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Symphony in the Valley performs in Snowmass, Glenwood

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Chad Spangler Post Independent
ALL |

GLENWOOD SPRINGS ” The Glenwood Springs-based Symphony in the Valley introduces its new artistic director and conductor with a concert program straight from the wellspring of classical music. From Germany with Love, to be performed this weekend in Snowmass Village and Glenwood Springs, features works by Beethoven, Schubert and Johann Strauss II ” all from the rich Germanic tradition that spanned the 18th and 19th century.

Symphony in the Valley’s new leader, however, comes from well off the beaten track, at least as classical music is concerned. Carlos Elias is a native of El Salvador, and received his training, well into his teens, in the Central American country. It is a place, says the 42-year-old, where “the cumbia, the salsa, is big. But classical music is not big.”

Still, it turned out to be a pretty great place for someone like Elias. His mother was a music lover, with a particular fondness for the piano. She had a desire to study, but when her conservative father discovered that the music school she planned to attend had young girls learning side-by-side with boys, he nixed the idea. “But she had it in her mind that her kids would study music,” said Elias.

When Carlos was 5, his mother kept her vow, and sent him to the National Center of Arts in San Salvador, the capital city and the family’s hometown. Thanks to the government support of the school, there is no tuition, and thanks to the relatively paltry interest in classical music in El Salvador, virtually any child who cares to attend may do so.

“A lot of people don’t take advantage of the school,” said the 42-year-old Elias from his home in Grand Junction, where he has lived and worked as director of the orchestra and strings program at Mesa State College, since 1999. “They don’t think of classical music. Nobody thinks of music as a profession.”

Elias first thought ” or, more accurately, his mother thought ” he would begin with piano. But 5-year-old hands were considered too small for the instrument, so he was pointed in the direction of the strings department, where the Suzuki training technique had just been introduced. Elias headed straight for the cellos: “The teacher told us to get the instrument you want to play. I ran and grabbed the cello; I was so happy to play this big instrument,” he recalled. But a girl in the class who had been given a violin began crying because she wanted a cello, and Elias grudgingly swapped instruments.

Not only was the education free, and freely available, but, in Elias’ eyes, it was quite good. “The nice thing about the National Center of Arts is there’s a school that goes parallel to the regular school,” he said, noting that he supplemented his education with workshops and master classes in Costa Rica and the U.S. “So we have theory, harmony, music history. It’s like a conservatory type of training.”

Elias joined the El Salvador National Symphony Orchestra at 16, and was hooked on music as a career. “When I received my first paycheck, I said, ‘Hey, that’s not bad, getting paid for violin,'” he said.

Of course, there was quite a bit more education before he’d be collecting regular, substantial paychecks. Elias took a full scholarship to attend Biola University, a Christian school in Los Angeles, then earned a master’s degree from the University of Cincinnati. He spent four years playing in an orchestra in Japan, then returned to the States to earn an artist diploma from Duquesne University in Pittsburgh.

Elias doesn’t find his roots, far away from the centers of classical music, to have been a handicap. At Biola, he became concertmaster of the school’s orchestra in his second year, won several concerto competitions, and was first violin in a string quartet.

“The nice thing we had going for us, which you don’t have unless you’re paying privately, is we had all these classes ” theory, dictation,” he said. “When I went to Biola, I didn’t have many weaknesses. I just clicked in. I had a lot of experience. There wasn’t anything I was lacking. Except I hadn’t played piano.”

There was one other disadvantage he mentioned: El Salvador’s civil war, which, through the 1980s, interrupted almost all aspects of Salvadoran life, including the education of its music students. Elias remembers a prominent American musician arriving in San Salvador to guest-conduct. The day before the concert, a bomb exploded at the U.S. embassy, and the conductor left without making his scheduled appearance.

“When things got bad with the war, people stopped coming. It wasn’t a safe place for foreigners,” said Elias, who recalls earlier, when he was 7 or 8, getting particularly inspired by hearing a soloist from Colorado perform the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto in El Salvador.

