Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra: making great music personal

program notes: spotlight on LACO

Saturday December 11, 2010
Sunday December 12, 2010

Kellogg Mozart’s Hymn

orchestration: strings

Golijov Last Round

orchestration: strings

Copland Clarinet Concerto

orchestration: clarinet solo; harp; piano; strings

Wolf Italian Serenade

orchestration: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons; 2 horns; strings

Schumann Cello Concerto in A minor, Op. 129

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

A sacred meditation. Fighting in the street. Spirited jazz. An elegy. Tonight’s concert features plenty of variety for the versatile talents of LACO musicians.

Rising star Daniel Kellogg is an award-winning contemporary composer whose works have drawn inspiration from Shakespeare ( Pyramus and Thisbe ), history ( Ben, a piece commemorating Benjamin Franklin’s 300th birthday), and nature ( Western Skies ). Kellogg, who has composed in many styles and genres, has a particular affinity for choral music. He has completed choral works for various collegiate glee clubs, including those at Cornell and Yale, and composed his first oratorio, The Fiery Furnace, in 2008. Although Mozart’s Hymn is not a choral work, its source material is one of the most-sung pieces by Mozart, accessible to amateur and professional choirs alike. Kellogg based the work on Mozart’s famous Ave verum corpus, a religious hymn set for four-part choir, strings and organ. It is a short piece, less than 50 measures long, but lovely in its simple purity. Kellogg’s Mozart’s Hymn was written as a commission for the Ensemble Orchestral de Paris. It was first heard in the US at the Aspen Music Festival in 2006.

In Mozart’s Hymn, Kellogg uses overlapping excerpts of the original work to create a prism-like texture. The hymn at first cannot be discerned through the texture, which seems to shimmer and gleam. It is only through the development of the excerpts that the true shape of the melody and harmony begin to take on a form that the ear can recognize. When the hymn becomes apparent toward the end of this work, it feels like a point of arrival, a moment of clarity, ultimately satisfying and transcendent.

As Mozart’s music inspired Kellogg’s work, tango composer Astor Piazzolla was the inspiration for Osvaldo Golijov’s Last Round. LACO audiences will remember Golijov’s tango-inspired Azul brilliantly played by Yo-Yo Ma two seasons ago. Golijov grew up in Argentina, and his style was shaped by his upbringing there, as well as the music of his Russian and Romanian ancestors. Golijov himself has talked about the illuminating moment when he heard Piazzolla play in a hotel café in Buenos Aires. He describes the feeling: “To suddenly hear a living composer play his own music, hear the sounds of real life become the fabric of music, was just a tremendous revelation.” The title Last Round comes from a short story about boxing by Julio Cortázar, and the subject matter is apt for two reasons. First, Piazzolla is said to have experienced more than his fair share of fistfights. The second reason is perhaps a bit more abstract. Golijov began composing Last Round in 1991 when he heard that Piazzolla had suffered a stroke. This piece was, in Golijov’s mind, symbolic of Piazzolla’s last fight.

Piazzolla had played and written tangos for the bandoneon, an accordion-like instrument that originated in Germany and served as a portable substitute for a church organ. From Germany the instrument traveled to South America where it flourished in Argentina’s musical scene, particularly in Buenos Aires. Its triumphant return to Europe was certainly helped by Piazzolla, who initially had sought to hide his talent for the instrument from composition teacher Nadia Boulanger. When she finally convinced him to play the bandoneon for her, she proclaimed it his true voice.

In Last Round, Golijov treats the orchestra as a single bandoneon. The first movement represents the vehement inward press of the instrument, while the second represents the opening, the pulling apart of the bandoneon, almost an inspiration of breath. The first movement embodies the clash of the Last Round. Two quartets square off in the boxing ring, or, if you prefer, on the dance floor. The competing themes lunge at each other, nearly colliding again and again as they push and pull. The second movement draws upon “My Beloved Buenos Aires,” a song composed by famed tango singer Carlos Gardel. Golijov uses the refrain from the song as a basis over which the instruments play a fantasia. In a fitting tribute, Golijov captures the spirit of both Piazzolla and the tango he loved.

Legendary clarinetist Benny Goodman was dubbed the King of Swing, but he began his career as a classically trained musician. He coupled solid technique with a full understanding of the jazz and swing idioms. He used his great success as a bandleader to commission works for his instrument, including Bartók’s Contrasts and the Clarinet Concerto by Aaron Copland. Goodman played the premiere of the latter in 1950, a little over two years after Copland began writing it, in a radio broadcast with the NBC Symphony Orchestra. Copland, who was pleased to write for Goodman and admitted he never would have thought of writing a clarinet concerto if it wasn’t for the commission, did not consult with Goodman during the work’s composition. In the end, Goodman made some slight adjustments to the score, changing certain passages to make them slightly easier to play.

