Can Music Co-Exist With Social Relevance?

A preview by Marc Shulgold

Cynthia Katsarelis (photo Glenn Ross)

Cynthia Katsarelis acknowledges that the title of her orchestra’s season-opening concert offers a unifying, uplifting theme: “Rainbow Strings! A Concert of Hope.” But then she offers a caution. “This is not a social statement program.”

Maybe, maybe not. Once it become apparent, there’s no ignoring the music’s subtext when her Pro Musica Colorado Chamber Orchestra performs works by Jennifer Higdon, Joseph Bologne and Tchaikovsky in Longmont and Boulder on October 7 and 9.

“Rainbow” in the title is a reference to diversity, Katsarelis agrees, specifically to the well-known fact that both Higdon and Tchaikovsky were gay. But there’s more. Higdon, of course, is a woman, writing music in a male-dominated field. Also worth nothing, the Baroque composer Joseph Bologne (known as the Chevalier de Saint Georges) was of half-African descent – a composer of color.

Joseph de Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges

How and when should all of that enter an audience’s thoughts? The conductor has mixed feelings. “As for their awareness, I would like that to emerge before and after (the performances), but not during.” She’ll try to inspire such introspection with a pre-concert video and onstage spoken introductions.

“We want to celebrate who they are,” she said, referring to the composers. “We are going for a package – and (society’s) misogyny and racism are part of it. I believe we need an artistic response to what’s going on in the world.”

On the other hand, “We don’t want tokenism. This music will be like being introduced to a new friend.” That’s true, since two of the works will be unknown to most listeners: Higdon’s charming all-strings Dance Card (2015) and Bologne’s virtuosic G-Major Violin Concerto (1777). Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings (1880), a beloved concert standard, will arrive as an old friend.

Jennifer Higdon (photo JD Scott)

“We’ve always enjoyed putting classics such as the Tchaikovsky alongside the less-familiar,” Katsarelis said. But what about the controversial elements that are often hidden in  music? “There’s a lot to think about, listening to some composers,” she agreed. “Things like Wagner and his anti-semitism, Mahler and all the tragedies in his life. As artists, we don’t live independently from out times. But where does identity enter into it? I certainly don’t hear all that in the music (i.e., gender, race, etc.). What I look for is emotional content.”

Harumi Rhodes

In conversation, Katsarelis prefers to steer clear of such edgy subjects as sexual identity and race – preferring to highlight, for instance, the all-American energy in Higdon’s Dance Card. And in a subtle reference to Joseph Bologne’s famous skills as a competitive fencer, she mentioned the “swash-buckling” macho spirit in his Concerto (played by Takacs second violinist Harumi Rhodes). “I don’t hear ‘black’ in the Saint Georges. And I don’t hear ‘gayness’ in the Tchaikovsky.”

It’s not just the conductor who’d like to separate music from personal identity. “A real paradox, for example, is that African-American composers want their work to be accepted simply as music. Sadly, most orchestras today can’t do that. They are horribly exclusionary. But we’re not.”

“This music,” she said, “gives us hope for the future.”

The conductor spoke proudly of her chamber orchestra and her approach to programming. “At Pro Musica, we’re on the cutting edge. We play fabulous music that opens up the heart. I like to celebrate composers of color. It’s part of the tapestry of human existence.” Katsarelis then brought back the title of her orchestra’s season-opener, “A Concert of Hope.”

“This music,” she said, “gives us hope for the future.”

Rainbow Strings! A Concert of Hope

Pro Musica Colorado Chamber Orchestra
Cynthia Katsarelis, Music Director and Conductor
Harumi Rhodes, guest soloist

Jennifer Higdon Dance Card
Joseph Bologne (Chevalier de Saint Georges)  Violin Concerto in G Major
Harumi Rhodes, violin
Peter I. Tchaikovsky Serenade for Strings


October 7, 2021 ~ 7:15 pm, Stewart Auditorium at the Longmont Museum
(Get tickets from Longmont Museum here)

October 9, 2021 ~ 7:30 pm at First United Methodist Church, Boulder

Please note: Digital ticket holders will be emailed a link to watch the morning of the performance. For other questions on how to watch click here.

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