Refined Natural Sounds with the Boulder Philharmonic
A review by Ruth L. Carver
The Boulder Philharmonic closed out its season in front of a packed house on April 26. Macky Auditorium was filled with flowers for ticket subscribers, a fitting tribute in its season themed “Nature & Music.” The program offered a finely balanced, fresh mix of repertoire with plenty of charm and musical excellence. Conductor Michael Butterman filled the hall with an understated grandeur, and the orchestra created a rich, delicately blended sound throughout the evening.
Bedřich Smetana’s The Moldau is a favorite of orchestras and audiences, and its stirring, melancholic theme and rippling cascades of notes made it a perfect opener for the program. Butterman showed a real talent for balancing the various motives and melodic figures as they appeared in different instruments, while maintaining a beautifully synthesized overall sound. Perhaps not the most passionate reading, it showed the depth of talent in the orchestra and was wonderfully illustrative of the power of a river itself as well as its place in a collective cultural consciousness. The theme of the program became not so much about Nature itself as Mankind’s relationship with Nature as expressed in music. Smetana composed this work, which is often included in his cycle of tone poems, Má Vlast (My Fatherland), in 1874, just after losing hearing in both ears. Amidst the political turmoil in Bohemia, this piece in particular seems to represent the strong link between people and place, with the Moldau river becoming symbolic of Nationalistic ideals, made particularly poignant by the composer’s failing health.
Following the affecting Moldau, the orchestra made a total, toe-tapping transition to Jeff Midkiff’s mandolin concerto From the Blue Ridge (2011). Midkiff has feet in bluegrass and classical genres, with training and accolades in both, and this concerto reflects that spirit of fusing two seemingly disparate traditions together. Appropriating Americana or folk music into the symphonic repertoire has a long tradition, and here Midkiff takes familiar elements (rhythmic, melodic, and harmonic) from bluegrass and creates an easy, accessible blend. Also appearing as the mandolin soloist, Midkiff gave a fiery and effortless performance. The orchestra had many grand, effusive moments, and the overall variation in the score would lend itself to a film soundtrack. The contrast in timbres between the slightly metallic twang of the mandolin string against the lush orchestra was pleasing in spite of the occasional balance/microphone issues. The delicate, evocative second movement was the highlight of the piece, and Midkiff impressed with some blazing finger-work in the third, final movement. Though it was not filled with highly memorable musical moments, the overall spirit of the piece certainly evoked the nostalgia and particular charm of Appalachia.
The evening closed with the impeccable charm of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 (Pastoral). Beethoven is a master of developing figments of melodies into entire movements, and here, Butterman and his orchestra triumphed in continuously bringing out the finer points of the score. The unabashedly descriptive, programmatic nature of this piece fit in perfectly with the theme of the evening. The second movement grew perhaps too languid, but the third movement (“Merry Gathering of County Folk”) achieved a wonderful pesante, dancing effect, the thunderstorm of the fourth movement showed off the power of the percussion section, and the bucolic fifth movement featured the beautifully rich, balanced sound of this orchestra. This music resides firmly in the Romantic realm of Nature, and Mankind’s reliance on and romance with it. This makes it unique within Beethoven’s symphonic output, in its emotional frankness. Following this detailed, even performance, the orchestra closed the season with an encore of Johann Strauss II’s flashy Thunder and Lightning Polka. It was a pure piece of confection in which the orchestra let loose and brought down the house with fantastic verve.
A special note: the Boulder Philharmonic has appointed a new concertmaster, Charles Wetherbee. Mr. Wetherbee is on the faculty at the University of Colorado at Boulder School of Music, and is a member of the Carpe Diem String Quartet. For more information about Mr. Wetherbee, go to: http://www.cdsq.org/about/cw.shtml