The piece is in two movements played without pause, connected by a cadenza. The opening movement takes on the guise of a song, its sweet and lyrical phrases imbued with a sense of longing. The harp is often heard in counterpoint with the shimmering orchestral accompaniment. Some musical material introduced in the cadenza is further explored in the second movement, which is in a free rondo form, alternating various motifs with a recurring central theme. It is in this movement that Copland adds elements of jazz—the rhythm becomes livelier, the harmonies more pointed. Inspired by Goodman’s unique background playing both classical and swing music, as well as his own travels to Rio de Janeiro, Copland weaves a Brazilian tune into the movement’s texture. The closing moments are particularly exciting as the work rushes to the finish, the soloist executing a rising grand glissando, ending the piece with a definitively jazzy flourish.

Noted art song composer Hugo Wolf’s Italian Serenade began as a string quartet in 1887. A few years later Wolf arranged the work for orchestra; the version we hear tonight features winds and strings. The expanded scoring might have been inspired by a novella by Joseph Eichendorf—whose poetry Wolf was setting to music around this time—which features an orchestra playing an Italian serenade. Wolf began using that title in about 1890. At some point, Wolf had thought the work would be the beginning of a larger, multi-movement work, but beyond some sketches, no other completed movements have been discovered. While the Serenade was completed in 1892, it wasn’t published until 1903. In 1897, Wolf entered an insane asylum, where he would spend the last few years of his life.

The Eichendorf connection does not end at the title. The musical material of the Italian Serenade bears some resemblance to a theme found in one of Wolf’s Eichendorf songs, “Der Soldat I” (“The Soldier 1”), and the opening motif, which seems to be a parody of tuning, is similar to another of Wolf’s Eichendorf songs, “Das Ständchen” (“The Serenade”). The “tuning” at the beginning signals that this work has a playful mood, and indeed this is a lively and vivacious serenade. It has a heroic character at times and brings to mind Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s scores for the swashbuckling films of the 1930s and 1940s or Richard Strauss’s tone poems. The Serenade is in a rondo form, which allows different solo instruments to speak up when the original theme returns.

The Italian Serenade provides a cheerful interlude before the elegiac Cello Concerto by Robert Schumann. The Concerto, which Schumann wrote over a couple of weeks in 1850, was actually not performed until four years after his death. Schumann had just moved to Düsseldorf to work as the city’s music director and was enjoying perhaps the last happy times of his life. It was soon apparent to those in Düsseldorf that the composer was better suited to writing music than conducting it, and the auditory hallucinations that would eventually drive him to attempt suicide soon began to disrupt his life more and more. But for that short period in 1850, Schumann continued working, composing not just the Cello Concerto, but also the Third Symphony, “The Rhenish,” and revising the Fourth Symphony. It is under debate whether some of the works Schumann produced at this time are of lasting artistic value. Clara, Schumann’s wife, who was extremely protective of both her husband and his professional reputation, kept some of his compositions from the public eye, the ones she felt weren’t of quality. The Cello Concerto, however, did not fall into this category. Indeed, Clara Schumann, a composer and pianist in her own right, felt that the work was beautifully written and worthy of Robert’s legacy.

Schumann’s Cello Concerto is a thoughtful work that challenges the conventions of the genre. The first and most obvious difference is that Schumann preferred to refer to the work as a “concert piece” instead of “concerto,” a desire which was ignored for the sake of clarity. Secondly, the virtuosic displays that one normally sees in concertos are dampened, making the focus less the prowess of the soloist and more the effect of the music. In Schumann’s time, breaks between movements were often accompanied by applause, a convention Schumann disliked. To discourage this practice, Schumann designed the three movements of the Cello Concerto to be played without pause.

The first movement is in sonata form, and the initial theme is overwrought and contemplative, with the cello making the first declarations with the barest of accompaniment. The cello reaches down seemingly into the depths of its soul and rises again, and only then does the orchestra have its say. A secondary theme is more lively, but still very emotional. The examination of the themes in this movement’s development avoids becoming ponderous. There is no traditional cadenza, as one might expect at the end of this movement. The second movement is a heartfelt, three-part Romanza in which the soloist’s line is still contemplative, almost peaceful, setting up the lively third movement. The finale reveals a playfulness in both the cello and orchestral parts, so that the vivacious mood is a fine contrast to the first two sections. Although the movement is stormy and sometimes tumultuous, with the cello reaching down into the rumbling low register and climbing upward, the last few moments express a delicacy and excitement that ultimately leave us with a feeling of hopefulness.

– Christine Lee Gengaro, PhD

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