program notes: parker plays brahms

Tonight’s program covers a wide breadth of musical territory. From the world premiere of a new work by young composer Julia Adolphe to Brahms’ enormous Piano Concerto No. 2—with forays into vocal music from the early 20th century, the Classical period, and the Baroque period—we are in for a fascinating ride. A program like this could not be possible without world class musicians, so LACO and Jeffrey Kahane share this evening with two special guests: Grammy Award-winning mezzo-soprano, Sasha Cooke and world renowned pianist, Jon Kimura Parker.

Every season, we are treated to new music in the form of the Sound Investment Commission. Tonight we will hear a new piece from Julia Adolphe, which was written expressly for LACO. Julia Adolphe is an accomplished composer, author, and teacher. In the last few years, she has gained attention for pieces like Dark Sand, Sifting Light, for orchestra, and Sylvia, a chamber opera. Adolphe’s emerging style displays a focus on texture and melody, and her use of orchestral colors is skillful and innovative. [Not sure if we will have her note here or if I will get a chance to write something…]

When George Friedrich Handel moved to London, he made his fortune with Italian opera, but as time went by, he expanded his work to English oratorios. The most famous of these is, of course, Messiah, but he also composed a host of others including Israel in Egypt, Solomon and Theodora, which in some ways, are even better exemplars of the genre. Oratorios are at their heart are simply unstaged operas about religious topics. Theodora began as a three-act oratorio about the eponymous Christian martyr. Handel composed it in 1749, and it premiered a year later at Covent Garden. The libretto was by Thomas Morell, who had written the libretti for a few other oratorios set by Handel. The story is a tragedy and ends with the deaths of Theodora and her lover, Didymus, a Roman who had secretly converted to Christianity. Theodora is sometimes presented as a fully staged opera when performed today.

The aria, “As with rosy steps the morn” comes from Act I, Scene 4 of Theodora. It is sung by Theodora’s friend Irene, a fellow Christian. The messenger tells them that Valens, the Roman governor of Antioch has decreed that all citizens must offer a sacrifice to Venus and Flora for Emperor Diocletian’s birthday. The words of the aria speak about how the dawn brings light to illuminate the darkness, and that the savior brings endless light. The aria is in typical da capo form, which has three parts. The outer sections are nearly identical, although the repeat usually has some vocal embellishments. A contrasting middle section offers a change of key and mood before returning to the opening melody. This aria, typical of Handel’s style, allows for the singer to display heartfelt emotion within the boundaries of the set form.

Mozart’s final year was very productive. While composing both the Requiem and Die Zauberflöte, he received a commission for an opera seria to be sung at the coronation of Leopold II as King of Bohemia. The chosen libretto was La clemenza di Tito, a work from Pietro Metastasio. This libretto, about the Roman Emperor Titus, had already been set dozens of times before Mozart put his hand to it. The subject matter—a kind and generous ruler—was perfect for the coronation. “Deh, per questo istante solo,” is an aria for the character Sesto, who is condemned to death. As the title of the opera suggests, Titus is a beneficent ruler, and Sesto will eventually be pardoned. The aria is in three main sections, a mournful Adagio, an Allegro middle section, and a quick coda. Sesto regrets betraying Titus, and does not believe he is deserving of mercy. The words speak of sorrow and despair; Sesto’s emotional confession stirs Titus’ kind heart. The gradual quickening of the tempo in each section works contrary to the feeling and the words, but perhaps reveals some hope that Titus’ benevolence and wisdom will right the situation.

Around the turn of the 20th century, Gustav Mahler held two positions in the Viennese musical world, Director of the Vienna Court Opera, and conductor of the Vienna Philharmonic. With so much to do, Mahler had little time to compose new material, but as he adjusted to the responsibilities, he found some time to create. His Fourth Symphony was finished in 1900, as were his Des Knaben Wunderhorn songs. The new period of composition would come to be known as the post-Wunderhorn, or middle period, and it was in this period that Mahler completed the ten settings of Friedrich Rückert’s poems. Five of them became the orchestral song cycle, Kindertotenlieder, while the other five were gathered into the collection we call simply the Rückert-Lieder. The first four songs were initially sketched out with piano accompaniment, but Mahler orchestrated them quickly after. Orchestration for the fifth song, “Liebst du um Schönheit” was done by Max Puttmann, who worked for Mahler’s publisher.

Song cycles are occasionally collected in a narrative group that tells an overarching story. The Rückert-Lieder have no such dramatic arc; they can be sung in any order. The instrumentation for the songs varies somewhat, but all five require harp, bassoons, horns, clarinets and oboes. One of the songs asks for Celesta, and two other songs require English horn. The subject matter varies from song to song as well. Our first selection, “Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder” (“Look not into my songs”), for example, explains that the creative process should remain mysterious and the listener should not be too intent on examining it. The text mentions the work of bees, and Mahler responds with a buzzing effect created by strings, woodwinds, and horn. “Liebst du um Schönheit”—which was a gift from Mahler to his wife, Alma— forms the center piece of the trio of songs chosen by our performers. It speaks of loving for love’s sake over wealth, youth, and beauty. The set ends with “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen,”a text that Mahler characterized as describing himself: a solitary Romantic, whose entire world lies in art. In this song and the first, we see both Mahler’s sensitivity to the poetry and his skilled orchestral choices.

Over 20 years passed between Brahms’ First Piano Concerto and his second, probably due to the negative response he first received for the earlier piece when he premiered it in Leipzig. Terribly disappointed though he may have been, he tried to spin it as a positive thing to his friends, explaining that this setback was bound to help him focus better. Still, he stayed away from the genre for decades. When he undertook the Second Piano Concerto, he was true to words he wrote years earlier to his trusted friend, violinist Joseph Joachim: “a second one will sound very different.” Brahms began composing the work in the spring of 1878, finishing in early July of 1881. The work premiered in November of 1881, with Brahms playing the solo and the Orchestra of the National Theater of Budapest playing under the baton of Alexander Erkel. The following year the piece has its American premiere at the New York Philharmonic.

