Boulder Chamber Orchestra and soloists delight with rare, youthful works

Performances of music by Mendelssohn and Janáček were ‘charming and expressive’

By Peter Alexander

Last night (Nov. 10), Bahman Saless and the Boulder Chamber Orchestra gave charming and expressive performances of two little known works: Mendelssohn’s Concerto for piano, violin and strings, written when the composer was 14; and Janáček’s Idyll for Strings, written when the composer was 24.

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Bahman Saless and the Boulder Chamber Orchestra. Photo by Keith Bobo.

Both scores have been eclipsed by greater works that came later in the composers’ careers. But last night’s performances were refined and stylish, making a case for the Concerto and the Idyll.

The program and others this year mark a return to genuine chamber orchestra repertoire for the BCO, after an excursion into the large-symphony realm last year. This is a good decision: the BCO sounded better and more comfortably at home with these two works than ever. It is one the best concerts I have heard them give.

Zachary & Mina

Zachary Carrettin and Mina Gajic

The soloists for the Mendelssohn, pianist Mina Gajić and violinist Zachary Carrettin, ripped through their often-virtuosic parts, tossing off Mendelssohn’s adolescent show-off riffs with aplomb. The young Mendelssohn was clearly drawing on classical models for structure and syntax, but he did not hesitate to use more dramatic Romantic gestures for the solo parts.

For example, the Concerto opens with a Mozartian introduction that would not be out of place in the catalog of any Classical composer. The piano then seems to drop in from another planet—call it the world of heroic soloists—entering with stentorian chords and flamboyant arpeggios. Gajić played with complete command, and was matched by Carrettin’s flourishes on the violin.

The mixture of styles is especially evident when Mendelssohn begins to develop his carefully balanced melodies, spinning off into unexpected keys and sudden changes of mood. Writing for himself to perform on piano with his violin teacher, he seems unable to resist showing everything he can do with the material.

Much of the slow movement is a Romanza for the two soloists, which provided some of the best moments. The Finale bounces between light-hearted jollity and stormy outbursts of passion, much as we can imagine the 14-year-old Mendelssohn doing with his own playing. Gajić and Carrettin followed Mendelssohn through every twist and turn, matching one another note-for-note through all the movement’s many scampering scales and runs.

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Bahman Saless: Czech in a former life?

Saless and the BCO came into their own with the Janáček Idyll, a suite of seven movements marked with the sweet melancholy and dance rhythms of Czech folk music. Saless spends part of every year in Prague and has said that he must have been Czech in a previous life.

If so, his performance of the Idyll was clear evidence of his identification with Czech culture. His interpretation was sensitive and deeply expressive throughout. Apart from an occasional muddiness in the lowest parts—likely due more to the venue than the players—the performance was exemplary. Though little known, the Idyll contains music of unexpected beauty.

The performance will be repeated, tonight at 7:30 in Boulder’s Seventh-Day Adventist Church. Both pieces are well worth hearing: the Mendelssohn is a delightful glimpse of a young genius at play, brought delightfully to life, and the Janáček is filled with wistful beauty, played with deep expression.

You can order your tickets here. You won’t be sorry.

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Youthful works form the Boulder Chamber Orchestra’s program Nov. 10 & 11

Music by Mendelssohn and Janáček with soloists Mina Gajić and Zachary Carrettin

By Peter Alexander

The Boulder Chamber Orchestra (BCO) calls its current season “Fourteeners,” in honor of the their 14th season and their goal of “reaching new heights.”

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BCO and Bahman Saless. Photo by Keith Bobo.

It may or may not be a coincidence, then, that conductor Bahman Saless chose a piece by the 14-year-old Mendelssohn for the next concert, to be performed Friday in Broomfield and Saturday in Boulder (Nov. 10 and 11). The program features pianist Mina Gajić and violinist Zachary Carrettin playing Mendelssohn’s Concerto for piano, violin, and strings from 1823.

Joining the Mendelssohn on the program is another youthful piece, the Idyll for Strings by Leoš Janáček, written when the composer was 24—a relatively young age for someone who lived and worked into his 70s.

Mendelssohn’s concerto is a youthful work, but it should not, Saless maintains, be considered an immature piece. “It gives the audience the chance to see the charm that you find in early Mendelssohn, and quite frankly his genius at that age,” he says. “It’s a pretty fascinating snapshot of what he was able to do at the time, and what he will be doing later.”

Carrettin agrees. “It’s an early work, but not that early,” he says. “He wrote it at 14, but at 16 he wrote the String Octet, which is considered by all to be a complete, mature masterpiece. In these two years, Mendelssohn becomes a fully formed master composer.”

