June 7, 2013 Updated: June 7, 2013 at 1:45 pm
When running a marathon, it is wise to begin with a measured pace, saving some steam for the "kick" that can win the race near its end. With 27 musical events on tap in the next 18 days, this would seem to be a wise approach for the 29th season of the Colorado College Summer Music Festival.
And yet, they came off the starting blocks at full speed during the June 6 Festival Artists opener in the college's Packard Hall. The performers were in mid-season form and the program was perfect fare for a late spring evening.
After an odd but engaging minute of trombone-double bass magic courtesy of composer Edward Elgar, John Rojak and Susan Cahill, the music found its footing in poetic and elegant fashion thanks to Robert Schumann's "Phantasiest?cke, Op. 73." Originally scored for clarinet and piano, the composer suggested that a violin or cello might do as well in place of the reed instrument. Robert Walters had something else in mind.
He brought out his oboe d'amore, a full-throated version of an oboe that usually appears in performances of baroque music. After hearing how Walters layered its dynamics and controlled its singing "bel canto" potential, it was a welcome addition to the world of romantic expression.
Together with Jon Nakamatsu's inspired and always tasteful approach on the piano, this was a little slice of heaven that I hoped would never end. Thankfully, Mozart had just the right answer for this gentle dilemma.
Violinist Stephen Rose, violist Phillip Ying, cellist David Ying and pianist Sue Grace took the stage for the great Austrian classicist's Piano Quartet in G minor, K. 478, the first significant piece composed for this combination of instruments. Through its vivacity, intelligence and beauty, this performance captured the essence of why this festival has the most fanatical following of any annual artistic happening in our region.
As Mozart had innovated, each instrument has equality in this score. The ensemble had no trouble honoring the delicate balance of the texture in a reading that placed elegance and sublimity before the veiled darkness suggested by its minor mode.
Each performer deserves the highest praise for this performance: Stephen Rose for his agile and accurate playing; Phillip Ying for his rich and sultry moments in the spotlight; David Ying who was able inject intensity and meaning even into sustained held notes; and Sue Grace, who easily negotiated her ever-changing role as accompanist and keyboard soloist. They all made a fiercely difficult piece come off as easy and natural expression.
Coming into the concert, the biggest question for me was how an established orchestral work, the Brahms Serenade No. 1 in D Major, Op. 11, could possibly work as chamber music? I knew that Brahms had at one time scored the work for nine instruments, but there was a reason he added full scoring.
It seems Alan Boustead wanted to know the answer to this question as well, so he returned the piece to its once-upon-a-time "nonet" incarnation. This is what concluded the concert.
The ensemble - Elizabeth Mann, flute; Jon Manasse and Anton Rist, clarinets; festival student a clarinet Michael Kroth, bassoon; Stewart Rose, horn; Erin Keefe, violin; Virginia Barron, viola; David Ying, cello; Susan Cahill, bass - brings a new sonic palette to this beautiful six movement work that captures the beauty and fragrance of summertime.
Each instrument receives many moments in the sun and a lesser ensemble would have fallen victim to the ego of its players. Not here. It was miraculous to see and hear how one of the world's great clarinetists, Jon Manasse, gave up the spotlight for the music. New faculty artist Erin Keefe could have stolen the show with her gorgeous violin tone and texture but resisted this temptation. Most impressive was how Stewart Rose contained his powerful horn sound but was able to turn it on when Brahms wanted him to.
I found the transcription to be a revelation. While it does not replace the full orchestration, this musical dream team enhanced the overt sense of nature by lending an individual voice to the composer's chosen colors.
Special mention must be made of how bassist Susan Cahill provided the foundation and depth for the overall sound while never overpowering the balance. Although one of the students at this year's festival, clarinetist Anton Rist fit perfectly into the ensemble.
And this is only the beginning.
COLORADO COLLEGE SUMMER MUSIC FESTIVAL
What: Faculty artist concerts, festival orchestra concerts, master classes, free Music at Midday and children's concerts
When: June 8-through June 23
Where: Packard Hall, Colorado College, 5 W. Cache La Poudre St. and the Cornerstone Arts Center, 825 N. Cascade Ave., unless otherwise noted.
Tickets: $30 faculty concerts, $25 orchestra concerts; 520-7469; ticketswest.com; the Worner Center, Colorado College, 902 N. Cascade Ave.
Something Else: For the first time, the festival will stream the video and audio of live performances on the Live@CC live stream: www.coloradocollege.edu
live. Remaining broadcast performances are on Tuesday, June 11, 7:30 p.m.; Tuesday, June 18, 7:30 p.m.; and Sunday, June 23, 3 p.m. Visit www.coloradocollege.edu/musicfestival for complete festival details