Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra: making great music personal

program notes: infinite enchantment

Saturday September 25, 2010
Sunday September 26, 2010

Mendelssohn Overture, Scherzo & Nocturne from A Midsummer Night’s Dream

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

Prokofiev Violin Concerto No. 1 in D major, Op. 19

orchestration: solo violin; 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons; 4 horns, 2 trumpets, tuba; timpani; percussion; harp; strings

Jalbert Les espaces infinis (“The Infinite Spaces”)

orchestration: 2 flutes, oboe, English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons; 2 horns, trumpet; harp; strings

Haydn Symphony No. 88 in G major

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

Enchantment takes many forms, from the exploits of fairies to the magic of the universe to the skill of a master at the peak of his creativity. Each of the works on tonight’s program embodies these magical and mysterious characteristics in different ways. The word “enchanting” has frequently been used to describe Mendelssohn’s music because it is so often light-hearted and charming. The music he wrote for Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a perfect example of this appeal. Prokofiev, on the other hand, wasn’t always known as the charismatic composer who wrote Peter and the Wolf. In fact, Prokofiev was once something of an enfant terrible, yet even in his early works (such as the First Violin Concerto), he showed his ability to write atmospheric and thought-provoking music. Pierre Jalbert’s Les espaces infinis is also otherworldly and enchanting, taking the listener on a journey through space and time, suspended in his modern harmonies. Haydn, who wrote many serious compositions, also had a playful side, evident in his 88th symphony.

Felix Mendelssohn visited Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream as source material more than once. Mendelssohn was just 17 when he composed the Overture after reading a German translation of the play. Mendelssohn, a composer who often meshed Romantic harmonies with Classical structures, follows that formula here. The Overture is cast in sonata form and features easily discernible themes representing characters. The fairies’ theme and the lovers’ theme are prominent. The opening four chords instantly draw the listener into a world of mischief and fantasy. One of Mendelssohn’s biographers claims that the composer was inspired to write the chords after hearing an evening breeze play through a garden.

The Scherzo and Nocturne were written 16 years later as part of the incidental music for the play, a commission for King Frederick William IV of Prussia. Act I of Shakespeare’s play is unaccompanied by music, but Mendelssohn composed the Scherzo as an intermezzo between the first and second acts. The title “Scherzo” implies a lively rush, and Mendelssohn does not disappoint. The spirit of the fairies’ theme in the Overture is echoed here in mood. The music flits about, though not without purpose. There is resoluteness to this playfulness, as if the fairies have a plan. In the play, this passage leads into the first Melodrama, a musical interlude with spoken dialogue over it.

The Nocturne is another intermezzo, this time between the third and fourth acts of the play. At this point in the story, Oberon has figured out that the fairy Puck has caused some confusion among the lovers. Oberon orders Puck to set things right while everyone sleeps. The music evokes the calm stateliness of the sleeping woods where Helena, Hermia, Lysander and Demetrius slumber. The instrumentation evokes nature through the use of the winds. Horn calls are heard in the distance before the music shimmers and fades away.

1917 was a good year for Sergei Prokofiev despite the political tumult of his native Russia. He wrote the famous “Classical” Symphony, two piano sonatas and a piano concerto. Violin Concerto No. 1, which he completed in 1917, actually began life two years earlier as a concertino, a shorter, single movement work for soloist and ensemble. After a break to work on an opera, Prokofiev took up the concertino again, but his plan for a 1917 premiere was frustrated by the October Revolution; the work finally saw the light of day in Paris in 1923. The piece was not an unqualified success right away, possibly because French audiences had gotten used to hearing more avant-garde pieces, and Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto seemed too Romantic to their ears. Georges Auric—one of Les Six, a group of composers at the forefront of Paris’ music scene— described the work as “Mendelssohnian.”