The intervening years had given Brahms more confidence. Brahms’ friend Theodor Billroth noted that the composer’s second Piano Concerto in relation to the first was like the relationship of adulthood to childhood. There is also the fact of Brahms’ greater experience of the world. This particular piece was sketched out after his first trip to Italy and completed after his second. Brahms wrote both of his piano concertos for himself as the soloist, and therefore that part is less about flexible delicacy (not Brahms’ strong suit as a pianist) and more about strength and endurance. He dedicated the Second Piano Concerto to one of his early teachers, Eduard Marxen. The tribute is a mark of how much faith Brahms had in his new composition.

There are four movements in the concerto, rather than the traditional three, and one of them is a massive scherzo that Brahms had originally sketched out as part of an earlier piece. The opening movement brings the piano in quite early, and after a bit of dialogue concerning the initial melody played by the horn, the pianist launches into a lengthy cadenza. This asserts the pianist’s role as a powerhouse and focal point, but sets up further development by the orchestra. In the recapitulation, the pianist is simply part of the texture, which is lyrical and sensitive, although affirming. In Brahms’ inclusion of a scherzo as the second movement—an augmentation of the concerto format—he argued that the clarity of the first movement needed a passionate follow-up. It infuses the middle of the concerto with energy and is the perfect gambit to set up the slow movement that follows. The slow movement opens with an earnest cello solo that becomes enfolded into the orchestral texture as the movement goes on. The piano here isn’t competition, but rather another layer of color supporting the proceedings. The fourth movement is a lively finale, with hints of folk music here and there. It’s not firmly in a single style, but dances through a few different moods before ending with a rumbling crescendo that could leave no question that Brahms had finally come into his own.

newbie blog: haydn in london

Think, feel, take a deep breath, listen and enjoy – I felt like that was what Sunday’s program, Haydn in London, was designed to achieve, and they accomplished just that.

The evening started with Lutosławski’s Musique funèbre (1958), a string piece dedicated to the memory of Béla Bartók. The one-movement piece walked us through the Prologue, Metamorphoses, Apogeum and Epilogue. The emotional center of the piece is the Apogeum, a distressing outcry of grief and loss. Hearing it, I can only imagine it expresses the long suffering of a composer and a country that endured despite the pain. The music had a deeply emotional impact on me.

This piece also represented a turning point in his career. In his words, “it is a beginning of a new period and a result of my long experience. I tried to create a range of means that would become my own. And it is the first word – though obviously not the last one – spoken in what is a new language for me.” I was amazed by the comment, as the piece seems so fully developed and mature despite it being his “first words.” I guess this is a testament to Lutosławski’s mastery as a composer. I was also very moved and impressed by the near-flawless performance of the Orchestra.

The second piece of the evening was John Adams’ The Wound Dresser. Adams sets Walt Whitman’s poem of the same name over an orchestration reminiscent of the battlefield: unrelenting, endless and spectral. The poem is sung with expertise by baritone Brian Mulligan. Mulligan’s voice is rich and powerful, like dark roast coffee and chocolate. He breathes emotion into Whitman’s explicit yet unembellished description of the aftermath of battle. He brings the compassion and pain in the piece to the forefront. Each and every element of this piece, the music, the poetry and the voice, were wonderful. However, I felt the whole fell short of its parts. The vocalized poetry never really intertwined or incorporated with the music. The two ran parallel to each another, but never quite married. This kept me from becoming fully engaged with the piece, though not from appreciating the excellence of the performers.

Then, we took a breath.

After intermission, we were treated with Haydn’s Symphony No. 98 – and hat a pleasure it was! It was scored for flute, two oboes, two bassoons, two horns, two trumpets, timpani, a keyboard instrument (fortepiano originally) and strings. Though somewhat less famous than the “London Symphonies” (such as the Surprise, Military, Clock or Drumroll), it takes a back seat to none in terms of quality and ingenuity. Also, did I recognize a bit of “God Save the King” in there? Shout out to the soloists, they were just lovely, including a charming, pastoral trio in which the solo doubles the violins’ melody. The Finale remained unpredictable throughout. There was a particularly delicious moment at the very end, an eleven-measure solo bit for keyboard, which was just delightful (especially the turquoise harpsichord on which it was played)! I understand that Haydn wrote it for himself as an aural equivalent of a painter’s signature in the corner of a canvas.

Lastly, we heard Rossini’s overture from his opera, The Italian Girl in Algiers, a lovely, lively confection full of energy and novelty. You have to admit the man had faultless comic timing! The piece opened with the same gag that Haydn used in his “Surprise” Symphony: lull the audience with a quiet, unassuming opening, then hit them right between the eyes (ears?) with the whole Orchestra. HELLO! There wasn’t a dull moment in the entire piece.

One final note: one of the things I’ve enjoyed most about Jeffrey Kahane is the context that he gives when he speaks about what the Orchestra is going to perform for us. As a novice fan of orchestral music, it enhances my listening experience greatly and stimulates my interest to learn more. I really appreciated that Carlos Kalmar, the guest conductor for the evening, did that as well. His thoughts and comments were illuminating, charming and educational. I hope that whoever follows in Kahane’s footsteps will also recognize the value of these expository moments, as I feel it can only solidify and broaden the audience for this wonderful orchestra.

haydn in london: program notes

This evening’s concert is an emotional affair, featuring the talents of baritone Brian Mulligan and conductor Carlos Kalmar. We begin with Musique Funèbre, Witold Lutosławski’s tribute to fellow composer Béla Bartók. Mulligan sings John Adams’ setting of Walt Whitman’s text in the elegiac piece, The Wound-Dresser. Haydn’s Symphony No. 98 provides a palate cleanser before Rossini’s stirring Overture to the opera The Italian Girl in Algiers.

Witold Lutosławski’s Musique Funèbre is a heartfelt commemoration of composer Béla Bartók. As a student, Lutosławski studied Bartok’s music extensively, which left a distinct impression in the young composer’s style. With Musique Funèbre, Lutosławski seems to reference Bartók’s oeuvre, but not overtly. The scoring of the piece is rather specific: the violins are divided into four groups, and the violas, cellos and basses are divided in into two groups each.

