Could you hear it in Westminster or all the way south in Castle Rock? It was the sound of a standing ovation, the kind that brings a soloist back onstage before intermission for an encore. Friday night’s CSO opening at Boettcher Concert Hall featured conductor Peter Oundjian and the celebrated pianist Emanuel Ax, whose career spans decades of recording and performing recitals. He’s collaborated with Yo Yo Ma and the world’s major orchestras.
The CSO’s return on September 18th may well rival the rest of the season. In recognition of the lives lost on 9-11 and from COVID, Conductor Oundjian led the orchestra in a resounding transcription of the Star Spangled Banner, For obvious reasons he requested that the audience not sing along. Everyone in the hall, except the cellists, stood for the tribute. Each musician wore a mask while they performed with the exception of those in the woodwinds and brass section who were not separated by distance nor dividers. Audience members sat side by side in masks. It was a valiant return that did not nod towards the Delta Variant but rather made a declaration about the healing power of live music.
The second half of the program put the orchestra under Ouindjian’s baton for Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. It is a grand piece of music originally written for the piano in 1874 and transcribed for orchestra by Maurice Ravel. Its first orchestral performance was in Paris in 1923. The pieces represent an exhibit of Victor Hartmann’s art in 1874. The timpani pounded and roared with the brass as the intensity of the strings rose to the highest rung of seats. The Promenade theme, revisited through the piece, intoned resilience and determination.
Hartmann’s The Great Gate of Kiev – faculty.atu.edu
After the impromptu Sousa anthem, the string players remained on the stage to open the program with Barber’s Adagio for Strings, an ethereal evocation of remembrance that was especially moving after everyone in the hall observed a moment of silence.Concertmaster Yumi Hwang-Williams led the strings with a somber tone that acknowledged the presence of COVID in our lives in September 2021, nearly a year and a half after shutting down the CSO performance calendar and sending musicians to their living rooms to instruct and give occasional Zoom concerts. Without applause they could only watch each face disappear as participants left the meeting.
When Maestro Ax strode onstage in his N-95 mask the audience greeted him as the returning prodigal son. It was a wonder to see him sit at the Steinway side by side with the violin section while Ouindjian raised his baton and swept the orchestra into the opening notes of Chopin’s Concerto #2 in F minor Op. 21. In 1829 Chopin was either in love with a young singer or he was simply in love with being in love. Whichever was to blame didn’t matter because the passion that he felt stirred him to compose his 2nd Concerto, which he wrote before his 1st concerto. It was the Larghetto, the 2nd movement, that silenced the one audible cough. The sweetness turned melancholic like a fading September rose with petals like memories that carried so many of us through the absence of family. The rush of runs and Chopin’s signature intricate figures still linger in my mind. This performance by one of the preeminent pianists of our time made the late summer evening all the more precious with the valiant return to Boettcher.
Manny, as many call him, left the audience with a parting gift after a lengthy standing ovation. His eyes sparkled above his mask and then he sat back down on the bench and played an elegant Chopin Nocturne. The familiarity of it was like sitting at the table with extended family. And, aren’t we connected like family when we listen to live music? Welcome back CSO. Welcome back live music to Boettcher Concert Hall.