Boulder Phil presents videos and Terrence Wilson plays Rachmaninoff

Saturday at Macky sees Michael Butterman’s return to lead the orchestra

By Peter Alexander March 18 at 12:10 a.m.

The next concert of the Boulder Philharmonic will feature a co-commission by the orchestra, but none of the music will be new.

Instead, the co-commission is a video created by Stephen Lias to accompany the performance of a work composed in 1955, the Symphony No. 2, “Mysterious Mountain,” by American-Armenian composer Alan Hovhaness. 

Stephen Lias in Rocky Mountain National Park. Photo by Peter Alexander

That is one of two videos that will be presented as part of the concert, which will open with a performance of Circuits by Cindy McTee with video by Aleksi Moriarty. Finishing the program is Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto, performed by pianist Terrence Wilson. The performance will be at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, March 19, in Macky Auditorium (tickets available here).

Lias is better known as a composer than a videographer. The Boulder Phil premiered his Gates of the Arctic in 2014 and commissioned his All the Songs that Nature Sings, which they premiered in 2016. In this case the Boulder Phil’s music director, Michael Butterman, wanted to perform the Hovhaness score, and to feature a video with it.

Butterman is back in Boulder to lead the concert, after having to miss the orchestra’s last performance in March due to a health concern.

“When we played (Lias’s) works before, he created visuals that would accompany the music,” Butterman explains. “I approached him about creating a video not for his own music this time, but for someone else’s. And he really ran with it.”

One of Stephen Lias’s composite images for Mysterious Mountain.

By “ran with it,” Butterman really means that Lias worked tirelessly to learn video techniques that he had never used before. “The learning curve was extremely steep for me, because I had no background in visual art or complex video effects,” Lias says. ”A lot of what I learned was very useful and fascinating, but boy it was a big investment! I had to learn to use a collection of high-end applications (and) packages of software that animators use.”

The more complex video techniques were important, Lias says, because—unlike pieces that he created videos for before—Hovhaness’ score is not about a specific location. In fact, the title Mysterious Mountain was added after the music had been written. “The title simply suited the mysterious atmospheric, meditative nature of the music,” Lias says.

Image by Stephen Lias for Mysterious Mountain

“This feels like it needs to be more amorphous and ambiguous (than Lias’s earlier video creations). My concept was to create virtual mountain ranges comprised of (pictures) from all over the world. There are animated, floating lines in space that reveal the mountain range, and then they are transformed before your eyes and you realize these are (different photos) laying over top of one another. 

“Later various virtual environments float around you, and then you end up in a place that is entirely real, but you’re not sure it’s real. The goal is a lingering ‘where are we?’ question. We are clearly not in real life, but the things from real life are mixed with things that make it clearly artificial. You’re in an invented world.”

Image by Stephen Lias for Mysterious Mountain

This fits the spiritual qualitied of Hovhaness’ music, Lias says. He describes the music and video together as “a musical and visual journey through all the things that mountains can be and might become.”

Some people in the audience may recognize some of the locations in the video. “Certainly anyone from Boulder will recognize the places that Longs Peak sticks its head out,” Lias says. “There’s some Banff, Glacier (National Park), and the Great Wall of China.”

Butterman describes the concert’s other video, accompanying McTee’s Circuits, as “entirely abstract,” but in an entirely different way. There are no concrete images at all, but rather abstract patterns.

“(Moriarty) went through the piece in an analytical way,” Butterman says. “He broke it down into a motive for a bar and a half, and then three bars, and then later on it comes back upside down. He identified these musical kernels and created a graphic representation for each one. Once he created the video translations of the musical ideas, he followed the template that the music itself played out. So theoretically, it’s a video representation of the structure and thematic content of the music.”

Butterman warns the audience that the video moves very fast, as does the music. “I would say (it’s) very fast paced,” he says. “If you are bothered by flashing, you would be wise to at least be aware of that. It’s only about five and a half minutes, but it’s very intense. I’m hoping that if anybody feels that’s a difficulty, they can simply look away.”