Musique Funèbre does not rely on the language of tonality for its expression—it does not have a “home key”—but its emotional impact is potent regardless. Lutosławski veering away from the tonal system was something different, and he called it the “first word” in a language that was new to him. This one-movement work has four sections, titled Prologue, Metamorphoses, Apogee and Epilogue. The first and last of these are both canons, and they share a similar tempo. The Prologue begins in the low strings and builds slowly, expressing great intensity as it climbs upwards and adding voices as it goes. This intensity eventually recedes, and the section ends quietly with the notes traveling in a downward trajectory. Metamorphoses is an apt title for the next section, which features new material in addition to musical ideas from the first section, as Lutosławski subjects both to developing transformations. These begin almost as tremors that sound like primitive first steps. As the music continues, however, the metamorphoses become more complex. Apogee, a mere dozen measures, is true to its name as the apex of this journey.

Celebrated poet Walt Whitman was forever changed by what he saw during the American Civil War. As men returned wounded from the battlefield, he sat with them, listened to them, wrote letters for them and cared for them in their suffering. In The Wound-Dresser, composer John Adams sets Whitman’s eponymous poem. Its text, inspired by Whitman’s visit to a Civil War hospital, details both the mundane duties of wound-dressing and the spiritual experience of witnessing death. Adams notes that the text itself is “astonishingly free of any kind of hyperbole or amplified emotion,” as well as the absolute precision of the speaker’s observations. Despite the businesslike manner in which the wound-dresser approaches his work, he is nevertheless touched by the sights around him. He dresses the soldiers’ wounds “with impassive hand, (yet deep in [his] breast a fire, a burning flame.)”

A composer of innovative and affecting operas, Adams demonstrates his sensitivity to Whitman’s text, allowing these two moods—the mundane and the spiritual—to coexist musically as well as textually. The piece opens with a musical gesture in the strings that suggests the ghosts of the past, but the solo violin soon cuts through the mist, followed by the solo voice. The opening stanza evokes a sense of endlessness, with a progression in the strings that seems itself never-ending. A solo trumpet emerges as well, a reminder of the horn calls of the battlefield, and as the work progresses the rhythm stumbles forward, the narrator singing about cleaning a gangrenous wound. After this impassioned crisis, the voice falls silent for a moment as the solo violin rises out of the orchestra. When the voice returns, it is to affirm that the wound-dresser remains “faithful” and will “not give out.” Adams’ musical setting highlights the wound-dresser’s care, his compassion and his hope.

We visit the Classical period with Haydn’s Symphony No. 98, which, despite not having a catchy nickname like “The Drumroll” or “The Clock,” has always been one of the composer’s most popular works. It is a typical Classical symphony in many ways, but it features two quirks that are somewhat unusual for Haydn: a slow introduction, and a first movement with only one main theme, as opposed to  two, as was common. Throughout the movement, all of the musical material draws in some way on the main theme, appearing at both transitions and arrival points. The movement is exceedingly charming in its courtly grace. A notable passage by the solo flute appears in the recapitulation.

The second movement provides a change of pace with its languid opening theme played by the oboe and cello. This theme returns frequently, each time with embellishments in the strings. The orchestra punctuates the quiet texture of the movement with the occasional forte chord, including an appearance by the trumpet and timpani, a first for Haydn in a slow movement. The third movement, a minuet, is just the kind of dance we’ve come to expect from the composer. The elements of peasant dances are present, but Haydn surprises his listener with an unexpected harmonic shift here or a dynamic jolt there.

The final movement is full of surprises as well. At the time of its composition, its form was something new for Haydn, a hybrid of the sonata form (found in the first movement) and the rondo form (whose musical theme returns in between passages of other material). The theme Haydn presents in this movement comes in two parts, allowing Haydn to return with either one part of the theme, without repeats, or with a new harmonic interpretation. However, one barely has time to notice as the movement never stops moving (some have called it a perpetual motion finale). All too quickly, a stately fanfare brings Haydn’s enchanting Symphony to a firm and unambiguous ending.

Gioachino Rossini was one of the most successful opera composers of the nineteenth century, with thirty-nine operas in both French and Italian to his name. At the age of 21, he composed L’Italiana in Algeri, or The Italian Girl in Algiers, a two-act drama giocoso—an opera that features a mix of serious and comedic elements. Rossini completed it in a very short time; his own account says it took less than three weeks, though it may have actually taken almost four. The opera premiered in spring of 1813 and wowed audiences with its beautiful melodies, Rossini’s specialty. The Overture is often performed on its own, and it packs a surprise with a quiet opening and a sudden forte, not dissimilar to Haydn’s “Surprise” Symphony. This was likely no accident as Rossini was a great admirer of Haydn. The overture to The Italian Girl in Algiers  is effervescent and bubbles with energy and many musical delights. It bears some of Rossini’s signature gambits such as memorable melodies, surprising developments and exciting build-ups. It’s a perfect finale for a program filled with many dramatic turns, and luckily, it offers us a joyful ending to the evening’s program.

 

– Christine Lee Gengaro PhD © LACO

do not remain silent

Saturday was a long, long day. I attended the Women’s March on LA and carried their official banner. I’m not a spring chicken and was still beat on Sunday, so I didn’t really want to go to the concert. How fortunate that I did! Instead of being something I tiredly sat through, it was just the tonic my sore body and soul needed. What a remarkable event!

The evening opened with the U.S. premiere of Weill’s “Song-Suite for Violin and Orchestra”, performed without interval and beautifully arranged by Paul Bateman. The exuberance and enthusiasm of the Orchestra, with Daniel Hope as violin soloist, lifted my spirits and created a feeling of light hearted well-being in the house.

Jeff Kahane is a superhero. Before leading the West Coast premiere of Bruce Adolphe’s Violin Concerto “I Will Not Remain Silent”, he pulled a copy of the US Constitution from his pocket and said, “We must not, cannot and will not remain silent.” Standing ovation. Kahane has developed such a sense of intimacy in his relationship with the audience over the years that we know how personal this is for him. His passion and conviction are inspiring. This performance was compelling, conveying the fear and constant weight of living in Nazi-occupied Berlin in the first movement while and bringing us to America during the struggle for civil rights with all its upheaval and turbulence in the second. Daniel Hope’s violin, a little rough and very rich, became the individual voices, striving to be heard.

