On a hot night at Chautauqua Auditorium in Boulder, Peter Oundjian and the Colorado Music Festival Orchestra played it cool with new music by Hannah Lash and Kevin Puts before taking an illuminating look at Beethoven's most iconic string quartet. It was the first of three “Music of Today” concerts during the week scheduled to culminate Sunday night with an all Joan Tower program highlighted by the world premiere of her new cello concerto, A New Day, played by Alisa Weilerstein.

Peter Oundjian conducts the Colorado Music Festival Orchestra
© Abbey Davis

Lash's gentle ten-minute Forestallings is rooted in her childhood love of Beethoven's Second Symphony and takes the opening gesture of its Adagio molto introduction as a point of departure for shifting melodic gestures of her own, as if trying to find Beethoven's footsteps. Exploring in her own words “a constellation of harmonies” and ending with “a question rather than resolution,” Lash uses ear-tickling sounds like timpani and brass tendrils floating off deep cello sounds to give the piece movement. She reverses the theme's direction in the slow movement with mostly stable, multi-directional harmonies that lead to luscious, lucent wandering among Beethoven's ghostly presence.

Kevin Puts's Marimba Concerto, composed in 1997 to reflect his love of Mozart’s piano concertos, is like a Mozart concerto emerging out of a time warp with only a xylophone in the otherwise classical orchestra to indicate the 20th century. Mozart, however, never had a pianist like the marimba virtuoso Ji Su Jung who captivated the audience from her first glowing notes and the swirl of her orange red dress as she came on stage.

Like many of Mozart's finest piano concertos – like K453 and K482 – there are relatively few solo bars for the marimba aside from the cadenzas and the occasional bridge passage, but the immersion of the marimba within the orchestra, with major contributions from the winds, made for a piece which was showy now and then, as only a marimba concerto can be, but was also authentically engaging. The dark-toned Presto non troppo turned at one point into a bit of a moto perpetuo which, suffused by passages briefly reminiscent of the aquarium in Saint-Saëns' Carnival of the Animals, led to a final burst of speed. For a community that was celebrating its return to live concerts with live audiences, Jung's encore, a meditation on Harold Arlen's Over the Rainbow, sent the perfect message of renewal and faith. Not surprisingly, Jung is scheduled to record the concerto with the Baltimore Symphony later this year.

Ji Su Jung, Peter Oundjian and the Colorado Music Festival Orchestra
© Abbey Davis

Speaking from the stage before his newly-tweaked arrangement of Beethoven's String Quartet no. 14 in C sharp minor, Op.131, Oundjian admitted to performing the piece as a quartet at least 150 times (as first violin of the Tokyo String Quartet), then referred to Mahler's conviction that Beethoven's last quartets were huge statements that demanded more than just four little instruments. As it turned out, Oundjian's was not an elephantine performance in the manner of Leonard Bernstein conducting Dimitri Mitropoulos' arrangement with the Vienna Philharmonic and at least five double basses. 

Like his recordings with the Tokyo Quartet 30 years ago and with the Amsterdam Sinfonietta 20 years ago, Oundjian's was a lyrical performance, the added strings (only three double basses) introducing size and foreboding without impeding the narrative. The intimacy of a string quartet (which Mahler considered a misused concept) was not missing so much as superseded by the seamless playing and response to Oundjian's self-effacing, deeply compelling conducting. The opening Adagio's surges seemed sculpted out of marble, the Allegro molto vivace was quick and kittenish with the three double basses responding almost instantaneously to Beethoven's mercurial changes of tempo. The solos in the third movement's recitative were rough and ready and the theme for the big variations movement was unexpectedly and wonderfully serene. In Oundjian's arrangement, which he has been refining for the last 20 years, Op.131 may not have been improved, but its relationship to the enduring legacy of Beethoven the orchestral master was persuasively revealed.