Zachary & Mina

Zachary Carrettin and Mina Gajic

Gajić and Carrettin are known for their historically informed performances with the Boulder Bach festival, of which he is the artistic director. The performance with Saless and the BCO will be entirely on modern instruments, including the piano, but Gajić and Carrettin, who are married to one another, have been practicing the concerto at home with their own historical pianos and violin bows. Using instruments from Mendelssohn’s time, they have found, gives insights into the music.

One of the pianos that they rehearsed with dates from 1845, during Mendelssohn’s lifetime. “It’s just a whole world of colors and possibilities for phrasing that come naturally on an instrument like this,” Gajić explains. “Because they’re so related to the instrument’s nature, it’s revealing to look into special colors, timings, pedaling. It’s wonderful to see how certain pieces unlock themselves on a piano like this.”

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The 1845 piano that Gajic and Carrettin have used for rehearsals (photo by Peter Alexander)

“Every time we go back to the 1845 (piano) in rehearsal, it reveals something that the other pianos didn’t reveal,” Carrettin adds.

One difference using earlier pianos and bows is tempo. To Carrettin and Gajić it feels right to play faster on the older, lighter instruments. “For us, the later the instrument, the more resonance, the thicker the sound, the more we find that if we go just a couple of clicks slower, the sonorities make more sense with the character of the music,” he says.

That character, Carrettin explains, falls between the Classic and Romantic styles. “It has a little bit of tension between classical rhetoric and Romantic expression,” he says. “There’s a sense of walking between two worlds at a particular time in history, which I love.”

The score combines expressive melodies with virtuosic flourishes, all in a chamber music texture of exchange between soloists and orchestra. “It’s really exciting to bring the chamber music aspect into a concerto,” Gajić says. “We’ll have a great time performing with the Boulder Chamber Orchestra.”

Saless is equally excited. “It’s always a pleasure and an honor to work with Zachary and Mina,” he says. “It’s a charming piece, and performing with a husband and wife couple also makes it intriguing, because it’s like the violin and piano could be one instrument.”

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Bahman Saless. Photo by Keith Bobo

Saless and the BCO played the Janáček Idyll before, and it’s a piece that he feels a special connection with. “The first time I conducted it was in the Czech Republic and I fell in love with it,” he says. “It’s such a [cultural] identity piece, especially the last movement that brings this absolute joy of Czech culture. I think if there is such a thing as reincarnation, I was Czech in my last life!”

We think of Janáček as a 20th-century composer, because his best known works were composed after 1900, but the Idyll was written in 1878, more than 20 years before the new century. The first performance was heard by Dvořák, a friend of the younger composer who is often cited as an influence on the Idyll. But Saless isn’t sure about the influence.

“It’s hard to say if it’s Dvořák’s influence or just Czech influence,” he says. “Because it’s so Czech, it sounds like Dvořák.”

Some of Janáček’s later and better known pieces are fairly complex and spiky, but the Idyll is very straightforward. “It’s much more approachable,” Saless says. “It’s a suite of seven movements like folk songs, and that’s really all it is. It’s pretty simple.”

That doesn’t mean it’s easy to play, however. “There are some parts that are just impossibly hard,” Saless says. “There are some really hard cello parts. I’ve done quite a few Janáček pieces in the Czech Republic, and every orchestra complains how hard it is.”

The difficulty of the string writing probably reflects Janáček’s training as a pianist and organist and not a string player. “My guess is that he was so young that he was writing more as a composer that was not so familiar with the limitations (of the instruments),” Saless says.

“Having said that, it’s just gorgeous. Don’t miss it!”

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BCO Logo 2016

Idyllic Mendelssohn
Boulder Chamber Orchestra, Bahman Saless, conductor
With Mina Gajić, piano, and Zachary Carrettin, violin

 

7:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 10
Broomfield Auditorium, 3 Community Park Rd., Broomfield

7:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 11
Boulder Seventh-Day Adventist Church, 345 Mapleton Ave., Boulder

PROGRAM

Mendelssohn: Concerto for piano, violin, and strings
Leoš Janáček: Idyll for Strings

Tickets

From ‘Bachtoberfest’ to Carnival in Brazil, Boulder’s musicians plan celebrations

Boulder Bach Festival, Boulder Chorale announce 2017–18 seasons

By Peter Alexander

The Boulder Bach Festival and Boulder Chorale have announced their 2017–18 seasons, with globe-trotting celebrations from “Bachtoberfest” to Brazil to Venice.

imageOf the two, the Boulder Bach Festival (BBF) gets underway first with the “Bachtoberfest” at 7:30 p.m. Thursday , Oct. 12 in Boulder’s Seventh Day Adventist Church. The program will be repeated at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 14, in Longmont’s Stewart Auditorium.

