Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra: making great music personal



program notes: bel canto

Saturday December 12, 2009
Sunday December 13, 2009

Bermel A shout, a whisper, and a trace (west coast premiere)

orchestration: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons; 2 horns, 2 trumpets, 1 trombone; percussion; piano; strings

Copland Eight Poems of Emily Dickinson

orchestration: solo soprano; 1 flute, 1 oboe, 2 clarinets, 1 bassoon; 1 horn, 1 trumpet, 1 trombone; harp; strings

Mozart Recitative and Aria for Soprano, Piano and Orchestra, K. 505 “Ch’io mi scordi di te…non temer, amato bene” (“To forget you…Do not fear, beloved”)

orchestration: solo soprano; 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons; 2 horns; piano; strings

Mozart Aria, K. 418 “Vorrei spiegarvi, oh Dio!” (“Dear God, would that I could explain”)

orchestration: solo soprano; 2 oboes, 2 bassoons; 2 horns; strings

R Strauss Sextet from Capriccio

orchestration: 2 violins, 2 violas, 2 cellos

R Strauss “Grossmächtige Prinzessin” (Zerbinetta’s aria) from Ariadne auf Naxos (1912 version)

orchestration: solo soprano; 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons; 2 horns, 1 trumpet, 1 trombone; timpani; percussion; piano; harp; strings

The word “voice,” scientifically speaking, refers to the mechanism by which one utters sounds. As human beings, the voice is integral to our communication. In music, “voice” is often used to describe a composer’s singular and personal style. Tonight we hear from four unique “voices:” the young composer from the 18th century who excelled at opera, the son of Jewish immigrants who became the quintessential post-war American composer, the turn-of-the-century composer-conductor sensation whose dramatic talent emerged fully in some of the 20th century’s most important operas, and the contemporary composer whose developing style incorporates everything from jazz and pop to world music. Three of these four disparate voices are united tonight through the interpretation of a singular voice, that of lyric coloratura Laura Claycomb.

Derek Bermel ’s voice as a composer has been heavily influenced by his travels. He studied ethnomusicology in Jerusalem and various musical traditions in Brazil, Bulgaria and Ghana. Bermel’s education in Western art and popular music has also been important. The inspiration for his work A shout, a whisper, and a trace is very much a combination of these factors. It began with thoughts of fellow ethnomusicologist and composer, Béla Bartók. Bartók, a native of Budapest, lived in Bermel’s home town of New York City during his last years. The letters Bartók wrote to his friends in Hungary were of particular interest to Bermel, who mused on his own experiences as a traveler. Bermel seems to draw upon the idea of immigration, of cultures merging constantly. The experience of living in a different country, of adapting to new traditions and modes of existence, emerges as a theme in this piece and in Bermel’s overall style. The proliferation of influences might be a liability for a lesser composer, but Bermel’s assurance and skill results in a focused and unique voice.

Bermel evokes the music of Bartók with folk-like tunes at the opening of A shout, a whisper, and a trace. What follows is a conversational give and take between the Bartókian tunes and orchestral themes. The structure recalls the Classical rondo form or the Baroque ritornello form—both structures that rely on recurring musical ideas separated by episodes of new material. In the middle and final movements, Bermel’s ideas seem to touch upon jazz, Copland-esque motifs and vague but pleasing harmonies that recall Debussy. In the final balance, the work seems to ponder questions of selfhood, and what cultural influences help an individual form an identity. With A shout, a whisper, and a trace Bermel has shown that the experiences of many cultures and dissimilar influences have not suppressed, but have instead enhanced the development of his singular cohesive identity.

A concert aria may serve one of two purposes: It can be a stand-alone opera scene intended for concert performance by a specific person or it can be an aria composed to be part of a pre-existing opera, either as an addition to the original or to substitute for another aria. In the first case, the composer writes the piece with a particular singer in mind with the understanding that the work will be a showpiece outside of the context of a larger opera. In the second case, the aria is conceived as part of an opera, but finds its way into concert performance because it is not a necessary part of the narrative (and may have been cut), or because it was conceived as a substitute, perhaps to show off a particular singer’s skill. The two Mozart arias that Claycomb performs this evening were each written for a specific singer, and while both arias have links to operas, they are often performed in the concert setting. “Ch’io mi scordi di te…Non temer, amato bene” takes its text from an addition to the opera Idomeneo, and “Vorrei spiegarvi, oh Dio” was written to be inserted into Pasquale Anfossi’s opera Il curioso indiscreto.

