Pro Musica Colorado Chamber Orchestra: Mendelssohn Goes to Scotland
A Review by Robin McNeil
Maestra Cynthia Katsarelis, Edward Dusinberre, and the Pro Musica Colorado Chamber Orchestra are world class.
Every musician who has spent his life practicing 4 to 8 hours a day, and who goes out on stage, not only because he wants to perform, but because he has such a love for music that he needs to share it, is always striving for the perfect performance. He may play extremely well, and that is what keeps him at it, but anyone who has given more than ‘X’ number of concerts, is always striving for the perfect performance. Thankfully, in one’s lifetime, one may have twenty or thirty, or maybe more, performances such as that. However, if one has to work full-time, be it as a music faculty member, an orchestra musician, or a house painter, anything that takes away practice time can make the rewards of an “ultimate performance” few and far between.
Nonetheless, I heard an ultimate performance Saturday evening from the Pro Musica Colorado Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Maestra Cynthia Katsarelis, and featuring the violinist, Edward Dusinberre, who is on the faculty at CU Boulder, and a member of the Takács Quartet. I have heard hundreds of concerts in the United States and in Europe, and I can tell you that I have been mightily impressed with quite a few. But those concerts where something almost magical occurs on stage have been rare.
The Pro Musica Colorado Chamber Orchestra began their concert, subtitled Mendelssohn Goes to Scotland, Saturday evening with the Hebrides Overture in B minor, Opus 26.
Everyone knows who Mendelssohn was, but it still amazes me that when an average concert attendee is asked who the greatest genius of symphonic music was, the first composer that comes to mind is Mozart, and then perhaps Haydn, followed by Beethoven. There is no question that these composers stand at the very top of Mount Parnassus. But for some reason, most, but certainly not all, forget about Felix Mendelssohn (1809–1847). Keep in mind that when he was ten years old he began studying counterpoint and composition with Carl Friedrich Zelter. Zelter understood that Mendelssohn wished to write symphonies, so as practice toward that goal, he wrote thirteen string symphonies. Grasp that. When he was sixteen years old, he wrote what is still one of the most monumental chamber pieces the world has heard: the Octet for Strings in E flat Major, Opus 20. It unwraps itself like a Symphony, with counterpoint, and harmonic complexity. Its complexity comes from the fact that he uses all eight voices separately, and does not consider that he is writing for two string quartets. And there is so much more. He was not only a virtuoso composer; he was a virtuoso conductor, pianist, and violinist. And, since there were no cameras in his day, when he traveled, and he did so considerably, to show his family where he had been, he sketched and painted the scenery for the ones at home. See if you can find a book entitled The Early Romantic Era by Alexander Ringer, and look on page 26. There is a watercolor by Mendelssohn that he painted in Italy. He titled it View of Amalfi. With this painting, it is clear that he was also a virtuoso visual artist. Unfortunately, Mendelssohn died at the age of thirty-eight as a result of two strokes. His father and his sister also died of strokes. It would seem that the family had a defective gene that caused strokes.
In the opening Hebrides Overture, the low strings were absolutely superb, and it was abundantly clear that Maestra Cynthia Katsarelis had a concept of this piece which was far different from other live performances that I have heard. She treated it as if it were a huge symphonic work, which, in many ways it truly is. Think of it as a miniature symphonic poem. The crescendos and decrescendos in the phrases were perfectly together, note by note. Everyone in this orchestra is a remarkable musician, and it was obvious that they care very much about music. Their entrances were clean and precise. Every section in this overture, whether they are woodwinds, strings, brass, or timpani, has their moments. The woodwind section was absolutely outstanding. When everyone on stage is so excellent, it makes it difficult to mention them all, but this ensemble under Maestra Katsarelis’ leadership, has become such a cohesive group: there were thirty-seven musicians on stage but it was as if they were playing with a single mind. They all cared, to the same degree, about the particular detail they were trying to accomplish at any given moment. And, because of the counterpoint, there is so much detail work to be brought out. I can guarantee you that the Pro Musica and Katsarelis were supremely aware that this particular overture has some of the most beautiful melodic lines that Mendelssohn ever wrote, and everyone on stage shows the audience how those melodies overlap and are developed from each other. It was wonderful.
Following the Hebrides Overture, Edward Dusinberre joined the Pro Musica to perform Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in e minor, Op. 64. There are so many individuals who referred to this work as the “Mendelssohn Concerto,” without realizing that there were seven other violin concertos. Granted, it has become the one that is most performed. This concerto, which was begun in 1838, was not completed until 1844 because he was so very busy. In fact he was not even available to conduct its premiere; however, it was conducted by the very competent Danish composer, Niels Gade, with Mendelssohn’s Leipzig concertmaster, Ferdinand David, performing on the violin.
