The gold standard

Boulder Phil previews its Kennedy Center performance

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Glenn Ross

Creative programming, extensive community engagement and thoughtful collaborations have paid off for the Boulder Philharmonic.

The big reward comes this week. Their next concert, Saturday, March 25, will be repeated Tuesday, March 28, at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C., where they will be recognized as one of four orchestras, and the only regional orchestra, chosen for the inaugural Shift Festival of American Orchestras.

“It’s certainly gratifying to be recognized in this way,” says Music Director Michael Butterman. “I’m really proud to be the only regional orchestra that’s attending this festival.”

The program for the two concerts reflects several of the Boulder Phil’s recent initiatives, particularly the theme of “Nature and Music” that has informed several recent seasons and the collaboration with other local arts organizations. The program opens with the premiere of a new work by Stephen Lias, All the Songs that Nature Sings, commissioned as part of the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA) “Imagine Your Parks” initiative and specifically celebrating Rocky Mountain National Park.

Other works on the program represent what Butterman calls “greatest hits of the last five years.” Jeff Midkin’s Mandolin Concerto “From the Blue Ridge” and Steve Heitzig’s Ghosts of the Grasslands were both introduced to Boulder audiences in the spring of 2014 and were highly successful with audiences. And the final work on the concert will reprise one of the orchestra’s most creative collaborations: their 2013 partnering with Frequent Flyers Aerial Dance for Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring.

The festival and the commission came together over several years. “About two years ago a call went out through the League of American Orchestras looking for ideas [for] a new festival,” Boulder Phil’s executive director Kevin Shuck recalls. “What was going to be different about this festival was its focus on innovative programming and community engagement.

“We thought maybe we had a shot. So we put in our application.”

At the same time, the orchestra applied to the NEA to commission the new score from Lias, whose earlier Gates of the Arctic, also inspired by a national park, the Phil had premiered in 2014. Shuck wrote the Shift Festival application as if the NEA commission were going to happen. “If the NEA grant did not come through, we would see if we could find other funding,” he says.

The combination of the Shift Festival and the “Imagine Your Parks” commission seemed tailor-made for the Boulder Phil. And as it happened, both the grant and a place in the festival came through. In fact, Shuck says, “we had what in the words of the festival’s selection panel members was ‘the gold standard’ of what they were looking for.”

Hearing that, he says, was one of several “pinch-me” moments of the past year.

The festival will certainly put a national spotlight on the Boulder Phil, but the same activities that were the basis of the festival application have paid off locally as well. The programming of the past few years, community outreach, collaborations with Frequent Flyers and other arts groups, and educational programs have all helped build local audiences. Since 2009, overall ticket sales for the orchestra have risen 67 percent and subscription sales 44 percent. And Saturday’s concert is on track to be a sellout.

Lias conceived his new score in an explicitly cinematic way. It will be presented with slides of Rocky Mountain National Park, starting with close-ups of flowing water that pan out to larger and larger vistas, until, Lias says, “we eventually get to see the whole range in its stunning strength. And then I slowly focused it in toward the ending.”

“An interesting thing to listen for is how the background material is always moving,” he suggests to the audience. “That is a musical metaphor. If you look at a great view, the closer you look at any surface, the more you discover that it’s moving. Those forms are leaves fluttering and that water is actually flowing or rippling. The more you zoom in on something, the more you discover that it’s alive and moving.

“In much orchestra music, the thing that is moving the most is probably the melody, and my piece is quite the reverse.”

One could be forgiven for thinking that all of this was meant to be. Not only did the Shift Festival, the National Parks Centennial and the Boulder Phil’s Nature and Music initiatives all come together at the right time, it turns out that the Boulder Phil’s board had practically predicted the outcome.

“When I got here seven years ago the board had just finished a strategic plan,” Shuck says. “Among its goals was to be recognized as one of the most innovative small city orchestras in America. And at the time, I laughed.”

Today he’s pinching himself more than laughing.

On the Bill: Nature & Music, Boulder Philharmonic Orchestra, All the Songs that Nature Sings by Stephen Lias (world premiere), Ghosts of the Grassland by Steve Heitzig, Appalachian Spring by Aaron Copland With Frequent Flyers Aerial Dance.

2 p.m. Saturday, March 25. Free concert for community organizations.      

7:30 p.m. Saturday, March 25, Macky Auditorium, 1595 Pleasant St., Boulder, 303-449-1343. Tickets available at boulderphil.org.