Both video works are engineered so that the length can be adjusted to fit individual performances. Moriarty works with a program developed by Ion Concert Media of Minneapolis, and Lias developed his own system using a sound, video and lighting control application for the Mac called QLab. Both result in a system where the conductor does not have to follow a click track or any other pre-established speed in the performance.

That’s an important issue for Butterman. “The real bane of (performing with video) is the tyranny of the click track,” he says. “Whenever you’re doing a Hollywood movie for example, you have a screen in front of you and time codes and little bars sweep across (the screen), and you have an earpiece where you can hear clicks, and it’s maddening.”

Terrence Wilson. Photo by J. Henry Fair.

While the videos will be the most unusual aspects of the March 19 concert, the Rachmaninoff Third Piano Concerto will certainly be the most familiar. It is beloved by audiences, but as a virtuoso showpiece it should never be thought to be routine. It was Rachmaninoff’s favorite of his four piano concertos, but also has the reputation of inspiring fear in pianists.

“I’m delighted to have Terrence Wilson joining us,” Butterman says. “He’s someone I’ve enjoyed collaborating with.”

Wilson performed the Grieg Piano Concerto with Boulder Phil in 2007 and has had an impressive performing career in the intervening years, including a 2011 Grammy nomination and a 2015 appearance at the Colorado Music Festival. A graduate of Juilliard, he has also received an Avery Fisher Career Grant and appeared on NPR’s “Performance Today.”

“Closing with Rachmaninoff is a little unusual,” Butterman says, “but at 43 or 44 minutes, it certainly has the heft of a symphony!”

The heft, and I would add, all the fireworks you could want for a rousing concert closer.

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Boulder Philharmonic, Michael Butterman, conductor
With Terrence Wilson, piano
Videos by Aleksi Moriarty and Stephen Lias

  • Cindy McTee: Circuits
  • Alan Hovhaness: Symphony No. 2, “Mysterious Mountain”
  • Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto No. 3

7:30 p.m. Saturday, March 19
Macky Auditorium

TICKETS

The good and the unfortunate: News of recent visitors to Boulder

Terrence Wilson, Stephen Lias, Time for Three

By Peter Alexander

Recent visitors on the boulder musical scene have been in the news, with stories that range from near-tragic to positive to fascinating. They concern Terrence Wilson, the pianist whose performance of Michael Daugherty’s Deus Ex Machina piano concerto electrified audiences at the Colorado Music Festival just last month; composer Stephen Lias, the world premiere of whose Gates of the Arctic opened the 2014–15 season of the Boulder Philharmonic to great acclaim; and Time for Three, the “classically trained garage band” trio of two violins and bass who have upturned many expectations for classical audiences, at CMF and elsewhere.

Pianist Terrence Wilson suffers great losses in fire

Terrence Wilson (right) with conductor David Danzmayer (l) and composer Michael Daugherty (c) following the performance of

Terrence Wilson (right) with conductor David Danzmayr (l) and composer Michael Daugherty (c) following the performance of Daugherty’s “Deus Ex Machina” at CMF

On July 9 and 10, Terrence Wilson was dazzling CMF audiences with Daugherty’s virtuoso Deus Ex Machina. Barely two weeks later, he lost all of his music and his piano when a fire broke out in his apartment building in Montclair, New Jersey.

According to a report published by TAPinto Montclair, Wilson had left his fourth-floor apartment briefly to get something to eat. “As soon as I turned the corner, I could smell the smoke and see them fighting the fire,” the report quotes him saying. That story continues, “He lived two floors above the second floor apartment where the fire started. When he returned, Wilson said that his entire apartment was in flames.

“Wilson was in tears as he pondered the losses of his prized possessions, including his Grammy memorabilia, music scores and his piano.”

