Sunday, February 25, 2007

A Big City Moment

One of my cherished memories of living in New York City is of the afternoon I stumbled upon Red Grooms' "Ruckus Manhattan." Viewers actually wandered around inside Groom's 10,000-square-foot sculpture, enveloped in his bright, furiously energetic, cartoony vision of the city. It was the sort of thing that could never ever possibly exist outside a major arts city.

Or so I thought. I was reminded of Grooms' piece last week when I visited "Nicking the Never" at Colorado College's Coburn Gallery. In this gallery-filling, seven-screen video installation, Brooklyn artist Marina Zurkow renders the Tibetan Buddhist Wheel of Life in animated comic form — and it's stunning. "Nicking the Never" uses a popular idiom to make a profound statement, and delivers this profundity with a light, occasionally humorous touch that very unlike most contemporary "message" art. Like "Ruckus Manhattan," it's an enveloping experience.

Many in the Colorado Springs arts community are quick to complain about our city's lack of culture compared with similar-sized cities. (Well, I am, anyway.) But there's a wealth of new curatorial talent in town — including Colorado College's Jessica Hunter Larsen, who brought us Zurkow — and they're already changing the situation. (Shameless plug: A Gazette story on the city's four new curators is scheduled for March 18.)

Learn more about "Nicking the Never" here. You can even watch Quicktime video excerpts, and though the effect less powerful than the gallery installation, the video's underlying structure comes through more clearly.

"Nicking the Never" will be on display until April 14. The Coburn Gallery is located in the Warner Center, on the corner of Cache la Poudre Street and Cascade Avenue; gallery hours are 12:30-7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays; call 389-6797 for more information.

Edit: Here's the link to the Springs Culture Cast video presentation on "Nicking the Never."

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Joyce Yang Wows 'Em

Pianist Joyce Yang managed to upstage her own dress at Saturday night’s Colorado Springs Philharmonic concert.

I’m talking about a flowing, iridescent violet gown that shimmered with aqua highlights. But it was forgotten the moment the 20-year-old Yang tore into Prokofiev’s brilliant and sarcastic Piano Concerto No. 3. It’s clear that she’s one of the most talented young pianists in the world.

It’s basically a given that today’s virtuoso pianists will play all the right notes. Yang did that, but she did much more. Physically, she’s a picture of confident relaxation, attacking the concerto’s wide leaps as though they were fun. (They make most pianists’ blood run cold.) Musically, she’s a natural, with a strong sense of rhythm and the ability to make every phrase leap off the page. Her sound is exquisite: In loud passages, Prokofiev’s often-dissonant chords were never just clumps of notes, but had definition. In soft passages, she had the courage to whisper, and even drift off into a reverie — but a reverie so musically compelling that the audience followed her wherever she went.

The relationship between Yang and conductor Lawrence Leighton Smith seemed happy — but as good as the orchestra’s contribution was, it couldn’t match Yang’s sheer bounce and crispness.

Announcing that we’d had enough sarcasm for one night, Yang changed the mood with her encore, Chopin’s ultra-lyrical “Andante spianato.” This was as sensitive as the Prokofiev was energetic, and in the chorale near the end, Yang made us forget the piano had hammers. The piece would have benefited from a more improvisational approach, though — though the rhythmic nuances were convincing, they were also duplicated too perfectly when the music repeated, which made them sound contrived.

Amazingly, Yang may not have provided the evening’s musical highlight. In the program’s closer — Dvorak’s rarely played Symphony No. 6 — the philharmonic played as well as it ever has.

Dvorak was out to impress his audience in this sprawling symphony, and he still succeeds. The catchy, simple themes are developed with enormous sophistication and imagination. The symphony evokes a feeling of communing with nature — sometimes a bucolic, dreamy nature, as in the second movement, and sometimes a furious storm, as in the third.

With three trombones and a tuba, the work shows off the philharmonic’s excellent low brass section. It also makes demands at the upper register, with a nice solo for piccolo player Susan Kerbs Townsend and some unusually high violin writing, which the section handled well.