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Soprano Josefien Stoppelenburg

The concert—which actually has nothing to do with beer—will feature four guest soloists: violinist Elizabeth Blumenstock from the faculty of the Juilliard School; Guy Fishman, principal cellist of the Handel-Haydn Society of Boston; Chris Holman, historical keyboardist of the Bach Society in Houston; and Dutch soprano Josefien Stoppelenburg, who has appeared with the BBF several times in the past.

Violinist Zachary Carrettin, artistic director of the BBF will also play on the concert of 18th-century chamber music. The program includes trio sonatas and arias by Handel, Vivaldi, J.S. Bach and Telemann.

A particularly interesting item on the program that continues the BBF’s exploration of historical rarities is listed as a “Keyboard Concerto in G major” by Johann Christian Bach, arranged by Mozart. Known as “The London Bach” for having had a very successful musical career in that city, Johann Christian was the youngest of J.S. Bach’s sons. Mozart visited London while on tour with his family during the years 1763–66, when he was seven to 10 years old. He became friends with Bach, around 30 at the time.

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Johann Christian Bach, portrait by Thomas Gainsborough

In order to learn how to write concertos, the young Mozart arranged three of Bach’s solo sonatas as concertos by adding passages for orchestra. These arrangements were originally included in Mozart’s works under the listing K107 nos. 1–3; the Concerto in G major is the second of the three. Rarely performed, because they are not strictly “by” either J.C. Bach or Mozart, they are nonetheless fascinating historical documents, revealing the young composer’s learning process.

There are two new scheduling features for BBF’s 2017–18 season: Boulder performances will all be on Thursdays, to avoid conflicts with other performing organizations; and the performances will be split between Boulder’s Seventh-Day Adventist Church and Longmont’s Stewart Auditorium. Some concerts will be presented in both venues, and others only in one or the other.

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1895 Érard piano

For example, the second event on the season, a concert titled “A World Transformed,” will only be performed at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 9, in the Stewart Auditorium in Longmont. The performance will feature Mina Gajić performing on her 1895 Érard grand piano together with Richie Hawley performing on a 1919 Parisian clarinet and Carrettin playing a  gut-string violin. They will play music of the early 20th century by Bartók, Ives, Berg and Antheil.

Likewise, the major Bach performance of the year will only be presented once, at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, March 15, in Boulder’s Seventh Day Adventist Church. Titled “The Eternal Spirit,” the program comprises four of Bach’s great sacred cantatas. Zachary Carrettin will lead the BBF Chorus and Orchestra with vocal soloists Josefien Stoppelenburg, soprano; Abigail Nims, mezzo-soprano; Derek Chester, tenor; and Ashraf Sewailam, bass-baritone.

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Flutist Ismael Reyes

The final concert of the season will honor the musical heritage of the Basilica of San Marco in Venice, with music by  prominent Venetian Baroque composers: Antonio Lotti, Giovanni Gabrieli, Tarquino Merulo and Antonio Vivaldi. The concert will end the season with one more piece by J.S. Bach, the Orchestral Suite in B minor with Ysmael Reyes playing the flute solos.

You can see the full Boulder Bach Festival season here.

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Dec-2014-BC-adults

The Boulder Chorale (BC) opens its 52nd season with “Carnival Brazil,” at 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 28, in Boulder’s First United Methodist Church. Titled “All Things Bright and Beautiful,” this will be BC’s ninth season combined with the Boulder Children’s Chorale and the third with artistic director Vicki Burrichter.

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Ginga

Carnival Brazil (Oct. 28) will see the BC sharing the stage with the Brazilian-music band Ginga and the Bateria Alegria, the percussion ensemble of the Boulder Samba School. That is only the beginning of the collaborative performances in a season that the BC is describing as “an adventurous exploration of different genres.”

The BC will be joined by JAMkeyJAM, a duo of Nepalese musicians who aim to combine ancient traditional music with contemporary sounds, March 10 and 11. The joint program, “Between Heaven and Earth,” will include a performance of Eliza’s Gilkyson’s Requiem, written in response to the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.

© Glenn Ross | www.glennrossphoto.com

Vicki Burrichter

Later the same month, the chorale will appear with the Boulder Chamber Orchestra for a performance of Mozart’s Requiem (March 30 in Broomfield and 31 in Boulder), and they will close out the season May 19 and 20 with Duke Ellington’s Sacred Concerts, performed with a jazz combo.

