CFO returning to mark 20th year

By JOSEPH DALTON, Special to the Times Union
First published: Sunday, June 15, 2008

Under the leadership of Gwen Gould, the Columbia Festival Orchestra has made good on the “festival” part of its name. Its concerts are often celebratory, but also festive in the sense that they are occasional occurrences.

My first exposure to the group was covering what was to be its final concert — a well-played and interesting program of Bach, Mendelssohn, Britten and Part in November 2003. The event drew a capacity crowd to St. James Church in Chatham and prompted Gould to privately wonder, “Where were all these folks earlier?”

Over the prior 15 years, the flexibly sized ensemble performed at least a few times every year and at a variety of venues including the Shaker Museum and Library in Old Chatham and Tanglewood’s Ozawa Hall. But mounting financial shortfalls demanded that the group cease operations.

Gould, 65, did not rest long and in 2005 helped to start Diamond Opera Theatre of Hudson. But it’s hard to shed the conducting bug and when Chatham’s nascent summer arts center P.S. 21 wanted to put on a Leonard Bernstein tribute last July, she stepped up to the plate and onto the podium, reviving the CFO for two performances of orchestral and vocal selections from “West Side Story” and “Candide.”

“We received lots of comments, like ‘glad you’re back,’ but most excited were the members of the orchestra,” says Gould. Among the returning regulars were Susan St. Amour, viola, and Steven Walt, bassoon, both principals of the Albany Symphony Orchestra, and Benjamin Harms, a percussionist with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra.

Gould says that the connections with people — musicians, audiences, patrons — have been some of the greatest benefits of having the orchestra.

Like so many others in Columbia County, she and her husband started out as weekenders from New York City. The couple founded a computer and consulting firm on Wall Street in 1978, which they continue to manage, although they relocated full-time upstate six years ago.

The orchestra’s connection to P.S. 21 came about through Gould’s long friendship with its founder and president Judy Grunberg, a long-time supporter of the CFO.

The notion of a Bernstein concert for P.S. 21’s fourth season occurred to the pair because last year was the 50th anniversary of the Broadway premiere of “West Side Story.”

The CFO will rise again this summer at P.S. 21 with concerts celebrating the 20th anniversary of its founding on Saturday and Sunday, July 26 and 27. The program will include Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 1 “Classical,” and the Beethoven Seventh, plus Barber’s “Knoxville: Summer 1915” with the young local soprano Chanel Wood. There will also be a premiere, Prelude to a New Theatre by David Grunberg, who’s a young New York City composer and conductor and also Judy Grunberg’s son.

As usual with Gould, she’s making the event into more than just another outdoor concert; there will also be an educational aspect for young players. The program known as “Take a Seat …” allows instrumental students from elementary though high school age to work with mentors from the CFO and be a part of the rehearsals and the concert performances of the Grunberg piece.

The program runs for three days and is free for participants.

Whether she’s seeking young musicians or generous donors, it’s typical of Gould to be drawing more people into the process of making music and sharing a vision.

“We’re into dreams, all of us,” she says. “It was my dream to start the orchestra and it’s been very satisfying.” For more information on the CFO, its education program, and Gould’s myriad other musical endeavors, go to her Web site: http://www.

The Times Union, Monday, November 3, 2003
By JOSEPH DALTON, Special to the Times Union
Columbia orchestra shines in swan song

CHATHAM — A capacity crowd filled the sanctuary of St. James Church in Chatham to hear the final concert of the Columbia Festival Orchestra. Last month, the board of this 15-year-old endeavor announced that it must cease operations due to persistent financial shortfalls. It was a strong program to go out with, and that made the evening all the more poignant.

Though dubbed an orchestra, the group performed in various guises for three or four concerts a year. On Saturday, an ensemble of 18 strings played with verve and clarity.

Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins in D minor featured the noted Ani Kavafian and her student Conrad Chow. They made for a good partnership as they traded the interlocking lines, and the whole was ornate and satisfying.

Arvo Part’s “Tabula Rasa” felt like a long meditation. Along with the same two soloists, the score also called for prepared piano, which was played by Sheila Silver, the CFO’s composer in residence. The slow, repetitive structure and the bell-like gongs of the piano gave it an exotic religious feel that was underscored by the church setting. The violinists stood on either side of the central altar with the conductor and orchestra behind it.

Juvenile but not unsophisticated works of Mendelssohn and Britten made up the balance of the program. In Mendelssohn’s String Symphony No. 10, which opened the evening, the lower strings seemed to lose their way near the end, marring the tuning of the final cadences. A highlight in Britten’s “Simple Symphony” was the second movement, which was all plucked or strummed. Though much of the writing chattered on a bit, the performance was engaging.

