Boulder Phil features two living composers Saturday

Jennifer Higdon and Xavier Foley share concert program with Dvořák and Bottesini

By Peter Alexander Nov. 10 at 2:53 p.m.

The Boulder Philharmonic Orchestra will perform two new pieces born from the drama of American history on Saturday (7 p.m. Nov. 12 in Macky Auditorium; details below).

Boulder Philharmonic and Michael Butterman in Macky Auditorium

Both are by living composers: the orchestral Suite from Jennifer Higdon’s opera Cold Mountain, based on the popular Civil War novel by Charles Frazier; and For Justice and Peace, music by Xavier Foley written to mark the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first slaves in the United States. Other works on the program will be the Gran Duo Concertante for violin, double bass and orchestra by Giovanni Bottesini; and Dvořák’s Symphony No. 8 in G major.

Boulder Phil music director Michael Butterman will conduct the concert, which also features violinist Eunice Kim, Foley playing double bass, and a quartet of singers from the Boulder Philharmonic Chorus.

Jennifer Higdon

Higdon’s opera Cold Mountain had its premiere at the Santa Fe Opera in 2015. The opera was so popular that an additional performance was scheduled. Since then there have been performances in North Carolina and Minnesota, as well as Higdon’s home town of Philadelphia, where it sold out five performances in the 2,400-seat Academy of Music. 

The Boulder Philharmonic is one of 37 co-commissioners for the Suite from Cold Mountain, which has been performed several places since its premiere by the Delaware Symphony in September, with many more performances scheduled. “I’m looking forward to doing it,” Butterman says. “I’m sure (the suite) will allow (music from Cold Mountain) to be more widely heard than if it just all remained within the opera.”

When she returned to the opera score to create the suite, Higdon re-discovered her own music. “I had to really go back in,” she says. “It surprised me when I opened the score and started looking. I kept saying, ‘I can’t believe I wrote this!’

“I went through all the emotions of the characters, which is what I used to guide me in picking music for the suite. I took it from the viewpoint of what would be the most interesting progression of pieces, what would stand strongly on its own, and how to vary the music so it’s not always intense. I looked for the biggest variety, really contrasting quiet and loud, and agitated and dissonant and soft and melodic.”

Xavier Foley

You don’t need to read the book or know the story to enjoy the music. “That’s one of the things people have been asking me,” Higdon says. “The music is set up in a way to speak to you even if you don’t have a clue what this novel is about. It will stand on its own.”

A graduate of the Curtis Institute of Music, Foley has become known both as a virtuoso bass player and a composer. He won First Prize in the 2014 Sphinx Competition, a national award for young Black and Latinx string players, and the 2016 Young Concert Artists Auditions. As a player, Butterman says, “his virtuosity is amazing! I became intrigued about working with him as soloist, and then got to know that he was also a composer.”

For Justice and Peace was commissioned by the Sphinx Organization to mark the 400th anniversary of the arrival the slave ship “White Lion” in Jamestown, Virginia. It is a small-scale concerto for violin, double bass and strings, with two additions that link the music to the subject: the sounds of a gavel, representing the auction of slaves, and a brief text sung by a vocal quartet that asks “Your Honor, where is my freedom?”

Giovanni Bottesini

To pair with that piece, Butterman selected another work for the same players, the Gran Duo Concertante for violin, double bass and strings by Giovanni Bottesini. Once widely celebrated, Bottesini is largely unknown today except to bass players. Known as “The Paganini of the Bass,” he was the first celebrated virtuoso of the instrument. Also an opera composer and conductor, he was selected by Verdi to conduct the premiere of Aida in 1871.

The Gran Duo seems to reflect Bottesini’s career in opera. Parts of the score resemble an operatic scene between a soprano and a bass—represented by the violin and double bass. “I do think of a dialog between me and the violin,” Foley says. Butterman hears the piece in the same way, describing it as an “operatic showcase for a couple—almost like a couple of singers.”

All of that occurs before intermission, and the second half of the concert will be occupied by one piece, Dvořák’s Symphony No. 8 in G major. “Everybody should love that piece!” Butterman says. “It’s always successful because of it’s tunefulness and the optimism and energy of that last movement (which) is one of the more joyful things in the repertoire. I love it!”

But the final words about the concert go to Foley, who says, “I hope people get their money’s worth and enjoy the show.”

# # # # #

“Gran Duo”
Boulder Philharmonic Orchestra, Michael Butterman, conductor
With Xavier Foley, contrabass, and Eunice Kim, violin
Vocal quartet from the Boulder Philharmonic Chorus

  • Jennifer Higdon: Suite from Cold Mountain (Colorado premiere)
  • Xavier Foley: For Justice and Peace
  • Giovanni Bottesini: Gran Duo Concertante for violin, double bass and strings
  • Dvořák: Symphony No. 8 in G major, op. 88

7 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 12
Macky Auditorium

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