If you go
What: Boulder Philharmonic presents "Music of Resistance"
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: Macky Auditorium, 1595 Pleasant St., University of Colorado campus
More info: 303-449-1343 or boulderphil.org
Artistic expression has always been an effective weapon against oppression. And according to Boulder Philharmonic Orchestra music director Michael Butterman, that sentiment is at the heart of the orchestra's second subscription concert in the current season, presented Saturday evening at Macky Auditorium in Boulder.
"There have been so many times in our history — including the current moment — when our humanity has been called into question," Butterman said in an interview discussing the program. "We hope in these moments enough of us realize that what binds us together is stronger than what separates us."
The theme of the performance, "Music of Resistance," is a timeless one. The concert — presented in collaboration with the University of Colorado choirs — includes works written in direct response to fascism and communism. In one, English composer Benjamin Britten memorializes the British troops who fought in the anti-fascist international brigade during the Spanish Civil War. In another, Russian Dmitri Shostakovich composes his own veiled protest against Joseph Stalin. The opening work, Beethoven's "Choral Fantasy" for piano, choir and orchestra, is a more universal celebration of the human spirit.
Butterman said that Britten's 1939 "Ballad of Heroes" was the starting point. "It was suggested by an orchestra member. I'd never even heard of it, and it really is an effective, impactful piece." The 15-minute work is scored for chorus, orchestra and tenor soloist in four short movements. Shostakovich has also been a frequent suggestion and the composer's beloved Fifth Symphony — written as a public acknowledgment of Stalin's criticisms but a private rebuke of them — seemed a good pairing.
As for the Beethoven, it is a good length for a concert opener and another way to use the choir. Interestingly, both the Beethoven and Britten works prefigure later larger and better-known pieces in each composer's output — the Ninth Symphony for Beethoven and the War Requiem for Britten.
This will be the third Phil collaboration with the CU choirs. This time, they are joined by the visiting choirs from Western Illinois University, where a friend of CU choral director Gregory Gentry conducts. The Shostakovich Fifth follows the two choral works after intermission.
Both choral pieces include a guest soloist. In the case of the Beethoven, it is CU's popular pianist David Korevaar. In a conversation, Korevaar said that the Choral Fantasy is highly unusual in the composer's output. "He threw it together very quickly, and there are a lot of things that don't follow the usual logic, but it is still a wonderful piece." Written in 1808, it capped a marathon December concert in which Beethoven introduced his Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, his Third Piano Concerto and other works.
It opens with a huge, improvisatory piano solo that Beethoven supposedly did not write down until after the premiere. While the rest of the piece grows organically from that solo, musical connections are tenuous. When the orchestra comes in, individual wind instruments are highlighted in a series of variations that musically prefigures the presentation of the famous "joy" theme from the Ninth Symphony. And then the chorus comes in at the end, using that same musical material singing a rather generic text that nonetheless reflects Beethoven's idea that art is an empowering force for all humanity.
"It almost unfolds like a creation story," Korevaar said. He noted that despite the virtuosic opening solo, the piece doesn't really feel like a piano concerto, because the instrument is so often in a distinctly accompanying role, especially after the choir enters. This will be the pianist's first appearance with the Phil since he played the Rachmaninoff Third Concerto in 2011.
The guest soloist in the Britten work is tenor Matthew Plenk, who is in his third year on the faculty at the University of Denver's Lamont School of Music. Plenk came from New York, where he regularly sings with the Metropolitan Opera. This will be his first performance of the solo part in the Britten work.
Echoing Butterman, Plenk said he was previously unfamiliar with the piece, but when he was approached by the Phil, he looked at it and decided it was a worthy project. Butterman said that it made sense to turn to somebody with a national reputation who is now local.
"The piece has a lot of brass and percussion, and the choir sings in mass unison a lot of the time," Plenk said. "Often they sing repeatedly on the same pitch." The solo part comes in during the last two sections, intoning a melody above the chorus, Plenk said. Britten used texts by two poets. The pacifist W. H. Auden in the central movements is framed by the lesser-known, more militant English left-wing poet Randall Swingler. Butterman said that the work is actually more heavily scored than the Shostakovich symphony, as it includes offstage trumpets.