Boulder Philharmonic freaks out

Ensemble tackles Frank Zappa’s orchestral side

Peter Alexander | Boulder Weekly

It seems like a typical night at the symphony: some light orchestral dances to open the program, a blockbuster piano concerto with a popular soloist and music by Frank Zappa.

Frank Zappa?

Yes, that Frank Zappa. And when the symphony is the Boulder Philharmonic, the answer is definitely yes.

Zappa was not only the creative force for the Mothers of Invention but also — perhaps less so — a serious composer of characteristically iconoclastic jazz, electronic and orchestral music.

As Michael Butterman, the orchestra’s music director, explains, “The audience for classical music is an interesting mix of folks that are traditionalists and folks that are looking for experiences.” And that’s especially true in Boulder, he says.

“People are looking for an experience, they want something that challenges them, that is different.” And yet, he adds, people also want to hear the “tried and true” classics.

The program in the current season that best combines both interests will be the orchestra’s next concert, Saturday at 7:30 p.m. in Macky Auditorium on the CU campus. Titled “Rach ’n’ Roll,” the concert combines Rachmaninoff ’s “tried and true” Third Piano Concerto (“Rach”), performed by Boulder’s own David Korevaar, with dance music (“’n’ Roll”) by Argentina’s tango master Astor Piazzolla, as well as two orchestral dances by Zappa, “Be-Bop Tango” and “G-spot Tornado.”

Butterman describes the program this way: “We are doing one of the great piano concertos featuring David Korevaar, a wonderful pianist. But there’s Frank Zappa on the first half, and Piazolla, this great tango composer. It’s all dance music of one kind or another. Most of it will be music that no one in Boulder has probably heard before, but it’s all very appealing.

“So we have something for the experience-seekers on the first half and something a little more traditional on the second.”

Unsurprisingly, neither of the Zappa pieces on the program started as orchestral pieces. “Be-bop Tango” was originally written for a rock band and appeared on the live album Roxy and Elsewhere in 1974. “G-Spot Tornado” was originally written for the synclavier, an early electronic synthesizer, and was released on the Grammy award-winning Jazz from Hell album in 1986.

The orchestral versions of both pieces appeared in 1993 on The Yellow Shark, an album of Zappa’s orchestral music performed by the Ensemble Modern that was the final recording released during Zappa’s lifetime.

If Zappa’s orchestral music remains an obscure realm for classical music lovers, few pieces are more familiar than Rachmaninoff ’s Third Piano Concerto. One Internet site lists more than 130 different available recordings. And yet, Korevaar, with a professional career of more than 30 years, has only recently performed the concerto.

In fact, he admits that the performance with the Boulder Philharmonic is “only my third time — I should have played it a hundred times by now.”

However, he is quick to add, “It’s actually a piece I learned when I was 19 or 20. I’ve lived with [the concerto] for so many years — close to 30 years since I initially learned it. I probably have a pretty good idea of what I want to do with it by now.

“To be in a position to take part in a performance of this piece — of course it’s difficult, [but] it’s just a thrilling piece to play. I think it has one of the great openings in all the piano concerto literature. What makes the opening great is how simple it is: a very simple, almost liturgical-sounding tune in unison. It’s one hand on one note. It’s easy. It’s a wonderful way into the piece, and then it builds in complexity [when] the orchestra repeats the theme.”

Korevaar continues his description of the piece, adding “The second theme contains the seeds of almost all the rest of the concerto. It’s pretty amazing what he does with that … in the last movement when there’s this rather extended set of variations, all based on that second theme from the first movement.”

If Rachmaninoff ’s concertos are known for anything, it is the sheer technical difficulty of playing them. Rachmaninoff himself was one of the great pianists of the early 20th century. He was writing the concertos for his own performances, and he himself found them challenging to play.

Korevaar says that the greatest challenge of the Third Concerto is “survival in a sense, because the stamina [required] is really overwhelming. … It’s one of the more tiring things out there to play.”

So the entire concert has something for the thrill seekers in the audience. The first half offers musical exploration, and the second offers the excitement of hearing the soloist tackle one the great physical challenges in the classical repertoire — and survive!

On the Bill

The Boulder Philharmonic plays
“Rach ’n’ Roll” at Macky Auditorium on Saturday, Jan. 15. Show starts
at 7:30 p.m. Tickets run from $13 to $60. 285 UCB University Ave.,
303-492- 8423. For tickets visit
concerts/jan-15-concert or call the box office at 303-449-1343, ext. 2.