Scott O'Neil and the Colorado Symphony were in fine form throughout the "Clyfford with a 'Why?'" program Friday night, and the languages of visual art and orchestral music converged in a brilliant and thought-provoking evening.
The concept of the program was born following the opening of the Clyfford Still Museum in 2011. Denver successfully bid to be the recipient of the Still's massive body of previously unknown work, and now holds approximately 825 of Still's 1000 paintings, in addition to many drawings and the few remaining sculptures he created. The bequest of this Abstract Expressionist master joins the thriving visual art scene in Denver, and it is wonderful to see the classical music world tapping into that enthusiasm. During the program, paintings were projected above the stage, and moved through a series of close-up details and complete images as the orchestra played each piece. In between, O'Neil and museum director Dean Sobel offered up their own analysis and background information about Still's works and life, as well as the interplay between sound and visual art.
The wild popularity of online TEDTalks and Denver's own MCA Mixed Taste series proves that audiences respond well to this kind of unpretentious educational event, and the audience was noticeably younger than at the average orchestral concert. O'Neil passionately explored the common use of color, phrasing, scale, gesture, and texture by displaying selections from Still's output with carefully selected music to match his bold yet nuanced use of color.
Several paintings were used for each musical piece, but standouts included the pairing of PH-385 (1949) with Beethoven, PH-465 with Debussy's Nuages (Clouds), and PH-1039 with Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra. The intense red and black of PH-385 paired perfectly with the torment of Beethoven's famous opening movement of Symphony No. 5. Nuages saw the orchestra and paintings in a subtler light, matching the delicate, sensitive string writing with paler colors and layered paint texture. The meandering harmonies in the orchestra created a wonderful cloud of sound, from which emerged pensive solo moments in viola, oboe, and unison harp and flute.
The fourth movement from Sergei Rachmaninoff's Symphony No. 2 was a joyful contrast, and its triumphal ending, replete with cymbals and brass matched the enthusiastic gestures in Still's works. The Allegro from Igor Stravinsky's Symphony in Three Movements explored rhythmic intensity and rapid movement in form and figure. This piece was a throwback to Stravinsky's earlier use of mixed meter and varying folk-like rhythmic patterns (performed so wonderfully by the Colorado Ballet and Orchestra in their recent Rite of Spring). The driving, sometimes mechanistic figures fearlessly conducted by O'Neil revealed repetition and emphasis in Still's strokes (made with trowel rather than brush). Bela Bartok's Pesante-Presto from his Concerto for Orchestra was likewise infused with folk-like rhythms and atonal musical harmonies, and the bold mixture of instrumental timbres was a fitting conclusion to the evening.
Still's innovative personal brand of Abstract Expressionism is full of movement, detail, and audacious contrast of color, and the program brought these elements to life with music. The orchestra displayed a fine range of style and detail in each piece, and the project showed off the talent in each section. This vibrant and educational evening displayed the best of Denver's creative class in music and art. A similar evening will be presented next season, in partnership with the Denver Art Museum, pairing Impressionist masters in both painting and music (November 15, 2013). It will certainly be a highlight of the season.