Longmont resident Michael Udow’s Ancient Echoes inspired by archaeological finds
By Peter Alexander April 24 at 12:15 a.m.
NOTE: I usually do not review ensembles that are not fully professional. This performance by the semi-pro Longmont Symphony rates an exception because it includes a world premiere, which always deserve media attention.
Last night (April 23) the Longmont Symphony Orchestra (LSO) gave the first performance of a piece that was inspired by archaeological discoveries in the state of Colorado. Michael Udow’s Ancient Echoes makes use of four stones discovered in Great Sand Dunes National Park and elsewhere in the San Luis Valley that archeologist Marilyn Mortorano discovered to be ancient lithophones, or musical instruments made of stone. (Read the full story here.)
Under conductor Elliot Moore, the LSO gave a careful reading of Udow’s atmospheric score. Soloist Anthony Di Sanza, once Udow’s percussion student at the University of Michigan, was all over the front of the stage, switching among four different percussion setups that included the four ancient stones, a modern mallet instrument with tuned granite bars—Udow’s personal creation for this one piece—a vibraphone, drums from North Africa and Japan, German cowbells and temple gongs, among other instruments.
There can be no doubt that Udow knows the percussion instruments intimately that he writes for. They were all used effectively, and Di Sanza gave a virtuosic performance on all of them. It was clearly as much fun for him running from one setup to another, as it was for the audience watching and listening.
The score opens with a dreamy, evocative passage that made good use of the quiet plinking sounds of the ancient stones. From there the score moves from one set of instruments to another, each representing a different culture or part of the world. The score is highly episodic, as each set of instruments brings forth its own musical style and mood.
Udow used the orchestra well, but did not resist falling into Hollywood-style Orientalist cliches to support some of the instruments, and I am not sure that his series of musical vignettes adds up to more than the sum of its highly individual parts. But the result is certainly a showpiece for the soloist, and one that may prove irresistible to other percussionists in the future.
Udow’s modern granite lithophone is bound for a percussion collection in Indianapolis, where it will be available for Di Sanza and other professional percussionists who wish to perform Udow’s score. With it containing so many fun licks, I would not dare to guess where we will hear it next.
Following a standing ovation, Di Sanza and his former teacher Udow gave an energetic handclapping encore that was great fun, if perhaps a minute too long.
For the rest of the concert, Moore led the LSO in first Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite, and later to close the program Brahms’s Symphony No. 1. The Firebird performance had a strong expressive profile, capturing well the essence of each scene. There were some especially nice solos in the woodwinds, if a few issues of balance overall.
The Brahms was the least satisfying of the three pieces, needing better balance—again—and more rhythmic precision, especially within the string sections. In a modern concert hall and with modern winds, Brahms really needs a larger string section than most small-budget orchestras can provide, and that was the case here. But it should be noted that the LSO has grown in quality over Moore’e five years in Longmont, and Moore brought the symphony to an energetic conclusion. It was greeted warmly by the audience.
Michael Udow’s Ancient Echoes on Saturday’s program with Stravinsky and Brahms
By Peter Alexander April 21 at 7:10 p.m.
It’s not often that an orchestra premieres a piece with roots that go back 6,000 years.
Saturday (April 23) the Longmont Symphony and conductor Elliot Moore will do just that when they give the first performance of Ancient Echoes, a score by percussionist/composer and Longmont resident Michael Udow (see concert details below; tickets are available here).
Udow’s concerto for multiple percussion instruments will feature soloist Anthony Di Sanza playing instruments including one designed by Udow, based on ancient artifacts from Colorado that date back thousands of years. As part of the same piece, Di Sanza will play a variety of instruments from cultures around the world, including Indonesia, Japan and Korea. The concert program also includes Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite and Brahms’s Symphony No. 1.
Udow’s piece has a long backstory—although not quite 6,000 years. In fact it started around 2000, when archaeologist Marilyn Mortorano was doing consulting work at Great Sand Dunes National Park. The museum at the park has a number of ground stone artifacts, shaped roughly like baguettes, up to a two feet long, in their collection.
They had been found at archaeological sites throughout the park, including one that was standing up in the sand, and other sites in the San Luis Valley. In fact, Mortorano says, “Almost all the collectors (in the area) had them and they didn’t know what they were, and we didn’t either.”
They were carefully worked, but way too heavy to be used as grinding tools like the mano and metate sets found throughout the Southwest. But “somebody spent a lot of time making them,” Mortorano says. “It bothered me because I thought, why do we not know what these are?”
