Carmen to corruption to hope

Sounds of Lyons presents an ambitious weekend program

The Kiss by Gustav Klimt, which inspired part of the program
Peter Alexander | Boulder Weekly

MinTze Wu is finding her inner Carmen.

The director and guiding spirit of the annual Sounds of Lyons chamber music festival has described herself in the past as “part renegade, part experimentalist and part naïve,” which fits the previous four festivals to a “T.” And in the fifth Sounds of Lyons (June 14–16), she and the festival are still renegade and experimental, but they are well beyond naïve.

“I want to get out of that straitjacket of societal expectation of what classical musicians should be,” Wu says. “I want classical music to go a little bad, just to flirt a little bit.”

In that spirit, this year’s opening concert (8 p.m. Friday and 2 p.m. Saturday in Lyons’ Rogers Hall) is a 65-minute portrayal of Carmen, the notorious bad girl of opera. Carmen, you may recall, is definitely not naïve.

To bring this passionate character to life, Wu has cooked up a fascinating stew of Bizet’s music, Pablo de Sarasate’s gypsy-flavored “Carmen Fantasy” for violin, and music performed by Latin guitarist Alfredo Muro, with a little seasoning from Tom Waits, Django Reinhardt and even “The Girl from Ipanema,” all performed by an ensemble of eight instrumentalists and four singers.

“I think we are all kind of fascinated and in a way, adore this character,” Wu says. “She’s so real. She’s so visceral. I think she has such integrity in her pursuit of the idea of love. So we’re really revealing the Carmen in all the women.”

The second program (Saturday at 8 p.m. in Rogers Hall) depicts a child’s loss of innocence and “a long descent into darkness,” Wu says. The story, inspired by Gustav Klimt’s famous painting “The Kiss,” moves from a little girl wandering the woods to a confrontation with the weight of the world and ultimate decadence. It will be told through music for violin and piano, performed — here is Wu’s experimental side — alongside a film that features Wu’s young daughter.

The musical program started with “Myths,” pieces for violin and piano by the Polish composer Karol Szymanowski based on Greek myths of nymphs pursued by the gods. This is music Wu has long wanted to present, when she could find the right context.

“I loved his music for a long time,” Wu says. “The color from his piano writing and the very high shimmering sound on the violin, all this reminds me of ‘The Kiss.’” To fill out the program and extend the story, Wu added music by Ravel, to suggest the child’s innocence, followed by pieces by Rachmaninoff, Darius Milhaud, more Ravel, Fritz Kreisler and Astor Piazzolla, to dramatize the “descent into darkness.”

“The idea of lost innocence … started growing in me,” Wu explains. “I wanted to discover that innocence in music. And then you go out to the world and get corrupted, and go through the whole soul searching and needing to find the truth for yourself.”

This narrative seems to have been suggested by Wu’s own life, the innocence she encountered through her two young children. 

“I got to see just that [innocence], before the world touched on this person too much,” she says. “I got to see that very pure and almost transparent person.”

As for the loss of that innocence, Wu has spent most of the last year living in Macao and Taiwan.

“We moved to see life elsewhere,” she says. “It’s much more chaotic, much messier. A lot of grief, a lot of exploitation, so that becomes part of it. Exactly what do you do to make the world a better place, when you are placed in the midst of that kind of chaos?”

If you are MinTze Wu, what you do is perform music representing the passage from despair to hope. On the festival’s final concert (8 p.m. Sunday, Lyons Community Church), her string trio will begin with Beethoven and music by Russian composer Alfred Schnittke.

“In Schnittke, we really go into a very pessimistic, very dark, oppressed world,” Wu says.

But she won’t leave her listeners there. Drawing again on her experimentalist side, the musicians will find their own way out of Schnittke’s darkness.

“We’re going to do an improvisation,” Wu explains. “That’s when we sort of reflect on the Schnittke, through the improvisations.”

The improvisation will lead back into the light, and “when it feels right” the musicians will end with the hopeful, life-affirming music of J.S. Bach.

Sounds of Lyons takes place Friday, June 14, through Sunday, June 16. Visit for tickets and information.