Radar on. Six incoming entities detected. Alert! It’s the annual contemporary chamber-music program in Packard Hall at the Colorado College Summer Music Festival.
In a classical-musical world dominated by DWEMCs (Dead White European Male Composers), this concert's compositions were penned by five composers who are alive and thriving. The prevailing sentiment is that such a concert wouldn't be of much interest. But more audience engagement was apparent at this fourth of five festival-artist concerts than at any other presented at this festival.
Gran Turismo by the 1979-born Andrew Norman commenced festivities with the wildest ride of the evening. This work for eight violins, composed in 2003, explores the intersection of contemporary art and video games. The animation and energy was provided by Scott Yoo, Stefan Hersh, Andrew Wan, Stephen Rose, Steven Copes and festival fellows Julia Mirzoev, Russell Iceberg and Katelyn Emery.
Exploring the possibilities of the instrument without any discernible tonal center, this truly collaborative experience came from an ensemble of professionals and students. The music was mostly furious with ceaseless momentum, like its namesake video game. An overriding concern: What if violins truly united in a conspiracy to rule the (musical) world? We must stop this from happening.
As a reviewer, I read the texts of operas, art songs and oratorios before evaluating their performances. So it would follow that to prepare for the performance of Susan Cahill’s Sonata for Double Bass and iTunes User Agreement, I would be search online for the “text” of this work, even though, like everyone else, I check the box and run as fast as possible from that intrusive on-screen window. Tuesday night, it caught up with me and delightfully ran roughshod over my sensibilities.
With the partnership of improvisational artist Jon Wilkerson, festival artist Cahill proffered an original concept whose form was advised by the headings of said agreement. At first just a musical realization of the words spoken by Wilkerson, this piece journeyed into the dark recesses of legal-speak, all the while profoundly entertaining the hall and culminating in an audience sing-a-long of “Glory, Glory Apple Itunes.” Art as it should be — reflecting and dissecting the reality around us.
The gears of this technology-soaked evening shifted radically with the performance of David Colson’s The Wind Is Rising, the Earth Lets Itself Be Inhaled, composed in 2017. Michael Kroth on bassoon and John Kinzie on percussion were required to parlay 13 instruments to capture the aura and energy of the seasonal transition to and from autumn.
The perfect respite from the cultural conniptions that it followed, this was a showcase for Kinzie, who danced around his instruments, striking, rubbing and beating in perfect time just the right sounds of this multilayered score. This awesome running of the gauntlet came because Colson, too, is a percussionist. He also has played a major part in the history of this festival, having been a performer, conductor and administrator in the late 1980s and for most of the 1990s.
Kroth projected a richly lyric and highly spiritual realization of Colson’s earthbound melodies and tones.
The more conventional Chamber Symphony by Michael Fine had its world premiere next. The performers were Alice Dade, flute; Elizabeth Koch, oboe; Anton Rist, clarinet; festival fellow Alec Manasse; bass clarinet, Michael Thornton, horn; Kevin Cobb, trumpet; Tonya Jilling, harp; Steven Copes, violin; Virginia Barron, viola; David Ying, cello; Susan Cahill, bass; and Scott Yoo, conductor.
At first overloading the limited sound envelope of Packard Hall, Yoo settled the ensemble so the positive light and sweetness of this thickly textured composition was easy to discern. These great musicians shared their excitement at making musical history by using their intelligence and virtuosity to fully honor the composer’s vision.
The work was in four movements. The first was a beachhead for the hopefulness, homophony and lyricism that dominated throughout; the second channeled the neoclassical spirit of Stravinsky toward a vision of a better place (Fine was contending with his wife’s severe illness when he composed this); the third was a waltz-like expression with some particularly brilliant sounds produced by Kevin Cobb; and the fourth a culmination of what had gone before, with a dose of Disney wonder splashed in for good measure.
The musicians’ absolute trust in one another to make this new music shine was a marvel to behold.
After intermission, Bandera, a short work by Texas-born composer and horn player Kerry Turner, was brought to life by Cobb, Thornton, bass trombonist John Rojak and pianist John Novacek. By far the tamest piece of the night, the ensemble flawlessly rendered the sounds and images of the Southwest for a score that inspired cinematic visions and seemed to beg for full orchestration. Especially delightful were Rojak’s telescoping tube-sliding histrionics in the middle movement.
Yet in a program lauded for the unfamiliar, the only acknowledged chamber-music masterpiece of the festival concluded the concert. It was by far the best reading of Francis Poulenc’s Sextet for Piano and Winds from 1939 that I ever heard.
The performers not only rendered the notes with grace, beauty, accuracy and energy, but also assumed the musical character of their instrument.
This is infectious music, each of the three movements creating a world of its own as the simple joy of being alive permeates. Special note must be made of Elizabeth Koch on oboe and Anton Rist on clarinet, young artists at the top of their games providing perfect artistry. They are also former festival fellows who no doubt used their time here in the summers to position themselves for great careers. Koch is principal for the Atlanta Symphony; Rist principal for the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. Now they’re back at the festival teaching fellows.
Also left reverberating after the concert were Novacek’s pitch-perfect piano playing, Julie Thornton’s illuminating flute flourishes, Michael Thornton’s proud and pompous horn tones, and Kroth’s total taming of his boisterous bassoon.
Sadly, the finish line of this summer’s festival is in clear sight now, but two major concerts remain: The festival artists Friday night and the festival orchestra Saturday, with free Music at Midday concerts through Friday. coloradocollege.edu/other/summermusicfestival/