Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra: making great music personal

Thursday March 4, 2010

Bach Trio Sonata in C major for Oboe and Violin (orig. for Two Violins), BWV 1037


Telemann Quartet in D minor for Flute, Oboe, Bassoon and Continuo, TWV 43:d1


Handel Concerto in D minor for Oboe, Violin, Cello and Continuo


Vivaldi Concerto in G minor for Flute, Oboe, Violin, Bassoon and Continuo, RV 107


The Baroque period saw the flowering of purely instrumental music for the first time in recorded musical history. Much of the written music that exists previous to the Baroque consists of vocal music for the Roman Catholic church (instruments were not allowed in church services for hundreds of years), including masses and motets. In the Renaissance, madrigals, secular motets, and the nascent genre of opera were the prominent categories of written music. Once musical printing became easier and more affordable—at the turn of the 16th century—musical scores became cheaper. This was good for a growing middle class that was learning how to play instruments. At first, publishers simply put out instrumental versions of vocal works like madrigals, but in time, composers took up the challenge of writing instrumental music both for professionals and for amateurs.

A variety of musical ensembles were popular in the Baroque period, some large, some small, but what many of them have in common is the basso continuo, usually two players who round out the harmonies and bass line of a piece. One person plays a bass instrument, possibly a violone (ancestor of the double bass), a cello or a Baroque bassoon. The other continuo player performs on an instrument that has the capacity to sound more than one note at a time. In the Baroque period, this meant a lute, a Baroque guitar or a keyboard instrument like the harpsichord. The combination of the two instruments provides a harmonic anchor that fills out the texture. The basso continuo allows for greater freedom in the other instruments since they are not responsible for contributing directly to the harmony.

The most popular of the early Baroque ensembles was the trio sonata, which featured two soloists and the basso continuo. The term trio sonata is something of a misnomer since there are actually four players in the group, but the basso continuo duo really counts as one entity. Tonight’s program features the Trio Sonata in C major by quintessential High Baroque composer, JS Bach. Although the trio sonata’s heyday occurred earlier with Arcangelo Corelli (1653–1713), by Bach’s time the trio sonata was still a viable ensemble and allowed for great interplay between the two solo instruments. These solo instruments could either play in counterpoint with each other or play together in harmony. Telemann’s Quartet in D minor counts the basso continuo as a single entity as well, over which the flute, oboe and bassoon are the featured soloists. The basso continuo also anchored larger ensembles, and in time, not only did the ensembles grow, but the number of soloists grew as well.

The typical Baroque concerto has three movements, two fast outer movements and a contrasting slow section in between. In the first and last movements, the entire ensemble begins the movement with a statement of a theme. In a conversational style, this theme, or part of it, returns over and over again between free episodes of music by featured solo lines. The name of this form, ritornello, stresses the repetitive aspect of the theme because ritornello comes from the Italian word meaning “to return.” The main idea of the concerto is contrast, and that means contrast not only between the returning music and the free episodes but between loud and soft, and virtuosic music and accompanimental passages for the ensemble.

The four composers on tonight’s program wrote concertos for various reasons and occasions. Bach wrote an extraordinary amount of music, as did Telemann. Some of Bach’s output is sacred vocal music, like cantatas, and his instrumental music is often for the organ or harpsichord, but he did write for other ensembles, composing trio sonatas and concertos that showed off his gifts for counterpoint and melody. Telemann was very prolific, penning an impressive number of vocal works rarely performed today, (operas, cantatas and passions), but his most programmed works are his concertos and suites. Handel is best known for his vocal music—operas and oratorios—but he also wrote instrumental music.Tonight’s program features Handel’s Concerto in D minor —a concerto featuring oboe, violin and cello. Handel’s skill as a melodist, a talent he cultivated in his vocal music, is obvious in his concertos. Vivaldi, like Corelli, was a violinist, but he also held a teaching position at a girls’ orphanage (Pio Ospedale della Pietà). Many of his hundreds of concertos—like tonight’s Concerto in G minor —were written for his music students. He favored the violin as a solo instrument since he was so comfortable with it, but he also wrote concertos for viola, cello, flute, oboe and bassoon. Vivaldi’s most famous concertos are the ones in The Four Seasons, but all of his concertos share a lively character that shows off the joy and vivaciousness of pure instrumental music in the Baroque period. Tonight’s concertos are not concertos in the way we most often think of them, and may even be chamber music versions of larger-scale works. In Handel’s day, musicians often adapted larger works for smaller ensembles, comprised of whichever instruments were on-hand.

– Christine Lee Gengaro, PhD

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