After the intermission—and a moment to calm ourselves—we were treated to Pink Martini’s Storm Large with Hudson Shad, the vocal quartet, as her chorus. Singing the dual Annas in Weill’s The Seven Deadly Sins, Large showed her mastery of both the innocence and licentiousness of her character’s splintered personality. In keeping with the sentiment of the night, she donned the symbol of the Women’s March, a pink, pussy-eared knit cap for a small portion of the “Wrath” section.  It was Powerful. Yes, with a capital P. And if there was anyone who wasn’t teary-eyed and feeling very patriotic by that point, she came back with an encore of her own creation, “Stand Up for Me”, a moving love song that took on an even deeper meaning for us all. Not a dry eye in the house. But what an inspired and inspiring night!

Thank you very much for that, LACO. I will not remain silent.

 

– Kathleen Carreiro © LACO

storm large sings 7 deadly sins

Tonight’s program features two works by Kurt Weill, a German composer who immigrated to the United States after the Nazis came to power in 1933. The concert opens with a suite of songs from musicals he composed between 1928 and 1943 and closes with a set of songs he originally conceived as a ballet. In between we will hear Bruce Adolphe’s Violin Concerto, which is based on the life of Joachim Prinz, a rabbi who urged his fellow Jews to flee Germany when it fell under Nazi control. Eventually Prinz himself fled, seeking sanctuary in the United States, where he participated in the Civil Rights movement.

In 2013, violinist Daniel Hope commissioned a suite of Kurt Weill’s music from British composer, conductor, and arranger Paul Bateman. The resulting work – “Song-Suite for Violin and Orchestra” – takes the listener on a musical journey through some of Weill’s most popular and recognizable songs. With this Suite, Bateman seeks to represent an important period in Weill’s life: his emigration from Germany to the United States. This transition fostered in Weill two contrasting compositional goals, one concerned with uncompromising exploration and experimentation, and the other with catering to a massive, demographically broad audience. Historian David Drew, widely considered the world authority on Weill, introduced the idea of “two Weills,” each epitomizing one of his disparate ambitions. In his arrangement, Bateman juxtaposes works from each of the “two Weills,” evoking a sense of his development over time.

The Suite opens with “Havana Song” from Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, which premiered in 1930. The opera, with a libretto by Bertolt Brecht, is set in a destination-city for pleasure-seekers. The piece itself is sung by a young woman who discusses the price of her companionship. Next comes “September Song” from Weill’s Knickerbocker Holiday, a 1938 musical with book by Maxwell Anderson. This melancholy discourse on the passage of time is the finale of the musical’s first act, but has found a second life as a standard. Then, Bateman switches gears with the lively “Kannonen-Song” from The Threepenny Opera (1928) and “My Ship” from Lady in the Dark (1941). The latter, with lyrics by Ira Gershwin, features Liza, the musical’s protagonist, struggling to remember a nursery rhyme from her childhood. Bateman follows these with a song from One Touch of Venus, whose Broadway premiere in 1943 makes it the latest work presented in the Suite. The song in question, “Speak Low,” has lyrics by renowned poet Ogden Nash. The finale, The Threepenny Opera’s best-known song, “Mack the Knife,” is versatile enough to encapsulate the work of the “two Weills” and thus provides a fitting ending to the Suite.

Weill fled Nazi Germany because both his music, which was strongly influenced by jazz and other popular styles, and his Jewish heritage put him in serious danger. Also in danger was Joachim Prinz, a German-born rabbi who lived in Berlin until 1937. Bruce Adolphe’s Violin Concerto “I Will Not Remain Silent” tells his story. Prinz warned his fellow Jews of the coming crisis and encouraged many of them to leave. By doing so he saved countless lives. When Prinz immigrated to New Jersey, he did not settle down for a quiet life. He continued to speak out as part of the World Jewish Congress, and he became involved in the Civil Rights movement. Prinz even gave a public oration during the famous March on Washington, right before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I have a dream” speech. Adolphe chose Prinz as the subject for his Concerto to celebrate his profound contributions to both Jewish culture and American Civil Rights.

As a composer, educator, performer, and author, Adolphe has enjoyed a successful career. Fueled by his interest in the interplay between music and neurology, he authored a book of exercises to help develop what he calls “Musical Imagination.” Furthermore, he has taken up the appointment of composer-in-residence at the Brain and Creativity Institute in Los Angeles. His passion for learning also bleeds into the realms of history and social consciousness, as is evidenced by his Concerto. As Adolphe himself explained, “The violin represents the voice of Joachim Prinz throughout the Concerto. In the first movement, the orchestra represents Nazi Germany; in the second movement, the orchestra represents America during the civil rights era.” The way Prinz’s voice manifests itself in the violin is passionate and urgent. This contrasts drastically with the dissonant, martial, and uncompromising voice of Nazi Germany in the orchestra. The second movement begins more peacefully, although there is still plenty of strife in Prinz’s new home. Steeped in this struggle, Prinz’s voice continues to “speak out” against injustice, racism, and prejudice. A beautiful soliloquy in the form of a passionate violin cadenza brings the Concerto to a close.

On his way to the United States Kurt Weill stopped in Paris, just in time to witness the creation of a new dance troupe, Les Ballets. Choreographer George Balanchine and dancer Boris Kochno commissioned a sung ballet – or ballet chanté – from Weill and Bertolt Brecht. Although he had no interest in working with Brecht again, Weill begrudgingly collaborated on this, their last project together. The resulting piece, The Seven Deadly Sins, was dedicated to the influential patron of the arts Marie-Laure de Noailles, who was involved with some of the most important artists of the 20th century including Jean Cocteau, Salvador Dalí, and filmmaker Luis Buñuel.

The Seven Deadly Sins features roles for five singers and one dancer. Weill’s wife Lotte Lenya originated the singing role of Anna I, and Tilly Losch danced the part of Anna II. The two communicate with each other, giving the sense that they are two separate people, but one could interpret the two roles as two aspects of a single personality. Anna I’s strong will and fierce determination help her to convince Anna II to suppress her true feelings. A male quartet provides commentary, acting as the Annas’ “family.”

