Scotland sojourn: Pro Musica Colorado retraces Mendelssohn’s misty journey

Photo courtesy of Pro Musica Colorado

“It’s really amazing to me how atmospheric this wonderful composition is.”

Cynthia Katsarelis is talking about Mendelssohn’s “Scottish” Symphony, which she will conduct with the Pro Musica Colorado chamber orchestra Friday, Feb. 1, in Denver’s St. John’s Cathedral and Saturday, Feb. 2, in Boulder’s First United Methodist Church (both concerts at 7:30 p.m., see

The symphony is the cornerstone of “Mendelssohn Goes to Scotland,” the second program of the orchestra’s “Season of Journeys.” Also on the program are Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture and his Violin Concerto in E minor with soloist Edward Dusinberre, first violinist of CU’s Takacs Quartet.

Of the musical journeys Katsarelis chose for the season, Scotland is the most personal.

“I have a strong connection to Scotland,” she says. “I did a lot of hiking there. In recent summers I’ve gone to the island of Iona, and I’ve biked across the island of Mull to get there.

“The Hebrides Overture was inspired on the ferry ride between the west coast of Scotland and the island of Mull, and I’ve taken that trip twice now. It’s pretty cool to have experienced the same places [as Mendelssohn].”

Both Mendelssohn and Katsarelis made the crossing in stormy seas, an experience that Mendelssohn vividly translated into the music of the overture. “In the Hebrides Overture you can feel the mist,” Katsarelis says. “I mean, your face gets wet!”

Like the overture, the “Scottish” Symphony was inspired by Mendelssohn’s 1829 trip to Scotland.

He was just 20 and had embarked on a “grand tour” to see Europe. It was the Romantic ruins of the chapel at Holyrood Palace in Edinburgh, which had been the home of Mary, Queen of Scots, that gave him the first ideas for the symphony.

“This evening in the deep twilight we went to the palace where Queen Mary lived and loved,” he wrote in a letter home that also included a musical sketch. “The adjacent chapel has lost its roof; grass and ivy grow thickly within; and on the broken altar Mary was crowned Queen of Scotland. Everything there is in ruins and ramshackle, open to the blue sky. I think I have found today in that old chapel the beginning of my Scottish Symphony.”

But the rest of the composition did not come as quickly. By 1831 Mendelssohn was enjoying the warm and sunny Italian spring. “Who then can blame me,” he wrote, “for not being able to return to the mists of Scotland?” It was more than another decade before he completed the “Scottish” Symphony.

“By then, he was in his artistic prime,” Katsarelis says. “Many people think it is his symphonic masterpiece. It is a wonderfully organized piece, where you can hear the transformation of the themes, and the cyclical quality of it gives you the feeling of being on a journey and coming home.

“When the horns come in [near the end], it’s one of the great moments in music! I can hardly wait until we get to that part. When you get there, you’ve just gotten over the rise and there’s home. I’m sure of it. That’s how the journey thing works.”

The Violin Concerto is not part of the Scottish journey, although it was written around the same time that Mendelssohn completed the symphony. And like the symphony, it is considered one of his masterpieces.

“It’s always been one of my favorite concertos,” Dusinberre says. “I’ve always loved the mixture of impetuous Romanticism on the one hand, and the beautiful, balanced phrases and classical sense on the other. It’s got a unique blend of appealing Romantic yearning, the slow movement is really very pure and innocent, and the last movement is fun and games.”

Katsarelis shares Dusinberre’s appreciation for the concerto.

“It has it all, and when you get to the end of it, you feel complete,” she says. “It’s so satisfying.”

Playing Mendelssohn with Pro Musica is a special treat for Dusinberre.

“Remember that 99 percent of my professional life is spent playing quartet concerts,” he says. “I know the Mendelssohn well, I performed it as a student, and with the university orchestra probably eight years ago.

“Because I don’t play it in between, when I go back to it, it feels very fresh. So my experience playing Mendelssohn is very, very different from someone who is playing it 50 times a season.”

Katsarelis appreciates the excitement Dusinberre brings to playing the concerto.

“We’re so thrilled to work with him,” she says. “He brings this phenomenal musicianship but also a freshness because it’s not the everyday.

You’ve got all the power and all the chops and this wonderful sense of discovery together as well. So you know, I think it’s just gonna be great.”

Pro Musica Colorado presents “Mendelssohn goes to Scotland” Friday, Feb. 1 at St. John’s Cathedral in Denver and Saturday, Feb. 2 at First United Methodist Church in Boulder. Tickets are $18 in advance, $20 at the door, $5 for students. For more information, visit Pro Musica’s website.