Opus Colorado

The Pro Musica Colorado Chamber Orchestra and Christina Jennings are superb

One aspect of the performance of music that is so difficult – and I am quite sure that individuals as well as orchestras would agree with me – is consistency. Individuals and organizations always want to be good, but the trick is to be good all the time. In order to be consistent, for example, an orchestra must be comprised of individuals who have performing experience, and who have experience performing together. They must also be equally concerned with all of the aspects of musicality, and they must also share, as obvious as this sounds, a genuine love for what they do. Then, the organization must have enough wherewithal to have an outstanding conductor.

The Pro Musica Colorado Chamber Orchestra is one of these organizations that does everything to make sure they adhere to the art of music and its performance. They are amazingly consistent.

They gave their final performance of the year Saturday night, May 5, in Boulder. It was an outstanding program in every way: the music that was performed, and the genuinely artistic way that they performed the music.

I have written about this organization in past articles. The Pro Musica Colorado Chamber Orchestra is led by Maestra Cynthia Katsarelis, who has conducted orchestras and opera all over the world. In Colorado, she conducts the Colorado Music Festival. She is also involved in the Rocky Ridge Music Center.

Maestra Katsarelis opened the program with a work by American composer Cindy McTee, entitled Adagio. McTee is a composer who should be more well-known than she actually is, because she is quite outstanding, and she also studied with one of the finest composers of new music today, Krzysztof Penderecki.

I will briefly quote from her webpage:   “McTee (b. 1953 in Tacoma, WA) has received numerous awards for her music, most significantly: the Detroit Symphony Orchestra’s Third Annual Elaine Lebenbom Memorial Award; a Music Alive Award from Meet The Composer and the League of American Orchestras; two awards from the American Academy of Arts and Letters; a Guggenheim Fellowship; a Fulbright Fellowship; a Composer’s Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts; and a BMI Student Composers Award. She was also winner of the 2001 Louisville Orchestra Composition Competition.

“In May of 2011, she retired from the University of North Texas as Regents Professor Emerita, and in November of 2011 she married conductor, Leonard Slatkin. Their principal place of residence is in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan.”

Adagio is adapted from McTee’s work Agnus Dei for organ which she wrote in reaction to the disaster of 9/11. This work also became the second movement of her first Symphony, and proved so popular that it was arranged for string quartet. This is an interesting and instructive example of how many concepts of a work that a composer has to deal with. McTee also uses a theme from the Polish Requiem, which was composed by her teacher, Krzysztof Penderecki.

In listening to this work Friday evening, I was struck by McTee’s ability to concentrate on the sound that just a string orchestra can produce. The program notes state that the harmonic language suggests that of Samuel Barber, and a good case can be made for that. But for me, it suggested Penderecki’s Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima, because of its quiet anguish and understated dynamics. This is a beautiful work of very intense emotion, and I hope that the Pro Musica performs it again next season. This was the first time I have heard this work, and it is the sort piece that one needs to hear several times. Once again, I was absolutely struck of how carefully this orchestra follows Maestra Katsarelis. The dynamic range that the Pro Musica Colorado Chamber Orchestra is capable of always astonishes me. They are always in tune (and why not?), and their entrances are always incredibly precise. That is what makes performing a piece such as this so incredibly difficult. It is often much harder to play slowly, with carefully shaded dynamics and perfect phrasing, then it is to play fast and loud.

Following the McTee, the Chamber Orchestra performed Mozart’s Concerto for Flute in G Major, K. 313. Christina Jennings, a remarkable flutist in every way, performed this Concerto. I will quote briefly from Jennings webpage:

“Flutist Christina Jennings is praised for virtuoso technique, rich tone, and command of a wide range of literature featuring works from Bach to Zwilich. The Houston Press declared: ‘Jennings has got what it takes: a distinctive voice, charisma, and a pyrotechnic style that works magic on the ears.’ Ms. Jennings is the winner of numerous competitions including Concert Artist’s Guild, Houston Symphony’s Ima Hogg, and The National Flute Association Young Artists.

“Active as a concerto soloist, Ms. Jennings has appeared with over fifty orchestras including the Utah and Houston Symphonies, Orchestra 2001, Park Avenue Chamber Orchestra, Flint Symphony, Spokane Symphony, Orchestra de Camera (Mexico), and Pro Musica (UK). In 2009 she premiered concertos written for her by Carter Pann and Laura Elise Schwendinger. Recent chamber music festivals include Strings in the Mountains (CO), Cascade Head (OR), OK Mozart (OK), Chamber Music Quad Cities (IA), and the Bowdoin International Festival (ME).

“In great demand as a teacher, Ms. Jennings is Assistant Professor of Flute at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and on the summer faculty of the Texas Music Festival. In 2008 she founded with Leone Buyse, The Panoramic Flutist Seminar, in Boulder. Trained in the Dalcroze Eurhythmics method, Christina’s teaching incorporated movement and dance. In recent seasons she has presented masterclasses at The Juilliard School, Rice University, University of Wisconsin Madison, the Peabody Institute, the Longy School of Music, and the flute associations of Seattle, Utah, and Texas. She received her Bachelor and Master’s degrees at The Juilliard School, and her principal teachers include Carol Wincenc, Leone Buyse, George Pope, and Jeanne Baxtresser. Ms. Jennings lives in Boulder with her husband, violist Matthew Dane, and their twin sons.”

