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.

the country cousin

The Country Cousin won a Best Animated Short Award at the ninth annual Academy Awards® ceremony in 1937. It is based on the Aesop Fable “The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse” which tells the story of a country mouse named Abner coming to the big city to visit his cousin Monty.

This was one of the more popular Silly Symphony cartoons and showcases advancements in character animation such as more dynamic character poses, more naturally fluid motion of the animation, and snappier action. Abner and Monty display much personality in their animation, which shows the further honing of the animation craft at Disney. This short pushes the art form, which benefited from the training going on at the studio during those years. Again, it was an indication of the desire to eventually do an animated feature film.

Some of the animators who were assigned to this short included Jack Hannah, Les Clark, Art Babbitt and Cy Young handling effects. It should be noted that Art Babbitt and Les Clark did the bulk of the animation for The Country Cousin short with the others doing some additional animation.

Les Clark had joined Disney in 1927. He worked on the original Mickey Mouse cartoons as an assistant to Ub Iwerks and began animating on the Silly Symphony The Skeleton Dance in 1929. On The Country Cousin he animated much of the section with Abner and Monty on top of table where they sample the cheese just before Abner spots the champagne. He went on to animate on most of the features from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs through 101 Dalmatians.

Art Babbitt started at Disney as an assistant and became a top animator and director. His first great piece of animation is considered the drunk Abner animation in The Country Cousin. Abner slurping champagne, licking the side of the glass for every last drop, and slumping into the shallow, broad-bowl of the glass like a lounge chair is a wonderful display of his animation prowess. He is also credited with developing the character Goofy and for animating both the Evil Queen in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Geppetto in Pinocchio.

As with all Silly Symphony cartoons, this short was created around a score, which was written by Leigh Harline. His scores are noted for their “musical sophistication that was uniquely ‘Harline-esque,’ by weaving rich tapestries of mood-setting underscores and penning memorable melodies for animated shorts and features.”

One of the very interesting aspects of this cartoon is that a storybook of the same title was issued when the film was released to theaters. David McKay Company of Philadelphia printed The Country Cousin picture book; at the time they were a large publisher of literature, textbooks, comics and children’s books. Issuing a book simultaneously with the release of the film was a common practice in the 1930s for the most popular Silly Symphony cartoons, including the earlier Three Little Pigs, which had a book of its own as well. It is a great example of the merchandise tie-ins that Disney pioneered and is known for.

three little pigs

Three Little Pigs is arguably one of the most successful and well known of the Silly Symphony series. It is based on the popular fairy tale of the same name, which dates back hundreds of years. The Disney interpretation is the most recognized version and went on to win the 1934 Academy Award® for Best Animated Short Film.

It is the story of three swine brothers, Practical Pig, Fiddler Pig and Fifer Pig, who each build their own homes. Fifer Pig plays the flute, “doesn’t give a hoot and plays around all day” and builds his home of straw. Fiddler Pig, who “plays on his fiddle and dances all kinds of jigs,” builds his home out of sticks and, of course, Practical Pig, who plays the piano, builds his house out of bricks and mortar. We all know the outcome of this story once the Big Bad Wolf shows up!

The animation in this short was done by a number of Disney animation legends including Fred Moore, Norm Ferguson, Art Babbitt, and Dick Lundy. The short was a milestone in adding personality to the animated characters. You can see this in the pigs as well as the Big Bad Wolf in comparison to the characters in the previous short, Flowers and Trees.

Carl Stalling, who went on to become the legendary music director/composer for the classic Warner Bros. “Looney Tunes,” arranged the score for Three Little Pigs.

This short also featured the song Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf, which became a smash hit in the 1930s. Frank Churchill wrote the song with additional lyrics by Ann Ronell. Mary Moder and Dorothy Compton, who voiced Fiddler Pig and Fifer Pig respectively, sang it in the film. Billy Bletcher voiced the Big Bad Wolf and is best known for voicing Peg Leg Pete.

