Started in 1976 at the First Presbyterian Church in Boulder, the Colorado Music Festival was founded by University of Colorado Boulder director Giora Bernstein as a showcase for the Colorado Chamber Orchestra. Within two years, the festival moved to the then newly restored Chautauqua Auditorium, where it won the first of five ASCAP Adventurous Programming Awards.
This year’s lineup is selected by the festival’s music director Pierre Oundjian. With experience as a performer and conductor for some of the world’s top institutions, Oundjian brings acclaimed experience to the festival’s legacy. While attending the Royal College of Music in London in 1975, he received the Tagore Gold Medal from Queen Elizabeth and, aged just 25, he was appointed Assistant Professor of Violin at Yale University. He became concertmaster of the Tokyo String Quartet in 1981, a position he held for fourteen years, until focal left-hand dystonia forced him to put his instrumental career aside.
The injury would transform the trajectory of Oundjian’s orbit. Just one month after leaving the Tokyo Quartet, André Previn, the famous German pianist, invited Oundjian to conduct three concerts on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the Caramoor International Music Festival, a prestigious event of which he would later become artistic director. Since then, Oundjian has held positions with institutions such as the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Royal Scottish National Orchestra and Amsterdam Sinfonietta. In 2022, he was named Principal Conductor of the Colorado Symphony Orchestra.
Oundjian joined the Colorado Music Festival in 2018 as a consultant. “I couldn’t believe I didn’t know that!” he says today. “I received a call a little over five years ago, which seems very recent, from an old friend named Alberto Gutierrez, the [festival’s] artistic administrator, asking if I would be a consultant for the summer while they were looking for a musical director. That search didn’t last long, as a year later he accepted that title and became responsible for all programming, including this year’s Artist and Composer in Residence, Pulitzer Prize winner and five-time award winner. a Grammy. John Adams.
“John is an incredibly brilliant composer, and his works are probably featured more often than any contemporary composer today,” says Oundjian. “Initially, when he was a young composer, he experimented a lot with minimalism, a bit like Steve Reich and Philip Glass, but he quickly moved away from what we could call pure minimalism towards a language that is really the his. own.” The famous author will perform six of his plays throughout the festival and will be on the podium for two of them.
Grammy Award-winning group Takacs Quartet, an act Oundjian considers one of the greatest of all time, will be the festival’s artist-in-residence. The now Boulder-based quartet began 47 years ago in Budapest and consists of a rotating cast of members, with cellist and original member András Fejér being the only constant. The quartet began to attract international attention in 1977, when it won first prize and the Critics’ Prize at the International String Quartet Competition in Évian-les-Bains, France. By 1983 he had moved to the United States and soon after was offered a residency at the University of Colorado at Boulder, a position the quartet has held ever since. During his tenure, the Takacs Quartet has won three Gramophone Awards – one of classical music’s most coveted accolades – in addition to the Grammy.
The quartet will give three performances during the festival. He will open the festival with Adams’s absolute joke June 30, which he will repeat the following night. The quartet will then play three pieces on July 5: Joseph Haydn’s String Quartet in F major, Op. 77, No. 2“Fantasiestücke for String Quartet, Op.5” by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and Antonin Dvorak String Quartet No. 13 in G major, Op. 106.
Oundjian notes that it takes a certain finesse to create classic programming that appeals to the general public: “Whether you’re programming for an orchestra for an entire season or for a festival, there are very few people who are going to come to all the concerts. And these people will come to all the shows, regardless of the programs, because they love the festival; they are like a family. In order to attract a variety of listeners, “you have to look for really interesting and wide-ranging ideas,” he says. “You have to strike a great balance between getting an audience to listen to something they’ve never heard and something familiar.”
The festival’s opening night performance is a good example of the fusion of familiarity with originality, says Oundjian. As the night is announced as ‘Takács Quartet Plays John Adams’ absolute joke“, it includes three different compositions by three composers, with absolute joke being the highlight. The first is “Fate Now Conquers”, by relatively young American composer Carlos Simon, which debuted in September 2020. Although the work is contemporary, it was commissioned in response to Beethoven’s Fourth, Seventh and Eighth Symphonies, giving it a sense of familiarity for more discerning classical music fans. Beethoven’s influence is then infused with modern music styles such as jazz, gospel and neo-romanticism – a lush display of the juxtaposition sought by Oundjian in his curations.
The other two performances of the evening are also striking illustrations of the fusion of old and new, with absolute joke being a vaguely minimalist interpretation of the grandiose symphonies of Beethoven and Dvorak New World Symphony being the catalyst for many familiar modern compositions, including those made for star wars, Jaws and The Lord of the Rings.
Each year, the festival organizes a series of premieres. One of them, “Dark Patterns”, by Brooklyn-based composer Timo Andres, was specially commissioned for the festival. Other commissions include “Flying on the Scaly Backs of Our Mountains”, by Wang Jie, and “Herald, Holler and Hallelujah!”, by jazz great Wynton Marsalis.
The Colorado Music Festival is also inviting eight college-age virtuosos to receive coaching and performance opportunities through a scholarship program. The program provides access to the festival’s top guest artist mentors, in addition to weekly performances with the festival orchestra. The scholarship program was developed with the intention of creating diversity within classical music and includes students from all cultural backgrounds. This year’s scholarship recipients include four members of Miami’s New World Symphony: Chava Appiah, James Zabawa-Martinez, Jacquelyn O’Brien and Ka-Yeon Lee. They will be joined by Kate Arndt of Yale, award-winning Vera Quartet founder Justin Goldsmith, Byungchan Lee of the Vancouver Symphony and Grace Takeda of Juilliard. All were chosen through an invitation-only process, selected by educators from North America’s top music conservatories.
The festival’s initial success came from its ability to spot emerging talent and recruit them for its orchestra — a tradition that continues with the festival’s association with the Musical Arts Center. The mission of this Lafeyette-based non-profit organization is to provide music education for all ages, across the music spectrum. During the festival, Oundjian and the announced artists will teach classes and perform at the center, an experience which the conductor says is invaluable. “It’s actually really important that these young kids, who are just starting to play, can eventually be exposed to some of the greatest musicians in the world. Because it’s so empowering, isn’t it?” Oundjian asks rhetorically.” It can be a real source of inspiration.”
Colorado Music Festival, Thursday, June 30-August 7, Chautauqua Auditorium, 900 Baseline Road in Boulder. Tickets are available at coloradomusicfestival.org.