At the opposite end of the spectrum

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Ashraf Sewailam
Courtesy of Pro Musica Colorado Chamber

The next concert from the Pro Musica Colorado Chamber Orchestra and conductor Cynthia Katsarelis will bring together two opposing worlds.

The concert, titled “Love and Death,” will be presented Friday in Denver and Saturday in Boulder. There are only two works on the program: the Symphony No. 14 by Shostakovich, a vocal-orchestral meditation on death; and Schubert’s frolicsome Symphony No. 5. Soloists for the Shostakovich, singing poetic texts by Federico García Lorca, Guillaume Apollinaire, Wilhelm Kuchelbecker and Rainer Maria Rilke, will be soprano Jennifer Bird-Arvidsson and bass Ashraf Sewailam.

The two works come from the opposite ends of the emotional spectrum. “Right, and that’s by design,” Katsarelis says. “The Shostakovich is really intense, and you don’t want to leave people on their own at the end of this piece. The Schubert is a sublimely beautiful feel-good piece, and it will be a good antidote to the emotional intensity of the Shostakovich.”

Katsarelis likes to describe pieces she conducts as being akin to Joseph Campbell’s “hero’s journey,” with the protagonist departing on an adventure, undergoing an ordeal, and returning home in triumph. Likewise, she sees this entire concert as a journey, from the existential questions raised by Shostakovich to the hope offered by Schubert.

But she has an even larger journey mapped out this year. “[Pro Musica Colorado’s] whole 10th anniversary season is kind of like the ‘hero’s journey,’” she says. “Our season started with the joy of Haydn’s Creation (Oct. 28 and 29), plunging into the depth of the Shostakovich with the Schubert to help with that, and then we will end in triumph with Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony (April 7 and 8).”

Jennifer Bird-Arvidsson Courtesy of Pro Musica Colorado Chamber
Jennifer Bird-Arvidsson

The Shostakovich Symphony has 11 movements, each one a setting of a poem about death. “Shostakovich ended up calling it a symphony, mostly because there are thematic ties between the movements,” Katsarelis explains. “But it really is a song cycle-symphony. The point most certainly is the text.”

The texts will be sung in their original languages — Spanish, French, Russian and German. The original was set to Russian translations, and there is also an all-German version. The rendition Pro Musica Colorado will perform, using the poetry in the different original languages, is not performed often, Katsarelis says.

“I thought long and hard about” which version to use, she says. “We’ll provide a translation, but I think by doing it in languages more familiar to most people, they’ll have a deeper experience.”

The musical language of the score is very spare, with the singers more or less reciting the texts with the orchestra providing musical commentary. In a way, this gives the words even greater impact, because they can be clearly heard, while the orchestra provides emotional depth.

“The texts make kind of a story,” Katsarelis says. Death first appears as a character, walking among us, “in and out of the tavern.” Later movements feature people who are facing death — the Lorelei of German myth, a suicide, a young soldier in the trenches. A poem by Apollinaire introduces the poet facing death in prison, and the cycle eventually comes to Rilke’s “Death of the Poet.” A final short movement, also on a Rilke poem, says “Death is great. … When we think we are in the midst of life, he dares to weep in our midst.”

Katsarelis views the context in which Shostakovich was writing as an important part of the message. “He wrote it living in an oppressed situation,” she explains, referring to the composer’s life in the Soviet Union. “He wrote it after the Prague Spring,” when the Soviet Army invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968, ending a brief time of artistic and political freedom.

“He also wrote it from his hospital bed. In this piece he intertwined the person and the political vision, because he was facing his own demise as well as putting the political in there,” she says.

“I think this is one of the most important performances of the year, because of the message it holds. Artists speak to the universal human condition, and also to a particular time. And this piece does both. I think that people who really engage this music will feel like they’ve been touched at a deep human level.”

After the personal and political truth of Shostakovich, she says, the beauty of the Schubert score represents a musical and artistic truth. “It’s classical music that’s balanced and emotionally glorious, from the sublime first movement, which can be kind of playful, to the lovely, singing slow movement, a dance movement that has a little bit of edge to it, and then the last movement just sparkles.

“The fact that this beautiful music exists speaks to the better part of our humanity,” Katsarelis says. “So it’s kind of an answer in that way.”

On the Bill: “Love and Death” Pro Musica Colorado Chamber Orchestra, Shostakovich: Symphony No. 14. Schubert: Symphony No. 5. 7:30 p.m. Friday, Jan. 20, First Baptist Church, 1373 Grant St., Denver. 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 21, First United Methodist Church, 1421 Spruce St., Boulder. Tickets at: 720-443-0565, promusicacolorado.org.