Three staples of the repertoire, three wondrous performances, and three very different impacts. Had they been in the audience, the composers of the music offered at the first Colorado College Summer Music Festival Orchestra concert would have been more than pleased.
The setting was the Celeste Theatre in the Cornerstone Arts Center. Just the night before, an equally compelling concert was held, also as part of the music festival. Mandolin master Sierra Hull, backed by a quartet of bluegrass legends including singer-songwriter Ronnie Bowman, turned the theater into a haven for traditional bluegrass.
On Tuesday night, as many as 55 instrumentalists filled the stage. Such is the versatility of this space, due mostly to the state-of-the-art Constellation Acoustic System.
Brahms' "Academic Festival Overture" was the perfect kickoff. As the score suggests the Scott Yoo-led orchestra, comprised almost exclusively of Festival Fellows, produced an unabashed orgy of sound. What made it a performance to relish was the balance, detail and spirit of the reading.
And yes, Brahms would have loved it. The music was classically tight but romantically rich - the essence of his vision of the art form. The only problem, the entire overture needed to be heard again - once was not enough.
So, who are these guys? In its 34 seasons, the festival has always had a "student" orchestra. Performances have always been spirited, but in the last decade or so, they've become much more than that. The Festival Fellows are now comprised of some of the best young professionals and conservatory students in the country. They are in Colorado Springs seeking the last bit of polish to launch successful careers. They are mentored in orchestral and chamber music by the festival's faculty artists, the top pros in the business.
While these players cannot match the experience of musicians in American professional orchestras, they have something else that makes for performances to be savored. Hunger, passion and excitement come from this group. And with Yoo firmly in control, this extra energy is focused and polished.
All this and more would be needed to produce a winning performance of the Sibelius "Violin Concerto." The soloist was Andrew Wan, one of the faculty artists. The essence of this exquisite score is a gentle and haunting orchestral canvas from which the violin is able to rhapsodically express the pain, beauty and exaltation of existence. Yoo knew just what was needed and, from the downbeat, the sense of prayer was in the air.
Wan brought an extraordinary rhythmic intensity to the affair. No shortcuts here. Every detail was bravely expressed. He also acted as a kind of second conductor, taking opportunities to communicate directly with sections and soloists from the orchestra. Thanks to that dynamic, this rich work for orchestra was often reduced to intimate chamber music.
When they had the opportunity, the orchestra's principals produced elegant solos. Standouts included Natalie Law on bassoon, Sydney Hancock on oboe, Evan Pengra Sult on flute, and Alec Manasse on clarinet. Their work was worthy of any orchestra on the planet.
Not to be understated was the ensemble's ability to raise the roof when Yoo called them to action. The dynamic contrasts of this performance were spectacular.
Sibelius' genius required 35 minutes of great intensity and concentration from the musicians and the audience. I was not alone in my feeling that this was all the music I could possibly take for the evening. Indeed, as I write this 14 hours later, I'm still haunted by the melodies and textures of the performance.
Intermission was perfectly timed to allow us to recover and make space for the longest work of the concert: Beethoven's "Symphony No. 6 'Pastoral.'" Cutting to the chase, this balanced and beautiful reading produced refreshment, joy and affirmation and begged the question "why does this have to end?"
Yoo presented the perfect approach to allow Beethoven's treasured storytelling to be present. There was joy and cheerfulness emanating from the orchestra for movement one ("...arriving in the country"); absolute peacefulness for movement two ("Scene by the Brook"); the conductor's choice of an aggressive tempo only enhanced the raucous celebration of movement three ("Merry gathering of country folk"); shock and awe for movement four ("Thunderstorm, tempest"); and most gratifying of all, an undeniable sense of thankfulness from the finale ("Shepherd's song.").
What I was most in awe of was the ability of the seven first violins to sound as one voice throughout the composer's demanding passages for them. In fact, all the string sections had this homogeneity.
Ultimately, it was the subtle touches, largely the product of the interplay between Yoo and his soloists that made this a performance to be relished. Nina Laube made her moments on the bassoon a mini-celebration; Jacob Lenhardt's clarinet was organically grounded; Sarrah Bushara made her moments on the oboe sparkle with joy; and David Alexander was fearless and brilliant on French horn.
There will be another orchestra concert to conclude the festival on June 23. Unaccountably there were plenty of open seats last night and there undoubtedly will be space for the finale. But there's so much music still to come, most of it free, and all of it likely to be memorable.
Why does this have to end?
Visit www.coloradocollege.edu/other/summermusicfestival for details.