Return of CMF mini-festival and former director

Zeitouni offers Brahms, while Christie’s ‘up to his old tricks again’

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Conductor Michael Christie returns to Chautauqua with a program of Brahms.
Tim Trumble

Fans of Brahms’s warm Romanticism (and who in the classical audience isn’t?) have much to look forward to.

In three concerts, the Colorado Music Festival (CMF) will present five of his most popular works. First, CMF music director Jean-Marie Zeitouni will lead the Festival Orchestra in a cycle of the four symphonies on two nights, July 7 and 8. Then a week later, former director Michael Christie makes his first return to the festival to conduct a program including the Brahms First Piano Concerto with pianist Orion Weiss July 14.

The performances of the four symphonies — Nos. 1 and 2 on July 7, 3 and 4 on July 8 — represents a return of the CMF’s mini-festival concept of works by a single composer.

“It’s such a coherent experience to do all four Brahms symphonies next to each other,” Zeitouni says. “By listening to them all together, we get in closer contact with him as a man.

“We wanted to start a long-term program at the festival where we would put together cycles of works of single composers. Doing a cycle allows us more leeway for playing lesser-known works of well known composers. I chose Brahms (to start with) because it’s a cycle that we can do all in the same week.”

This year’s programming places the symphonies in chronological order, and that is more than a convenience. For Zeitouni, the ordering makes sense in a deeper way. For one thing, the symphonies were written essentially in pairs, as they will be heard each night.

“He took forever until he felt ready to [write a symphony], and then he delivered two,” Zeitouni says, referring to the fact that Brahms completed his First Symphony at 43. Nos. 1 and 2 appeared in 1876 and ’77, “and then there’s a big gap. Then he writes 3 and 4 (in 1883 and ’84). To me, the four symphonies go together two by two.”

They also speak to Zeitouni in a personal way. “You will say that I say this about every composer, but I do have a special relationship with the music of Brahms,” he says. “There’s something philosophical about his music, something very profound.”

For Zeitouni, the journey through the Brahms cycle leads to the most profound movement of all. The finale of Fourth Symphony is a set of variations, a passacaglia written in a form taken from a much earlier time in history.

“He finishes by going full circle with the past and still opening the door to something that is probably beyond my current understanding,” he says. “There is a message of another world beyond understanding.”

The mini-festival of symphonies was planned that way, but the performance a week later of the Brahms concerto is more of a happy coincidence. Weiss had often performed at CMF when Christie was the music director, music from Mozart to Tchaikovsky to Stravinsky — but no Brahms.

“I would have to go back and count the number of concertos Orion and I did together” Christie says. “At least eight of the seasons. And we really covered the gamut (of concertos) together, but Brahms is one that we didn’t touch. So when he suggested the Brahms First Piano Concerto, I thought, ‘Gosh, I think we’re ready for this’

“It’s just something that happens as you go through life. Suddenly pieces make more sense and you’re not as intimated by them.”

The first half of the program will feature Leonard Bernstein’s short and brassy Shivaree, Charles Ives’ quiet and meditative Unanswered Question, and the concert suite from Bernstein’s score of the film On the Waterfront. None of these pieces are well known, including the film music.

“I always thought that On the Waterfront is very unjustly neglected because it is as tuneful as West Side Story,” Christie says. “We’re not as familiar with the tunes, but it is as tuneful, it is as rhythmic, and it is as flashy and fun for the orchestra.

“This is a piece that just checks the boxes of things that I like to do in Boulder, which is feature the orchestra in unique ways (and) find pieces that are as worthy as the works that we know very, very well.”

The whole program — starting with a big fanfare, then a soft piece, something everyone will love, and ending with a traditional concerto — fits Christie’s style of programming for CMF. “I have such strong memories of being in that hall, and all those performances over the years. I believe that Chautauqua is a truly special place.

“I wanted to come back here with a presentation style that everybody would say, ‘Oh yeah, we remember that guy. He’s up to his old tricks again.’”

On the Bill: Boulder Brahms. Part I: Symphonies 1 & 2. 7:30 p.m. Thursday, July 7, Chautauqua Auditorium, 900 Baseline Road, Boulder. Part 2: Symphonies 3 & 4, 7:30 p.m. Friday July 8, Chautauqua Auditorium. Brahms and Bernstein, 7:30 p.m. Thursday, July 14, Chautauqua Auditorium, 303-440-7666, chautauqua.com. For the CMF schedule: comusic.org/2016-season/