Sex, drugs and tango

Pro Musica Colorado gets Epic

Peter Alexander | Boulder Weekly

Pro Musica Colorado gets ‘Epic’ 

Cynthia Katsarelis, the director of the Pro Musica Colorado Chamber orchestra, is wearing a black leather jacket as she explains the subversive nature of the orchestra’s next concert, “Epic Seasons.”

“I just feel like I’m a walking rebel!” she proclaims.

Juxtaposing Vivaldi’s familiar Four Seasons with the Four Seasons of Buenos Aires by the Argentine nuevo tango composer Astor Piazzolla, the program will be presented Friday, April 4, in Denver and Saturday, April 5, in Boulder, both performances starting at 7:30 p.m. (see for details). Violinist Lina Bahn will perform the solo part in both halves of the concert.

“Tango is a subversive art form,” Katsarelis explains. “It took in influences from the Africans that were in Argentina. It took the lowerclass folk music and it got raised to a higher art, sort of like our jazz did.”

And like jazz, the perceived sexuality of Tango’s form made it socially dangerous.

“It was coming out of an era that was repressed,” Katsarelis says, “so any sort of open expression was subversive, just like rock and roll and Elvis Presley’s hips.”

Subversive dance and Elvis Presley’s hips might be an unlikely topic for discussion with most orchestral concerts, but Katsarelis and the Pro Musica group have always looked for new twists on old programs.

“We love to do [both] familiar and innovative music,” Katsarelis says. “Having new music on the program keeps the classical repertoire fresh and invigorated, and this particular concert, which is obviously really conceptual, seasons old and new, adds to our appreciation for both pieces.”

Pairing these pieces, separated by almost 300 years, hailing from different continents and hemispheres, offers both connections and bracing contrasts. The two pieces are connected, most obviously because they both depict the seasons of the year. But the relationship goes deeper, because the Piazzolla Seasons, originally conceived for a traditional tango quintet, have been arranged into violin concertos similar to Vivaldi’s Seasons. In this form they pay homage, and even contain deliberate references to Vivaldi’s music.

“There are some direct quotes, there are some quotes that are slightly varied, with more up-to-date harmony,” Katsarelis explains. “And sometimes the references are a little more subtle, like rhythms but not the pitches or harmonies.” 

In another similarity, both works grow out of dance, the Vivaldi subtly based on the rhythms of Baroque dances, and Piazzolla more obviously representing an elevated form of tango.

But here the similarities end, because Vivaldi’s rhythms come from the courtly and pastoral dances of an agricultural society, and the milieu is very much that of the 18th-century countryside, whereas the tango is a 20th-century urban dance — and a subversive one, as Katsarelis has said.

“Piazzolla is night-club, urban, downtown music,” she says. “You will hear a string orchestra using a wide range of techniques: playing behind the bridge, sliding up and down the strings, plucking the strings, and sometimes plucking them so hard it hits the fingerboard — and sometimes lush, beautiful melodies. All of this conveying the sense of the tango, with all those romantic, perhaps overheated gestures, and some very beautiful ones.”

All of that falls well within the techniques of today’s orchestral players. But what about Vivaldi? So much Baroque music today is performed by period-instrument ensembles, and Pro Musica is definitively a modern instrument orchestra.

“I really love the expressive range of the modern instruments,” Katsarelis declares. “We do have more expressive range, even though the original instrument people have taught us so much about style. We’ve learned a great deal about the dance influence in Baroque music and what that means for the rhythms.

“Before, there was a tendency to kind of smooth everything out, but Baroque music isn’t smooth. It’s got a more jazzy kind of beat, strong and weak beats that combine to really make you find the groove and move. For me, nirvana is to appreciate what the original instrument performers have shown us, and use it on modern instruments.”

Not every violinist can combine the dance infused style of 18th-century Baroque concertos with the grittier urban tango, but Katsarelis is confident she has the right soloist for the job. “Lina Bahn is a spectacular violinist who does both Baroque music and contemporary music with a great deal of passion and commitment and intelligence,” she says.

“She has a great energy that she will put into it, she’ll be able to maintain that for the entire program, which not everyone can do. She puts it all out here and leaves it on the field. So I think we have a very wonderful partner in this particular dance.

“So come on down — and wear the stilettos!”