Musicians in their Lairs I: Michael Christie

Creating wide-ranging playlists, learning while homeschooling

By Peter Alexander April 22 at 7:05 p.m.

NOTE: This is the first of a series of posts about musicians with Boulder connections, and what they are doing while they can’t rehearse or perform. You can expect a non-formal photo to accompany each story.

Michael Christie is listening to music. A lot of music.

Christie, who was music director of the Colorado Music Festival in Boulder 2001-13 is spending the COVID-19 quarantine at this home in Minneapolis. Because his wife is a physician, a large part of his time is taken with homeschooling their two children while she is on the front lines of the pandemic.

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Michael Christie, inside his home in Minneapolis, planning another playlist

When he’s not tied up with those duties, he’s creating online playlists, under the title “Michael Christie’s Jukebox.

So far he has posted 10 lists, nine that reflect his own thoughts, and one in collaboration with composer Kevin Puts, whose opera Silent Night Christie conducted at Minnesota Opera in 2011. The complete opera serves as the anchor piece of “Jukebox #8.”

It turns out there is a lot of listening involved in creating each playlist. He has to not only select the pieces, but also the individual performances of those pieces. “The process of selecting the pieces encourages me to listen to full albums,” he says. “So that I’ve enjoyed, but the tricky part is that I’ve tried to keep the bites fairly digestible, except for the showpiece of each list.”

The playlists are a way for Christie, who is now music director of the New West Symphony in Thousand Oaks, Calif., to stay in touch with audiences during the pandemic. “I observed as COVID was shutting things down that people were hunkering down—hunkering down in their homes but also hunkering down in their own areas of expertise, musically,” he says.

“I thought ’what a pity!’ These people listen to a lot of other things, and yet they’re only talking about the narrow window that they’re professionally working in. That was the genesis of the playlists, and then it was trying to make sure that I was being faithful to that by looking at 400 years of music then saying, ‘Alright, what’s interesting’?”

One feature of Christie’s playlists that will seem familiar to those who recall his years with CMF is the breadth of the music that he finds interesting. It includes portions of standard classical repertoire by Haydn, Beethoven, Rossini, Dvořák and others that you would expect. But there is also world music; jazz by Branford, Wynton and the late Ellis Marsalis; Bill Haley and the Comets, the Beatles and Radiohead; an excerpt from Hamilton; stunning Baroque selections by Jean-Philippe Rameau and Claudio Monteverdi; newer music from Benjamin Britten and Philip Glass; and even Dolly Parton’s Nine to Five.

From creating his own lists it was an easy step to start asking other musicians what they were listening to. “I thought people are going to get sick of hearing my thoughts, and also, I’ll run out of ideas eventually,” he says. “I’ve reached out to a lot of people, and no one has said no yet.

“The interesting thing is that all of the composers that I’ve been in contact with have said, we’re using this time to catch up. They’re so busy right now taking advantage of the time to not be traveling, and as a consequence they get to focus in a different way.”

Christie says he learns as much homeschooling his two children, ages five and 11,  as they do. “It’s a big learning process every day,” he says. “It definitely takes more patience and a different time scale. Time has to stretch out to flow with the day a bit more. Things that they do in 25 minutes in school take more time than that. But there are so many resources online, that’s amazing!

“Mercifully this is happening in springtime. If this was happening in November, I think—boy! Stuck in the cold and snow? I just can’t even imagine.”

But he definitely relishes the time spent at home. “The children are very different, but curious about the world, clever and sympathetic,” he says. “Being home steadily after years on the road is a great joy!”

Christie spends some of his time planning for his next season at the New West Symphony, particularly the new pieces that the orchestra will introduce. One feature of the concerts began at CMF as “Intermission Insights” interviews. The New West Symphony now has “Entr’acte Composers,” in which a composer is introduced at the beginning of intermission in a conversation with Christie, much as occured at CMF. Later, their piece is played first thing after intermission, giving the audience members the choice to linger in the lobby or hear the new work.

“So far, we’ve only had a handful of people willingly not listen to the new piece,” he says. “The vast majority stay for the interview, like they did in Boulder, and the vast majority come back for the new piece. I’m very careful about what that new piece is, and trying to get [it into a] five- to eight-minute time frame.

“But it’s great, because people have the opportunity to interact with the artist, and people have the opportunity to hear something they’ve never heard before at every concert.”

And in that respect, Christie is not doing anything new at all, quarantine or no quarantine. It’s what he did at CMF, and what he now does for audiences in Thousand Oaks.

You can access all of Christie’s playlists at Michael Christie’s Jukebox.

 

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

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

By Peter Alexander Feb. 12 at 12 noon

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

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

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

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

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Wei Wu celebrates his Grammy.

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

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

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Michael Christie

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

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

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

“Congratulations to everyone involved!”

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

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

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

Former CMF music director Christie returns to a warm welcome

‘Up to his old tricks again,’ including a dramatic entrance from the audience

By Peter Alexander

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Michael Christie. Photo by Steve J. Sherman

Michael Christie, for 13 years music director of the Colorado Music Festival and now conductor laureate, returned to lead the Festival Orchestra last night (July 14) in a program of music by Leonard Bernstein, Charles Ives and Johannes Brahms. Appearing with him was pianist Orion Weiss, a frequent partner with Christie during his years at CMF.

In planning the program, Christie said he wanted “to come back with a presentation style that everybody would say, ‘I remember that guy! He’s up his old tricks again.’”

New tricks or old, there is no doubt that the dramatic opening of the concert caught the audience’s attention.

The program started with concert sponsor Paul Repetto introducing Christie with great warmth but more or less in absentia, since the conductor was not on the stage. But as soon as Repetto finished his remarks Christie, standing out among the audience, gave the downbeat for brass and percussion on the sides of the hall to begin Bernstein’s noisy, boisterous Shivaree, a brief, exciting program opener.

As the last note of the Bernstein faded away, the strings sitting onstage had already began Ives’s mystical Unanswered Question. The strings, playing barely audible, slow-moving chords, were led by their section leaders while a solo trumpet, posing the titular question, sounded from backstage. The woodwinds, with Christie leading them now from the side of the house, offered energetic but inconclusive non-answers that seem to not resolve anything.

