By Peter Alexander
The Pro Music Colorado Chamber Orchestra performed a concert of music for strings last night (Feb. 7) with pieces that were inspired by poetry, by earlier music, and by nature.
Cynthia Katsarelis conducted Pro Musica’s string sections with both intensity and control. The performance proved to be a beautiful and rich exploration of sound and expression.
All three pieces on the program—Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis, Philip Glass’s Violin Concerto No. 2, “The American Four Seasons,” and the world premiere of . . . I give you my sprig of lilac by CU composition student Daniel Cox—originated in roughly the past 100 years, and all three impressed with the depth and breadth of sound that a string ensemble can produce.
The program opened with Cox’s brief, elegiac score. The winner of a composition competition, Cox turned to Walt Whitman’s memorial poem for Abraham Lincoln, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” for inspiration. The title comes from lines in the poem, describing the passage of Lincoln’s coffin through the streets: “With the tolling, tolling bells’ perpetual clang,/Here coffin that slowly passes,/I give you my sprig of lilac.”
The sound is warm and comforting as the music gradually emerges, swells, then trails into silence. The obvious comparison is of the funeral cortege slowly passing, but it would undervalue the music to hear it only in pictorial terms. Cox has written a polished and assured work that reaches deeper levels of emotion and honors Whitman’s poem.
The earliest piece on the program was Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia, finalized 1919 and inspired by the music of the 16th-century English composer Thomas Tallis. The score harkens back to the idyllic days before the First World War, expressing the very apotheosis of the English pastoral style that emerged from the composer’s study of folk song.
The performance by Katsarelis and the Pro Musica players was impressive for both the fullness of sound—the sheer volume—that can be achieved by a small group of string players, and by the careful control of the music’s contour. Katsarelis loves to talk about the “journey” of each piece; here that journey was clearly delineated in her interpretation.
The second half of the concert was filled by Glass’s Concerto, written as a companion for the much loved Four Seasons concertos of Antonio Vivaldi. Although Glass has declined to indentify which seasons the individual movements represent, there is a sense of a journey—that word again!—through time and the stages of the year. And while Glass sticks mostly to the stylistic paths that he has long followed in his career, the music is varied in its expressive content and always rewarding.
The concerto’s eloquent soloist was Yumi Hwang-Williams, concertmaster of the Colorado Symphony and an accomplished solo artist and chamber musician. She was equally impressive in the solo part’s seamless long lines, the breathless pianissimos, and the cascading arpeggios for which Glass is so well known.
Katsarelis and Pro Music provided full-bodied support, with great rhythmic propulsion when needed, the requisite chugging that never flagged in the lower parts, and delicately balanced chords in the gentler moments. This is a style that we do not hear often in Boulder, and it was delightful to hear Glass’s music so enthusiastically championed.
But which season is which? I have my ideas, but you won’t find an answer here. As a Buddhist, Glass likely honors the journey over the destination. So you will have to find your own answers; I would not deny my readers that personal journey of discovery.