“Happy Concert” opens Pro Musica Colorado’s 2017–18 season

Music by Ravel, Castelnuovo-Tedesco and Stravinsky performed with energy, enjoyment

By Peter Alexander

The Pro Musica Colorado Chamber Orchestra opened their 2017–18 season last night (Oct. 21) with a program conductor Cynthia Katsarelis calls “probably the happiest concert we’ve ever done.”

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Cynthia Katsarelis and Pro Music Colorado Chamber Orchestra (photo from a prior season)

The program featured three ebullient neo-classical works written between the First and Second World Wars. This is music that is ideal for a chamber orchestra of Pro-Musica’s size and quality, and it was performed with obvious energy and enjoyment. Pace Katsarelis, it was not happy throughout, since there were moments of melancholy here and there, but on the whole the program was indeed light in texture and mood.

The opening work, Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin (“The tomb of Couperin,” a form of musical homage to a deceased composer), is one of the great works for smaller orchestra. Originally composed for piano, it is a set of Baroque dances stylistically descended from the great keyboard suites of Françoise Couperin. Ravel orchestrated four of the original six dances in the years immediately after World War I.

There is a slight sense of melancholy beneath the surface, since every movement is dedicated to the memory of one or more of Ravel’s friends who had died in that terrible war. But the graceful Baroque-style dances are more reflective of cherished memories than mourning, and the music can be enjoyed without knowing the deeper motivation.

From the first moment, the crucial wind parts were crystal clear and well played. The strings were occasionally less distinct, but the sound was warm and lovely to hear. The players were secure and achieved a sense of ensemble under Katsarelis’ direction. The final movement (Rigaudon) was particularly enjoyable, with nice contrast among the different sections.

Ideally, the orchestra should breathe and move together like the two hands of a single pianist. A certain amount of rhythmic expansion and contraction is an essential part of the style. Instead, I found the interpretation a little rigid and too steady of tempo, but never less than enjoyable.

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Guitarist Nicolò Spera

The Concerto No. 1 for Guitar and Orchestra of Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, performed by CU music faculty member Nicolò Spera as soloist, was a real highlight. Spera is clearly a master of his instrument who plays with a palpable love and joy in every note. His easy virtuosity made this piece, one of the great concertos for guitar, look easy. He has the ability to take expressive freedom with the music without every losing a strong sense of beat, of meter, and of phrase.

The second movement, described by Katsarelis as a sort of farewell to the composer’s homeland of Tuscany before he had to flee Mussolini’s Italy, is wistful throughout. Probably the least “happy” music on the program, it was eloquently performed by Spera and the orchestra. The finale, marked Ritmico e cavalleresco (“rhythmic and knightly”), was delightful from beginning to end.

Katsarelis and the orchestra provided stylish support for the soloist. Spera’s joy in playing this music was contagious to all, orchestra and audience alike, making this a performance to relish and remember.

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Cynthia Katsarelis

The final piece on the program, Stravinsky’s Suite from Pulcinella, is a good example of why we “play” music. Here there is nothing but happy music, and when performed as it was by Katsarelis and Pro Musica, it is fun for conductor, for players, and for the audience. The performance had great energy and drive.

The score is filled with solo bits for nearly every instrument in the ensemble, some quite showy, all played with evident virtuosity. Concertmaster Stacy Lesartre gave outstanding technical and expressive leadership for the ensemble, and while I hesitate to list individuals for fear of slighting someone, I have to praise string bassist Paul Erhard, another CU faculty member. I have never heard the bass solos played with greater beauty and purity of sound. The entire wind section—flute, oboe, bassoon, horn, trombone—was outstanding.

The only criticism was that the sound was occasionally a little heavy-footed. This may be due to the venue, which is new for Pro Musica: Boulder’s Mountain View Methodist Church. The very high A-frame ceiling may reinforce the longer wave lengths; certainly the bass was well heard all evening. But it was never muddy and the texture was generally clear, which cannot be said of the sound in their prior home, First United Methodist in downtown Boulder.

Mountain View has another great advantage over any of the downtown venues: its own parking lot. This is not a musical issue, but it is an important one. Boulder lacks a decent concert venue with adequate parking, and in particular the crowding in central Boulder on busy weekends may discourage some people from making the effort to go to live performances. I see no downside to using Mountain View: the entryway makes a suitable lobby, the sanctuary is comfortable, the sound is good, and the parking seems like a luxury after all the nights I have cruised downtown neighborhoods looking for an open space.

I hope Pro Musica will make the move permanent.