Then in 2013 she ran across a YouTube video from the Musée de l’Homme (Museum of man) in Paris, which had similar artifacts that French soldiers had brought back from Africa. At the time she had several of the Colorado stones for research purposes, so she was surprised when she learned that the stones in Paris produced a musical sound when tapped. (You can see and hear them here; narration in French.)
In fact a set of them was used for Paleomusique, written by French composer Philippe Fenelon. Those stones were used for a single series of performances in 2014, and then packed away for storage, never to be played again.
“I thought this is crazy,” Mortorano says, “but I’ll see if (the stones from Colorado) could be musical. My younger daughter is a percussionist, so she had a basket of mallets. I couldn’t believe it—they rang like bells!”
When Mortorano returned the stones to the museum at Great Sand Dunes the next day, she showed her discovery to Fred Bunch, the chief of resources. He was startled, and promised to support any further research that Mortorano could pursue with the stones.
“We don’t know how these were used, because we don’t know the whole context,” Mortorano says. “But we know now from studying lithophones (musical instruments made of rocks), they’re all over the world. They’re in Africa, they’re in Asia, they’re in South America, they’re even in Hawaii.”
In the meantime, Mortorano had talked to Colorado Public Radio’s Ryan Warner several years earlier, before she realized that the stones could be lithophones, who told her to let him know if she figured out what they were used for. She contacted him again after discovering their musical qualities and he did a new interview that was picked up by National Public Radio and noted on other national media.
And this is where Udow enters the story. When he heard about Mortorano’s research and the Colorado stones, he wanted to see and hear them. When he contacted Mortorano, he discovered that she only lived about two blocks from his home in Longmont. He went over for a visit.
“Marilyn and (her husband) Sal had them set up beautifully on a long table with a hemp chord set at the nodes so they get maximum vibration,” Udow says. “I played them and I went home and thought, this is really important. It shows the musical side of the creative human spirit from 6,000 years ago, and wouldn’t it be interesting to compose a work!”
The Longmont Symphony had previously played two pieces by Udow, so his next step was to contact LSO director Elliot Moore and propose a new piece for orchestra using the stones. When he met Mortorano and heard the stones, Moore became interested in the project, and eventually got a commitment from the LSO board to support a new piece from Udow.
“What I really have the privilege of getting to do is putting this all together,” Moore says. “You can have the idea to write a piece of music and you can find these ancient stones, but until there’s an orchestra willing to premiere this, it’s theoretical. I feel lucky that when I presented it to the Longmont Symphony, everybody said, ‘Let’s do it!’”
Udow realized that the more or less random collection of stones that had been found was not really suitable for a piece all by themselves. He decided he needed to create a new instrument that as well as possible duplicated the nature and sound of the ancient ground stones: a modern lithophone that was tuned to play with a modern orchestra.
This turned out to be a lengthy process, but one that paid off in the end. He visited granite quarries in Colorado, but none of them had stone that resonated well enough to be used in a musical instrument. He discovered that the best stone was absolute black granite from India, which fortunately he could get from Colorado manufacturers of granite countertops.
He ended up purchasing two slabs of black granite, only one of which had good acoustical qualities. He was able to have that one cut into bars of varying length, which could be tuned by delicately cutting and grinding the stone, using a circular saw with a diamond blade.
In the end Udow estimates he spent about $5000 of his own money for the granite, the shop time to produce the bars, the frame that holds them and special cases to protect the bars. But he ended up with a playable instrtrument.
The completed score is virtually a concerto for multi percussion with orchestra. Udow’s lithophone will be featured, along with a number of other instruments: a marimba, a vibraphone, gongs from Korea, drums from Japan, a bamboo rattle from Java and German cowbells. For the one performance Saturday, the soloist will also briefly play four of the original ancient stones before they are returned to their museum collection.
Udow decided to use instruments from other cultures because in his travels as a percussionist, he had played instruments all over the world and he wanted to capture not only the timelessness of the original stones, but the universal quality of music.
That also inspired Moore. “One of the main things that have kept me going is remembering that we’re bringing these things to life,” he says. “A fundamental human characteristic that we all share is, we love music. That’s been one of the great things about this whole process.”
The soloist for the performance, Anthony Di Sanza, is a former student of Udow who currently teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In fact, he will bring instruments that used to be Udow’s with him to fill out the solo percussion array.
