Composer Stephen Lias reveals his plan for a new piece for Boulder Phil

Rocky Mountain N.P. provides the inspiration for All the Songs that Nature Sings

By Peter Alexander

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Stephen Lias on the porch of the William Allen White Cabin in Rocky Mountain National Park. Photos by Peter Alexander.

Composer Stephen Lias sits on the porch of the William Allen White Cabin in Rocky Mountain National Park and looks over the Moraine Park meadow.

“It feels right to me to have formed this plan, based on words by Enos Mills, read from a book in this cabin, looking at this scenery,” he says. “Everything about its connectedness to this place feels just right.”

The plan he is referring to is for a new piece that he has been commissioned to write for the Boulder Philharmonic. It will be premiered by the Boulder Phil and conductor Michael Butterman at their subscription concert March 25, 2017, and subsequently performed by them at the SHIFT Festival in the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C, March 28.

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The view from the cabin: Lias in front of the Moraine Park meadow

Lias has just spent nearly two weeks in the cabin, which is reserved by the park for artists in residence. Although he was not technically an artist in residence this year, as he was in 2010, the cabin was unoccupied for a few days in early June, and the park invited Lias to stay there while preparing his piece for the Boulder Philharmonic.

Known as an adventurer/composer, Lias has written a number of pieces portraying his experiences in national parks. In 2014, the Boulder Phil opened their season with his Gates of the Arctic, conceived during a National Parks Residency in Alaska’s Gates of the Arctic National Park. It was performed with synchronized images from the park, as will be the piece to be premiered in March.

The Boulder Phil won a National Endowment for the Arts grant to support their participation in the 2017 SHIFT Festival. They chose Lias for the commission because the theme of their participation in the festival is the orchestra’s ongoing celebration of music and nature.

The title of Lias’s new piece will be All the Songs that Nature Sings, which comes from a book by Enos Mills, The Rocky Mountain National Park, that Lias found on the shelves of the William Allen White Cabin. Sometimes called “The Father of Rocky Mountain National Park,” Mills was a naturalist and nature writer in the early years of the 20th century who championed the establishment of the park.

The title “is a beautiful quote in Mills’s book,” Lias says. “He’s talking about how the trails take us to all of these amazing places and scenes and wildlife and it has at its heart ‘all the songs that nature sings.’”

Lias has only written a few musical ideas at this point, but he has formed an overall design for the piece in his mind. Based on visual images taken in the park, the plan is virtually cinematic in nature. “Imagine a camera starting with something small and intimate in nature and then slowly zooming outward, bit by bit until you can see a rock, and then a bush, and then a tree, and then a river, and then a waterfall, and then a mountain, and then a range of mountains,” he explains.

“When we can see this amazing place, the range of mountains that sits here in this park, that will be the climax of the piece, and then it will start panning back in again, zooming slowly, slowly, slowly until we end the piece with another intimate shot of some very small thing. So it’s going to be a slow growth outward, and then a slow growth back inward.”

That visual plan grew out of Lias’s poring through photos of the park. “We knew from the beginning that this commission involved a composition that would have synchronized images with it,” he says.

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Lias working in the William Allen White Cabin in Rocky Mountain National Park

“Back in January I came up to the park and met with the staff and we talked about the imagery that might be used. The park gave me a hard drive of 700 and some images that we had culled from their archives, and so in addition to thinking about what I wanted the musical shape to be, I’ve known that there needed to be visual material.”

With the inspiration strong and the plan firmly in mind, Lias packs up his bags to get on with the rest of his summer plans—including leading a workshop on “Composing in the Wilderness” in Alaska. But none of that, he says, will get in the way of a piece firmly rooted in Rocky Mountain National Park.

“The very beginning notes of the piece have been written here in this cabin,” Lias says. “It will take me many months to complete, but it will still be deeply grounded to this place.”

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Information and tickets for the Boulder Philharmonic’s 2016–17 season may be found here.

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Boulder Philharmonic receives its first NEA grant

Funds will commission a new work by Stephen Lias celebrating Rocky Mountain National Park

By Peter Alexander

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The Boulder Phil onstage at Mackey Auditorium

The Boulder Philharmonic Orchestra has received its first-ever grant from the country’s premiere arts granting agency, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA).

