From Creation to love and death to triumph in just three concerts
By Peter Alexander
Cynthia Katsarelis first played Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony when she was 16. Since then she has played it, and conducted it, dozens of times, but she still feels she has more to learn.
“That’s what’s so great about great music,” she says. “Every time I look at it there’s something new that I discover.”
Katsarelis’ latest opportunity to look at the “Eroica” comes this weekend, when it will be the culmination of not just a pair of concerts in Denver and Boulder (details below), but in fact the whole 2016–17 season of the Colorado Pro Musica Chamber Orchestra.
The Pro Musica’s season opened in October with a performance of Joseph Haydn’s Creation. A second concert in January paired a joyful symphony by Schubert with Shostakovich’s dark meditation on death in his 14th Symphony. And now Beethoven: in Katsarelis’s description of the season, “We started with creation, we went into love and death, and we come out in triumph.”
The concerts Friday and Saturday will open with the world premiere of a new piece by CU composition student Egemen Kesikli, Weltschmerz (world-weariness or world’s pain). Also on the program is Carl Nielsen’s neo-classical Flute Concert, performed by CU flute professor Christina Jennings. The concerts will end, after intermission, with Beethoven’s Symphony.
A piece about world weariness and resignation seems like a strange place to begin a concert titled “Triumph,” but Katsarelis thinks it fits right in. “It’s great because we get to kind of replay the arc of the season within the concert,” she says. “We are starting from pain, finding joy in the Nielsen, and overcoming in the Beethoven. It’s a microcosm of the season.”
Weltschmerz was commission by Pro Musica Colorado. The CU composition faculty selected scores by several students, which they presented to Katsarelis. Based on the scores she saw, she selected Kesikli to write a new piece for the 2016–17 season.
“It’s a really beautiful piece,” she says. “It has some interesting effects—playing with the wooden part of the bow, raindrop effects that some players do with their left hand, violin parts that are written in eight different parts. It will have an interesting sound to it, and the piece has a nice arc to it.”
Nielsen is best known for his expansive, lushly Romantic symphonies, but Katsarelis stresses that the Flute Concerto is not like those works at all. “It’s really a charming, neo-classical piece,” she says.
“I guess mercurial is the word for it. You think it might be a majestic piece, but then it has these charming 1/16-notes with off-beats in the accompaniment, and then it goes on to a really sweet melody. It covers a range of emotions, and does it rather quickly. So it’s very mercurial, but it’s fun.”
Beethoven’s Third Symphony is one of the best known works in the classical canon, and Katsarelis says it is one of the greatest symphonies ever written. It was longer and more powerful than any symphony written before. But what makes it great, Katsarelis says, is the way Beethoven’s personal struggles turned the symphony into a universal statement of triumph.
It was written soon after Beethoven discovered that he was going deaf, and that his deafness would only get worse. Rather than give in to thoughts of suicide, he turned his suffering into music that speaks of overcoming pain and hardship.
“He says it’s his art that keeps him alive,” Katsarelis explains. “He makes peace with the deafness, and out of that despair he enters his ‘Heroic’ period. The sense of Beethoven bringing the inspiration of heaven starts with the opening chords of the ‘Eroica’.”
It is also well known that Beethoven originally intended to dedicate the symphony to Napoleon, until he crowned himself emperor. Out of disillusionment, Beethoven violently removed the emperor’s name from the cover page. “When Beethoven scratched out the dedication to Napoleon and made it to ‘a great person,’ he turned it into something universal,” Katsarelis says.
The universality of the symphony’s message can also generate personal impact. “It gets personal, as certain pieces do,” Katsarelis says. “I was playing in an orchestra when my grandmother died. I missed one rehearsal, and when I got back we were doing the Eroica and the first thing we rehearsed was the funeral march.
“I see it personally, but I also see it universally. I think the personal connection helps me to see the universal.”
Katsarelis says that “everybody should come” to the concert, because the message of Beethoven’s music is still relevant today. “The triumph in Beethoven’s Eroica was more aspirational than accomplished, even when Beethoven wrote it,” she says.
“I think that taps into our aspirations today, and can really ignite our inspiration to strive for a better world, in just being the best that we can be.”
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Pro Musica Chamber Orchestra of Colorado
Cynthia Katsarelis, conductor, with Christina Jennings, flute
Egemen Kesikli: Weltschmerz (world premiere)
Carl Nielsen: Concerto for Flute
Beethoven: Symphony No. 3 in E-flat major, op. 55 (“Eroica”)
7:30 p.m. Friday, April 7, First Baptist Church, 1371 Grant St., Denver
7:30 p.m. Saturday, April 8, First United Methodist Church, 1412 Spruce St., Boulder
Pre-concert talk, 6:30 p.m. both evenings.