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Headquartered back in town, group presents transformative music

The Boulder Symphony has returned from its Front Range migration.

Having travelled through several other communities, the county’s community orchestra is back in Boulder with music director Devin Patrick Hughes. They will play “Transcendental Metamorphosis,” a concert featuring music of Charles Ives, Arvo Pärt, Brahms and Denver’s Conrad Kehn, at 7 p.m. Saturday in the First Presbyterian Church in Boulder.

The orchestra was founded in 1992 as the Boulder Community Orchestra. Later they moved out of Boulder, changed the name to Timberline Symphony, and eventually settled in Niwot.

Two years ago, the orchestra came full circle when it found a home at the First Presbyterian Church in Boulder. Almost all members are unpaid, except for the string section principals and the music director.

The 2011-12 season is called “The Season of Transformation.” This idea takes two forms over the course of the year: music that is in some way about transformations, including death and rebirth; and music that is stylistically transformative.

For the first category, the concert on Saturday includes Ives’ mystical masterpiece The Unanswered Question and Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten by Pärt.

Music of stylistic change is represented through the season by Brahms: the choral work Nänie and the Serenade No. 2 for small orchestra on earlier concerts and the Fourth Symphony on Saturday. Combing both programming threads, the season will close with Brahms’ German Requiem.

Brahms is often regarded as a conservative figure in the 19th century: He embraced traditional forms and rejected the more radical ideas of his time. And yet, “I think he changed the whole course of music history,” Hughes says. “He was accessing realms that other composers could never imagine. There’s no piece that’s more indicative of this than the Fourth Symphony.”

Among the more radical aspects of the Fourth, Hughes listed the minor-key ending — “a full out-and-out tragedy that does not redeem itself ” — at a time when minor-key works were expected to switch to the major in order to end triumphantly (think Beethoven’s Fifth).

Also unexpected in the Romantic era was the use of the antique passacaglia form for the finale, a kind of theme and variations built on an unchanging bass line. This was an uncharacteristically austere gesture for a symphony, and one that reflected Brahms’ extensive knowledge of older music.

Pärt wrote his Cantus in 1978, when he learned that composer Benjamin Britten had died. “The strings start very quietly and they just simply do a descending A-minor scale,” Hughes explains.

“It crescendos for about six minutes into triple forte, all a descent into the darkest bottoms of human existence, with an orchestral chime on A the whole time. Right before the end the bell dings one last time, and when the strings cut off, you hear the overtone of the bell, which is very redeeming.”

This unexpectedly positive ending suggests that the piece is truly about transformation, from death to the possibility of rebirth.

The transcendentalism of the concert’s title comes from Ives’ Unanswered Question. “Ives considered himself a transcendentalist,” Hughes says. “The piece asks the rhetorical question of why are we here.

“It asks the question with the trumpet. The strings are the ‘druids’ of this whole existence: they have beautifully tonal lines and harmonies. And the flutes are mocking the question with extremely dissonant harmonies. By the end you can see their mocking transforming into complete gibberish.”

The final work on the program is the world premiere of Playgrosso: Concerto for Playground and Orchestra by Kehn, founding director of Playground Ensemble. A group of professional musicians who are artists-in-residence at the University of Denver’s Lamont School of Music, Playground comprises 14 musicians performing a variety of instruments.

As the title playfully suggests, Playgrosso is a revival of the Baroque concerto grosso for multiple soloists with orchestra. A “grosso” is a form in which a musical theme is passed from the soloists to the orchestra.

“We were trying to figure out how can we bridge these two groups together,” Hughes says. “We thought that we could feature some of their musicians up front, and have the rest be comprised of the Boulder Symphony, and that would be a cool way to have both groups together.”

Playgrosso features three members of Playground as soloists: Brian Ebert on bass clarinet, Reggie Berg on piano and Sarah Johnson on violin. The score includes some contemporary techniques including aleatory (use of chance in music) and wind instruments making percussive sounds, along with more traditional sections for the soloists and for the orchestra.

Since it’s a completely new piece, it’s a little early to know if Playgrosso will be transformative. But in keeping with the Playground Ensemble’s name, it certainly sounds like fun.