The Prologue introduces us to Anna, who, too proud to sell herself, decides to travel to seven different cities to seek her fortune, but she encounters a deadly sin in each. In the first movement, Sloth, Anna’s family sings a church chorale, warning her to avoid laziness. The second movement, a waltz titled Pride, finds Anna performing topless dances in Memphis. Wrath is a foxtrot and takes place in Los Angeles, where Anna works at a movie studio, though her anger quickly gets her fired. Then the family assembles in Philadelphia for Gluttony, an (almost) a capella barbershop quartet that warns Anna to watch her weight. She moves on yet again, but must contend with Lust in Boston. She is torn between a wealthy man she does not love, and a poor man she does. Greed (Tennessee) is an aria sung by Anna’s father, who expresses the family’s concerns about Anna’s reputation. Finally we will hear Envy in San Francisco, where Anna expresses her jealousy of those who can be true to their feelings. In the epilogue, Anna moves back to her family’s “new little house” in Louisiana. The Seven Deadly Sins received mixed reviews, and was mostly forgotten until its revival shortly after Weill’s death in 1950. Since then, it has grown in stature, becoming one of Weill’s most respected post-emigration works.

 

– Christine Lee Gengaro PhD © LACO

 

tonight’s compositions in LACO’s history

 

All three works on tonight’s program are new to the LACO repertoire. American composer Bruce Adolphe’s contemporary work, Violin Concerto, “I Will Not Remain Silent,” is bookended by two works from Kurt Weill. A collection of Weill’s popular songs, “Song-Suite for Violin and Orchestra” (arranged by Paul Bateman for violinist Daniel Hope), receives its US premiere. Vocalist Storm Large and vocal quartet Hudson Shad perform Weill’s famous The Seven Deadly Sins.

project trio fever

I did actually get the fever … so, sadly, I had to leave at intermission and missed the Mendelssohn. I did, however, get to hear the Mozart. (Do I even have to say it? I love me some Mozart!) I was also present for one of the most amusing performances I’ve seen so far at LACO: the Adam Schoenberg piece “Scatter” performed with guest ensemble PROJECT Trio.

Oh, and I must mention that the guest conductor, Alexandre Bloch, is a charmer. He was wearing a fantastic shiny black suit and the worst brown shoes in history, and I thought to myself, “How will I be able to listen to the music with those horrible shoes staring at me!?” I mean, they were all kinds of awful. Then, he proceeded to tell us how he’d been swimming at the beach and been stung by a stingray and his foot had swollen and turned weird colors and these horrid brown shoes were the only ones that still fit him. This little anecdote set the tone for the evening: personable, funny, festive, a delight. And if I’m being honest, I completely forgot about those hideous shoes until now.

The program started with Mozart’s Symphony No. 38 in D Major. The thing I really love about Mozart is his way of luring you in with his wonderfully lyric facility, inviting you to follow along blissfully as he exercises his creative virtuosity, spinning out more and more complex variations on a theme until you’re suddenly hit with just how deep in to the music he has taken you. In this, the “Prague” Symphony, you can hear the composer straining at the limits of what the Orchestra and the form can do. In particular, the opening movement’s main allegro is remarkable. This is the longest single symphony movement of the 18th century and stands out to me as Mozart’s biggest compositional challenge as a symphonist. He tasks himself with giving coherence to his creative invention and doesn’t quite manage it, but that in and of itself is thrilling. Of course, this magnificent chamber orchestra plays the heck out of it, and Bloch’s very kinetic conducting style drives them confidently through the lively Presto and home again.

The guest ensemble on the second piece, PROJECT Trio, is taking chamber music to a whole new level. Based in Brooklyn, beat-boxing flutist Greg Pattillo, Eric Stephenson on the steel cello and Peter Seymour on the double bass are an interesting group of guys. In addition to performing high energy, top-quality tunes, they are breaking apart traditional ideas of chamber music. On Sunday, we were treated to the West Coast premiere of Adam Schoenberg’s “Scatter,” which was written specifically for PROJECT Trio’s unique gifts. A single-movement, 18-minute score which, in addition to the traditional Orchestra, employs pop, funk and electronic sounds made by a computer played by a percussionist. PROJECT Trio’s website describes it thusly, “The overall architectural narrative is: slow/atmospheric-subtle groove-disjointed motion-high speed groove-epic bang”. I agree. They were wonderful and hilarious and perfect. These men pack an enormous amount of personality per cubic inch. They did an encore called The Bodega, which was such a treat that I’m going to link you to a video of it so you will know what I mean. I certainly hope to see more of them. Enjoy!

mozart & mendelssohn

Mozart was very busy in 1786 and 1787. He fathered two children: Johann Thomas Leopold (1786) and Theresia Constanzia (1787), and also grieved the death of his father (1787). In this turbulent environment he composed two operas (The Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni), a Piano Concerto (No. 25), and tonight’s Symphony No. 38 in D major. Mozart composed the Symphony in Vienna, but at that time the city was less than enthusiastic about his work, so he decided to premiere it in another city that more eagerly welcomed his music, Prague. The city’s patrons were already enamored with The Marriage of Figaro, so when Mozart arrived to conduct the opera he brought his new Symphony with him.

Most symphonies of the Classical era conform to the standard four-movement structure: a lively first movement, a slow second movement, a minuet and trio third movement, and a fast fourth movement. Mozart’s “Prague” Symphony, however, contains just three movements, omitting the minuet. Though it does not feature voices, the Symphony is noticeably influenced by Mozart’s operas. The first movement juxtaposes sections of imitative counterpoint by individual instruments with powerful statements by the whole ensemble, evoking the dramatic flourishes of an opera overture. The next movement provides a lyrical contrast to the first. Its shifting moods and colors add a larger sense of dramatic weight. The finale provides ample evidence of Mozart’s brilliant gift for counterpoint. However, its themes are interrupted by stormy interjections, once again evoking the operatic overture, where the mood can turn from joyous to tragic in the blink of an eye. Despite this, the music’s effervescence shines through, beautifully capturing the theatrical flair that made Mozart the toast of Prague in the late 1780s.