 

The full Boulder Chorale season, including ticket information and performances by the Boulder Children’s Chorale not mentioned in this article, can be found here.

NOTE: Typos corrected 9.8.17

 

 

 

Bach Festival 2017–18 Season will avoid busy Fridays and Saturdays in Boulder

Long-range plan: an historical-instrument ensemble for Boulder

By Peter Alexander

newBBFLogoSquareWebsiteThe Boulder Bach Festival has announced its 2017–18 season of five concerts, three to be presented in both Boulder and Longmont.

Of the other two, one will be presented only at the festival’s Boulder home, the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, and the other in Longmont’s Stewart Auditorium. In a significant change, the concerts have been scheduled to avoid the busy weekends in Boulder.

“Boulder is saturated,” Bach Festival director Zachary Carrettin says. “We have so many wonderful music presenters and organizations for such a small community, so I’ve put us on Thursday nights in Boulder and Saturday nights in Longmont. That’s my contribution to the scheduling madness we’re experiencing in Boulder.” (See the full schedule below.)

Carrettin is confident that having performances on Thursday nights will not limit the audience as much as the scheduling conflicts might. “We have a very specific audience,” he says. “They want to hear the particular, distinct programs and artists that we offer. And I think by and large, it doesn’t matter to them which night of the week (the concerts are presented).”

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Zachary Carrettin

Rather than build a season around a single theme, Carrettin looks for connections across seasons, from year to year. ”Each time we finish one season, I ask, where did we start to go?” he says. “What doors did we open? What happens next?”

 

One example is that the festival has programmed music from Venice, one of the musical centers that influenced Bach and others of his generation. In 2016, it was a program titled “Venice on Fire,” featuring chamber music that Carrettin called “the rock ‘n’ roll of the Baroque.” And the 2017–­18 season will close with “La Venexiana,” a concert of music from Venice for orchestra, soloists and chorus (May 24 & 26, 2018).

That concert also represents the beginning of a new long-range project of the Bach Festival: the establishment of a standing Baroque orchestra. Carrettin’s goal is to establish in Boulder a center for historical instrument performance, much as exists in New York, Boston, Amsterdam, and other cities around the world.

“We are introducing concert by concert, season by season, our own in-house Baroque orchestra, on historical instruments,” he says. “Due to the generosity of some donors, we have decided to fill in some of the gaps on the front range by purchasing instruments, three instruments a year for the next three years. You’ll see more (orchestral) concerts each season, and a larger and larger Baroque orchestra.”

The Boulder Bach Festival is partnering with CU Boulder and other musical organizations for this project. “We are working with doctoral students and recent graduates of CU who want to have a world-class international experience with historical instruments here on the front range,” Carrettin explains. “We are offering them access to luminaries in the field—our guest artists—access to the instruments, access to master classes, lessons and reading sessions, so that they can explore the world of early music.”

That project reflects a major thread that connects one season of the Bach Festival with another: the exploration of the many aspects of historical performance practice. “Next year we are engaging even more in the dialog of original instruments, or historical instruments,” Carrettin says. “That dialog is one that I hope results in some unexpected delights.”

In the festival’s recent seasons, the dialog around historical instruments has expanded from Bach and the Baroque era to the late 19th century, where questions of historical performance are not as obvious, but are still significant. “We play Bach with harpsichord and with chamber organ, then why would we not pay Brahms with the straight-strung 19th-century piano?” Carrettin asks. “When the Boulder Bach festival started doing that two seasons ago, our artists were able to work with a piano that has very different properties than today’s concert grand.”

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Mina Gajic’s historic 1895 Érard piano.

That piano was manufactured in Paris in 1895 by Érard and belongs to pianist Mina Gajic, the festival’s director of education and outreach. (Further information on the straight-strung Érard is here.) It was used in a concert of music by Bach and Brahms presented in 2016 that included the Brahms Horn Trio played on a 19th-century-style natural horn (without valves) and a violin with natural gut strings.

The Érard will return in the coming season for “A World Transformed,” a program the encompasses the late 19th and early 20th centuries (Dec. 9, Longmont). “We are opening a new door in the 36-year history of the Bach Festival,” Carrettin says of the program. Opening with some late Romantic music by Brahms the program will move on to works by Bartók, Ives, Enescu and Berg. Gajic and her historic Érard piano will be joined for the program by Carrettin, on violin and clarinetist Richie Hawley, playing a clarinet manufactured in 1919.

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Zachary Carrettin

“What we’re looking at is an early 20th-century clarinet, a violin set up in the manner of the time with silk and gut strings and the piano from the period as well,” Carrettin says. “We are performing (the pieces on the program) as they would have been heard at that time.”

