The Colorado Pro Musica Chamber Orchestra will perform Philip Glass’ Violin Concerto No. 2: “The American Four Seasons,” but don’t ask which season each movement represents.
Conductor Cynthia Katsarelis explains that the composer left it up to the listener to decide: “The concerto was commissioned by violinist Robert McDuffie,” she says. “But when McDuffie and Glass got together, they didn’t agree on which parts went with which season.
“Glass saw that as an opportunity for the listener to make their own interpretation — and that’s the invitation to our audience.”
The performances Friday, Feb. 6, in Denver and Saturday, Feb. 7, in Boulder, will feature violinist Yumi Hwang-Williams, concertmaster of the Colorado Symphony, as soloist. Other works on the program will be the world premiere of . . . I Give you my Sprig of Lilac by CU composition student Daniel Cox, and the Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis by Ralph Vaughan Williams.
Glass’ Seasons are a response to the four violin concertos portraying the seasons by Baroque composer Antonio Vivaldi.
“McDuffie wanted a companion piece to the Vivaldi Seasons,” Katsarelis says. “He and Philip Glass had talked about it for years. Glass wasn’t exactly sure how this would work in practice, but McDuffie just encouraged him to do his thing and see how it turned out.”
The result is in some ways very different from Vivaldi’s set, which comprises four separate concertos, each named for one of the seasons. Glass wrote a single work of four movements for violin and orchestra — none with titles identifying the season — each preceded with a written-out cadenza for solo violin.
“What Glass does really, really magnificently is that, without getting specific, he manages to evoke the feeling of seasons,” Katsarelis says. “It is fabulously beautiful, and it has a real sense of narrative between the soloist and the orchestra.”
Katsarelis thinks that Hwang-Williams is the ideal interpreter for Glass’s concerto. “Yumi’s appetite for music goes beyond the orchestral,” Katsarelis says.
“She is a concertmaster who runs the full gamut of repertoire, as concerto soloist she runs the gamut, she has particular experience in the contemporary repertoire, and she’s a formidable chamber musician. All of that comes to bear in making her one of the most fabulously intelligent and deep feeling soloists that you could have.”
Composer Daniel Cox, whose work will receive its premiere at the concert, won a competition at the CU College of Music in which students were asked to submit scores they had written. Four were then passed on to Katsarelis, and from those she selected the winner, who received a commission to write a new piece for the orchestra.
“I told [Cox] what our program was, and what the parameters were — for string orchestra, a shorter piece around eight minutes,” Katsarelis says. “And the piece he’s written is just beautiful.”
Cox described the piece as a musical response to Walt Whitman’s Lincoln elegy, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.” The title of the piece is a line from the poem where Whitman describes Lincoln’s funeral procession passing through towns across America. Whitman recounts giving a sprig of lilac as an act of both homage and grief: “Here, coffin that slowly passes, / I give you my sprig of lilac.”
“Whitman’s poem uses natural and idyllic imagery to ruminate on the nature of life and death,” Cox wrote on the score. “The result is one of coexisting sadness and beauty in the fleeting world that surrounds us.”
Katsarelis says Cox has translated the deep emotions of Whitman’s poem into music.
“The piece is a beautiful elegy, even though he doesn’t call it that,” she says. “It’s very evocative, a lovely work that we’re very proud to be able to present. We’re really grateful to the CU composition department, who enabled it.”
Katsarelis also expresses gratitude to Thurston Manning, a long-time supporter of CU who passed away four days after authorizing his support for the commission. “This was a project he was very excited about and wanted to see to fruition,” she says.
The other piece on the program is another lovely work for strings that refers to earlier music. Vaughan-Williams’ Fantasia uses music by the English Renaissance composer Thomas Tallis to construct a complex web of string sounds in an early 20th-century neo-Romantic style.
“It’s been referred to as one of the most beautiful pieces ever written,” Katsarelis says.
“We’ve had a year of horrific news, and I think this is a great program to sit and take in some of the best that humanity has to offer as an antidote. That’s what music can do for us.”
“American Seasons” by Pro Musica Colorado Chamber Orchestra with Cynthia Katsarelis conducting and Yumi Hwang-Williams on violin, is at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Feb. 6 at St. John’s Cathedral, 1350 Washington St., Denver, and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 7 at First United Methodist Church, 1421 Spruce St., Boulder. For tickets: 720-443-0565 and www.promusicacolorado.org.