2014 Pulitzer Prize Winner

Philharmonic conquers new heights

Published: May 18, 2014, 5:19 pm, by David Sckolnik

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For its season finale the Colorado Springs Philharmonic went big… very big.

Before the evening would end, the Pikes Peak Center stage would be packed with orchestral players as never before. Even the modestly scored Beethoven “Emperor Concerto,” which opened the program, had a feel of magnificence about it. This was in large part due to piano soloist William Wolfram.

After the opening flourishes, Conductor Josep Caballé-Domenech chose an especially fast tempo to. It seemed to catch the orchestra off guard. This is when a seasoned pro like Wolfram earns his fee.

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Through his decades of performances with the Colorado College Summer Music Festival and numerous guest performances with this orchestra, the New York-based pianist has repeatedly endeared himself to local audiences and proven that he is one of the world’s finest. Wolfram’s tall, athletic frame correctly suggests that he can produce an immense sound from the keyboard but belies the fact that he also captures the precious detail and subtle beauty inherent in piano masterpieces.

So it was in this performance. The pianist slowed down and centered the music proving to be a master of Beethoven’s ever changing moods. With orchestra in tow, he used daring dynamic contrasts to assure the architecture of the first movement shone through.

While Caballé-Domenech and his band tried to set the right mood in the following Adagio, it was once again the musical wisdom of Wolfram that brought the sound to its humble bearing through a patient song-like “bel canto” approach. With everyone now on the same page, the finale was a joyous celebration topped off by a final flourish from Wolfram that reminded me of the virtuosity of the great Vladimir Horowitz.

Now it was time to blow the roof off the concert hall.

To realize Richard Strauss’ 50 minute tone poem “An Alpine Symphony” orchestras augment their forces to as many as 130 players. Based upon the modest size of its strings, the philharmonic added 19 musicians to a total of 95.

This is one of the greatest showpieces for orchestra ever conceived. Through the most minute detail, Strauss vividly tells the story of a daylong ascent and descent of a majestic mountain peak (or is it allegory for human existence?). The physical demands on the orchestra, especially the brass and winds, is as taxing as the actual climbing of this metaphorical mountain.

They did it – with great intensity, sumptuous beauty and awesome power. The lower brass was riveting – thanks especially to Charlie Ortega’s tuba and Jeremy Van Hoy’s bass trombone. The horn section, augmented from its standard four to an outrageous dozen, added impressive depth and color to the proceedings. Acting section principal Michael Yopp rolled out his solos with beauty and grace. The trumpets were brilliant, percussionists stunning and winds impressive portraying the varied color and minutia that Strauss asked of them. Special note should be made of the flawless playing of principal clarinetist Sergei Vassiliev and the sublime floating imagery produced by principal oboe Guy Dutra-Silveria who is stepping down from the orchestra after 32 years in this position.

The performance’s climaxes were jaw dropping but, thanks in large part to the playing of the strings and especially the violins, there was great beauty and emotion throughout.

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Almost as stunning as the music was the leadership of Caballé-Domenech who held this piece together through his shear force of will and clarity of gestures. In lesser hands, this could have been an arduous listening experience. On this night, the music ascended and transcended.

There is limited seating still available for a repeat of this concert at 2:30 pm today, Sunday May 18. 719-520-7469; www.pikespeakcenter.com .