Boulder Philharmonic opens season with ‘joie de vivre’

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Courtesy of Anderson and Roe
Well-known duo pianists Greg Anderson and Elizabeth Joy Roe come to Boulder.

It sounds just like Boulder: “a mixture of cheeky irreverence and sophistication, elegant and raucous.”

It’s actually conductor Michael Butterman describing the first piece of the Boulder Philharmonic’s 2016-17 season. The opening concert will begin with Francis Poulenc’s Concerto for Two Pianos.

You may not know the concerto, but Butterman is pretty sure Boulder audiences will enjoy it. “There’s a real joie de vivre about the outer movements,” he says. “The middle movement, though, is a testament to the surpassing beauty that can be conveyed through utter simplicity.”

Soloists for the concerto will be the duo pianists Greg Anderson and Elizabeth Joy Roe. After the Poulenc, Roe will return to the stage alone to perform Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini, one of the most-familiar, and most-beloved works in the piano-and-orchestra repertoire. The program concludes with Tchaikovsky’s tuneful but little performed Symphony No. 2 (“Little Russian”).

Anderson and Roe have made a name for themselves among duo pianists by reaching beyond the classical repertoire and audiences to embrace popular styles as well. They have posted a number of adventurous videos on their web page, andersonroe.com, including music by Taylor Swift and Coldplay, alongside arrangements of music from Star Wars, Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, and pieces by Mozart, Stockhausen and Schubert.

“Both of us are just fascinated by the whole realm of music,” Roe says. “We think it’s important not to separate ‘classical music’ from the rest of culture, or even the rest of society. So our repertoire is a natural unfolding of our diverse musical interests.”

If the Poulenc Concerto is not familiar to audiences, Roe says, “it’s certainly one of the signature pieces for piano duos. And it’s always a privilege to present something that might be unfamiliar to an audience, because you have the responsibility to make it come alive and show its inherent colors and spirit.”

Like Butterman, Roe finds a lot of appeal in the concerto. “It’s such a romp,” she says. “There’s an inherent humor to the music, but also a kind of cosmopolitan suavity. The slow movement is tender and beautiful, a luminous example of Poulenc’s melodic gift, while the outer movements are full of verve and spunk.”

If Poulenc offers the opportunity to bring an unfamiliar piece to life, the Rachmaninoff Rhapsody gives Roe the chance to reveal a new perspective on a familiar piece. “I like to approach pieces that are canonic in the repertoire and try to unearth something new,” Roe says. “I want to approach it in a personal way.”

Butterman says that the Rhapsody’s “justifiable popularity results from its combination of pianistic brilliance, lush, melancholy harmonies and elegant melodic writing.” Like most listeners, he and Roe both identify the dreamy 18th variation as the emotional heart of the piece.

“There is something so incredibly transcendent” about that variation, Roe says. “Rachmaninoff managed to evoke such an emotional response. I don’t care how many times I play it or listen to it, I always find this wonderful emotional wellspring.”

So much so, she admits, that it can make her cry. “To tell the truth, once I had something stuck in my eye, and the only way I could get it out was to cry,” she says, laughing. “So I put on a recording of the 18th variation!” (It worked.)

Tchaikovsky’s first three symphonies are not performed as often as his final three, numbers 4, 5 and 6. Of the early ones, the Symphony No. 2 is especially melodious. The name “Little Russian” comes from the Russian name for the Ukraine, where Tchaikovsky wrote the symphony in summer in 1872 while visiting his sister’s family. The symphony’s attractive melodies come in part from the local folk songs that Tchaikovsky used as themes — particularly the last movement, which is based on “The Crane,” a song the family’s butler often sang while the composer was at work.

Although some of the themes are folk songs, the music all sounds like pure Tchaikovsky. “He really understood how to pace a work and how to create an inexorable drive toward a dramatic climax,” Butterman says. “We see that in the second and fourth movements in particular.

“In the second, we have a simple march, first presented in the low woodwinds, that builds to involve the whole orchestra.  In the finale, the folk tune is declaimed in hymn-like fashion, not unlike in the 1812 Overture, before being used in a very effective long crescendo of excitement. The rhythms become ever more active, the pitch rises, brighter timbres take over and finally — of course! — the percussion comes in to punctuate the thrilling conclusion.”

On the bill: Boulder Philharmonic with Michael Butterman, and duo pianists Greg Anderson and Elizabeth Joy Roe. 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 8, Macky Auditorium, 1595 Pleasant St., Boulder. Tickets: 303-449-1343 or boulderphil.org/site/tickets.