Folkish new piece by UC grad Ben Morris, “utterly enjoyable” concerto by Florence Price
By Peter Alexander Nov. 20 at 12:15 a.m.
Last night (Nov. 19) conductor Cynthia Katsarelis and the Pro Musical Colorado Chamber Orchestra opened their 2022-23 concert season in the newly-renovated sanctuary of the Mountain View Methodist Church in Boulder.
Venue renovations often bring gains and losses, and this was no exception. This is worth noting, because the Mountain View church is being used more as a concert venue. It is a visually attractive space, and offers about the best parking of any venue in Boulder.
The carpet has been removed and replaced with a hard wood floor, and the pews have been replaced with reasonably comfortable chairs, which is all to the good. The sound is much more lively than before, and it may take performers a while to adjust to the new acoustic. Balance is problematic, as the strings had a hard time being heard over the boosted wind sounds. The wood floor certainly beefed up the bass, although not always in a helpful way. In time performers will likely adjust to the increased resonance.
The concert opened with the world premiere of The Hill of Three Wishes by Ben Morris, winner of the 2021 CU composition Competition. Reflecting the legend of Helgafell , a magical hill in Iceland that grants three wishes to anyone who can walk to the top without looking back, the score has an attractive folkish quality. It is written in a modal style that avoids harsh dissonance and welcomes listeners.
Morris makes great use of instrumental sounds to create a mythic quality that Katsarelis compared to The Lord of the Rings. Opening brass gestures establish the setting. An ancient Icelandic folk song adds a sense of timelessness, and at the end the music drifts atmospherically into silence. From the score I couldn’t tell if Morris was granted his wishes—did he, like Orpheus, submit to the temptation to look back?—but the hike is clearly a pleasant one. The brief score should find willing performers and audience enjoyment.
Another rare adventure was provided by the Piano Concerto in One Movement by Florence Price, whose music from the early 20th century was once forgotten but is being rediscovered. The first African American woman to have her music performed by a major orchestra when her First Symphony was premiered by the Chicago Symphony in 1933, Price was a skilled and accomplished composer. The concerto is symbolic of her fate: the full orchestral setting was lost and only rediscovered in 2019. Pro Musica is among the first to perform it as originally written.
The concerto is, however, misnamed as it is not truly in one movement. There is a clear cadence and break between the first and second movements, and the dramatic transition from the slow movement to the lively finale parallels many classical concertos. Like many of Price’s works, the score draws on her African American heritage, from the bluesy trumpet and trombone riffs at the outset, to the slow movement that channels dozens of great spirituals, and the juba dance finale that could easily be mistaken for a Joplinesque rag. This is a unique and valuable part of our country’s musical history.
Pianist Jennifer Hayghe gamely tackled the difficult solo part—Price herself was a virtuoso pianist—but while she started with a resounding first entrance, at other times balance issues prevented her playing from being clearly heard. Moments of lighter orchestration, with the piano against one or two winds, worked best. As well as I could hear, Hayghe carried off the solo part handily. Special notice should go to flutist Michelle Stanley, oboist Miriam Kapner and cellist Carole Whitney (if the program is to be trusted) for their solos in the second movement.
The finale had compelling energy, but as performed it was essentially an orchestral dance movement with the piano playing along. This is an utterly enjoyable movement, whether it shows off the pianist to full advantage or not. Katsarelis, Hayghe and the Pro Musica deserve our gratitude for bringing a valuable but rarely heard piece to the Boulder audience. Now that the original score has been reassembled, others should take up this concerto.
The concert concluded with a spirited reading of Beethoven’s powerful, popular Seventh Symphony. Audiences are used to hearing it played by larger ensembles, but a smaller orchestra like Pro Musica can bring a welcome muscularity and clarity to this and other classical scores. Once again, however, the lively acoustic was sometimes problematic. The fast rhythmic figures of the first movement and rapid passages in the strings were sometimes obscured by the punctuating chords or lost in the general resonance of the space.
Katsarelis followed all the road signs of Beethoven’s score, outlining both the structure and the drama of the piece. While some dynamic differences were swallowed in the overall resonance, she kept the tempo and maintained the thrust all the way to the end. That’s just what Beethoven calls for, and it provided a rousing culmination for the concert.