Climate classicism

Boulder Philharmonic Orchestra brings planetary peril into focus with season opener ‘Ozymandias’

Boulder Philharmonic Music Director Michael Butterman | Credit: Glenn Ross

What’s the sound of a biosphere on the brink? For Drew Hemenger, the answer to that question lies in a multitude of voices. That’s why the New York-based independent composer employs more than standard classical accompaniment in his latest work, Ozymandias: To Sell a Planet, making its world premiere with the Boulder Philharmonic Orchestra on Oct. 8.

Marking the debut of the accompanying Boulder Philharmonic Chorus, anchored by tenor soloist Matthew Plenk, the urgent new symphony also incorporates U.N. climate reports, Indigenous texts and speeches by activist Greta Thunberg across its five movements.  

“There’s an arc to the piece — a story,” Hemenger says. “The first movement is when only Native Americans were on this land. The second movement is the Industrial Revolution. In the third movement, I was thinking about the Weimar Republic, a decadent society on the verge of collapse. The fourth movement is what’s happening now, and the fifth movement is a sort of warning to humanity.”

Bringing these elements together under the umbrella of classical performance, the resulting collaboration with Boulder Philharmonic Music Director Michael Butterman is a call to action, asking audiences to consider their place in the imperiled ecosystem we call home.  

Christopher Duff Composer Drew Hemenger

“Michael said environmentalism and science are both important things that resonated in Boulder, and these are both important things that resonated with me personally,” Hemenger says. “I think if it doesn’t resonate with you, then you’re living with your head in the sand.”

For Hemenger, that resonance began with childhood visits to his grandparents’ home in Florida — a part of the country where the ravages of climate change are increasingly hard to ignore, evidenced most recently by the devastating Category 4 hurricane that has killed more than 100 people in the Sunshine State at the time of this writing. 

“Spending all the time in the ocean and fishing helped me develop a love of nature. Now seeing how dramatically things are shifting, it has become very personal for me,” he says. “But it never occurred to me to write a piece about [climate change]. I’ve never really written anything so directly political.”

‘Hymn to the Earth’

Engaging with the political moment is a key piece of Ozymandias. While drawing historical inspiration from Percy Bysshe Shelley’s classic poem of the same name, dovetailed with Shawnee Chief Tecumseh’s “To Sell a Country” speech from the early 19th century, the composition also features excerpts from the latest grim report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Those findings broadly indicate that “climate-related risks to health, livelihoods, food security, water supply, human security, and economic growth are projected to increase with global warming.”

Dubbed Hymn to the Earth, Saturday’s evening of music at Macky Auditorium — marking the launch of the Boulder Philharmonic Orchestra’s 2022-23 season — will also feature performances of Michael Abels’ Global Warming, along with time-tested classics like the Overture to Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Trauermusik from Wagner’s Götterdämmerung, and Strauss’ Don Juan

“I’m hoping people who know that music will hear it in a different context, in the scope of how these pieces are put together. If people are slightly hesitant about new music, there’s a lot of familiar stuff on this program they will love,” says Butterman, the Boulder Phil’s music director. “On the other hand, this is a chance to really hear a fresh and vibrant compositional voice addressing the existential issue of our time.”

Pietro Naj-Oleari Ozymandias: To Sell a Planet features audio from speeches by climate activist Greta Thunberg. Courtesy: European Parliament

In addition to serving as an early creative partner for Hemenger in the evolution of Ozymandias, Butterman found himself saddled with another important task: bringing the composer’s harrowing vision of climate catastrophe to life. But the local conductor says audiences should expect more than standard doom and gloom.

“We’ve been through a couple of years of really odd times with COVID,” Butterman says. “So although the subject matter of the concert is very serious, I hope it has a kind of a celebratory feeling of getting back together again to address a problem that needs everyone’s attention.”

In terms of addressing that intractable problem, representatives from the City of Boulder’s Climate Initiatives Department will be on hand during the upcoming program to discuss action strategies and resources. Audience members will also have the chance to participate in the city’s climate audio collage project by sharing their own visions for a more climate-resilient Boulder. 

While such focus on the political structures governing our lives is an essential component to fighting climate change, Butterman and Hemenger agree that artists and works like Ozymandias also have a vital role to play in responding to the most pressing problems of our contemporary moment.

“When you use something like art — whether it’s visual art, music or theater — you impact the emotional center of people’s intelligence. And that often is more of a motivating factor for people,” Butterman says. “To go from intellectual acknowledgment to actual action, sometimes we need that emotional drive to have a connection with something. I think that’s what art provides.” 

ON THE BILL: Ozymandias: To Sell a Planet. 7 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 8, Macky Auditorium at CU Boulder, 1595 Pleasant St. Tickets: $22-94