Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra: making great music personal

program notes: jupiter

Saturday April 17, 2010
Sunday April 18, 2010

Stravinsky Concerto in D major for String Orchestra

orchestration: strings

Stravinsky Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments

orchestration: solo piano; 3 flutes, 3 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons; 4 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, 1 tuba; timpani; 1 bass

Mozart Concert Rondo in D major for Piano and Orchestra, K. 382

orchestration: solo piano; 1 flute, 2 oboes; 2 horns, 2 trumpets; timpani; strings

Mozart Symphony No. 41 in C major, K. 551, “Jupiter”

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

Tonight’s program features the quintessential Classical composer, Mozart, and a composer known for his neo-classicism. Stravinsky’s “neo-classical” period lasted roughly from 1920 to 1950. After 1939 Stravinsky lived in California, becoming a naturalized citizen of the US in 1945. In Los Angeles he found a thriving community of composers, conductors, writers and other artists, some (like WH Auden) who would become collaborators or traveling companions. He spent his years in LA composing and occasionally conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl. Stravinsky’s artistic life was energized by his presence in the United States, among so many creative minds, but he maintained contact with conductors and composers in Europe.

One such contact, Paul Sacher, was a Swiss conductor who founded the Basel Chamber Orchestra in 1926. Sacher commissioned works from many important composers of the 20th century, including Richard Strauss, Paul Hindemith, Béla Bartók, Elliott Carter and, of course, Stravinsky. Sacher’s commissions gave the world Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, Arthur Honegger’s Second and Fourth Symphonies, and Frank Martin’s Petite Symphonie Concertante. Sacher commissioned Stravinsky to write the Concerto in D major for String Orchestra for the 20th anniversary of the Basel Chamber Orchestra. The piece was premiered on January 27, 1947, under Sacher’s baton. One of Stravinsky’s lesser-known works, the Concerto in D has three movements. The first begins with jagged lines and dissonant harmonies complemented by Stravinsky’s characteristic rhythmic drive. The music is in D minor but flirts with D major, especially in the middle section. Even with its harsh rhythm and disjunct lines, the “major” section just seems to dance. The second movement is filled with rich harmony and spun-out melodic lines. The Classical tradition is still evident in the last movement Rondo, with its recurring sections and motoric rhythms that drive the work to an intense and exciting close. No wonder the piece has inspired more than one ballet, including Jerome Robbins’ The Cage from 1951.

One of Stravinsky’s first neo-classical pieces is the Symphony of Wind Instruments, which was composed upon Stravinsky’s arrival in Paris. The Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments comes from a few years later. Stravinsky was the intended soloist for this piece, and he retained the rights to performance for a while so that he could be its chief interpreter. The idea for the unusual instrumentation of piano and winds could have come from conductor Serge Koussevitzky, who was working in Paris and commissioned a work from Stravinsky for the Concerts Koussevitzky series. Stravinsky was fond of using winds in his neo-classical period since they lacked the sentimentality of strings, and in this case provided a great timbral counterpoint to the percussive piano. There are three movements in the piece, beginning with a movement that mimics the French overture style used by Baroque composers. The most prominent gestures associated with the French overture are a majestic feeling and dotted rhythms, which make the music feel like it is skipping along. The French overture isn’t the only style Stravinsky drew upon. Once this passage is finished, the piano enters in an explosion of sound and rhythm that recalls ragtime music (a style the composer explored in his Piano-rag-music of 1919 and Ragtime for 11 instruments from 1917–18). Although the syncopation is the greatest indicator of the ragtime idiom, some of the counterpoint is reminiscent of the Baroque style. In the sometimes-serious second movement, timbres of the piano and the winds create a beautiful sound together, although the piano has some solo time in the spotlight with two cadenzas. The third movement is much like the first at the piano’s initial entrance. The music is lively and rhythmically agitated, and it continues on like this until the slower opening mood from the first movement returns, brilliantly setting up one last flourish to the end.

