddened words from Chief Tecumseh. 

Alas, this movement cannot avoid pounding away at the moral, and it casts a didactic shadow over the rest of the piece. The final movement, a setting of Shelley’s darkly prophetic sonnet, Ozymandias, is again very emphatic. 

Hemenger employs a loosely tonal/modal style that speaks directly to the audience with no difficulty. He translates the message of the text directly into musical expression, but the preachy message will not be to everyone’s taste. A few people walked out during the fourth movement and at the end, but whether it was a political or aesthetic protest is uncertain. A handful in the audience stood at the end, and their numbers grew with each curtain call by Butterman and Plenk.

On the whole I judge Ozymandias to be a skillful score that accomplishes just what it aims at. The message will be welcome in some venues, but whether the piece as a whole will go on to more extensive familiarity remains to be seen. It was played well by the Phil and sung with conviction by the newly formed Boulder Philharmonic Chorus.

Boulder Phil. Music Director Michael Butterman

The concert had begun with Global Warming by Michael Abels, a piece infused with folkish-tunes and intricate rhythms. The solos in the wind section and percussion were notable, and the opening and ending exchanges between concertmaster Charles Wetherbee and assistant principal cellist Ethan Blake were played with elan. This is a pleasing, short piece that made an ideal opening for the program.

The second half of the concert began with an aptly dark reading of the Overture to Mozart’s Don Giovanni, the first of two pieces that expressed the dangerous heedlessness of the legendary Don Juan figure.  The performance was a little muddy where lightness and clarity are called for, leaving some of the inner voices unclear.

Next up was Siegfried’s Trauermusic (Funeral march) from Wagner’s music drama Götterdämmerung. Here the Philharmonic’s brass section shone, playing with great depth and darkness of tone. The Phil does not have the number of strings to match the weight of the brass, but this was a well paced and pleasing performance.

Butterman saved the best for last with Richard Strauss’ orchestral tone poem Don Juan. The outstanding quality of the performance showed that the Phil’s wind players will rise to the challenges of a virtuoso orchestral score. Individual solos were outstanding, and the horn section clearly relished playing the soaring theme that portrays Don Juan’s charismatic presence—a ringing tune all horn players know from student days and truly love to perform, just as audiences love to hear it.

For the most part, Butterman’s construction of the program worked well. His pacing and control of each piece seemed convincing. Nevertheless, the extreme variety of styles on the program was double-edged: the wide range of moods was always interesting, but it created a slightly fractured effect overall.

Boulder Phil opens 22–23 season with ‘Hymn to the Earth’

World premiere and first appearance of the Boulder Phil Chorus Oct. 8

By Peter Alexander Oct. 6 at 7:10 p.m.

Conductor Michael Butterman and the Boulder Philharmonic Orchestra will open their 2022–23 season Saturday evening (7 p.m. Oct. 8, Macky Auditorium) with a program aimed straight at Boulder’s social and environmental heart.

The Boulder Philharmonic with conductor Michael Butterman

Titled “Hymn to the Earth,” the program includes the world premier of Ozymandias: To Sell a Planet by Drew Hemenger, an environmental oratorio for orchestra, chorus and tenor co-commissioned by the Phil and the Rogue Valley Symphony of Oregon. Its five movements create an arc leading from a vision of unspoiled nature, through the industrial revolution to the current global climate crisis and culminating with Shelley’s dire warning about human arrogance in his great poem “Ozymandias.”

Composer Michael Abels. Photo by Eric Schwabel

The program opens with Global Warming by Michael Abels, a composer best known for his scores for the films of Jordan Peele. Not referring to climate, the title refers to the warming global relations at the end of the Cold War, and in in this context suggests the planetary unity required to face an environmental crisis. 

Works on the second half of the program have the theme of hubris and the consequences of humans’ heedlessness: the Overture to Mozart’s Don Giovanni; Siegfried’s funeral music from Wagner’s Götterdämmerung; and Richard Strauss’ tone poem Don Juan.

Gregory Gentry

The concert will be the first appearance of the Boulder Philharmonic Chorus, the newly-formed choral partner of the Phil, under the direction of Gregory Gentry. Tenor Matthew Plenk, a faculty member at the University of Denver’s Lamont School of Music, will be soloist for Ozymandias.

Ozymandias is a score of remarkable diversity, of both textual sources and musical style. The text draws on poetry by Shelley and William Wordsworth, as well as texts from Native Americans, speeches by climate activist Greta Thunberg, and a definitively unpromising text for music, the 2014 Fifth Assessment Report of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). (Trust me; Hemenger makes it work.)

