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Boulder Philharmonic and Rachel Barton Pine

By Robin McNeil

Saturday evening, January 11, the Boulder Philharmonic Orchestra under the conductorship of Maestro Michael Butterman performed a concert which was publicized as The Three B’s, however, in this case, the three B’s did not stand for Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms, but rather Bach, Berg, and Brahms.

Michael Butterman

Michael Butterman

The Boulder Phil opened their program with J. S. Bach’s Komm, süsser Tod which is a song for solo voice and basso continuo from the 69 Sacred Songs and Arias that Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) contributed to Georg Christian Schemelli’s Musicalisches Gesangbuch (BWV 478). It was arranged for orchestra by Leopold Stokowski (1882- 1977), the long-lived and celebrated conductor. Stokowski was born in London, England, of a Polish father and Irish mother, and, with what seemed to be very little effort, became a prodigy on the violin, piano, and organ. He was one of the youngest students to ever be admitted to the Royal College of Music. After establishing himself as a conductor with the Cincinnati Symphony, he accepted the conductorship of the Philadelphia Orchestra where he not only vastly improved the standard of playing, but increased the size of the orchestra to 104 musicians. His transcriptions of Bach are known for their lavishness, but it must be said that they had great impact upon the American public.

Maestro Butterman and the Boulder Phil were quite accurate in their reading of Stokowski’s interpretation. It was at once poignant, and yet sweet, and the dynamics that Stokowski revised, gave it a very romantic aura which, today, many scholars might disagree with because of its “un-Baroque” flavor. However, it is important to note that Stokowski was successful in placing some of Bach’s lesser-known compositions before the general concert going public, and thus, widened their curiosity.

Second on the program, Maestro Butterman in the Boulder Philharmonic performed Gustav Mahler’s Blumine (Bouquet of Flowers) which was originally conceived as a movement for his Symphony Nr. 1 in D Major. This symphony, which was nicknamed Titan, was conceived as a tone poem, loosely based Jean Paul’s novel Titan, which describes a youth gifted with an artistic desire that the world has no use for. Sometimes, one wonders if Mahler (1860-1911) saw himself as that youth, however he eventually avoided any kind of programmatic considerations in his symphonies. As he expanded this first symphony, he dropped this movement because he felt that it contradicted the concept of the work as a whole.

The Boulder Phil’s performance of Blumine made it a perfect companion piece for the Stokowski rendition of the Bach. Compared to later works by Mahler, Blumine does not have the complicated harmony that will become so characteristic of Mahler. This work is clearly romantic, but seems almost spare in comparison to what he is to write later in his career. It certainly was lush, and the richness of its orchestration is pronounced, thus giving it a wonderful fit to follow the Bach- Stokowski.

Following the Mahler, violinist Rachel Barton Pine joined the Boulder Phil in the performance of Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto.

Rachel Barton Pine

Rachel Barton Pine

I will quote briefly from a bio statement that I found on the web: “Celebrated as a leading interpreter of great classical works, Rachel Barton Pine’s performances combine her gift for emotional communication and her scholarly fascination with historical research.  Audiences are thrilled by her dazzling technique, lustrous tone, and infectious joy in music-making.”

“Pine has appeared as soloist with many of the world’s most prestigious ensembles, including the Chicago Symphony; the Philadelphia Orchestra; the Royal Philharmonic; and the Netherlands Radio Kamer Filharmonie. She has worked with such renowned conductors as Charles Dutoit, Zubin Mehta, Erich Leinsdorf, Neeme Järvi and Marin Alsop. She has recorded 25 albums, her most recent CD, Violin Lullabies, recorded with pianist Matthew Hagle, debuted at number one on the Billboard classical chart.”

”While she regularly plays baroque, renaissance, and medieval music, Rachel Barton Pine also performs rock and heavy metal music with her band Earthen Grave. She has jammed with the likes of Slash of Guns N’ Roses and other rock and metal stars.”

Ms. Pine has a very well-deserved reputation for being a fine violinist. The Berg Violin Concerto is a difficult piece, and even though it is one of his most popular works, it is challenging to locate a live performance.

Berg was an adult student, along with Anton von Webern, of Arnold Schoenberg who originated the twelve tone serial technique. Instead of using a standard eight note major or minor scale, Schoenberg decided that all twelve notes of the chromatic scale could be used in serial fashion in order to produce a brand-new sound. Keep in mind that major and minor has been used for almost 450 years, and Schoenberg considered it to be outdated, and was constantly looking for something new. Berg’s twelve tones are arranged in such a manner that his composition does not sound as ascetic and spare as do some of the works by Webern and Schoenberg.

