Final weekend of CMF packs variety

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Olga Kern returns to CMF with her superb piano skills.
Chris Lee

The Colorado Music Festival (CMF) ends the 2016 season this weekend with performances representing a portion of the breadth and variety the festival has embraced.

There will be a Festival Orchestra concert of major orchestral works; a Presenting Series concert of chamber music; and a final concert by the Chamber Orchestra with a popular soloist. Other concert series over the summer have been the adventurous Artists Currents at The Dairy Arts Center, with contemporary works curated by cellist/composer Joshua Roman, the intimate Fêtes Galantes series of house concerts and the Music Mash-up series.

Thursday (Aug. 4) will be the final Festival Orchestra concert. CMF Music Director Jean-Marie Zeitouni will lead the orchestra in two very different virtuoso works. The first half comes from the Gallic heritage that Zeitouni inherited as a French Canadian, Debussy’s Trois Nocturnes for orchestra. The other is almost the polar opposite of Debussy’s cool impressionism: the tortured expressionism of Mahler’s symphonic song cycle for alto, tenor and orchestra, Das Lied von der Erde (The song of the Earth).

Even though Mahler falls well outside his French cultural heritage, Zeitouni points out that he studied conducting in Vienna, and besides, “the bread and butter of an orchestra conductor is Germanic music.

“This concert is one I’m particularly looking forward to,” he says.

Das Lied von der Erde is a setting of six Chinese poems translated into German. Subjects range from youthful exuberance to existential despair, but it is the last movement, a long, lingering farewell, that captures people’s attention for its ethereal, otherworldly feeling. “It is a challenge” to perform, Zeitouni says.

“It’s music that talks about eternity and what is beyond. There is nothing less concrete than that. If you try to beat this precisely, you kill it. If you try to let it float completely, you’re not all getting to the end at the same time. It’s by being more present but less involved, that you achieve this.”

Zeitouni is confident that he and the players of the Festival Orchestra can pull it off.

“With the CMF players as good as they are, I’m confident that we won’t stick to the surface of the Earth” he says. “We will be able to float, and this is what we should be aiming for.”

The Presenting Series concert Saturday night (Aug. 6) features pianist Olga Kern, a CMF favorite, playing one of the great chamber music works of the 19th century, Brahms’s Piano Quintet in F minor. Also on the program is Mozart’s String Quintet in C major, another revered chamber masterpiece. The string players for both works will be members of the CMF orchestra.

For the second year in a row, the summer’s closing concert (Aug. 7) will feature Kern and the CMF Chamber Orchestra. In past years the full Festival Orchestra had ended the season on a Friday evening. This year, for the second time running, it ends on Sunday evening with the Chamber Orchestra.

“It’s a chamber orchestra, but it’s a beefed up chamber orchestra,” Zeitouni says of that final concert. “It’s a Beethoven orchestra of 50 people.”

The “beefed up” “Beethoven orchestra” is needed for the final work of the season: Beethoven’s always popular “Emperor” Concerto (Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat major). The only thing that could make the ”Emperor” even more enticing was to have a popular soloist like Kern, whose appearances at CMF have earned her an extensive following in Boulder.

The first half of the concert offers two pieces: Stravinsky’s “Dumbarton Oaks” Concerto in E-flat major for chamber orchestra, and Schubert’s Symphony No. 5 in B-flat major. These pieces were carefully selected to build up to the Beethoven Concerto in the second half.

Musicians will recognize the program’s key sequence, E-flat, B-flat, E-flat, as a standard chord progression. This makes the first half of the program, in Zeitouni’s words, “a big prelude” to the Beethoven. At the same time, the ensembles grow in size from piece to piece.

“It starts with the ‘Dumbarton Oaks,’ which is only a handful of players,” Zeitouni explains. “Then we play the Schubert Symphony, which is really a chamber symphony. It’s like a diamond, a beautiful, finely crafted piece, (and then) the proportions of the Emperor are bigger, and the impact is stronger.”

The least familiar work is the Stravinsky, which Zeitouni is delighted to introduce to Boulder audiences. “It’s a modern-day Brandenburg concerto,” he says. “It’s neo-classical Stravinsky — full of humor, very witty, but very refined.”

Stravinsky, Schubert, Beethoven: This inviting mix of familiar and unfamiliar makes a happy conclusion to the festival season. When you add some truly adventurous programming over the summer, you have an intriguing festival. And hopefully, something to look forward to for 2017.

On the Bill: Festival Orchestra, Thursday, Aug. 4. Olga Kern and Music for Five. Saturday, Aug. 6. Olga Performs Beethoven! Sunday, Aug. 7. All concerts at 7:30 p.m., Chautauqua Auditorium, 900 Baseline Road, Boulder, 303-440-7666, tickets.chautauqua.com/.