2014 Pulitzer Prize Winner

CC Summer Music Festival goes thoroughly modern

Published: June 26, 2014, 12:16 am, by David Sckolnik


It’s a classical musician’s not so “dirty-little-secret.”

While audiences clamor for the tried and true efforts of Mozart, Brahms, Schubert and Beethoven, the “professionals” revel in their rare opportunities to perform music by composers that most of their patrons have never heard of. They have great excitement at being able to perform works composed in their own lifetimes.

Well, score one for the living. Four of the composers featured on Tuesday night’s Faculty Artists Concert at the Colorado College Music Festival are still alive; the fifth passed away in 2012.

Joan Tower’s (born 1938) “For Marianne” for solo flute was actually written for festival mainstay Elizabeth Mann. This beautiful meditation displayed the flutist’s remarkable ability to literally become one with her instrument. Mann is usually ebullient and engaging on stage. This music, and what it demanded of her, showed a very different side of this wonderful player. The performance seemed personal to her as if she was revealing hidden parts of herself.

Elliot Carter lived until he was 103. One would have to call his Woodwind Quintet from 1948 an early work, but it’s full of the color, texture and energy that made him, for many, America’s most significant contemporary voice. As performed by Mann, Robert Walters (oboe) Bil Jackson (clarinet) Michael Thornton (horn) and Michael Kroth (bassoon), it produced bright waves of life force while achieving a study in the texture and sonorities of the engaged instruments.

The most powerful work of the evening was courtesy of John Harbison and his “Snow Country” from 1979. To realize the bleakness and intensity of this memory piece, the ensemble had to be seamless and of one voice. Exactly what string players Scott Yoo, Steven Copes, Toby Appel, Bion Tsang and Susan Cahill managed in support of Robert Walters’ oboe. Walters expressed a fascinating narrative both beautiful and sad in a work that, while modern in tone, mirrored the intensity of Brahms’ greatest chamber music.

As I read back on what this evening had produced so far, I’m thinking “yes- that’s the kind of intensity and challenge contemporary composers thrust at their audience.” And then there’s Michael Daugherty. He usually offers works that are highly-derivative musical collages of colorful subjects. Even more than usual his “Le Tombeau de Liberace” from 1996 causes a great ache to both the tongue and cheek. The performance made it especially wild.

After a 16-piece orchestra comprised of festival faculty and students with conductor Scott Yoo were set in place, the seldom-used stage right back door opened to release pianist John Novacek decked out in a gold-trimmed white cape. All that was missing was a statuesque model to strategically place a candelabra and unveil his sparkling formal attire. Oh- that’s exactly what happened when festival student oboist Theodosia Roussos did her best glamour girl impression in a revealing red/orange low cut thing that completed the stage picture. Novacek’s ensemble caused ocular damage to the unsuspecting crowd.

The music was kind of an expressionist/cubist translation of big band and salon music. It wouldn’t have worked if the ensemble was anything less than spectacular and if the highlighted keyboard artistry lacked full realization of the composer’s zany imagery.

But here, in the person of Novacek, was the true “Darwinian selection” to make this piece blast off into the show-stopping universe. He was ably assisted by some great violin histrionics from Stefan Hersh. This twisted take on a bizarre musical icon fired on all cylinders, even managing some moments of genuine beauty along the way.

After intermission the music returned to its conventional contemporary course courtesy of the “Sextet for clarinet, horn, violin, viola, cello and piano” by Krzysztof Penderecki. Using a potent ability to create diverse contrapuntal textures in this work from 2000, the composer produced a wild conversation that often filled out all the available sonic space. The ensemble was spectacular. Each participant- Jackson, Thornton, Copes, Appel, Bion and pianist Sue Grace- had their moment to poignantly make their points and protests in this musical summit that mirrored the confusion and intense discourse of our age.

Another great concert from this festival that keeps the music pumping away through Sunday afternoon. Whether the 12:15 p.m. student chamber recitals (free- Wednesday- Friday); Saturday afternoon’s 2 p.m. student concerto reading; Saturday’s 6 p.m. final faculty concert or the grand finale Festival Orchestra final on Sunday at 3 p.m. Information can be had through the Worner Center desk at 389-6000 or by visiting www.coloradocollege.edu/other/summermusicfestival

Folks, this has been and will no doubt continue to be the single most spectacular musical happening every year in the region.