When Mozart was 17 years old he was finishing up a tour of Italy and was trying to obtain a position in Milan. Unable to get work, even after some success writing opera for the Regio Ducal Teatro in Milan, he returned to Salzburg and began working for the Archbishop Colloredo. Around this time, in 1773, Mozart composed his Piano Concerto No. 5, which was his first true piano concerto. Concertos 1–4 were exercises in reworking other composers’ musical material; they are more arrangements than compositions. Mozart played the Piano Concerto No. 5 to acclaim in Mannheim while on tour in 1777. About five years later, Mozart was working in Vienna, looking for ways to make money. Subscription concerts were a decent prospect, and Mozart needed strong works for performance. He decided to rework one of his older pieces, taking into consideration the tastes of the Viennese audience. He made changes to the Piano Concerto No. 5 including replacing the original third movement, which was contrapuntal, with a catchier finale. The new Concerto, with the new finale, pleased both the Viennese audience and Mozart himself. Some critics have mentioned that the rewritten finale doesn’t work as well with the first two movements, but that’s just as well, because eventually, the Piano Concerto got its original finale back, and the piece that Mozart wrote to jazz up the concerto became a stand-alone work: the Concert Rondo in D major that we hear tonight.

Although it is labeled a Rondo, the movement is more precisely a theme and variations. The term Rondo usually refers to a form wherein there are episodes that come in between a returning theme. In this particular case, the “episodes” are actually themselves variations. Mozart takes a simple theme and puts it through its paces both in the orchestra and solo instruments. As in other sets of variations, there are certain conventions Mozart uses: There is a variation where the triplet is the dominant rhythmic gesture, one variation in a minor key, one where the left hand of the pianist has agitated passages while the right hand states the theme simply, and so on. The Rondo in D major is a case study of Mozart’s charming work with the theme and variations form.

Mozart’s last three symphonies were all written in a single season, the summer of 1788. That year was a difficult one for Mozart. In the middle of 1788, he and his family were grief-stricken after the death of his six-month-old daughter Theresia. He was experiencing financial troubles as well, borrowing money from fellow Freemason Michael Puchberg to keep his family afloat. Mozart had planned a concert series at which the Symphony No. 41 was to be played, but there is no historical evidence to prove the premiere of “Jupiter” took place at the series. Mozart did not title the symphony with “Jupiter,” in fact the title might have come from Johann Peter Salomon, an impresario who programmed the piece.

The “Jupiter” has the traditional four movements of the Classical symphony, including a minuet. The opening Allegro starts out with a definitive statement from the whole orchestra, followed by a more questioning theme in the strings. Mozart’s second, lyrical theme sets up some dynamic contrasts with more forceful proclamations. The first movement is in the traditional sonata form, and although Mozart makes no great innovations, he develops and recaps his themes with such skill, it seems to be the best of the form. One of the highlights in the movement is a set of dignified fanfares. It is the noble character of this movement that might have inspired Salomon to name the Symphony after the king of the gods. In the second movement, an Andante cantabile, Mozart again seeks out contrast between the almost serene first theme and the dramatic second theme. The second theme perhaps hints at the strife in Mozart’s life, but there is also charm to spare in the movement. Drawing upon a French dance form, the Sarabande, Mozart overcomes the strife with enchantment. The Sarabande was often used in suites, a form popular in the Baroque period. The third movement is also a tribute to stylized dance forms with a rollicking Minuet and Trio. But the meat of the “Jupiter” Symphony is in the final movement.

The finale, marked Molto allegro, contains an imitative five-voice fugato. There are five musical ideas that Mozart combines in the finale, including the main four-note theme, using all of his skills of counterpoint while still creating music that was accessible and enjoyable. Mozart had a model for this extraordinary piece, Michael Haydn’s Symphony No. 28, which has a fugato finale as well. Mozart displays supreme control of the counterpoint here, and the result is a breathtaking swansong for Mozart the symphonist. Music writer and encyclopedist Sir George Grove called the finale of the “Jupiter” “As pleasing as it is learned,” and suggested that Mozart marshaled all of his skills in writing this finale, as if he knew he would never write another symphony.

– Christine Lee Gengaro, PhD

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