Silent film and oratorio comprise Pro Musica Colorado program

Courtesy of Alliance Artist Management

Cynthia Katsarelis has conducted many concerts, but her next program with the Pro Musica Colorado Chamber Orchestra is unique and exciting in many ways.

“It’s fab,” she says. “It’s just fab!” 

She is referring to Voices of Light by Richard Einhorn, which Pro Musica Colorado will perform with a screening of the 1928 silent film The Passion of Joan of Arc, directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer. An oratorio for small orchestra, chorus and soloists, Voices of Light was composed in 1994 specifically to accompany Dreyer’s film, which is considered one of the greatest silent films ever made.

Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Friday, March 13 in St. John’s Cathedral, Denver, and Saturday, March 14 in First United Methodist Church, Boulder. Soloists appearing with Pro Musica and the St. John’s Cathedral Choir will be soprano Ashley Hoffman, alto Marjorie Bunday, tenor Steven Soph and bass David Farwig.

“The Passion of Joan of Arc is a masterpiece,” Katsarelis says. “Even though the film is from 1928 it is seriously avant-garde, with its use of close-ups, with its extreme angles. The acting by Renée Jeanne Falconetti [as Joan] is just amazing.”

The film revolves around the trial of Joan, who said she heard voices telling her how to save France from the English invaders. Even though she was an illiterate peasant, she persuaded the Dauphin and the French army to follow her, she defeated the English at Orleans and saw the Dauphin crowned as King Charles VII. She was subsequently captured by the English and condemned as a heretic, but her victories led to France’s defeat of the English.

Katsarelis became interested in the oratorio/film program when Alberto Gutierrez, music administrator at St. John’s Cathedral in Denver, approached her about the possibility of a performance at the cathedral.

“He really knows what [music there is] out there, and had a relationship with the composer and the company that manages this,” Katsarelis explains.

“This is a rare and special thing, and it takes a lot to produce it. It is a tribute to the imagination and commitment by the board at Pro Musica as well as the staff at the cathedral to get this produced.”

Katsarelis threw herself into the project, even bicycling around France to locations associated with Joan of Arc.

“In Rouen I went to the tower where she was imprisoned. I went to the Vieux marché, the Old Market where she was martyred. In Orleans I went to the cathedral, I went to some of the sites of the battles, I went to the museum. And I really felt more connected for going to those sites.”

One of the remarkable things that she discovered is how much is known about Joan.

“She’s perhaps the most well-documented medieval peasant that there is,” Katsarelis says. Transcripts have been preserved of two trials — the first when Joan was condemned as a heretic, and a second trial that restored her to the church — as well as letters she dictated.

The trial transcripts were used for the film. Even though it is silent, the actors were speaking lines from the transcripts, which intensifies both the drama of their performances and the impact of the film.

When Einhorn began to write the oratorio to go with the film, he turned to a variety of sources for his text: the writing of medieval mystics including Hildegard of Bingen, excerpts from Joan’s letters, the Bible, and other sources. Einhorn described these texts as “representing the spiritual, political and metaphorical womb in which Joan was conceived.”

“It’s a great line,” Katsarelis says. “I really recommend that people read the libretto, because if you know what’s going on in the oratorio as it’s being shown on the film, it’s incredible commentary. [The libretto can be downloaded from the composer’s web page: libretto.pdf ] 

“For example, you’ve got this multilayered text going on during the portion of the film that is showing the interrogation. It’s just fascinating, and it’s almost overwhelming in its power.”

So much so that Katsarelis does not recommend the performance for children.

Katsarelis described the style of Einhorn’s music as “neo-medieval.” Just like his text, the music draws from various medieval sources, including religious chant and multi-voiced church motets. At points instruments in the orchestra imitate medieval instruments, and Einhorn even went so far as to travel to Joan’s home village of Domremy and record the bells of the church that stand next to her family home. That recording is used in the performance as well.

“It’s really effective musically,” Katsarellis says. “It’s a very amazing and beautiful and evocative oratorio. Einhorn, who has extensive experience as a film composer, really nailed it with a great piece of music that goes with this amazing film.

“What we have is something that merges two fabulous works of art.”