At the end the trumpet is heard one last time, over slowly dying string chords, still asking, asking, asking.

This is great musical drama. I have never heard the Ives more effectively introduced: the sudden hushed chord after the last loud flourish of the Bernstein was breathtaking. May I recommend this pairing to other conductors out there?

After such a theatrical beginning, Christie needed a powerful piece to round out the first half, and he found it in the suite from Bernstein’s music for the film On the Waterfront. A gritty, jazzy precursor to the music for West Side Story, On the Waterfront is vintage Bernstein, pure big-city Americana from the 1950s.

Christie and the Festival Orchestra gave a performance bursting with the raw energy of the streets and docks of Hoboken, but also imbued with tenderness and the aching regrets of the “contender” who never was. There was one shaky moment at the beginning, and the bluesy touches seemed a little on the careful side, but otherwise the performance was exceptional.

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Michael Christie and Orion Weiss. Photo by Tom Steenland.

Weiss joined Christie and the orchestra for the second half of the program, playing Brahms’s muscular Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor. Very few pieces open more stormily than this concerto, and from the opening timpani thunderclaps, the Festival Orchestra gave a vigorous performance. Mention should be made of the principal horn, who effectively negotiated exposed solos in both the Bernstein and the Brahms.

The powerful moments of the concerto’s first movement are so memorable that it is easy to forget that there are many passages of great delicacy. It is one of the delights of the Chautauqua Auditorium that music played softly has great presence throughout the hall. These portions of the concerto were especially effective; Weiss’s clean sound and control made every ripple, every filigreed decoration deliciously clear. He had an attentive partner in Christie, who allowed the soloist to shine through.

In contrast, some of the heavier passages lost transparency, as the piano was swallowed in a reverberant wash of sound. This is where recordings have spoiled our ears: it is too easy for the engineer to boost the piano, so that the soloist can dominate in even the strongest orchestral passages. In the real world, that is more difficult.

The practiced, responsive interplay between Christie and Weiss was one of the pleasures of the performance. I thought the final rondo was particularly enjoyable, as each episode had its own character, helped along by sparkling winds. The final measures built to a rousing end. The full house, happy to see two old friends back for a visit, responded with enthusiastic ovations.

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NOTE: For anyone who wants to hear more of his work, Christie will be conducting at the Breckenridge Music Festival Aug. 5 and 6.

Return of CMF mini-festival and former director

Zeitouni offers Brahms, while Christie’s ‘up to his old tricks again’

By Peter Alexander

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Former Music Director Michael Christie returns to CMF July 8.   Photo by Steve J. Sherman

Fans of Brahms’s warm Romanticism (and who in the classical audience isn’t?) have much to look forward to.

In three concerts, the Colorado Music Festival (CMF) will present five of his most popular works. First, CMF music director Jean-Marie Zeitouni will lead the Festival Orchestra in a cycle of the four symphonies on two nights, July 7 and 8. Then a week later, former director Michael Christie makes his first return to the festival to conduct a program including the Brahms First Piano Concerto with pianist Orion Weiss July 14.

The performances of the four symphonies — Nos. 1 and 2 on July 7, 3 and 4 on July 8 — represents a return of the CMF’s mini-festival concept of works by a single composer.

Read more in Boulder Weekly.

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Colorado Music Festival
Jean-Marie Zeitouni, Music Director

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Jean-Marie Zeitouni

Boulder Brahms
Jean-Marie Zeitouni, conductor

Part I: Symphonies 1 & 2
7:30 p.m. Thursday, July 7, Chautauqua Auditorium

Part 2: Symphonies 3 & 4
7:30 p.m. Friday July 8, Chautauqua Auditorium

 

Brahms and Bernstein
Michael Christie, conductor, with Orion Weiss, piano
Program including Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor
7:30 p.m. Thursday, July 14
Chautauqua Auditorium

Tickets
CMF 2016 season schedule

At Minnesota Opera, “The Shining” dazzles

World premiere of Paul Moravec’s opera promises future success

By Peter Alexander

The Saturday (May 7) premiere of The Shining by Paul Moravec at the Minnesota Opera was clear evidence of the vigor of contemporary opera in America.

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The Shining by Paul Moravec. All photos by Ken Howard for the Minnesota Opera

The opera, based on the Stephen King novel (but resolutely not on the Stanley Kubrick film), has sold out its opening run of four performances. It is a solid piece of work, dramatically effective, musically successful, and destined to be popular. And in the hands of the team from the Minnesota Opera—conductor Michael Christie, stage director Eric Simonson, scenery and properties designer Erhard Rom, the craftsmen of 59 Productions and their many colleagues—The Shining received a stunning production that realized the full potential of the score. The cast was uniformly first rate. At the end, the sold-out Ordway Music Theater audience stood and cheered.

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Brian Mulligan as Jack Torrance, with the massive boiler

If you don’t know the story, Jack Torrance, a writer, has taken a job as winter caretaker of the isolated Overlook Hotel (loosely inspired by Estes Park’s Stanley Hotel), a seemingly elegant relic that turns out to be haunted. Jack brings his wife, Wendy, and young son, Danny, with him. Jack and Wendy are hoping to restore their damaged marriage, but under the sway of the hotel and its ghosts, the already fragile Jack turns violent.

Librettist Mark Campbell has done an effective job of reducing King’s 400+ page novel into a two-hour opera. The essential elements of King’s tale are present: the evil spirits that control the hotel, the temperamental boiler that threatens to blow the place to bits, the smothering snow that creates a barrier from rescue, the child with second sight (or the “shining” of the work’s title), and his hair-triggered father’s troubling past. It’s a lot to get into a compact libretto, but Campbell has managed to keep the spirit of the original while necessarily cutting some elements (including several of the haunted rooms, the topiary animals standing guard and the malevolent wasps).

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Alejandro Vega as Danny and Brian Mulligan as Jack

There is one significant change that King’s fans will notice, and it is not an improvement. At the end of the novel, Danny confronts his father fearlessly, because he knows something that Jack has forgotten: the boiler, which is close to blowing. When Danny reminds him of this, Jack rushes to the basement, leaving only enough time for the three survivors to escape. In other words, the Overlook has completely taken over Jack, who becomes a tragic figure brought down by his own weakness.