Aside from the commercial success of Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf, Frank Churchill wrote some of the most endearing music in the Disney catalog. Among those include Heigh-Ho, Whistle While You Work and Some Day My Prince Will Come from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. He co-wrote the Academy Award®-winning score for Dumbo and was nominated with Ned Washington for Best Song from that film for Baby Mine. Churchill was also nominated posthumously for co-writing the score for Bambi as well as the song Love Is a Song from that film.

Finally, it is certainly worth noting that the Library of Congress added Three Little Pigs to the National Film Registry in 2007. According to the Library of Congress, “Under the terms of the National Film Preservation Act of 1992, each year the Librarian of Congress, with advice from the National Film Preservation Board, names 25 films to the National Film Registry to be preserved for all time. The films are chosen because they are “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.”

flowers and trees

The Silly Symphony short Flowers and Trees began as a black and white production but was quickly scrapped when the decision was made to use a new Technicolor three-strip color process. Up until the release of Flowers and Trees all the Disney animated shorts had been black and white. Walt Disney, convinced of the potential of this new color process, negotiated a contract with Technicolor for the exclusive use of three-strip process in animation. This effectively prevented other animation studios from using the process until after September of 1935, giving Disney a competitive edge in the marketplace.

Flowers and Trees showcases nature in all its springtime glory coming to life, literally with anthropomorphic trees and flowers as the characters. The trees and flowers begin by waking up, yawning, and washing. Once refreshed, a male tree creates a harp-like instrument by stretching some vines down from a bent tree trunk and playing music. A female tree begins to dance slightly while another tree conducts a group of chirping birds on its arm-like limb and flowers dance about.

The music was composed by Bert Lewis and Frank Churchill and uses a number of familiar classical tunes. Musically the short starts out with a serene quality, which could be seen as harkening back to the same Midwestern roots Walt Disney had with his experiences in Marceline, Missouri. Many of the scores for the Silly Symphony shorts have a simpler, more languid, symphonic quality in comparison to the jazz based themes found in the Fleischer cartoons, a main competitor to Disney, being produced in New York at the time.

That symphonic pastoral score plays as the courtship begins between the young male and female tree characters with the guy giving a flower tiara to the girl. The music quickly changes as a villainous old tree grabs the girl and starts dragging her off. The introduction of conflict was something that was absent from some of the earlier seasonally themed shorts and adds tension to the storyline of this short.

The young male tree rescues her and does battle with the old villainous tree. Eventually, the young male tree forces the villain backwards where he trips over a rock. The villain falls on his back, arms folded and pretending to be dead. A flower walks onto his chest while the well-known Funeral March theme by Chopin plays. But the villainous tree is not dead. Getting up, he starts a fire as revenge against the young tree couple.

The final three to four minutes of Flowers and Trees are virtually a medley of well-known classical favorites. Aside from Chopin’s Funeral March, a menacing fire certainly warrants the frightful but stirring music of Schubert’s Die Erlkonig, and Rossini’s famous “Storm” sequence from his Overture to William Tell. The forest comes back to life to the appropriate accompaniment of The Dawn, also from the William Tell.

Eventually a group of birds punch holes into a cloud allowing rain to dowse the fire. Vultures circle the charred remains of the villain tree and the forest is renewed to a sense of order once again. The short ends with nuptials for the young couple and the ubiquitous Wedding March in C major by Felix Mendelssohn. This is one of Mendelssohn’s best-known pieces – one that he wrote for a suite of music to Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

all about the schumanns

Robert Schumann was a fascinating person. We think of him as a composer first, but he also was quite a talented writer, penning articles, poetry, and reviews. His father was an author and a publisher, and Robert grew up around literature. He was a voracious reader, and at the ago of thirteen, wrote short articles for one of his father’s publications. In his passion for both literary matters and music, Robert Schumann embodies the quintessence of the Romantic spirit.