The commissioning of Ozymandias started with Butterman, who remembers reading Shelley’s poem many years ago. “I’ve loved that poem since I was a kid,” he says. “It’s short, but the irony of it smacks you in the face. He wrote this not thinking of climate change, but it’s the same hubris.”

Composer Drew Hemenger

The first movement of Hemenger’s score is titled “The Spring is Come,” and is taken from the words of Chief Sitting Bull in 1877, describing a time when the Lakota people lived in harmony with the earth. The second movement is a setting of Wordsworth’s poem from around 1802, “The World Is Too Much with Us.” At the beginning of the industrial revolution, Wordsworth is pointing out that man’s greed is leading to the loss of a connection to nature: “Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;/Little we see in Nature that is ours.”

The rhythmically driven third movement is entirely orchestral. The title is a Shawnee word, “Migeloti” (pronounced mah-jee-lo-ta), “which means a person who goes around disrespecting and destroying,” Hemenger says. Representing a society of decadence, “it’s like (Ravel’s) La Valse, filled with ecstasy and then collapse at the end.”

The fourth movement contains the chorus speaking text from the IPCC report and Thunberg’s speeches (“all you can talk about is money . . . how dare you!”), and sung texts from Shawnee Chief Tecumseh in 1810, “To Sell a Country.” “That is a preachy movement,” Hemenger admits, but “when you’re going to put that clear language (of the report), there didn’t seem to be any way around it.”

The finale is the setting of “Ozymandias,” ending with the forlorn words “the lone and level sands stretch far away.” The music, Hemenger writes in his program notes, “like the poem, fades away like the blowing dust in the desert.”

Michael Butterman. Photo by Shannon Palmer.

In spite of this message, Butterman hopes the program is not a downer. “I worry that the pieces are saying when you act as if things have no consequences, it doesn’t end well,” he says. “But since climate change is a huge issue that the world needs to pay attention to, and it’s something that many people in Boulder are sensitive to, it strikes me as a natural fit for this orchestra.”

He admires the music that resulted from his initial suggestions to the composer. “The fact that he went into Native American texts, the middle movement which is a latter-day La Valse, all of that was his idea, and I think it’s brilliant. There’s a lot of stuff in a relatively short piece, and I’m very pleased with how it turned out.”

The second half of the concert comprises pieces by Mozart, Wagner and Strauss that are known to classical audiences. While their composition had nothing to do with environmental issues, Butterman hopes the context can add meaning to those works. Particularly the Strauss will add brilliance to the overall program. “It’s so cinematic,” he says. “You get a very good image of this character (Don Juan), his personality, his swagger. Whether you like him or not, there might be something about him that you almost envy.”

For the concert, the Boulder Phil has partnered with the City of Boulder Climate Initiative Department. Members of the city’s climate team will be present at the performance to share climate action ideas and resources, and to collect submission to heir climate audio collage report.

Please note that the Boulder Phil has changed the starting time of their concerts for the season to 7 p.m., instead of 7:30 p.m.

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“Hymn to the Earth”
Boulder Philharmonic, Michael Butterman, conductor
With Matthew Plenk, tenor, and the Boulder Philharmonic Chorus, Gregory Gentry, chorus master

  • Michael Abels: Global Warming
  • Drew Hemenger: Ozymandias: To Sell a Planet (world premiere)
  • Mozart: Overture to Don Giovanni
  • Wagner: Trauermusik from Götterdämmerung
  • Richard Strauss: Don Juan

7 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 8
Macky Auditorium

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CORRECTION: The original version of this post gave the start time of Boulder Phil concerts as 8 p.m. The correct time this season will be 7 p.m.

Violist Richard O’Neill gives stunning performance with Boulder Phil

All-English program features Walton Viola Concerto, works by Elgar and Anna Clyne

By Peter Alexander May 15 at 12:10 a.m.

The Boulder Philharmonic finished the 2021–22 classical concert series with sound and fury last night (May 14).

Conductor Michael Butterman and the Boulder Philharmonic in Macky Auditorium. Photo by Glenn Ross.

No, that is not a criticism. The first piece listed on the program was Anna Clyne’s Sound and Fury, inspired in part by Macbeth’s soliloquy featuring that phrase. In practice, though, Clyne was preceded by an “off-menu special,” in the words of conductor Michael Butterman: Elgar’s familiar “Pomp and Circumstance” March No. 1, in honor of the region’s recent graduates.