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Brian Mulligan as Jack, surrounded by evil spirits just before the boiler destroys the Overlook Hotel

In the opera, Jack allows Danny to go, and when the hotel’s spirits remind him of the boiler, he defies them and decides not to relieve the built-up pressure so that his family can escape. When he chooses to die in the resultant explosion, the story becomes a more conventional one of Jack’s redemption, a point made clear in the staging. In King’s bleaker vision, there is no such redemption.

Moravec has set this tale with accessible, expressive music. The text can be clearly understood, thanks to both composer and cast, and supertitles are often not needed. There are moments of affecting lyrical beauty, particularly the moving (if predictable) final aria by Halloran, the resort’s cook and the story’s rescuer, who reassures Danny that “You’re doing fine by yourself . . . Just fine.” Other major characters—Jack, Wendy, and the spectral figure of Jack’s brutal father—all have expressive music. If the ghostly chorus of evil spirits sounds a little too real, that is a consequence of portraying incorporeal beings with corporeal actors.

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The exploding Overlook Hotel

The horror genre is of course a well worked musical field, through opera and especially film. It is probably inevitable that Moravec incorporated some familiar clichés to represent menace, the sinister noises of malevolent spirits, ghostly voices and the ratcheting up of suspense, but it is a testament to his skill as a composer that these clichés are elevated by his score.

The orchestral writing is especially outstanding. The orchestra supports but never obscures the vocal lines. Sounds from the orchestra fit the text and mood, and the final powerful cataclysm is one of the most effective moments of musical pictorialism I can recall. That orchestral explosion and the subsequent relaxation into the comfortable and comforting music of the final scene make a satisfying ending.

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Kelly Kaduce, Arthur Woodley and Alejandro Vega in the final scene

Minnesota Opera’s production is a dazzling tour de force. The beautiful projections that place the actors on a mountain road and beside a peaceful lake are impressive enough, but even more impressive are the scenes in the hotel, with a combination of atmospheric projections that heighten the mood and sliding units that shift (almost) seamlessly from room to room, with only the occasional “thump” to remind us of the stage machinery. Kudos to the designers and 59 Productions for the magic. The hulking boiler and its spectacular destruction of the hotel deserve special notice.

Of the singers, Arthur Woodley is magisterial as Halloran. The hearty cheers he received were well deserved: his robust baritone filled the hall and captured the brief scenes where he appears, at beginning and end.

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Brian Mulligan as Jack and Kelly Kaduce as Wendy

As Jack, Brian Mulligan added physical menace to a steel-cored voice. If his rapid swings early in the opera between loving family man and brutal tyrant seemed too precipitous, they were indeed frightening, as they should be. His deterioration in the second act was especially effective, as the Overlook asserts control and less and less of Jack is left. The power of the performance comes from growing intensity of his interpretation rather than any specific musical numbers along the way.

Kelly Kaduce, who sang Wendy Torrance, is deservedly a Minnesota Opera favorite. She sang with expression and beauty of sound, but her role stays long in a limited emotional range, mostly expressing fear of her husband and comfort for her son. Her aria at the beginning, “I never stopped loving you” helps suggest a warmer relationship with Jack, but in that one moment the music doesn’t quite rise to the needs of the text.

It would be remiss not to observe that the teasing and sexy moments between Jack and Wendy are well written, and that both text and actors captured well the mood of King’s novel. In the pared down, two-hour stage presentation they seem too ephemeral, as if squeezed in for relief; expansion of those moments, musically or dramatically, could restore the balance found in the novel’s more thorough back story.

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Alejandro Vega (Danny) and Arthur Woodley (Halloran)

 

Alejandro Vega, the 10-year-old who brings Danny movingly to life, shows great talent. His assurance and the authenticity of his emotional reactions to the story reveal a natural actor, but also one who is skillfully trained and directed in the role. He was on stage for much of the performance, and he was fully the equal of the adults with whom he shared the stage. For later productions this will be a make-or-break role. Vega definitely made it.

Minnesota Opera has put together an able ensemble cast for the other roles as well. Mark Walters as Jack’s father who reaches from beyond the grave to drive his son toward murder; David Walton as the seductive former caretaker and multi-murderer Delbert Grady; Robb Asklof as haughty hotel manager Stuart Ullman; Alex Ritchie as the hotel’s depraved founder Horace Derwent: all were scarily effective.

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Wendy, Danny and Jack surrounded by ghosts and ghouls

Christie led the Minnesota Opera’s excellent orchestra with care and sensitivity to the singers. I could not find a serious flaw in the balance, and—considering I had not heard the piece before—the pacing seemed just right. We in Boulder, and now audiences in Minnesota, know that his is an important career.

I have no doubt that The Shining will go on to other productions, especially in the United States where Stephen King’s works loom so large in the popular culture. Many more audiences will stand and cheer.

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Minnesota Opera has become one of the most ardent and consistent supporters of new opera in the country. When you consider the record of some of the financially larger companies, their record of world premieres in four of the last five seasons (Kevin Puts, Silent Night, 2011; Douglas J. Cuomo, Doubt, 2013; Kevin Puts, Manchurian Candidate, 2015; and Paul Moravec, The Shining, 2016) puts them in a league with the adventurous Santa Fe Opera and few other professional companies.

And they have announced another premiere next season, Dinner at Eight by William Bolcom, based on the play by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber (March 11, 16, 18 and 19, 2017; you may see the entire, enticing season here.) I find it particularly exciting that our own American culture is being mined for operatic subjects, much as European opera has mined their shared culture for generations. This is certainly one of the reasons that contemporary opera is growing in popularity. There is more evidence than The Shining of American opera’s vigor today.

Colorado Music Festival announces diverse 39th summer season

Second season under music director Jean-Marie Zeitouni offers many highlights

Former music director Michael Christie returns to Boulder for a Festival Orchestra concert July 14

By Peter Alexander

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Chautauqua Auditorium, home of the Colorado Music Festival

The program will look both new and familiar at the 2016 Colorado Music Festival.

The CMF announced its 39th festival season last night (March 2) at an event for their friends and supporters. Running from June 30 through August 7, this will be the festival’s second summer series under music director Jean-Marie Zeitouni.

