bach & beethoven 7

Jeffrey Kahane and LACO have chosen some heavy hitters to open this concert season, and it’s no surprise; the entire season is going to be spectacular. If we think about the length of time it would take to listen to all of the music of JS Bach, Wolfgang Mozart and Ludwig van Beethoven, we would be listening to symphonies, sonatas, cantatas and concertos twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, for three solid weeks. And I didn’t even include the work of the fourth prolific composer on this weekend’s program, Tigran Mansurian, who is in his seventies and still actively composing. Each one of these composers found ways to make their music, even as they overcame challenges that ranged from heavy workloads to financial troubles to serious illnesses.

JS Bach lived sixty-five years. He fathered twenty children, ten of whom lived to adulthood. He produced consistently throughout his career in the various jobs he held. The work that opens our concert is a cantata written by Bach, likely in 1730. In his job as cantor of the main churches in Leipzig, including the St. Thomas Church, Bach was called upon to write a new cantata every Sunday. Now, just in case you think this was a quick thing Bach could dash off in an afternoon, let’s go over just how complex one of these cantatas could be. Cantata No. 51, “Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen,” which will be presented on this weekend’s concert, requires two skilled soloists, soprano (Joèlle Harvey, in our performance), and trumpet (played by our own David Washburn), along with an instrumental ensemble. The cantata has five movements, with a breathless opening that joyfully praises God, followed by an accompanied recitative that shifts the mood into more serious territory. A heartfelt aria forms the emotional core of this cantata. While listening to this, one might be forgiven for forgetting that this was a musical piece to presented in the middle of the Lutheran service and not some dramatic opera. It premiered on a regular Sunday on the church calendar—not even a holiday or feast day. But, Bach would not let us forget; the fourth movement is the Lutheran chorale, a feature present in all cantatas (whether they featured choir or soloists). In the case of Cantata No. 51, the chorale is “Sei Lob und Preis mit Ehren,” a song giving praise and glory to God. The chorale—which alternates lines for the soprano soloist with music for two virtuosic violins—gives way without pause to a scintillating and contrapuntal “Alleluia.” This is not just some church music; this is a mini-drama! And he did this every week for years—sometimes very simply, sometimes with more soloists and a choir. All of the while holding down a job that required his attention throughout the week and seeing to the needs of a large family, including giving music lessons to his children. Bach had a secret weapon, though: coffee. Also he was brilliant.

Mozart’s productivity was pretty amazing, considering that he did not make it to his thirty-sixth birthday. But then, we must remember that Mozart started composing as a child, so he had a few years of work experience under his belt by the time most of us got our learner’s permit. He wrote his first opera-like piece (it was a section of an oratorio) when he was eleven. He composed symphonies, concertos, sonatas, string quartets, serenades, divertimenti and plenty of vocal music. When he was about fifteen, he traveled to Italy with his father Leopold, and composed a motet for a famous castrato of the Milan opera. It is this piece, Exultate jubilate that we will hear in the concert. Mozart was a fast enough creator and worker to be able to feel the stroke of inspiration and complete a piece within a matter of days. A lot of Mozart’s challenges were more difficulties of management than they were of creativity or output. By his last years, the struggle to make enough money to support a certain kind of lifestyle caused lots of stress, but through it all, Mozart kept writing. One veteran composer of music for television once quipped to me that he thought Mozart would have made a stellar composer of tv music: the man could churn out quality work in a pinch.

Tigran Mansurian’s fifty-year career as a composer was not without its ups and downs. As a composer in Armenia when it was part of the Soviet Union, Mansurian was not entirely free to experiment with avant-garde art music, one of his important influences. Rather than writing in a style that was not true to his artistic sensibilities, Mansurian found work writing film scores, which allowed him a little more leeway to experiment. His style also focuses on another important influence, Armenian folk music. Violin Concerto No. 2, “Four Serious Songs,” which Mansurian composed in 2006, suggests a reflection on grief and acceptance. With his title, Mansurian made reference to Brahms’ late composition Vier ernste Gesänge, which was composed after his long-time friend, Clara Schumann, suffered a stroke. Mansurian continues to compose even now, the political issues a distant memory, the challenges coming only from himself.

Our program ends with Beethoven. The ease with which Mozart seemed to compose contrasts starkly with the ‘tortured artist’ aesthetic Beethoven exuded. I’m sure you can think of one struggle Beethoven had on the road to immortality. Who would have imagined that one of history’s greatest composers would have spent nearly half his life with significant hearing loss? And that wasn’t all of it either. His health in general was not good. He probably had some sort of inflammatory bowel disease, and he suffered problems with his liver and kidneys, to say nothing of the migraines he endured. The figure of Beethoven is synonymous with struggle itself. We see it in his questioning “Heiligenstadt Testament” (a letter he addressed but never sent to his brothers considering how he might go on with his infirmity). We see it in the mad cross-outs and alternative versions that appear in his scores. And even though he outlived Mozart by more than twenty years, he wrote only nine symphonies to Mozart’s forty-one. But what majestic pieces they are! Born of passionate struggle. Each one evidence of dedication and hard work. LACO’s opening concert features the magical Seventh as its finale. This is the piece Wagner once labeled “the apotheosis of the dance.” Only the methodical theme and variations in the second movement (an absolutely perfect slow build) nods at the internal struggle. Otherwise it is pure elation. How Beethoven could access that feeling and somehow express it in music is the miracle. This concert will get Jeffrey Kahane’s farewell season off to a wonderful and joyful start.

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