Two weeks ago, Elias returned to El Salvador to appear as a soloist with the National Symphony Orchestra, playing Lalo’s Symphonie Espagnole. He says the accomplishments of the orchestra are good, but could be better with more resources. Specifically, he thought the musicians need to be paid better, so that the day jobs that are squeezed in between morning rehearsals and evening concerts could be eliminated. On the positive side, he noted that admission to all of the orchestra’s concerts were free, making classical music accessible to all.

– – – –

Elias first came to Colorado in 1988, to study for half a summer at the Aspen Music Festival. While at Duquesne, in the late ’90s, a colleague with connections in Grand Junction told him about the opening at Mesa State for an orchestra and strings professor. Recalling his four weeks in Aspen, Elias became interested in the job.

“To be honest, I didn’t know where Grand Junction was. I had to look it up on the map,” he said. “I expected what I had seen in Aspen ” mountains, green. But it’s more like Utah.”

Still, he has come to like his life in Grand Junction. He enjoys the small enrollment, of just 5,000 students, at Mesa State: “So we really know our students. We teach them and see them often,” he said. Perhaps more than anything, he enjoys the diversity of his activities. Apart from teaching both violin and viola, Elias conducts the Mesa State Orchestra, is concertmaster of the Grand Junction Symphony Orchestra, and plays in a duo and a trio with his wife, Argentinian-born pianist Andrea Arese-Elias. He travels to play music both close to home ” he participated in one Aspen Choral Society concert ” and far away ” he made his New York debut at Carnegie Hall’s Weill Hall in 2002, performing with his wife.

“In a big city, people in the symphony, the symphony is so big, that’s all you can concentrate on,” said Elias. “I get to conduct, play chamber music, teach.

“I feel like I’m the big fish in this pond. People appreciate what I do.”

This weekend, he adds another piece to his pie when he debuts as director and conductor of the 15-year-old Symphony in the Valley. The Elias era opens with concerts on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. at the Snowmass Chapel, and Sunday at 2 p.m. at the Glenwood Springs High School auditorium. The concerts feature Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony, Strauss’ “Emperor” Waltz, and Beethoven’s “Emperor” concerto. (The next round of concerts, in early December in Glenwood Springs and Parachute, is titled Tour of Europe, and includes works by composers from Russia (Tchaikovsky), Finland (Sibelius), Spain (Turina) and Italy (Mascagni)).

Of the Beethoven piece, Elias said it is one of his favorite works of music, and the soloist is one of his favorite collaborators ” his wife, a former Mesa State faculty member who now focuses on her own playing and her private studio. “I know how well she can play that piece. She’ll do very well on it,” said Elias, who conducted the “Emperor,” with his wife on piano, in Bulgaria in 2002. “It’s got grandeur. It’ll bring the big idea of the German concerto.”

Of Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony ” so called because it comprises just two movements ” Elias said, “It shows Schubert at his best. He was a great melodist; he knew how to write lines and phrases. He wrote over 600 songs.”

Elias said the program was chosen not only to highlight great works, but to put a spotlight on the orchestra. Among those who believe Elias will contribute significantly to the artistic growth of Symphony in the Valley is Wendy Larson, Elias’ predecessor, who led the orchestra for nearly all of its existence.

“He’s a wonderful, fine, fine musician. World-class,” said Larson, who tapped Elias to be a judge for Symphony in the Valley’s Young Artists Concerto Competition for several years. “And his personality ” he’s easy-going, kind of the perfect person for a community orchestra. Yet he can teach them so much. And a string player is so good for an orchestra ” if you don’t have strings, you don’t have an orchestra. I’m happy to have him as my successor. The orchestra’s in great hands, and he’ll do great things with them.”

For Elias, taking over Symphony in the Valley lends to his own growth; it marks the first time he will be responsible for the programming of an organization. And though it is in the smallest community he has ever been a part of, he is enthused about the idea of a community orchestra.

“The thing about a community orchestra, what appealed to me, is people do this because they want to do it. They’re excited about it,” he said. “Sometimes you don’t get that in professional orchestras. It’s their job, their paycheck, and that’s why they do it. In community orchestras, people really take it seriously.”


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