Transfigured Night, and Mozart, too: Pro Musica Colorado
Preview by Betsy Schwarm
For its season finale concert, set for Saturday, April 29, Pro Musica Colorado will offer a program linking to its mission to evoke “the full range of human expression.” In this case, that ideal is summed up in three works from three centuries, with two big names, one current name, and, in all, what music director and conductor Cynthia Katsarelis calls “human connection in the context of cosmic beauty.” In our sometimes troubled world, those are surely admirable goals, given music as the medium.
The program will open with a recent work by Wyoming-based composer Anne Guzzo. However, it is from the following work that the program takes its title: ‘Transfigured Night.’ Many readers will recognize that as the name of a famous work by Arnold Schoenberg, a composer often remembered for contentious modernity. Here, however, is Schoenberg’s opus 4, written in 1899 and premiered in 1902, before he had entirely rejected that which came before.
Largely calm and thoughtful in mood, the Austrian composer’s Transfigured Night was inspired by a Richard Dehmel poem. Two lovers stroll on a starlit night, and the woman exclaims, “Ah, see how clearly the universe shimmers!” For such imagery, Schoenberg opted for a string sextet. Although large scale ensembles have performed Transfigured Night, the smaller proportions of Pro Musica Colorado, and the close attention to detail that can come from such forces, seem more likely to bring out the radiance of Schoenberg’s intended imagery.
Schoenberg and Mozart stand about a century apart, both in time and in style. However, in the context of the Pro Musica Colorado concert, there’s only intermission. Thus, let’s reflect upon Mozart next, and then return to the very new concert opening work.
Mozart wrote dozens of concertos, mostly for piano, an instrument he knew intimately. However, the composer also played violin, as well as viola, to the highest standard, and his Sinfonia Concertante in E-flat major, K. 364 (1779) sets the voices of both against that of a classical orchestra. Sometimes, the violin plays first, with the viola following; at other times, they are heard in the opposite order, especially when restating some melodic element that had been heard before. Being Mozart, he easily balances his musical forces for elegance and effect.
With two equal solo parts, one requires two equally skilled soloists, ideally ones who had worked with each other before. Pro Musica Colorado has enlisted a perfect pair: violinist Harumi Rhodes and violist Richard O’Neill, who represent one half of the Boulder-based Takács String Quartet. There’s nothing quite like playing chamber music together for years to allow one to sense the other performer’s thoughts a moment before those thoughts become sound. That intuitional approach is exactly what Mozart requires!
Under normal circumstances, one would be hard-pressed to make a firm comparison between Mozart and Schoenberg. Aesthetically speaking, the two composers inhabited entirely different worlds. However, Cynthia Katsarelis, Pro Musica Colorado’s music director and conductor, says she had been thinking of “people in pairs”: two soloists, two composers, even the two lovers in Transfigured Night. Does this duality play a role in the concert opening piece as well? Indeed, it does!
Current composer Anne Guzzo is based at the University of Wyoming, from which she rarely misses an opportunity to take in the state’s natural beauties. One favorite locale is Grand Teton National Park, where bear watching is a beloved activity. From those interests arose her string ensemble piece The Bear and the Eclipse (2017). In that year, a total solar eclipse was readily visible from northern Wyoming. Reflecting on Native American tales of how eclipses are caused by a giant bear taking a bite out of the sun – or the moon – Guzzo decided to capture that vision in music. Bear paired with sky: another set of two.
A very specific bear (known to Teton bear-watchers as #399) is watching as the stars begin to appear mid-morning in the increasing darkness of the eclipse. Her gaze falls upon the constellation Ursa Minor (Little Bear), causing her to reflect upon last year’s cub. It is a sad memory, which Guzzo evokes in a sorrowful variation on a four-note motif for the bear herself, first heard early in the work. However, it is now a new year with hopes for the future, furrily embodied in two new cubs by her side. Guzzo brings The Bear and the Eclipse full circle, reprising the music to which the bear had first strolled into musical view, suggesting that nature survives and endures.owevr,
Pro Musica Colorado’s season finale concert, ‘Transfigured Night,’ will be given in Boulder on Saturday, April 29, starting at 7:30pm. The venue is Mountain View United Methodist Church at 355 Ponca Place on the southeast corner of Boulder, south of Baseline and west of Foothills Parkway. The performance is only in-person, without a livestream option, but hearing the music in the room and seeing the performers does, after all, bring an extra fillip to the experience.
Here’s the link for ticket pricing and purchase:
Of the ensemble’s season finale program, Katsarelis observes, “I like how all three pieces fit together. It promises to be enjoyable and moving.” Judging by the selection of works, and by the consistently high quality of Pro Musica Colorado’s performances, Katsarelis’ view seems a reasonable expectation.