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Thursday, June 3,2010

Classical mashups

Sounds of Lyons combines chamber music and grooviness

By Peter Alexander

You might be surprised that Lyons, best known as a national center for folk and bluegrass with its RockyGrass and Rocky Mt. Folk festivals, the RockyGrass Academy and dozens of other events through the year, has now become the home of a classical chamber music festival. But violinist MinTze Wu, the founder of Sounds of Lyons, is full of surprises.

Born in Taiwan and trained as a classical violinist at the Juilliard School of Music and the Cleveland Institute of Music, Wu played orchestral and chamber music in major concert halls and at festivals around the world. And then she settled in tiny (pop. 1,600) Lyons.

After a career devoted to the classical masters, she decided to take up traditional Celtic fiddling — and then combined her new skill with the most demanding pieces by J.S. Bach.

Living in a mecca for bluegrass and folk music, she decided to start a classical chamber music festival. And then, with no training in managing such a complex event, she put together the first Sounds of Lyons last year in just four months, from the first notions of a festival to the first notes of the opening concert.

“I’m somebody that I want to make anything work,” she says.

Evidently, because Sounds of Lyons is not just working, it’s thriving. But if you are thinking of classical chamber music as three or four old guys in formal dress playing before a silent congregation of music worshippers, here’s another surprise. In Lyons, Wu says, “The idea that classical music could jump out of its concert attire and to be bare feet, groovy and theatrical has been wildly embraced.”

And by the way, she means bare feet literally: she always performs barefoot. This is part of her musical personality — “I literally love the feel of the feet on the floor,” she says — but it’s also a sign of the relaxed feel of the festival. There’s no formal dress code for the performers. Concerts take place in intimate spaces that bring the audience and performers close together. And Wu often talks to the audience before the performance begins.

As for “groovy and theatrical,” that pretty much describes Wu’s entire approach. Her goal is to create an experience that pulls the audience completely into the music. “For me, it’s finding ways to make people feel like they [are] experiencing what we as performers are experiencing,” she says. “What I want to create is this: It’s sort of like you go into a movie. You are just in that experience yourself from the beginning to the end. You don’t come out of it. And by that you are able to be just really in the depth of the experience.”

The most obviously theatrical element of the festival is the first concert, which will have stories told in words interacting with the music. This is now part of a successful formula that Wu developed for last year’s festival: an opening concert that uses words and music to dramatize a story, a second concert that is more traditional and a closing concert that creates unexpected musical connections.

For this year’s opener, Wu took the title Metamorphosis from Greek legends, in which the gods change their form. But the stories were not the starting point for the program. In fact, Wu says, it’s never as simple as “me sitting down and saying, ‘OK, which text am I going to take and which music am I going to take.’” Instead, she thinks about different things that fascinate her. “And then at some point I feel like, ‘Oh! They will be [very] compatible!’” In this case a little known string quartet by Polish composer Karol Szymanowski was the starting point. It was a piece that Wu wanted to play because to her, “that quartet is so out-of-worldly.” She added two other pieces from roughly the same “color world” — Ravel’s String Quartet and a piece by his French contemporary Eric Satie — and chose some out-of-thisworld stories from Greek mythology. For this performance, Lyons’s Rogers Hall, a comfortable space that is used as a church fellowship hall when it is not hosting musical performances, has just the right blend of good acoustics and intimacy.

For the more traditional concert, the program of Beethoven’s String Quartet in E flat major, op. 127, and Brahms’s Clarinet Quintet in B minor will explore the connections between two masters of the classical tradition. It will be played in the Lyons Community Church, fittingly the most traditional and formal concert setting of the festival, but still a space that is comfortable and welcoming.

The final concert moves to the Wildflower Pavilion at Planet Bluegrass, set against the dramatic rock cliffs of the St. Vrain River. This is the most experimental program, even though it is built around the music of J.S. Bach. The concert will open and close with the Sage Quartet playing music by the contemporary Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, who is stylistically distant but spiritually close to Bach. The centerpiece will be Wu playing Bach’s Partita in D minor for solo violin, one of the most austerely beautiful and demanding pieces of any violinist’s repertoire. And in the most surprising stylistic juxtaposition imaginable, Wu will improvise on traditional Celtic fiddle tunes between the movements of the Bach.

“Improvisation was very much a part of Baroque playing,” Wu explains. “And actually the more I play folk music the more I realize how similar the sound and the structure are, and how actually natural it is to go from one to the other.

“I gave a solo version of this program … and the audience gave me the feedback that they were so stunned with the emotional seamlessness of the production.”

Apart from the Celtic fiddling, the programming is clearly a departure for Lyons and Planet Bluegrass. But here is one more surprise: Even though Bach and Beethoven had not been regulars on the local music scene, Wu never met any resistance to the idea of a classical festival.

“That’s what was so surprising to me,” she says.

“There is such an appetite for more music here. People here, they want music, they really welcome something new. I realized that people had been waiting for something like this to happen here.

“I almost feel like as soon as I started thinking about [Sounds of Lyon], the wind is just coming my way.”

Respond: letters@boulderweekly.com

Sounds of Lyons

Sounds of Lyons will present three concerts this weekend in separate venues in Lyons. The Sage String Quartet, the festival’s resident ensemble, will be joined by clarinetist Daniel Silver from the University of Colorado, bodhran player Steve Wharton and guitarist Jon Sousa for three wide ranging programs:

Metamorphosis, music by Eric Satie, Maurice Ravel and Karol Szymanowski, performed with readings of ancient Greek myths as retold by young writers from Lyons, at 8 p.m. Saturday, June 5, in Rogers Hall on High Street in Lyons.

The Legendary, the most traditional of the three concerts, featuring music by Beethoven and Brahms, at 2 p.m. Sunday, June 6, in Lyons Community Church.

Passage: Finding Bach, featuring music by J.S. Bach and Arvo Pärt as well as traditional Irish fiddle tunes, at 8 p.m. Sunday, June 6, in the Wildflower Pavilion at Planet Bluegrass.

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