The Colorado Music Festival has never shied from daring programming or bold ventures. Now in its 45th year, the six-week summer concert series at Chautauqua Auditorium has seen Herculean feats like a full Beethoven symphony cycle in a week, or one pianist performing all five Rachmaninoff piano-orchestral works in two days.

Those were among the memorable highlights of former music director Michael Christie’s long and transformative tenure from 2001 to 2013. Now music director emeritus, Christie will return to conduct a concert midway through the festival’s 2023 season, which opens June 29. The festival begins and ends with world-renowned violinist Joshua Bell, who serves as artist-in-residence.

“I’ve known him since he was 14,” music director Peter Oundjian says of the festival’s virtuosic headliner. “We’ve always stayed in touch, and when I heard about a significant and highly original multi-composer commission, I talked to him about possibly doing a preview with us.”

Called The Elements, each of the five concerto-like movements (Fire, Ether, Water, Air and Earth) was written by a prominent contemporary composer: Jake Heggie, Jessie Montgomery, Edgar Meyer, Jennifer Higdon and Kevin Puts.

Oundjian scheduled The Elements for the two closing concerts on August 3 and 6, pairing the first three pieces with Claude Debussy’s La Mer and the last two with Gustav Mahler’s shortest symphony, the First. Bell plays Max Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1 at the concert, repeated June 30, which closes with Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition in Maurice Ravel’s brilliant orchestration.

Oundjian has also invited a composer-in-residence, devoting an entire concert program to works by the great John Corigliano. “As popular as John is, he has never had this happen,” Oundjian says. “When we did it for Joan Tower two years ago, she said [the same thing]. I love that we can do things that others wouldn’t.”

Three phases of Corigliano’s career will be represented July 13, starting with his 1974 Gazebo Dances. Written for the 10th anniversary of 9/11, One Sweet Morning features mezzo-soprano Kelley O’Connor. Triathlon, a concerto for saxophone written in 2020, is played by Timothy McAllister. The composer will attend. “It’s important to treat established living composers as we would Beethoven and Brahms,” Oundjian says.

To that end, the festival includes a full evening of world premieres on July 16. Oundjian commissioned composer Adolphus Hailstork to write a work commemorating John F. Kennedy’s last speech on October 26, 1963, joining a book and documentary on the same theme. The concert also celebrates the 125th anniversary of the Colorado Chautauqua with new commissions by CU Boulder composition professor Carter Pann and his former student Jordan Holloway.

Rachmaninoff in America

Many organizations are highlighting Sergei Rachmaninoff’s 150th birthday in 2023. The CMF focuses on the Russian composer’s works written after his 1918 emigration to the United States. Two programs feature pianist Nicolai Lugansky, whose playing is described by Oundjian as “the closest thing to hearing Rachmaninoff himself play.”

“One thing that moves me about Rachmaninoff is that he became a U.S. citizen four weeks before his death,” Oundjian says. An immigrant himself who was born in Canada and spent much of his career in the U.K., Oundjian felt pride and gratitude in becoming a U.S. citizen and imagines that Rachmaninoff felt the same thing.

Lugansky plays the legendary Third Piano Concerto on July 6 and 7, paired with the little-heard Third Symphony. On July 9, the pianist takes on the less-familiar Fourth Concerto and the ever-popular Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, considered the “fifth concerto.” Oundjian closes that program with the composer’s last work, the Symphonic Dances.

The festival’s fourth and fifth weeks are directed by four guest conductors, beginning with Christie’s program July 20 and 21. Anchored by Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s fate-driven Fourth Symphony, the concert includes pianist Michelle Cann playing Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G Major and the one-movement concerto by African American composer Florence Price.

Eun Sun Kim of South Korea, music director designate of the San Francisco Opera and one of today’s most prominent woman conductors, appears July 27 and 28 with the expansive Second Symphony by Johannes Brahms. Performing with Kim is one of the few true superstar cellists, Johannes Moser, playing Dmitri Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No. 1. Rhapsody of Steve Jobs by contemporary electro-acoustic composer Mason Bates opens the concert.

Conductor François López-Ferrer and violinist Grace Park present an all-Mozart program July 23. Oundjian describes Park’s Mozart as “stunning.” She plays the Third Violin Concerto, paired with the “Linz” Symphony (No. 36) and two shorter pieces. On July 30, conductor Hannu Lintu opens with a work by fellow Finn Einojuhani Rautavaara, Cantus Arcticus, with Robert Schumann’s Piano Concerto played by Tony Siqu Yun and the “Miracle” Symphony (No. 96) by Joseph Haydn.

The Robert Mann Chamber Music Series, named for one of Oundjian’s mentors, takes its traditional place on Tuesday nights, starting with two guest string quartets. The JACK Quartet, which specializes in 20th and  21st-century music, plays July 11, with the more traditional Brentano Quartet following July 18. Concerts with CMF musicians in various combinations are July 25 and August 1.

Oundjian first became famous as part of the Tokyo String Quartet, not as a conductor, so chamber music is essential to him. “We want to make it a special and carefully formulated series with a lot of variety,” he says. “The guest groups take pressure off our own musicians, and we still get to spotlight our great players in a range of exciting combinations.”

ON THE BILL: The Colorado Music Festival 2023 season opener with Joshua Bell. 7:30 p.m. Thursday, June 29 and 6:30 p.m. Friday, June 30, Chautauqua Auditorium, 900 Baseline Rd. Tickets and full schedule through Aug. 6 here.

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