The performance was led by an honorary guest conductor, Boulder’s outstanding arts patron Gordon Gamm. Looking dapper in a fedora, Gamm did a creditable job of getting things started and holding the orchestra together. Indeed, the only audible error—one out-of-place note—cannot be laid to the conductor. 

Butterman preceded Clyne’s Sound and Fury with a helpful music-appreciation style introduction, with an explanation of it’s connection to “The Scottish Play” and illustrations from a Haydn symphony quoted in the score. The performance was strongly profiled, with contrasting sections nicely characterized and distinguished, lacking only the precision necessary for clarity in the skittering string parts and the full depth of sound that a larger orchestra could provide. 

The recorded voice speaking the “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow” soliloquy near the end was not always intelligible, but it did show how those words fit into the scheme of the piece. This is a new piece (2019) that is definitely comprehensible and enjoyable for the classical audience, and I would welcome hearing it again.

Violist Richard O’Neill

A friend told me about this concert, “The Walton Concerto won’t sell any tickets.” If that’s right, I’m sorry for anyone who was not sold a ticket because they don’t know Walton’s music. They missed a fun piece, and a stunning performance by violist Richard O’Neill, the newest member of the Takács Quartet. Where is their sense of fun, of adventure, interest in new things? This is not difficult music.

Composed in 1929, the Viola Concerto shows the composer’s quirky style to good advantage. At times lush, at times shifting, surging and dying away, its kaleidoscopic episodes and unexpected turns provide an ideal palette for an instrumental soloist of O’Neill’s qualities.

His performance was glittery (and no, I don’t mean his shoes) and perfectly assured. Visibly reacting to every twist and turn of the orchestra part, he showed in both gesture and musical interpretation his connection with the players. Utterly at ease playing all the virtuoso material the concerto throws at the soloist, O’Neil gave a solo performance of the highest caliber. 

Here the issues were of balance, both within the orchestra and (from where I was sitting) with the soloist. The boisterous second movement was my favorite, but the more gentle moments were equally well played. Two profound tributes to O’Neil: he held the audience in silence for at least 20 second at the end of the concerto, and it was the orchestra, stamping their feet, that brought him back for his final curtain call. 

Again channeling his inner Leonard Bernstein, Butterman gave an insightful introduction to Elgar’s “Enigma” Variations, showing how the variations brought their subjects—the composer’s friends—to life. This to me is a better preparation for the audience than program notes about “the return of the subsidiary theme” or “remote tonalities.”

Elgar’s “Enigma,” one of the greatest sets of orchestral variations of the Romantic or any period, received the best orchestral performance of the evening—maybe because it is a piece well known to all orchestral pros. Rehearsal time then can be devoted to details of interpretation, of unity, of sound. Butterman found the telling elements in each variation and brought out their individual characters. 

As one hopes and expects, the familiar “Nimrod” variation swelled calmly from shimmering pianissimo strings to a rich, full orchestral climax before falling back. Other variations had the sparkle, or the weight, to communicate character and meaning. This is a fun piece for brass, who enjoyed their moments of grandeur, and for the timpanist, who brought both visual and aural flash to the performance. 

Finally, this program had many of the ingredients of a successful concert: some exploration, a dazzling soloist, a great piece of music. I happily note the inclusion of a living female composer in the stew. It’s a recipe musical organizations should follow.

Grammy-winning violist to play with Boulder Phil

Richard O’Neill of the Takacs Quartet will play Walton Concerto Saturday

By Peter Alexander May 12 at 1:20 p.m.

Richard O’Neill

It was in the middle of the pandemic and a massive blizzard when Richard O’Neill won a Grammy award. 

The Grammy awarded in 2021 was for his recording of the Viola Concerto by American composer Christopher Theofanidis—during the same year that he joined the Takács Quartet, moved to Boulder and joined the CU faculty. “This has been a long haul,” he said at the time. 

Hopefully, things are closer to whatever can be called normal for a performing musician/recording artist, as O’Neill takes the stage Saturday (May 14) to perform William Walton’s Viola Concerto with the Boulder Philharmonic and conductor Michael Butterman (concert details below; tickets here).

A demanding and dramatic work. Walton’s concerto was composed in 1929, when the composer was 27 years old, and premiered that year by the composer/violist Paul Hindemith. Since then it has become one of the landmarks of the viola repertoire.

