Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra: making great music personal



program notes: four seasons

Saturday May 19, 2007
Sunday May 20, 2007

Wolfgang Desert Wind (World Premiere), Commissioned by Sound Investment

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

Vivaldi Violin Concerto in G minor, Op. 8, No. 2, L’estate (“Summer”), RV 315

orchestration: solo violin; harpsichord; strings

Piazzolla Cuatro estaciones porteñas (The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires)

orchestration: solo violin; strings

Haydn Symphony No. 98 in B-flat major

orchestration: 1 flute, 2 oboes, 2 bassoons; 2 horns, 2 trumpets; timpani; fortepiano; strings

Tonight we hear the world premiere of Gernot Wolfgang’s Desert Wind, written for LACO’s Sound Investment commission. When these program notes were written, during the summer of 2006, he had not yet completed the work, but he was able to provide the following information regarding his conception of the piece:

My new piece for the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra will be programmatic, and it will have to do with something very typical of LA-the Santa Ana winds. I’m interested in exploring what goes on when these desert winds hit the city. At least that will be my point of departure, where this initial inspiration will take me we’ll see.

Conceptually, I’m planning on treating the composition as a chamber music piece with expanded color and textural possibilities. I’d like to feature the soloistic voices of a number of LACO’s outstanding musicians in partly intimate settings, and counteract such passages with large orchestral sections. As always in my concert music, grooves-rhythms from jazz, rock ‘n roll, world music, electronica etc.-will be a part of the mix.

Austrian-born composer Gernot Wolfgang earned degrees at the University of Music in Graz, Austria, and the Berklee College of Music in Boston before pursuing the course in composing for motion pictures and television at USC. He has toured extensively in Europe as guitarist with the Austrian jazz ensemble “The QuARTet.” He lives now in Los Angeles and currently serves as composer-in-residence for the Beverly Hills International Music Festival. His Continuum IV- Cascades was performed at LACO’s opening concert this season, and LACO is thrilled to be rounding out the season with his Desert Wind.

During his lifetime, Antonio Vivaldi was famous all over Europe. After his death, though, his music fell into oblivion until it was discovered that many of J.S. Bach’s keyboard concertos were in fact transcriptions of concertos from Vivaldi’s Opus 3. One group of concertos was internationally popular in its own day and became so again in ours-the four works known as The Four Seasons, which made up the first four concertos in his Opus 8, a set of twelve concertos issued in Amsterdam in 1725. His fanciful title to the whole set, Il Cimento dell’Armonia e dell’Inventione (“The Test of Harmony and Invention”) hints that its contents were in some way extraordinary. The “test” in question involves the ability of music to depict specific pictures to the listener. In order to make clear what actual images he had in mind, Vivaldi preceded the entire publication with four Italian sonnets, one describing each of the four concertos, and its sequence of events. And he went farther-he actually entered into the player’s instrumental parts brief descriptions of what was supposed to be happening.

Sometimes the images are general; in Summer, the opening passage suggests “Languor from the heat,” while virtually the entire remainder of the first movement is a series of images identified by Vivaldi: three birds in a row, represented by the soloist’s trills with brief orchestral punctuation (“The cuckoo,” “The turtledove,” and “the goldfinch”). Suddenly the summer winds take over-first “Sweet zephyrs” (upper strings). Then come “diverse winds,” with the sudden arrival of Boreas, the north wind, bringing bad weather (all strings at a very rapid tempo). After a brief return to the opening theme, we hear “the weeping of the little peasant,” who fears the oncoming storm. The first movement ends with the violence of that wind-driven summer storm. The slow movement alternates a sustained violin solo, representing the peasant’s hope to rest over a repeated dotted-note figure in the violins representing flies and hornets. At intervals the poor peasant is overwhelmed by the sound of distant thunder, played presto by the entire string section. The closing movement is a vivid depiction of the summer thunderstorm that has broken out in full force, with thunder, lightning, and rain pelting down. Here Vivaldi allows us to identify the specific images ourselves within his extended and vivid depiction.

Aside from their pictorial detail, the “seasons” concertos do exactly what a concerto is supposed to do: allow the solo violinist opportunities to display virtuosity and expressive prowess. The listener can enjoy the structure of the concerto while sharing in the delight of the composer’s imaginative use of melody, rhythm, harmony, and texture to create vivid tone-paintings.

L’ESTATE

Sotto dura staggion dal sole accesa Langue l’huom, langue ‘l gregge, ed arde il Pino; Scioglie il cucco la Voce, e tosto intesa Canta la Tortorella e’l gardelino.

Zeffiro dolce spira, ma contesa Muove Borea improviso al suo vicino; E piange il Pastorel, perchè sospesa Teme fiere borasca, e’l suo destino;

Toglie alle membre lasse il suo riposo Il timore de’ Lampi, e tuoni fieri E de mosche, e mosconi il stuol furioso!

