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Colorado Symphony takes on Mussorgsky

COLO. Symphony played three classical Selections

The Denver Center of the Performing Arts recently hosted a weekend with the Colorado Symphony, performing Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, along with Ives’ Symphony No.3 and Barber’s Violin Concerto. Conductor Brett Mitchell returned to conduct all three pieces, joined in the concerto by violinist Augustin Hadelich. 

The Colorado Symphony’s Production of Pictures mashed movements together. Photo courtesy of Colorado Symphony

The evening began with the Ives and Barber, the latter of which featured a standout performance from Hadelich. The piece is from the oeuvre of the American composer, commissioned by Samuel Simeon Fels. His virtuosic mastery of the instrument was well punctuated by the nature of the piece, which features numerous complex arpeggiations and an exceptionally wide range. The tone of the instrument was mostly spotless, but at times the vibrato was so intense that the melody being played was almost unintelligible. However, Hadelich was still able to instill his own unique brand of soulfulness into the piece, making for a distinctive and memorable performance as a whole. 

As for the Ives, it seemed a curious pick given the rest of the night’s material. It’s a piece inspired by rural folk melodies, with multiple played at the same time to emulate the sense of the gatherings at which they were sung. Next to a baroque Violin Concerto and the grandiose Pictures, the modernist “Camp Meeting” symphony felt poorly placed. Still, it was nonetheless performed skillfully. 

The headlining Mussorgsky piece, however, was the clear highlight of the evening. The work was written by the composer as a musical depiction of some of his favorite works from his friend and painter Viktor Hartmann, told with a transitional musical theme, the “Promenade,” to highlight his feelings as he walks through a gallery of Hartmann’s works. 

With many technically diverse sections and compositional variation, the orchestration is no simple feat, but it was channeled impeccably by the symphony. From the very first coronet note, the performance came off dynamic and bold, with a particularly striking performance from the entire brass section. The group also chose to play composer Maurice Ravel’s 1922 arrangement of Pictures, which features an alto saxophone melody in “The Old Castle,” along with some other eccentric instrumentation choices. The Colorado Symphony handled these instrumentations flawlessly and with gusto, from the soaring low strings in the third and fourth promenades to the bombastic percussion during the closing movement, “The Great Gate of Kiev.”

The only fallback of the group’s version of Pictures was the relative dynamics of some of the instruments, which the symphony seems to struggle with consistently. While the brass section certainly served as a major and memorable highlight of the suite, there were times in some of the middle pieces where one or two players overshadowed the entire 40-or-so person string section. This issue prevailed during the former Barber piece as well, as occasionally the full orchestra would completely overshadow the lead violin’s sustained notes or even the fuller runs. 

Overall, the Colorado Symphony still delivered another highly produced and moving performance of a classic symphonic orchestration with Mussorgsky’s epic Pictures at an Exhibition.

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