Many of the familiar features of recent festivals will continue—Festival Orchestra and Chamber Orchestra concerts, the Music Mash-Up series, family and young people’s concerts, and chamber music performances. But within that general framework, there will be some new developments as well: chamber music will be presented in the Chautauqua Auditorium; and an imaginative new series of three concerts under the direction of CMF creative partner Joshua Roman, “ArC (Artistic Currents) at the Dairy,” will be presented at the Dairy Center. In a change from previous years, most Festival Orchestra programs will only be presented one night instead of two.

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CMF music director Jean-Marie Zeitouni

Innovations for the 2016 season will include the Fêtes Galantes Series of intimate house concerts of chamber music, July 11, 20 and Aug. 5; a partnership with the Boulder Valley Velodrome, “CMF Goes to the Velodrome,” July 29; and a “Festival of Dinners” prepared by chefs from Boulder restaurants to be announced on the CMF Web page.

Ukrainian-Israeli violinist Vadim Gluzman will be one of several artists to have a residency at CMF, a notable expansion of festival activities. There will be several new and contemporary works during the summer, and Peter Brook’s controversial Tragedy of Carmen, a distillation of Bizet’s opera, will be presented July 10.

There will also be notable returns to the festival. Music director laureate Michael Christie will come back to Boulder to conduct a Festival Orchestra concert on July 14, with returning piano soloist Orion Weiss.

Other popular soloists from previous seasons will be back, including violinist Jennifer Koh with the Festival Orchestra on opening night, June 30. At the opposite end of the season, pianist Olga Kern will perform with the CMF Chamber Orchestra on the final concert, Aug. 7.

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Click! Commission winner Hannah Lash

The “Click” Commission program that offers new works by composers selected and financed by festival-goers is back, with the premiere of the Second Harp Concerto by Hannah Lash, who will also be the soloist July 31. Lash will take part in a residency at CMF, extending her participation in the festival beyond the premiere of her new concerto.

There will a number of other notable guest artists during the summer: Guzman, pianist Stephen Hough, the vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth, conductor Christopher Rountree, pianist David Korevaar from CU, and mezzo-soprano Kelley O’Connor, among others.

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The season will be packed with so many highlights that it is difficult to list them all. Here is at least an overview of concert events. (All performances begin at 7:30 p.m. in the Chautauqua Auditorium unless otherwise noted.)

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Jennifer Koh

The festival opens June 30 with “Narratives of Heroism,” a concert Zeitouni describes as “one of the highlights for me.” The program features Koh playing Finnish composer Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Violin Concerto, on a program with Beethoven’s Overture to Egmont and Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique. The concert will be preceded by a Pre-Concert Dinner at 5:30 p.m. on the great lawn at Chautauqua.

Also part of the opening weekend will be the residency of Sō Percussion from Brooklyn, currently Ensemble in Residence at Princeton University. They will give a recital July 1 on the Presenting Series of chamber music concerts, and will play Young People’s Concerts with the CMF orchestra at 10 and 11:30 a.m. July 2.

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So Percussion

The holiday weekend will wrap up with “Red, White and Brass,” a patriotic pops concert by the CMF Brass Ensemble at 4 p.m. July 3. Other Family Fun Concerts will be at 3 p.m. July 10 and 31.

The second week will feature “Boulder Brahms,” with the Festival Orchestra playing the four Brahms symphonies in two concerts: Nos. 1 and 2 on July 7; and 3 and 4 on July 8. “We’re not doing a mini-festival proper, like we did last season,” Zeitouni explains. “Instead, there are different themes throughout the summer.

“It’s interesting to hear all (the Brahms symphonies) two by two, but the idea goes beyond this. One of the more long-term ideas for the festival is to do multi-year symphonic cycles, like Michael Christie did with Mahler. The Brahms cycle is, I would say, a pretty conservative first step.”

Zeitouni sees this as a way to open up the repertoire beyond the symphonies that are programmed most often, but without overwhelming the schedule and the audience by trying to fit all of a composer’s symphonies into a single summer. Possible future composers for a multi-year cycle might include Bruckner, Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Dvořák, he said.

July 10 will see the presentation of a work that has become notorious in opera circles: Peter Brook’s abridged version of Bizet’s Carmen. The Tragedy of Carmen boils the opera down to about 80 minutes by paring away everything that does not have directly to do with the central drama of conflicting loves.

This distilled version, which only requires four voices and a chamber orchestra, “makes it a little bit more intense, if that’s even possible,” Zeitouni says. “It just tightens the tension—you have a higher alcohol content, because it’s a more concentrated formula.”

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DJ Spooky

The Music Mash-Up series will feature three groups: Jazz trio The Bad Plus will present a deconstruction of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, enhanced with projections and passages of jazz improvisation, July 12. On July 26, CU faculty Paul Miller, who performs as DJ Spooky, will mix classical pieces using turntables and performing with the Festival Orchestra.

The final Mash-Up brings the Colorado band Paper Bird to Chautauqua Aug. 2 to perform with the orchestra. Christopher Rountree, founder and director of wild Up, a Los-Angeles based chamber orchestra, will conduct the CMF orchestra on the July 26 and Aug. 2 Mash-Up performances.

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Michael Christie is very happy to be coming back to Boulder for the July 14 Festival Orchestra concert with pianist Orion Weiss. “We’ve got a great program,” Christie says. “I think its going to be a fun night.”

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Michael Christie

The concert will open with Leonard Bernstein’s Shivaree, a fanfare for brass, followed by Charles Ives’s Unanswered Question for strings and a single trumpet. “The Bernstein is very boisterous and the Ives is extremely quiet,” he says. “I think in Chautauqua it will be quite magical.”

Next will be the suite from Bernstein’s score for the film On the Waterfront, which Christie chose because it is not heard often and it has a lot of solos for his friends in the orchestra. “It’s a beautiful, cinematic work,” he says. The second half of the concert will be a single work, Brahms’s First Piano Concerto with Weiss as the soloist.

“When I think about Chautauqua, there are just so many faces that I can see, because I saw them for so many summers,” Christie says. “I can remember a lot of folks, and I’ll be curious to see if they will still be there.

“The other thing I’m really looking forward to is getting out to do some hikes. When the summer was going and I was music director there were always a billion things to take care of. I’d get to the end of summer and realize that I hadn’t done a single hike. I’m going to try to make up for that, so maybe you’ll see me on the trail!”

