Story by Kyle MacMillan
Since appointing conductor Peter Oundjian as Music Director in 2019, the Colorado Music Festival has put a renewed focus on contemporary music, featuring esteemed figures like John Adams and John Corigliano as composers-in-residence.
In addition, it has commissioned a series of significant new works, putting an emphasis on equity and inclusion with the selection of such creative voices as Joan Tower, known for enduring works such as her Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman, and Joel Thompson, a member of an informal composers group known playfully as “The Blacknificent Seven.”
“We believe that classical music is at a critical juncture,” said Elizabeth McGuire, the Festival’s Executive Director, “where it’s our responsibility to secure a future for our art form in which we reflect and resonate with all people. One of our primary methods is to elevate the voices of those who have traditionally been underrepresented, including BIPOC and women composers.”
That effort continued in August 2022 when the Festival presented the world premiere of a 10-minute work by Wang Jie, a Chinese-born American composer who is perhaps best known for her Symphonic Overture “America, the Beautiful” (2016).
“She’s a really skilled composer,” Oundjian said. “She has a wonderful ear and knows how to use the colors of the orchestra to fantastic effect — just brilliant writing and a tremendous sense of rhythmic drive.”
When Jie received the Festival commission for the new piece in 2019 — the premiere would eventually be delayed due to Covid-19 — she quickly realized that she wanted to write a kind of homage to the Flatirons and the spectacular mountain landscape within eyeshot of Boulder’s Chautauqua Park, where the summer concert series takes place.
The 43-year-old composer previously spent time rock climbing in El Dorado Canyon, which is about 9 miles from Boulder. As she began to conceive this piece, those memories came flooding back to her, she said, like movies running in her head.
“It was a memorable experience,” Jie said. “I couldn’t help but think about that. When I think about Colorado, it’s always a happy, humming feeling about being in the mountains.”
In this work, which is evocatively titled Flying on the Scaly Backs of Our Mountains, she imagines what it would be like to have wings and to be able to fly up to and around Colorado’s towering peaks.
If the enthusiastic response the piece received at its debut was any indication, it clearly connected with the Festival audience. “I was thrilled,” Jie said. “It was an instant standing ovation.”
While Festival officials obviously seek just such success for any of the event’s premieres, they also want the new pieces to have a life beyond that one performance and perhaps even ultimately become part of classical music’s permanent repertoire — a rare yet not unattainable goal.
“Obviously, you’re doing all that work and you have to raise money to do it,” Oundjian said of the commission process, “and you definitely don’t want the piece to die after the first performance. That’s really critical.”
And indeed, Flying on the Scaly Backs of Our Mountains received a subsequent performance in August, when the Lviv National Philharmonic Orchestra of Ukraine included it and another of the composer’s works on one of its programs.
The orchestra’s principal conductor, Theodore Kuchar — who also served as the Music Director of the Boulder Philharmonic from 1996-2006 — met Jie when the Lviv orchestra toured the United States in early 2023. Jie’s husband, Fred Child, host of National Public Radio’s Performance Today, covered the tour, and the couple attended a post-concert dinner in New York following the ensemble’s concert there.
Jie happened to have a computer tablet with her and she wound up showing Kuchar, a Ukrainian-American conductor, a few of her scores, and he was immediately taken with them. “I have to say that the music made a sensational impression on me,” he said. “Her concept of sound, how she achieves this sound and how well it’s written for the orchestra, this is something that cannot be taken for granted.”
“From all the works I have performed from the last several decades, a lot of which have been recorded,” Kuchar said, “these two works of hers left the highest impression on me and the orchestra, too, I must say.”
Buoyed by the after-premiere success of Flying on the Scaly Backs of Our Mountains and other music it has debuted in recent summers, the Festival is hard at work on future commissions. Watch the Festival website for news of those exciting upcoming projects.
Have you enjoyed hearing new music at the Colorado Music Festival by Joan Tower, Joel Thompson, Wang Jie, and many other contemporary composers? Donate today so we can commission new works like this in the future.
“So long as the human spirit thrives on this planet, music in some living form will accompany and sustain it and give it expressive meaning.”