Holiday Moods Sparkle with Pro Musica
Review by Betsy Schwarm
The concerts offered this first weekend of December by the Pro Musica Chamber Orchestra bore the heading “Holiday Moods.” Admittedly, in this particular year, holiday moods are not quite what they have usually been. However, if one needed some reassurance that there is still joy to be found, Pro Musica’s programs were perhaps just the right champagne for the season.
Given this time of pandemic, a concert in front of a live audience could not be managed. So the audience was at the other end of an internet connection, and even the musicians themselves – Pro Musica’s regular forces, joined by solo violinist Yumi Hwang-Williams – wore facial coverings and practiced social distancing. Wouldn’t this be a handicap to fine music making, to be at least six feet from every other performer? Apparently not. As camera angles made clear, the usual eye-contact between musicians and conductor was easily achieved, and with a chamber orchestra of fewer than twenty performers, one supposes that performers could hear individual parts easily. Certainly, the twinkling eyes above those facial coverings seemed to indicate that they were delighted to be together making music again.
Pro Musica’s program began with two short opening selections before the larger, featured offerings. The first was music of English composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875 – 1912): no relation to the poet of similar name, though the composer’s mother was a fan of that author. Pro Musica has made a point in recent concerts of spotlighting composers of color; Coleridge-Taylor’s mother was English, but his father African. His sunny and cheerful Novelette no. 1 should serve as encouragement to listeners to seek out other examples of his work.
The Pastorale from the Christmas Concerto, op. 6, no. 8, of Arcangelo Corelli (1653 – 1711) came next. The work is a “concerto grosso,” with several featured soloists, in this case three at once: violinists Stacy Lesartre and Byron Hitchcock, and cellist Beth Vanderbourgh. The three soloists nicely matched their tone and coloring of the flowing lines, while conductor/music director Cynthia Katsarelis balanced their lines with those of the supporting ensemble, adding and subtracting emphasis where necessary. The performance had all the serenity and tender smiles that one would expect of the manger-side scene that Corelli himself said he was imagining.
Violinist Yumi Hwang-Williams next came to the stage for Autumn and Winter from the Four Seasons of Antonio Vivaldi (1678 – 1741). Strictly speaking, they may not be exactly holiday music, but they are surely seasonal and definitely appreciated, especially with Hwang-Williams as soloist. Some might feel that they’ve already heard as much Vivaldi as they ever need to hear, but this performance should have opened minds to what can be made of those familiar notes upon the page. Hwang-Williams brought verve and character to the music, bringing out the often dancing spirit of Autumn, as well as the shivers and storms of winter. Of course, those colors also arose from the larger ensemble under Katsarelis’ guidance. However, it was Hwang-Williams whose tastefully subtle ornaments to the written lines added extra sparkle to what might otherwise be another virtuoso showpiece.
Last on the program was the Serenade for Strings, op. 22, by Antonín Dvořák (1841 – 1904). In her spoken introduction to the music, Katsarelis remarked upon the way in which the composer’s work “makes the heart sing,” then in the performance, set out to emphasize that song-like character, as well as occasional danceable energies. Dvořák’s work is jolly and restful by turn, making it Katsarelis’ task to manage the transitions from one to another, ensuring that the music moves smoothly onward with each shift. Many listeners might have been most familiar with the composer’s lush symphonies, especially no. 9, when in fact, he wrote more string quartets than symphonies. Here, Dvořák crafted something that stands between those two compositional worlds, and the smaller forces of Pro Musica proved ideal for bringing out that transitional position in the Czech master’s catalog.
It was a delightful performance that scarcely anyone other than the performers and their technical staff were able to hear in person. Is this perhaps the future of classical music – moving online? Hopefully not, as it deprives one of that sense of the music surrounding one’s body and the audience breathing as one with the performers. However, there is also something to be said for the up-close-and-personal nature of a filmed broadcast, as well as the ability to control distractions. Is an online performance “better” than a live one? No, but in its own way, it is a satisfying means of continuing the musical communication of which so many of us have been deprived in recent months. In a year rather over-supplied with lemons, Pro Musica’s streamed “Holiday Moods” program was a delightful pitcher of lemonade. One could, of course, set aside the lemonade, and go straight to the champagne.
If, by chance, you have no plans for Sunday afternoon, there will be one more streamed performance of Pro Musica’s “Holiday Moods” at 3pm Sunday, December 6. Go to https://www.promusicacolorado.org/ and click on the Vivaldi December 2020 poster-like image. On the next page, click on the performance date to purchase a pass. Then enjoy Pro Musica with conductor Cynthia Katsarelis and violinist Yumi Hwang-Williams as their performance comes to you.