Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra: making great music personal

program notes: great romantics

Saturday May 15, 2010
Sunday May 16, 2010

George Tsontakis Laconika Sound Investment commission (world premiere)

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

Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, Op. 37

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

Bizet Symphony in C major

orchestration: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons; 4 horns, 2 trumpets; timpani; strings

Beethoven’s career as a composer was really taking off at the turn of the 19th century. It was around this time that Beethoven wrote his first two symphonies, his first set of string quartets, the famous Moonlight Sonata and the ballet The Creatures of Prometheus, among other works. His days as a performer, however, were numbered due to the gradual hearing loss that first appeared in 1796. But in 1800, when he wrote the Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, Beethoven was still able to play and was in fact the soloist at the premiere in 1803. It’s fortunate he was the soloist because a friend who turned pages that day said that Beethoven hadn’t finished writing out the piano part and played much of it from memory. Beethoven dedicated the concerto to Prince Louis Ferdinand of Prussia, a soldier and nobleman whose considerable skills as a pianist (and composer) gained him the respect of his musical peers.

Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto—the only one in a minor key—follows the standard three-movement format of the Classical concerto. The first movement opens with the exposition of a powerful theme played just by the orchestra. The second exposition features the soloist playing the same compelling theme, followed by a contrasting second theme, much softer in character. As usual, there is a cadenza—typically improvised in performance, but some composers published versions of their cadenzas. Beethoven’s is particularly tumultuous and has a surprising major-key ending. The second movement, which is in a major key, provides a respite from Beethoven’s tempestuous first movement. The final movement has a lively theme that returns periodically both in the piano and in the ensemble. The key is once again C minor, which is interrupted by a very sweet section in A major. Beethoven’s grasp of the dramatic is evident as the main theme and the major-key theme vie for prominence. After a brief moment for the soloist, the ensemble joins the piano to play the lyrical theme and end the work on a note of brightness.

In the past four years, New York composer George Tsontakis has won two of classical music’s richest prizes: The 2007 Charles Ives Living Award, given every three years by the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and in 2005, the international Grawemeyer Award for his Violin Concerto No. 2. His music is both intellectually demanding and highly accessible, appealing to both musicians and non-musicians. He enjoys narrative in music and often explores mystical themes, both directly and more implicitly. The Village Voice called his music, “heroic, nostalgia-free romanticism.”

Though at the time of this writing the Tsontakis commission is in progress and as yet unheard, Tsontakis’ idea is to write a piece titled Laconika, from the Greek word meaning “concise.” Of course, as a bonus, the title also happens to include the LACO acronym. Tsontakis is interested in writing a work of succinctness. In contrast to the large movement works he often writes, Laconika will consist of several sections, each short, pungent and pithy, with lots of vivid color and provocative musical gestures.

Other current projects include a work titled Impetuous for the Louisville Symphony. The work is one big movement and lives up to its name with massive surges throughout its 15 minutes. His piano concerto, Man of Sorrows, was recently premiered by Stephen Hough and the Dallas Symphony. Hough also performed Tsontakis’ epic solo piano work, Ghost Variations (nominated for a Grammy® for Best Composition), at the 2006 Salzburg Festival and on the Paris-Louvre series.

Bizet’s Symphony in C major was written when the composer was still in his teens. There are very few works by composers of a similar age that display such a high degree of skill and sensitivity. The Symphony was probably written for an assignment at the Paris Conservatory, and Bizet seems to have viewed it as nothing more than that, because he made no effort to find a publisher. Some of the themes he uses in the Symphony in C, however, surface in other, later works, including an aria from his opera The Pearl Fishers and the incidental music for The Girl from Arles. When Bizet died in 1875, his widow gave some of his papers to the archives of the Paris Conservatory; the Symphony in C was among these documents. It remained unknown for decades until Bizet’s biographer, DC Parker, rediscovered the work in the 1930s in the Conservatory’s records. Ever since the Symphony in C was premiered, 80 years after it was written, it has been a popular work in the repertoire. The Symphony also has another life with George Balanchine’s ballet Symphony in C, a ballet with no narrative that has been a favorite work since its premiere in 1947.

There are four movements in the work. Stylistically, it has been compared to the work of Schubert and also to the work of Charles Gounod (one of Bizet’s teachers at the Conservatory), whose contemporaneous First Symphony displays some similarities to Bizet’s piece. Bizet was aware of his teacher’s symphony and had studied it closely when making an arrangement of the work for two pianos. The opening of the Symphony in C’s first movement suggests the Classical period, but the harmonic colors are definitely Romantic. Bizet employs the orchestra well, using the different sections to create a clear texture. The second movement opens with the French horns and the woodwinds creating an almost forest-like ambience. You can sense Bizet’s gift for drama as the main theme enters, accompanied by pizzicato strings. This writing is very evocative, almost pictorial in the way it suggests gestures and movements. It is no wonder Balanchine saw a future for this work in dance. The musical themes repeat, bringing out more complexity in the texture. The third movement has a lively dance-like character that brings to mind the scherzos of Beethoven but also draws on the Classical tradition. The final movement begins with quick figures in the strings and colorful harmony that is followed by a theme that is equally sweet if not quite as vivacious. The fast theme gallops along in the strings while the woodwinds and brass twist a sinuous line around it. The ending is an animated affair with the themes rushing along to a confident and high-spirited close.

– Christine Lee Gengaro, PhD

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