Big sounds, small packages

Colorado Music Festival opens leaner season with world-class cellist

Marquee soloist Alisa Weilerstein kicks off the Colorado Music Festival on July 5 and 7 at the Chautauqua Auditorium. Credit: Marco Borggreve

The July 4 holiday has always been problematic for the Colorado Music Festival. The summer concert series at Chautauqua Auditorium — one of Boulder’s premier classical music events — has traditionally opened its six-week season in late June. Wherever it fell, the Fourth was disruptive, and themed concerts — whether of patriotic “pops”-style music or “classical” Americana — did little to alleviate the sense of interruption.

This year, the festival delayed its opening to July 5, condensing its season to five weeks. Peter Oundjian, music director since 2019, says the shorter frame also allows him to remain present for the entire festival. There are nine unique programs of orchestral music this year, and Oundjian will conduct seven of them. 

“It seemed better for the festival if I didn’t disappear in the middle,” he says. 

Five programs are repeated, four of them at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays and 6:30 p.m. Fridays. The season opener on Friday will be repeated Sunday, July 7, at 6:30 p.m. 

The marquee soloist is cellist Alisa Weilerstein, whom Oundjian has known from a young age and calls “one of the most engaging musicians around.” Weilerstein plays a concerto by Antonín Dvořák, the greatest ever written for her instrument.

Oundjian will balance the concerto with the sparkling “Italian” Symphony (No. 4) by Felix Mendelssohn and open with what Oundjian calls a “fun, well-crafted contemporary piece,” Anna Clyne’s Masquerade from 2013.

Dvořák also anchors the last repeated concert Aug. 1 and 2. The composer’s Seventh Symphony has a “special, extraordinary” quality that can stand up to that program’s big concerto, Oundjian says. 

That would be the epic Violin Concerto by Tchaikovsky, played by the superb Augustin Hadelich, a frequent CMF guest. “We are delighted to have him come back as often as possible,” Oundjian says. 

The opener is another contemporary piece, Two Mountain Scenes by Kevin Puts.

Peter Oundjian, seen here conducting an ensemble, has been music director of the Colorado Music Festival since 2019.
Geremy Kornreich Shiny Machines. Peter Oundjian has been music director of the Colorado Music Festival since 2019. Credit: Geremy Kornreich

‘Noble’ musician returns

Russian music is at the heart of the second repeated concert July 11-12. Ukrainian-born Israeli violinist Vadim Gluzman returns to the festival for the first time since opening it in 2018. Oundjian calls Gluzman “a noble violinist with a sincere, almost spiritual approach.” 

He plays Sergei Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 2. Oundjian matches it with Igor Stravinsky’s iconic ballet score turned orchestral showpiece The Rite of Spring. The size of Stravinsky’s orchestra allows for an extravagant opening piece, and Oundjian calls Short Ride in a Fast Machine by John Adams (the CMF’s 2022 composer-in-residence) “one of the greatest openers ever written.”

Charismatic pianist Awadagin Pratt appears July 25-26 to play a keyboard concerto by Johann Sebastian Bach. Oundjian says the festival almost never includes Bach and that Pratt’s interpretation on a modern piano is revelatory. Pratt pairs the Bach work with a piece he commissioned from composer Jessie Montgomery, her Rounds for piano and string orchestra. 

“He loves to put them together to establish a contrast,” Oundjian says. 

The unusual double-bill from the soloist is paired with another Russian orchestral warhorse, the suite Scheherazade by Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov.

Special Sunday singles

Four Sunday programs, three conducted by Oundjian, are not repeated. The conductor says these concerts are ideal for projects that may not attract huge crowds. 

The first of these on July 14 marks two 2024 anniversaries: the 200th birthday of Austrian symphonist Anton Bruckner and the 150th of atonal pioneer Arnold Schoenberg. Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony (the “Romantic”) and Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night) for strings will be staged with no soloist.

Bruckner’s symphonies are large and require patience, while Schoenberg’s name brings musical associations audiences may not understand, according to Oundjian, but people also know that Verklärte Nacht is “stunning romantic chamber music.” The risk of putting a Bruckner symphony after a soloist is that people might leave at intermission, he says. 

“It’s a bold move, but I want to celebrate these two composers, and people will experience something special.”

The July 21 program may be even bolder, featuring an unusual and exciting concert of music by women composers, including a world premiere. The CMF and Boulder’s Grammy-winning Takács Quartet commissioned Gabriela Lena Frank to write a piece with the quartet as a solo ensemble in front of the orchestra. It is titled Kachkaniraqmi, or “I Still Exist” in the Quechua language. Oundjian says there is “huge enthusiasm” for the new piece. 

Also included is the Concerto for Orchestra by Joan Tower, which Oundjian calls “one of the most significant American works of the last 50 years.” The opener is Adoration by early 20th-century African-American composer Florence Price.

The season comes to a close on Aug. 4 with another non-repeated concert, opening with the celebratory overture to Die Fledermaus by Johann Strauss. Oundjian usually ends the festival with a symphony by Gustav Mahler, this time the composer’s blissful Fourth.

The soloist in the symphony’s song finale is Montreal-based soprano Karina Gauvin, who also sings Maurice Ravel’s orchestral song cycle Shéhérazade, a complement to the more familiar Rimsky-Korsakov work on the same subject heard earlier in the season. Oundjian calls Mahler’s Fourth “a wonderful way for people to exhale with heavenly beauty at the end of summer.” 

ON THE BILL: The Colorado Music Festival 2024 season opener feat. cellist Alisa Weilerstein. 6:30 p.m. Friday, July 5 and Sunday, July 7, Chautauqua Auditorium, 1595 Pleasant St., Boulder. $18-$80

Guest conductors

Oundjian says it is important for musicians and the public to have guest conductors, two of whom appear this season.

For a repeated concert July 18-19, Norwegian conductor Rune Bergmann directs his countryman Edvard Grieg’s Suites from Peer Gynt. A festival favorite for many years, pianist Olga Kern, plays Rachmaninoff’s beloved Piano Concerto No. 2.

“Olga’s presence will fill the hall in a way that is nice for Rune, and it is lovely to allow him to perform with such a warm personality and beautiful musician,” Oundjian says.

Prayer by Vivan Fung, another work by a contemporary composer previously featured at the festival, opens the program.

On July 28, twin sisters and duo pianists Christina and Michelle Naughton, whom Oundjian calls “fantastic and charming with brilliant minds,” will play on an all-Mozart program with dynamic New Zealand conductor Gemma New. The composer’s Concerto for Two Pianos is balanced by his Symphony No. 35 (“Haffner”) and the serenade Eine kleine Nachtmusik.

Tuesday chamber music programs

Three of four concerts on the Robert Mann Chamber Music Series will feature CMF orchestra musicians, and the last will be a guest appearance by the Danish String Quartet. They are on Tuesdays (July 9, 16, 23 and 30) at 7:30 p.m.

“Our orchestral musicians did beautiful programs last year, and we can do many combinations with different sound palettes, allowing the guest ensemble to cover the quartet repertoire,” Oundjian says.


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