To Les Six and Stravinsky, the reference to Mendelssohn was supposed to be pejorative, but Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto, while not appreciated in that historical moment, displays a charm absolutely worthy of Mendelssohn. The firm grasp of tonality with slight deviations and the clean lines of the composition point to an early Romantic style in the mold of Mendelssohn. The opening of the first movement is quiet and scintillating, only gradually growing into a more declarative mood. It feels for the initial moment of the Concerto that we have mistakenly begun with the slow second movement. But Prokofiev plays with our expectations in this Concerto, starting and ending slowly and quietly, saving the most vivacious music for the middle movement. In the outer movements, there is a sense of growing and contracting, pushing and pulling, as the mood changes continually. An ascending passage featuring the woodwinds, strings and soloist ends the first movement. The quick second movement is a dizzying tour de force for the soloist, at once a dance and a flight. In the third movement, the music rises to end in a veritable celestial realm.

Pierre Jalbert, former composer-in-residence at LACO and composer of a vivacious Marimba Concerto for which LACO gave the US premiere, has written music inspired by many forces, earthly and otherwise, like the seasons in his Autumn Rhapsody or Fire and Ice. His style encompasses a harmonic language that uses traditional tonality and modality, but does not shy away from dissonance. This multi-faceted language, while innovative and fresh, still allows for expectation and satisfaction. It is a language that can be understood without complicated translation. Jalbert creates tension and release with rhythmic variety as well. He might juxtapose a section of forward-moving rhythmic gestures that seem to push on relentlessly with a section in which time appears to have stopped.

His meditative Les espaces infinis finds less use for driving rhythms as he contemplates the infinite space of the universe itself. Often described as “moody,” this work begins and ends with quiet harmonies. We are suspended in time and space, observing the vastness. The harp provides points of reference, evoking points of light of distant stars. In the center of this vague mist of harmony, there is a central cohesive moment, almost as if the primordial soup begins spinning into a definable galaxy. This cohesion gives way to chaos again, and the mood of the beginning returns. We are left with harmonies that do not definitely point in one direction or another. They are simply there, in the immensity of open space.

From unformed space, we turn to the order and structure of the Classical era. Despite not having a catchy nickname like “Drum Roll” or “The Clock,” Haydn’s Symphony No. 88 has always been one of his most popular works. It is a typical Classical symphony in many ways, with two features Haydn particularly enjoyed: a slow introduction at the beginning, and a first movement with only one main theme, not two as was customary. The work was written in the short time period between Haydn’s famous Paris (Nos. 82–87) and London (Nos. 93–104) Symphonies. The slow introduction sets up the main theme of the movement. Throughout the whole of this section, all of the musical material seems to draw in some way on the main theme, appearing both in transitions and at arrival points. A passage for the solo flute appears in the recapitulation, reminding us of Mendelssohn’s fairies for just the fraction of a moment. The movement is exceedingly charming in its courtly grace.

The second movement provides a contrast with a languid opening theme played by the oboe and cello. This theme returns again and again, with embellishments by the strings. Occasional strong chords by the orchestra punctuate the quiet of the movement. The appearance of the trumpet and timpani in these chords was a first for Haydn, who had never before used these instruments in a slow movement, and indeed, didn’t use them at all in the first movement. The third movement, a Minuet of course, is just the kind of dance we’ve come to expect from the composer. It has elements of true peasant dances, with the drone in the trio section bringing to mind bagpipes. But Haydn’s sophistication graces it with an unexpected harmonic shift here or a dynamic jolt there.

The final movement is full of surprises as well. The form of the movement was something new for Haydn—a hybrid of the sonata form structure (found in the first movement) and rondo form. The most obvious feature of a rondo is a musical theme that returns between passages of other musical material. The musical theme Haydn presents in this rondo is in two parts. That binary form allows Haydn to return sometimes with only one part of the theme, or without repeats, or with a new harmonic interpretation. One barely has time to contemplate such things because the movement never stops its forward momentum (some have called it a perpetual motion finale), and all too quickly, a stately fanfare brings Haydn’s enchanting symphony to a firm and unambiguous ending.

– Christine Lee Gengaro, PhD

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