Chamber music, Music, Vocal music

Denver Philharmonic Orchestra: MeeAe Nam Returns

A Review by Robin McNeil

The Denver Philharmonic Orchestra and MeeAe Nam are excellent!


Dr. MeeA Nam

Friday evening, the first day of February, Maestro Adam Flatt led the Denver Philharmonic Orchestra (DPO) in, perhaps, its best performance of the season thus far. The DPO was joined in this performance by its well-remembered friend, Soprano and Doctor of Musical Arts, MeeAe Nam, one of the finest sopranos in the United States. And, if that were not enough to create a wonderful evening, the Conductor Laureate of the Denver Philharmonic Orchestra, Dr. Horst Buchholz also joined the audience that evening. Dr. Buchholz, as all of you may know, is Dr. MeeAe Nam’s husband, and he is currently serving as the Canon of Music at the enormous St. Louis Cathedral.

The DPO and Maestro Flatt began the evening with Franz Schubert’s Symphony Nr. 8 in B minor, D. 759 (Remember that in Schubert, the D. Is the abbreviation for the Schubert Thematic Catalogue compiled by Otto Erich Deutsch.).


Maestro Adam Flatt

It is probably safe to say that every music lover in the world has heard of the “Unfinished Symphony,” even though they may not know that the composer was Franz Schubert. It is also probably safe to say that no one, even trained musicians, knows why this symphony is unfinished, if, indeed, it is unfinished. Two movements were completed in 1822, and Schubert then set the work aside and never returned to it. As all music scholars know, Schubert gave it to Josef Hüttenbrenner in 1823 in order that it be transferred to Josef’s brother, Anselm, as a gift. There was a sketch, which Schubert wrote for piano, for a Scherzo movement (the third movement) that was three pages long in its piano form. Schubert orchestrated only nine measures of this movement. The first two movements were never performed during Schubert’s lifetime, but in 1865, they were performed by conductor Johann Herbeck in Vienna on December 17. There are three reasons given for it being “unfinished.” The first is that Schubert realized that the first two movements were absolutely masterful, and that he came to the conclusion that he could not write a third and a fourth movement at the same level. This, of course, is nonsense. Schubert would never have been intimidated by his own genius. The second reason seems to be that Schubert was so busy writing all of the time (and he certainly did write all of the time), that he simply forgot to finish the symphony. That, too, is nonsense. Schubert was certainly smart enough to realize that he had written something truly exceptional, and he would not simply forget it. The third reason, hypothesized by some, is that Schubert, upon realizing he had written an incredible work in two movements, realized that it was a substantial work that would stand on its own. It would certainly not be totally unheard of, as Haydn had written a two movement piano sonata, as did his student, Beethoven. Understand that a symphony is also a sonata form, as is a keyboard sonata, or a sonata for violin and piano (Think of a symphony as a sonata for 40 to 80 individuals.). And recently, a fourth reason has been postulated, and that is that Schubert gave Josef Hüttenbrenner a full four movement symphony, and, when it was passed on to his brother, Anselm, somehow the last two movements were lost. This idea was suggested by T. C. L. Prichard in the Music Review, Cambridge, February, 1942, but no sketches have ever been found for the fourth movement, and as mentioned above, only three pages of a third movement exist which were sketched for piano. One question that has never been answered satisfactorily is: why would Schubert give an incomplete work as a present? Many individuals think that Schubert came to the conclusion that the two movement work was excellent in its two movement form, and even though he had begun to sketch a third movement, he decided not to use it. Until a better answer comes along, I think that seems to be the best solution, as do many others. And it may be that we may never find out with certainty what the circumstances were. It certainly is one of the masterpieces of symphonic literature.

Friday’s performance of this symphony was excellent. Immediately, Maestro Flatt, who conducted this from memory, infused the work with tragedy and mystery, taking an ever-so-slightly slower tempo than the well-known Wilhelm Furtwängler recording made in 1952. I have heard this symphony performed live many times, and yet the plaintive clarinet solo, which was so well done by Shaun Burley, Principal Clarinet, always takes me by surprise because it is so melancholy. The low strings played better than I have ever heard them play in the opening of this symphony: it was clear that they had worked very hard to give Maestro Flatt exactly what he wanted. They created a marvelous sense of mystery and uncertainty underneath the clarinet solo. There is absolutely no question that the DPO was ready to perform this work. All of the strings were excellent as were the brass. But, again, if I had to pick outstanding sections for this first movement, there would be two, for I would have to pick the low strings and the DPO’s marvelous woodwind section.

