The Denver Philharmonic Orchestra opens up its season with chops to spare

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Maybe it's all those tuxedos they have to buy everybody, but the symphony is expensive. Which is a shame, because it just reinforces classical music's reputation as something reserved for rich people who wear top-hats and monocles, an exclusive party regular folks aren't invited to.

That's not the case for the Denver Philharmonic Orchestra. Since 1948 (when it got its start as the Denver Businessmen's Orchestra -- for the professional, presumably, on the go), the DPO's mission has been to get quality classical to the common man at a reasonable price. And at its season opener on Friday, with help from one excellent soloist, the DPO threw down.

Part of the method in which the DPO succeeds at keeping ticket prices low (they run for a measly $20) is that nobody, with the exception of director/conductor Adam Flatt and the soloist, gets paid. Some of the players are just getting started as professional musicians, others are retired ones, still others are current professionals who just do it for the love. Unpaid as they may be, though, they hold their own.

Friday's program opened with Schumann's Manfred Overture, Op. 115, a lush epic that lent weight to the evening from its opening chords. If it was a good starting point on its own merits, it was also a good thematic fit: The latter half of the program was devoted to the Hungarian composer Franz Liszt (one of my personal favorites); the first performance of Manfred happened under Liszt's direction.

The centerpiece of the evening, though, was a virtuosic performance from pianist Hsing-ay Hsu, who sat in as soloist on a performance of Beethoven's Piano Concert No. 4 in G Major. Currently the head of the Pendulum New Music Series at CU-Boulder, Hsu, who played her first concert at age 4, has led a distinguished career -- the Washington Post once praised her "power, authority and self-assurance."

And the piece itself proved a good showcase for both Hsu and the orchestra; Balancing between characteristically Beethoven-ish solemnity and plenty of chances to let the soloist shine with several series of punishing arpeggios (Hsu never slipped once, by the way), the piece allows the orchestra its time in the spotlight as well -- as far as concertos go, this one is somewhat unusual in that it opens with solo piano and then takes the piano out of the mix altogether for a while as the orchestra lays out the theme.

Aside from her unimpeachable technical skill, Hsu was also a soulful performer, giving the piece the weight of feeling it deserved. And she was fun to watch; though for the most part, her expression was one of serene concentration, she wasn't above and aw-shucks look or a playful flourish of the hand after executing a particularly impressive move.

After intermission and a short speech from Flatt dedicating the performance to the Denver Dumb Friends League, which celebrated its 100th birthday last month, the orchestra played -- yes it did -- "Happy Birthday." Which would have been corny, except for the glockenspiel, which made it awesome.

The second half of the concert was dedicated to Liszt, beginning with the beautiful "Orpheus," the composer's take on the Greek myth, which, features two harps imitating the sound of the lyre (Flatt called that instrument "sort of the ancient Greek ukulele"). The fourth in a series of "symphonic poems," "Orpheus" is gorgeous and restrained, a quiet piece that builds, ever so delicately, to a crescendo and then returns to form, closing with a beautiful, lingering chord. Interestingly, it was a favorite of Liszt's son-in-law -- the composer Wagner.

The second in the second half was Liszt's better-known "Hungarian Rhapsodie No. 2 in C Minor" -- and though you probably didn't know it was Liszt, you've definitely heard the second half before, probably as the backdrop to Elmer Fudd and Bugs Bunny in some kind of weird chorus line. Actually, you've probably heard the first half before, possibly as a backdrop to a procession of camels in the Sahara. If those two scenes sound incongruous, have a listen:

As far as the DPO's performance of "Rhapsodie" goes, I'll just say this: Normally, I kind of feel sorry for the guy who has to stand in the back and play the triangle. In this instance, the DPO's triangle player was, perhaps second only to the clarinetist (who looked like he was having a blast up there, by the way), probably the star of the piece -- and he was earning it.

Was the whole thing perfect? No (well, Hsu's performance came pretty damn close). Did someone in the violins hit an occasional sour note? Did the horns come in a little loud a couple of times? Sure. But these infrequent slip-ups were incidental to an otherwise bang-up show from a cast of musicians that, if not "technically" professional, played with about as much skill and accomplishment as any common man could ever want.

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