Composer Anna Clyne has drawn on a variety of sources for inspiration in her compositions, from the paintings of Mark Rothko to music by Beethoven. Her Sound and Fury was inspired by Shakespeare’s soliloquy for Macbeth and by Haydn’s unusual and quirky six-movement Symphony No. 60, Il distratto (The distracted one), which began as incidental music for a comic play.

Anna Clyne. Photo by Jennifer Taylor.

In a program note, Clyne wrote: “My intention with Sound and Fury is to take the listener on a journey that is both invigorating—with ferocious string gestures that are flung around the orchestra—and reflective—with haunting melodies that emerge and recede.”

Sir Edward Elgar’s Variations on an Original Theme, known as the “Enigma Variations” from the word Elgar wrote at the top of the score, remains one of the most popular works in the orchestral repertoire, more than 120 years after its premiere. Each of the 14 variations has an inscription that refers to one of Elgar’s friends. 

Those subjects of the individual variations have been identified. The larger enigma, however, is what Elgar wrote in his program note: “The Enigma I will not explain. Its ‘dark saying’ must be left unguessed. . . . Over the whole set another and larger theme ‘goes,’ but is not played.”

Whether that “larger theme” is a musical or a philosophical one is one of the many mysteries that surround the piece. Guesses as to the musical theme have ranged from “Rule Britannia” to “Pop Goes the Weasel” to Luther’s “A Might Fortress is Our God,” to Liszt’s Les Preludes, none of which have convinced a majority of musical scholars.

And so that enigma remains unsolved. Feel free to go to the concert and devise your own solution.

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Boulder Philharmonic Orchestra, Michael Butterman, conductor
With Richard O’Neill, viola

  • Anna Clyne: Sound and Fury
  • William Walton: Viola Concerto
  • Elgar: Enigma Variations

7:30 p.m. Saturday, May 14
Macky Auditorium

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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

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Boulder Phil announces its 65th anniversary season

Masterworks concerts for 2022-23 will all be in Macky Auditorium

By Peter Alexander April 27 at 12:15 a.m.

The Boulder Philharmonic announced programming for its 2022–23, 65th anniversary season Tuesday evening (April 26). All subscription concerts for the coming year will be once again in Macky Auditorium

Pianist Angela Cheng returns to Boulder to perform with the Phil April 22, 2023

The season introduced by music director Michael Butterman includes some warhorses— Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini and Richard Strauss’ Don Juan—some less familiar standard works—Bruckner’s Symphony No. 7 and Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G—and a healthy dose of new and unfamiliar works (see full programs below). Particularly noteworthy will be two world and one Colorado premiere of commissioned works.

Some features of the season will be familiar to current and past Boulder Phil patrons. One will be the return to Macky. The annual Nutcracker performances with Boulder Ballet are scheduled for Nov. 25 and 27. There will be a seasonal special event, “Holiday Brass with the Phil,” Dec. 18. The Phil’s Executive Director, Sara Parkinson, announced the resumption of the educational Discovery Concerts for school students.

Long-time concertgoers will welcome the return of former CU faculty member and audience favorite Angela Cheng April 22, who has not appeared in Boulder since 2009. Other soloists during the season will include tenor Matthew Plenk, on the opening night concert Oct. 8; double bassist Xavier Foley and violinist Eunice Kim Nov. 12; and violinist Stefan Jakiw March 25. 

Concertmaster Charles Wetherbee will solo with the Phil Jan. 22, 2023

Boulder Phil concertmaster Charles Wetherbee has been on medical leave, but is expected back next season and will play Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 5 with the orchestra Jan. 22.

One prominent change for the season is that the Saturday evening concert time has been moved to 7 p.m. from 7:30 p.m., in response to feedback from ticket buyers. That change affects all the masterworks concerts except “Afternoon with Bruckner,” at 4 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 22. In conjunction with the change of curtain time, the Phil will try different forms of related programming for its concerts, including pre-concert lectures, intermission features and post-concert talk-back sessions.

One special event in the season will bring the popular Denver-based multi-instrumental band DeVotchKa to Macky Auditorium to perform with the Phil. That performance will take place at the “old” time of 7:30 p.m. Saturday, May 6, 2023. Further details of that concert are pending.

The opening night concert Oct. 8, titled “Hymn to the Earth,” includes the first of the season’s premieres, a Boulder Phil co-commission that was postponed from a planned earlier season due to COVID: Ozymandias: To Sell a Planet. This musical alarum for threats to the planet was composed by the American composer Drew Hemmenger and uses Percy Shelley’s poem “Ozymandias,” as well as texts from native American sources, United Nations climate reports and speeches by Greta Thunberg. 

