A farewell to the baton at the CMF

Finale concert marks the end of conductor Michael Christie’s tenure with the CMF

Kristin Kuster
Peter Alexander | Boulder Weekly

One day, back when she was Kristy Peterson, composer Kristin Kuster got bored.

The Boulder native was supposed to be practicing the piano, but like a lot of kids she got tired of the pieces she had been assigned. So she went into her father’s study, took out the scissors, and cut Mozart into tiny one-measure fragments.

Then she re-arranged the pieces into the order she wanted to play them.

“My poor piano teacher was so patient with me, but now I can see that was me wanting to organize music in my own way,” Kuster says.

Today Kuster doesn’t have to cut up Mozart to organize music her own way. A highly respected composer who teaches at the University of Michigan, she writes it that way to begin with.

On Thursday, Aug. 8, and Friday, Aug. 9, you can hear some music just the way she wants it when the Colorado Music Festival (CMF) Orchestra and conductor Michael Christie premiere “Devil’s Thumb,” one of her newest pieces. The 10-minute composition is the winner of the 2013 “Click” commission from the CMF, chosen by members of the public who vote for the composer of their choice by making online contributions.

Other works on the program will be Pied Piper Fantasy for flute and orchestra by John Corigliano, with flutist Alexa Still; and the Fifth Symphony of Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich.

This will be the finale concert, not only for the 2013 CMF, but also for Michael Christie’s 13 remarkable years as music director. There is not enough space here to pay tribute to his tenure, except to say that the festival has grown in breadth and stature under his leadership, and has presented musical events that will always be cherished by Boulder audiences.

Speaking of her commission, Kuster says, “I’ve been waiting for years to use ‘Devil’s Thumb’ as a title. I grew up in South Boulder. I could walk into my street and see Devil’s Thumb, boom, right there. I love the rock so much, and it was ever present in my life growing up.”

Also ever present was the dramatic weather in Boulder. “With the mountains right there we get to see the weather better [in Boulder],” she says. “In January, when you wake up and the Flatirons are all frosted and sparkly. Or a summer evening sunset, when they’re starting to slowly blacken, or the morning sunrise and they’re all pink and orange. They’re this canvas for the weather.”

Her father was a meteorologist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, so Kuster grew up watching the weather.

“Watching the storms come from over the mountains into the plains, it’s one of the most stunning things we can see,” she says.

Kuster explains the relationship between Devil’s Thumb the rock and Devil’s Thumb the composition: “It’s a severe thing, this rock jutting out of the top of the Flatirons. The piece tries to encapsulate that kind of natural severity, and yet also the soaring beauty of these rocks. The piece opens with a lot of brass, a very severe opening. The opening comes back midway through the piece, and then things start to change. You know, like the weather.”

Corigliano’s Pied Piper Fantasy tells the familiar tale of The Pied Piper of Hamelin. The piece opens just before dawn and portrays the rising sun and the arrival of the piper, playing a distinctive tune.

Succeeding movements describe the rats and the piper’s eventual victory over them. When the pompous townspeople — portrayed in “The Burgher’s Chorale” — ignore the piper, he lures children from the town and out of the concert hall. The score ends with the piper’s song receding into the distance, and the return of a melancholy darkness.

Boulder audiences may know flutist Alexa Still from her years as a professor at the University of Colorado Boulder (1998–2006). A native of New Zealand, she is currently on the faculty at Oberlin. She has made more than a dozen recordings, including the Pied Piper Fantasy, one of her specialties.

The concert, and 2013’s festival, will close with one of the most powerful, and controversial, pieces of the 20th century. Like much of the art produced in the Soviet Union, Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony is shrouded in several layers of potential meaning that often appear impenetrable.

The symphony’s rapturous reception in 1937 marked the composer’s return to official favor after a time as a non-person in Stalin’s Soviet Union. But it remains unclear if the rousing conclusion represents the triumph of Soviet communism, or was meant as an ironic comment on the vulgar taste of Soviet officials.

Either way, it is an impressive ending for a concert, for a festival, and for Christie’s 13 years with the CMF.

The Colorado Music Festival´s finale concert takes place Thursday, Aug. 8 at 7:30 p.m. at Chautauqua Auditorium. Tickets start at $10. Visit http://bit.ly/CMFTickets for tickets and more information. 900 Baseline Road, Boulder, 303-440-7666.

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