You know it’s an unusual Christmas concert when one of the composers is the fearsome atonal composer Arnold Schoenberg.
But conductor Bahman Saless, who has programmed the Schoenberg Christmas Music for concerts Dec. 21 and 22, assures listeners it is thoroughly enjoyable, not written in the composer’s dissonant and fiercely intellectual style. Instead, it is a gentle fantasia on Praetorius’ familiar carol “Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen” (Lo, how a rose e’er blooming).
“I think in his spare time he wrote some stuff for fun,” Saless says. “He was probably tired of his own intellect.”
That is exactly the kind of music Saless searches for when planning his annual December concert, titled “The Gift of Music.”
“I always look for something interesting for the holiday season,” he says. “I like to make it an adventure for the listener. I ran into this on YouTube and I thought it would be a cool addition.”
In addition to Schoenberg’s Christmas Music, the program will feature Corelli’s Concerto Grosso in B-flat, known as the “Christmas Concerto”; another Concerto Grosso in B-flat by Handel; some regular Christmas carol arrangements; and pianist David Korevaar playing and conducting Mozart’s Piano Concerto in B-flat, K595.
The Mozart performance recalls Korevaar’s first-ever performance as both soloist and conductor. A few years back he was engaged to perform the same concerto in Japan — but as far as he knew the engagement was just as soloist.
“I showed up in Japan and my then-manager basically told me there was no conductor,” Korevaar says. “I had one week’s notice on that.”
Fortunately Korevaar had a full score of the concerto in his suitcase — “that’s normal for me,” he explains — and the performance went well. Korevaar found that he enjoyed both playing and conducting, and it is something he now seeks out. Last year he performed a full concert of Mozart concertos conducting from the keyboard at the Dairy Arts Center.
In this case, he asked Saless if he would mind Korevaar taking over the conducting. Saless not only didn’t mind; he was delighted. “I’m like. ‘Great! You take over,’” he says, laughing. “I’m going to sit and listen.”
Korevaar enjoys conducting while playing because the performance becomes very much like chamber music. “And there’s a certain level of authenticity,” he says. “Mozart didn’t use a conductor for his piano concertos, and in the 18th century it was pretty standard for people to conduct from the keyboard.”
K595, also known as Piano Concerto No. 27, was Mozart’s last piano concerto. Coming after three large-scale concertos with relatively large orchestras, it represents a less showy style. “This piece is much more lyrical and chamber-oriented,” Korevaar says. “It has its share of virtuosity, but even that seems understated.
“The other thing with Mozart is his ability to explore a very surprising emotional territory. There’s overall a warmth to the material, but in the middle of the first movement he wanders of into some extraordinary keys. The development starts at the point farthest away from the safety of the opening, and then it becomes very much about the journey back to the reassurance of [the opening key].”
While he can sit back and enjoy the Mozart, for Saless it will be Baroque pieces —Handel and Corelli — that he enjoys most. “One of my goals in life is to do all the concerti grossi by Handel,” he says. “They’re just such marvels — every single one is a creation bomb by itself! I absolutely love doing them.”
Like Handel’s best known music from Messiah and the other oratorios, the concertos are filled with lively and attractive music propelled by the rhythms of Baroque dances. And each one has its own character, Saless says. “They’re like Beethoven piano sonatas — every single one is different.”
The comparison to Beethoven is deliberate. “He was Beethoven’s favorite composer,” Saless says. “Even over Bach.”
Corelli, though less known than Handel, is also on Saless’s list of great composers. “If Vivaldi’s Four Seasons weren’t so well known, Corelli would be on par with Vivaldi,” he says. “It’s sad that he’s overlooked.”
The Concerto Grosso in B-flat is known as the “Christmas Concerto” from an inscription on the score, “Fatto per la notte di Natale” (Made for the night of Christmas). It does not include any known Christmas songs, but it concludes with a Pastoral movement that is associated with the shepherds in the Christmas story.
“I was raised on this piece,” Saless says. “It was one of the first pieces I ever heard, and I fell in love with it from day one. If had a Baroque orchestra, we’d perform (Corelli’s music) a lot more.”
For Saless, it’s all part of the adventure.
On the Bill: ‘The Gift of Music,’ by Boulder Chamber Orchestra.
Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 27 in B-flat major. Handel: Concerto Grosso in B-flat major, Op 3 no. 1. Arnold Schoenberg: Christmas Music. Corelli: Concerto Grosso in G minor, Op. 6 no. 8 (“Christmas Concerto”) Holiday
carols. 7:30 p.m. Friday, Dec. 21, Broomfield Auditorium, 3 Community Park Road, Broomfield; 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 22, Boulder Adventist Church, 345 Mapleton Ave., Boulder.