Violinist MinTze Wu brings ‘Death of the Pugilist’ back to Lyons Sunday

Music/storytelling production was presented at first ‘Sound of Lyons’ in 2009

By Peter Alexander March 23 at 2:24 p.m.

The very first season of Sounds of Lyons, the adventurous and imaginative music festival managed by violinist MinTze Wu in Lyons, Colo., from 2009 through 2017, included a collaborative performance combining storytelling and music.

That performance was based on “Death of the Pugilist,” a story by Daniel Mason. A narrator read the full story, and a group of musicians provided musical commentary with composed pieces by J.S. Bach, Philip Glass and Steve Reich, as well as improvised music that drew from a variety of styes and sources.

Musicians (L-R) MinTze Wu Jem Moore, Joy Adams, Blayne Chastain and Eric Thorin will perform ’Death of the Pugilist’ in Lyons Sunday.

Thirteen years later, Wu is bringing “Death of a Pugilist” back to Lyons under the aegis of BenFeng Productions, the successor to Sounds of Lyons. The new version will use the same script, the same composed pieces by Bach, Glass and Reich, but a new set of musicians who will provide their own newly improvised music to fill out the performance.

This revived and renewed performance will take place at 4 p.m. Sunday, March 27, at the Lyons Middle/Senior High School Auditorium.

The narrator reading Mason’s story will be Jem Moore, who will also be part of the musical ensemble. The other musicians, all playing multiple instruments, will be Wu, Joy Adams, Blayne Chastain and Eric Thorin. Instruments featured by the ensemble include—but are not necessarily limited to—flute, violin, banjo, mandolin, tuba, cello, string bass, drum and keyboard. In addition to the composed pieces, the musical styles will range from traditional Irish to blues.

“We really want to honor the tradition of storytelling,” Wu says of the production. “It’s almost like a campsite when somebody starts sharing a story that he has heard.”

Wu says she was not initially attracted to a story about boxing, but the quality of the writing won her over. “I started by reading it, and it gave me so much opportunity to imagine a production,” she says.

The plot concerns Jacob Burke, a young man who grows up on the docks in 1820s England and is such a ferocious brawler that he ends up being lured into in illegal bare-knuckle boxing matches. The climax of the story is his fight with “Blindman” McGraw, which takes up the largest portion of the story.

MinTze Wu

Wu selected pieces by Bach to open and close the performance, and particularly the Sarabande from the D-minor Suite for solo cello, which is played before the narration of the fight. “The central piece is the Sarabande,” Wu says. “That is at the pivotal part, the most raw, emotional moment. I love taking the most intense moment emotionally and have the most simple sound there.”

In contrast to the written-out pieces, Wu says that the improvised music is “very much like cooking. You can follow the recipe, but it’s really cooking it every time.” And if the music develops too fast, “somebody will go, ‘Oh, I cook it too hot!’ We understand what that means: we have to cook it slower, longer.”

Although Bach forms the bookends and the central piece of the performance, the players come from various musical backgrounds. A graduate of the Cleveland Institute, Wu has the most extensive classical training. Cellist and plucked strings player Joy Adams is a member of an all-female neo-acoustic quartet, Big Richard, who are performing at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival in June. 

Bass player Eric Thorin teaches folk and bluegrass bass at the University of Northern Colorado and has performed both jazz and bluegrass with leading artists. Flutist Blayne Chastain studied traditional music at the Berklee College of Music in Boston before moving to Colorado. Narrator Jem Moore has pursued careers as musician, airline and private pilot, and independent film maker.

Wu says the improvisation occurs within clearly defined limits. “It’s just so organic when the five of us sit down to decide our roadmap,” she explains. “We know our destination, but on the way, where are we going to go? There is freedom but it’s within very defined limits. It’s a very tight ensemble piece, very lean.”

Lean may be the keyword. When she approached the piece again 13 years after first developing it, Wu found that she wanted to trim it down to essentials. “When I started Death of the Pugilist 13 years ago, that was my first ensemble piece with a story,” she says. 

“Now having done so many other big productions with literature, and looking at it and still loving the simplicity but being more informed, I realize that all along, what I’m exploring is not confining our imagination. There is always more to discover. If we tap into that curiosity there is just a lot more.

“For me, it’s coming back to it and taking out more things, because they are not necessary. We’re trying to say more by saying less. That really is our passion this time.”

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Death of the Pugilist
Based on a story by Daniel Mason
Presented by Peter Baumgartner and BenFeng Productions
Performed by Jem Moore, MinTze Wu, Eric Thorin, Joy Adams and Blayne Chastain

4 p.m. Sunday, March 27
Lyons Middle/Senior High School Auditoriu


Delayed but not Washed Out in Lyons

At ‘Sounds of Lyons,’ the flood of 2013 is past but not forgotten

By Peter Alexander

MinTze Wu, founder and director of Sounds of Lyons

MinTze Wu, founder and director of Sounds of Lyons

MitTze Wu is modern-day musical Molly Brown.

Brown survived the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 and came back stronger than ever. Wu and her Sounds of Lyons chamber music festival survived the flood of 2013 and have come back with a robust and eclectic series of concerts that are better than ever.

Like Brown, Wu seems to be unsinkable.

The 2014 festival will take place in various venues in Lyons Friday through Sunday, Sept. 12 through 14. This is a displacement from the usual timing of the festival in May and early June, but that slight delay is the only sign that the flood has directly affected the festival.

Indirectly, however, you could say that the flood runs through and under everything in this year’s Sounds of Lyons.