Gwen Gould, the CFO’s founder and driving force, is not a showy conductor, and her background in choral music seems obvious. Her gestures are high and not broad, but she seemed to never miss a cue and was clear in her tempos. Though her range of expression was modest, the ensemble was very well prepared and communicated the emotional and stylistic breadth of the well-selected program.

Local violinist and composer Jay Unger joined the CFO for an encore, his “Ashokan Farewell.” Though its tender, unadorned writing was a sharp contrast to the evening’s sophisticated program, it felt right nonetheless.

After such an exemplary and well-received concert as this, let’s hope we’ve not actually heard the last from Gould and her players.

When: 8 p.m. Saturday
Where: St. James Church, Chatham
Length: Two hours 20 minutes
The crowd: 250 appreciative listeners of all ages

The Independent, Friday, November 7, 2003

THE SWAN-SONG CONCERT of the Columbia Festival Orchestra at St. James Church in Chatham last Saturday left us both saddened and enthusiastic.

The orchestra, under the gifted leadership of Gwen Gould, is “suspending” operations, ending school programs as well as its concerts after 15 years of continuous operation. Times are tough for organizations like the CFO. Public support has dwindled and private funding has tracked the economic downturn. The demise of this remarkable enterprise is a significant loss to the county.

The audience for classical music in Columbia County (and nationwide) skews decidedly toward middle-age and older judging from Saturday’s crowd. Not many kids have Bach on the Walkman…or would admit to it if they did. Now, even fewer young people will hear this music, so central to our cultural roots. They’ll miss out on the joy from watching as well as hearing symphonic music performed.

It’s not our place here to act as music critic, but we found the farewell concert so sublime we’re tempted to call it way cool. That makes us hope the creative people behind CFO can resurrect the orchestra’s school programs along with some concerts, perhaps on a more limited scale, perhaps in conjunction with some other organization, but somehow.

Whether or not that happens, the Columbia Festival Orchestra has enriched the life of Columbia County. Ms. Gould, the musicians and the board deserve every measure of the standing ovation they received Saturday night.

COMPASS, Thursday, September 26, 2002
by Peter Marshall

Gould had brought with her a fine group of professional string players to an acoustically friendly spot for chamber orchestras [St. James Church, Chatham, NY]. It is quite surprising that this string symphony [Mendelssohn], which is quite a mature work, is not heard more frequently. The final movement (allegro molto) begins in a style reminiscent of Johann Sebastian Bach, before turning typically to the sound of early Mendelssohn. The slow movement is classical in its sound. It was nicely balanced and Gould obtained some lovely coloring from the strings.

…Violin Concerto No. 5 in A, K. 261. It is scored in the E-major key, one Mozart used very rarely. [Arnold] Steinhardt and Gould gave it the proper festive reading.

The surprise of the evening was the inclusion of Sheila Silver’s “Fantasy on an Imaginary Folk Song,” which she wrote in 1999 in memory of Sam Baron, a well-known flutist. Originally written for flute and harp solo, Silver has since orchestrated this composition. Here it received its world premiere in this form with flutist Laura Gilbert as soloist. The Fantasy is a beautiful work and very melodic. The musicians gave it a very moving reading.

Berkshire Record, October 20, 2000
by Simon Wainrib

..a most enjoyable climax. What we heard here was [Kenneth] Cooper’s transcription of the [Mozart] aria’s soprano part for Paula’s [Robison] flute, while handling himself the piano, thus creating a sort of double concerto for flute, piano and orchestra.

As performed by those two masters of their instruments, the whole thing was a virtuoso performance and a delightful piece of musical whimsy. While Paula twittered and emoted, at once wildly irate and wildly amorous, Kenneth stroked the keys with ornate runs and swooning trills, like gentle caresses.

It was Mozart at the keyboard thanking his pretty diva for a job well done and perhaps for something more.

…what a lovely echo to ring in your ears as you walked out into the crisp autumn night, a full moon wryly smiling overhead.

Berkshire Record, October 22. 1999
By Simon Wainrib

With the First Beethoven Symphony we are still close to the Haydn model and that is how Gould treated the music. Keeping it light and fluffy, she offered a perfect bookend to the Prokofiev opus with, ensconced between the two, the Barber Concerto that stood out with all its romantic fervor and fever but also its charm and grace manifestly on display….The heroine of the performance was, obviously, Ani Kavafian, who delivered it with the assured intensity that is the hallmark of her artistry and personality.

The rousing ovation that followed was repeated at the end of the evening by a gratified audience, who may also have expressed a hearty “welcome” and “come again” to our neighbors across the state line.

Compass, October 21, 1999
by Peter Marshall
Gould at Ozawa Hall Makes Off Season Shine

“The evening’s guest artist was Ani Kavafian…the soloist in Barber’s Violin Concerto, Op. 14….she brought a lively reading with a whirlwind tempo to the Finale and received splendid support from Ms. Gould and the CFO, making this a most satisfying performance.”