One issue that Di Sanza will have to deal with is the width of the bars on Udow’s new lithophone. It turns out that the bars have never been standardized by percussion makers. “Michael sent me all of the dimensions of the instrument, including the overall length and height, and also the bar width,” Di Sanza says. “The bar width (of other instruments) can vary to small increments or great increments, so we get used to making that adjustment.”
Di Sanza has had at least some of the music since last summer. Talking by phone from his home last week, he reported “I am at the stage now where I’m playing through the piece, listening to the midi (digital recording). That’s really fun because there are three-and-a half different physical setups on the stage. I start at one place, move to a different place for another part, come back for a different part, move to a third setup.
“A particularly challenging thing is as you move from one place to the next, knowing here’s where I’m going next! So that’s really fun, and fairly common with multiple percussion in the western classical tradition. And we thought a lot about how the instruments are grouped, to make sure the audience could see into the setups, and see what’s happening.”
Moore selected the rest of the program to go with Udow’s piece, with some very specific reasons for both the Stravinsky and the Brahms. “I thought that Stravinsky’s Firebird, with the idea of the rising phoenix, was something that could work well with this concerto,” he says. “It was the idea of matching Michael’s piece with the Stravinsky where I thought we had a winning program.
“And the other thing (is), I haven’t done a Brahms symphony (in Longmont). We have a wonderful cellist that retired pre-pandemic, Carmen Olguin, and as she was walking offstage with me for the retirement, she said, ‘Elliot, if you ever program a Brahms symphony, would you let me come back and play it?’ And I said ‘Sure.’
“I’ve always had in my mind this woman who wanted to play a Brahms symphony so bad, and I never programmed one, and I thought this was a good time to do it. So she joined us again, for her first rehearsal in probably three years.”
Brahms’s First Symphony is very standard orchestral repertoire, but Moore says the audience will hear some new things Saturday. “We are looking at this with fresh eyes and fresh ears, and I think it’s going to feel fresh. We’re taking a direction that is little bit leaner and a little bit closer to what the score indicates, not über Romantic.”
“People are going to be interested to hear it if for no other reason, that reason.”
In case you wonder about the new instrument, Di Sanza will take it back to Wisconsin, and eventually take it to a percussion museum in Indianapolis where he and others can use it for performances. Udow also hopes that some day, someone else might want to write music for it.
“That would be a hope of mine, to share it,” he says.
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“Soundings: Past and Present” Longmont Symphony Orchestra, Elliot Moore, conductor With Anthony Di Sanza, percussion
Michael Udow: Ancient Echoes (World Premiere)
Stravinsky: Firebird Suite (1919 version)
Brahms: Symphony No. 1 in C major
7:30 p.m. Saturday, April 23 Vance Brand Civic Auditorium, Longmont
NOTE: Effective immediately and until further notice, the Longmont Symphony no longer requires patrons to show proof of COVID vaccination, and masks will remain optional. This decision has been made with guidance from local, state, and federal officials.
First season is about connecting with local institutions—and friendship
By Peter Alexander
The Longmont Symphony Orchestra (LSO) has announced its 2017–18 season, the first under new music director Elliot Moore, and the consistent theme is building connections within the community.
Elliot Moore. Photo by Photography Maestro
That and friendship. The first concert explicitly highlights friendships, and the entire season is filled with performances that developed out of Moore’s professional friendships.
“Building connections is something that I’m really passionate about with this orchestra and with Longmont,” Moore says. Some of the connections he has worked to establish over the coming season are with the Longmont Public Library, with local composers, with the Longmont Museum through a chamber orchestra concert in Stewart Auditorium, and with other local cultural organizations.
“These are friendships that I think are so valuable, and I’m happy that we’re highlighting that very thing on the first concert,” he says.
Composer Carter Pann, one of Moore’s new friends
The season opening concert Oct. 7 features three pieces, each representing a different facet of friendship: Slalom by CU composer Carter Pann, who Moore counts as a new friend since coming to Colorado; Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini with piano soloist Spencer Myer, a professional colleague and friend that Moore has worked with before; and Elgar’s Enigma Variations, in which each variation describes one of Elgar’s close friends, from his wife to his publisher.
In addition to Pann, the season includes another local composer, Michael Udow, a percussionist/composer who lives in Longmont. The LSO concert on Feb. 24 will feature the world premiere of Udow’s Mountain Myths.