The major events of the festival maintain what has become Sounds of Lyons’ signature: three principal concerts, ranging from world music crossovers to serious classical chamber music. Surrounding the three main concert events are activities for children and families in Sandstone Park, culminating at 3 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 14, in an event titled “Celebrating Lyons II.” (For full concert programs and tickets, click here.)

“This has been the same format since the first year,” Wu says. “It will be balanced and dynamic—that’s just the way my brain works.”

Filmmaker Jem Moore

Filmmaker Jem Moore

The Saturday night concert, at 8 p.m. in Rogers Hall (4th and High streets in Lyons), is the festival’s central event, both in the order of events and emotionally in that it is the concert most directly inspired by the flood. Titled “Life True,” the performance will feature movements from string quartets by Haydn and Beethoven interspersed among four short documentary films by Jem Moore, profiling four remarkable characters in Macau, China.

“The flood is very present with everybody here in Lyons,” Wu says. “It is definitely present in the psychic space. Since I do much of the programming in exploration of what is happening in me and around me, I think the flood entered my consciousness of wanting to find strength. And for that I always, always turn to the music of Beethoven, especially the late string quartets.”

Wu likens the four films to the movements of a classical symphony or string quartet. The first film is preceded by a string quartet movement by Haydn, and then each film is followed by a carefully selected movement from a Beethoven quartet.

All four films were made in Macau, a ”special administrative region” within mainland China, similar to Hong Kong, which is right across the bay. Macau is best known for gambling, which is one of its primary sources of income, and as an offshore tax haven.

“It’s a four movement form,” Wu explains. “It goes like film, music, film, music—each film and music pair is grouped to make one large movement.

Coffee Plantation from "Life True" I

Coffee Plantation from “Life True” I

“The first movement is a coffee plantation owner, the second movement is a singer-songwriter. The third movement is a very poignant one about an immigrant massage therapist who left a very poor village in the Philippines to go to work in Macau, which is kind of her salvation (as well as) a place of sin. And the last movement is about a Buddhist calligrapher/chef.”

The musical performances will be by the Sage Quartet, consisting of Wu and Margaret Gutierrez, violin; Chieh-Fan Yiu, viola; and Michael Graham, cello. They are more or less the resident quartet for Sounds of Lyons, except that the personnel varies from year to year. In fact, “Sage Quartet’ Is more of a concept and an approach to music making than a specific collection of players.

“It doesn’t matter to me who is in the Sage Quartet at Sounds of Lyons,” Wu says. “I keep myself anonymous. The quartet is a collective spirit, I would say. And the really beautiful thing is how we work together.”

Flamenco dancer Natalia Perez del Villar

Flamenco dancer Natalia Perez del Villar

It has traditionally been the opening concerts of Sounds of Lyons that have the most eclectic and genre-blending programs. This year’s opener, “Crazy About You,” will continue that pattern at 8 p.m. Friday in

Alfredo Muro

Alfredo Muro

Rogers Hall. As described on the festival’s Web page, it will be “a tapestry woven through classical, flamenco, Brazilian, Spanish, original, folk music, songs and dances.”

Performers will be the Sage Ensemble—a trio of violin, viola and cello from the Sage Quartet joining with the guitar-flute duo of Alfredo Muro and Emma Shubin, vocalist Shannon Johnson, and the Flamenco Underground duo of guitarist/singer Mark Herzog and dancer Natalia Pérez del Villar.


Emma Shubin

The wide-ranging program includes Brazilian choros—a melancholy style of dance music that often includes extensive improvisation similar to jazz—bossa nova, samba, tango, and Spanish folk dance, as well as more classical compositions by Isaac Abeniz, Heitor Villa Lobos and the 17th-century German composer Heinrich Ignaz von Biber.

But listing the titles hardly does the planned concert justice. “There’s room for each group to present their art form,” Wu says. “Then there will be numbers that we all work together, to bring flamenco, and classical and folk and all that together.’ Even the Biber—a rather strict passacaglia from Renaissance times—will “sort of turn flamenco at the end,” she says.

The final concert, Sunday at 8 in Lyons Community Church at 350 Main Street, will feature a single piece: The Goldberg Variations by J.S. Bach. But characteristically, these will be the Goldberg Variations as you’ve never heard them before.

To begin with, the Variations have been transcribed from Bach’s keyboard original into an arrangement for the same string trio that plays on opening night. But the transcribed music is only part of the performance. Wu love to tell stories, and the Goldberg Variations, written to be played late nights for an insomniac German count, gave her all the inspiration she needs. In between the variations, the musicians will engage in a conversation with each other and the audience about insomnia.

“We’ll be kind of bouncing back and forth some quotes and some essays, some thoughts, about insomnia,” Wu says. “Some could be spontaneous and some could be quotes. We’re leaving some space for spontaneity amongst the performers on stage, so I can’t quite tell what’s going to happen.”

Returning to the subject of the flood, Wu is clear that it was never a thought that she would not hold the festival this year. Making and sharing music is too much a part of Lyons to be left behind.

“Lyons is culturally a very spiritual kind of place,” she says. “In one way we are doing absolutely what’s needed to flood recovery—fixing the roads, and raising funds, and doing everything that’s necessary. But you also see that huge need and desire to raise ourselves above that feeling of devastation, to be uplifted and to uplift others.”

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SoundsOfLyonsLOGOSounds of Lyons

Friday–Sunday, Sept. 12–14

Complete program and tickets here.