On Friday, April 10th, Jeffrey Kahane led the Colorado Symphony through a concert of two pieces by Kevin Puts, one a world premiere Clarinet Concerto, and Brahms Symphony No. 2. Although Boettcher Concert Hall was only moderately filled (Bruce Springsteen was in town), they were a very appreciative audience and justifiably so. The virtuoso musicianship in this concert was world class.
The opening piece was Two Mountain Scenes by Kevin Puts. It was originally commissioned by Bravo! Vail Valley Music Festival and the New York Philharmonic in celebration of the Festival’s 20th anniversary (2007). “With the impressive backdrop of the Rocky Mountains in mind,” said Kevin Puts, “The first movement, marked maestoso, begins with a quartet of virtuoso trumpets combined to create the sonic illusion of a single trumpet reverberating across the valley.”
The first movement of Two Mountain Scenes was lush and yet thoroughly modern, tonal and yet had elements of interesting harmonies. The “sonic illusion” of the trumpets was particularly stunning, a great way to begin the evening. In a pre-concert talk Kevin commented that music should be an escape, some sort of sanctuary. With features such as long languorous sustains held under the gently moving melody, the first movement was this and much more, allowing the listener to reflect in the majesty of the Rocky Mountains.
"Furioso", the second movement, was filled with wonderful moments of varying timbre, with Kahane deftly guiding the orchestra through each section, building the long crescendos or shifting the melodies from section to section. Several times Mr. Puts shifts the melody from the strings to the winds and back again. Colorado Symphony made these transitions seamlessly. As the movement slows, we hear the trumpets of the first movement, but the moment was far too short; we could have heard more. Eventually the movement (and the piece) comes to a grand finish with both low and high brass leading the charge.
There are lots of wonderful moments in Two Mountain Scenes, however, I feel the second movement tended to wander a bit, not allowing the listeners to revisit any of his lovely themes to the point of recognition. The piece ended strong, but it could have been better if the themes were more recognizably recapitulated.
The next piece performed by the Colorado Orchestra was the world premiere of Kevin Puts’ Clarinet Concerto with Colorado Orchestra’s principal clarinetist Bil Jackson proving his mastery on the Solo Clarinet. Like Two Mountain Scenes, the Clarinet Concerto is a two movement piece. The first movement, “Vigil: Meditative” starts soft and in the lower register of the clarinet. Within moments the beautifully reflective tones first presented in the lower register were gently reproduced in the higher registers. Bil Jackson really showed his mastery of the instrument here, as these tones can typically become loud and harsh. The orchestration early on really allowed the clarinet to come through and be heard, with occasional subtle shifts from solo clarinet to strings. These shifts were beautiful transitions and masterfully played.
Eventually the piece migrates into virtuosic runs up and down the clarinet with the orchestra taking the melody and the focus. As the orchestra took focus they increased in volume allowing the clarinet runs to become more a musical effect, less showing off Bil Jackson’s expertise and yet extremely effective in shifting the sonic world.
The first movement cadenza certainly showed Bil Jackson’s mastery of the instrument, but the themes of the first part of the piece were not readily apparent and so the cadenza felt a bit isolated from the rest of the piece. Overall there was a strong sense of melody in the first movement, but nothing that was retainable as a theme. Perhaps over time the themes will become more obvious. Eventually, the movement ends much where it began with Bil Jackson’s amazing control bringing the slower melodic clarinet over sustained strings.
The second movement, “Surge: Presto; sinistro” is where Bil Jackson really gets to shine. At one point the marimba and clarinet duet creating a striking sonic shift from just the sound of the clarinet. Later, the clarinet uses bell tones to duet with the chimes again shifting the timbre from the solo clarinet and creating a really interesting effect. Kevin Puts has a wonderful sense of orchestration creating a distinctive sonic sound.
Another example of shifting the timbre through the orchestra is when the low strings and piano are in the midst of a tense section. Subtly, the clarinet appears in its lower register. Even though the second movement is the more frenetic of the two, it also has a better sense of melody. The shifts from one chorus in the orchestra to another (or to the solo clarinet) really allow the listener to appreciate the themes presented.
Again, the cadenza of “Surge: Presto; sinistro” provides some amazing virtuosity on the clarinet. However, the transition to the strings was rough and jarring. I felt it would have been better to return to the opening section with low strings and piano before coming into the angry element introduced after the cadenza.
As the movement progressed, the clarinet became more and more difficult to hear - to pick out of the orchestra. Concertos should leave us amazed with the skill of the soloist, and not left wanting to hear the soloist more. While the piece has elements that are amazing and obviously one that demands a virtuoso clarinetist, it didn’t quite match the beauty of Aaron Copeland’s Concerto for Clarinet (which Kevin Puts loves and used similar instrumentation).
Kevin Puts considers John Williams, Aaron Copeland and John Adams to be influential in his music, “mostly influenced by tonality.” All of these composers are masters at recognizable themes. The second movement of the Clarinet Concerto was better at theme recognition than his other movements; still, the themes could have been more evident. Colorado Orchestra, under the baton of Jeffery Kahane, did a superb job of bring out these pieces and the mastery of the clarinet was obvious in Bil Jackson’s performance. The audience gave the performers a well deserved standing ovation, but only one extra bow, whether that was owing to the sparse crowd was hard to tell.
After intermission Jeffrey Kahane and the Colorado Symphony returned with the Brahms Symphony No. 2. I’m not sure I understand the choice of this piece for the program. The opening movement of the Brahms is not at all similar in harmony or rhythmic interest to the music of Kevin Puts, and the orchestra seemed to be lacking an intensity they had during the first half of the concert. Perhaps Copeland’s Symphony No 3 or Ives Symphony No 3 would have been a better match, particularly since Copeland’s Symphony No 3 uses the familiar Fanfare for a Common Man theme and would have highlighted the brass as they were in the Two Mountain Scenes by Kevin Puts. Ives Symphony No 3 would have better matched the complex harmonies and meters of the first half of the concert.
In the first movement of the Brahms Symphony No 2, Allegro non troppo, the strings felt tired, not emotional enough, the brass lacked punch and the woodwinds felt as if they were on auto pilot. Jeffery Kahane danced about the podium trying to breathe life into the orchestra, but it wasn’t until the meter change that the orchestra and conductor started to connect.
The second movement Adagio non troppo, with the horn melody moving into the woodwinds and then into the low strings was much better. Finally, the third movement felt like the orchestra was running on all cylinders, with a great sense of fun and frolick necessary for the Allegretto grazioso. The final movement, Allegro con spirito was certainly spirited and certainly got the audience on their feet at the close of the concert.
Jeffery Kahane and the Colorado Symphony proved they can not only perform world class music, they deserved to be better attended. From the opening subtle and intense music of contemporary composer Kevin Puts to the bold and spirited Brahms, the symphony showed they can create an evening of fine performances. I look forward to many future evenings in the delightful Boetcher Hall and the baton of Jeffery Kahane.