“It’s going to be a circus,” Gary Lewis remarks with a slight chuckle. The director of orchestral studies at the CU Boulder College of Music is only half-kidding as he describes the college’s long-awaited return to Boettcher Concert Hall which he’ll lead on May 2, closing out the academic year. With an admission-free concert boasting a combined chorus of 200, an orchestra of 85 and a guest appearance by 150 promising young musicians, maybe it will be a circus.
But why not go big, after all this lost time? COVID forced us to abandon our CU at Boettcher series in 2020—it normally runs every other year. “We’d planned to do Verdi’s ‘Requiem’ back then,” Lewis recalls. “Rather than perform it this year, we decided to do Carl Orff’s ‘Carmina Burana’ with the biggest forces we can muster. We’ll be involving all the CU Boulder choirs, including the Festival Choir—a CU entity consisting of students and singers from the greater community.” Those familiar with “Carmina” know it as a major challenge for huge chorus and orchestra (in this case, the CU Symphony Orchestra)—and as a serious test for three soloists. Lewis voices full confidence in his vocal trio. “Two are staff and faculty members, tenor Javier Abreu and baritone Andrew Garland. And the soprano is a marvelous graduate student, Dawna Rae Warren,” he says.
Orff’s spectacular oratorio may be the headliner, but this concert will also deliver a news-making world premiere commissioned by the Dr. C.W. Bixler Family Foundation—the Symphony No. 3 by renowned composer Carter Pann, CU Boulder professor of composition. Subtitled “On The Importance of Our Democracy,” the five-movement, 17-minute work was completed in just the last few months, according to Lewis. “It’s a charming work, with some incredible grooves and wonderful rhythms.”
“Yes, there’s some angst in it,” he adds, referring to the political underpinning. “But it stands on its own. Carter will be at the concert and he’ll say something about the meaning of the symphony. I talked to the players about it when we started to work on the piece.”
As its subtitle suggests, Pann does not shy away from current events. In a program note, he expresses his anxieties “with current insurgent, anti-democratic forces at the highest levels of government.” For the composer, the symphony simply portrays “a sense of personal insecurity.” Lewis felt that politics have always had a place in orchestral music. And they’ve had a place in his repertory at CU Boulder. “We’ve played the Shostakovich Fifth (Symphony) and William Grant Still’s Afro-American Symphony, and those expressed very strong political views,” he says.
Any controversy will disappear after Pann’s symphony when the Boettcher stage fills with 150 gifted young musicians from El Sistema’s music-training program. “We had invited some of them to join us a few years ago,” Lewis says. “But we’ve never had this many. We’ll probably fill up every corner of the stage. Most of them will have to play standing up. They’ll offer a few short selections and then we’ll all finish with (Beethoven’s) ‘Ode to Joy.’”
This is an opportunity for hundreds of young musicians to strut their stuff before a big audience in a big concert hall. It’s a huge deal, with a large crowd expected. Governor Jared Polis has been invited. “We want to get people aware of the College of Music,” Lewis concludes. “We’re trying to expand our reach.
“We are so proud of the product. I’ve been at CU Boulder for 15 years and it’s an honor for me to work here.”
Professor of Conducting + Director of Orchestral Studies Gary Lewis will direct CU at Boettcher—a gathering of forces from the College of Music—on Tuesday, May 2 at 7:30 p.m. in Boettcher Concert Hall at the Denver Performing Arts Complex. Admission is free, no tickets required. CU at Boettcher is funded by the Dean’s Annual Fund.
Above right photo: Carter Pann (left) dedicated his Symphony No. 3 to his close friend, Brian Scott Mason (right), “who has revealed himself as a touchstone of balanced integrity in my life.” Mason, a CU alumnus, is currently the District Attorney of Adams and Broomfield counties in Colorado. In 2016, he officiated Pann’s wedding.