By Peter Alexander
Denver and Boulder audiences have much for which to thank Cynthia Katsarelis and the Pro Musica Colorado Chamber Orchestra.
Friday night in Denver and last night in Boulder (Jan. 20 and 21) they presented Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 14. This somewhat gloomy meditation on death is not often given live, partly because of the difficult assignments facing the soprano and bass soloists, but mostly because of the difficult subject matter. But it is a major statement from a great composer—what Katsarelis calls “a piece that needs to be heard”—and so the rare performances are to be treasured.
For the most part, then, Katsarelis and the Pro Musica gave us a worthy performance of an important piece. The soloists, soprano Jennifer Bird-Arvidsson and bass Ashraf Sewailam, sang with deep expression and careful attention to the texts. They ably handled the Spanish, French and German of the original poetry by Garcia Lorca, Apollinaire, Rilke and Wilhelm Kuchelbecker.
Bird-Arvidsson was bright and incisive from her first entrance. She enticed expression from the chant-like phrases, especially in the haunting movement on Apollinaire’s Le Suicidé. Sewailam sang the more brooding texts with great weight and power. At times his notes seemed more placed that phrased, and his sound was rough in the lowest range. Both singers were appropriately dramatic in the dialogue portions of the text.
The orchestral music reflects and amplifies the words of the texts. Katsarelis and the players capably managed the many swings of mood, from deep gloom to poignant sadness to sardonic despair, and provided the singers with expressive and well balanced support.
The Pro Musica strings provided a meaty and resonant sound, while the two percussionists capably provided the precise punctuation points the score requires. The lower strings were particularly weighty, and the duo between Bird-Arvidsson and the solo cello at the beginning of the fourth movement provided one of the evening’s high points.
Alas, last night’s Boulder performance was marred by what seemed to be noisy air handling at the First United Methodist Church. (I did not hear it in Denver.) The performers did their professional best to not be distracted, but for listeners the noise unavoidably covered musical details and moments that should slowly die into silence. It was equally distracting when the sound suddenly stopped in the middle of a movement. I have never heard this before in the many performances I have attended in this venue; it was most unfortunate for it to happen in any concert, and even more so in a piece that builds so much out of silence.
The concert ended with Schubert’s Fifth Symphony, selected by Katsarelis as a frolicking antidote to Shostakovich’s morbid meditations. For me, this was less successful; whether it was the boomy acoustics in the shoe-box-shaped sanctuary, or the ghost of Shostakovich still haunting the room, the performance was heavy-footed when it should be fleeting. The orchestra, otherwise well balanced, often sounded bottom heavy and murky in the middle register. The winds and upper strings sparkled, but could not always cut through the texture.
Nonetheless, the symphony was played with enthusiasm and a sense of fun. It was well paced from beginning to end, and clearly left the audience in a happier place than where Shostakovich had left them.
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As a final thought, the room acoustics and the noisy air handling in the church both serve to point to Boulder’s need for an easily available, acoustically superb, professionally managed concert hall. Many performances take place in churches, and both the performing groups and the churches are to be thanked for their creativity. But such performances are always compromises in one way or another. The performers deserve our gratitude for the musical riches they provide, but they also deserve better performance conditions.
Edited for clarity 1.22.17