Percussionist/composer Michael Udow
Udow had been on the faculty of the University of Michigan when Moore was a student. “When I was guest conducting the LSO, Michael contacted me and said, ‘Oh, by the way, I’m living in Longmont,’” Moore explains. “I got to know some of his music, and thought that he writes really beautiful stuff. I was very happy to be able to draw on that connection with a fantastic composer who literally lives right there in Longmont, and it goes along with the theme of friends.”
Several of Moore’s friends will appear as soloists. In addition to Myer on the first concert, violinist Andrew Sords will play the Barber Violin Concerto on Nov. 11, and cellist Matthew Zalkind, Moore’s fellow student at Michigan who now teaches at the Lamont School of Music at the University of Denver, will play the Saint-Saëns Cello Concerto No. 1 on Feb. 24.
Popular children’s author Jack Prelutsky
Another personal acquaintance on the season is sure to attract attention. “I believe this is going to be a real feather in the cap of this orchestra and this season,” Moore says. “The main work on our family concert (Jan. 27) is Lucas Richman’s Behold the Bold Umbrellaphant. People are going to have an unbelievable experience because the music is so good!”
In collaboration with the Longmont Public Library, the LSO is bringing in to narrate Richman’s piece the well known author and former Children’s Poet Laureate Jack Prelutsky. “Prelutsky is a music lover and a great singer,” Moore explains. “It just so happens that my mom conducted a choir, which she recently stepped down from, and Jack was in her choir.”
Another program that Moore wants to point out is the concert on Nov. 11, Veterans’ Day. Titled “The American Frontier: In Honor of Our Veterans,” the all-American program includes both Aaron Copland’s World War II-era “Fanfare for the Common Man,” and Joan Tower’s 1987 response to Copland’s iconic piece, “Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman.”
Other works on the program are “Hymn to the Fallen,” taken from John Williams’ score for the World War II film Saving Private Ryan, and the Barber Violin Concerto, played by Sords. The program closes with just about the first piece to enter the standard orchestra repertoire that was written in America, Antonín Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9, “From the New World.”
Balancing the needs of the orchestra and the audience, Moore has put together a season with a mix of styles and periods, known and unknown composers. There are several pieces by living composers, but also many of the most popular classical composers are on the schedule as well: Rachmaninoff, Elgar, Mendelssohn, Dvořák, Vivaldi, Bach, Sibelius, Tchaikovsky. And the season will end with a chamber orchestra concert featuring the two most loved classical-era composers, Beethoven and Mozart.
Six‐concert subscription packages will go on sale by phone only on Thursday, July 6 (303‐772‐5796; 10 a.m.–4 p.m. Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays, and 9:30 a.m.–3:30 p.m. Fridays). Prices and details will be available on the LSO Web page. Single tickets go on sale on Monday, Aug. 28 by phone or online.
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Elliot Moore, music director
(All performances at Vance Brand Civic Auditorium except as noted)
Opening Night: On the Frontier with Old & New Friends 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 7
Elliot Moore, conductor, with Spencer Myer, piano
Carter Pann: Slalom Rachmaninoff: Rhapsody on a Theme ofPaganini Elgar: Enigma Variations
The American Frontier: In Honor of Our Veterans 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 11
Elliot Moore, conductor, with Andrew Sords, violin
Joan Tower: Fanfare for theUncommon Woman John Williams: Hymn to the Fallen from Saving Private Ryan Samuel Barber: Violin Concerto
Aaron Copland: Fanfare for the Common Man Antonín Dvořák: Symphony No. 9, “From the New World”
The Nutcracker Ballet with the Boulder Ballet Elliot Moore, conductor
4 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 2.
2 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 3
Candlelight Concert with the Longmont Chorale Singers 4 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 17
Westview Presbyterian Church, Longmont
Longmont Symphony Chamber Orchestra
Elliot Moore, conductor, with the Longmont Chorale singers & soloists
Vivaldi: Gloria J.S. Bach: Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring Respighi: Adoration of the Magi John Rutter: Candlelight Carol and Angel’s Carol Cynthia Clawson: O Holy Night Holiday carols & sing‐alongs
Family Matinee Concert 4 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 27, 2018
Elliot Moore, conductor, with Concerto Competition Winner (TBA)
Longmont Youth Symphony
Jack Prelutsky, narrator
Matthias Bamert: Circus Parade Sibelius: Symphony No. 2 (Finale)
Lucas Richman: Behold the Bold Umbrellaphant
A Longmont World Premiere 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 24, 2018
Elliot Moore, conductor, with Matthew Zalkind, cello