March 6, 2014 Updated: March 6, 2014 at 9:28 am
What a difference a year makes.
I found the 2013-14 Colorado Springs Philharmonic season largely disappointing. The just-announced 2014-2015 season has not only cured the ails of its predecessor, but has the potential to be the orchestra's best season yet.
Audiences crave mega-stars - whether it's in a museum show or an orchestra concert. The philharmonic has brought in some greats, including Itzhak Perlman in 2012, but in small markets like the Springs, the pool of stars is often limited by budget, contract price and availability. The proposition is risky business, too, because whatever the cost, the guest must generate ticket sales to justify the expense.
In the current season, there are no blockbuster names (unless you count the tribute to Queen on March 29). But in 2014-2015, we got one, a big one. On Feb. 26, 2015, powerhouse violinist Joshua Bell joins the philharmonic on the Pikes Peak Center stage, where the A-List musician-heartthrob will no doubt put his pyrotechnics and passion on display.
In Pops programming, the orchestra doubled down by expanding the performances from one to two nights. The offerings may make that gamble pay off. They include "Glee" star Cheyenne Jackson (Feb. 6-7, 2015), the acrobatic-infused Cirque Musica (Sept. 26-27, 2014) and Disney's "Fantasia" for movie night (May 8-9, 2015). Although many Pops programs feature recognizable names such as Natalie Merchant, who recently played the Pikes Peak Center with the Fort Collins Symphony Orchestra, the philharmonic hasn't followed suit. Happily, Jackson breaks new ground as the first Pops star to appear in the past decade.
Even the Thanksgiving weekend performances of the "Nutcracker" are going to be hard to stay away from. For the first time since the birth of the philharmonic in 2003, a superior company, Oklahoma City Ballet, will take the reins.
The Vanguard "Beyond the Score" series, which deconstructs popular works through video, acting and lecture in Act I and performs the work in Act II, looked promising when it was introduced. But I've yet to sit through an entirely engaging evening of the Chicago Symphony-produced series. That may change before April 2015, but there is one sure thing, the examination of Bartok's shattering "The Miraculous Mandarin," (April 25, 2015). I've seen it and can say it's a vital and historically powerful presentation.
The cornerstone of the philharmonic has and will always be its "Masterworks" series. This season's conservative programming has been supplanted by some boundary stretching and risk taking. The concerts have been restored to their "can't afford to miss" status of recent seasons with Copland's "3rd Symphony" (Sept. 20-21, 2014), Lutoslawki's "Concerto for Orchestra" (Oct. 25-26, 2014), Bruckner's "3rd Symphony" (Nov. 15-16, 2014), another Spanish-inspired program from music director Josep Caball?Domenech (Jan. 24-25, 2015), a collaboration on "Tosca" with Opera Theatre of the Rockies (Feb. 21-22, 2015) and Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring" to conclude the season on May 16-17, 2015. And thanks largely to Caball?Domenech's European connections, the impressive roster of soloists once again exceeds what would be expected from an orchestra this size.
More good news: Our music director will conduct six of the seven Masterworks concerts in 2014-15. Although Caball?Domenech told me it's healthier for his musicians to experience more variety from the podium, I'm delighted to witness him inspire his orchestra to even greater heights of artistic accomplishments.
After all, that is likely to be his last relevant season here. If Caball?Domenech's rise in the orchestral strata continues on its current course, he likely will not return after his final contracted season. The 2015-2016 season would then be dominated by a conductor search..