Boulder Chamber Orchestra seeks harmony via alchemy

In 'Basilisk and Ankh,' orchestra makes symphonic gold

Boulder Chamber Orchestra
Photo by Keith Bobo

If you mix the right ingredients, you will get pure gold.

That was the belief of the medieval alchemists, and it is the belief of Bahman Saless, who mixes the musical ingredients as director of the Boulder Chamber Orchestra.

When he realized the similarity between the medieval quest for gold and what he does in selecting a musical program, he decided to call the orchestra’s 2012–13 season “Symphonic Alchemy.”

“All the elements in alchemy have a spiritual character, and so does music,” Saless explains. “I realized that it would be really cool to represent the musical season in a completely new vocabulary, [one that] gives you a connection between music and what alchemists were obsessed by: how to create the perfect metal with elements that had spiritual connections.”

To further the alchemical connection, Saless named each program with arcane terms from the alchemical vocabulary. This weekend’s unusual mixture of music by Puccini, Bartók and Pergolesi, for example, is titled “Basilisk and Ankh.”

If you didn’t know, that’s “a symbolic creature [with] the head of a bird and the body of a dragon” and “a hieroglyphic character [for] the ascendancy of the life force.” Fortunately, the BCO program includes definitions —although Saless admits that he selected the programs on musical grounds, then added the titles.

“Alchemy represents the willingness to experiment, to come up with the perfect metal,” he says. “So we are experimenting with putting pieces together that on the outside look completely unrelated, but once the audience leaves the concert hall, they see the chemistry between the pieces.

“You have a choice of whether you want the pieces you’re going to play to be related, or do you want to produce a thought-provoking experience. I thought it would be kind of fun to have more of a thought-provoking season.”

Thought-provoking is a good word for Saless’ programs, which have never followed the well-travelled path. The current concert is a perfect example. He started with two very different pieces: the “Divertimento” for strings by Bartók — one of the 20th century’s most individual modernists, writing in a spiky style shaped by Hungarian folk music — and the somber “Stabat Mater” by Pergolesi — a Baroque composer versed in classic counterpoint and opera.

“I thought it would be very cool for the audience to hear Bartók and Pergolesi in the same concert,” Saless says.

Having picked those two divergent pieces, Saless needed to complete the program with music that did not call for additional instruments in the orchestra. Once again, he chose something that contrasted about as deeply as possible with Italian Baroque and Hungarian modernism: heart-on-the-sleeve 19th-century romanticism, represented by Puccini’s “Chrysanthemums.”

Except for Pergolesi’s well-known “Stabat Mater,” which currently has more than 60 recordings in the catalog, the program will be an adventure of discovery for the audience.

“The Bartók ‘Divertimento’ is very rarely played, because it’s a very tough piece,” Saless says. “But it’s one of the most approachable Bartók pieces, one of the pieces you can’t take too seriously, because it was really written with the spirit of fun and dance and folk music.

“It has moments of Baroque harmony and simplicity, and it has moments of complete dissonance, where you have no idea what the heck is going on. I hope that we can have the audience really appreciate its complexity and its simplicity at the same time.”

Deeply rooted in Hungarian folk music, the Bartók presents some special interpretive challenges, but the alchemist has some special ingredients in his formula.

“We have two of the best Hungarian musicians in our orchestra,” Saless says, referring to violinists Annamaria Karacson and Gyongyver Petheo. “They are what I call the Hungarian consulate in Boulder. I consult both of them quite a bit about what the idiomatic shapes should be with all the content.”

As for the Puccini, the title will probably not be familiar to most in the audience, but they may recognize the music.

“The piece is very well known, except people don’t know that they hear it all the time,” Saless says. “They have heard it in commercials, they have heard it in romantic movies.”

Puccini wrote it for the funeral of a friend and called it “Chrysanthemums” because the flowers are used for funerals. “It is one of my favorite strings-only pieces,” Saless says. “It’s such an incredibly powerful piece of music that really it deserves being heard more often.”

Alchemy aside, this is the real formula for BCO’s programming: Saless chooses his favorites and pieces he thinks deserve to be heard more often. Sometimes the blend is smooth, sometimes it is volatile, but it is rarely dull.

Boulder Chamber Orchestra plays the First Congregational Church in Boulder at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 16, and plays the Mountview Presbyterian Church in Denver at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 17. For more information, visit