CMF’s mid-summer mini-fest puts the focus on French music

Artist-in-residence Benedetto Lupo will play both Ravel piano concertos in one evening

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Musacchio & Ianniello
Italian pianist Benedetto Lupo

The mid-summer mini-festival, happily restored to the Colorado Music Festival season, this year will fill Chautauqua Auditorium with the sounds of French music — Ravel, Debussy and others less familiar.

This is a welcome opportunity for Boulder audiences. The orchestral repertoire is so dominated by German and Russian composers that we can easily forget that France too had a vital musical culture.

The choice is also unsurprising: French music is the natural home of Jean-Marie Zeitouni, the CMF’s music director. “This is a repertoire with which I have intimate affinities,” he says. “I grew up with the Montreal Symphony playing Ravel and Debussy, so I have a special love for it.”

But that is not his only reason for selecting French music for the mini-festival. “It also is repertoire in which the orchestra is allowed to shine, because these are orchestral works that are very colorful,” he says. “What makes CMF unique is the fact that it has its own orchestra, people who are leaders in their respective organizations, who come together to play each summer in Boulder.”

There is so much French music to chose from that Zeitouni had a hard time culling the repertoire to make just two orchestral concerts. “This is a mini-festival that I might have drafted 50 different versions of,” he says. “There are so many things to cover, so many different ways to do it.”

In addition to Zeitouni’s affinity for the repertoire, the other factor in the programming was the availability of pianist Benedetto Lupo. Although he is Italian, Lupo says he “always had an interest” in French music. He studied with Aldo Ciccolini, another Italian who was renowned for his performances of French music.

“I feel very privileged that I had the chance to work with this great pianist,” Lupo says.

Lupo will be the CMF artist-in-residence during the mini-festival week and will be part of all four concerts — a Festival Orchestra concert July 20, an abbreviated repeat for “Fresh Fridays” July 21, a solo and chamber concert July 21 and a CMF Chamber Orchestra concert July 25.

On the first night of the mini-festival, Lupo will follow Olga Kern’s footsteps in playing two concertos on the same program, Ravel’s Concerto in G major and his Concerto for the Left Hand. “I like the idea that during a festival you will do stuff that you will not hear on a regular symphonic season,” Zeitouni says. “I think it is OK to do stuff that is a bit crazy, like playing both Ravel concertos on the same night.”

“It is a crazy thing to do,” Lupo admits, “but I’m crazy enough to like it. It’s demanding, but those two concertos are so different, they are really like day and night. The Left Hand (Concerto) is so dramatic and almost impossible, and the Concerto in G is so happy and full of life. It is wonderful for the public to listen to those two pieces which are so different.”

Also on the Thursday Festival Orchestra program are Debussy’s gauzy Prélude à L’Apres-midi d’un Faune and Iberia, and Ravel’s showy La Valse — “a very nice concert-ender because it’s punchy,” Zeitouni says. The shorter “Fresh Friday” performance will include Iberia, the Concerto for the Left Hand and La Valse.

For the Saturday concert, Lupo will play a program of Debussy pieces for solo piano, and then join with CMF players for Fauré’s Piano Quartet No. 1 in C minor. The latter, Lupo says, “is a composer who deserves to be known much more. His influence was enormous on French music, but his music is very difficult to play well.

“It sounds very elegant and simple, but it’s never as simple as it looks.”

The final concert of the mini-festival is built entirely around Fauré’s music. Titled “Fauré’s French Soirée,” the program features the composer’s Masques et bergamasques, a suite of dances originally compiled to accompany light entertainment. Here the various movements will be heard between other pieces on the program.

“It’s a salon soirée of early 20th-century Paris,” Zeitouni explains. “I try to give the CMF players the chance to be exposed, because they are the inspiration behind all of this. For this concert I wanted to choose one woodwind player and one brass player and one string player.”

In addition to Lupo, the soloists with the orchestra will be flutist Vivian Cumplido Wilson, horn player Catherine Turner and CMF concertmaster Calin Lupano. Lupo will play Fauré’s Ballade, a piece that is really unfamiliar, even among musicians.

Nonetheless, Lupo wants you to pay attention. The Ballade, he says, “is music that doesn’t reveal its all on the first chance you have to listen to it, but it’s like you get addicted once you start to listen.

“You don’t get tired of it.”

On the bill: Colorado Music Festival: French Mini-Festival. July 20-23. Chautauqua Auditorium, 900 Baseline Road, Boulder, 303-442-3282. For a list of performances and times, visit coloradomusicfestival.org/festival/category/french-mini-festival/