The second movement of this remarkable work was filled with the same passion as the first movement. Again, I was dazzled by the breath control demonstrated by clarinetist, Shaun Burley. It is interesting to note that Schubert asked for an A clarinet rather than the usual B-flat clarinet. The A clarinet has a more plaintiff and mellifluous quality (Rachmaninoff, years later, also required an A clarinet in his Symphony Nr. 2 in E minor.) which certainly fits the mood of Schubert’s writing. I cannot recall if the Denver Philharmonic Orchestra has performed this symphony prior to this performance, but it was clear that every member of the orchestra had fallen in love with this work. It was full of emotion.

Following the Schubert, the DPO performed the Three Songs for Soprano and Orchestra by Osvaldo Golijov. Golijov (born December 5, 1960) was born in Argentina, but his family had emigrated there from Romania and Russia. Golijov is a composer of very wide reputation, and has received a Fromm Foundation commission, and invitations from conductors and orchestras around the world. Helmut Rilling, the Bach scholar, commissioned Golijov to compose a Passion According to St. Mark, which had its premiere at the European Music Festival in 2000.

The works that were chosen by MeeAe Nam to perform, were “assembled” from other sources: film and separate commissions. The three songs entitled from Three Songs for Soprano and Orchestra, are Night of the Flying Horses, Lúa Descolorida, and How Slow the Wind, are all from different sources, but all of them reflect Golijov’s ability to write new music that has a tonal center.

I will now quote from MeeAe Nam’s biography:

“Dr. Nam is associate professor of voice at Eastern Michigan University and has extensive performance experience as a soloist in recitals, oratorio, chamber and orchestral concerts, and operas in the United States, Germany, Austria, and South Korea. Many of you readers will recall that Dr. Nam is the wife of Dr. Horst Buchholz, who was the Canon of Music at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Denver, and Professor of Organ at the Lamont School of Music at the University of Denver. He was also the conductor of the Denver Philharmonic Orchestra. Dr. Nam earned her Doctor of Musical Arts degree from the University of Colorado at Boulder where she studied with Dr. Patty Peterson and Dr. Mutsumi Moteki.

“Since 2000, she has given numerous recitals for organ and voice in Germany and Austria with her husband. Her excellent understanding of the works by Mozart has led her to perform many of his sacred works including Exsultate jubilate, the Grand Mass in c minor, and the Requiem Mass, performed with the members of the Mozart Te Deum Orchestra in the 250th Anniversary Year of Mozart’s birth (1756) in Salzburg, Austria. Her frequently performed works include Bach’s cantatas, Handel’s Messiah, Haydn’s Masses, Schubert’s Masses, Gounod’s St. Cecilia Mass, and Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, among many oratorios. Due to her great interest in contemporary music, she has premiered, in her region, many living composer’s works, including Joseph Dorfman’s one act opera Shulamith for soprano and percussion, Voice of the River Han by David Mullikin (who won the Distinguished Composer award from the MTNA), James Mobberly’s Words of Love, and Stuart Glazer’s Voices From the Holocaust. Dr. Nam frequently travels throughout the United States, Europe, and South Korea to give vocal performances, workshops and masterclasses at universities and music organizations, including the College Music Society, the American Liszt Society, the Vianden International Summer Festival in Luxembourg, and the Seoul International Opera Festival. She is currently undertaking a project of recording a CD which will be entitled Forgotten Songs of Théodore Gouvy with Albany records.”

Though I am fairly familiar with Osvaldo Golijov’s output, I have never heard these Three Songs. The first, a genuinely heartbreaking lullaby, begins in an electrifying fashion with the soprano soloist beginning before the orchestra. I have always been amazed at Dr. Nam’s ability to start on a pitch without any hesitation or inaccuracy. It is in works like this where perfect pitch can be a definite advantage. The opening of Night of the Flying Horses was absolutely haunting, and no matter what a motion she wishes to express, she does so convincingly and without hesitation. As I have said before, Nam has an incredible voice quality coupled with the freest vocal mechanism I have heard. Concertmaster Katherine Thayer also had a solo in this first song, and she matched Nam’s emotions note for note. I heard many in the audience express the fact that they were not familiar with Golijov’s music, and many added that it might be difficult to listen to simply because it was “ new.” But his tonal writing, his excellent orchestration, and Dr. MeeAe Nam’s superb voice easily won them over.