Historical instruments will also be featured on the seasons opening concert, “BachtoberFest,” a concert of chamber music by Bach, Handel, and their contemporaries (Oct. 12 Boulder, Oct. 14 Longmont); and Baroque orchestra concert that closes the season, “La Venexiana” (May 24, 2018 in Boulder, May 26 in Longmont).

For the Bach devotees in the festival audience, the culminating concert of the year may well be on March 15, in Boulder only. Titled “Eternal Spirit,” the program features four of Bach’s best known cantatas: No. 4, Christ lag in Todesbanden; No. 50, Nun is das Heil und die Kraft; No. 61, Nun kumm, der Heiden Heiland; and No. 63, Christen, ätzet diesen Tag.

“These works are chosen because of their musical content,” Carrettin says. “The four masterworks represent different periods of Bach’s life, from 1707 to the 1720s. Liturgically they come from different parts of the church year. One special work on the program is Cantata 50, which is a single movement double chorus, based on the chorale Nun kumm, der Heiden Heiland.

 “This work has trumpets and timpani and orchestra, and where we connect season to season is that last October we did three different settings of that chorale, for organ and choir and strings. And now we bring back that chorale in a rarely performed masterwork of Bach.”

 

Boulder Bach Festival
Zachary Carrettin, artistic director
2017–18 Season

Bachtoberfest
7:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 12, Seventh Day Adventist Church, 345 Mapleton Ave., Boulder
7:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 14, Stewart Auditorium, Longmont Museum, Longmont
—Program of chamber music by Bach, Händel and other Baroque composers performed on historical instruments

A World Transformed
7:30 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 9, Stewart Auditorium, Longmont
—Music of the late 19th and early 20th centuries performed on historical instruments

Schwartz-Bournaki in Recital
7:30 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 8, Seventh Day Adventist Church, Boulder
7:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 10, Stewart Auditorium, Longmont
—A recital by the New York- based duo of Julian Schwartz, cello, and Marika Bournaki, piano, winners of the 2016 first Boulder International Chamber Music Competition.

Eternal Spirit
7:30 p.m. Thursday, March 15, Seventh Day Adventist Church, Boulder
—Four Bach cantatas performed buy the Boulder Bach Festival Chorus, orchestra and soloists.

La Venexiana
7:30 p.m. Thursday, May 24, Seventh Day Adventist Church, Boulder
7:30 p.m. Saturday, May 26, Stewart Auditorium, Longmont
—Vocal and instrumental music from Venice, including works of Giovanni Gabrieli, Monteverdi, Merulo and Vivaldi, plus the Bach Orchestral Suite in B minor.

All-access passes available at (720) 507-5052.

“Stunningly brilliant” Brahms captivates Stewart Auditorium audience

Boulder Bach Festival unveils the sound of Romanticism

By Peter Alexander

Technical perfection is what musicians strive for in all those hours of practice, but never achieve. In classical music, that perfection would include uncompromised accuracy and control of pitch, and consistency of sound in all registers.

Interestingly, musical instrument makers have aimed for the same qualities, especially the consistency of sound, and they have made great progress over the past 200 years. Much has been gained in the technical capacities and consistency of sound in modern pianos, for example, as well as wind instruments. But much has been lost as well.

What has been lost was demonstrated yesterday (May 15) in a stunningly brilliant performance of the Brahms Horn Trio in E-flat major, op. 40, presented by the Boulder Bach Festival in the Stewart Auditorium in Longmont.

The performance brought together three players: violinist and artistic director of the Bach Festival Zachary Carrettin; pianist Mina Gajic, the festival’s director of education and outreach; and guest artist Thomas Jöstlein playing horn. More crucially, it brought together three instruments that were perfect partners: A violin strung with 19th-century style strings, including pure gut; an 1895 Érard piano; and a natural horn (without valves), made in about 1815. I have never heard a better balanced performance with such disparate instruments.

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1895 Érard piano onstage at Stewart Auditorium

The Érard, a beautiful example of the piano maker’s craft in the 19th century, was a critical ingredient. With its remarkably transparent, clear and nuanced sound, it paired with the other instrument as no modern piano could. Gajic could play with full commitment and never overwhelm the other players.

Jöstlein’s natural horn was equally critical to the success of the performance. Its smaller bore and restrained sound never overwhelmed the violin, its closest partner throughout the piece, as a modern large-bore horn, built for a big sound and the ability to cut through a modern orchestra, would do.