Daugherty sent out an appeal through Facebook: “This past weekend, my friend and pianist Terrence Wilson‘s New Jersey apartment was tragically burned down in a fire. In addition to losing years of musical scores and personal belongings, his grand piano was destroyed. He had no renters insurance. Please consider making any small contribution at the GoFundMe page below to help Terrence rebuild his life.”

If you would like to help Wilson, you may contribute through the GoFundMe page.

Composer Stephen Lias offers a new CD of music inspired by the national parks

Encounters.coverStephen Lias has made a career of writing music about our National Parks. He has secured residencies in several parks, each time creating a new work from the experience. He has combined that experience with his teaching for the last four summers, through the field course “Composing in the Wilderness.”

For the 2015 program, Lias took nine composers into the Denali National Park and Preserve and the Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve in Alaska for eight days. At the end of the course, the composers had the opportunity to hear their new works performed at the Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival.

The past year also saw a successful Kickstarter campaign to fund a CD of music by Lias that was inspired by Big Bend, Mesa Verde, Carlsbad Caverns, Yosemite and Denali national parks. The CD was timed to be available for the 2016 centennial of the National Park Service, with the hope that the CD will be sold in national park bookstores around the country.

In the meantime, you can sample the CD or purchase downloads of the five works on Lias’s own Web page. The recording is also available for purchase through Amazon and iTunes.

Time for Three announce a personnel change

Nikki Chooi Tf3

Nikki Chooi (center) with Ranaan Meyer (l) and Nick Kendall (r), the new lineup of Time for Three. June Etta Photography.

Zach De Pue, the co-founding violinist who has been with Time for Three since the trio was founded 15 years ago, has announced that he has decided to focus his time on his position as concertmaster of the Indianapolis Symphony. Over the next year he will leave the group, to be replaced by Canadian violinist Nikki Chooi, winner of the 2013 Michael Hill International Violin Competition.

The announcement on the Time for Three Web page states: “This has been an incredible new door for us to open, and there is a lot planned as we take steps together towards a new, fulfilling future!!

“Nikki will be appearing on selected dates with Time for Three during the 2015-16 season, fulfilling his schedule of international concert dates while starting to play as a full time member of the band. In coordination with his duties at the Indianapolis Symphony, Zach will intersperse appearances with TF3 throughout and until the end of the same season, helping Ranaan and Nick make the seamless transition. Nikki will take over fully beginning with the 2016-2017 season.”

Chooi has said he is “beyond thrilled” to join the highly successful and fun group. You may read a longer story about the transition in Strad Magazine.

Note: This story was edited Aug. 2, with minor grammatical corrections.

Pianist Terrence Wilson and CMF Orchestra dazzle in Daugherty’s Deus ex Machina

Guest conductor David Danzmayr leads the Festival Orchestra in a satisfying program

By Peter Alexander

Composer Michael Daugherty

Composer Michael Daugherty

Composer Michael Daugherty says that he has to have an idea about each piece before he can start writing. The question is, does the audience need to know that idea, or can they appreciate his compositions as “just music?”

In the case of his Grammy-Award winning piano concerto, Deus ex Machina, dazzlingly performed last night (July 9) by pianist Terrence Wilson and the Colorado Music Festival Orchestra under guest conductor David Danzmayr, the answer is that it definitely helps to know what Daugherty was thinking. So it was good that the composer spoke before the performance. Audience members would have been well advised to read the program notes as well, since they gave even more insight into the ideas behind the music.

Conductor David Danzmayr

Conductor David Danzmayr

As Daugherty explained, Deus ex Machina—translated “God from the machine”—is about one of the most powerful machines of our landscape, the train. The connection between the mechanics of a locomotive and the mechanics of a piano is even more clear when you know that Daugherty grew up with a player piano in his home, which gives a musical meaning to the notion of God from a machine.

(To be historically accurate, it should be pointed out that the phrase Deus ex machina originally referred to a classical god who resolved the tangled plots of Baroque operas and theater pieces by descending from the clouds—in other words, from a theatrical machine. But Daugherty did not have this theatrical reference in mind.)