The Colorado premiere of another co-commission, Jennifer Higdon’s Suite from Cold Mountain, follows on Nov. 12, and another world premiere of a new work by Boulder High School graduate Leigha Amick will be presented April 22, 2023.

Season tickets will go on sale Monday, May 2, and tickets to individual concerts will be available Monday, Aug. 22. Purchases can be made by calling the box office at 303-449-1343, or through the Boulder Phil web page.

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Boulder Philharmonic Orchestra
Michael Butterman, music director
2022-23 Season
All performances in Macky Auditorium except as otherwise noted

Conductor Michael Butterman with the Boulder Phil in Macky Auditorium

Opening Night: Hymn to the Earth
Boulder Philharmonic, Michael Butterman, conductor
With Boulder Phil Chorus and Matthew Plenk, tenor

  • Michael Abels: Global Warming
  • Drew Hemenger: Ozymandias: To Sell a Planet (Co-Commission & World Premiere)
  • Mozart: Overture to Don Giovanni
  • Wagner: Trauermusik from Götterdämmerung
  • Richard Strauss: Don Juan

7 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 8

Gran Duo: Higdon and Foley
Boulder Philharmonic, Michael Butterman, conductor
With Xavier Foley, double bass, and Eunice Kim, violin

  • Jennifer Higdon: Suite from Cold Mountain (Co-Commission & Colorado Premiere)
  • Xavier Foley: For Justice and Peace
  • Giovanni Bottesini: Gran Duo Concertante
  • Dvořák: Symphony No. 8 in G major

7 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 12

The Nutcracker with Boulder Ballet
Boulder Philharmonic, Gary Lewis, conductor 

2 and 7 p.m., Friday, Nov. 25
2 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 27

Special Event: Holiday Brass with the Phil

4 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 18
Mountain View United Methodist Church, Boulder

Afternoon with Bruckner
Boulder Philharmonic, Michael Butterman, conductor
With Charles Wetherbee, violin

  • Mozart: Violin Concerto No. 5
  • Anton Bruckner: Symphony No. 7 in E major

4 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 22, 2023

Jackiw Plays Bruch
Boulder Philharmonic, Michael Butterman, conductor
With Stefan Jakiw, violin

  • George Butterworth: The Banks of Green Willow
  • Max Bruch: Scottish Fantasy
  • Rachmaninoff: Symphonic Dances

7 pm. Saturday, March 25, 2023

Ravel and Rachmaninoff
Boulder Philharmonic, Michael Butterman, conductor
With Angela Cheng, piano

  • Leigha Amick: “Resound Boulder”” Commission 
  • Ravel: Piano Concerto in G
  • Rachmaninoff: Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini
  • Tchaikovsky: Romeo and Juliet: Fantasy Overtur

7 p.m. Saturday, April 22, 2023

Special Event: DeVotchKa + Boulder Phil

7:30 p.m. Saturday, May 6, 2023

Boulder Phil presents videos and Terrence Wilson plays Rachmaninoff

Saturday at Macky sees Michael Butterman’s return to lead the orchestra

By Peter Alexander March 18 at 12:10 a.m.

The next concert of the Boulder Philharmonic will feature a co-commission by the orchestra, but none of the music will be new.

Instead, the co-commission is a video created by Stephen Lias to accompany the performance of a work composed in 1955, the Symphony No. 2, “Mysterious Mountain,” by American-Armenian composer Alan Hovhaness. 

Stephen Lias in Rocky Mountain National Park. Photo by Peter Alexander

That is one of two videos that will be presented as part of the concert, which will open with a performance of Circuits by Cindy McTee with video by Aleksi Moriarty. Finishing the program is Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto, performed by pianist Terrence Wilson. The performance will be at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, March 19, in Macky Auditorium (tickets available here).

Lias is better known as a composer than a videographer. The Boulder Phil premiered his Gates of the Arctic in 2014 and commissioned his All the Songs that Nature Sings, which they premiered in 2016. In this case the Boulder Phil’s music director, Michael Butterman, wanted to perform the Hovhaness score, and to feature a video with it.

Butterman is back in Boulder to lead the concert, after having to miss the orchestra’s last performance in March due to a health concern.

“When we played (Lias’s) works before, he created visuals that would accompany the music,” Butterman explains. “I approached him about creating a video not for his own music this time, but for someone else’s. And he really ran with it.”

One of Stephen Lias’s composite images for Mysterious Mountain.

