Symphonic odysseys for Pro Musica Colorado

Pro Musica Colorado Chamber Orchestra begins Homeric season

Guitarist Nicolo Spera
Photo by Glenn Asakawa

It’s going to be an epic season for the Pro Musica Colorado Chamber Orchestra.

That is not a critical judgment, by the way; it’s how the orchestra’s music director, Cynthia Katsarellis, thought about the season.

“I’ve been thinking a lot about music and how it is metaphorical for the human epic, or the human journey,” Katsarellis says. “That made me think about the journey of the symphony, and particular symphonies that have that epic quality to them. There’s a protagonist and things happen to the theme, and it wanders far and wide to distant keys [before returning home]. I was actually thinking of Homer and The Odyssey.”

The journey through the 2013-14 season gets started this weekend with “Epic Beethoven,” featuring the composer’s monumental and exuberant Seventh Symphony. The program will also include two intriguingly contrasting works: “Strut” for strings by Michael Daugherty, inspired by the life of American baritone Paul Robeson; and the “Concierto de Aranjuez” for guitar and orchestra by Joaquin Rodrigo, with guitarist Nicolò Spera from the University of Colorado Boulder. Performances will be at 7:30 Friday in Denver and Saturday in Boulder ( of_epics).

Other epic journeys that Katsarellis has planned for the year are “Epic Mozart,” featuring the Symphony in G minor, in January and February; and “Epic Seasons,” offering Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” alongside the “Four Seasons of Buenos Aires” by Astor Piazzolla in April.

It may not be as well known as Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, with its famous V-for-victory and fate-knocking-at-the-door opening theme, but the Seventh Symphony has gotten a lot of performances in Boulder recently. In the past three seasons, the Boulder Philharmonic, the Boulder Chamber Orchestra and the Boulder Symphony have all offered their interpretations, as has the visiting Irish Chamber Orchestra.

“Using the lens of epic journeys, the Seventh is one of the most beloved symphonies,” Katsarellis says. “The architecture of it is amazing, and Wagner, who was clearly a jerk, was not wrong about the Seventh Symphony [when he called it] ‘the apotheosis of the dance.’

“The building blocks are rhythmic motives, and how he alters them with articulation and harmonic movement. It all creates a magnificent architecture that is deeply moving.”

To understand Katsarellis’ explanation of the symphony’s architecture, you have to know something about music theory. In short, the symphony is in A major, a particularly sunny and energetic key. As expected, it starts and ends in A major, but in between some interesting things happen to define the symphony’s journey.

Right in the opening introduction, Beethoven switches to two unexpected keys, F major and C major. Both introduce a heavier and more Romantic tone into the music, and the contrast and conflict among these key areas continues throughout the symphony, until Beethoven returns to a joyous A major at the end.

“None of this is resolved until the last movement,” Katsarellis says. “So much happens and we don’t come home until the end, the coda of the last movement, and it’s a very special homecoming. In the end when all is resolved, it’s deeply rewarding.

“It’s Ithaca,” she says, referring to Odysseus’ homecoming in Homer’s Odyssey.

Katsarellis spends a lot of time studying the architecture of the pieces she conducts. “Crafting of the architecture is the primary job of the conductor,” she says. “I will be sculpting from the very beginning, keeping in mind the very end. This demands a very high level of musicianship, but it also is magnificently rewarding, because I’m the sort of kid who liked to play with Erector Sets and Lincoln Logs.”

“One can also make an argument for Daugherty’s “Strut” having an epic quality,” she continues. “It was inspired by Paul Robeson, the African-American singer, actor, civil rights activist, who had kind of an epic, if controversial, life.

“Michael Daugherty has totally embraced popular culture — his ‘Metropolis Symphony’ is based on the Superman comic strip! ‘Strut’ is an early work, from 1989. It’s a very, very robust piece with all sorts of really fun stuff that is a great season opener.”

Rodrigo’s “Concierto de Aranjuez” contrasts in just about every way with Beethoven’s rhythmic drive and Daugherty’s American pop-based style. It’s a delicate, cheerful piece written for the soft-spoken classical guitar, with lots of swaying Spanish rhythms and folk inflections.

“It’s just a beautiful, beautiful piece,” Katsarellis says. “Nicolò Spera will do a beautiful job on it. The trickiest part is the last movement. It sounds like a folk song, but the downbeats all come in the wrong place. That gives it a fun quality.”

Sure it’s fun, but will it be epic? Katsarellis laughs. “Our concerts are always epic!”

Pro Musica Colorado Chamber Orchestra plays the First United Methodist Church on Saturday, Nov. 23. Show starts at 7:30 p.m. 1421 Spruce St., Boulder, visit for tickets and information.