Adam Schoenberg is an award-winning composer who has garnered success with both his concert and film music. Educated by John Corigliano and Robert Beaser, and carrying degrees from both Juilliard and Oberlin, Schoenberg exemplifies the 21st century style: his music is full of bold ideas. It is able to create mystery and evoke color, but still entertains listeners of all sorts. Scatter is a work written for PROJECT Trio, a three-piece chamber ensemble formed by flutist Greg Pattillo, cellist Eric Stephenson, and double bassist Peter Seymour. The concerto features traditional instruments coupled with electronic sounds which add layers of new colors to a traditional orchestra. It opens subtly, with brief fragments of melody seeming to rise out of the atmospheric, electro-acoustic drone. Eventually, however, the piece takes off, and each soloist brings out different repeated “grooves” throughout the vibrant and energetic first section. One might term the style dynamic minimalism, as the work’s repeated phrases always seem to lead somewhere new. Each soloist has their moment to shine, but certain members of the orchestra are also given chances to emerge from the sound. Schoenberg draws upon idioms from jazz, funk, and fusion in addition to classical music, allowing room for much improvisation. The sectional structure of the single-movement work contrasts moments of quiet ambiance with lively, rhythmic, melodic passages. As many of the musical decisions are left to the players’ discretions, every performance will be a little bit different.

As a young man, Felix Mendelssohn was deeply motivated by his travels. A trip to Italy inspired his Fourth Symphony, and a trip to Scotland in 1829 planted the seeds for two works, The Hebrides Overture and his Third Symphony, Op. 56, “Scottish.” He began sketching the music for both pieces right away; he wrote down a couple dozen measures of the Hebrides Overture almost immediately! When it came to the Symphony, however, Mendelssohn took his sweet time. The bulk of the writing came much later on, and he didn’t actually finish the work until 1842. The orchestration calls for a traditional Classical ensemble: winds and brass in pairs, timpani, and strings, but the Symphony also expresses quite a bit of Romantic spirit in two significant ways. First, there’s a decidedly Romantic feel in the work’s dark and stormy sections. Second, Mendelssohn switched the traditional middle movements, normally a slow movement followed by a minuet and trio. In the “Scottish,” the second movement is a quick scherzo to replace the minuet and trio, while the third movement is a mournful, emotional Adagio.

The piece begins with a brief Andante that quickly gives way to an agitated Allegro that comprises the majority of the first movement. Here, Mendelssohn subjects the theme to several variations in which the stormy weather and rough seas of Scotland manifest repeatedly. All of the harmonic and melodic touches typical of Mendelssohn are present: lightly chromatic harmonies and jaunty rhythms and lyricism. The character of the second movement, however, couldn’t be more different. It is loosely based on Scottish folk music, and although Mendelssohn didn’t quote any specific tunes, the movement paints a clear picture. To him, it was the best way to evoke the lifeblood of the country and its people. The movement features several buoyant, playful melodies that are not easily forgotten. One can expect to be humming them for some time afterwards. The third movement, a melancholy Adagio, definitely draws on the dark mood, if not the actual musical material of the introduction. Mendelssohn drives the Symphony to a bombastic close with an energetic fourth movement. More folk-like melodies eventually yield to the same stormy themes heard in the first movement. However, Mendelssohn does not simply recapitulate. Instead, he reinvigorates the music by adding a feeling of majesty, ultimately transforming the earlier gloomy passages into a grand fanfare. The finale perfectly expresses the glory and wonder of Scotland through the lens of Mendelssohn’s music.

freaks, fiddles & fanfare

The program for the second concert in this season was delightfully refreshing and eclectic. It had humor and peril and bombast and earthiness. Very appropriate for a Hallows Eve!

The evening began with a lovely tribute to Sir Neville Marriner, the founding conductor of LACO, who recently passed away at the age of 92. In a very sweet moment, the conductor-less Orchestra played a Larghetto from Elgar’s “Serenade for Strings.”

Guest conductor Thomas Dausgaard, current Chief Conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, is a tall and lithe Danish man who conducts with zest and precision. His conducting never dragged, yet never seemed hurried. The orchestra was bursting with life and clarity. He built momentum with ease. There was a particular lightness and relish in the back and forth between the Orchestra and their kinetically fearless leader pro tempore.

The first piece, “A Freak in Burbank” by Swedish composer Albert Schnelzer, was inspired by Haydn and Tim Burton. It’s mischievous, unpredictable and playful. The piece captures the sweet spot of chaotic dark humor characteristic of Tim Burton’s work. Dausgaard’s long, black-suited limbs enthusiastically leading the Orchestra really added to the feeling of the piece, calling to mind the figure of Burton’s beloved character Jack Skellington from “The Nightmare Before Christmas.” The influence of Haydn’s inventiveness and rhythmic propulsion could also be felt in the piece.  It was a highly enjoyable romp!

Next up was Finnish composer Sibelius’ “Six Humoresques.” These are delightful to listen to, especially when performed by the outstanding Norwegian soloist, Henning Kraggerud, who is also an experienced composer.  He has great technical virtuosity that appears to be very grounded and organic. It meshed beautifully with the untroubled charm of the Humoresques. My favorite was the 5th, a showy and playful piece in which the soloist displayed the full range of his technique. The 6th brings this agreeable suite to a soothingly introspective conclusion.

Finally, breaking with the night’s “Scandinavians take over LACO” theme, we have the stuff of symphonic legend, BEETHOVEN’S THIRD! What can I say about this? It’s magnificent. It’s gigantic. Its expressive range runs the gambit from comic to tragic to heroic. It’s jaw dropping in its ambition and scope. What’s really interesting about this piece is that it was originally entitled “Bonaparte.” Beethoven composed it as a memorial to a man (Napoleon) he hoped would inspire all of Europe to an egalitarian revolution. In May 1804, Napoleon betrayed Beethoven’s idealization and declared himself Emperor of France (he was crowned before the Pope in December of that same year). With that, Napoleon became to Beethoven a “tyrant” who would “think himself superior to all men.” In his rage, he renamed the symphony “Eroica”. Thus, what began as an homage to a great libertarian with humanist ideals evolved into the longest and largest-scale embodiment of musical life force Beethoven ever created, in my opinion.  The symphony itself becomes the hero! An excellent outcome.

