Musical mavericks mark 60th anniversary
Beethoven piece caps 2½-hour celebration of revolutionaries
What do cowboy boots, a 150-year-old violin, transcendentalism, druids, Napoleon, and Beethoven have in common? They all made an appearance on the Montezuma-Cortez High School stage Sunday, Oct. 6 when the San Juan Symphony rode into town and held its capacity audience spellbound for 2½ hours.
The event kicked off the 2013-14 concert season and celebrated the 60th anniversary of the Southwest Colorado Concerts.
In 1953, local legends Idonna and Henry Wilson along with Buford and Dotty Wayt, Grace Speck and Eloise Biglar decided to find a way to bring world-class musical talent to Cortez. They assembled a fledgling concert association, with Buford as its first president, by teaming up with the newly formed Community Concerts, a national organization. Sixty years later Southwest Colorado Concerts boasts 95 business sponsors and hundreds of local season subscribers.
Sunday’s concert was nothing short of remarkable. Conductor Arthur Post chose a delightful trio of pieces, entitled “Musical Mavericks,” that challenged, soothed, and inspired listeners. The program opened with American composer Charles Ives’s provocative and powerful “An Unanswered Question.” Influenced by American authors Emerson, Thoreau, Walt Whitman, and Ezra Pound, mavericks all, “An Unanswered Question” echoes the American ideals about individualism. True to this spirit, Ives chose to pull away from the European tradition and write music with a distinctly American voice.
This short piece featured three sets of performers in a symbolic dialogue about “The Perennial Question of Existence.” Backstage, the muted strings shimmered, creating a hymn-like trance evocative of the powerful silence of a deep wood. Shortly, a solo trumpet is heard, also offstage, asking the question, “Why are we here?” A small ensemble of woodwinds onstage, the townfolk, respond with a dissonant, polytonal, overlapping soundscape in a fumbling attempt to answer the unanswerable. The dissonance of the piece suggests that dissonance in society is welcome, but requires, like the music, a willingness to ask the hard questions and to listen to many different answers, or, in the words of one concert-goer, “to tolerate ambiguity.” The extended silence that both preceded and completed this uniquely American piece allowed the audience to ponder one of humanity’s eternal questions and to wrestle with that ambiguity. And that was just the first five minutes.
Next up was the boot-clad American violinist, Odin Rathnam, performing Max Bruch’s first violin concerto on a late 19th century Italian violin. A German composer and symphonist on the level of Mendelssohn and Brahms, Bruch was undervalued during his lifetime. Today, however, his first violin concerto, premiered in 1868, is a standard in any serious violinist’s performance repertoire. It features three movements of exquisite heartbreaking melody alternating with enough double stops, extended trills, and technical artistry to satisfy the most ravenous musical appetite. Rathnam demonstrated intimate familiarity and complete authority over the music. Energized by his audience and supported by Post’s well-timed orchestral entrances, Rathnam took Bruch’s immortal music and infused it with a gypsy fire that melted hearts, stirred passions, and brought the audience to its feet. In one final act of generosity, as a farewell gift, the charming performer honored both the audience and the orchestra with an encore of the Sarabande from Bach’s D minor Partita for unaccompanied violin. Usually not at a loss for words, Eulalia Skinner could summon up only the word “Speechless” when asked for her response to the first half of the program.
And then there was Beethoven, a revolutionary man living during revolutionary times who believed that his music could be part of that revolution. The Eroica, or Heroic Symphony No. 3 in E flat, Op. 55, was c ompleted in 1805 and originally dedicated to Napoleon Bonaparte who many, including Beethoven, thought would free Europe from the ancient bondage of monarchies. However, when Napoleon declared himself Emperor of Europe, Beethoven, in a characteristic fit of fury, replaced the dedication with simply “The Eroica Symphony.”
Inspired by the Greek legend of Prometheus who stole fire from the gods and gave it to man, Beethoven’s 3rd symphony is a story of a hero facing extraordinary adversity, and his subsequent rebirth. Growing increasingly deaf, socially isolated, subject to angry outbursts and deep depressions, Beethoven reinvents both himself and the symphonic template in the crafting of his third symphony. We are left with little doubt that Beethoven, not Napoleon nor Prometheus, is our hero. To quote Leonard Bernstein, another musical maverick, “Beethoven broke all the rules, and turned out pieces of breathtaking rightness.” The Heroic Symphony follows Beethoven’s laws: It breathes fire, offers tender mercies, invites one to dance, and triumphs in the end.
The San Juan Symphony under Post’s baton delivered a memorable musical experience to a wildly enthusiastic audience of all ages. It was as if, commented Mancos resident Danielle Desruisseaux, Cortez was “hungry for the symphony in the way it leapt to its feet and cheered.”
Although relatively small, some 60-plus musicians, the orchestra handled Beethoven’s musical manifesto with courage and bravado. Strong entrances, well-paced tempi, well-coordinated string sections led by Concertmaster Nathan Lambert, valiant horns, pliant woodwinds, and authoritative percussion all demonstrated that SJS was comfortable with the challenge of performing one of classical music’s seminal works. Arthur Post, clearly enjoying himself, and his musicians held nothing back. Perhaps 8-year-old Juliet Denman from Telluride summed it up best after the 47-minute symphony concluded with its extended final cadence: “Over so soon?”
Indeed. Thank you. And come back soon.
Wendy Watkins is owner and operator of S’more Music, LLC., a private Suzuki piano studio in Cortez. She can be reached at 565-4129.