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Joshua Roman. Photo by Jeremy Sawatzky

The ArC at the Dairy series, presented at Boulder’s Dairy Center, has some of the most intriguing programs of the summer. On July 16 series director and cellist Joshua Roman will perform with soprano Jessica Rivera and CMF musicians to present his own song cycle we do it to one another, based on Tracy K. Smith’s Pulitzer Prize-winning poetry collection “Life on Mars”; and one of the iconic works of the 20th century, Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, written in a World War II prisoner-of-war camp.

On July 23, composer/violinist Daniel Bernard Roumain and spoken word artist Marc Bamuthi Joseph will join together to present “Blackbird, Fly,” a hip-hop influenced program that will address issues of tolerance and inclusion. And July 30 the Grammy-winning contemporary vocal group Roomful of Teeth will bring their unique style to the festival.

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Vadim Gluzman

Chamber Orchestra concerts will include “Inspired by Bach” July 17, with violinist Gluzman playing and leading the orchestra in works of Mozart, Shostakovich, and Alfred Schnittke; Mozart’s three final symphonies together on a single concert directed by Zeitouni July 24; and the July 31 premiere of Lash’s Harp Concerto No. 2, the Click! Commission winner, programmed with music by Bach, Beethoven and Richard Strauss.

The Presenting Series will offer chamber music performances at Chautauqua Auditorium. After Sō Percussion opens the series on July 1, Weiss, Roman, Korevaar, Gluzman, Kern, and CMF musicians will perform in various combinations July 15 and 19 and Aug. 6. As part of his week-long residency, Gluzman will also appear with the Festival Orchestra in “Russian Passions,” the one orchestra program to be repeated, July 21 and 22.

In addition to Gluzman’s performance of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, the concerts will feature Liadov’s Enchanted Lake and a special presentation of Mussorgsky’s familiar Pictures at an Exhibition with animation that was created for the first performance in architect Frank Gehry’s New World Center in Miami Beach, Fla.

Stephen Hough

Stephen Hough

British pianist Stephen Hough returns to Boulder for the sixth Festival Orchestra program, “From Prague to Warsaw to Bucharest,” on July 28. Hough will play Liszt’s First Piano Concerto and Polish composer Witold Lutosławski’s Paganini Variations. “In a folkish-inspired program, we will open with the Enescu First Romanian Rhapsody and (close with) Dvořák’s Symphony No. 8,” Zeitouni says of the program.

Zeitouni identifies the Aug. 4 Festival Orchestra concert as one of his favorite programs of the summer. It will feature two major works, the Trois Nocturnes for orchestra of Claude Debussy, and Gustav Mahler’s deeply moving Lied von der Erde (Song of the Earth) with mezzo-soprano Kelley O’Connor and tenor Richard Cox as vocal soloists.

“This music is some of my favorites,” Zeitouni says. “I have a very personal relationship with Das Lied von der Erde, because it was one of the first recordings that I got as a teenager.” He also observes that the piece was requested by orchestra musicians, because they rarely have the chance to play it in their home orchestras, and it is a continuation of the Mahler cycle that Christie had begun.

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Olga Kern. Photo by Fernando Baez.

The final night of the festival will be a Chamber Orchestra concert on Aug. 7. This program will feature Zeitouni and CMF favorite Olga Kern playing Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto on a program with Stravinsky’s “Dumbarton Oaks” Concerto and Schubert’s delightful Symphony No. 5.

Outgoing CMF executive director Andrew Bradford has written that “the offerings of the 2016 Colorado Music Festival are incredibly wide-ranging and diverse,” a claim that is hard to disagree with. “The season includes something that every music lover will enjoy,” he wrote.

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UPDATE (3/4/16): The full summer calendar is now available on the CMF Website.

TICKETS: Subscription tickets will go on sale Monday, March 7, and single tickets will be available Monday, April 4. For tickets to most events, click HERE. Tickets to the ArC series at the Dairy Center are available HERE.

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

Santa Fe’s 2016 season has also been announced

By Peter Alexander

Michael Christie conducts the Minnesota Opera

Michael Christie conducts the Minnesota Opera

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

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

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

Santa Fe's unique opera house

Santa Fe’s unique opera house

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mason Bates. Photo by Lydia Danmiller.

Mason Bates. Photo by Lydia Danmiller.

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

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

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

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

Michael Christie talks about life and career since Boulder

“I’m not dealing with violin soloists as much as I’m dealing with tenors”

By Peter Alexander

Michael Christie

Michael Christie

When I was in Minneapolis March 5–9 for the premiere of Kevin Puts’s opera The Manchurian Candidate at the Minnesota Opera (see review below), I had the opportunity to speak with former Colorado Music Festival Music Director Michael Christie about his life and career since he moved to Minneapolis. Christie, who is now the music director of the Minnesota Opera and conducted the premiere, had interesting observations about the life of symphony conductors vs. opera conductors, how much he loves Minneapolis, and how much he misses his friends from Boulder. Here is a lightly edited version of our conversation:

PA: I understand that you will take your first summer off in how long?

MC: Seventeen years! I’ve been contemplating for a few years what it would look like to actually take a sabbatical. I worked with my manager to identify the summer of ‘15 as an opportunity, and certainly when my wife and I discovered that we were going to have a little boy I thought ‘Oh, this will be fantastic, he’ll be one, my daughter will be seven, it’s a perfect time to just have some time!’ So I’m taking three months off. The coming summers after that will be mayhem. There will be some wonderful announcements about future summers soon, so that’s good.

Is your career mostly opera at this point?

I’d say it’s still 50-50, but doing an opera is a five to seven week time commitment. Doing Carmen or Manchurian Candidate or anything like that takes a big chunk of time, versus doing one orchestral project, which is a week. In terms of the actual amount of time per year it’s heavily weighted toward opera, but in terms of the number of projects themselves, it’s still quite balanced.

Of course, opera preparation time is pretty massive.

Yes, absolutely. Just speaking of Carmen, which we’re doing next month, that score is 750 pages of music! Even though it’s this ubiquitous title, and we generally know the orchestral music (and) a lot of the great arias, there is all of this connecting tissue—hundreds of pages of connecting tissue. And then with the director you have to figure out how is the drama going to work. To do that over 700 pages is a lot of time.

