Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra: making great music personal

Thursday March 19, 2009

Vivaldi Bassoon Concerto in C major, RV 477


Seixas Harpsichord Concerto in A major


Scarlatti/Avison Concerto Grosso in D minor, Op. 6, No. 5


Vivaldi Concerto in B-flat major for Violin and Cello, RV 547


Handel Concerto Grosso in G major, Op. 6, No. 1


In every concerto, whether it is a Classical concerto by Mozart, a 20th-century tour de force like Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto or a Baroque concerto grosso, there is a specific principle at work: the musical relationship of the soloist(s) to the ensemble. It is the relationship and interplay that characterize the concerto.

It was in the Baroque era that the concerto became a genre of its own. Previously, during the Renaissance, composers had experimented with conversational arrangements or different sections of the ensemble echoing each other’s musical themes. The polychoral motet was an example of this echoing technique, in which composers like Monteverdi, Gabrieli and Schütz had two choirs of voices and antiphonal brass choirs vie for prominence. The result was a stereophonic effect. The concerto, an exclusively instrumental genre, came to the fore because of the works of a few composers, like Arcangelo Corelli and Francesco Geminiani, who explored the concerto principle in their work. In fact, Corelli seems to have been the popularizer of the term “concerto grosso.” Later in the Baroque, Vivaldi wrote hundreds of concertos, and because he composed so many, the Baroque concerto became codified through his work. Vivaldi was popular in his own time and enjoyed great success. He influenced JS Bach, who copied out some of his concertos, but beyond that, his music remained mostly unknown until the 20thcentury, regaining its popularity only after World War II. The revival of his work was largely overseen by Alfredo Casella, a composer who organized an event called Vivaldi Week which re-introduced the public to Vivaldi’s oeuvre.

There are two main types of concertos from the Baroque period: the solo concerto and the concerto grosso. In the solo concerto, there is a single soloist and a larger ensemble, while the concerto grosso features a group of soloists, called the concertino, and a larger ensemble called the ripieno (Italian for “full”). In both types of concertos, the more virtuosic material is given to the soloist or concertino. The structure of the faster movements—usually in ritornello form—lends itself to this musical distinction between accompaniment and virtuosity.

Ritornello form is sectional. The opening section is played by the full ensemble, and it reveals most of the musical material for the entire movement. Once the themes have been heard, the soloist or concertino takes off on a virtuosic flight of fancy. Sections for the soloist(s) and sections for the ensemble usually alternate, with the ensemble playing the main themes or accompanimental figures, and the soloist elaborating and expanding on the themes. The word “ritornello” comes from the Italian word meaning “to return.” The name is quite apt because the music keeps returning to the main themes.

The Harpsichord Concerto in A major by José António Carlos de Seixas is an example of the solo concerto. Seixas was one of Portugal’s leading composers and keyboard players during the Baroque. Unfortunately, most of his work was destroyed by an earthquake that hit Lisbon in 1755, and little other than his keyboard sonatas—and his excellent reputation as an organist and harpsichordist—remain.

Within the genre of the concerto, there are two further subforms: the church concerto ( da chiesa ) and the chamber concerto ( da camera ). The church concerto often began with a slow movement then followed up with three more movements that were fast, slow and fast. The Scarlatti /Avison Concerto Grosso, for example, begins with a Largo movement, indicating that this is a church concerto. Charles Avison was an English Baroque composer who studied with Geminiani and arranged some of Scarlatti’s harpsichord sonatas for string orchestra in 1744. Since Avison was using the da chiesa format, he had to write additional slow movements to adapt Scarlatti’s sonatas to the slow-fast-slow-fast structure.

The da camera chamber concerto, on the other hand, was a three-movement form that sometimes featured popular dance forms in the context of a suite. Vivaldi’s Concerto in B-flat major for Violin and Cello is an example of the chamber concerto, with its fast-slow-fast movement structure. In time, the church concerto became subsumed by the chamber concerto and the distinctions between these two genres blurred. The standard three-movement structure of the concerto has been one of the most enduring features of this genre. Long after the church concerto fell out of favor, the three-movement solo concerto still exists as a viable genre.

Handel’s Concerto Grosso in G major is something of an exception to either of these formats, since it contains five movements, only one of which is slow. It is perhaps closest to the chamber concerto, however, since it follows the pattern of placing the fast movements at the beginning and end, with the adagio in the middle position.

In both the solo concerto and the concerto grosso, the larger ensemble features the basso continuo, a combination of the harpsichord or other chordal instrument like the lute and a bass instrument like the cello or bassoon. The basso continuo is the harmonic anchor of the ensemble, providing the chords underneath the single-voiced solo instruments.

The concerto principle allowed Baroque composers to show not only their skill for writing catchy themes, but their talent for creating lively, often complex solo parts. The concertos of the Baroque, both solo and grosso, display much of what makes Baroque music so compelling: quick harmonic shifts, intricate counterpoint, virtuosity and rhythms that steadily drive the music forward. The interplay of voices — soloist and ensemble, concertino and ripieno — shows the concerto principle at its finest and most playful.

– Christine Lee Gengaro, PhD

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