Ah che pur troppo i suo timor son veri. Tuona il fulmina il Ciel e grandinoso Tronca il capo alle spiche e a’ grani alteri.SUMMER

In the harsh season parched by the sun
man and flock languish, and the pine withers.
The cuckoo raises its voice and, at once
the turtledove and goldfinch sing.

Zephyr blows sweetly, but, in contest,
Boreas suddenly moves nearby;
and the shepherd boy weeps, for, in suspense,
he fears the violent storm and his own fate.

His weary limbs are deprived of rest
by fear of lightning and wild thunder,
and by the furious swarm of flies and hornets!

Unfortunately his fears are justified.
The sky fills with thunder and lightning,
and hail decapitates the proud stalks of grain.

The Argentine composer Astor Piazzolla studied composition with Nadia Boulanger in Paris, but recognized (with Boulanger’s enthusiastic support) that he had found his true voice in the tradition of tango, which has been a popular dance form in his native Argentina from the beginning of the century. He was extremely popular in his homeland as a composer of dances and songs, but he also extended the concept of tango into concert music to a degree not recognized by many purists, who wished to stick with the old-fashioned tradition. Indeed, it would be fair to compare Piazzolla to a handful of other composers who succeeded in elevating popular dance genres to substantial works of art-Chopin, Johann Strauss the younger, and Scott Joplin, composers who revealed unsuspected riches in “simple” dance forms.

The bulk of Piazzolla’s output is in the form of chamber music for a quintet featuring his own instrument, the bandoneon, a type of button-accordion, or concertina, developed in Germany about 1840. Piazzolla composed for bandoneon and his own ensemble; moreover, many of his works have been arranged for anything from guitar solo to full orchestra.

In Cuatro Estaciones porteñas (the last word is an adjective referring to “port city,” but in this context it means only Buenos Aires!), Piazzola covers a remarkable range of moods and sounds, tracing a kind of programmatic circuit of the seasons, beginning in the spring and progressing through to winter. These are not pieces intended for dancing, but rather for serious listening. The movement titles are general enough to avoid suggesting any specific visual images. The result is purely abstract music, passionate, tuneful, dark, romantic, rhythmic-imbued with the spirit of everything connoted by the word “tango.”

The story of Joseph Haydn’s dramatic meeting with the impresario Salomon (who walked into Haydn’s home one morning in December 1790 and announced, “I am Salomon from London and I have come to fetch you”) is too well known to require elaboration. However, it is worth noting that Haydn’s two extended visits to London, the first one beginning in January 1791 and the second ending in August 1795, finally made the Viennese realize that they had a truly great composer in their midst, a composer who could-and did-arouse unprecedented enthusiasm from the large musical public that London boasted at the time. Haydn’s major accomplishment for his London visits was the composition of his last twelve symphonies, capping off the extraordinary development that had seen the creation of over a hundred works in the genre in less than four decades.

Over and over again the reviews in London noted that Haydn’s music was both “pleasing” and “scientific.” These terms identified his unique accomplishment: writing music that was at once immediately accessible to the crowd and deeply impressive to musicians for its structure and technique.

Symphony No. 98 seems to have been written soon after the famous “Surprise” symphony; certainly it has some delightful surprises of its own, including one that comes in the very last moments of the last movement.

Haydn is famous for making a small amount of material go a long way. In this case, the darkly ominous minor-key slow introduction outlines two figures in the first four measures: a slow rising theme outlining the chord of the minor home key, and a descending, zigzag figure after it. When the introduction turns into the main allegro, we find these same ideas, in the major, are delightfully lively.

This seems to be the first large work Haydn composed after learning the shocking news of his friend Mozart’s tragic death. The slow movement, one of his most serious, may serve as a kind of requiem for his fellow composer. The first theme begins with a hymn-like melody that Haydn later used in The Seasons for the prayer “Sei nun gnädig” (“Be thou gracious”), followed by an apparent quotation, delicately ornamented, from Mozart’s last symphony.

The minuet is a lively dance, somewhat heavy of foot, if light of spirit. And the finale is Haydn’s longest and one of his most brilliant. The themes allow Haydn to repeat bits of them in such a way that we think we know what he is going to do-until he tosses a big surprise. The middle part of the movement is the “normal” development section of a sonata form-but here, against all expectation, the concertmaster begins to play a solo while the rest of the strings move through unexpected harmonies. Normally the recapitulation comes with the full orchestra sounding out the first theme in the home key, but Haydn’s solo violin sneaks us back home almost before we know it.

There is one final delightful surprise-a small one, yet totally unexpected. This symphony had its premiere before the day when conductors would stand in front of the orchestra to beat time. Most of the signals were given by concertmaster or by the composer sitting at the harpsichord or early piano, where he had no real role. He was simply a survivor of the old Baroque tradition of the basso continuo. But Haydn-who, of course, would have been sitting at the piano for the first performance-suddenly wrote a small part for himself, accompanying the concertmaster in his last solo of the piece. Here, for the first and only time, the two leaders of the performance are actually heard together as soloists. Haydn knew better than to repeat that joke again-but this one time, it is utterly delicious.

(c) Steven Ledbetter (www.stevenledbetter.com)