Michael Christie with the cast of "Manchurian Candidate" at Minnesota Opera

Michael Christie with the cast of “Manchurian Candidate” at Minnesota Opera

And when you do a premiere, nobody has heard a note of Manchurian Candidate until it arrives on your desk.

That’s right, but that’s what’s great about this particular team. (Composer) Kevin Puts and (librettist) Mark Campbell have worked together (before), we’ve worked together as a group, and they are very attuned to what’s happening on stage. So when we make decisions about a tempo or something like that, it will be Kevin who will say, ‘We need to tighten that up,’ or ‘We need more music here.’ He’s not one of these guys who says ‘Two years ago I wrote music and it must remain that way.’ He looks at it and says, ‘Oh, I see, they can’t get the sofa onstage in time, can you repeat those two bars?’ Which is really amazing.

So he’s very practical.

He’s very practical. And there are some times when he just says, ‘Look guys I can’t draw this out any more, you need to tighten up on your side.’ But certainly, it has been very interesting to experiment with the piece, (to) try this a little quicker, or a little slower. It’s been very exciting but wonderfully collaborative.

At this time do you hold any other positions than music director at Minnesota Opera?

All of my work outside of Minnesota Opera is freelance. Music Director at Minnesota Opera is my one title. Having held three at one point, I can tell you one is a good thing.

For many years Christie had to fly his own airplane to get to and from the three positions he held as conductor.

For many years Christie flew his own airplane to get to and from the three positions he held as music director.

That must give you a lot more flexibility and a lot more control of your schedule.

Yes, that’s exactly right. When I look back at the ebbs and flows of the intensity of life (in) my late 20s and early 30s—Phoenix, Brooklyn, Boulder—sometimes I’m amazed that I survived, because the needs of those organizations beyond doing performances was enormous. It’s good to have been through that, to know now what an organization needs from one of its artistic leaders.

Your wife and your children must appreciate the fact that you now have a more stable lifestyle.

Yes, absolutely, and my wife had been doing all of her medical training during that same time period. We both were on a hamster wheel, just running like crazy. She’s in an amazing medical practice here in Minneapolis, so it’s all just worked out well. So we do have a great life with a lot of interesting opportunities.

And you like Minneapolis?

It’s an amazing place for culture and cuisine. In a lot of the cities I’m visiting around the United States, the food’s just getting much, much better—everywhere, cities large and small. Minneapolis is a city that goes out. People go out of their homes, they go to theater and they go to sports—they just go out, so they want to have a good scene.

Michael Christie.04

Photo by Jared Platt

Do you miss planning an entire symphony or summer season, which gives you the opportunity to a different kind of planning than what you can do with an opera company?

I’m certainly keeping an eye on what’s going on in the business, who’s doing what kind of programming, who’s doing what kind of collaboration, those groups that are bringing more multi-media, interdisciplinary performances. Some of the stuff we had started doing in Boulder, we were thinking in a way that the industry was starting to think as well. I’m very pleased about that. I’m not sure that I miss it per se, but I’m aware that I need to stay on top of it in order to be effective the next time around. It’s a new set of colleagues, and I’m not dealing with violin soloists as much as I’m dealing with tenors.

I won’t ask if that’s an improvement.

Exactly! But it is different. It’s nice when I am doing some of the symphony projects, and if there’s a voice required, I now have a rolodex of people that I can recommend. I don’t view the opera and symphony worlds as segregated. There are more of us that are crossing over and are able to negotiate the needs of both pretty readily, I think.

When you are planning for a symphony, whether it’s the regular season in Phoenix or a summer festival in Boulder, you can do a broader palette of composers and styles, whereas with opera—how many works do you do in a season?

We do five.

Christie in the pit of the Minnesota Opera at the Ordway Music Theater

Christie in the pit of the Minnesota Opera at the Ordway Music Theater. Photo by Michal Daniel.

And of those you will conduct?

I will do between three and five. It depends on what’s going on outside, but I definitely get your point about variety. You can’t do 24 operas in a season! But at the same time, one thing that I have come to really appreciate is that when you do five operas and you have five weeks for each, you really get to grow into it.

Sometimes in the pressure cooker of a festival or just a normal symphony season, you’re thinking about 10 different programs at a time. If you don’t stay on top of it, you’re not ready to start that next program the minute the previous one ends. There is something quite nice to having a little bit more space to ask yourself, ‘Well, should it and could it be a little bit this, or more of that?’ Whereas sometimes with a symphony you have to show up on that Tuesday morning (to start rehearsals), you have 10 hours and come hell or high water—it’s going to be within a fairly narrow range.

I like that you get to know people a lot better, too. You get to know that group of singers very well, certainly the stage director, but even the orchestra. On one project we’re probably together for 30 hours vs. the 12 for a symphony.

I would guess that the orchestra players would have a different attitude toward the repertoire because while they have played Carmen before, it’s not a Beethoven symphony that they may have played dozens of times before.

That’s right. Some of our orchestra (members) have probably played it twice. I think there isn’t an exhaustion with the repertory. Since the Minnesota Opera does happen to be on quite a great run over the last couple of decades, there’s so much ownership (by the players). And I do think when somebody’s decided to be part of an opera orchestra, there is thinking that goes into how they approach playing together. They know that they play a more supportive role than they would if they were on a concert platform. Opera orchestras know you have to listen, and we have to work this out together.

In opera there are so many different elements to bring together, it seems to me about the most difficult art form. And I don’t know of any job harder than what an opera singer does, mastering the vocal technique, learning all of the music, doing it onstage, in costume, while acting.

I agree. And you have to do it with lights shining on you, and you have this guy down in the pit waving his arms trying to keep together 60 people with you at the same time. Opera is very complicated. When you think about the other art forms that are somewhat similar, Broadway musicals are on a continuum with opera, but that band is 12 people, most of the time keyboards.

And the singers are all miked now.

Right, the singers are all miked. When you think about the cast of Lion King, some of my buddies who do this stuff say they sing with 30% of their voice, 40% of their voice. That’s what you have to do to survive eight performances a week. When you hear an opera singer who’s been going at it all night afterward, and they speak to you, that voice is a little bit strained. It’s such a massive physical undertaking.