The minute Edward Dusinberre began to play I was struck by the beautiful sound of his violin. It was full and rich, and remarkably robust. I have never heard Dusinberre perform as a soloist before this concert, and I was impressed by the amount of passion and its control that infuses his playing of this particular piece. His playing is full of confidence, and the violinist has to truly be on his mettle in this work, because he has to start work in the second measure without any kind of lengthy orchestral introduction. What made this performance so amazing for me, was that this violin concerto is one of the mainstays of violin repertoire, so much so that its performance has become somewhat standardized. In some ways, some violinists approach this as if it were a show vehicle for their technical ability, and they have allowed it to become soulless. However, I can assure you that Edward Dusinberre performed this as if this was the first time he had ever played it, and I know that it was not. And yes, his technique is startling, but, so is his musicianship. The second theme of this first movement is in the flutes and clarinets, and, the Pro Musica has some of the best woodwind players in the state: Michelle Stanley and Olga Shylayeva, flute, and Daniel Silver and Jacob Beeman, clarinet.
It was obvious that Dusinberre was thoroughly enjoying himself in the cadenza: the high notes were never labored, and he reached them with great ease.
I have heard many violinists perform the second movement of this concerto as if they were bored, because they want to go on to the third movement in order to prove to the audience what wonderful technique they have. Being somewhat familiar with Edward Dusinberre’s playing, I would have been thunderstruck if he had fallen into this trap, but, of course, he did not. It was lush and warm with a great depth of tone, and it was a pleasure to hear and see someone truly enjoy what their instrument can produce.
As a pianist, I have often been intensely jealous of violinists, because they can embrace their instrument as they play, and I always had to work hard to embrace the piano just with my fingertips. But, you see, that is precisely how Dusinberre played: he was so obviously close to his instrument, and he was very close to the sound that it produced. He was also causing great effect in the Pro Musica orchestra, for I noticed how many of the orchestra members, when they were taking a few bars rest, were swaying with his phrasing, while smiling and relishing his musicianship. It almost made me think that they were hearing this concerto for the first time themselves. I assure you that this was a very fresh performance.
Mendelssohn begins the third movement of this concerto with the dotted rhythm in the brass, quite similar to a fanfare, except that it lasts only three beats. Following that dotted rhythm, the violin has a very short cadenza that covers an octave, but it goes by in a split second. Once again, Edward Dusinberre was smiling as he played, and it seemed that he was enjoying Mendelssohn’s playfulness.
I was quite startled by the tempo that was taken in the last movement, but, unlike some of the youthful virtuoso violinist’s that abound today, Dusinberre’s performance was full of depth and musicianship. He was proving that the value of musicianship can accompany technical ferocity, and there are so many violinists today, as I said above, who use this concerto as a vehicle for themselves and not the music. Maestro Dusinberre and Maestra Katsarelis received one of the most earnest and enthusiastic standing ovations that I have seen.
Following the intermission, the Pro Musica Chamber Orchestra performed Mendelssohn’s Symphony Nr. 3 in a minor, Opus 56. The introduction to this symphony, even though it is not overly long, can be divided into four sections: 1) the violins and oboe state the melody, 2) the violins soar with the clarinet in the center section, and 3) the violas and cellos and bass carry the melodic line, and 4) a short statement very similar to section 1, and then the allegro first movement. In section 2, the violins and sounded so incredibly sweet after the melancholy first section. Again Katsarelis infused this with such passion and intensity, and the orchestra knew exactly what she wanted. The third section was remarkable because the violas and cellos absolutely soared in precisely the same way that the violins had a few measures previously. And I would like to point out that Paul Erhard, who plays bass, made his instrument sound exactly like a cello. After these three sections, the allegro movement truly begins, and it seems rather sudden after the calm and somewhat melancholy introduction. The orchestra was simply excellent. My guess is that this is a difficult symphony to conduct, because it has very dense orchestration. The second movement is quite cheerful, and is marked Vivace non troppo. It is quite a contrast to the first movement, and unlike other scherzos, this one is in a sonata form. Once again Daniel Silver’s playing on the clarinet stood out. It has been several years since I have heard this symphony performed live and it was interesting to see how hard the orchestra members had to work. I stress again how cohesive this orchestra is and how they have united under Katsarelis’ direction. The third movement was plaintive and lyrical and wonderful. The fourth movement was astounding because it is so difficult. But the orchestra was totally together on every entrance and every phrase. It was full of vivacity and charm, and the combination of those two is not as difficult as you might imagine.
This entire performance, overture, concerto, and symphony, was a perfect example of what I was trying to express in the first paragraph of this article. Again, something tangible, and almost magical, took place on the stage Saturday evening, and it truly was as if every member of the orchestra had the same mind as the conductor and soloist. I was able to speak with members of the orchestra following the performance, and it was clear that they had felt it as well. With great confidence, I would put Saturday night’s performance in the stratosphere that belongs to any major orchestra you would care to mention. It was stunning.