Summer sounds

Group makes chamber music for the season’s end

Peter Alexander | Boulder Weekly






Colorado`s summer music festivals have folded up their tents. School is starting, but the weather tells us that fall hasn’t arrived yet. And thanks to Boulder’s Dairy Center for the Arts and the chamber music consortium Astraios, audiences can have one last musical taste of summer.


Astraios will present “The Sounds of Summer,” a program inspired by nature, at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 26, at the Dairy Center (tickets: call 303-444-7328; online until 5:30 p.m. at They will repeat the same program at 2 p.m. Saturday at the Abbey of St. Walburga in the tiny Colorado town of Virginia Dale, where the performance will follow a morning nature walk on the grounds of the abbey (see details at

The program features music for woodwind quintet:

Astraios’ own arrangements of “The Birds” by Respighi and Mahler’s “St. Anthony Preaching to the Fishes,” along with the original versions of Samuel Barber’s “Summer Music,” “Incantation” by Australian composer Ross Edwards, and pastoral movements by Emanuel Chabrier, Darius Milhaud and Stravinsky.

The performers will be flutist Ruth Ann Ritchie, the founder and director of Astraios, oboist Natasha Merchant, clarinetist Marianne Shifrin, bassoonist Michael Jones and horn player Jonathan Kuhns. With Astraios you have to list the players, because they are more of a musical network than an ensemble. Ritchie says she has about 10 musicians to call upon, depending on the occasion and the program.

The members knew each other as undergraduate music students at Indiana University. Performing together in ensembles large and small, they forged close and mutually supportive relationships that helped them all get through the rigors of classical music training. In fact, tonight’s concert is an unofficial 10th reunion for the members of the woodwind quintet, who first played together at Indiana.

But there is more to Astraios than old college friendships. The players share a philosophy centered around the interaction between performers and audience. Each program is tailored to its occasion and potential audience — for example, past programs have highlighted music and religion, and music and healing.

Once a theme is identified, Ritchie and her collaborators find pieces that fit the theme, then bring together the musicians for that program. In concert, they discuss the theme, explain each piece before performing it, and sometimes demonstrate how the music is put together. After concerts, they stay and talk with the audience, answering any and all questions.

The roots of this approach go back much further than the players’ undergraduate years — and those roots were planted in Colorado.

When Ritchie was a young girl, her aunt entered St. Walburga, then located in Boulder and since relocated to Virginia Dale. From the time she was about nine years old, Ritchie would come to Colorado to visit her aunt, and she would often play her flute for the sisters in the abbey.

“I noticed that they were a very active audience,” Ritchie says. “They would ask questions, want to touch my flute and to know how I played it. And it occurred to me that there must be a lot of people in audiences who wanted to have that same interaction.”

That experience was very much in Ritchie’s mind when she created Astraios. Just back in the United States after graduate studies in Australia, she had settled in Dallas, where she has a teaching studio. She started reconnecting with her friends from Indiana, who by then were scattered around the country, and found that they were all having the same experience: they enjoyed teaching, but missed the performing opportunities they had shared in the past. So Ritchie created a network among her friends that could put together different chamber music combinations for different occasions.

This is where the experience with the sisters of St. Walburga came into play.

Remembering their many questions, Ritchie says, “I wanted to create a performance experience that would answer those questions, one where the audience would feel that they could come up and talk to the musician and share their reaction, even if they hated one of the pieces.”

As for the program at the Dairy, Ritchie says music and nature is a theme “people had been hinting they would like to hear.” And of course, there will be an informal reception after the concert, when the audience can talk with the performers.

“I want people to come [to our performances] and experience something that they have never experienced before, to be open to an interesting time,” Ritchie says. “Even if you haven’t heard any chamber music before, you will have a fun and captivating time hearing the sounds of the birds or the fish jumping in the water.”

In other words: the sounds of summer, one more time.


On the Bill

Astraios perform “Sounds of Summer” at the Dairy Center for the Arts on Thursday, Aug.

26. Show begins at 7:30 p.m.

Tickets are $15, $10 for students and seniors. 2590 Walnut St., Boulder, 303-440-7826.