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).

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