Apotheosis of the Dance: Pro Musica Colorado
A preview by Betsy Schwarm
Theoretically, to be the ‘apotheosis of the dance,’ dancers should be involved. Not in this case! It’s an all-instrumental concert to be presented November 19 in Boulder by Pro Musica Colorado. However, when the program includes Beethoven’s Symphony no. 7, which Richard Wagner famously described as the “apotheosis of the dance” for its prominent dance rhythms, images of motion will likely come to mind. It then becomes the responsibility of the performers to fulfill expectations, and of the listeners to revel in what they shall hear.
Beethoven’s Seventh isn’t the entire Apotheosis of the Dance program. One single symphony suffices sometimes with Mahler, but the Beethoven is well less than an hour in length. Besides, most performers, and audience members, too, prefer a program that is not only somewhat longer, but also more varied – provided all the works fit together harmoniously. Pro Musica’s music director, Cynthia Katsarelis, recalls attending a Philadelphia Orchestra concert that matched music of Beethoven with that of African-American composer Florence Price. A century and an ocean separate the two composers, as do their different genders and ethnic backgrounds. Nonetheless, Katsarelis was struck by the danceable energies employed by each: “I thought that the music of Florence Price and Beethoven would pair really well.”
But wait! There’s more! Katsarelis also had at hand a new, unperformed score from Ben Morris, winner of the 2021 CU-Pro Musica Colorado Composition Competition. This annual collaboration between Pro Musica and the composition department at the CU Boulder College of Music results in a commission to write something specifically for Pro Musica. Katsarelis has the final word on the competition winner, and chose Morris, whose music she says she admires “for its romantic sweep, the Nordic connection in his music, and terrific orchestration.”
After a delay to the premiere due to COVID, the time has come for Morris’ new work to reach the public. The Hill of Three Wishes arose from Morris’ trip to Iceland in 2021. In his words, “I had the chance to visit Helgafell, a sacred historical spot on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula. The hill has ruins of a pagan temple and church and was featured in two Icelandic sagas. There is a folk legend associated with the site that says that if you climb the hill in silence without looking behind you, you will be granted three wishes at the top (to complement a spectacular view of the surrounding fjords).” To evoke his inspiration, Morris borrowed an Icelandic folk tune, Stóð eg við Öxará (“I Stood by Axe-river”), observing, “the music captures the grandeur of the natural surroundings and the enticing mystery of the legend.” He intentionally used intervals found in Icelandic folk music; that these happen to be perfect 5ths, frequently found in Medieval music, may give The Hill of Three Wishes a hint of ancient coloring.
Also on Pro Musica’s program is the Piano Concerto in one movement by Florence Price, composed in 1932 and 1933. Katsarelis points out the themes derived from African-American songs and dances, particularly the last movement juba dance. The soloist for the evening, Jennifer Hayghe of the CU-Boulder piano faculty, underscores that cultural connection, but also emphasizes the work’s broader qualities: “(There is) virtuoso writing for the instrument, beautiful soulful melodies and exuberant dance rhythms.” Although structured in a single movement, the changing moods and tempos one would regularly find in a standard three movement concerto are all present, just without intervening pauses. Hayghe adds, “the whole piece is a terrific contrast to the Beethoven. The dance rhythms are completely different and add that much more depth to the concept.”
Morris’ 21st century composition is first on the Pro Musica program; Price’s early 20th century work follows. The remainder of the program is for Beethoven, his Symphony no. 7 in A major, op. 92. Having premiered in Vienna December 8, 1813, the work is one of the master composer’s most ebullient compositions, as well as one of the most abstractly dance-like, as Wagner famously observed. The rhythms are not abstract per se, though the composer had no apparent active intention of listeners leaving their seats to swirl about to this eminently danceable music. For those who might be startled by a chamber orchestra such as Pro Musica taking on a late Beethoven symphony, Katsarelis reminds us that “Beethoven didn’t have a large orchestra for any of his symphonies until the Ninth. The earlier symphonies work wonderfully with chamber orchestra. You can hear so much more of the beautiful detail and smaller professional orchestras invite more committed playing, more like a string quartet.”
Pro Musica Colorado’s Apotheosis of the Dance concert will be Saturday, November 19, 2022, starting at 7:30pm, at Mountain View United Methodist Church, 355 Ponca Place, in Boulder, off the US 36/Boulder Turnpike and Foothills Parkway exit
Tickets are available here: https://www.promusicacolorado.org/season/#concert-one
Those interested in viewing the concert online, even two full weeks after the original performance, will be able to do so. Details and pricing are available on the Pro Musica website link given above.
Apotheosis of the Dance unites the sounds of three centuries: first the early 21st century with Morris, then the early 20th century with Florence Price, and lastly, the early 19th century with the mighty Beethoven. Pro Musica music director Katsarelis observes, “All of the works are wonderful by themselves, but there is a progression through the concert that I hope our audience enjoys!”