“Both the tension and the relaxation of the symphony’s [Beethoven’s 1st] first movement were clearly stated by Ms. Gould who directed her musicians with authority. ….The ragged attacks and the mixes of the woodwinds and strings were nicely interpreted in this early Beethoven symphony …a good ending to this concert.”

Berkshire Record, May 8, 1998
by Simon Wainrib

“Gwen Gould and her Columbia Festival Orchestra have been a prominent force for the enhancement of the classical music scene in Columbia County.”

“The audience’s lively applause was more than a show of gratitude for some excellent music-making: it also expressed, for Gwen Gould and the Columbia Festival Orchestra, a warm welcome…and surely a wish to deepen the acquaintance in the future.”

Compass, May 7, 1998
by Peter Marshall

“The program was quite imaginative…(flutist) Wincenc’s superb control of her instrument, matching her beautiful sound projections with those of the harp, added considerable eloquence to this very fine performance.”

Letter, September, 1997
by David Amram, composer and conductor

“The Columbia Festival Orchestra and the exciting music created by the tremendous musicians who travel wide and far to work with multi-talented Gwen Gould are a cause for rejoicing.

This delightful festival is what music needs – great performances, great audiences and a continual sense of joy.

Bravo and long life!”

The Independent, June 26, 1997

“North Pointe may not yet be a match for Tanglewood, but the Columbia Festival Orchestra doesn’t play second fiddle to anyone.”

from an unpublished review, July, 1996
By Kenneth Cooper, harpsichordist, conductor

“With her splendid Columbia Festival Orchestra, she [Gwen Gould] mounted “Salute to America ’96” and deserves praise for her courage, adventure and canny sense for summer entertainment.”

“The rhythms and textures of this delightful score [Stravinsky’s Pulcinella] sparked like fireworks, largely due to some spectacular wind-playing, especially by oboist Henry Schuman and bassoonist Stephen Walt. The “Vivo” section was a standout: bassists Peter Weitzner and Richard Ostrovsky and trombonist Larry Witmer proved that a delicious transcription, as much realizing as defying “authenticity,” can put on the map a nice but harmless Pergolesi cello sonata. Ms. Gould’s lively and easy-going approach to this score had this writer recalling Stravinsky’s smile as he had his own playful and casual way with it.“

“A group of lovely Shaker songs, sung enthusiastically by the Occasional Chorale, alternated with some “updated versions” for brass quintet by the Vermont composer Gwyneth Walker. These “character pieces”, well-written for brass, generated a spectacular performance by Allan Dean, Mark Gould, Kaitlin Mahony, Larry Witmer and Andrew Rodgers.”

“A salute to Gwen Gould and the Columbia Festival Orchestra and to her Salutes to America.”

Chorale, March, 1993
by R. Schartoff

“The 44-member West Village Chorale, under the baton of its founder Gwen Gould, gave a secure and very entertaining performance of Handel’s Judas Maccabaeus …and John Rutter’s Magnificat, with the skilled backing of soprano Elizabeth Hendreckson-Farnum and what Gould calls her passion: the Columbia Festival Orchestra. Together they presented a “joyous celebration” of two works, that although written 250 years apart, seemed ideally juxtaposed for this concert. … a thoroughly enjoyable evening.”

The Times Union, October 6, 1992
by Ron Emery

“Gould led a secure, loving performance of Copland’s sweet score [Appalachian Spring Suite], full as it is of difficult rhythms and quirky phrases.”

The Independent, August 7, 1990
by Peter Marshall

“The collaboration among conductor, orchestra and soloist was good. …made this a fine performance of the last concerto [clarinet] Mozart composed.”

“Ms. Gould’s approach to Copland’s 13-instrument version of the Appalachian Spring Suite was more mellow. She took the tempos of most of the suite’s parts a little slower than usual. But this was not disturbing. It was an honest approach – a matter of taste – with full comprehension of the score.”

The Independent, August 7, 1989
by Peter Marshall

“This melodious three-movement gem [Mozart’s Serenata Notturna] was presented with just the proper tempi.”

Ms. Gould’s orchestral accompaniment [Bach’s Cantata #82] was most sensitive and considerate of the soloist [Jan Opalach, bass].”

The Times Union, August 7, 1989
by Ron Emery

“Really a double concerto for voice and oboe, Ich habe genug [Bach’s Cantata #82] featured some extraordinarily beautiful oboe playing by Joel Evans. Conductor Gould and Opalach risked a lot in a rather quick tempo right at the opening, but everyone managed the final, exultant Ich freue mich with just the right sense of a combination of joy and relief. It was a memorable performance.”

“Conductor Gould knew all evening what she wanted.”