Classical Music

Colorado Music Festival: Home to the World's Classiest Pick-Up Band

The violinists are fiddling around. They’re staggered among the darkened rows of wooden seats in Boulder’s 117-year-old, barn-like Chautauqua Auditorium, standing apart from each other in little pools of concentration, tuning their instruments. On stage, the brass and woodwind players and percussionists are tweeting, honking and booming.

At 10 a.m., it’s already hot inside this unventilated, all-wooden National Historic Place, and these highly trained classical musicians are all clad as if for a beach party: sandals, tank tops, shades. That’s how it’s been for forty years at the Colorado Music Festival, home to one of the world’s classiest pick-up bands. Every summer, orchestra members fly in from around the world to enjoy a sweet six-week summer gig in the scenic foothills of Boulder, performing an ever-expanding menu of music that’s shattering distinctions between musical genres and artistic disciplines while still drawing crowds. Is life inside the concert hall getting exciting again?

A glance at the CMF schedule reveals an array of guest appearances from well-known artists — Brooklyn’s So Percussion, the Bad Plus, Paper Bird and DJ Spooky. Spooky is debuting original work as well as live, in-concert remixes of Bach, Beethoven and Mozart; avant-garde jazz trio the Bad Plus will tackle its stripped-down version of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. There’s even a concert staging of avant-garde director Peter Brook’s take on The Tragedy of Carmen.

It’s all part of a welcome trend. After decades of classical-music programming that trotted out the stuffy old warhorses time and again, interspersed with some atonal, incomprehensible new pieces, the art-music scene is becoming vital, inclusive, engaging and entertaining.
“If you look back far enough, every boundary disappears,” says Joshua Roman, cellist, conductor and curator. “The divide between different musics seems arbitrary. There are many more intersections than we think. Old musics are often newer and fresher than we realize, and we’re reaching out sideways at the same time.”

Roman, 32, is working in four capacities at the festival. He’ll conduct his own song cycle, “we do it to one another,” set to the poetry of Tracy K. Smith, on Saturday, July 16, at Boulder’s Dairy Center; he’ll appear in concert with the CMF orchestra and pianist Orion Weiss on Sunday, July 17; and he’s curating two more events at the Dairy, part of a new initiative of sidebar concerts in the arts venue.

Roman is typical of the new generation of musicians — unafraid of the digital world, ready to mix things up, and above all, building new pathways of creative interaction, sharing information freely and turning people on to new performers, compositions and ideas. He’s bringing in high-energy composer and songwriter Gabriel Kahane to perform his hilariously strange Craigslistlieder — a song “cyclet” of eight transcriptions from the pages of the popular free-ad service. Second-generation Haitian-Americans violinist Daniel Bernard Roumain and poet Marc Bamuthi Joseph were also recruited, and will perform their collaboration Blackbird, Fly at the Dairy as well.

“There have been periods of time in which what played and what didn’t was controlled by a few people. Now that the information is everywhere, the role of the smaller-sized curator is brought out more,” says Roman. “There’s an opportunity, given the unconquerable expanse of information out there, for someone to act as a guide for a part of that.”

Roman was an early YouTube performer, known for his “Everyday Bach” series, which shows him playing around the world. Coincidentally, he filmed a memorable collaboration in 2011 with DJ Spooky, in which the two covered and sampled Radiohead’s “Everything in Its Right Place.”
Spooky, aka Paul Miller, sees the musical future as global interaction.

“In the twentieth century, we didn’t have an interdisciplinary culture,” he says. “The 21st century is about amorphous ambiguity. Everything’s connections. Mixing is applied to high culture, low culture, the analog, the digital.”

Miller’s integrative view of the arts has a political edge, too. “We are in a twisted time,” he says. “Facts don’t matter. Manifestos don’t give an emotional sense of truth. The hidden weapon of progressive people is the arts. They are tools in the arsenal to divert society away from these right-wing leanings.”

Roman is happy the environment is changing. “I think potentially that the musicians we see coming up today were ready for it,” he says of the new directions. “People want something affirming. We need to make ourselves a bridge between the things that move us and the people that have not experienced them yet.”

Colorado Music Festival
Thursday, June 30, through Sunday, August 7, various Boulder locations,

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Brad Weismann became an award-winning writer and editor after spending years as a comedian. He's written about everything from grand opera to movies for a diverse array of magazines, newspapers and websites worldwide.