But it was the ensemble playing that was most impressive. Effects such as the broadening of the tempo leading into the first movement’s climax usually belong in the realm of great orchestras, not good ones. It’s a testament to the orchestra’s progress that such moments are no longer surprising.

The philharmonic gave a hint of what was to come in the curtain-raiser, Cherubini’s Overture in G minor. In the solemn introduction — which has more than a faint echo of Beethoven — the violins played not just with perfect unanimity, but with a quiet focus and intensity that grabbed the listener’s attention. The allegro is less musically distinguished, but the orchestra captured its passion and vitality.

As at the previous concert, Smith announced a matching grant from stalwart philharmonic supporter Judy Fair-Spaulding: She will match up to $25,000 in contributions from new donors. Learn more here.

The Colorado Springs Philharmonic with pianist Joyce Yang
When: 2:30 p.m. Sunday
Where: Pikes Peak Center, 190 S. Cascade Ave.
Tickets: $12- $50; 520-7469

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Be on the Lookout ...

Here are photos of two of the four paintings that were stolen from the Antlers Hilton — Jill Spear's "Crystal Autumn" (38 x 30 inches) and Chris Alvarez's "Midnight Apple" (11 x 14 inches). Click on them to see larger versions.

I'll post photos of the other two paintings when the artists supply them.

Friday, February 16, 2007


This has nothing to do with Colorado Springs, but since we pianists get so few scandals, and this one is so juicy, I can't resist posting this link.

It's about recently deceased British pianist Joyce Hatto, who became something of a cult figure in her latter years due to an immense volume of wonderful recordings of transcendentally difficult music, including Leopold Godowsky's "Studies on the Chopin Etudes."

The only problem is, it appears that many - nobody knows yet how many - of these recordings were by different pianists.

More info here.

Wikipedia is also on top of this story.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

The Civilians at Colorado College

By Warren Epstein

The Civilians didn’t save our city.

But their show, “Save This City” performed last weekend at Colorado College’s Armstrong Hall, did capture the essence of Colorado Springs’ religious community with a passion and immediacy that other media haven’t been able to match.

The acclaimed troupe from New York and CC drama students transformed dozens of interviews into a series of monologues, dialogues and musical numbers. I got the sense that each of the portrayals was performed with sincerity and empathy, making this not a spoof of the evanglical movement but an honest portrait.

This is documentary theater, done on the fly, but with flourish and charisma. None of the characters are named, but you can figure most of them out.

Among the highlights were a monologue with a man who had to be Marcus Haggard, Ted Haggard’s son, discussing his father’s fall, and Bishop Michael Sheridan, head of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Colorado Springs.

His talk about following God’s will instead of your own was turned into a haunting production number called “Do What You Ought.”

During the Q&A last Friday, a liberal member of the community criticized the show for being too sympathetic to the evangelical community.

She argued that she'd seen the ugly part of that community, a side that didn't make this show.

That may be so, but I think there may be some resentment about seeing an alternate point of view as yours portrayed in such a sympathetic way.

A friend complained that the show didn't portray the true scope of our community. After all, we're a city with a church attendance that's actually lower than the national average. The truth is a complicated picture.

But I don't think that was what The Civilians wanted to do. They weren't doing a portrait of our community as much as they were examining the evangelical movement as seen through the lens of our community.

The show will next go to New York, where it will be refined and reshaped and, ultimately, put on the road.

We'll keep you updated about plans to bring it back here.

Songwriter Legends Charm

By Warren Epstein

Guy Clark, Joe Ely and John Hiatt walked onto the Pikes Peak Center stage carrying their guitars.

Lyle Lovett followed, with a coffee cup ... and his hair.

What a bizarre and wonderful concert this was: four sing-songwriting legends, each attracting devoted fans who came just for him.

Thursday night (Feb. 8), these disparate performers took turns, song-circle-style, transporting the sold-out crowd far from the concert hall.

One moment we were around a cowboy’s campfire. The next we were in a Texas roadhouse. The next, we were cruising down an open country road.