Mozart composed “Ch’io mi scordi di te…Non temer, amato bene” for soprano Nancy Storace, the English singer who originated the role of Susanna in Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro. Storace’s success in Vienna was extraordinary, and her salary as a singer was many times what Mozart’s was as a composer. Singers have often overshadowed composers because singers become the public face of the music. The text of the aria is taken from an addition to the second act of Idomeneo. Mozart composed the aria for Storace’s farewell concert in Vienna and played the obbligato (an independent line running underneath the melody that is fully written out) piano part in that performance. The aria has an opening three-part Andante section played by the orchestra, followed by interjections from the soprano, echoed by outbursts in the piano. The following Allegretto section is a Rondo with the main theme returning over and over again, building in intensity.

The intended singer for “Vorrei spiegarvi, oh Dio” was Mozart’s sister-in-law (and former girlfriend) Aloysia Weber. Like “Ch’io mi scordi di te…Non temer, amato bene,” the difficulty of “Vorrei” illustrates the skill of the designated singer. Weber must have displayed unrivaled flexibility in her high range and a delicacy that inspired Mozart to carefully orchestrate multiple obbligato parts for different instruments throughout the aria. A similar device can be observed in arias by later composers like Donizetti, who owe a debt to Mozart’s inventiveness. The impression given by the singer is graceful agility that does not decline into empty showiness, but always maintains a core of genuine feeling served well by the music.

The decade before setting the poetry of Emily Dickinson in a song cycle, Copland achieved great success as a composer of ballets including Rodeo and Appalachian Spring. With those works as well as pieces like the patriotic Lincoln Portrait and Fanfare for the Common Man, Copland’s reputation as the voice of America seemed sealed. Copland explored this voice in a set of 12 songs for voice and piano with text by Emily Dickinson. He later chose eight of these songs and orchestrated them. This incarnation— Eight Poems of Emily Dickinson —is the one Claycomb will sing tonight.

Dickinson was born in Amherst, Massachusetts in 1830. She never went far from her family’s home and became something of a recluse as she got older. It was only after her death in 1886 that a great treasure trove of almost 2,000 poems was discovered by her sister Lavinia. (Lavinia had promised Emily that she would burn all of her papers upon her death, a promise she did not keep.) Dickinson’s poems were heavily edited and altered for publication. It wasn’t until the mid 1950s that a definitive edition of Dickinson’s un-edited works was published by Thomas H. Johnson. While some early critics considered her works to be of little value, her poetry has stood the test of time.

Although the only versions of the poems available to Copland when he was writing the cycle were the ones published in 1890, the composer set Dickinson’s poetry with extraordinary sensitivity. Her unusual punctuation and sometimes halting lines are observed with great care in the music. Some of the hallmarks of Copland’s style, the angular lines and occasional wide leaps, along with virtuosic flourishes in the accompaniment, are much in evidence here and help produce very effective settings of Dickinson’s words.

Richard Strauss wrote 14 operas in the 20th century. Earlier works like Salome and Elektra stretched tonality to its limit, while an opera like Der Rosenkavalier hearkened back to older styles in both its musical ideas and its narrative themes. Strauss’s final opera, Capriccio (1942), metaphorically explores the relationship between words and music—a central issue in opera. The debate over whether an opera’s libretto or score is more important is personified in the character of the Countess, who spends the opera trying to choose between two suitors: a poet and a composer. She eventually asks them to collaborate on an opera, but remains undecided as she sings of the inseparable partnership of words and music.

Tonight’s program features the opening sextet from Capriccio. Played by two violins, two violas, and two cellos, this instrumental prelude is a culmination of Strauss’s mature style. The warmth of the harmonies is unmistakable, and the sudden short agitated section provides a great contrast from the peaceful opening. The voices of the sextet trade long-breathed phrases while a faster figure is stated within the texture as a counterpoint. Although the rest of the opera examines the importance of music over words (and vice versa), music definitely holds sway in this opening prelude.

In 1910, Strauss and librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal achieved considerable success with Der Rosenkavalier. Their next project was Ariadne auf Naxos, which began life as an adaptation of Molière’s play, Le bourgeois gentilhomme. Strauss and Hofmannsthal worked this material into a few different versions, including the one performed tonight, from 1912, and the most oft-performed, an adaptation from 1916, which condenses Molière’s play into a sung prologue, eliminating the need for an additional theatre troupe to act out the play. One of the highlights of Strauss’s opera is the aria performed by Zerbinetta, “Grossmächtige Prinzessin.” This brilliant coloratura aria—in which Zerbinetta explains that the easiest way to mend a broken heart is to experience the thrill of a new love—is a spectacular showcase of lightness and agility, but it takes a powerful voice to navigate the many ups and downs in the music. The 1912 version is even higher, longer and more spectacular than the 1916 revision. Hofmannsthal described the aria as a “serious trifle,” but it is a wholly impressive piece of work, one that allows the singer to show off virtuosity, inventiveness and dramatic flair.

– Christine Lee Gengaro, PhD



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