Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra: making great music personal

program notes: baroque +

Saturday February 20, 2010
Sunday February 21, 2010

Purcell Chacony in G minor

orchestration: harpsichord; strings

Vivaldi Cello Concerto in C minor, RV 401

orchestration: solo cello; harpsichord; strings

Bach Concerto in D major for Three Violins, BWV 1064

orchestration: 3 solo violins; harpsichord; strings

Bach Oboe d’amore Concerto in A major (orig. Harpsichord Concerto No. 4), BWV 1055

orchestration: solo oboe d’amore; harpsichord; strings

Mendelssohn Sinfonia No. 5 in B-flat major

orchestration: strings

Chamber orchestras are distinct from large symphony orchestras in a number of ways, the most obvious being size. Chamber orchestras are obviously smaller, and part of the economy of size is the understanding that any member of the ensemble could be called upon to be a soloist at any time. There are no instrumentalists who play only the ensemble parts. A chamber orchestra, and LACO in particular, is—if we may steal a phrase used to describe a particular orchestra in the 18th century — an “army of generals.” Not only can any member solo, if the need arises, any member can lead. Tonight’s concert of Baroque music, which highlights many featured players, will exhibit the individual skills of the members of this ensemble.

A chacony, or chaconne as it is more commonly called, is a repeating musical pattern over which a composer may write variations. The chaconne was popular during the Baroque period in Italy and France and later came to England; the first chaconnes appeared in England in the late 1670s. We do not know why Purcell composed this particular Chacony, although it is possible that he composed it for members of The Twenty-Four Violins, a court orchestra. It does retain some French elements, notably its dotted rhythms and ceremonial bearing, two characteristics found in the French Overture. This Chacony is a stylized dance, which means that it maintains some of the qualities of dance music, but is complex enough for concert performance.

Purcell’s most famous work with a repetitive pattern—in this case a 12-measure repeating bass line—is “Dido’s Lament” from his opera Dido and Aeneas. The pattern in the Chacony in G minor is eight measures long. The advantage of having a repetitive, or ostinato pattern, is that it allows for great inventiveness in the other voices. The ostinato provides enough stability for interesting counterpoint, although Purcell chooses to keep the interaction among the voices simple. Although the chacony pattern never changes, Purcell re-imagines it in different harmonic contexts, briefly touching on different key areas. The intensity of the variations seems to ebb and flow, a characteristic that owes much to Purcell writing variations in pairs (using similar variation techniques in each pair) and keeping the members of the pairs apart from one another.

There are many famous cello concertos, and certain composers over the course of history have written perhaps one or two, or at the most, three, but Vivaldi holds the record with almost 30. A violinist himself, not a cellist, Vivaldi wrote far more violin concertos. He spent part of his career engaged as the master of violin at the Ospedale della Pietà in Venice. The Ospedale was primarily an orphanage, but it also operated a conservatory, and the institution received considerable income from the performances of its choir and orchestra. There are numerous, glowing first-person accounts of the incredible musicianship of the women. (For propriety’s sake, the ensembles of the Ospedale performed behind a metal screen.) Many of Vivaldi’s pieces were written for them, so it is possible that Vivaldi composed at least some of his cello concertos for specific instrumentalists at the Ospedale.

Vivaldi’s Cello Concerto in C minor has all the hallmarks of his style: virtuosic string writing, sequences of short musical ideas, three movements with a contrasting slow middle movement. The opening and closing movements are in the standard ritornello form (recurring musical ideas alternating with new material), which features the ensemble’s main theme vying for prominence with more complex solo passages. Although the minor key makes the concerto somber in places, Vivaldi’s lively imprint is irrepressible.

Bach wrote a concerto for three harpsichords in about 1740. It is likely that Bach composed the work to be performed by his sons. The musical material of this concerto can also be found in tonight’s Concerto in D major for Three Violins, although there is some debate as to which version came first. There are three movements in this concerto grosso—the designation when there is more than one featured soloist—two fast movements and a slower middle section. In the opening Allegro, the interplay of the soloists’ material with that of the ensemble provides a vivacious conversation. At times in the conversation, there are passages that seem like short, brilliant cadenzas for the soloists. The walking bass line provides a sense of steadiness that allows the soloists to show off their virtuosity.

The middle movement provides a rest from the faster first movement, but it is also less joyful. There is tension and even gloom, especially in the center developmental section. Bach creates a great sense of space in this movement, with the violins playing up in their higher range, while the bass works away below. The distance between them sometimes seems so great, it gives the movement a lonely feeling. The finale brings us back to the quick, rousing mood of the first movement. It begins with imitation among the soloists and a lively interplay that is ceaseless. The cadenza-like flourishes are even more virtuosic here with the violins playing bursts of fast passagework in the center section of the movement. The opening theme returns as the soloists bring the Concerto to a satisfying close.

Bach showed great talent in writing keyboard music and he was also a skillful composer for strings. Some of his most breathtaking melodies, however, were written for woodwinds. One of the finest examples of this is Bach’s Oboe d’amore Concerto in A major. The oboe d’amore is a bit larger than the oboe with which it shares much of the same range, but it has a distinctive, tranquil timbre that makes it uniquely suited for certain musical moments. The Concerto begins with a long passage for the ensemble. When the oboe d’amore enters, it echoes the opening theme, and subsequently, the soloist and orchestra continue to trade the spotlight. The ensemble nearly always assumes an accompanimental role when the soloist is playing. The oboe d’amore plays long and complex lines that exemplify the intricacy of Baroque musical phrases.

The second movement, marked Larghetto, features a long-breathed aria-like melody that seems to spin out endlessly, twisting around the accompaniment. The final movement is once again vivacious with the oboe d’amore demonstrating the virtuosity of the soloist. Throughout the concerto, the oboe d’amore shows its luscious timbre in the low register and its effervescent voice in the middle and upper parts of its range. It is no wonder that Bach used the unique, serene sound of the oboe d’amore to great effect not just in this Concerto, but in both the St. Matthew Passion and the B-minor Mass.

Mendelssohn began studying with Carl Friedrich Zelter (1758–1832), composer, teacher and the head of Berlin’s famous Singakademie, when he was eight years old. Zelter had conservative tastes and introduced his young charge to the music of JS Bach and his sons. The influence of these Baroque and early Classical composers is evident in much of Mendelssohn’s early output, especially his string symphonies. In the two years between Mendelssohn’s 12th and 14th years, he composed a dozen of these sinfonias, as they are sometimes called. He wrote the fourth and fifth Sinfonias within two weeks of each other. Not meant for public consumption, these works were not published until after Mendelssohn died in 1847.

The Sinfonia No. 5 in B-flat major has three movements and displays many Baroque characteristics. The opening Allegro vivace begins with a unison passage, something Bach often did in his concertos. What follows is nearly unceasing activity from the orchestra as the simple themes are stated and restated without complex development. The second movement provides respite from all this motion with gentle lyrical writing that displays a maturity far beyond Mendelssohn’s 12 years. Again, there is little development here, but the simple beauty of the theme is enough. The counterpoint in the final movement is impressive and shows how much of Bach’s style Mendelssohn had absorbed in his years studying with Zelter. He uses the entire string orchestra at times, but also experiments with pairing up instruments or using small groups to play the counterpoint. The resulting texture is varied, and shows the composer’s budding talent for skillful use of the orchestra.

– Christine Lee Gengaro, PhD

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