Colorado Music Festival is back

Live performances, premieres, chamber music mark the 2021 summer season

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Michael Ensminger

As the COVID-19 pandemic ebbs, life and music are slowly returning to “normal.”

For the Colorado Music Festival (CMF), that means live concerts in Chautauqua Auditorium. The orchestra is reduced, but the 2021 festival has a full six weeks of performances, July 1–Aug. 7. And as health regulations and recommendations are relaxed, the box office has made more seats available. 

Augustin Hadelich

Two things that distinguish the 2021 festival reflect the interests of CMF artistic director Peter Oundjian: an emphasis on new music, including four world premieres, and a new series of chamber music concerts named for Robert Mann, the legendary first violinist of the Juilliard Quartet. Other highlights will be a residency by violinist Augustin Hadelich, who made a notable appearance at CMF in 2018, and a series of Beethoven performances left over from the cancelled 2020 season, celebrating the composer’s 250th birthday.

The first world premiere will anchor the season opening concert, presented July 1 and 2. Elegy (to those we’ve lost), by Aaron Jay Kernis, was written not for a commission but from the composer’s personal experience as a COVID patient and with having lost friends to the virus. 

“You can’t just go back and start playing music without some kind of acknowledgment, and it’s very beautiful,” Oundjian says of Kernis’s piece. “It’s sad but uplifting as well, because it’s so tender.”

Joel Thompson

The other three premieres are works commissioned by CMF: Forestallings by Hannah Lash, July 22, a work that had been scheduled for the 2020 season; a Cello Concerto by Joan Tower, part of a program of her music on July 25; and a work by Emmy-winner Joel Thompson based on the writings of James Baldwin, Aug. 5.

Oundjian describes Tower as “an old friend” and “a wonderful lady.” 

“She was dying to write a cello concerto,” he says, “and I’ve known [soloist] Alisa [Weilerstein] since she was a baby, so it’s all just friends.”

Thompson became known for his “Seven Last Words of the Unarmed,” memorializing black men killed by police. After George Floyd was killed in 2020, Oundjian approached Thompson and said he’d love to commission a piece from him including narration of James Baldwin’s writings. 

Bernard Mindich Joan Tower

“I’ve always been a fan of Baldwin, and I find it telling that his writings could have been written yesterday,” Oundjian says. “And [Thompson] was very excited to do that.”

The newly created Robert Mann Chamber Music Series at CMF reflects Oundjian’s 14 years as first violinist in the Tokyo String Quartet. The Tuesday series will feature performances by CMF orchestra members as well as three guest string quartets: The Juilliard Quartet, of which Mann was first violinist for more than 50 years, on July 13; the St. Lawrence Quartet, a group Mann coached, July 20; and Brooklyn Rider, Aug. 3.

“Mann was an inspiring teacher, with incredible energy, imagination, sensitivity to what you were doing,” Oundjian says. “He had a huge influence on many, including me personally and the Tokyo Quartet. Those quartets that were started in the last 40 years, there’s not one that was not influenced in some way by him.

“There is not one concert series named after Mann. This is the only one.”

Hadelich will play the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto on the opening night concert, July 1 and 2, and the Beethoven Violin Concerto July 29, and be in residence at CMF for two weeks in between, teaching and participating in other activities. “He’s an inspiration, he really is,” Oundjian says.

The Beethoven performances are scattered through the summer, including symphonies no. 3, 5 and 7, performances of chamber works by the CMF orchestra members July 27, and Oundjian’s arrangements of the String Quartet No. 14 in C-sharp minor, op. 131 on July 22. Oundjian acknowledges that Beethoven gets plenty of exposure in the classical music world, and “he was going to have about a million performances last year but they were all canceled, poor guy.”

“He’s not 251 until December, so he’s still 250 this year. I think it makes total sense, and we’re trying to replace Mahler’s Fifth Symphony,” which was planned for the final concert but could not be played in 2021 because of the number of players it requires,” Oundjian says.

“You want the festival to end with celebration, so for the final concert I’ve decided to put the brass onstage, the winds onstage, and play Beethoven 5. I think it’s a really nice way to celebrate the end of the festival.” 

On the bill: Colorado Music Festival. July 1–Aug. 7, Chautauqua Auditorium, 900 Baseline Road, Boulder. Full schedule and tickets at coloradomusicfestival.org