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.

baroque conversations 1

Mahan Esfahani, LACO’s very first Baroque Conversations artistic partner, has named three different cities to be the focus of the music during his three-year tenure. Tonight he leads us to the first stop, Berlin in the 1740s and 50s. The composers on this evening’s concert did not merely overlap geographically, but also shared many similar experiences. Three worked at the court of Frederick the Great of Prussia (CPE Bach, Janitsch and Benda), three were German (Benda was Czech), two studied law before pursuing music as their central focus (WF Bach and Janitsch),  and three came from musical families (Janitsch was born of a merchant). While all four lived during the important decades between the end of the Baroque period and the beginning of the Classical period, each chose a unique way to navigate through these transitionary times, some carrying the past with them, some looking firmly ahead.

Johann Gottlieb Janitsch was a German composer who became very active in the musical community in Frankfurt while he was a law student at the University there. Not only did he write music, but he also conducted and played in Prince Frederick’s orchestra. When Frederick II – known as Frederick the Great – ascended the throne, Janitsch was named contraviolinist in his court orchestra in Berlin, where Janitsch was to remain for the rest of his life. While there, he also began a weekly concert series called the “Friday Academies” that featured musicians from the court orchestra, enthusiasts from the community and guests. These concerts flourished for years and inspired other concert series of a similar nature. Janitsch witnessed the transition from High Baroque complexity to the beginnings of a cooler symmetry and simplicity in the Classical period. His musical style reflects both of these shifts. Some of his works show great mastery of counterpoint, while others use the simpler, gallant style found in the works of CPE Bach. Among his surviving works are about three dozen trio sonatas and 40 or so quadro sonatas. The theme of his Quadro in G minor for Harpsichord and Strings is the Lutheran chorale, O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden,” whose text is related to the Passion story in the Bible.

Of Bach’s many children, a few carried on the musical tradition of the family. Wilhelm Friedemann Bach was his oldest son and the second child born to him. Like his father, who was also his teacher, he was known as a fine organist with incredible skills as an improviser. When WF Bach finished at St. Thomas’ School in Leipzig, where his father was working, he briefly studied law at Leipzig University but changed focus to mathematics. When he began finding employment as a musician, however, his interest in math became more of a leisure activity. WF Bach worked as an organist, first in Dresden and then in Halle. Unhappy in the latter position, he left without any other prospects for employment, and his professional life fell into disarray, though is unclear exactly why things went sour. Perhaps it was WF Bach’s uncompromising personality or his unwillingness to write music that was easily accessible to the public. Unlike his brother, CPE Bach, who embraced the clarity emerging in the nascent Classical period, WF Bach continued to write in the complex contrapuntal style that was his birthright, as is evidenced in his Sonata in D major for Solo Harpsichord. His reputation is somewhat sullied by the fact that he, as one of the caretakers of his father’s manuscripts, sold off some of these precious documents to pay his debts. Regardless of whatever troubles he may have experienced in his personal life, his music masterfully displays the scintillating joy of counterpoint and improvisation. Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach’s contribution to this concert is his Sonata in B minor for Violin and Harpsichord. As a composer and musician, CPE Bach worked tirelessly, producing dozens of works including sonatas (for various instruments, but especially keyboard), symphonies, liturgical works and songs. In addition, he published a keyboard treatise while he was working in Berlin of which Haydn and Beethoven were reportedly big fans.

Jirí Antonín Benda, known as Georg Anton Benda, was a Czech composer born in Bohemia. Like Janitsch, Benda also found a place at Frederick the Great’s court. He was just 19 years old when he was appointed second violinist of the orchestra. In 1750, he was appointed Kapellmeister to the Duke of Gotha, where he wrote primarily instrumental works, but he was very interested in writing for the voice as well. He traveled to Italy to absorb the Italian style, and was particularly interested in opera there. A young Mozart admired Benda’s stage works – melodramas and singspiels (vocal dramas with spoken dialogue). Benda was well-known for his instrumental works, of which the Concerto in G minor for Harpsichord and Strings is a prime example.

