Jean-Marie Zeitouni does not stand on ceremony. He is not fond of being addressed as “maestro”; you may call him JMZ if you like. He’s not stuck up. He digs Spiderman. Only nine months after his selection as the new music director of the Colorado Music Festival, foodie Zeitouni already has a Zeitouni All-Purpose Blend spice out on the local market. On Wednesday, July 1, he will lead his orchestra in the opening concert of a CMF season that, like his spice, is well-crafted and suited for many tastes. Sounds like he’s settling in.
“I am in a great apartment at the moment,” he says. “I’ve already visited Boulder six times since last year. I’m beginning to know the surroundings pretty well.”
He’s also surveying the musical terrain. Zeitouni, who comes to Boulder from his home in Montreal, dug through every one of CMF’s near-forty seasons of programs, charting what’s been played before and who’s taken the stage here. “I certainly will go back to this list quite often; it will be an important archive for me,” he says. “It is very impressive. Part of that has to do with the level of openness musically here. The previous directors of the festival did some pretty adventurous things.” There have been only three since the start – founder Giora Bernstein, wunderkind Michael Christie and now the ebullient Zeitouni, who notes that “thirty years ago more new music was being programmed here than anywhere else.”
Zeitouni’s music calendar is carefully constructed to give listeners challenges as well as classic favorites. In addition to the traditional guest soloists and recitalists, which this season include violinist Alexandra Soumm, pianist Olga Kern and guitarist Ana Vidovic, there are break-out programs such as “Cellobration,” a chamber music series and Music Mash-Up, which pairs such things as Bartok and Bjork, Aaron Copland and Bon Iver. The diverse programming also includes the July 9 and July 10 concerts that pair Colorado premieres of contemporary works by Lee Actor and Michael Daugherty with Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5.
There's a special emphasis this season on vocal music, a particular love of Zeitouni, who has conducted opera extensively during his young career. “If you look at all the music written since the Middle Ages, half of it is vocal music,” he says. “It is still the easiest way to make music, to educate someone about music, to convey a message or an emotion. I would lie if I did not say it was very dear to me.
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“We address this by placing vocal programs at pivotal points throughout the season – the opening, middle and end, with operatic music, and sacred and secular selections,” he continues. Opening night includes contralto Marie-Nicole Lemieux singing Rossini arias and Ravel’s song cycle Sheherazade – with Colorado Shakespeare Festival producing artistic director Timothy Orr reading the latter’s source poems in English. CMF’s July 23 and 24 concerts feature a rare performance of Bartok’s one-act opera Bluebeard’s Castle, and closing night includes vocal selections from Mozart and Handel.
Still, Zeitouni hasn’t lost sight of the prime component of the season: the orchestra, comprising top musicians from orchestras across the country, who gather as an ensemble for a summer set in the center of Boulder’s beautiful foothills. “Orchestral music is the core of the festival,” Zeitouni says. “There’s so much for me to do – I need to meet people and learn to know them and understand them. The orchestra – what does it need? What are the appropriate challenges for them?”
While he explores that question, he's also exploring his new surroundings. “I’m absorbing the air and the water and the energy of this place,” Zeitouni says. “I am never resting.”
The 38th annual Colorado Music Festival runs July 1 through August 9 at Chautauqua Auditorium, 900 Baseline Road, Boulder. For tickets and information, visit comusic.org.