Inspired by the earth

Boulder Phil kicks off season with geologic symphony

Music Director Michael Butterman conducting the Boulder Philharmonic Orchestra

For the Boulder Philharmonic, the 2013–14 season is all about nature.

“It has always struck me that people [in Boulder] are more aware of nature and more in tune with the outdoors than in a lot of places,” says Michael Butterman, the Phil’s music director. “It’s impossible not to feel deeply a part of nature in and around Boulder.

“I thought it might be an interesting and appreciated theme to explore for a season. There’s certainly no shortage of repertoire that fits the bill.”

Indeed, the coming season features a number of choices from that repertoire, including Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony, Debussy’s “La Mer” (The sea), Aaron Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” and Smetana’s “Moldau.” The season also offers some newer pieces that reflect on man’s relationship with nature, including music from Chasing Ice, the documentary film about Boulder photographer James Balog.

And the Sunday, Sept. 8, opening night in Boulder (7 p.m. in Macky Auditorium) will feature the world premiere of a new piece by CU assistant professor Jeffrey Nytch, his Symphony No. 1, which is inspired by the geological formations and history of the Rocky Mountains.

The season also includes pieces — Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” and Brahms’ Symphony No. 4 are examples — that are not related to the natural world but are “all-time favorites,” as Butterman puts it. (See the full season at

In addition to Nytch’s premiere, Sunday’s opening night concert presents Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto, certainly an “all-time favorite,” and some vivid pieces of musical pictorialism in the “Four Sea Interludes” from Benjamin Britten’s opera Peter Grimes.

“The concerto strikes me as a classic opening night kind of piece,” Butterman says. “It’s got Tchaikovsky’s winning formula of great melodies and drama. He certainly knew how to handle both of those in his music, and I think that’s why it’s still popular and probably always will be.”

The soloist will be Inon Baratan, a pianist who has not appeared in Boulder before.

“I’ve known about him for three years now, and I knew he was going to be in Aspen this summer,” Butterman explains. “I get lots of CDs sent to me, and I’ve been impressed by what I’ve seen and heard from him.”

The Britten “Sea Interludes” portray different moods of the sea off an English coastal village where the opera Peter Grimes takes place. Butterman emphasizes that you don’t need to know the opera to understand these impressionistic pictures of the North Sea. On the other hand, it is helpful to understand that it is not about the sunny Caribbean but a threatening, often ominous and stormy sea “as it is known to people in British fishing villages.”

“The interludes are beautiful tone poems, very vividly orchestrated,” Butterman adds. “In ‘Dawn,’ the high unison violin and flute suggest colorless, early white light on the smooth surface. ‘Sunday Morning’ is more a depiction of the village than the sea, with church bells and short, jagged string figures suggesting the scurrying townsfolk as they make their way to church. ‘Moonlight’ evokes a nighttime scene with slow, low surges punctuated by occasional glimmers of flickering light. Finally, ‘Storm’ lives up to its billing by vividly suggesting sweeping tidal surges and stinging cold wind.”

But it is the world premiere of Nytch’s Symphony No. 1 that holds the most interest. To understand how this piece came about, it is helpful to know that Nytch holds degrees in both music and geology — and he directs the Entrepreneurship Center for Music at CU.

“I have a background in both geology and music because I couldn’t decide what I wanted to major in,” Nytch says. “On top of that, I’ve always had a knack for business.”

In fact, he admits, he spent Friday nights in high school not at football games or the movies, but watching Wall Street Week on PBS.

The notion of writing a piece of music about geology had appealed to Nytch for many years, but he had not found the right opportunity. It was when his entrepreneurial side discovered the right occasion that all three interests came together.

CU professor Jeffrey Nytch condensed Colorado’s geologic history into his composition Symphony No. 1. | Photo courtesy of Janet Braccio

“I found out that the Geological Society of America (GSA), which is based in Boulder, was celebrating their 125th anniversary this year,” he explains. “So I went to the Boulder Phil, who had just performed a short piece of mine called Acclamations. That had been a success, and I said, ‘OK, I’ve got a crazy idea. You guys are going to commission a symphony from me that’s going to be inspired by the geology of the Rocky Mountains, and we’re going to get the Geological Society to pay for it.’ And they said ‘You’re right, it’s a crazy idea, but we love it!’

“We went to visit the GSA and they loved it!

“I teach my students that you have to take what you do and identify the needs in your community. In this case, [the commission for the symphony] fulfilled the Boulder Phil’s need, wanting to reflect the community, it fulfilled the GSA’s need for something to tie their big celebration together — and it meets my need, because I wanted to write a symphony!”

Sunday’s premiere in Boulder will be a big event for the Boulder Phil, but the GSA celebration comes later, when the group hosts its annual meeting in Denver. On Oct. 29, the orchestra will travel to the History Colorado Center to repeat the symphony for the GSA 125th Anniversary Gala (

Considering the different time scale between a 30-minute symphony and the eons of geological time, it is not surprising that Nytch is the first to write a symphony about geological events.

“Obviously I’m not going to try to depict actual geological time because it’s impossible,” he says. “Things that happen quickly, putting air quotes around that word ‘quickly’ in a geological sense, something that happened over a few million years, that might happen quickly in the music, so that the relative relationships are the same, but everything is compressed.”

The symphony falls into the four traditional movements. The first, titled “Orogenies” (or “mountain building”) depicts in music the upheaval and birth of western North America’s crust. The second, “Rush,” is a fast and furious exploration of human history in relation to the geology of the West, particularly the gold rushes of the 19th century.

The slow movement, “Requiems,” is about fossil fuels and how they are made from the remains of living plants and animals from the past. And the final movement, “Majesties,” is about the formation of the modern Rocky Mountains.

“I hope [listeners] will be able to experience this as a piece of music and enjoy it, and that they think about our relationship to the earth,” Nytch says. “The first movement is from the perspective of the earth, the interior movements are about the tension between us and the earth, and I look at the last movement as a kind of reconciliation where we go forward and celebrate this great thing that we have.”

Read an interview with composer Jeffrey Nytch and learn more about his symphony at

The Boulder Philharmonic plays at Macky Auditorium Sunday, Sept. 8. Show starts at 7 p.m. Tickets start at $15. Visit for more information.



Previous articleInterview: Jeffrey Nytch
Next articleTroubled Waters, continued