Four thoughts on the Boulder Philharmonic and opening night of the Shift Festival

The aerialists of Frequent Flyers Aerial Dance, who performed last night with the Boulder Philharmonic (photo by David Andrews)

1. On opening night of the Shift Festival at the Kennedy Center, the Boulder Philharmonic, with its nature-themed, visually rich, easy-on-the-ear program, made a persuasive case for the symphony orchestra as a kind of galvanizing force in local artistic communities.  But in a festival ostensibly devoted to showcasing the American orchestra, the Boulder Philharmonic itself was upstaged at almost every turn: by the eye-catching slideshow accompanying Stephen Lias’ All the Songs that Nature Sings; the amplified mandolin (and scintillating virtuosity) of Jeff Midkiff in his Mandolin Concerto; and the high-flying aerialists in the staging of Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring.

2.  The Boulder Philharmonic’s program drew exclusively from the broadly populist tradition of American music, with the neo-romantic pictorialism of Lias; the bluegrass-influenced work of Midkiff; the lush, cinematic writing of Steve Heitzeg’s “Ghosts of the Grasslands”; and, of course, that quintessential work of Americana, Appalachian Spring (performed here in its more streamlined and sentimental concert version).  Newcomers would be forgiven for thinking that American concert hall music was somewhat anodyne and monolithic.

3.  The staging of Appalachian Spring by the Boulder-based aerial troupe, Frequent Flyers Aerial Dance, was a fascinating re-imagining of this classic work.  I was particularly struck by how the emotional openness and vulnerability of the original Martha Graham choreography found its analogue in the literal physical vulnerability and risk-taking of the five aerialists.  (“My palms were sweating,” a friend in the audience confessed.)  It was undeniably an impressive feat of athleticism and daring, but the aerial dance form had its (understandable) limits in expressing the music.  The choreography was much better at capturing moments of stillness and unleashing short bursts of movement than reflecting sustained passages of fast music (like, for example, the long arcing lines of “Simple Gifts”).  Transitions were slow and methodical (again, understandably), and the form didn’t really allow for the quick grouping and re-groupings of dancers.

4.  There was a strong, vocal turnout in the hall last night, and the ever popular scarves were back.  But ticket sales have been much weaker for the remaining three concerts, perhaps confirming my suspicion that many in the audience came for the aerialists.  The Kennedy Center appears to have closed off the upper tier of the concert hall for the upcoming Atlanta Symphony concert, and the upper two tiers for the North Carolina Symphony and the Knights (eta: and is now papering the house for tonight’s NCS concert).

Fidelio or Leonore?

Marjorie Owens (Leonore), Celena Shafter (Marzelline), Eric Halvarson (Rocco) and conductor Antony Walker at the Washington Concert Opera.

Washington Concert Opera’s recent exhumation of Leonore–well cast and persuasively performed–raised some fascinating questions about the relative merits of the original 1805 version of Beethoven’s lone opera versus the work we know today as Fidelio.

The original version, spread out over three acts, tilts more toward domestic comedy. Whole ensembles, with some delightful music, were cut from the 1814 version: the first act trio for Marzelline, Jaquino, and Rocco, and the second act duet for Leonore and Marzelline. There were numerous other changes, both musical and dramaturgical, including significant revisions to Leonore’s aria and Florestan’s monologue, and the reversal of the opera’s first two numbers.

My colleague, Anne Midgette, in her Post review, expressed her affection for the 1805 Leonore, with its “gentler progression” from domestic comedy to heroic drama. Fidelio may be the “greater” work, Midgette acknowledges, but it also betrays the strain of years of revisions that resulted in an opera that shows its seams.

Another colleague, Charles Downey, in a Facebook note accompanying his Washington Classical Review piece, advocated a hybrid approach to the work that restores parts of the 1805 version: “start with the Fidelio Overture, restore all the cut ensembles, original version of Leonore’s big aria, but keep the 1814 version of the last act. Thank you.”

For me, the 1814 Fidelio will always have pride of place, as the greater work of musical drama. As enjoyable as the cut ensembles are, I don’t really need to be spending all that time on domestic trivialities and prefer the tighter dramatic focus of the revision. The numerous revisions to the libretto also give the work greater strength and clarity (such as properly motivating the prisoners chorus). While Midgette has suggested to me that she wished Beethoven had left the 1805 Leonore and written three more operas instead, I’m glad to have Fidelio in its final form, as awkwardly and painfully wrought as it is.