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Schumann was devoted to his own self expression, but also wrote about and reviewed the music of other composers. In earlier publications and in the Neue Zeitcschrift für Musik, a music magazine founded by Robert Schumann and Friedrich Wieck (who would become his father-in-law), Robert wrote articles—more than three hundred in total—about up and coming composers, new compositions, and the state of affairs for music in the nineteenth century. In these writings, he introduced a secret society called the League of David (Davidsbündler), a group of artists whose main purpose was to slay the Philistines. In this context, the Philistines were the makers and consumers of music that was banal and pedestrian. Schumann’s society had members like Eusebius, Florestan, and Raro, three imaginary men who represented aspects of Schumann’s own personality. He used these characters to advocate for other artists, and to debate and discuss the music of the day. As a champion of new music, Schumann supported the work of Chopin, Brahms, Berlioz, and others.

He lived for literature, art, and music. And in keeping with his stature as the model of a “Romantic,” we must of course mention the epic love story of Robert and Clara Wieck. What could be more romantic than a tale of forbidden love? When Robert was 21 years old, he began studying piano with Friedrich Wieck. Wieck not only taught piano, but had a prodigy for a daughter. Clara’s skill at the piano was well-known from her very first public appearance.

Robert moved in with the Wieck family, and eventually fell in love with Clara, much to Mr. Wieck’s consternation. Schumann kept very detailed journals, so we know that Robert and Clara kissed for the first time on November 25, 1835 when Robert was 25 and Clara was 16. Friedrich did everything he could to discourage this relationship, taking Clara away on tours that lasted months at a time, and forbidding their correspondence. Schumann, prone to depression, suffered a great deal from their separation. The young love fament so far as to take up a court case, asking for legal permission to marry without Friedrich’s consent. This caused a rift between Clara and her father, and in the long battle that followed, Schumann’s depression worsened. Eventually, however, their case prevailed, and the two were married.

The Schumanns had eight children, and endeavored to find balance in their lives. Robert needed time and quiet to compose, Clara needed a place to practice so she could continue playing concerts. They faced the same challenges of any working couple with a large family. Sometimes the difficulty was in trying to find someone to care for the children, and sometimes it was simply finding the time and space to create. Sometimes there was tension because of Clara’s more public success as a performer (Schumann gave up performing years earlier because of an issue with his right hand). They experienced the loss of one of their children at the age of one. And then there were Robert’s severe bouts of depression.

Next weekend, LACO presents Schumann’s Second Symphony. Composed in a time of mental turmoil, this work represents a triumph of creativity over adversity. In the 1840s, Robert suffered from both depression and auditory hallucinations. Tinnitus was probably the cause of the constant ringing in his ears. He also experienced acute anxiety and worried about being poisoned by metal objects. By the 1850s, Schumann began to hear voices, heavenly choirs in his head, and sometimes he had demonic visions that frightened him. In fear that he might harm the members of his family, Schumann attempted suicide in 1854. He was rescued, but asked to be put in an asylum, where he remained for the last two years of his life.

The love story doesn’t end with Robert Schumann’s death, however. Clara remained devoted to her husband’s work and his memory. Clara spent the rest of her career playing Robert’s music, popularizing it. She was also named the editor of Robert’s complete works for the publisher Breitkopf and Härtel. She outlived her husband by 40 years, but remained unmarried for all that time. Robert paid tribute to this love and devotion while he was alive, and you can hear one such tribute in the Second Symphony. In the final movement of the Symphony, there is a reference to the last song in Beethoven’s song cycle “An die ferne Geliebte.”

In addition to love notes from Robert Schumann to Clara, LACO’s upcoming concert also features Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 17 in G major and the world premiere of Matthew Aucoin’s commission for Sound Investment, Evidence. It’s going to be a wonderful evening that celebrates the quintessential Romantic in Robert Schumann, the perfect Classicist in Mozart, and something entirely new that’s never before been heard by the public. Schumann would have approved heartily of the Sound Investment commission, because it encourages composers to write new music. No doubt composer Matthew Aucoin (who will appear also as guest conductor) would have found a great champion in Robert Schumann.

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