Lovett was probably the biggest draw. But like the others, he ignored the vast majority of hits (“Which Way Does That Old Pony Run” was probably his more popular selection of the night).

Instead, all dug into their more obscure tunes.

Instead of it being one of those sing-along concerts with your favorite artists, it was a night of musical storytelling, discovery and quiet listening.

Clark set the informal tone for the night, saying, “We have no set list. No agenda. We have no clue. And we have no fear.”

They played off one-another — Hiatt doing a song about cars (“Thunderbird”), after which Lovett said he felt obligated to do another car-related song, and then Clark picked up the theme of South Texas women from Lovett’s song, and so on.

Lovett’s throat sounded a bit sore, but it only added more tortured sweetness to his voice, which sounds like the soul of Texas distilled in a whisky bottle.

Hiatt followed, his otherworldy voice folding around upbeat tunes (“Drive South” was a highlight) that had the audience doing more than a bit of toe tapping.

Ely added a fiery intensity to the mix, like a young Johnny Cash, powered by Bruce Springsteen’s vigor.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Relaxing with the Philharmonic

This weekend’s Colorado Springs Philharmonic concert is balm for hearts that are tired of winter.

The program of two Bach Brandenburg Concertos and Brahms’ Serenade No. 2 for Small Orchestra isn’t the season’s deepest music, its most uplifting, or its most exotic. It’s simply very beautiful and extraordinarily pleasant, and the smaller-than-usual ensemble performs it with flair and style.

Well, maybe not always with style, though the liberties conductor Lawrence Leighton Smith takes with Bach never do harm to the music. The dynamics ebbed and flowed on Saturday night, and the small rhythmic adjustments helped the musical structure emerge out of Bach’s nearly seamless textures. It’s arguably anachronistic, but it helped blow the dust off pieces that, for many classical music lovers, have been dulled by familiarity.

In Brandenburg Concerto No. 3, a dozen string players and a harpsichordist got a satisfyingly rich sound, due partly to Bach’s intricate writing and partly to First United Methodist Church’s friendly acoustics. The concerto is a joyful affair: The strong dance rhythms sweep you along, and Bach’s inventiveness never flags as the musicians pass around the short motives.

Smith’s innovation was his addition of a slow movement to the concerto. Bach wrote only a brief transitional phrase between the two fast movements; Smith expanded on this by adding some more Bach — a transposed portion of the E-flat minor Prelude from Book 1 of the Well-Tempered Clavier. It was a lovely touch that gave the audience a welcome opportunity to catch its breath.

In the larger and even better-known Brandenburg Concerto No. 5, Bach augments the string orchestra with solo parts for violin, flute and harpsichord — performed here by Michael Hanson, Paul Nagem and Kelly McSweeney Zuercher, respectively.

The same imitative writing that works so well for ensembles poses a challenge to soloists: They could easily be reduced to mere cogs in a machine. Hanson, Nagem and Zuercher avoided this pitfall by each retaining an individual presence. Hanson’s lively playing pleasantly contrasted with Nagem’s smoother approach, and both complemented Zuercher’s more dramatic style. They even played different ornaments.

As good as Nagem and Hanson were, they were overshadowed by Zuercher, who brought marvelous intensity to the first movement’s famous cadenza. Since the harpsichord is incapable of the sorts of dynamic transitions pianists take for granted, Zuercher accomplished this almost entirely through rhythm. I wanted to applaud before the movement ended.

After the small group that performed Brandenburg Concerto No. 3, the not-so-small group in the Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 sounded impressive indeed. And after that, the small orchestra Brahms calls for in his Serenade — 29 players, I think — seemed almost ear-splitting, despite the absence of trumpets, percussion, or even violins.

This piece shows Brahms in a relaxed and usually genial mood. (He’s still super-smart, though — keep an ear out for the finale’s canon in thirds.) The orchestration is warm and mellow. The highlight is the hypnotic slow movement, a sad song too beautiful to end.

Nearly all the woodwind and French horn players get a chance to shine in this piece. But the first oboe is especially important, and Guy Dutra-Silveira always did the music proud.