Both the piano and the horn brought another quality that we have lost: a sound that varies from register to register, or, in the case of the horn, from note to note. Brahms made expressive use of these differences. As Jöstlein demonstrated before the performance, the sound of the horn could be bright and clear in one phrase, muted and distant in another. And one thing you almost never hear today: the natural horn, which changes pitch by the player moving his hand inside the bell, added a snarling quality to some of the crashing chords that could be suddenly resolved into a clear and pure sound.

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Zachary Carrettin

The differences in sound for Carrettin’s violin were less dramatic, but his choice of natural gut for some strings, steel for the highest string, and wound gut for the lowest, gave the instrument a sound that matched the others.

A fourth partner was the space where the music was performed, the intimate Stewart Auditorium of the Longmont Museum. In an interview before the concert, Carrettin had stressed the importance of the hall: “Stewart Auditorium . . . is a 250-seat hall. It’s very much a salon setting, so we don’t have to worry about projecting to a 3,000 seat house. That has in it an authenticity in the way that we can craft the interpretation.”

Gajic

Mina Gajić

The combination of a space where everyone felt in close contact with the performers, and instruments that were perfectly matched freed the performers to play with complete commitment. No punches needed to be pulled, no climaxes pushed too hard, no passages held back in the name of balance. I have rarely heard such excitement as Gajic, Carrettin and Jöstlein generated in the last movement.

The Stewart Auditorium crowd—totally sold out with seats added onstage—gave a standing ovation that went well beyond the expected, dutiful “standing o” we get with too much regularity. They knew they had heard something special, and they reacted in a way we do not usually associate with “original instruments” or “historically accurate” performances. They had heard the door opened into an unfamiliar sound world, and they were captivated.

The short program, played without intermission, had opened with Carrettin and Gajic playing a 19th-century arrangement of Bach’s much-loved “Air on the G String.” As Carrettin explained beforehand, violinists at the time were starting to play with continuous vibrato and used far more portamento, or sliding glissandos, than we are accustomed to hearing.

The performance was fascinating, although not to the taste I developed through mid-20th-century training and listening. As the great violinist Fritz Kreisler said appreciatively of that style of playing, it gave melancholy to the music. That’s not the spirit of the original Bach, but it is the spirit of the late 19th century and Carrettin played with passion. I would not have missed the experience.

Amanda Balestrieri

Amanda Balestrieri

The remainder of the concert was filled with one Bach aria and three Brahms songs, eloquently rendered by soprano Amanda Balestrieri and Gajic (plus Carrettin on the Bach). Balestrieri’s bright, clear sound was ideal for the well controlled filigree of the Bach aria. The Brahms was sung with exemplary expression of the text, and only the slightest push to the highest notes. The lyrical songs formed a lovely companion to the more intense Horn Trio.

As this concert shows, Boulder County now has such musical riches that revelation can strike in almost any concert. This may be a golden age. If you have any interest in classical music, don’t let it pass you by.

Boulder Bach Festival will remove the veil from Romanticism

In Longmont, J.S. Bach shares the program with Brahms songs and Horn Trio

By Peter Alexander

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Zachary Carrettin

Zachary Carrettin, artistic director of the Boulder Bach Festival, has an apparently inexhaustible supply of surprises.

He and the festival have offered Bach in many different guises—on historical instruments, on traditional modern instruments with a full-sized symphony, on electronic instruments—always revealing new discoveries. And now they are heading down one of the most well traveled paths in the concert repertoire, the music of Romanticism.

You might think that era would not hold many surprises today, but the festival’s next concert—5 p.m. Sunday, May 15, in the Stewart Auditorium of the Longmont Museum (tickets)—promises to present “Romanticism Unveiled.” The program features the Horn Trio in E-flat of Johannes Brahms played on historical—that is, Romantic-era—instruments, as well as a familiar piece by Bach in a late-19th-century arrangement, and several Brahms songs.

Performers will be Carrettin, playing a modern violin but with types of strings that would have been used in Brahms’s lifetime; pianist Mina Gajic playing her straight-strung 1895 Érard piano; horn player Thomas Jöstlein playing a 19th-century natural horn; and soprano Amanda Balestrieri applying what is known of 19th-century vocal style.

The Brahms Horn Trio is a fairly well known work, but as Carrettin explains, today it is usually played on modern instruments, including a valved horn and a grand piano. “There is content in this music that is revealed when it is played on the instruments of the time,” he says. “So we are unveiling some of the colors, and some of the meaning in the music that is different when played on the original instruments.”

Carrettin admits that the modern instrument are technologically advanced, and in some ways easier to play than older versions of the same instruments. At the same time, though, the older instruments reveal aspects of the music that modern instruments may conceal—or veil from view.