The second of the three songs, Lúa Descolorida, which translates as the Colorless Moon is, as the program notes so aptly expressed, define despair. I have never heard Dr. Nam sing in such a low register, but, of course, I have learned over the years that she can do anything she wishes, and never fail. In this song, she was so thoughtful and so pensive, and again, another violin solo, was so well done, that it literally brought tears to the eyes. The orchestra in this song was well-nigh perfect, and there were pizzicatos that were amazing because they were so precisely together. The third song, How Slow the Wind, is the setting of two short poems by Emily Dickinson, and it was written in memory of a friend of Golijov’s in response to his sudden death. This song was quite different from the other two: it made use of some very distinctive percussion work, and the harmonies, at times, were almost identical to Mahler. There was some wonderful work on bass clarinet and bassoon in the orchestra. Even though this song was like the others in its melancholy and great sorrow, MeeAe Nam was certainly able to show the audience that the different circumstances described by the text in each song conveyed three different kinds of melancholy. One never had the thought, “Here it is: another sad song.” All three were very different, and she perfectly conveyed those differences.

MeeAe Nam transmits great confidence when she is on stage, and it is borne out of vast experience and truly amazing musicianship. That word encompasses so much: technique, voice quality, knowledge of the composer, and, of course, a great sense of ensemble. She is a joy to listen to because all of these attributes allow her to be extremely reliable. She always captures the hearts of the audience and leaves them spellbound.

During the intermission, many audience members expressed curiosity about Osvaldo Golijov and their desire to hear more of his music. This curiosity, I know, would please Dr. Nam, for one of the reasons she performs is to expose the audience to new music.

Following the intermission, the DPO performed one of Johannes Brahms’ most famous works, the Symphony Nr. 1 in c minor.

It took Brahms almost 20 years to write his first Symphony in c minor, Opus 68. He had started sketches for a Symphony in 1854, but these sketches eventually became used in the first movement of his Piano Concerto, Opus 15. The symphony is Brahms’ homage to Beethoven, was first performed in 1876 under the direction of Otto Dessoff, and critical opinion of this work from Brahms’ friends, as well as the critics, varied considerably. The conductor Hans von Bülow was the one to label it “Beethoven’s tenth,” and one wonders if he was being entirely generous in making that statement. In the last movement, Brahms admitted that he was using a slight variation of themes from the last movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, and he certainly did not consider that plagiarism. Nonetheless, many musicians, and even some critics, noticed those themes, and when another critic pointed out the similarities of themes between Brahms and Beethoven, Brahms became quite angry and said, “Any ass can see that!” I am sure that Hans von Bülow was complementing Brahms on writing a symphony that was as perfect as Beethoven’s. And, Brahms was almost hypercritical of his own work, and even ordered his secretary Max Kalbeck to destroy his letters and musical sketches that were never used, or that were changed. But you have to understand that in this time period, the Beethoven symphonies were used to measure composers (aren’t they still used this way?) and the critic Eduard Hanslick said in the Neue Freie Presse that, “Brahms’ artistic kinship with Beethoven must be plain to every observer.”

Maestro Adam Flatt, once again conducting from memory, infused this work with an urgency that was quite fresh. The opening was very dramatic and almost menacing. It sounded inexorable, as if you would get in the way, it would run you down. Every entrance was in place, the phrase endings were marvelous, as were the dynamic shadings from the orchestra. There was no question that they were trying very hard to do exactly what Maestro Flatt requested. Every time one of the themes returned in this huge sonata form movement, it became more dramatic. And, I must say, that it was toward the end of this first movement that violins seemed to be getting a little bit tired. The second movement was done just as beautifully as the first movement: perfect ambience and considerably more peaceful. The violin solo for the end of this movement was absolutely gorgeous. There are some spots in this movement that have a slightly thinner texture than the rest of the movement, and it exposes the violin section considerably. This is a hard symphony for any orchestra, but I found myself wishing that they would watch their tune just a little bit more carefully. It wasn’t bad but it was noticeably out of tune. In the third movement, which is the shortest of all four, the woodwinds were absolutely sensational. This goes along a little faster than the second movement, but Maestro Flatt infused it with lightness and almost tender energy. The orchestra responded with an incredible amount of grace. Again their entrances and phrasing were superb. There were some pizzicatos that were as precise as one would hope for. The brass section in this movement was as exceptional in this movement as they were in the first. The fourth movement was really exceptional: it was dark but flowed so beautifully, and I wondered what the audience thought of this movement at its premiere in 1876. Steve Bulota’s very quiet timpani roll provided a kind of background for the horn melody: Brahms called it his “Alphorn.” This movement has a very long introduction, and the exposition section does not begin until measure sixty-two. The strings sounded absolutely excellent in the exposition section, and again their dynamically shaped phrasing provided an almost dignified procession of melodic line. It was beautifully done.

This concert demonstrated what the Denver Philharmonic Orchestra is capable of doing. They have an exceptional conductor who pushes the orchestra to forget that they are volunteers. And, it is obvious that he reminds them continually that because they are a community orchestra does not mean they cannot be excellent. And it is clear that he is showing them that no detail in the art of music, however minor, demands less than total dedication if one wishes to excel in it. Their performance Friday evening was superb.

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