Photo by MIchal Dnaiel for the Minnesota Opera.

Photo by Michal Daniel for the Minnesota Opera.

Is it an increased challenge professionally, moving from orchestral to opera conducting?

I think it just depends on your approach to it. If you want to be a dictatorial conductor who only wants it their way, opera’s not your bag, because you have to be sensitive to what’s going on in the drama. So it’s not that I’ve taken a step up, it’s that I feel like I’ve just opened up my ears, opened up my mind toward different interpretational concepts.

I actually think that when I go back to the symphony repertory now, I can’t help but think—Dvorák for example. Given that he’s written something like nine operas, there’s no way that he wanted people to have relative freedom in his operas, and then absolute rigor: ‘Don’t you diverge one iota from my symphonic writing!’ Sometimes you would think that if you’re doing symphonies, it says an eighth note so it must be an eighth note. Well, maybe that eighth note’s there to facilitate a breath before the next phrase, or whatever that case may be. So I just feel very lucky to have had that training.

I learned when I started listening to opera, that with singers, an eighth note is not just an eighth note.

That’s exactly right. It’s a time for reflection, or it can be a moment of anger, curtness, it can be a moment of pause. That’s what’s fun about those five weeks, that you get to work with the singer on developing, if it’s going to be anger, what do we have to do around that to make that happen, with the lighting, with the orchestra crescendo, etc.

And when you work with a living composer, in an opera like Manchurian Candidate, you realize that at least with certain composers that they’re saying to us, ‘I’m trying my best to write this in a way that gives you as thorough of a road map as possible, but you have to make sure the drama works.’ And that makes me even more convinced that (with) Mozart, Berlioz, these composers that were steeped in both traditions, those traditions definitely overlapped each other. And it gives much more license than we would normally think.

Another thing that I love about opera is that the patrons, the fans—they’re just so rabid. I love that people are as fussy about whether they like the singing of the mezzo singing Carmen as they are about the sets—they’re watching all the elements, they’re listening and wondering, ‘Can I hear this? Can I see that? Why did they make that cut there?’ And they let you know! Which is fine.

I’m sure they do! The outrage over some of the recent Met productions, as intense as it has gotten, is also somehow reassuring, that people care so much about the art form.

I think so, too. I love that. I think it’s healthy and was one of the things that really attracted me to coming to the Twin Cities. First of all, the opera position afforded the opportunity to get involved in that world, but the community itself has very high expectations for everything. So whether it’s education, the environment, or just the community asking ‘Can we access that bike trail? What’s our access to the river like? What’s the quality of life?’ It’s such an interesting thing to be in a community where there’s this underlying expectation of ‘We’re here and it’s got to be good.’ That’s a wonderful bit of pressure for an arts company.

To wrap up: Is there anything coming up that you can share with us? Any future plans, other than having the summer off?

We’ve announced next season. We have The Shining which is our new opera for next year, based on the Steven King novel. It will be by Paul Moravec, the composer, and Mark Campbell is also doing the libretto for that. Unusually, we’re bringing back a production of Magic Flute which was a co-production with the Komische Oper in Berlin. It’s (based on) this fantastic 1920 film. It’s really quite remarkable, it kind of harkens back to my multi-media film with orchestra concepts.

The bigger news starts in 2017. That will start coming in the spring of this year, and we can talk about that when it happens.

Do you have a message for your friends in Boulder?

I miss them all! Every summer was a pivotal time because we tried things and it was fun to see what worked, what had to be changed, and everything that we did together really kind of informs decisions I make, whether it’s opera or symphony. So it’s a special place in my heart.

Note: Edited March 12 for clarity and to correct minor errors of punctuation and typos.

Puts’s Manchurian Candidate wins the audience on opening night

Michael Christie leads taut premiere

750x400_04Manchurian_2

By Peter Alexander

The Minnesota Opera rocked the Ordway last night (March 7) with the world premiere of Kevin Puts’s new opera, The Manchurian Candidate.

The performance was conducted by Michael Christie, former music director of the Colorado Music Festival who is now music director of the Minnesota Opera. A strong cast and first-rate orchestra gave a taut, polished performance that swept the audience up in its brisk, powerful motion, from the brittle, menacing opening sounds in the orchestra to the final, brutal punctuation mark.

Composer Kevin Puts

Composer Kevin Puts

Puts’s only previous opera, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Silent Night, had its premiere by the Minnesota Opera in 2011. For Manchurian Candidate he set a very effective libretto by Mark Campbell, based on Richard Condon’s 1950s novel of the same title. A gripping if improbable tale of cold-war brainwashing set against the McCarthy-era red scares, the novel was twice made into a film—first in 1962 starring Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey and Angela Lansbury; and again in 2004 with Denzel Washington, Meryl Streep and Liev Schreiber.

Campbell, who also wrote the libretto for Silent Night, here created a very efficient text from Condon’s clunky potboiler. What he could not do is give depth to characters who are often little more than plot devices: Raymond Shaw, the tainted “war hero” who is a pawn of the communists; his war buddy Ben Marco, whose role it is to unlock Shaw’s corrupted mind; Jocie Jordan, who exists only to be Shaw’s love interest and to die tragically near the end; her father, Thomas Jordan, the “good” senator of liberal beliefs; Eleanor Iselin, Shaw’s predatory mother; and her husband, Johnny Iselin, the stand-in for Sen. Joe McCarthy.

That said, the opera runs lucidly through the various complexities of the original story, dispensing with events and characters not essential to the unwinding of the plot’s mainspring. It is this focus on the central story, and Puts’ compelling music, that give the opera both clarity and momentum. And at just over 2 hours including intermission, Manchurian Candidate never drags.

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Brenda Harris as Eleanor Iselin and Mathew Worth as Sgt. Raymond Shaw. Minnesota Opera production of “The Manchurian Candidate” by Kevin Puts. Photo by Michal Daniel.

Puts has written a score of power and complexity. As scene moves rapidly to scene, he is extremely effective in changing moods and providing what contours he can to the relatively flat characters. The aura of menace around Shaw’s mother is creepily apparent, and one cannot miss the bluster and pomposity of her dim-witted husband. Similarly, the horror of Shaw’s brainwashing, the shallowness of the political hangers-on, and the languid warmth of Shaw’s “summer by the lake” are all well conveyed through the music.