Edited to correct minor typos 10/22.

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Boulder Phil ends remarkable season with a remarkable concert

CU faculty Charles Wetherbee and Nicolò Spera featured in world premiere

By Peter Alexander

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Michael Butterman and the Boulder Philharmonic

Last night the Boulder Philharmonic and conductor Michael Butterman ended a remarkable season with a remarkable concert, one of the most interesting they have done.

The mostly-Italian program included one of the most brilliant orchestral showpieces of all time, a world premiere, and several pieces that are rarely played. If you love making new discoveries, as I do,  this was a fun program.

First the world premiere—and the one non-Italian piece on the program: Invisible Cities, Double Concerto for violin, guitar strings and percussion by Stephen Goss. The composer is Welsh, although the concerto is based on the fascinating novel of the same title by the 20th-century Italian writer Italo Calvino. Soloists were Charles Wetherbee, violin and Nicolò Spera, guitar.

The novel imagines a series of conversations between Marco Polo and the Mongol Emperor Kublai Khan. In an intricate design, the novel has Polo describe 55 cities to the Emperor, all of which turn out to be facets of Venice, his home. Dispersed among the cities are a series of conversations, in which Polo and Kublai Khan are gradually able to communicate more clearly across their linguistic and cultural barriers.

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Stephen Goss

In a similarly intricate design, the concerto alternates between orchestrally accompanied movements representing cities and duos without orchestra representing the conversations. Particularly ingenious are the duos, which represent musically the growing accord between Polo and the Emperor through music of growing lyrical beauty.

The musical design is clever but not cryptic, and it is executed without ever seeming forced. The piece as a whole is accessible, expressively convincing and well constructed. This is a work of significance that should be taken up by other guitar-violin duos.

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Charles Wetherbee

The style is largely based in conventional gestures of contemporary orchestral music. If not original, the musical elements are used to good effect, as listeners can recognize and enter the expressive realm of each movement. Where the music is more imaginative, as in the interaction between the soloists, the creativity is never originality for originality’s sake; it always serves the expressive goals.

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Niccolò Spera

The soloists played with sweet expression together, and with greater intensity when required. Their sounds were well balanced, reflecting prior work together as a duo. At their best they rose to all the demands of Goss’s pleasing new work.

The two works preceding the concerto were undoubtedly new discoveries for most in the audience, and both were 20th-century pieces based on older music. The first was Stravinsky’s Monumentum pro Gesualdo, orchestral arrangements of uniquely strange and adventurous Renaissance madrigals by Carlo Gesualdo.

Stravinsky’s setting is strange in its own way, with discontinuous bits of harmonic and instrumental color shifting about the orchestra and managing to sound like both Gesualdo and Stravinsky. This score, nicely played last night, fits the Boulder Philharmonic and its outstanding individual players well.

That was followed by Luciano Berio’s Four Original Versions of Boccherini’s Return of the Nightwatch from Madrid. Sometimes an enfant terrible of modern music, Berio also wrote highly approachable scores built from older music, of which this is one.

Four different versions of a movement by the 18th-century Italian composer Boccherini are arranged for modern orchestra and layered on top of one another. At times they match perfectly, but at other times they do not, creating delicious and unexpected dissonances that pass quickly.

Depicting the approach and departure of the Nightwatch, the score culminates in a rousing setting of the tune, and then dissipates into silence. It was played with verve, as once again the individual contributions of the players fit well into the orchestral mosaic.

After intermission, Butterman and the orchestra gave an invigorating reading of Verdi’s Overture to Nabucco, with all the turns of mood well traversed and quite a bit of excitement for the explosive ending. Puccini’s Chrysanthemums, an ingratiating minor work, was played with expression, if not the plush, ermine-fringed sound one would like to hear.

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Ottorino Respighi

The concert ended with a sure bet, Respighi’s Pines of Rome, a piece guaranteed to rouse the audience from their seats. In the hands of the Boulder Phil, Respighi’s orchestra worked its magic: it shone when it should shine and sparkled when it should sparkle, the sudden contrasts were contrasting and the abrupt changes of scene were well delineated.

The winds deserve special recognition, from the brass flourishes in “The Pines of the Villa Borghese,” to the delicate woodwind solos of “The Pines of the Janiculum,” to the massive fanfares of “The Pines of the Appian Way.” Once again the Roman Legions advanced, a brass choir sounded from the balcony—although how effectively depended on where you were sitting—and Respighi brought the crowd to its feet.

You could not have a more rousing ending for a season.