The concert’s only disappointing aspect was the size of the crowd: It didn’t come close to filling First United Methodist Church. When people won’t fill a hall for a program like this — gorgeous music, inexpensive tickets, an accessible venue with fine acoustics, topped off with the first decent weather in weeks — it may be time to worry about the future of professional symphonic music in Colorado Springs.

The program will be repeated at 2:30 p.m. today (Sunday, Feb. 11) at First United Methodist Church, 420 N. Nevada Avenue. Tickets are $20, available at the door or by calling 520-7469. For more information visit the philharmonic’s website.

Monday, February 05, 2007

The Philharmonic Performs Sibelius

[Cross-posted from I'm going to cross-post all online-only reviews here because, heck, why not?]

The Colorado Springs Philharmonic’s program this weekend [January 24-25] is a little like the story of Goldilocks: There’s plenty of sound but not enough music in Glen Cortese’s “Garden of the Gods,” and plenty of music but not enough sound in Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons.”

But in Sibelius’ Symphony No. 5, the philharmonic and conductor Lawrence Leighton Smith got it just right on Saturday night.

Cortese — Smith’s first conducting student — was on hand to conduct the premier of “Garden of the Gods.” While the piece is appealing, it never gets far away enough from its roots in Aaron Copland to be really interesting. Like Copland, Cortese is most convincing in slow music like this piece’s outer sections. These convey a solemn, spiritual mood. The fast middle section sounds like the accompaniment to a movie chase scene.

“Garden of the Gods” makes much of its effect through its brilliant orchestration. The orchestra glitters and shimmers, and there’s always a sense of depth and space in the sound. Cortese is a professional conductor, and has the sort of instrumental knowledge that few outside his profession possess.

Cortese dedicated the piece to Smith and the philharmonic, and the orchestra rewarded his gesture with a beautifully polished performance. Though Cortese’s ear for instrumental balances is excellent, he lacks his teacher’s grasp of large structures: “Garden of the Gods” eventually lost momentum due to being too loud for too long, and by the end, I just wanted the orchestra to stop yelling at me.

Ideally, Vivaldi’s “The Seasons” — a set of four short violin concertos — would be heard in a smaller hall than the Pikes Peak Center. Not only is the string orchestra small, but Vivaldi uses it sparingly. The thin sound gradually numbed the ear.

Fortunately, soloist Michael Hanson’s tone is large enough to fill the space, and silky enough to keep a listener’s attention.

While there was nothing noticeably lacking in the first two concertos, Hanson improved as he warmed up; his rhythms became snappier and the phrases more artfully shaped. The final concerto — “Winter” — was the best of all, earning Hanson an enthusiastic standing ovation from the large audience.

The orchestra performed with propulsive sense of rhythm and about as wide a dynamic range as you could get from such a small ensemble.

Sibelius may be the composer most shaped by his homeland’s climate. The Finnish composer’s music is quintessentially arctic, with a brooding quality that reflects the country’s endless and frigid winter nights.

That’s most apparent in the second of this symphony’s three movements. It’s poised somewhere between a slow, courtly dance and an obsession.

But there’s plenty of brooding in the outer movements as well, where everything is not just thought out, but often over-thought out. Part of this symphony’s character stems from the audible conflict between its composer’s natural talent and his self-doubts. Though the symphony begins in a tranquil mood and ends in brassy triumph, the road between is anything but smooth.

Even Sibelius’ most coherent pieces contain sphinx-like moments when it’s just hard to figure out what he’s trying to say. What made this performance so remarkable was how few such moments it contained, because Smith had such a firm grasp of the architecture: If we weren’t always quite sure where we were, there was never any doubt where we were going.

Highlights included Clark Wilson in the first movement’s eerie bassoon solo, and the entire string section in the short, gasping phrases that contribute so much to the symphony’s enigmatic mood.

The performance was thrilling, but the faultless overall shape and color couldn’t hide signs that the symphony was under-rehearsed — probably in deference to Cortese’s piece. There were more problems of intonation than is usual for the philharmonic.