“When you open the can of worms with period instruments, you have to explore different techniques, different intonation, different balance, and also (different) phrasing,” he says. “The instruments teach you how they want to be played. Certain things are possible and other things are more difficult.”

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1895 Érard piano

Gajic’s Érard piano was made in Paris in 1895. It is straight strung, meaning that the strings all run parallel, which creates a different sound from the modern cross-strung grand piano. The Érard is clearer than the modern piano, and each register has its own sound. (Read my earlier description of this piano here.)

Carrettin will play his modern violin, which is essentially the same as the violins of Brahms’s era, but with strings that reflect 19th-century practice. “I’m using a combination of gut, wound gut and steel strings,” he says. “I’ll have (natural) gut wound in silver on the G, and I’m still playing with all other options. Typically for this kind of setup my two middle strings are pure gut, not wound, (with a steel E string).”

Another issue you may not have thought of is the use of a chin rest. In the Baroque and early classical era, violinists did not have chin rests, but during Brahms’s lifetime chin rests were in wide use. “One day I practice with no chin rest, which gives the violin a rounder, darker sound. The next day I practice with the chin rest which gives the violin more focus,” Carrettin says. The decision to use the chin rest will depend on how the violin sounds with the other instruments.

Jostlein

Thomas Jöstlein (l) with his 1815 natural horn and Ab Koster (r), the German horn player from whom he purchased the horn

The third member of the trio, Jöstlein, will be playing a natural horn, without valves. Even though the valved horn that we know today had been invented during Brahms’s lifetime, it was not the composer’s first choice. “He played (natural horn) as a child and always preferred it over the pistons and valves,” Carrettin says. “He wrote all four symphonies with the natural horn in mind.”

As principal horn of the St. Louis Symphony, Jöstlein has plenty of experience on the modern instruments, but he also owns and performs widely on natural horns from the 18th and 19th centuries. For “Romanticism Unveiled,” he will play a horn from about 1815 that he purchased in Europe.

Other works on the program will include a 19th-century arrangement of Bach’s “Air on the G string” for violin and piano. “We’ve talked so much in our concerts about electric violins and Baroque violins and Steinway pianos and harpsichords,” Carrettin says. “We typically have modern instruments and Baroque instruments, but this is the first time the Bach Festival has played Bach on 19th-century Romantic instruments with a style influenced by research on Romantic chamber music style.”

Amanda Balastrieri

Amanda Balestrieri

To fill out the Romantic program, Balestrieri will sing an aria from Bach’s cantata BWV 196 and three Brahms songs with piano. “Amanda is the perfect artist for this program,” Carrettin says. “She has spent her career performing with period and modern instruments and in a variety of historically informed styles.”

He is particularly pleased to be performing music from the 19th century in a smaller facility. “We’re performing in the beautiful Stewart Auditorium of the Longmont Museum,” he says. “It’s a 250-seat hall. It’s very much a salon setting, so we don’t have to worry about projecting to a 3,000 seat house. That has in it an authenticity in the way that we can craft the interpretation.”

It all adds up to an unusual opportunity for local audiences, Carrettin says. “It’s a rare thing to hear Romantic period chamber music on original instruments in this part of the country,” he says.

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Stewart Auditorium in the Longmont Museum

“Romanticism Unveiled”
Boulder Bach Festival

Zachary Carrettin, violin
Mina Gajic, piano (Érard, 1895)
Thomas Jöstlein, natural horn
Amanda Balestrieri, soprano

Program includes several short selections by J.S. Bach, Lieder by Brahms, and the Brahms Horn Trio in E-flat major, op. 40, performed on Romantic-era instruments

5 p.m. Sunday, May 15
Stewart Auditorium at the Longmont Museum, Longmont

Tickets

5/12/16 Edited for grammar

120-year-old debutante makes a strong impression with Boulder Chamber Orchestra

Saless’ BCO and Mina Gajić’s 1895 piano give promise for the future

By Peter Alexander

Last night (Oct. 30) the Boulder Chamber Orchestra (BCO) and conductor Bahman Saless presented what may the most important debut of the musical season in Boulder. At 120, the debutante sounded wonderful.

BCO's debutante: an 1895 piano by Érard.

BCO’s debutante: an 1895 piano by Érard.

In case you didn’t know, the “debutante” was a piano, made in Paris in 1895 by the firm of Sébastien Érard. It was played by the evening’s soloist, pianist Mina Gajić, who purchased the piano in Amsterdam in 2014 and brought it to Boulder. The concert was the first ever performance on the instrument in the U.S.

A superb pianist, Gajić gave memorable performances of two works—one written before the piano was built, and one after. The earlier work was the Malédiction (Curse) for piano and strings of Franz Liszt; the later was Young Apollo for piano, string quartet and string orchestra by Benjamin Britten.