One last thing: congratulations are in order for Claire Brazeau, the newly-appointed principal oboist (she has a great Instagram feed, by the way: @oboejones). The orchestra will also be welcoming Joachim Becerra Thomsen as principal flute in January of 2017.

beethoven “eroica”

A composer’s inspiration can truly come from anywhere, and the first and last pieces on tonight’s program are proof of this. Contemporary composer Albert Schnelzer found the inspiration for his work A Freak in Burbank in both the past (in composer Joseph Haydn) and the present (in filmmaker Tim Burton). Beethoven found the inspiration for his Third Symphony in a political leader whom he admired for (purportedly) championing the disenfranchised: Napoleon Bonaparte. The inspiration for Jean Sibelius’ Six Humoresques, which fall in between these two bombastic bookends, is not quite as interesting. However, the work reveals the composer’s profound love of the violin, the crux of Sibelius’ musical experience.

When the Stockholm Chamber Orchestra commissioned Albert Schnelzer to write A Freak in Burbank in 2008, the Swedish composer had the films of Tim Burton and the music of Joseph Haydn on the brain. He admired the playful and humorous elements of Haydn’s music, qualities that seemed to Schnelzer infused in Burton’s work as well. Films like Beetlejuice (1988), Edward Scissorhands (1990), and the Batman series (1989–97) evidence Burton’s humorous yet macabre style. These qualities appeared during Burton’s childhood; when he wasn’t watching horror films in the theaters of Burbank, he was spreading rumors of an alien invasion to the kid next door.

Schnelzer’s orchestra is “Haydn-sized,” in the words of the composer, with little more than woodwinds, horns, trumpets and strings. Timpani, wind chimes, and bass drum round out the percussion section. He endeavored to imitate Haydn’s festive transparency, but in a modern context. As Schnelzer himself asks in the score, “Will the spirit of Haydn survive in an American suburb?”

A Freak in Burbank begins mysteriously. A dissonant sting pierces the silence, and tremors in the woodwinds and strings follow shortly. The music is a bit unsettling and makes one feel as though he or she is in a horror film, being chased by some unseen, sinister enemy. Sustained notes in the high strings give way to lower instruments, which rise up out of the sound to play hauntingly beautiful solo lines. There are some passages one might almost consider cheerful, but the orchestra provides sporadic, dissonant punctuations to keep the listener on edge. As the piece nears its end we are thrust violently back into the chase, fleeing for our lives. Tension continues to build until a startlingly abrupt ending. Did something catch us? Or did we just wake up from a dream?

Jean Sibelius began violin lessons at the age of ten, and he wanted nothing more than to become a virtuosic soloist. Despite being denied this dream, he wrote a few yearning love letters to the instrument, including his Violin Concerto and Six Humoresques for Violin and Orchestra. The latter are categorized in two opus numbers, the first two in Op. 87 and the final four in Op. 89, despite Sibelius’ intention to present them as a single suite. The years leading up to the completion of the work were a tumultuous time for Sibelius. He was dealing not only with domestic troubles fueled by his alcoholism, but also the tragedy of World War I and its devastating political effects on Finland. These problems were just the beginning. Before long Sibelius would give up composing altogether. Although he would live to be 92, Sibelius wrote very little in the last three decades of his life. Despite this, he completed the work in 1917 and it premiered two years later, performed by soloist Paul Cherkassky and the Helsinki City Orchestra under the baton of Sibelius himself. On the same program that evening was the premiere of Sibelius’ revised Symphony No. 5.

The entire set of Six Humoresques is brief, about 20 minutes in total, but Sibelius packed them with a multitude of musical ideas, intending to compile them into a collection of dances. Indeed, the mazurka (a lively Polish dance) strongly influences the first Humoresque, while the third draws upon the Baroque gavotte. Sibelius gave the violinist rapid, virtuosic lines evoking the passagework of Paganini. The second and fifth Humoresques contain similarly spectacular passages. The Humoresques are not solely about fireworks, however. The fourth movement especially contains beautiful moments of repose and thoughtfulness. The final Humoresque flirts briefly with the virtuosity of the earlier movements but settles on a lighter, more jovial tone. The set ends not with a bang, but with a wink, perhaps entreating us to not take the whole endeavor too seriously.

At first, Beethoven dedicated Symphony No. 3 to Napoleon Bonaparte out of respect. He felt the man represented the ideals of the revolutionaries in France. The symphony was to be a grand gesture for a grand man, but when Napoleon proclaimed himself Emperor of the French Beethoven was sorely disappointed, and in protest he renamed the work “Eroica” rather than “Bonaparte.”

The symphony marks the beginning of Beethoven’s middle, or “Heroic,” period. During this time he began to leave behind the Classically influenced simplicity of his early style in favor of large scale, structurally complex, meaningfully deep compositions. Musically speaking, Symphony No. 3 is a tour de force. The first movement alone, with the exposition repeat, is as long as the typical symphony of the day. Several programmatic aspects of the Symphony suggest an intended narrative, notably the funeral march in the second movement and the reference to a ballet in the last. There is certainly no dearth of emotional content in this Symphony, and when one considers his concurrent attempts to come to grips with his encroaching hearing loss, the work’s violently dramatic outbursts make a lot more sense.

It begins with two signal chords, a musical gesture that was common in the very earliest symphonies. From there, Beethoven offers an appropriately heroic theme. He showcases different moods through frequent dynamic shifts, sometimes bigger than life, sometimes dark and pensive. There is enough emotion and struggle in the first movement to tell an entire story in and of itself, but it is only the beginning.

The second movement is a funeral march, a solemn dirge that every so often gives way to sweeter, even optimistic musical interludes. One such interlude culminates near the center of the movement in a triumphant moment, until the original dirge reasserts itself. This movement in particular has a life separate from the Symphony as a ceremonial work for occasions of mourning (it was played at FDR’s funeral, for example). The third movement is a quickly-moving scherzo that crackles with energy. The rhythm in this section is especially inventive. Three French horns playing in counterpoint are featured in the Trio section of the scherzo. Their warm timbre might bring to mind hunting calls or military ceremonies.

Beethoven based the final movement on one of the main themes of his ballet The Creatures of Prometheus. The ballet details the myth of Prometheus, who stole fire from the gods to give to his fellow humans, an act for which he was severely punished. The theme begins haltingly, but soon gains momentum. We are subsequently treated to ever-more-complex variations, including fugal sections. The coda is suitably grand, with a triumphantly bombastic ending. The reference to the Prometheus myth might suggest an allegory for the artist’s creativity, with Beethoven as Prometheus and his music as the life-giving fire. Indeed, in the 200 or so years since his death, Beethoven’s stature as an artist has grown to near demi-god status. Nothing could put out his flame, not deafness, chronic illness, despair, or loneliness. His Third Symphony is when that first spark catches fire, and it is truly brilliant to behold.