Puts has mastered a range of styles, from the military band music that greets Raymond Shaw’s arrival as a Medal of Honor winner, to the delightful train music of one lighter scene, to a patriotic hymn, to the manic music of a political convention. The text is set clearly and is almost always intelligible, with the vocal parts embedded in atmospheric orchestral sounds that illuminate the meaning of the text.

The text only lost intelligibility when two different scenes were unfolding at once. Then one was grateful to have supertitles; otherwise, the audience would have no way of knowing what occurred in a some critical moments in the opera. In a theater without titles, this could be a serious shortcoming.

Matthew Worth as Sergeant Raymond Shaw in the Minnesota Opera production of The Manchurian Candidate. Photo by Michal Daniel.

Matthew Worth as Sergeant Raymond Shaw. Photo by Michal Daniel.

In his setting of English, Puts appears to have learned from the operas of Benjamin Britten—nowhere more so that in Raymond Shaw’s “mad scene,” in which the mixed fragments of previously-heard texts recall Britten’s mad scene for Peter Grimes. If not original, it is effective and was powerfully sung by baritone Matthew Worth.

Leonardo Capalbo as Captain Ben Marco in the Minnesota Opera production of The Manchurian Candidate. Popto by Michal Daniel

Leonardo Capalbo as Captain Ben Marco. Photo by Michal Daniel.

While it is not possible to cover everyone in the large cast, mention should be made of Leonardo Capalbo as Ben Marco. His scene recalling his nightmares, “Night After Night,” was one of the most effective set pieces in the opera.

Brenda Harris as Eleanor Iselin and Daniel Sumegi as Senator Johnny Iselin in the Minnesota Opera production of The Manchurian Candidate. Photo by Michal Daniel.

Brenda Harris as Eleanor Iselin and Daniel Sumegi as Senator Johnny Iselin. Photo by Michal Daniel.

Soprano Brenda Harris has the opera’s most virtuosic music, particularly in her scene at the end of Act I, calling on “My darling little boy” and foretelling that “Terrible, terrible things will happen in this country.” This moment of almost Queen-of-the-Night threat and fireworks is a great dramatic stroke, set in the middle of a party scene that can only be described as satirical, and it was spectacularly dispatched by Harris.

Daniel Sumegi’s rough-hewn voice was appropriate for Johnny Iselin’s bluster, if not particularly beautiful. Angela Mortellaro was a lovely, winsome Jocie Jordan. Other roles, from the Chinese and Russians who brainwashed Shaw to the partygoers at the Iselins’, all filled their roles ably.

The production made good use of designer Robert Brill’s unit set. Kevin Newbury’s direction was uncomplicated and natural. There were a number of effective touches, including the menacing men in suits who moved furniture and seemed to be looming behind the scenes at critical moments, and the lighting effects that seemed to put Shaw in the shadow of prison bars when others were in open light.

Michael Christie

Michael Christie

But above all one must credit conductor Michael Christie and the musicians of the Minnesota Opera orchestra. Playing in an exposed pit, they only once covered the singers. Christie maintained the flow of the opera ably. Although it is hard to judge a new work, every tempo felt right, the transitions happened smoothly and there were no audible stumbles in the complex score. I particularly appreciated that Christie did not make an entrance into the pit to elicit applause, but just started both halves with no warning.

The Manchurian Candidate is an important new opera, and it was given a worthy premiere performance at the Ordway Music Theater last night. The audience responded warmly at the end, and recognized Harris in particular as a favorite with shouts and a standing ovation.

One must congratulate the Minnesota Opera for their ongoing commissioning and support of new opera. They far surpass some much larger companies in that regard. Indeed, the recent history of the Minnesota Opera in general, and the success of The Manchurian Candidate in particular, shows that new operas can provide compelling music drama and find an important place in a successful company.

Additional performances of Manchurian Candidate will be March 8, 12, 14 and 15. Visit the Minnesota Opera Web page for details and tickets.

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The same weekend as the premiere of Manchurian Candidate, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra opened a beautiful new concert hall in the Ordway complex, with concerts Thursday and Friday evening (March 5 and 6).

This is the first time in its 30-plus-year history that the SPCO has had a home that was designed for a chamber orchestra. Previously they played many concerts in the Ordway Music Theater, whose proscenium stage, members of the orchestra say, muddied and muffled the sound that reached the audience.

To judge by the performance I heard (Friday evening, March 6), the new hall is a spectacular success. It is a beautiful space, with gentle curves, warm wood and sound-reflective gypsum blocks dominating the visual aspect. No one is more than 90 feet from the stage. The sound is very present all the way to the top of the second tier—where I was sitting. Even the softest pizzicatos carried well and the texture was consistently clean and transparent. I didn’t know if the audience’s standing ovation at the end of the concert was for the performance, or for the hall.

The first half of the program was well chosen to show the orchestra and the hall to good advantage. Playing without a conductor but following concertmaster Steve Copes’s cues, the orchestra gave a brilliant account of Prokofiev’s “Classical” Symphony. Every note of the sparkling string parts came through, and the winds were bright and clear throughout.

After Prokofiev, the SPCO gave an unlisted performance of Charles Ives’s Unanswered Question, apparently decided on at the last minute. With string playing at a barely-audible whisper and the trumpet sounding beautifully from the balcony, this was an extreme test of both orchestra and hall, and both passed, again brilliantly.

The piece commissioned for the occasion, Coraggio for string orchestra (from String Quartet No. 3) by George Tsontakis, is a pleasant, unchallenging score that passed muster as an occasional piece. If it did not test the orchestra as much as Prokofiev and Ives, it served its festive purpose well.

The second half of the concert, again without conductor, was Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony. It was good to hear it played by an orchestra of the size Beethoven would have known, especially of the quality of the SPCO. The dynamic range was impressive, and the momentum at the end brought the audience to their feet. But on the whole I found it less satisfying than the earlier pieces: the balance was less sure, some individual lines were too prominent, and the overall contour of the piece less controlled than might be the case with a conductor.

Still, it was a wonderful concert, and it gives hope to all fans of the SPCO. They now have a home worthy of the orchestra’s quality.

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NOTE: Updated March 8 to include the running time of the performance and future performance dates  of Manchurian Candidate.