Boulder Philharmonic pairs ‘complementary’ composers Beethoven and Elgar

Program highlights cellist Astrid Schween, new work by Boulder native Kristin Kuster

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Astrid Schween, cellist
Steve Sherman

Michael Butterman, music director of the Boulder Philharmonic, thinks that Beethoven and the English composer Sir Edward Elgar go well together, but he’s not quite sure why.

“I always think of Beethoven and Elgar as complementary,” he says. “It’s a gut sense, and I can’t put my finger on it.”

Finger on it or not, when the guest soloist for Saturday’s concert, cellist Astrid Schween, was selected to play the Elgar Cello Concerto, Butterman picked Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony for the same program. Also on the program is the first Colorado performance of Dune Acres, a new work by Boulder native Kristin Kuster.

The Boulder Philharmonic’s executive director, Katherine Lehman, heard Schween play the Elgar Concerto several years ago. When she became ED of the Boulder Philharmonic, Lehman asked Schween to play the concerto in Boulder.

Schween had recently joined the Juilliard Quartet, so it took some time to find a date that was open for her and the orchestra.

“I was so happy that my quartet colleagues have cleared space in our schedule for me to do this,” Schween says.

The Elgar Concerto has not always been a staple of cellists’ repertoire. It was not well received at its first performance in 1919, and was largely neglected for many years.

That changed in 1965, when the 20-year-old cellist Jacqueline du Pré recorded the concerto. That recording, known for both its passion and its technical polish, made du Pré’s reputation and inspired an entire generation of young cellists.

Among them was Schween. Du Pré’s performance “was so arresting for its honesty,” Schween says. “She had a reckless abandon about [her playing] that was just unbelievable. And incredibly high quality, and that’s an unusual combination.”

Schween collected all of du Pré’s recordings, and later had lessons with her.

“I met her when I was quite young and saw her on and off for seven years,” Schween says. “I was an incredibly lucky young person. She was my idol, and I treasure those memories and those lessons together.”

The concerto is written in four movements, but with only one break between two and three, making it sound like a single, long rhapsody. The mood is mostly one of lamenting, possibly reflecting the times after World War I when it was written.

For Schween, the intensity of emotion is challenging.

“There are places where the cellist has to become desperate in their expression,” she says. “It’s physically exhausting, it’s emotionally exhausting. Playing with the orchestral forces for which it’s scored is a heavy lift.

“In many ways, the cello against the orchestra is the drama of this piece.”

Kuster’s score recalls annual summer trips with family that she took as a child, from Boulder to northern Indiana to visit her grandparents. They lived in Dune Acres, a private neighborhood on the south shore of Lake Michigan.

“To me as kid this was the most magical place on Earth,” she says. “Having your own private beach right there on Lake Michigan — it was such a privilege to spend our summers there.”

Dune Acres was also where Kuster first began making up her own music. “There were a couple of secret little patios on the side of the house where you could always hear the lake,” she says.

“I would sit there and make up a song, and then go in the lake. I always thought it was fun to go underwater and hum. That’s a weird sound for a kid, so I think that’s where I really started being a person who wanted to make music.”

The movements reflect different aspects of the family trips: “A kid. A station wagon. Colorado to Indiana”; ““The Great Lake is still. The fog rolls in”; and “Immersed in the Great Lake.” The second combines her sadness as a kid on days that she could not go into the lake, and her adult mourning for the environmental loss of the lakeshore, while the finale is about wanting to “jump in the lake and splash around.”

As for the program’s Beethoven offering, the Fourth is one of the least familiar of Beethoven’s symphonies, and one of the most cheerful. “It’s Haydn-esque Beethoven, especially in the first movement and the last movement,” Butterman says.

The first movement starts with a slow introduction that “seems like there might be some very serious subject matter coming up,” he says. “But [then] we start ripping along. It’s certainly more sprightly and fleet-footed. The second movement is just a beautiful song with a gracious accompaniment, which is rather elegant but sometimes given to timpani and basses.”

The finale goes very fast, and contains woodwind solos that have become standard test pieces, especially for clarinet and bassoon. Depending on the conductor’s tempos, here is reckless abandon of another kind — and a brilliant way to end a program.

ON THE BILL: Elgar and Beethoven    performed by Boulder Philharmonic Orchestra, Michael Butterman, music director, with Astrid Schween, cello; with the world premiere of ‘Dune Acres’ by Kristin Kuster. 7:30 p.m. Saturday, March 2, Macky Auditorium, 1595 Pleasant St., Boulder, boulderphil.org/event/elgar-beethoven.

There will a free program at 6:30 p.m. in Macky Auditorium, hosted by Marilyn Cooley of Colorado Public Radio, with Butterman, Schween and Kuster.