Mighty fifths to end the summer

Colorado Music Festival explores seminal work of contemporary, classical composers

Composer Daniel Kellogg
photo courtesy of www.danielkellogg.com

The 2012 Colorado Music Festival (CMF) surges to its conclusion this week with concerts Thursday and Friday by the Festival Orchestra — one of the best I have heard in recent years at CMF — conducted by Michael Christie.

The program, “Mighty Fifths,” includes a world premiere and an unfamiliar symphony, along with one of the most familiar pieces any orchestra can play. Given the title, you might guess that the familiar is Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, a guaranteed way to end on a triumphant note.

You probably wouldn’t guess that the other “mighty fifth” is the Fifth Symphony of Jay Greenberg, an American prodigy who has barely left his teens. His Fifth Symphony was completed in 2005, when the composer was only 14 and just a year after he was introduced to the American public on CBS’ 60 Minutes as “a prodigy of the level of the greatest prodigies in history.”

Of the well-known composers, only Mozart had written more symphonies by age 14.

Like the young Mozart, Greenberg has extensive knowledge of the music and styles of other composers. And like Mozart, he is self-assured in their company.

“The Symphony pays (sometimes direct) tribute to the works that share its numerical designation,” he wrote, “including the fifth symphonies of Beethoven, Nielsen and Prokofiev. There are also references to Brahms and Vaughan Williams in its primary motives, but all of the material is in fact original.”

The symphony, recently released on CD, has received widespread critical acclaim, including this from the Baltimore Sun: “There’s a clear sense of direction and purpose to the work, a build-up of drama and tension that ends with a blaze of high-spirited energy. … Greenberg creates real music, fresh music.”

The Boulder audience is likely to be even more interested in the program’s world premiere. For one thing, the composer, Daniel Kellogg, lives in Boulder and teaches at the University of Colorado. For another, his piece, The Gates of Paradise, was commissioned by the CMF audience through the innovative Click! Commissioning program.

And it is partly inspired by the Boulder landscape.

The Click! program gives concertgoers the opportunity to support the commissioning of a new piece — normally the privilege of wealthier donors — and to select the composer. Each year, Christie, the musical director, chooses three candidates for the commission. Their bios and excerpts from pieces they have written are posted on the CMF Web page.

The public gets to vote for their favorite by clicking on a link to make a $10 donation. Each person may vote as many times as they want, both helping to raise funds for the commission and picking a composer that the audience prefers. (Visit http://comusic.org/click to help select next year’s winner.)

With only nine months to deliver a piece eight to 12 minutes in length, the the composer is under a lot of pressure.

“From the very basic brainstorming to completing the final details of each individual part, it’s a massive project,” Kellogg says. “It’s not a long piece, but it’s still a 37-page score. Writing for orchestra is very involved.”

Around the time he received the commission, Kellogg was planning a trip abroad.

“We had been reading about the art and history of Italy,” Kellogg explains.

He came across a description of the gilded doors the artist Ghiberti created for the Baptistery of St. John in Florence, known as the “Gates of Paradise.”

“I’m always sort of keeping my eyes and ears out for a great title,” he says. “A good title can direct you musically, it can inspire, and I just thought, ‘That’s a phenomenal title.’ “The notion of paradise exists in so many cultures and myths and religions, and it’s totally captivating, the idea that there will be these huge, imposing doors.”

But that was only part of Kellogg’s inspiration.

“I was very deliberately thinking about Chautauqua, and when you stand on the lawn and look up at the Flatirons it really is a magnificent view, these immense rocks that just come up,” he says. “So I was thinking about the Colorado landscape and Chautauqua, and how that fits into my own imagination of the gates of paradise.”

“The piece begins with soft clouds of sound,” he explains. “Gradually a low meditative melody emerges in the bass that builds until we have these very striking trumpet announcements. As I imagined it, we’re coming through the clouds and we sense this gigantic thing but we don’t see it, and then suddenly it emerges.

“Then the piece picks up momentum and builds and builds [until] it ends fast and loud.

“It’s a time-proven way to end.” Indeed: Just ask Beethoven and Greenberg.

The Colorado Music Festival’s finale concert, “Mighty Fifths,” takes place at Chautauqua Auditorium on Thursday, Aug. 2, and Friday, Aug. 3, at 7:30 p.m. Tickets start at $12. For tickets and more information, visit http://bit.ly/CMFTickets or call 303-440-7666.

Respond: letters@boulderweekly.com