 

– Christine Lee Gengaro PhD © LACO

the agony and the ecstasy

I really love Jeffrey Kahane, and I will certainly miss him when he’s gone. It’s so enjoyable to watch him while he’s conducting. Enthusiasm and passion flows from him into the Orchestra. The musicians respond with an equal measure of enthusiasm and awe, as the audience revels in this passionate back-and-forth communication. My favorite “Kahane moment” happened last season, when he conducted Haydn’s Symphony No. 88 in G major. His conducting had been particularly expressive, with some wonderful examples coming in the Largo and then, in the Finale, he actually stepped off the podium and just turned the Orchestra loose. He looked out at the audience, wearing an expression that seemed to say “deal with it.” It was definitely a “drop the mic” moment, and it endeared him to me forever. Don’t go, Jeff! Sigh.

On Sunday, the last piece played was Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 in A Major, Op. 92. I think Richard Wagner’s poetic account says it best: “All tumult, all yearning and storming of the heart, become here the blissful insolence of joy, which carries us away with bacchanalian power through the roomy space of nature, through all the streams and seas of life, shouting in glad self-consciousness as we sound throughout the universe the daring strains of this human sphere-dance. The Symphony is the Apotheosis of the Dance itself: it is Dance in its highest aspect, the loftiest deed of bodily motion, incorporated into an ideal mold of tone.”

Right? Aside from all the fabulous tumult and yearning, there was a great teaching moment from Kahane and another charming personal reveal. He illuminated for us that Beethoven’s 7th was influenced by Homer’s epic poem, The Odyssey, and that there is a direct connection between the meter of that poem and the familiar rhythm of the slow movement. He also told us that he had learned to read Greek (for goodness’ sake, come on) in order to really understand all of this, and then gave us a brief lesson on the dactylic hexameter of Homer. These little moments always add great texture and context to the performance.

The evening began with Bach’s Cantata No.51, which was written for services at his Lutheran Church. It includes a very complex and technical solo for a soprano, magnificently sung by Joelle Harvey, and a solo trumpet, played by the exceedingly able David Washburn. I have no critique of the virtuosity of any of these fine performers, but I did not resonate with this piece. It is very complex and each layer creates something of an idiosyncratic fantasia. It’s just too much for my taste, like an exhilarating hot mess. Very well done, but Bach could have done more with less, in my newbie opinion.

Mozart’s “Alleluja” was more to my taste – if you read my blogs from last season, you all know I love me some Mozart. While this piece also required a wide range and great technical excellence from the Harvey, I felt that the less elaborate orchestration allowed me to appreciate her talents more easily. I didn’t feel as overwhelmed by it. It was a sweeter and more joyful experience overall.

UCLA is lucky to have Movses Pogossian on their faculty. He is a beautiful violinist, seemingly made for Tigran Mansurian’s Violin Concerto No. 2. The work, titled ”Four Serious Songs”, is dark, introspective and deeply meditative. Pogossian seemed on the precipice of something deathly, the Orchestra calling out to him to leap. His violin keens, at once halting and searching, then climaxing in a passionate minute-long soliloquy. The catharsis was stunning. The Concerto’s final moments elevate us to a higher plane, tranquil and hopeful, having passed through the shadows and out again into the light.

What a marvelous way to start the season.

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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legacy society member profile – Susan Greenberg

When asked to share her favorite memory of the Orchestra, Susan Greenberg, former LACO flute and piccolo of 36 years, can’t choose just one. “It’s such a wonderful orchestra,” says Susan. “There were musical highlights with each conductor, because each of them had his or her own style. I can think of really exciting moments when the conductors brought out the essence of the music.” Susan remembers Neville Marriner’s style as simple yet exciting. His energy moved and propelled forward. Christof Perick and Iona Brown each had their ways of getting “inside the inside of the music.” She reminisces about touring to Europe, the beautiful venues in Italy and each performance of Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 she shared with David Shostac. “It was a thrill, I really loved the years I spent with the Orchestra.”

