Alphorn Comedy As Foil To Heroic Brahms In Denver

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Michael Thornton, with Alphorn, rehearses a Leopold Mozart sinfonia with conductor James Feddeck.
(Seth McNew, Colorado Symphony)
By Marc Shulgold

DENVER — The Andrew Litton Era didn’t last very long at the Colorado Symphony — and so the search for a successor has begun. Sort of.

Litton arrived in Denver as a guest conductor in 2012, was named music director the following year, and announced his departure earlier this year (he’ll stick around as “artistic adviser” through the next two seasons). With that announcement, the arrival of each guest conductor, such as James Feddeck this week, can now be viewed as an unofficial audition. Maybe.

The Colorado Symphony’s vice president of artistic planning, Robert Neu, downplayed such a thought, stressing that the orchestra has always been on the lookout for new talent and adding that the formation of a search committee is nearly complete. “It’s all done very discreetly,” he said of the search process. “But, of course, we’re looking (at conductors) differently now.”

Conductor James Feddeck
James Feddeck, first-rate and footloose as he builds his career.

When Litton’s departure was announced, the looking immediately began for concertgoers. To many of them, the parade of guests has taken on the feel of a dating website. Whom do you like? Who looks the part? Whom do you remember? It’s early, of course, but it seems we already have a potentially memorable “date.”

From the consistently first-rate work shown by Feddeck in Boettcher Hall on Oct. 2-3, it was obvious that he is a talent to watch. The future seems bright for the 32-year-old American, even if his future does not unfold in Denver.

Feddeck has lately been attracting attention in the press, mostly through his successful last-minute subbing with major ensembles around the country. He served as an assistant conductor with the Cleveland Orchestra, but now seems footloose as he builds his career.

Feddeck displays an unassuming presence onstage — boyish in looks, shy in acceptance of applause, undramatic on the podium. But it’s hard to remember the orchestra sounding as polished and energetic as it did at the second of the conductor’s weekend appearances in Denver as he led spirited performances of Dvořák’s crash-bang Carnival Overture and Brahms’ super-familiar Fourth Symphony. Recognizing the high level of musicianship before them, a nice-size house responded with enthusiastic and sustained approval.

Before concluding the evening with the Brahms, Feddeck walked on with microphone in hand and delivered a brief homage to the composer, pointing to the difficulty Brahms faced in following Beethoven’s symphonies, praising the Fourth’s exquisite Andante, and, in his modest way, bringing his listeners closer to the music.

Once on the podium, he demonstrated a sure hand with the players, delivering cues with confidence and a welcome lack of excess motion. When the music turned sweeping, so too did his whole body, as he gracefully carved the air with his arms. How could an orchestra not give its all under a conductor who so visibly loved the music in his care?

The centerpiece of this Brahms Fourth was the second movement Andante, in which every phrase sounded spontaneous and achingly lovely. As exciting and instantly accessible as the third movement scherzo is (and Feddeck cashed in on every thrilling moment), the Fourth’s finale can too often turn stagnant, anti-climactic, and difficult to follow if carelessly handled. Not here. Feddeck’s pacing was ideal, causing the flow of variations to emerge as an unfolding drama that moved inexorably to those final stern chords.

To start the evening, Feddeck and the CSO reveled in the gaiety and unstoppable momentum of Dvořák’s celebratory overture. The clarity of the conductor’s approach here boded well for Brahms’ expansive music yet to come.

But first, a goofy novelty: The program’s solo spot came in the form of two concertos by two Mozarts — one quite charming, the other quite forgettable. If nothing else, the pairing reminded listeners how wonderful the music of Wolfgang Amadeus is, and how merely serviceable are the seldom-heard works by his dad, Leopold.

Thornton’s Alphorn turn drew oohs and ahhs and chuckles.
Thornton’s Alphorn turn drew oohs and ahhs and chuckles.

CSO principal horn Michael Thornton played both pieces: Wolfgang’s Third Horn Concerto and Leopold’s Sinfonia Pastorella, a silly work written for a “corno pastorito,” referring to some sort of shepherd’s horn but here played on the insanely long Alphorn.

Thornton delivered the son’s Horn Concerto with solid tone and technique as Feddeck and a reduced ensemble provided sympathetic accompaniment. All of the wit and charm of the piece emerged effortlessly.

Thornton’s return to the stage drew oohs, ahhs, and chuckles as he proudly strode in, sporting a bright blue Swiss mountaineer’s jacket with wide-brimmed felt hat, his 11-foot Alphorn balanced nimbly on his shoulder. A few warm-up notes, showing the range of this ungainly length of hollowed-out wood, and Thornton dove into Leopold’s Sinfonia. The outer two movements cleverly disguise the fact that Mozart père called for only four solo notes (a G-major triad with a D tossed in below) of the instrument’s nearly three-octave range.

This may not have been an impeccable, clam-less reading, but the soloist showed that he knows his way around this concert-hall rarity (he owns two Alphorns, by the way, because you never know when you might need a spare). For their minimal duties, Feddeck and his string ensemble provided decent support, impressively refraining from breaking into laughter over this whole affair. Incidentally, Leopold’s short Andante mercifully excludes the soloist.

After competently assaying his way around the four notes of the outer movements, Thornton received a standing ovation, perhaps out of admiration for his courage in playing the darned thing, the applause continuing as he handsomely hoisted it over his shoulder and made his exit. It’s unlikely, however, that anyone was clamoring for another encounter with Thornton’s extended wooden friend.

In case you’re wondering, the Alphorn was created as a way for Swiss shepherds to communicate with each other among the peaks and valleys of the Alps. It may be a rarity in these parts (even with the Rocky Mountains not far off), but playing the instrument is still a big deal in Switzerland, where some 25,000 Alphornists reside. Now you know.

Marc Shulgold served for 12 years at the Los Angeles Times with Pulitzer Prize-winning music critic Martin Bernheimer, and more recently, for 22 years as Music and Dance Writer at the Rocky Mountain News. He is currently a teacher, program annotator, freelance writer and lecturer in Denver.