Going Boldly with Pro Musica: Diverse Voices

Cynthia Katsarelis

A preview by Betsy Schwarm

Few will have missed the TV reference in the title of this article.  In this case, though, the idea came from comments by Cynthia Katsarelis, music director of the Pro Musica Colorado Chamber Orchestra, who asserts that the ensemble “has a mission to ‘boldly go’ where no orchestra has gone before.”  Certainly, that is the case with Pro Musica’s concerts this winter and spring, which step outside of the tried-and-true to reflect perspectives of current society in a compelling and engaging musical setting.

Admittedly, there’s nothing wrong with Mozart and Company.  Their works have stood the test of time for good reason: the unquestioned balance and beauty that still speaks to us, even across the decades and the centuries.  However, as Katsarelis observes, they “survive because they touch something universal in us. New music speaks to today, right now.”

Gabriela Lena Frank

This is especially true of the ensemble’s concerts coming up February 1 and 2.  Rather than offering music by the usual suspects, Pro Musica’s “Diverse Voices” program spotlights four Western Hemisphere composers, all persons of color, three of the four still composing today.  Some readers will likely know the name of Arkansas-born African-American composer William Grant Still (1895 – 1978): representing an earlier generation. Currently active composers (and their cultures) will be even better represented.  Berkeley-born Gabriela Lena Frank, a self-described “musical anthropologist,” has roots ranging from Peru to Japan to Lithuania. Haitian-born Rudy Perrault brings a Caribbean connection and Manhattan native Jessie Montgomery likes to mix classical techniques with what she calls “elements of vernacular music, improvisation, language, and social justice.”  

William Grant Still

Of the program, Katsarelis says, “All of these composers have been on my radar screen for a while now; their music is beautiful, vibrant, and intriguing.”  Frank’s Leyendas: An Andean Walkabout and Still’s Danzas de Panama both draw upon folk song and dance, and set about evoking the moods and persons one might encounter in those settings.  As for the other two compositions, Katsarelis observes, “we balance that with two works that are inspired by an idea, [Montgomery’s] Starburst reflecting a cosmic idea, and [Perrault’s] Exodus exploring the human elements of forced migration. 

Jessie Montgomery

None of those broader concepts are utterly new.  Folk dances and songs featured in the works of many old master composers, especially Belá Bartók (1881 – 1945), and even the mighty Beethoven was known to make use of folk dance rhythms.  However, they were grounded in Europe, not Central and South America. Gustav Mahler (1860 – 1911) liked to imagine that he had “cosmic ideas” in mind, though his were more cerebral than astronomical:  Montgomery attests that she’s imagining the process of new stars forming at such a rate as to “alter the structure of the galaxy significantly.” As for Perrault, one might associate the title Exodus with Biblical events.  However, even today, one may still be driven from the land of one’s birth, and Perrault’s Exodus, which began life as a string quartet, is “dedicated to all people forced out of their homelands.”

Rudy Perrault

It is one thing for a composer to base his/her music on an idea; it is quite another to communicate that idea so clearly to performers and listeners that one can imagine the exact scene.  In the works on Pro Musica’s program, each of these composers went one step further, borrowing not just rhythms, but also effects. For example, with Andean culture in mind, though no Peruvian instruments on the stage, Frank uses what Katsarelis describes as “transparent string sounds with thunky articulations to imitate the panpipe, for example, and strumming to imitate a ‘storm of guitars’ (quoting the composer).”  Thus, her Leyendas becomes, in Katsarelis’ words, “a creative exploration of Andean culture.” 

The cultures represented here may not be deeply and closely familiar to conventional classical music audiences.  Nonetheless, the visual arts and cuisines of various lands and peoples have become an almost daily part of many lives, even those who may have been raised in white bread suburbia.  As John Donne famously observed, “No man is an island,” certainly no man or woman who reads the newspaper and is aware of the complicated challenges currently faced by society. As Katsaralis emphasizes, “We live in a diverse world, where identities and migration are keen issues. This music in beautiful and moving AND it engages with the world today. It’s terrific and when people hear it, they’ll be asking for more.” 

Trying new things that speak to current culture is decidedly part of Pro Musica’s mission.  From her place as music director of Pro Musica, Katsarelis is proud to emphasize that the ensemble has “done more new music and music by women composers and composers of color than the large orchestras in this region… Diversity is simply a part of our human experience and we don’t get the full range of musical expression without it.”

However, lest one gain the impression that the concert is a graduate lecture in ethnomusicology, let us recall that even Mozart was occasionally at pains to echo contemporary ideals, even revolutionary ones, in his works.  There is, after all, plenty of politics in both The Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni. Current composers may chooses to follow suit. As Katsarelis observes, “diversity is simply a part of our human experience and we don’t get the full range of musical expression without it.”

Then again, though one might appreciate the music for its cultural context and its evocation of current experience, one can also approach it with the age old attitude that one brings to many, even most concerts.  Katsarelis advises, “Just be ready to have a good time!”

Pro Musica Colorado Chamber Orchestra

The Pro Musica Colorado Chamber Orchestra will give two performances of its “Diverse Voices” program:

– Saturday, February 1,  at First Baptist Church of Denver, 1373 Grant – starting at 730pm

– Sunday, February 2, at Mountain View United Methodist Church of Boulder, 355 Ponca Place – starting at 2pm

For both performances, a pre-concert lecture will begin one hour before the concert.  

February is Black History Month:  get it off to a brisk and colorful start with Pro Musica.  Then in March, keep an eye out for the ensemble’s next thematic program, “Climate Change,” with works by Gwyneth Walker, Dianna Link, and even Beethoven.



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