Celebrating women in classical music

Pro Music Colorado devotes program to telling ‘The Women’s Story’

Peter Alexander | Boulder Weekly

Cynthia Katsarelis, director of Pro Music Colorado Chamber Orchestra, is a storyteller.

“I kind of believe that music is always telling some kind of story, even if it’s an abstract story,” she says.

No doubt that is why Pro Music Colorado has billed 2011-2012 as “A Storied Season.” Programs have been “A Soldier’s Story,” featuring a work by Stravinsky with the same title; “The Christmas Oratorio,” featuring music by J.S. Bach telling the Christmas story; and this weekend’s season finale, “The Women’s Story,” at 7:30 p.m., May 5, at Boulder’s First United Methodist Church.

The first inspiration for the program came when Katsarelis heard a piece by Cindy McTee, a successful and busy composer who recently retired from the faculty of the University of North Texas.

“I learned of the Adagio by Cindy McTee some time ago and I wanted to do it,” Katsarelis says. “I knew that I would be able to build other things around it.”

Those other things are the Symphony No. 48 in C major by Joseph Haydn, known as the Maria Theresia Symphony for the Hapsburg Empress of Austria; and Mozart’s Flute Concerto in G major, to be performed by flutist Christina Jennings from the CU music faculty.

It is interesting that there is only one piece on the program written by a woman. There seem to be two reasons for that: Katsarelis wants women’s music to stand up to the greatest composers, and she wants to showcase more than one way that women have been empowered.

“Ensembles that have been devoted to women composers and concerts that have been devoted to women composers, I think they’ve been very important to shed light on the fact that there are women producing this fabulous music,” she says. “I mean, we already did a chamber music recital of women composers. But I think that the next step is a mainstreaming, and yes, I think McTee’s music stands up very well in the context.”

In addition to showcasing a woman composer on equal footing with Haydn and Mozart, the program symbolizes other forms of empowerment for women in the music world: a woman soloist who can stand on equal footing with any other soloist, and a woman leading the entire concert. Such roles for women have not traditionally been the norm in the classical music world.

“The first doctorate in composition at Juilliard was granted to a woman in 1979,” Katsarelis explains. “Women as soloists have only become common in my lifetime. In the 1960s, when the orchestras put up screens to audition their members, is when women started making it in the classical world.

“If you want to talk about conductors, since Marin Alsop left the Colorado Symphony, I am the only woman music director of a professional orchestra in Colorado. There are no women leading the orchestras at the universities in Colorado.”

Representing another form of empowerment, Maria Theresia was the only empress in the 800-year history of the Hapsburg dynasty. She had to fight for her right to rule, but like the English queens Elizabeth and Victoria, she proved an outstandingly adept and successful sovereign, even by the cutthroat standards of her time.

If it sounds like there is a political message in the program, Katsarelis cheerfully stresses that the concert is and should be “mostly about the music.”

She says that the McTee Adagio is “a really beautiful piece.”

“We love doing those middle Haydn symphonies, and No. 48 is a really special symphony. Haydn was the teacher of Beethoven, and you can see it in this particular symphony,” she explains.

In the last movement, for example, she says “the development section is really, really short, but the fact of the matter is that he’s extensively developing the music throughout.

“We also have short themes that Haydn moves to very interesting harmonic realms. It’s phenomenal that while he’s doing interesting things harmonically, he’s got these wonderful motivic elements that he’s taking us on a very cool journey. It’s just great. And the third movement has so much contrast it’s almost operatic.”

As for the third piece on the program, Katsarelis says, “The Mozart Flute Concerto is a beautiful, beautiful piece. There are just these wonderful character changes, and these wonderful interactions between the soloist and the orchestra. It’s charming and beautiful.

“I think we’re telling an interesting story all the way around, but this is a concert where everyone should leave with a big smile on their face!”

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