Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra: making great music personal

Thursday May 6, 2010

Boyce Concerto Grosso in B-flat major

orchestration: strings; harpsichord

Geminiani Concerto Grosso in D minor, Op. 5, No. 12, “La Follia” (“The Folly”)

orchestration: strings; harpsichord

Telemann Viola Concerto in G major

orchestration: solo viola; strings; harpsichord

Bach Concerto in D minor for Two Violins, BWV 1043

orchestration: 2 solo violins; strings; harpsichord

The four composers featured on this program represent three different nationalities: Bach and Telemann were German, Geminiani was Italian, and William Boyce was English. Of the four composers, most music lovers know the first three, but Boyce might be a new name for some. Boyce was born two decades after Bach and rose to prominence as an organist first at the Oxford Chapel and then at the Chapel Royal. He composed anthems for the church, as well as odes and incidental music. As he got older, his sense of hearing deteriorated to the point where he could no longer perform at the organ, so he turned his efforts towards editing the music of fellow English composers Henry Purcell and William Byrd. Boyce’s music fell out of favor when the style that we now know as Classicism began to develop. After his death in 1779, Boyce, like Bach, was forgotten, although Boyce never had a champion like Mendelssohn to revive his works for a new generation. Constant Lambert, an English writer and conductor, performed some of Boyce’s works in the 20th century, but Boyce’s work is still rarely heard.

Boyce lived through the transitional years between the Baroque and Classical periods. Some of his contemporaries, notably CPE Bach, weathered the evolution of styles well, fully embracing the new mode of composition, while others retained an older, conservative idiom. Boyce tried his hand at newer forms, including the symphony, but primarily a church musician, he often composed in the High Baroque style. His music is still performed in Anglican churches today, but his secular music remains more obscure.

William Boyce’s contribution to tonight’s concert is the Concerto Grosso in B-flat major, a favorite form of the Baroque period. The typical concerto grosso features a small group of instruments acting as soloists, and this small group plays against a larger ensemble and a basso continuo. The basso continuo anchors the ensemble with a bass line instrument and a chordal instrument like a lute or harpsichord. The concerto grosso was a form that grew out of an earlier genre called the trio sonata. The trio sonata, which features two solo instruments over a basso continuo, was popularized by Arcangelo Corelli. One of his students was Francesco Geminiani, who wrote a number of concerto grossos, including tonight’s Concerto Grosso in D minor. Geminiani’s style did not stray very far from Corelli’s, and like his teacher, Geminiani’s music—especially for the violin—is extremely skillful and well written.

Corelli’s work also influenced and inspired a young German composer by the name of Georg Philipp Telemann, who wrote the Viola Concerto in G major on tonight’s program. Whereas the Italian style of Corelli and Geminiani stresses lyricism and melody, Telemann’s music expands on the Italian model by giving special attention to the harmonic interplay of rhythmically varied lines—what we call counterpoint. An emphasis on counterpoint is a quality historically associated with composers in the German school. Bach’s concerto grossos, however—like tonight’s Concerto for Two Violins in D minor —represent a very masterful fusion of the Italian and German styles of composition. Melody is important, but learned counterpoint is used in a very accessible way. It is never esoteric and is very pleasing to the audience.

Of course, the classification of “national” styles in the Baroque period isn’t an exact science. Composers sought out instruction from masters in different countries to learn of new genres and styles, often bringing those compositional gestures back to their homes. Composers also traveled, finding lucrative opportunities for performance in foreign lands. These artists were often seen as exotic and perhaps even better than the home-grown ones. Telemann encountered the music of Corelli while traveling through Italy. One of the best examples of the fluid idea of national styles is the music of Handel. Handel was born in Germany but learned his distinctive style in Italy, which he then brought to England. Tonight’s program features the musical styles—insofar as they can be distinguished—of three countries. The choice of Geminiani, Telemann, Bach and Boyce also provides a timeline of the concerto throughout the Baroque period. With this program, one can observe the amount of interaction between soloists and ensemble that was pleasing to each composer. We can also see the level of virtuosity for the soloist or solo group, and we can understand differences in texture, but most importantly, we can appreciate the pure joy of instrumental composition of the Baroque period.

– Christine Lee Gengaro, PhD