The American violinist, Louis Krasner, wanted to commission a violin concerto, and was definitely intrigued by the new serial method of composition. However, he was not sure how the new serial technique would fit the melodic and lyrical needs of the violin, but when he heard Berg’s Piano Sonata he decided that Berg should receive the commission. Berg decided to take the commission, and dedicate the work, as everyone knows by now, to Manon Gropius, the daughter of Alma Mahler by her second marriage. Berg’s family was on very good terms with the Mahler family, and he was profoundly shaken by her death. Berg finished the concerto in August, 1935: it had only taken a little over four months for him to write it.

In late November and early December 1935, Berg fell ill with a Staphylococcus infection. He had suffered repeated bouts with similar infections since 1932, when he was stung by a swarm of wasps. The stings became infected and put him in bed for a week. However, in 1935 the periodic infection became quite serious, and in the middle of December he was given a blood transfusion which seemed to result in some success. However, it was to no avail. He grew delirious from the infection, and died on December 24, at 1:15 in the morning, without ever having heard the concerto that he wrote. Two days later, Alban Berg’s wife received a note from the German poet Gerhardt Hauptman. The very short note seemed to express not only the feelings of the art world toward Alban Berg, but also seemed to echo the feelings of Berg for Alma Mahler’s daughter:

“Deeply shaken, dear gracious lady, we press your hand. Why had so noble a man and master to take his leave so early? May Heaven give you strength in your great sorrow. In sincere admiration,

Yours, Gerhardt Hauptman”

Rachel Barton Pine’s enthusiasm for this concerto was obvious the minute she began to perform. It was sonorous and warm, and very passionate, which is something that many audience members do not expect in a twelve tone work. I have never been sure why audiences do not anticipate the expressiveness of contemporary music, but many do not, and I am, as they should be, grateful for musicians such as Rachel Barton Pine to demonstrate that all music is expressive. Pine’s playing is so clear that one can almost hear the twelve tone row which is built of major and minor triads. This allows for remarkable shifting of harmonic colors, which indeed, combined with the perfect tempos and phrasing, infused her playing with all the character of a Requiem. She was certainly able to expose the fact that the arrangement of the row makes some sections of this concerto tonal as well as atonal.

There is one aspect of this performance that needs to be mentioned, and it is most certainly not a reflection on Rachel Barton Pine’s performance. The sad fact is that many times throughout the Berg Concerto, the orchestra covered Ms. Pine’s playing. They were simply too loud, particularly the brass section, but often the entire orchestra was guilty. It simply proves the point that in the performance of a concerto, someone needs to be in the hall to listen for orchestral balance with the soloist. I am quite sure that Maestro Butterman would have welcomed that kind of information as would Ms. Pine. I have attended many concerts and Mackey Auditorium, and have sat in the same vicinity. I cannot immediately recall hearing the Boulder Phil cover a soloist before this performance, so I think that it was endemic only to Saturday’s concert.

After the intermission, Maestro Butterman and the Boulder Philharmonic performed Brahms’ Symphony Nr. 4 in E minor, Opus 98. Brahms composed the first and second movements of his Symphony in E minor during the summer of 1884. He composed third and fourth movements in 1885. During this time, he was trying to find a little relaxation in the Styrian Alps of Austria, and he wrote to Hans von Bülow that he was somewhat concerned about the serious nature of the work, for he said in in the letter: “I am pondering whether the Symphony will find more of a public. I fear it smacks of the climate of this country; the cherries are not sweet here, and you would certainly not eat them.” Critical opinion of both personal friends and the music press was quite favorable upon its premiere, however several persons to whom Brahms played it on the piano previously to the concert thought that it was altogether too serious.

The moment the Boulder Phil began, I was struck by the swaying motion produced by the violins with their quarter note pick up leading to a half note creating a two note phrase across the bar line. It was absolutely gorgeous, and it clearly captivated the audience immediately. There was a little fuzzy entrance from the woodwinds around measure twenty-three, but they quickly recovered and proceeded to the end of the entire Symphony without any miscues. There is no question that this is one of the most complex symphonies that Brahms wrote, and even though this opening theme is so lyrical and gentle, there is a notable sense of unrest throughout the entire work. The second movement begins with a short fanfare from the French horns, which gives way to the woodwinds, which has to be one of the most beautiful themes that Brahms wrote. The tempo that Maestro Butterman took in the third movement was absolutely perfect in re-creating a very lively dance movement which proved very popular with the audience at the premiere. It is the last movement of this work, which is, in some ways, the most elaborate, and, yet, in some ways, very simple: it is a chaconne – variations over a ground bass -which uses a portion of J. S. Bach’s Cantata Nr. 150. There are thirty-four variations in this last movement which gradually increase in intensity, and act as a “recollection” of the pathos of the first movement.

Boulder Philharmonic

Boulder Philharmonic

The Boulder Phil and Maestro Butterman gave a wonderful performance of this symphony. There is no question that Butterman knows Brahms very well. He imparted a remarkable fluidity to this complex symphony so that the never-maudlin pathos implied in the first movement filled the remaining three. Wouldn’t it be terrific to hear the four Brahms symphonies on one program?


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