“We thought it would be an interesting juxtaposition to have a piano that fits right in the middle of these pieces—Liszt in 1833, Britten in 1939, and the piano from 1895,” Gajić said.

Erard piano.4The straight-strung Érard piano, with strings that run parallel in all registers, has a marvelously clear and transparent sound. (For more details of the piano’s construction, read my earlier post previewing the concert.) The sound is particularly striking in the highest register: bright, pure and clean, without ever sounding pingy or losing a delicious piano sound. The middle register sounds more like a modern piano, but one that is remarkably present.

My only reservation might be the bass, which is powerful and hard-edged, and when heard alone almost metallic in its timbre. Nonetheless, the bass supports and blends with chords in all registers, adding weight to the sound without turning it thick or murky.

But what is most striking is the clarity and penetration of the sound in all registers. The sound was never swallowed up by the full string orchestra, in even the loudest passages. Every chord throughout the range was clear, always audible, always transparent. Even though the instrument is seven feet—in contrast to today’s Steinway D and Kawai EX at nine feet, or the Bösendorfer 290 Imperial at nine feet six inches—the Érard can be plenty loud, without any distortion or loss of sound quality.

Pianist Mina Gajić

Pianist Mina Gajić

But the piano, however marvelous, doesn’t play itself. Gajić had the apparently effortless control of the music that characterizes every true virtuoso, in both the Liszt and the Britten.

Young Apollo is an odd piece, one that was written very early in the composer’s career and then withdrawn after its first performance. It was never heard again until after Britten’s death in 1976. It is hard to find in the score signs of the Britten one recognizes from his later and well known operas. It is full of bustle and fanfare, with declamatory string chords juxtaposed with surging scales running the full length of the piano.

Gajić and the BCO gave a robust performance. If the piece was not quite as nutty as Saless suggested in his remarks, it was pleasingly off-center, and played with conviction. One might consider the piano a little antiquated for a 1939 piece, but it was more than up to Britten’s quirky demands. The opening scales were the perfect introduction to the piano, allowing one to hear the sound from the bottom to the clear, bell tones that capped each run.

The title of Liszt’s Malédiction originally referred to only the first section of the piece, which contains a great deal of contrast along with its pianistic fireworks. It is likely that the pianos of 1833 couldn’t quite provide what Liszt wanted in this score, but by 1895 Érard pianos were up to the task.

Once again, Gajić and the orchestra gave a very convincing interpretation of a piece that is not heard often. Gajić tossed off all of Liszt’s virtuoso passages—written, after all, for his own showy concerts—with confidence. The piano was never covered or dominated by the orchestra in this well balanced performance.

Bahman Saless. Photo by Keith Bob.

Bahman Saless. Photo by Keith Bob.

Intermission saw audience members surrounding and photographing the piano, which obviously stirred great interest. It is unfortunate if the rest of the concert was slightly overshadowed by the instrument, because Saless led incisive, controlled performances throughout. The program, titled “Spook Symphony,” included several pieces selected for Halloween.

The concert opened with Mozart’s Adagio and Fugue in C minor, K546, which begins with an ominous C minor that suggests threat and fear. The piece was written for string quartet, but the full sound of the BCO string section multiplied the sense of menace in the Adagio. On the other side of the same coin, the fugue occasionally suffered from the lower parts not being as nimble and precise in section as they could be with the single players of a quartet.

After intermission, Saless and the BCO presented the one definitively spooky piece of the “Spook Symphony,” Bernard Herrmann’s score to Alfred Hitchcock’s horror classic Psycho. Under Saless, the performance achieved all the menace and tension that Herrmann was aiming for. The parts were carefully balanced, with interior lines and a repeated three-note motive carefully brought out from the texture.

Bahman Saless with the Boulder Chamber Orchestra. Photo by Keith Bobo.

Bahman Saless with the Boulder Chamber Orchestra. Photo by Keith Bobo.

This was clearly an audience favorite. I saw knowing, if slightly guarded, smiles and heard a slight nervous chuckle when the slashing chords of the famous shower scene were played.

Happily, the concert ended with a piece that did not leave audience members afraid to venture out into the dark. Danish composer Carl Nielsen’s early Little Suite for Strings—as Op. 1 it was his first published work—opens with a slightly sinister Prelude, but proceeds with movements that are much more cheerful. The Intermezzo practically danced along, and the Finale ended comfortably. Saless elicited very good string playing and a true ensemble performance from the section.

In all, this was a memorable concert that promises well for the BCO’s season, and for all future appearances of Gajić and her historic piano.