Passione with Pro Musica Colorado
Preview article by Betsy Schwarm
Apply the word Passione to a musical program and thoughts may drift immediately to Romeo and Juliet. Those legendary lovers are absent from Pro Musica Colorado’s season opening program Passione, though passion in other forms is quite present. There is, of course, the ever-present passion for presenting top-flight performances of Mozart’s timeless genius. Also, a young Colorado-based composer likely has a passion for bringing a personal voice to this field of creative expression. Then there is the sacred passion of Christ that concerned Haydn in his Symphony no. 49. All those perspectives appear in Pro Musica’s concert Saturday, October 28, in Boulder.
Of the new music, it arises from the 16th commission Pro Musica has given in its 17 years of existence. Pro Musica’s Music Director Cynthia Katsarelis says the ensemble performs “a lot of new music because it speaks to our time and gives perspective on the classics of the past by composers who spoke to their time.” Is it daunting for young composers to know they shall be compared to the great names? Perhaps, but after all, even Haydn and Mozart went through some years of being the new guys on the block.
This season’s new voice is Jessie Lausé (pronounced ‘low-SAY’), winner of a composition competition presented by the School of Music at CU Boulder. Lausé’s Stretch in Periphery was written as a commission from Pro Musica. They had consulted Katsarelis to identify concerns that composer and conductor might share. Common ground was found. As Lausé says, “this piece is dedicated to those of us who live peripherally to the societal and artistic norm, whatever that may be. If we are truly dedicated to equity and inclusion beyond our own needs, we must constantly be expanding… In order to truly be a safe space for marginalized people, creative spaces must be open to stretching.”
The composer asserts, “A lot of this piece is about establishing frameworks and then slowly stretching those frameworks.” So familiar harmonies may give way as some instruments reach beyond established chordal centers. “Another theme,” Lausé attests, “is resiliency, musical ideas falling into and rising from chaos.” Surely that might also suggest aspects of society that attempt to step beyond chaos in search of a firm place to stand.
At the heart of the program stands Mozart’s Violin Concerto no. 5 in A major, K. 219, composed in Salzburg in his late teens. The work bears the nickname “Turkish.” Whence that label for the music of an Austrian composer? Credit the last movement Rondo, in which Mozart causes elegant minuet rhythms to share space with percussive Turkish rhythms. His gesture acknowledged the not-far-off Ottoman Empire, forces of which had been known to bring their military marches to the gates of Vienna.
Pro Musica’s concertmaster, Stacy Lesarte, who’ll be doing the honors as soloist, remarks that Mozart’s audiences would have recognized the reference. Today, we may be less familiar with Turkish march rhythms, but we can still smile at the startling juxtaposition. The concerto also connects to other genres that Mozart favored. Lesarte observes, “The virtuosity comes from the operatic nature and some passage work that seems very keyboard-like to me.”
Having composed all five of his violin concertos for himself as soloist, Mozart didn’t write out solo cadenzas: he just planned to improvise them on the spot. Lesarte says in the first two movements, she’ll be performing her own cadenzas, ones she wrote “decades ago.” In the last movement, she’ll offer the cadenza by late 19th century master violinist Joseph Joachim, though admitting that she’ll take “a few liberties.” In Mozart’s own time, taking some “liberties” was to be expected, and one imagines his spirit might admire Lesarte for doing as he would have done himself.
The second half of Pro Musica’s program features Haydn, though a more sober side of jolly Papa Haydn. Here, it is Haydn in 1768, experimenting with the up-and-coming Sturm und Drang (Storm and Stress) movement. Katsarelis describes his Symphony no. 49 in f minor, ‘Passione,’ as “a terrific work” with “far-fetched harmonies” and theatrical touches, including “gestures for thunder and lightning that are borrowed from opera.”
That dramatic suggestion of weather is no seasonal vision. It has been suggested that Haydn’s music sounds like it reflects upon scenes of Christ on the Cross. The symphony’s nickname, “Passione,” given to it long afterward, arose from that impression. However, there is no evidence that Haydn himself ever made that claim. As the Sturm und Drang movement was well suited to expressing any sort of passions, the nickname still suits.
Director Cynthia Katsarelis concedes that, in choosing “Passione” as a title for this Pro Musica season, she was thinking beyond either hearts and flowers or sacred references. “Our season title is meant to reflect our passion for high-quality performances of works that range from the beloved classics to delightful new discoveries. And it has a searing quality to it because it is our last season. I’ve been hired by the University of Notre Dame to teach their graduate conducting students in South Bend, Indiana.”
Denver-area audiences needn’t say farewell quite yet. Pro Musica’s season opening concert, with Katsarelis on the podium, will be presented Saturday, October 28th, at 7:30pm at Mountain View United Methodist Church, 355 Ponca Place, in Boulder. Here’s the link for ticket purchase:
Katsarelis will be returning to Colorado from Notre Dame for each Pro Musica concert this season. Of her pending departure, she observes, “I’m deeply, deeply grateful to all who have offered support over the past 17 years, and who have turned up and enjoyed our concerts! I’m grateful to our wonderful slate of musicians, soloists, and collaborators, it’s been an immense pleasure and I hope that we find ways to collaborate with them all in the future!”
Opportunities for seeing Katsarelis and Pro Musica in action are becoming fewer in number. Setting very new talent against established masters, the ensemble’s October program showcases one of Pro Musica’s particular strengths, reminding us that great music can have many voices across generations. That notion is a particular passion for Katsarelis. A compelling live performance can make it a passion for listeners as well!