Symphony in the Valley tackles Beethoven Triple Threat |

Symphony in the Valley tackles Beethoven Triple Threat

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Christopher TomlinsonSymphony in the Valley artistic director Carlos Elias performs an all-Beethoven program with the local orchestra Friday in Glenwood Springs, and Saturday at Aspen's Wheeler Opera House.

ASPEN – The last time the Symphony in the Valley played a concert of its own at Aspen’s Wheeler Opera House, the program included the Suite from “Star Wars” and “Disney Medley,” alongside Dvorak’s “Humoresque” and Bach’s Concerto in D minor for Two Violins. It was part of Symphony in the Valley’s Young People’s Concert series, with the spotlight shining in part on teenage soloists. The orchestra was in just its third season.

And it was a long time ago, more than 13 years in the past, which leaves Carlos Elias, the artistic director of the Glenwood Springs-based group, slightly concerned.

“People have the image of the orchestra from when it was just starting,” Elias said from his home in Grand Junction.

That perception may linger, but Symphony in the Valley has taken substantial strides forward. Much of that is simply a matter of experience. Over 16 years, the orchestra has played up to five concerts a year, gaining expertise in swing music, pops, patriotic American tunes for the Fourth of July, and the core European classical repertoire, including an opera, “Amahl and the Night Visitors.” And, it returned to the Wheeler three years ago to perform as part of the John Denver Tribute Concerts.

Last year, Symphony in the Valley switched up its leadership. Wendy Larson, who had been conducting the orchestra since its second year, stepped down from the podium. Picking up the baton was Elias, a native of El Salvador who earned an artist diploma from Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, spent four years playing violin in a Japanese orchestra, and has been director of the orchestra and strings department at Mesa State University for the last decade. Larson had prepared Symphony in the Valley for its next step, and the 43-year-old Elias has come in with a mission to lead the organization upward.

“Wendy took us to a level that we were able to then go on,” Deborah Barnekow, the principal oboist, said. “And the hand-off was a smooth one. Some people were surprised to find that, lo and behold, they could play the literature he was asking us to play.”

When Symphony in the Valley performs at the Wheeler on Saturday, Dec. 5, one big change will be in the nature of the literature they play. It is an all-Beethoven program, comprising the Symphony No. 8 in F Major and the Triple Concerto in C Major for Violin, Piano and Cello. Soloists for the concerto are pianist Andrea Arese-Elias, Carlos’ wife; cellist Susan Salm, of the Raphael Trio; and Elias on violin. Kirk Gustafson, music director of the Grand Junction Symphony, will guest conduct.

The orchestra is no stranger to the music of Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms and Bach; in fact, all of those composers have made appearances on Symphony in the Valley programs. But often, the orchestra played arrangements of the pieces – simplified versions of the original compositions. Under Elias, audiences can expect to hear the music the way it was first envisioned.

“I’m used to doing the real things,” said Elias, who opened his Symphony in the Valley tenure last fall with From Germany With Love, a program of Schubert, Strauss and Beethoven. “I’m used to doing what the composers meant to have done, not an easier version of it. When we play the Beethoven Symphony, it will be just like it would be performed by the Colorado Symphony – same instrumentation, same everything.”

Elias recognizes that, as the head of a community orchestra, he must allow for some compromises. The orchestra members are not professionals working for a paycheck, nor are they students earning a grade and a degree. “In a community orchestra, you’re at the mercy of their commitment,” he said. “Sometimes they have their own life and can’t make it to every rehearsal. It’s all about the commitment and love for the instrument and the music.”

Elias, who has never led a community orchestra before, looks to find a balance between challenging the orchestra and overwhelming it. He seems to be hitting the right chord. Barnekow said a few musicians departed in the last year – there are about 50 members left – and she said the overall level of satisfaction is high.

“He really stretches us, and that’s a good thing,” she said. “Carlos is pulling us along.”

“We’ve been gradually trying to do pieces that make them step up,” Elias said. “If you push them, they will step up and perform, rise to the challenge. And they’ve done very well. And it’s worth it to try.

“A lot of the musicians, a lot of the time, they say, ‘Wow, you really want us to work.’ But I love to work. I’m not going to drive all the way to Glenwood not to have fun.”

Elias points out that, regarding Beethoven symphonies, he was careful to select the Eighth, after also considering the First. He wasn’t going to try the tougher, grander Ninth.

“If you don’t do justice to the music, what’s the purpose?” he said. “So I’m careful not to go overboard. You want to grow, but at the same time, perform at a good level.”

Given Elias’ vision for Symphony in the Valley, it might not be too far in the future that the orchestra tests itself with even more rigorous material.

“There is potential for the orchestra,” he said.

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