Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra: making great music personal

program notes: a many splendored thing

Saturday October 14, 2006
Sunday October 15, 2006

Wolfgang Continuum IV – Cascades

orchestration: solo flute, alto flute, piccolo; 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons; 2 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones; timpani, percussion; harp; piano; strings

Bernstein Serenade for Violin, Strings, Harp and Percussion

orchestration: solo violin; timpani, percussion; harp; strings

Schumann Symphony No. 2 in C major

orchestration: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons; 2 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones; timpani; strings

Austrian composer Gernot Wolfgang currently resides in Los Angeles, where he completed the course “Scoring for Motion Pictures and TV” at USC, following degrees earned at the Berklee College of Music in Boston and the University of Music in Graz, Austria. He has toured extensively in Europe as guitarist with the Austrian jazz ensemble, The QuARTet. He currently serves as composer-in-residence for the Beverly Hills International Music Festival and is completing a work, commissioned by LACO’s Sound Investment, to be premiered in the final concert of our season.

CONTINUUM IV – Cascades was commissioned by LACO flutist Susan Greenberg, and supported in part by grants from the L.A. Chapter of the American Composers Forum and the American Music Center. This single-movement piece is divided into three major sections, each of which features the soloist on a different instrument-alto flute for the mysterious, quiet opening, introducing the work’s main theme, and the standard flute for the middle section with what the composer calls “a percussion groove reminiscent of some of Miles Davis’ and Weather Report’s work.” A flute cadenza and quiet string interlude provide the link to the final section, featuring the piccolo. The solo bassoon introduces the third section, which is up-tempo and folk-like in character with a jazzy touch. Over time the orchestration grows into a forceful climax from which the solo strings emerge. After a reprise of the work’s main theme and a piccolo cadenza, the piece ends with the full orchestra.

Philosophy and music tend to make interesting pairings. By far the best known piece of music inspired by a work of philosophy is Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra, which uses the philosopher’s ideas simply to provide images that may generate music. Much the same can be said for Leonard Bernstein’s Serenade for Violin, Strings, Harp and Percussion, which takes its impetus from The Symposium, one of Plato’s best-known dialogues, dealing with the subject of love. In The Symposium, a succession of speakers each proposes his conception of love. Bernstein cast his work in five movements, each evolving out of certain musical elements from the preceding one, just as a good conversation moves rationally, but with considerable freedom, from one topic to another. The composer’s own description is quoted here as the best guide to the piece:

I. Phaedrus; Pausanias (Lento; Allegro) Phaedrus opens the symposium with a lyrical oration in praise of Eros, the god of love (fugato [fugue-like passage], begun by the solo violin). Pausanias continues by describing the duality of the lover and beloved. This is expressed in a classical sonata-allegro, based on the material of the opening fugato. II. Aristophanes (Allegretto) Aristophanes does not play the role of clown in this dialogue, but, instead, that of the bedtime story-teller, invoking the fairy-tale myth of love. III. Eryximachus (Presto) The physician speaks of bodily harmony as a scientific model for the workings of love patterns. This is an extremely short fugato scherzo [playful fugue-like passage], born of a blend of mystery and humor. IV. Agathon (Adagio) Perhaps the most moving speech of the dialogue, Agathon’s panegyric embraces all aspects of love’s powers, charms and functions. The movement is a simple three-part song. V. Socrates; Alcibiades (Molto tenuto; Allegro molto vivace) Socrates describes his visit to the seer Diotima, quoting her speech on the demonology of love. This is a slow introduction of greater weight than any of the preceding movements and serves as a highly developed reprise of the middle section of the Agathon movement, thus suggesting a hidden sonata form. The famous interruption by Alcibiades and his band of drunken revellers ushers in the Allegro, which is an extended rondo ranging in spirit from agitation through jig-like dance music to joyful celebration. If there is a hint of jazz in the celebration, I hope it will not be taken as anachronistic Greek party music, but rather as the natural expression of a contemporary American composer imbued with the spirit of that timeless dinner party.

Robert Schumann suffered a physical breakdown attributed to overwork in 1842 and a much more serious one in August 1844. The second time he suffered from constant trembling, phobias (fear of heights and of sharp metallic objects), and worst of all, constant noise or ringing in the ears, which made playing or composing impossible for him.

He had known depression before, but this time it was accompanied unmistakably by serious medical indications. It was also doubly unwelcome because of the several extraordinarily good years that he had enjoyed following his marriage to Clara Wieck in 1840, years filled with active composition. But in1844, even with his beloved Clara at hand to inspire him, writing music was out of the question; it took weeks even to write a letter. His recuperation took more than a year, during which he composed almost nothing. The first completely new large composition after his breakdown was the Symphony No. 2 in C Major.

Much of Schumann’s music is intensely personal, often with intimate references to early sweethearts or to Clara after she entered his life. The Second, if anything, is inspired by a purely musical source: the heroic symphonies of Beethoven, in which a subdued mood at the opening resolves through heroic struggle to triumph at the end.

The opening slow section suggests what Schumann called the “dark days” recently past, despite the presence of the brass fanfare in C major, a fanfare whose brilliance Schumann intentionally undercuts. In the Allegro, the sharply dotted principal theme affects a heroic air, but the chromatic secondary theme denies any feeling of conquest.

Perhaps it was the high emotional level of the first movement that caused Schumann to switch the traditional movement order, placing the Scherzo second, and allowing a further release of energy before settling down to the lavish lyricism of the Adagio. The basic ground plan is one of Schumann’s own invention, in which the main scherzo section comes round and round again in double alternation with the trio. Schumann employs two trios; the second of these has a brief fugue-like passage with the theme presented both “upright” and then with the melodic intervals inverted-recalling his studies of Bach during his illness. The motto fanfare of the first movement recurs in the closing bars to recall the continuing, as of yet fruitless heroic search.

The Adagio is well worth waiting for. Here the passion of the musical ideas, the delicacy of the scoring, and Schumann’s masterful control of tension and release create a high-voltage sense of yearning. The song-like theme is of an emotional richness not found elsewhere in the symphony; the soaring upward and sweeping descent of large intervals seems to be before its time musically.

The last movement has always been the most controversial. Partisans have both attacked and defended it for its unusual structure. The movement certainly projects an affirmative character; the second theme, recalled from the third movement, is overwhelmed by the onrush of energy. The most unusual formal aspect of the movement is the fusion of development and recapitulation, ending in the minor key. An extended coda is therefore necessary to motivate a confident ending-and in this case, the coda is almost half the length of the movement.

Now, for the first time in this symphony, we may be intruding on one of Schumann’s private messages: the coda develops a totally new theme, one used earlier by Schumann in his Fantasie for Piano, Opus 17. It had been borrowed, in its turn, from Beethoven’s song cycle An die ferne Geliebte (“To the distant beloved”), where it was a setting of the words “Nimm sie hin denn diese Lieder” (“Take, then, these songs of mine”). In the Fantasie, Schumann was unmistakably offering his music to Clara. Here, too, it seems, he is offering the music to her, though now the void that separates him from his “distant beloved” is no longer physical but psychological.

The fanfare motto from the first movement returns as an assertion of victory at the end, a triumph of willpower over the torments of the immediate past.

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