Icelandic Legends and the Spirit of the Dance

Pro Musica Colorado concert has a hopeful message

By Peter Alexander Nov. 17 at 4:48 p.m.

Composer Ben Morris

Conductor Cynthia Katsarelis and the Pro Musica Colorado Chamber Orchestra will present the world premiere of The Hill of Three Wishes by former CU composition student Ben Morris on their next concert, Saturday at Mountain View Methodist Church in Boulder (7:30 p.m. Nov. 19).

The score was selected last year as the winner of an annual competition that Pro Musica holds in collaboration with the CU composition department. The department gives Katsarelis works by several composers, and she selects one composer to receive a commission from a fund that was financed by the late Thurston Manning. Normally the new works are premiered in the spring, but last year’s planned performance was postponed. 

The concert, titled “Apotheosis of the Dance,” opens the Pro Musica 2022–23 season of three concerts. Other works on the program are Florence Price’s Piano Concerto in One Movement, which concludes with an African American juba dance; and Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony in A major, which has such exuberant rhythmic movement that Richard Wagner once called it “the apotheosis of the dance.”

Pianist Jennifer Hayghe, the chair of the CU Roser Piano and Keyboard Program, will be the soloist for Price’s concerto.

“Ben Morris is a wonderful emerging composer,” Katsarelis says. “First of all he really knows what to do with an orchestra. His orchestration is superb, and his colors, and the textures. 

“He has two major influences: a jazz background, but also a Scandinavian (Norwegian) background. And so he gets this Nordic folk music aspect into his music, sometimes with extended jazz chords.”

Helgafell, Iceland. Photo by Ben Morris.

The Hill of Three Wishes is based on Helgafell, a site in Iceland that Morris visited. The legend about Helgafell is that if you can hike to the top without looking back, you will be granted three wishes. He incorporated an ancient Icelandic song into the score, which gives the music “a medieval sound,” Katsarelis says. “He weaves it in nicely, and you can really imagine the climb up the hill.”

Price, whose career spanned the first half of the 20th century, was a composer, pianist and organist trained at the New England Conservatory. She was the first African American woman to have music presented by a major orchestra, when her First Symphony was played by the Chicago Symphony in 1933.

For many years, the original score of her Piano Concerto in One Movement was lost, and the piece was known only from a two-piano version. Some orchestral parts were found in Price’s former summer home, and others turned up recently at an auction, allowing the assembly of the original orchestration. That original version has been published and will be used by Pro Musica.

Florence Price. Photo by G. Niledoff.

“Although it’s a piano concerto in one movement, it does have three sections that correspond to a fast first movement, a slow second movement, and then a jolly finale,” Katsarelis says. “The finale is a juba dance, and the whole thing clearly draws on her African American background.

“The second movement is reflective (and) has a call and response aspect to it. The first movement has melodies that you can associate with spirituals, or maybe a blues. It’s quite virtuosic for the piano, which I think speaks to Florence Price’s (skills as a pianist).”

Price was born in Little Rock, Ark., but she and her family joined the Great Migration of Southern Blacks to the north and settled in Chicago. There she became part of what is called the “Chicago Renaissance,” which was akin to the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and ‘30s. “She was incredibly active,” Katsarelis says. 

“She belonged to two women’s music clubs, she was playing recitals all the time, she got her symphony performed by the Chicago Symphony, (and) her other symphonies were done by the Women’s Symphony in Chicago and Detroit. She got excellent reviews for the piano concerto and her symphony, and then it all disappeared. Her music is re-emerging, and rightfully so: it’s such a wonderful, authentic, American voice and we owe a great debt of gratitude for her.”

The program concludes with Beethoven Seventh Symphony, which Katsarelis selected for several reasons. “It’s one of his most beloved symphonies for good reason,” she says. “I could have picked a couple of other Beethoven symphonies, but I thought (the Seventh) went so well with the Florence Price, with the juba dance. It’s an incredibly joyful and energetic piece, with long (melodic) lines and moments of insanity—it takes you on a journey!”

Another reason is that she thinks that the symphony, with its joyful ending, speaks to our current time in an important way. “Beethoven’s music is perceived as coming out of that enlightenment philosophy of the common man who can rise above with his achievements,” she says. “That’s something that we always admire.

“Given the challenges of our time, I think it’s an inspirational and hopeful message.”

# # # # #

“The Apotheosis of the Dance”
Pro Musica Colorado Chamber Orchestra, Cynthia Katsarelis, conductor
With Jennifer Hayghe, piano

  • Ben Morris: The Hill of Three Wishes (world premiere)
  • Florence Price: Piano Concerto in One Movement (restored original version)
  • Beethoven: Symphony No. 7 in A major, op. 72

7:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 19
Mountain View Methodist Church, 35 Ponca Place, Boulder

Both in-person and online tickets are available HERE.


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