By “ran with it,” Butterman really means that Lias worked tirelessly to learn video techniques that he had never used before. “The learning curve was extremely steep for me, because I had no background in visual art or complex video effects,” Lias says. ”A lot of what I learned was very useful and fascinating, but boy it was a big investment! I had to learn to use a collection of high-end applications (and) packages of software that animators use.”

The more complex video techniques were important, Lias says, because—unlike pieces that he created videos for before—Hovhaness’ score is not about a specific location. In fact, the title Mysterious Mountain was added after the music had been written. “The title simply suited the mysterious atmospheric, meditative nature of the music,” Lias says.

Image by Stephen Lias for Mysterious Mountain

“This feels like it needs to be more amorphous and ambiguous (than Lias’s earlier video creations). My concept was to create virtual mountain ranges comprised of (pictures) from all over the world. There are animated, floating lines in space that reveal the mountain range, and then they are transformed before your eyes and you realize these are (different photos) laying over top of one another. 

“Later various virtual environments float around you, and then you end up in a place that is entirely real, but you’re not sure it’s real. The goal is a lingering ‘where are we?’ question. We are clearly not in real life, but the things from real life are mixed with things that make it clearly artificial. You’re in an invented world.”

Image by Stephen Lias for Mysterious Mountain

This fits the spiritual qualitied of Hovhaness’ music, Lias says. He describes the music and video together as “a musical and visual journey through all the things that mountains can be and might become.”

Some people in the audience may recognize some of the locations in the video. “Certainly anyone from Boulder will recognize the places that Longs Peak sticks its head out,” Lias says. “There’s some Banff, Glacier (National Park), and the Great Wall of China.”

Butterman describes the concert’s other video, accompanying McTee’s Circuits, as “entirely abstract,” but in an entirely different way. There are no concrete images at all, but rather abstract patterns.

“(Moriarty) went through the piece in an analytical way,” Butterman says. “He broke it down into a motive for a bar and a half, and then three bars, and then later on it comes back upside down. He identified these musical kernels and created a graphic representation for each one. Once he created the video translations of the musical ideas, he followed the template that the music itself played out. So theoretically, it’s a video representation of the structure and thematic content of the music.”

Butterman warns the audience that the video moves very fast, as does the music. “I would say (it’s) very fast paced,” he says. “If you are bothered by flashing, you would be wise to at least be aware of that. It’s only about five and a half minutes, but it’s very intense. I’m hoping that if anybody feels that’s a difficulty, they can simply look away.”

Both video works are engineered so that the length can be adjusted to fit individual performances. Moriarty works with a program developed by Ion Concert Media of Minneapolis, and Lias developed his own system using a sound, video and lighting control application for the Mac called QLab. Both result in a system where the conductor does not have to follow a click track or any other pre-established speed in the performance.

That’s an important issue for Butterman. “The real bane of (performing with video) is the tyranny of the click track,” he says. “Whenever you’re doing a Hollywood movie for example, you have a screen in front of you and time codes and little bars sweep across (the screen), and you have an earpiece where you can hear clicks, and it’s maddening.”

Terrence Wilson. Photo by J. Henry Fair.

While the videos will be the most unusual aspects of the March 19 concert, the Rachmaninoff Third Piano Concerto will certainly be the most familiar. It is beloved by audiences, but as a virtuoso showpiece it should never be thought to be routine. It was Rachmaninoff’s favorite of his four piano concertos, but also has the reputation of inspiring fear in pianists.

“I’m delighted to have Terrence Wilson joining us,” Butterman says. “He’s someone I’ve enjoyed collaborating with.”

Wilson performed the Grieg Piano Concerto with Boulder Phil in 2007 and has had an impressive performing career in the intervening years, including a 2011 Grammy nomination and a 2015 appearance at the Colorado Music Festival. A graduate of Juilliard, he has also received an Avery Fisher Career Grant and appeared on NPR’s “Performance Today.”

“Closing with Rachmaninoff is a little unusual,” Butterman says, “but at 43 or 44 minutes, it certainly has the heft of a symphony!”

The heft, and I would add, all the fireworks you could want for a rousing concert closer.

# # # # #

Boulder Philharmonic, Michael Butterman, conductor
With Terrence Wilson, piano
Videos by Aleksi Moriarty and Stephen Lias

  • Cindy McTee: Circuits
  • Alan Hovhaness: Symphony No. 2, “Mysterious Mountain”
  • Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto No. 3

7:30 p.m. Saturday, March 19
Macky Auditorium

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