The $15,000 award was announced by the NEA and the National Park Service as part of the “Imagine Your Parks” initiative. The grant will fund a commission from adventurer-composer Stephen Lias of a new 20-minute orchestral work inspired by Rocky Mountain National Park and celebrating the centennial of the National Park Service.

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Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Washington, D.C.

The Boulder Philharmonic and conductor Michael Butterman will premiere the new work at Macky Auditorium as part of their 2016–17 subscription concert series, and subsequently at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., as part of the inaugural SHIFT Festival of American Orchestras in March, 2017. The Boulder Phil is one of only four orchestras selected to participate in the festival.

“This recognition that we’re honored to receive feels like an affirmation of the work we have been doing for the past decade or more,” Butterman says. “We’ve been trying to reflect our community and find entry points for people to engage with classical music who had not regularly encountered it before.

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Boulder Phil Music Director Michael Butterman

“The focus in particular on the natural world and the relationship that people in Boulder have to it is something that is very special for the orchestra, and we’re just delighted to be able to bring a brand new piece like this to life, both in Boulder and then of course on the national stage at the Kennedy Center.”

Of course, there are many classical pieces inspired by nature, dating back to Bach’s “Peasant” Cantata, Seasons by Vivaldi and Haydn, Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony No. 6 and Smetana’s musical description of the river The Moldau. “The idea of being inspired by your natural surroundings is as old as humanity,” Butterman says. “But there’s something different when we do it in Boulder, just because hiking and being outside is so much a part of the daily life of most Boulderites.”

Lias expressed excitement at receiving the grant-supported commission from the Boulder Phil. “It’s just a dream come true,” he says.

Lias has a long association with the national parks. He has received several artistic residency grants in national parks, and has written several pieces inspired by these residencies. The first was his “Timberline Sonata” for trumpet and piano, written following a 2010 residency in Rocky Mountain National Park and premiered in Estes Park. Other pieces have been inspired by Big Bend, Kings Canyon, Sequoia, Denali, Wrangell-St. Elias, Carlsbad Cavern and Mesa Verde national parks, among others. Several of these works have been compiled onto a CD recording, “Encounters.”

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Stephen Lias in Gates of the Arctic National Park

In Sept. 2014, the Boulder Philharmonic presented the premiere of Lias’s orchestral work Gates of the Arctic, inspired by a residency and backpacking journey in America’s northernmost and second-largest national park. “(Lias) had both a great experience in Boulder and a very positive reception from our audience,” Butterman says of the premiere. “So for us he’s someone whose aesthetic will produce something special.”

Lias said that the new work will build on the success of Gates of the Arctic. “(Butterman and the orchestra) were so pleased with how Gates of the Arctic was received that our plan is to use that framework again,” Lias says. “Probably it will be grouped into thematic ideas where certain musical sections will be related to some event or experience that people have in the park, or perhaps a location or time of day or season.

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Composer Stephen Lias

“The stature of the situation in which this will be premiered demands a piece of greater heft from me, so I suspect that I will lace this piece with broader contrasts, and I may dig a little deeper compositionally.”

Lias admits to being a little nervous every time he starts a new piece, and this commission will be no different. “I approach each major new project with a certain amount of trepidation about how I’m going to come up with new music ideas,” he says.

“The order of events will be not to worry about what kind of piece I’ll write, but instead start thinking about what makes Rocky Mountain National Park such an inspiring subject. And as I answer that question, suddenly I’ll discover that I have a list of things that will inform the shape of the piece. And at that moment, the piece is already begun.”

Boulder Philharmonic selected for a brand new festival at the Kennedy Center

One of only four orchestras nationwide chosen for the inaugural event

By Peter Alexander

11215713_10153195763195865_3630514800314949666_nThe Boulder Philharmonic is one of only four orchestras from across North America chosen to participate in a new festival at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.

The new weeklong SHIFT Festival will take place at the Kennedy Center March 27–April 2, 2017. The other groups participating will be the Atlanta Symphony, the North Carolina Symphony, and the Brooklyn-based ensemble The Knights.