Each movement has its own specific train reference: the first movement, “Fast Forward,” is about the Italian futurists’ early-20th-century conception of the train as an engine of progress, represented in abstract or cubist forms. This is the most obviously trainlike movement, and it indeed rushes forward with furious, abstract energy.

linfuneral_train_t580The second movement, “Train of Tears,” is a haunting evocation of the train that slowly carried the body of Abraham Lincoln from Washington to the slain president’s funeral in Springfield, Ill. Here the strains of taps overlay the steady movement of the piano and orchestra, expressing the slow progress of the train, or the slow spread of grief across the continent, or both.

The finale, “Night Steam,” refers to gorgeous nighttime photos of steam locomotives taken by O. Winston Link in the 1950s, but it only makes musical sense when Daugherty explains that he grew up playing jazz and boogie-woogie piano and hearing the late-night calls of the locomotives that passed through his home town of Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

“That movement’s me,” Daugherty said about “Night Steam” yesterday before the performance. And once you make the connection between the disappearing steam locomotives and the long gone style of boogie-woogie piano from Daugherty’s youth, the music takes on an elevated meaning that is otherwise unavailable to the listener.

Pianist Terrence Wilson

Pianist Terrence Wilson

Only with at least this overview of the piece can one grasp the accomplishment of Wilson, for whom the concerto was written, as well as Danzmayr and the Festival Orchestra. They provided a thoroughly invigorating performance, one that captured the essence of each movement in turn while overcoming the concerto’s considerable difficulties. For Wilson, the challenge is not so much expressive as it is technical, since much of the emotional depth comes from the orchestra—especially in the dirge-like slow movement.

What Wilson provided was the energy, the technical polish, and just the sheer sound from the piano that it takes to conjure Daugherty’s trains. In each movement he was exceptional, providing the bravura, mechanistic drive of the first movement, the mourning chords of the second, and the frenetic boogie-woogie of the finale. This is a concerto that you definitely want to see as well as hear: Wilson’s sheer output of energy is visible at the keyboard, even when you don’t know just how many notes he is actually playing.

The Colorado premiere of Deus ex Machina was the major event of the first half of the program. The concert opened with another Colorado premiere, Lee Actor’s Opening Remarks. This is a brisk, bracing curtain-raiser that has more than a little bit of Shostakovich in its palette of sounds. Danzmayr and the players of the Festival Orchestra were more than equal to the challenge of Actor’s light, enjoyable score.

Conductor David Danzmayr

Conductor David Danzmayr

For the second half of the program, Danzmayr was not afraid to embrace the Romantic nature of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony, with its shifting tempos and surging climaxes. It was of course beautifully played by the Festival Orchestra, but at times the emphasis on local effect and the building of one high point after another led to raw, somewhat unbalanced climaxes. Tchaikovsky encourages this with his piling up of double, triple and even quadruple forte markings (not to mention the multiple-piano soft passages), but sometimes his music would benefit from a more restrained hand.

The overall sound was definitely that of a polished American orchestra: accurate in pitch and ensemble, with a bright forward tone that contrasts with the darker, heavier and intrinsically mournful sound of Russian orchestras. Be that as it may, the precision of the scurrying strings, the accuracy of the woodwind playing, the bright fullness of the brass sound are bracing, and they provide a satisfying, if not entirely Russian, interpretation of the symphony.

It is risky to single out individual orchestra players on such a program, since it would be difficult not to leave out some truly fine performances, so I will only say that the solos I heard—orchestra members know who they are!—were all played with great beauty of tone and technical finesse. This was a performance that deserved a larger audience, but at least no one disturbed the music with a cell phone this week.

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If you missed the chance to purchase the Grammy-winning recording of Deus ex Machina performed by Terrence Wilson and the Nashville Symphony, Giancarlo Guerrero, conductor, at the concert, you can purchase it and other recordings of Daugherty’s music here or here.

NOTE: The time period of Link’s photos was added and the article was revised for grammar and typos on July 10.