This past week saw the season openers of two highlights of the Denver classical music scene - one much institutionalized and familiar, the other a hidden gem. On Thursday, Sept. 19, Denver Eclectic Concerts opened their year with a unique combination of string bass and percussion works, in a funky, intimate venue. On Friday, Sept. 20, the Colorado Symphony Orchestra kicked things off with a big-name guest (saxophone wizard Branford Marsalis) and a giant of symphonic repertoire, Dmitri Shostakovich. These two events revealed the strength of the scene in town right now, and the sheer variety of opportunities to experience music live, whether in a big concert hall or in a funky art gallery. There is a little (or big) something for every listener.
The two concerts had one element in common: bassist Susan Cahill. A long-time member of the CSO, Cahill and her husband, percussionist Scott Higgins recently took over leadership of the Eclectic Concerts. On Thursday, the concert was a mish-mash of styles including ragtime, avant-garde, romantic, and bluegrass. Cahill opened with Tom Johnson's iconic 1975 piece Failing: A Difficult Piece for Solo String Bass, a party-trick in which the player speaks a wryly prescribed text while playing the tortuous bass part seamlessly underneath. Cahill was up to the challenge, which is designed to waylay the performer, and gave her small audience many a chuckle throughout the piece. Higgins followed up with Toshiro Mayuzumi's Concertino for Xylophone and Piano (1965) accompanied by pianist Nan Shannon. The piece was full of suggestive pentatonic touches, sounding almost Puccini-esque in the second movement when a folk-like pentatonic tune was doubled in xylophone tremolos and piano. It also had jazzy elements, and Shannon and Higgins played impressively throughout.
Pianist Mike Tilley joined Cahill for the Intermezzo from Enrique Granados' opera Goyescas (1916). Cahill played the flamenco-inspired embellishments and passionate theme with verve, and Tilley was soulfully expressive throughout. On bass, the theme lacks the vibrant tone of the more frequently heard arrangement for cello, but this Neo-Romantic piece made for an elegant contrast to the previous modern pieces. They were then joined by Higgins and Catherine Beeson on violin for an arrangement of Edgar Meyer's tune "Cottonwood," and the program closed with Higgins, Cahill, and Shannon playing three rags by the famous xylophonist George Hamilton Green. The inclusion of rags and bluegrass demonstrated the versatility of the players in an unpolished sound atypical of most classical chamber music, and this eclectic programming is the signature of the series. It maintains a casual, "what will they play next" atmosphere, and puts the classical pieces into a new context.
There was electricity in the air at Boettcher Hall on Friday, and a very large crowd turned out to see the CSO's opening night. Music Director Andrew Litton was joined by Branford Marsalis in an eclectic program of their own. Marsalis brought down the house before he even played, and thrilled the audience with his nuanced coloring, easy legato tone, and bravado in Alexander Glazunov's 1934 Saxophone Concerto in E flat Major and John Williams' Escapades from Catch Me If You Can (2002). The Glazunov is not the most interesting piece musically, yet it worked well with the other Russian composers on the program (Alexander Borodin's Overture to Prince Igor opened the evening, and Dmitri Shostakovich's Symphony no. 10 in e minor closed it). The timbre of Marsalis' solo saxophone with the accompanying string orchestra was beautiful, and in his solo cadenzas, the hall reverberated with the warm yet vibrant tone he brings out of his instrument. The Williams piece brought a different, cool vibe into the hall, and with solo vibraphone and pizzicato bass joining Marsalis' sax, this suite from the film score for Catch Me If You Can had a delightfully 1960s, swinging feel. The piece lacks the grandeur and expansive sound of many Williams scores (think Jurassic Park or Star Wars) but the lonely, plaintive sound of the solo saxophone perfectly represents the isolated life of the con artist played by Leonardo DiCaprio in the film. Only in the third segment, "Joy Ride," did the audience get more of the lush orchestration, here paired with excited, uneven rhythms, that makes Williams such a genius. Marsalis played with panache throughout and the hall erupted in an ovation for this American master.
The second half of the program was when the orchestra, with Litton as their assured and deft leader, really proved their mettle. Dmitri Shostakovich's tenth symphony, which he composed in 1953 just after Joseph Stalin's death, was full of power and nuance in this performance. Every section of the orchestra had glowing, virtuosic passages, and there were more stunning solo moments than can be mentioned here. Litton and the orchestra did this work justice and revealed a sound matching the best of the nation's orchestras. From the opening, pensive moments in the low strings, the orchestra erupted into a powerful wall of sound, while highlighting Shostakovich's brilliant instrumentation. The clarinet duet near the end of the first movement had a limpid air and sad grace to it. The final movement, with its slowly evolving exploration of the principle theme (a musical motif based on Shostakovich's name), was particularly haunting, and at the symphony's brilliantly colored and jubilant closing, the hall was full of fiery energy and radiant sound. The orchestra, and the thrilling leadership heard here, was the real star of the night. With such eclectic programming and fine playing, audiences can look forward to a great season of classical music.