The selection was announced today (May 28) by the Kennedy Center and Washington Performing Arts. Michael Butterman, music director of the Boulder Phil, commented: “I am thrilled and honored that we’ve been selected to perform in our nation’s capital alongside some of the finest orchestras in the country.

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Michael Butterman

“For several seasons, we’ve been fine-tuning our new mode for programming, called ‘The Spirit of Boulder,’ which reflects our community’s own values, creativity, and sense of place. By connecting people to orchestral music, the Boulder Phil strives to be an essential part of our community’s cultural fabric. We couldn’t be more delighted to share what’s working so well in Boulder with those involved in the first SHIFT Festival.”

The Boulder Phil’s performance at the Kennedy Center will be at 8 p.m. March 28, 2017. Butterman will conduct the program, “Nature and Music,” which was also the theme of the orchestra’s 2013–14 season. The concert will feature one world premiere and three pieces from the 2013–14 season:

Composer Stephen Lias

Composer Stephen Lias

A new work by Stephen Lias, commissioned to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service, performed with photography by Colorado photographer John Fielder. Lias has won several National Park artist-in-residence grants, and the Boulder Phil presented the world premiere of his orchestral work Gates of the Arctic at the opening concert of the 2014–15 season. Other works by Lias celebrating national parks include Denali for string orchestra; Glacier Bay for orchestra; Ghosts of Mesa Verde for two flutes; Kings Canyon for trumpet ensemble; Sequoia for trombone choir; and The Timberline Sonata for trumpet and piano, written following Lias’ 2010 residency in Rocky Mountain National Park.
• Jeff Midkiff’s Mandolin Concerto: From the Blue Ridge, performed by the Boulder Phil in April, 2014. Midkiff will be the soloist for the Kennedy Center performance, as he was in 2014.
• Ghosts of the Grasslands by Steve Heitzeg, performed in Boulder in March, 2014.
• Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring, performed with Boulder’s aerial dance troupe Frequent Flyers. Boulder Phil and Frequent Flyers presented Appalachian Spring in Macky Auditorium in November, 2013.

Boulder Phil with Frequent Flyers. Photo by Glenn Ross.

Boulder Phil with Frequent Flyers. Photo by Glenn Ross.

As part of their involvement in the SHIFT Festival, each participating orchestra will engage in a mini-residency, interacting with the surrounding community through educational and outreach activities, symposia, and community events in venues throughout Washington, D.C. Proposed festival activities for the Boulder Phil include nature hikes in Washington, D.C.’s Rock Creek, led by naturalist Dave Sutherland from Boulder’s Open Space & Mountain Parks, and outdoor performances by Boulder Phil ensembles.

These events draw on the activities of the 2013–14 season, which capitalized on local residents’ love of the outdoors by exploring the many ways that composers have been inspired by nature. Among other activities, the orchestra offered guided musical hikes, with the aim of bringing concert audiences outside, and enticing nature lovers into the concert hall.

“The SHIFT Festival showcases how America’s orchestras have shifted their visions to reflect the music and programming that’s unique to their own communities,” Butterman said. “We couldn’t be more honored to share our vision of the Boulder Phil, The Spirit of Boulder, with other orchestras across the country, doing the same thing.”

SHIFT: A Festival of American Orchestras is the first significant collaboration between the Kennedy Center and Washington Performing Arts in their shared history. The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation has awarded a $900,000 grant for the collaboration, of which $700,000 will be leveraged as matching funds for new gifts to support the program. Kennedy Center President Deborah Rutter and Washington Performing Arts President & CEO Jenny Bilfield made the announcement May 28 in Cleveland at the League of American Orchestras’ annual conference before an audience of nearly 1,000 orchestra administrators, musicians, trustees, and volunteers.

Collectively, the participating orchestras will offer repertoire by nine living composers, two world premieres, and numerous D.C.-area premieres during the festival, inspired by themes of nature, Americana, creation and creativity, and choral influences.

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You may read the Boulder Philharmonic’s press release here.

Information on the SHIFT Festival from the Kennedy Center can be seen here.