The Boulder Philharmonic’s 2015–16 season is titled “Reflections: The Spirit of Boulder,” but the orchestra will open the season by telling stories.
The season’s opening concert under music director Michael Butterman will be at 7 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 13, in Macky Auditorium — a departure from the orchestra’s standard 7:30 p.m. Saturday concert dates.
The program will feature music that tells stories, two soloists with their own stories, and one great concerto that is a story in itself. Butterman will conduct Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite; The Storyteller for violin and orchestra, inspired by Japanese folk tales and written by Korine Fujiwara for the orchestra’s concertmaster, Charles Wetherbee; and Rachmaninoff ’s Piano Concerto No. 2, the piece that salvaged the composer’s career, performed with pianist Gabriela Montero, who has been acclaimed both as “an exciting pianist” (The New York Times) and for her “spectacular improvisation” (Cincinnati Enquirer).
That’s a lot of stories for one concert.
Butterman chose the Ravel Suite to pair with Fujiwara’s piece, to make the first half of the concert all about storytelling. Ravel wrote the Mother Goose Suite first as a piano duet for two young pianists he knew, then later arranged it for orchestra. Each of the five movements illustrates a well-known tale.
“Fujiwara talks about how she’s drawing on Japanese folk tales, but she’s also dedicating this to her father and her grandfather, who she calls the greatest storytellers she’s ever known,” he says. “Ravel was a bit of a storyteller to these two young kids, before he wrote the piano works for them. I found that an interesting connection [between the two pieces].”
Wetherbee commissioned The Storyteller, which is in effect a concerto for the violin, for performance at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. He knew Fujiwara and her works, since they both play in the Carpe Diem String Quartet — he’s a violinist and she’s the violist.
“I wanted a composer who could write in a manner that was accessible across the broadest possible spectrum,” he says, “and I also wanted a piece that was well written for the instrument. I thought that Fujiwara would be the right choice (for both).”
Fujiwara explains that the violin represents the storyteller himself at times, and at other times portrays characters and voices from different Japanese tales. “The very first notes are solo violin,” she says. “They are representative of the storyteller starting to spin this magical world.”
The movements do not correspond to individual tales, as in the Ravel suite, but many different magical characters are represented in the score. “There’s a lot of talking animals,” Fujiwara says. “Sparrows who have great kingdoms, magical warriors who spring to life out of peaches, little boys 3 inches tall who have runny noses and bring gifts, foxes that talk and peapods that turn into badgers. In my mind’s eye, they’re all lined up and ready to do battle.”
When she was hearing the tales as a girl, Fujiwara noticed that women were often not treated well. When she came to compose the slow movement, “I imagined that I would write music for all of those maligned women,” she says. “I thought I would write a beautiful movement for them.”
Among the stories Fujiwara incorporates into The Storyteller are “The Cicada and the Daishi Sama,” “The Tongue-cut Sparrow,” “Momotaro the Peach Boy” and “The Toothpick Warriors.”
Rachmaninoff ’s Second Piano Concerto is one of the best-known showpieces in the repertoire, but the story behind it may be less familiar. The composer’s First Symphony had not been well received, and he was for many years deeply depressed. It was only after he was treated by hypnosis that he returned to composition with the Second Concerto, which rescued his reputation as both composer and pianist.
Montero comes to Boulder fresh from having recorded the concerto with conductor Carlos Miguel Prieto, who many will recall as a guest conductor at the Colorado Music Festival in the summer of 2014. The recording also includes Montero playing three improvisations at the piano (Orchid Classics and iTunes download).
An accomplishment that few pianists strive for today, live improvisation has become Montero’s trademark as a performer. She often performs improvisations as an encore, developing melodies suggested by members of the audience. “It’s my sincere hope that will happen in Boulder,” Butterman says, “because it’s spectacular.
“What amazes me is (her improvisations) are contrapuntal. That kind of work with independent voices that are melodically and harmonically weaving with one another in a way that makes sense — that absolutely boggles my mind.”
How Montero developed a skill that was commonplace in the age of Bach and Mozart, but more recently neglected, might be another story indeed. Or in the spirit of the Boulder Phil’s 2015-16 season, something to reflect upon.