Pro Musica Colorado looks ahead and back

Opening program may be pianist Larry Graham’s farewell orchestra concert — or not

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Courtesy of Larry Graham

The Pro Musica Colorado will look both forward and back in their 2015–16 season, which music director Cynthia Katsarelis and the orchestra call “Remembrance.”

The season will open Friday and Saturday (Nov. 21-22) with the world premiere of a new work by CU composition competition winner Kurt Mehlenbacher — looking ahead — and end (April 8-9) with Mozart’s Requiem — a work that compels us to look back. In between will be a concert of music by J.S. Bach and Dmitri Shostakovich ( Jan. 22-23) that will be part of a two-year festival of all of Shostakovich’s chamber music.

This will be the program most closely tied to the theme of remembrance, since Pro Musica will play the string orchestra version of Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 8, dedicated to “the victims of fascism and war.”

The opening concert features Larry Graham, a revered former CU piano professor, playing Mozart’s C-minor Piano Concert, K491. The concert will open with Mehlenbacher’s Flying Crooked for chamber orchestra, commissioned by an endowment established by the late Thurston E. Manning, and also include Mozart’s Symphony No. 38 in D major, K504, known as the “Prague” Symphony.

Katsarelis says she couldn’t pass up the opportunity to present the Mozart concerto with Graham. “Larry is a Colorado legend, and every performance with Larry is memorable,” she says. “He says this is going to be his last performance with orchestra.

“We’ll see, because he said that the last time.”

Graham admits that “maybe” this will be his last concert with orchestra. He still enjoys teaching, and recording and playing privately, but doesn’t like facing the nerves of a concerto performance. “You never know what could happen,” he says. But asked to confirm that this would be his last concerto appearance, he hesitates.

“Well, I think people should come and hear him just in case he means it this time!” Katsarelis comments.

Remarkably, Graham has never performed the C-minor concerto, one of Mozart’s greatest, with orchestra. He learned it as a student, and once gave a student performance with piano accompaniment, but never played it with orchestra.

“This concerto is really amazing, among the most dramatic concertos of all,” Katsarelis says. “(Mozart) spins out these long lines that emotionally long for resolution, and you really have to wait for them. It’s really poignant, and it really pulls on the heartstrings.”

Katsarelis and Graham both point out that the concerto is one of only two that Mozart wrote in a minor key. This gives it an unusually dark and intense quality.

Another special characteristic is that it has the largest orchestra of any of Mozart’s concertos. The large orchestra seems to go hand-in-hand with a large-scale sense of form. “It’s almost symphonic in construction, which makes for a pretty intensive journey from the home key through a wide range of key areas,” Katsarelis says. “The narrative develops through all of these keys that finally have to be resolved, and the tension of it and the drama of it are almost overwhelming.”

In spite of the title, Mehlenbacher insists that Flying Crooked is not in any way descriptive. In a program note he writes, “this work does not … draw influence from any known extra-musical influences.” 

Katsarelis says, “I think this will be a piece that people will really enjoy. It’s colorful and playful. It’s got a rhythmic drive, but it’s driven by pizzicato strings, so it’s not hammered. It’s got charm to it.”

Mozart’s Symphony No. 38 was written in 1786, while the composer was in Prague for the local premiere of The Marriage of Figaro. Mozart was especially loved in Prague, so it is assumed that the symphony was written specifically for the audiences there. That idea is supported by Mozart’s extensive use of wind instruments.

“There’s almost wind-band type playing — elegant wind-band playing,” Katsarelis says. “That’s probably (Mozart) speaking to Prague, because Prague was famous for excellent wind players.”

There are a couple of other unique features of the symphony. Unlike most of Mozart’s late symphonies, it is in three movements, omitting the usual minuet. That does not conform to the Romantic four-movement model of the symphony, but “I don’t find the piece lacking at all,” Katsarelis says. “Some people have suggested that omitting the minuet movement actually strengthens the dramatic argument of the other movements.”

The other quality Katsarelis would like audiences to notice is the use of counterpoint, which derived partly from Mozart’s intensive study of Bach in his later years. “He’ll spin out one beautiful theme after another, as you expect from Mozart,” she says. “But what’s intriguing is that he combines them contrapuntally.

“The layering of these themes is overwhelmingly beautiful.”

ON THE BILL: Pro Musica Colorado Chamber Orchestra. 7:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 20, First Baptist Church, 1373 Grant St., Denver. 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 21, First United Methodist Church, 1421 Spruce St., Boulder. Tickets: 720-443-0565 and app.arts-people.com/index.php?actions=4&p=15