Bach and Mahler Festivals expand their programming

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MahlerFest Artistic Director Kenneth Woods
Courtesy of Kenneth Woods

Colorado MahlerFest and the Boulder Bach Festival, longstanding institutions in Boulder, have major events Friday through Sunday, May 19-21.

Both festivals started with annual performances of major works of their composers. Today, they have expanded beyond that pattern to provide a broader context for the music. This means presenting earlier music that influenced Bach or Mahler, later music that was influenced by them, or contemporaneous music that was part of their musical worlds.

     

MahlerFest is already underway, with a screening of Ken Russell’s film Mahler scheduled Friday, May 19, at the Boedecker Theater, a symposium Saturday on the University of Colorado Boulder campus, and performances Saturday and Sunday of Deryck Cooke’s reconstruction of Mahler’s uncompleted Tenth Symphony. The concerts will also feature Edward Elgar’s String Quartet in E minor, arranged for string orchestra by David Matthews, a British composer who assisted Cooke to reconstruct the Tenth.

A reconstruction of the symphony by J.H. Wheeler was played at the 1997 MahlerFest, but this will be the first performance here of the Cooke version, the most often performed of several versions available today.

“I would say that nine out of 10 performances would be the Cooke version,” says Kenneth Woods, the festival’s artistic director. “I thought [performing that version] needed to happen at MahlerFest.”

Matthews believes the Cooke version is important, both because it was the first to bring attention to the Tenth Symphony, and because of the way it was prepared.

“I’m obviously biased in thinking the Cooke version is the best, but it’s the truest I think to the spirit of Mahler,” he says. “The others don’t to me sound particularly like Mahler in places.”

Woods admits that not everyone agrees. “This is an area in which Mahler nuts will see it differently” from one another, he says. “They get quite passionate about these things, but if you’re just listening to the piece as a journey, (the versions) are all more or less the same. Most of the time you’re just hearing the piece.”

At one time, the Tenth could not be heard at all. Mahler had left a draft of five movements, of which only the first was in an orchestral score, with the other movements in differing degrees of completion. In 1960, the BBC broadcast an incomplete performance assembled by Cooke.

The composer’s widow forbade any public performances of the symphony, but she changed her mind after hearing a tape of the BBC broadcast. Cooke then completed his reconstructed score with the assistance of Matthews and others.

An esteemed and influential composer in England, Matthews will attend this year’s MahlerFest and speak on “Mahler’s 10th Symphony, Restored to Life” for Saturday’s symposium. “I think the presence of Matthews is huge,” Woods says. “He’s a living link with the history of this piece. To have someone who can talk about the way the piece came to life is really exciting.”

The pairing of Mahler and Elgar fits Woods’ vision of showing new perspectives on the music. With works being repeated in different years, “It’s vital to look at each of the symphonies differently when you come back to them,” he says. “The number of ways you can approach any Mahler symphony is nearly endless.”

Woods says the Elgar arrangement fits with the Mahler Tenth for two reasons. As one of Elgar’s very last works, it holds a comparable place in his career as Mahler’s final symphony. And, he points out, Mahler made and performed string orchestra arrangements of classical string quartets.

Matthews also points to the similarities between the two composers. “Although they have very different styles, their attitude toward music was similar,” he says. “It’s late Romantic, it’s very expressive of themselves, and it’s full of passionate melodies.”

The varying perspectives that the festival can offer is what makes it exciting for Woods. “At its best, MahlerFest is like Disneyland for the mind and soul,” he says. “There’s a wonderful mixture of thrilling music and interesting ideas that hopefully will stick with you after the concerts are over.”

     

The Boulder Bach Festival reaches the end of its 2016–17 season Sunday with a concert titled “Greatest Hits.” But Zachary Carrettin, the festival’s artistic director, means that in more ways than one.

“The ‘Greatest Hits’ are represented by three composers,” he says. “Johann Sebastian Bach as a greatest composer today, Georg Friedrich Händel as the greatest hit composer in his lifetime as well as today, and the more obscure Gemniniano Giacomelli, a greatest hit composer in his day, a composer of 19 operas.”

The works that are included represent some of each composer’s greatest hits. For Bach, that includes the opening chorus from the St. John Passion and the virtuoso double motet Der Geist hilft unser Schwachheit auf (The spirit gives aid to our weakness). For Händel, it includes the arias “But Who May Abide” from Messiah and “Ombra mai fu” (Never was a shade) from the opera Serse.

And for Giacomelli it will be the operatic aria “Sposa, son disprezzata” (I am a wife and I am scorned). This was enough of a hit that it was borrowed by Vivaldi for his opera Bajazet and was long attributed to the better-known composer.

The program will be played by a 17-piece orchestra of strings with two oboes and bassoon, plus harpsichord, guitar and organ continuo. Soloists include Carretin on violin, mezzo-soprano Clea Huston and oboist Max Soto. The choral works will be sung by the Boulder Bach Festival Chorus.

Carrettin says the program is planned around what might be called the two “greatest hits” of human life: earthly and sacred love.

“The first half of the program is primarily concerned with the earthly — arias that deal with betrayal, deception, misunderstanding, love,” he says. “The second half is focused on the divine, with concepts such as redemption, transfiguration and the Holy Spirit.

“This juxtaposition is intentional, and there’s also something deeply spiritual in the arias, and something virtuosic and playful in some of the sacred works. So the sacred is not one-dimensional and neither is the secular.”

All the threads — the sacred and secular and aspects of love — are brought together in the closing work on the program, which is one of the greatest hits of all time: the final movement of Bach’s Cantata 147, Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben (Heart and mouth and deed and life). The movement is best known by its English name, “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.”

“That chorus is in triplets, but it’s also in a larger triple meter, so you have three in three,” Carrettin says. “That refers to the Trinity, and is a reference to the divine, but it’s also an elegant gigue, which is a rustic peasant dance. So you’ve got the juxtaposition of the earthly and the divine.”

Love being a central human experience, the program aims to touch the audience on a profoundly emotional level. “When we hear great music, we’re in touch with something deeply spiritual, also deeply human,” Carrettin says. “Ultimately what we’re all trying to do as musicians is create an atmosphere where an audience can be deeply moved.

“The music on this program is all moving, it’s all beautiful.”

On the Bill: 

Colorado MahlerFest

Mahler, film by Ken Russell. 2 p.m. Friday, May 19, Boedecker Theater, The Dairy Arts Center, 2590 Walnut St., Boulder, Tickets: 303-444-7328.

Mahler Symposium. 8:30 a.m. Saturday, May 20, Room C199, CU Imig Music Building, 1020 18th St., Boulder.


Colorado MahlerFest Orchestra. 

Kenneth Woods, conductor, Edward Elgar: String Quartet in E minor, op. 83 (arranged by David Matthews)

Mahler: Symphony No. 10 (performance version by Deryck Cooke),7:30 p.m. Saturday, May 20 and 2:30 p.m. Sunday, May 21, Macky Auditorium, 1595 Pleasant St., Boulder, Tickets: 303-492-8440.

For more information: mahlerfest.org/mahlerfest-xxx/

Boulder Bach Festival

Greatest Hits, Bach Festival Orchestra and Chorus, Zachary Carrettin, conductor, with Clea Huston, mezzo-soprano, Max Soto, oboe, and Zachary Carrettin, violin.

Music by J.S. Bach, George Friedrich Handel and Gemniniano Giacomelli

4 p.m. Sunday, May 21, Boulder Seventh Day Adventist Church, 345 Mapleton Ave., Boulder, Tickets: 720-507-5052, boulderbachfestival.org/performance/greatest-hits/