 

– Christine Lee Gengaro PhD © LACO

yo-yo ma plays haydn & brahms

Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra is fortunate not only to have so many talented musicians, but also to be able to invite guests of the highest artistic caliber. Tonight we welcome international cellist YoYo Ma, who, along with our own Jeffrey Kahane, presents a special evening featuring music by Haydn and Brahms.

Joseph Haydn spent most of his career in the service of the Esterhazy family. On one hand, this was a fortuitous circumstance —Haydn had unwavering financial support and a plethora of fine musicians for whom to write—but on the other it limited his ability to travel, perform and compose for a larger public. When Prince Nikolaus Esterhazy died in 1790, Haydn was released from his duties, and thus began a new phase in his career. We know of Haydn’s time in London from the dozen symphonies he wrote during his two visits, but he also composed some exciting showpieces for the English audience, who adored his music. His Piano Trio No. 39 in G major is one such piece. Its nickname, “Gypsy,” comes from its final movement, which is marked with the directive “all’Ongarese,” or “in the Hungarian style.” Haydn dedicated the work to Rebecca Schroeter, a music copyist with whom the composer was romantically involved.

The opening movement, a charming Andante waltz, eschews sonata form in favor of a set of double variations. True to the era’s prevailing style, each variation offers something special: a more complex part for one of the players, a version in a minor key, or a more chromatic rendering of the theme. The second movement slows the tempo to Poco adagio and provides a lovely melodic exploration, at first in the piano, but later, and more notably, for the violin. The third movement, a lively Rondo, is really what this Trio is known for. It is even occasionally performed as a stand-alone piece. This lively Rondo features a melody that evokes folk tuneswith its syncopated accents and almost dance-like, rhythmic quality. As with any rondo form, we revisit the same melody numerous times, but with each subsequent appearance Haydn treats us to some surprises: excursions into minor keys, dynamic shifts, and pizzicatos. Later piano trios would give the cello a more prominent part in the conversation, but here the violin and piano do most of the quick passagework. The Rondo is an exciting movement, made all the more special by its brevity.

Johannes Brahms wrote only two Cello Sonatas in his life. He completed the first in 1865 but waited until 1886 (more than two decades!) to compose the second. It is the latter composition—the Cello Sonata No. 2 in F major—which we will hear this evening. Brahms dedicated the work to its first performer, cellist Robert Hausmann, who also played in a string quartet led by Joseph Joachim, a famous virtuoso violinist of the time and a close friend to Brahms.

Content with the traditional forms and ideas with which he was accustomed, Brahms did not involve himself with the exploratory Romanticism of his contemporaries. Unsurprisingly, he constructed this Sonata in four movements, with a sonata form Allegro vivace to begin the piece. Brahms’s writing is passionate from the very first moment, with stormy mood shifts and effusive declamations, especially in the cello. He labeled the second movement Adagio affetuoso, calling for a slower pace and a deeper emotional quality. It is a quiet meditation, less concerned with drama and more with pathos. Pizzicato passages, including the opening theme, provide some contrast to the long and flowing melodic lines. The lyrical third movement brings back a feeling of impetuousness. Even though Brahms was in his fifties when he wrote this sonata, it feels youthful and passionate, even brooding and angsty at times. The central F major section places us in the eye of an emotional storm before returning to the more comfortable F minor introduced in the opening. The fourth movement, a rondo, is the shortest section of the Sonata, but it provides something of an optimistic ending to the work. It is not without its emotional turbulence, however, as Brahms withholds a complete harmonic resolution until the very last moment.

Brahms’s passion for the music of his past is evident not only in the forms of his pieces. He also collected published scores of Baroque and Classical masters and analyzed them, often copying out works that particularly intrigued him in order to study their styles. In the 1870s, Brahms found a divertimento for wind instruments (supposedly by Haydn) titled “Chorale St. Antoni.” Its theme, which may have actually been written by Haydn’s student Pleyel, Haydn moves primarily by step, but has a few leaps as well. Interestingly, the first phrase is five measures long instead of the usual four.

Brahms composed a set of variations on this theme in 1873, which he titled Variations on a Theme by Haydn. The piece begins with an introduction that quotes the original chorale theme. Brahms then works through eight variations in which he changes tempo, texture and mood, but keeps that unique initial five-bar phrase (and a four-bar coda) as a structural anchor. Each variation ranges farther afield, obscuring the identity of the theme more and more as the piece progresses.

In the finale of the work, Brahms used the old-fashioned technique of building variations over a repeating bass line—a passacaglia. Brahms’s bass line adapts the opening five-measure phrase; he retains the length of the phrase, but simplifies the notes. He then spins out 17 variations over the passacaglia. Little by little, the theme works its way through different parts of the texture until it regains its place as the melody. Throughout the piece, Brahms shows his harmonic inventiveness and creativity despite his strict, self-imposed framework. Brahms’s unique gift was to marry the forms and techniques of the past with the harmonies and rhythms of the Romantic period. He did this in many of his works, but nowhere is it as evident as in Variations on a Theme by Haydn.

We close out this spectacular evening with Haydn’s Cello Concerto No. 1 in C major. The work, written as the forms of the Classical period were coalescing, features both Baroque influences and the sonata form that would become the central formal concept in the second half of the eighteenth century.

Haydn used the traditional three-movement structure found in most Classical concertos, wherein two energetic movements bookend a slower middle section. In each of these, Haydn calls upon the skills of the soloist often. The first movement opens up, in typical fashion, with the strings taking the lead, but Haydn also evoked color in the woodwinds. After the orchestral exposition, the cello soloist presents similar material to which Haydn adds flourishes and variation. The woodwinds sit out the slow movement, changing the color and mood a bit. The cellist’s sustained notes in this section are achingly beautiful, and there is a cadenza for the soloist, a slightly unusual touch. The finale, again in sonata form, features more opportunities for the soloist to shine. LACO and Yo-Yo Ma are sure to bring Haydn’s Cello Concerto to a satisfying and scintillating close.