Performing New Music in Bold New Ways

June 7, 2021

By Marc Shulgold

If you’ve had enough of “virtual” internet concerts, join the club. Peter Oundjian understands. In fact, the energetic music director of the Boulder-based Colorado Music Festival intends to chase away the world of Zoom as the effects of the Covid crisis fade into memory.

But the conductor is planning more than just live music played before a live audience. When the Colorado Music Festival presents a four-concert series at Chautauqua Auditorium billed as “Music of Today,” Oundjian will host a whole new way to experience new works. 

Take, for example, the opening piece on the July 23 Kaleidoscope Concert: Nebojsa Zivkovic’s Trio per Uno. “It really needs to be seen from above,” the conductor insists. Which is how it can be viewed.

Overhead cameras and three projection screens offer a novel way to experience the piece by Zivkovic, who describes the three-movement trio on his website this way (and forgive the Serbian composer’s English and spelling): “Take 3 man. Give them 3 drums, one base-drum for all, let them scream and beat a hell out of it!”

photo of Ji Su Jung

Ji Su Jung will perform on Marimba in Kaleidoscope: Muhly, Tower, and Bolcom on July 23

That’s just the start, Oundjian notes, next pointing to the unusual stage set-up. “The percussion will be placed on the left side and the piano will be in the middle (with Boulder native Christopher Taylor at the keyboard). The marimba will be over at the right.” There, Ji Su Jung will play music by Peter Klatzow and Keith Jarrett. No onstage talk, says the conductor. “The music will be seamless, moving from one piece to the other – like a TV show.” 

The conductor believes that the visual enhancements at the Kaleidoscope program will draw folks in. “It intensifies the experience,” he says. “ As a musician, the more you’re in touch (with an audience), the closer they will get to the music.”

photo of Hannah Lash | musical festivals and concerts in Colorado

Hannah Lash, Composer

Oundjian stresses that he’s in step with the changing world of live concerts. “I believe there’s a revolution taking place. In the past, people only wanted to hear music that is tonal. The elitist attitude was ‘If it’s great, it’s not for all – and if it’s not for all, then it’s great.’ But audiences in communities like Boulder are more open to unfamiliar things.” 

Naturally, none of these innovations suddenly appeared at the music director’s whim. A lot of discussion went into the Music of Today series, starting with selling the idea to the CMF administration. That was the easy part, the conductor reports. “The [administration] wants to be bold. They’re very keen on these commissions.” Notice the plural in that last word: This season, there will be three commissioned premieres.

On July 22, the second event in Music of Today, Oundjian will lead the Festival Orchestra in the commissioned premiere of Forestallings, a work by Yale-based composer Hannah Lash, inspired by Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2. Appropriately, that concert will end with Oundjian’s orchestral arrangement of Beethoven’s String Quartet, Opus 131. Also on the agenda is Kevin Puts’ Marimba Concerto, with Ji Su Jung.

The second commission concludes a full evening of music by the renowned American composer Joan Tower. “I’ve assembled programs devoted to one living composer before,” Oundjian observes. “I thought, ‘Why the hell not?’ The way I see the concept of an evening featuring someone like Joan, psychologically you think, ‘Hey, that must be good.’ ” On July 25, cellist Alisa Weilerstein will be soloist in the premiere of Tower’s Cello Concerto. Oundjian will lead the fifth of the composer’s popular Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman series, along with Duets and Made in America. The latter features Tower’s exploration of America the Beautiful.

image of Joel Thompson | colorado music festivals and concerts

Joel Thompson, Composer

The conductor had witnessed the public’s growing acceptance of the new during his long tenure as music director of the Toronto Symphony. “On our New Creations Festival, we had three or four composers present. And we had big audiences.” At Chautauqua, Oundjian will host onstage interviews with guest composers, including Tower and Joel Thompson, who has written the Festival’s third commissioned premiere, unveiled on August 5. 

The response to Music of Today has been encouraging. “Ticket sales are strong,” the conductor reports, adding with a chuckle, “They’d better be – it costs us $25,000 to put up those (video) screens.” 

In addition to the draw of new works, the appearances by such admired soloists as Augustin Hadelich and Olga Kern are attracting concert-goers. And audiences are especially hungry for in-person performances after last year’s Festival was canceled by the pandemic. Which brings us to this season’s opening work.

“We’ll start with the Elegy by Aaron Kernis,” Oundjian says of this somber offering. “It will be dedicated to those we lost (due to Covid-19). I want the strings to make their entrance as a walk-on. I think that’s appropriate. It’s a way for the audience to welcome the return of live music.”

Music of Today consists of four concerts. July 20: The St. Lawrence String Quartet plays music by Haydn, John Adams and Debussy. July 22: Oundjian conducts works by Hannah Lash, Kevin Puts, and Beethoven. The July 23 Kaleidoscope Concert features music by Nebojsa Zivkovic, Nico Muhly, Peter Klatzow, Derek Bermel, Keith Jarrett, Leigh Howard Stevens, and William Bolcom. On July 25 Oundjian leads an all-Joan Tower program.