Digging in the vaults

Boulder Chamber Orchestra presents a program of little-known classics

Peter Alexander | Boulder Weekly

Pasadena´s Jet Propulsion Laboratory is not usual résumé material for orchestral maestros. But Bahman Saless, who leads the Boulder Chamber Orchestra (BCO) in concerts Friday, Feb. 11, and Saturday, Feb. 12, is not your usual maestro.

Saless holds a doctorate in theoretical physics from the University of Colorado Boulder. He taught physics at CU and at the Colorado School of Mines. He was a research scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Center and, yes, at Jet Propulsion Laboratory. And with his wife, he owns an Internet venture that provides income well beyond what he can make with the BCO.

Obviously, this is only half the story for a professional orchestral conductor. Saless studied violin from childhood. He played in the Boulder Philharmonic when he was in graduate school. While in Pasadena, he studied film composition at UCLA, and later worked for Universal Studios composing for film trailers and nature documentaries.

Saless explains what happened next: “When we moved back here in ’94, Boulder Philharmonic had undergone a change, from a community orchestra to a professional one. So a lot of the community players were orchestra-less. Because I knew so many of them, we got together and played chamber music. And then the idea would come, ‘You know, we don’t really have a chamber orchestra, we don’t have a community orchestra any more, and, hey, Bahman, by the way, why don’t you put an orchestra together?’” Saless says that the musicians picked him because “I had a little bit of experience conducting … with Universal Studios, and I probably had the biggest knowledge of the repertoire. I used to play ‘name that tune’ since I was like 6 or 7 years old. So I had a huge knowledge of the repertoire.

“So one night late, [at] 1 or 2 in the morning, I decided to cruise the Internet to see if there are any conducting workshops that could actually tell me if I should quit my day job.”

Saless settled on a workshop in Graz, Austria — partly because he had never been there before — where he studied with Robert Culver from the University of Michigan and William LaRue Jones from the University of Iowa.

“I was told, ‘You have a great idea, it seems like the community is going to support you, and you definitely have the talent to pursue this if you want to.’” With that encouragement, Saless started BCO in 2004. Their first concert, in Boulder’s First Baptist Church, was standing room only, and within days Saless was getting calls from professional musicians who wanted to join his group.

“I said I’d love to [hire the professional players], but I don’t have any money yet!” Saless says. But the orchestra’s rise quickly lived up to the conductor’s career in jet propulsion.

“By the second year, we were at 20 to 25 percent professional, and now we’re at 80 to 85 percent professional,” Saless says, adding that many of the original amateur community orchestra members have moved on to work on the board or assist the BCO in other functions.

Saless sets a clear goal for BCO’s programming: “Our job is to play pieces that are not played enough [but] deserve to be heard.”

This weekend’s concerts fit that formula.

The program includes Stravinsky’s rarely heard Dumbarton Oaks Concerto, modeled on Bach’s Third Brandenburg Concerto, and the relatively obscure Nonet by Czech composer Bohuslav Martinu. In addition to those little-known works, the concert will feature the original small-orchestra version of Aaron Copland’s beloved Appalachian Spring, and the Serenade for Small Orchestra by Rossini, which Saless calls “the silliest, coolest piece you can think of.”

Beyond unfamiliarity, each piece has its own reason for being on the program. Saless points out that the Stravinsky and the Copland fit well together because they require very similar instrumentation and are both 20th-century pieces that are enjoyable for the general public.

As for the Martinu Nonet, “It’s a favorite of all the wind players. They had been begging me for a long time, ‘Oh Bahman, it would be so great to do the Nonet!’” And the Rossini is another piece Saless has always wanted to play, “because I love to showcase [the musicians], and this is a showcase piece. It’s nine people sitting together and each of them has a solo. It’s just goofy, silly music. You want to have a glass of wine with it, maybe.”

The wine will have to wait, but until the BCO adds table service to its concerts, the musical menu is plenty flavorful and diverse.

On the Bill

Boulder Chamber Orchestra plays
concerts on Friday, Feb. 11, and Saturday, Feb. 12. Both shows start at
7:30 p.m. The Friday show will be at the First Congregational Church in
Boulder, and the Saturday show will be at the Broomfield Auditorium.
For tickets, visit www.boulderchamberorchestra.org.