The phrase "nontraditional classical" seems like an oxymoron, but that description fits Boise State's Classic Performances series to a tee.
The series opened Saturday night with Jim Turpen on saxophone—a rarity in the classical music world—and it was a huge hit.
Now in its 11th year, the Classic Performances Series was established to provide mostly classical concerts by visiting soloists and ensembles at prices students can afford.
The price part hasn't changed. Season tickets for the five-concert series are $25, or individual tickets are $5 for students, $8 for Boise State faculty and staff, and $12 for adults, making the series one of the best performing arts buys in Boise.
What has changed is the idea of classical.
"I was looking for classical concerts that are outside the classical boundaries in either repertoire or instruments," explained Holly Gilchrist, now in her third year as fine arts manager of the Student Union.
For the first decade, the series offered more traditional music, i.e. Beethoven, Brahms and Mozart performed on instruments more typical of classical music. Those concerts sold out, but few students attended. Since student attendance was a primary goal, and because student fees helped to pay for the series, there was a problem.
"Besides," Gilchrist continued, "there are other venues on campus where students can attend traditional classical concerts."
At the Morrison Center, the music department presents concerts by its faculty and students that are free to students, and the Boise Chamber Music Society presents free "Morning Music," conversation-concerts designed for students and families by the world-famous ensembles that perform for the society the previous Friday night. Also in the Morrison Center, Boise Philharmonic offers $10 student tickets sold the night of the concert, and the university's symphony orchestra concerts are free to students.
To find acts she can afford and that would "tantalize" students, Gilchrist attends booking conferences during which concert presenters see a variety of performers. She also seeks feedback from the audience and from faculty, staff and students.
The Classic Performances brochure describes the series as "an eclectic blend of tradition and today," and by all appearances, that's what Gilchrist has found. There are no black ties and tails here. The musicians, most in their 20s and 30s, are photographed in modern urban settings and dressed in contemporary clothing. The performers include Scott Turpen; a pianist focusing on 20th century American music; a French horn, trumpet and piano trio; a string quartet of minority musicians performing music by minority composers; and four women performing on numerous types of recorders.
Turpen, Saturday night's star soloist, was born in Nampa and is a graduate of the Boise State music department. He attended the University of Georgia for his Masters and Doctor of Musical Arts in saxophone performance. While at Boise State, he came to the attention of Marcellus Brown, conductor of the University Symphonic Winds, who recommended this performance.
I've attended classical concerts regularly for more than 40 years, but this was my first saxophone recital. The performance of 20th century classical modernism managed to bring the audience to its feet with a cheering ovation.
No matter what he played, Turpen's saxophone sang, wept or keened with the expressive range of color and the control of a great violin or viola player.
Pianist Theresa Bogard was more than an accompanist, but rather a collaborator in some very complex and profoundly moving music, Turpen explained to the audience.
After the concert, Bogard showed me the musical score to some of the passages in which, after a long pause, an intricate explosion of notes has to be played in unison with the saxophone.
This and other challenges abound in William Albright's 1984 Sonata, a piece that Bogard warned the audience beforehand would not be an easy listen. Anguished, outraged and violent, the atonal music aims for the gut. Written as a lament for the death of a fellow composer, the saxophonist is directed at one point to turn his back to the audience and play into the piano with lid raised, like a mourner at an open casket.
The works of two French composers lightened things up, with warm and sultry Gershwin- and Ravel-like melodies by Alfred Desenclos, and the zippy three-movement Divertimento of Roger Boutry.
Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos is famous for unusual sounds and rhythmic power, and his Fantasia was played true to form. Closing the program was a two-movement sonata by American Robert Muczynski in which "Allegro energico" jolted the audience into an upbeat finale of an evening of discovery of the saxophone, usually found in bands and jazz combos, which in the hands of Turpen, is immensely powerful and expressive on the concert stage.
The next performance in the Classic Performances is pianist Anthony de Mare on Saturday, Oct. 11. For more information, visit finearts.boisestate.edu.