There was a period of time when it was common practice for musicologists and those “in the know” to say that Mozart did not like the flute. I don’t know if this was a reaction to what the musicologist Alfred Einstein (do not confuse him with the physicist, Albert Einstein) stated in his book on Mozart, but I, for one, have never seen any evidence that Mozart disliked the flute. It is true that Alfred Einstein says of the Flute Concerto, K. 313, that as the work progresses, the listener can find less evidence that Mozart disliked the flute. He also states that Mozart approached the composition of this work without pleasure since he disliked the instrument. Where is the evidence? I have never been able to find any substantiation that Mozart approached this work with dislike. It is true that he was phenomenally busy at this time of his life – he was 22 years old when he wrote it – because he was teaching several students not only for money, but also in exchange for lodging, wood for his fireplace, and light. Nonetheless, even in Einstein’s book, I can find no verification for such statements. Even if it is true, he certainly wrote all four of his flute concertos with typical imagination and creativity.

At the outset, Maestra Katsarelis took what I consider to be an absolutely perfect tempo. But, you readers who are not experienced in the necessary cooperation between soloist and conductor must realize that that tempo was chosen after discussion between the two. Jennings has absolutely remarkable breath control, which is necessary if one is going to play with such marvelous phrasing, as she does, on a wind instrument. I was also struck by the fact, that when she plays, her flute is always held that a perfect 90° angle with the tilt of her neck. Now this may sound like an obvious statement to flute players, but only in the last few years have I seen another flutist do the same thing, and that is Cobus du Toit, who plays with the Boulder Chamber Orchestra. It was also clearly evident that Christina Jennings was totally comfortable on stage: performance experience tells. And likewise, Cynthia Katsarelis, was confident not only in her own ability, but in that of Jennings. They simply shared a few casual glances back and forth to produce an absolutely incredible performance. It has been a while since I have seen a concerto performed where the soloist and the conductor were so visually calm. Jennings was breathtaking in the cadenza to the first movement. This excellence continued in the second movement. The dynamics from the orchestra and from the soloist were stunning, and Jennings shaped her phrases so wonderfully with dynamics, not just her breath control. And again, her technique and tone control were readily apparent in the cadenza to the second movement.

The third movement of this Concerto is marked Rondo: Tempo di Menuetto. Do any of you readers know how many times Mozart used a minuet for the last movement of a concerto? If you don’t, read the book Mozart’s Concerto Form by Denis Foreman. There, you will discover that all of Mozart’s concertos display a varied approach, and the third movement of this flute Concerto, K. 313, is delightful. And, that is the way it was performed: the tempos were perfect, and it was marvelously playful, and technically perfect. The last movement of this concerto is very difficult, but it was readily apparent that Jennings and the Pro Musica Colorado Chamber Orchestra are accustomed to working hard while displaying effortless ability and technique. Jennings, Katsarelis, and the orchestra received a well-deserved standing ovation.

After the Intermission, the Chamber Orchestra performed the Haydn, Symphony Nr. 48.

It is always a revelation to hear a Haydn Symphony performed by an orchestra that is roughly the size of the orchestra that Haydn had at the Esterházy palace. Much of the detail work becomes very clear, and it is certainly a more intimate sound. This symphony is probably one of Haydn’s most cheerful; it is rumored to have been written on the Empress Maria Theresa’s visit to Eszterháza (note the difference in spelling between Esterházy, the family, and Eszterháza, the palace). There is no doubt now that this Symphony was written in 1769. Six years after the Maria Theresa left Eszterháza in 1773, there was a fire at the Castle which destroyed many instruments and music except for some of the autographs which Haydn happened to have in his actual possession in his quarters, which did not burn. Up to this time it was assumed that the Esterházy archives for the most accurate, but we know at least 70 works were destroyed in this fire. A copy of this symphony was found in the possession of Haydn’s copyist, Joseph Elssler, and it was clearly dated 1769, so there is absolutely no doubt as to when this work was written. It is also interesting to note that in the manuscript that Elssler had completed for Haydn, that there is no timpani part, so it would seem that the timpani part was perhaps added by some of the copyists in Vienna (other than Haydn’s official copyist, Elssler) who had been pirating his music for several years. But that is material for yet another doctoral dissertation. (Speaking of dates, someone needs to check Haydn’s birth and death dates in the program!)

The performance of this piece by the Pro Musica Colorado Chamber Orchestra was sensational. Every section of this orchestra is very strong, and the horns were terrific in the opening, playing with great energy and providing superb rhythmic direction at the behest of Maestra Katsarelis. I was struck by the fact that everything in the performance of this Symphony Nr. 48 could be heard: the balance between sections was perfect. Haydn can be a very difficult composer to play because of all of the detail work and phrasing. One does not have the liberty to take a lot of rubato, because that is simply not in the style of the classical period. One has to create Haydn’s style by adhering to the score religiously in shaping the phrases with the dynamics rather than little gushes of emotion. That is precisely what Katsarelis and this orchestra did. The slow movement was warm and mellow, and as the program notes stated, hearkened to the Storm and Stress ideal of that particular portion of the classical period.

Playing Haydn the way it should be played obviously involves a thorough knowledge of the style which includes the tempos that the conductor takes. Katsarelis’ tempos were excellent, and it was clear that the orchestra members were working quite hard, but enjoying every moment of it.

I have said in other articles that we in Colorado are fortunate because there are so many good ensembles and soloists performing. The Pro Musica Colorado Chamber Orchestra is an ensemble that is rapidly making a name for itself, and very deservedly so. The musicians are excellent, the conductor is excellent, and they play with an enthusiasm and professionalism that is unrivaled. You simply must hear their concerts.

1 Comment so far
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Your review makes me want to see this orchestra more than ever! Cynthia is a fine musician, and her ability to pass her direction on to the players is legendary!

Comment by Barb Graham

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