Susan, who played with LACO from 1975-2011, has enjoyed a versatile career as a soloist, chamber musician, symphony player and recording artist. The Los Angeles Times has described her playing as “brilliant,” “elegant” and “supple,” and has lauded her “panache” and “musical projection.” During her tenure with LACO, she was a frequent soloist, premiering a concerto for piccolo by Bruce Broughton and performing a concerto for flute, alto flute and piccolo written for her by Gernot Wolfgang. She has appeared as a guest soloist with the San Francisco, Oakland, Santa Monica and Napa Valley Symphonies and at the Hollywood Bowl. She has also performed with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, LA Opera, New York City Opera, American Ballet Theater and numerous festivals including the Casals, Ojai and Martha’s Vineyard. Susan has recorded over 500 motion pictures and received many accolades for her playing, including the “MVP” award on flute from the National Association of Recording Arts and Sciences. Currently the flute professor at Pepperdine University, Susan also serves as Co-Artistic Director of Chamber Music Palisades and is a proud audience member and Legacy Society member of LACO.

Despite her formidable resume, Susan remembers playing with LACO as some of the best moments of her career. “It was never a job. It was a love. I think most of the people in the Orchestra feel that way.”

It’s that feeling that inspired Susan and her husband Michael Norman to join LACO’s Legacy Society by including a planned gift in their estate. “As a player, I’m so grateful for the time I had in the Orchestra. It comes from a place of gratitude.” She urges others to consider doing the same, “It’s a wonderful way for your support to continue.”

There are many gift planning techniques that offer financial benefits to both the donor and LACO. Whether you are interested in reducing capital gains or estate taxes, or in receiving a fixed payment for life, there are many gift planning techniques that offer financial benefits to both you as the donor and LACO.

If you’d like to consider joining Susan and Michael in LACO’s Legacy Society visit laco.org/giftplan/ for more information or contact Sarah Singer at 213 622 7001 × 211 or sarahsinger@laco.org for more information about planned giving opportunities and benefits.

unbreak my heart

Noooo… the last concert of the season! Noooo… the last chance to hear Allan Vogel (oboe) and David Shostac (flute), who are retiring after 85 years of combined service to the orchestra. I am not happy about any of this, having come to know LACO and its wonderful musicians somewhat late in the game. I feel like I’ve missed out all these years living in LA. Oh yeah and also, noooo… next season is Jeffrey Kahane’s final season as Music Director. Rats. HOWEVER, they are still an amazing chamber orchestra, the individuals who succeed the wonderful retirees will be accomplished musicians. We will also have the opportunity to witness the next step in LACO’s evolution with a new Music Director. Things to look forward to… even though our hearts are kind of broken.

I was unfamiliar with LACO’s Sound Investment program, which was launched in 2001 as a way of developing funding for commissioned projects and to offer people a glimpse inside an artist’s creative process. Sound Investment members contribute toward the composer’s fee and production costs of the premiere performances. In return, each investor and a guest are invited to attend three composer-commissioner “salons,” held over the course of the orchestra’s concert season. It’s a great way of engaging the audience on a profound level with those who compose, conduct and perform music. A very cool idea, I think. On Sunday evening we saw their latest commission, Matthew Aucoin’s Evidence. What a wonderful opportunity for a young composer riding the crest of a wave to present his work and to connect with his audience in a more intimate way. I very much enjoyed hearing his thoughts and the context he gave us before we listened to his piece. He is very talented and very young and I look forward to following his career and seeing his growth.

Mozart. Ya know I love him. Piano Concerto No. 17 played by Marc-Andre Hamelin was a special treat for me. The composer has such mastery (in my opinion) and inventiveness and in the hands of a pianist with such great facility, the stunning slow movement had an almost “breath on the face” intimacy. The finale is a set of variations building to a freewheeling cadenza type of thingy (I believe that is the technical term for it). Mr. Hamelin is one of those virtuosos for whom nothing seems to hold any difficulty. He’s an interesting guy, not overtly emotional, clinically precise in his playing and yet you do feel that he has unwrapped himself before you. I think it’s that he’s so elegant. He’s ardent, but practiced. I loved it. It was exquisite.

And Schumann’s Second Symphony! Large sweep, many emotions, gorgeous detail! Schumann was really living when he composed this baby. It was a wonderful way to end the season. LACO doing what it does so well, playing a masterpiece masterfully. Maestro Kahane doing what he does so well, conducting the wholly living hell out of it. The loyal audience enjoying every note of it, every fist pump, every heroic overtone and fanfare. We sailed off in to our Sunday evening on a wave of Romance, our hearts repaired and ready for next season.

Thanks so much.