That’s how conductor Jean-Marie Zeitouni describes the concert he will lead with the Colorado Music Festival Chamber Orchestra Sunday evening, Aug. 3.
One of three official candidates to succeed Michael Christie as music director of the festival, Zeitouni will conduct just two works on the program: the Carmen Suite by Rodion Shchedrin; and Leonard Bernstein’s Serenade (after Plato’s Symposium) for solo violin, strings, harp and percussion, with the young American violinist Jennifer Koh.
Zeitouni is currently artistic director of the distinguished chamber ensemble I Musici de Montréal, a position he combines with a schedule of guest appearances.
A Tchaikovsky Competition medalist and Avery Fisher Career Grant recipient, Koh performs with major orchestras and festivals around the world.
Like the other candidates who have visited CMF this summer, Zeitouni will also conduct a pair of concerts with the full orchestra. He will lead this year’s finale concerts Thursday and Friday, Aug. 7 and 8. The program will be anchored by Don Juan and Ein Heldenleben (A hero’s life), two tone poems by Richard Strauss, whose 150th birthday is being celebrated this year. The concert will open with the overture to the opera Don Giovanni by Mozart.
“Both pieces are for strings and percussion only,” he says. “It’s very rare to have that combination, and to have such a big percussion section with a small orchestra.
“And there is a strong love connection, because of course Carmen is the story we all know about the fatality of the love and the passion. But Bernstein’s Serenade is based on Plato’s Symposium, which is a discourse on love, from many different aspects. The whole program is driven by different ideas about loving, fraternal and passionate and philosophical.”
Lest you think Bernstein’s Serenade is all deep, philosophical music, you should know that in ancient Greece a symposium was more of a drinking party than a seminar. And at the end of Plato’s Symposium, a drunken group crashes the party.
“When the piece is at probably its highest philosophical point, it’s interrupted by party music,” Zeitouni says. “It all ends as a big party, so the end is very jazzy, very cool, and very Bernstein-like.”
Zeitouni specifies that it is not necessary to read Plato before the concert. The music stands on its own, and besides, he says, “I might take some time at the break to do a small summary, to possibly enhance the listening experience.”
The music from Bizet’s Carmen is better known by far than Bernstein’s Serenade, but Shchedrin’s Carmen Suite is not the version you might recognize. In spite of its name, Carmen Suite is not a suite of music from the opera; it’s a ballet that Shchedrin wrote for his wife, the Bolshoi dancer Maya Plisetskaya.
In Shchedrin’s score, the rhythms and dances from the opera have been distilled and concentrated. As Zeitouni explains it, “When you condense it into a 45-minute ballet, then suddenly the landscape is more compact and you just feel the dance energy all the time.”
For the ballet, music from the opera has been re-imagined for strings and percussion, so the familiar orchestral colors are missing. And Shchedrin has added some original harmonic and contrapuntal touches in what he described as “a creative meeting of the minds” with Bizet.
The festival finale program for Aug. 7 and 8 adds yet one more twist on love. The story of Don Juan — admittedly an extreme and degraded form of erotic love — is represented in two works, Mozart’s overture to Don Giovanni and Strauss’ Don Juan. And it could even be suggested that the final work — Strauss’ Heldenleben, in which the composer casts himself as the hero, at one point fighting off the assaults of petty critics — is an expression of self love.
“Strauss turning 150 this year allows musicians and orchestra to indulge a little bit more in his music,” he says. “He’s a favorite of mine, and it’s always a treat for musicians to play this music because it’s really, really challenging, but really rewarding for an orchestra.
“Strauss has a reputation to be heavy, but actually there’s a lot of counterpoint, a lot of tender passages, and it’s very sensitive music. He’s a good composer to honor because he gave so much to orchestral music and to the modern orchestra.”
And dare we say it? Audiences love it.
Peter Alexander’s interviews with all three candidates for musical director of the Colorado Music Festival can be seen at http://sharpsandflatirons.com/category/ cmf-director-candidates/.