Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra: making great music personal

program notes: haydn's drum roll

Saturday January 22, 2011
Sunday January 23, 2011

Mozart Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor, K. 466

orchestration: solo piano; 1 flute, 2 oboes, 2 bassoons; 2 horns, 2 trumpets; timpani; strings

Lutosławski Musique funèbre (“Funeral Music”)

orchestration: strings

Haydn Symphony No. 103 in E-flat major, “Drum Roll”

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

The composers of tonight’s pieces are an unlikely trio. Though Mozart and Haydn are often mentioned in the same breath, Lutosławski is an unlikely—or at least dissimilar—third party. Yet despite the composers’ differing styles and historical contexts, they are united on tonight’s program because each of their representative pieces achieves a stunning transformation. Mozart’s concerto begins in a minor key, and ends in a joyous major key. One section of Lutosławski’s Musique Funèbre is labeled Metamorphoses, while the Haydn Symphony begins with a somber opening and ends with a vivacious close.

Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20 is one of only two the composer wrote in a minor key, a fact that has helped it become one of his most popular works for piano and orchestra. So much has been said and written about this piece that it has an almost mythic status in the repertoire. Composed in 1785, when Mozart was still very active as a soloist, this Concerto was one of the several new ones he presented during a series of well-attended concerts from 1782 to 1785. He reaped considerable profits from these ventures and began living in a manner that he couldn’t have hoped to maintain; Mozart and his family would run into serious financial difficulties in the ensuing years. After 1785, Mozart changed his focus to opera, and what was once a flood of concertos became a trickle.

Piano Concerto No. 20 has the traditional three-movement form typical of the genre. What is atypical is the overt emotionality of the musical material. It’s no accident that some believe that this work was a great influence on the piano works that Beethoven would later write. This is the dramatic Mozart we know from his operas and from the Requiem. Though the work is at times stormy, it is never lacking in charm. The customary crisp phrases and effervescent style we have come to expect from Mozart are in grand supply in all three movements. The work begins with a restless and moody passage for the orchestra, but it soon is contrasted by a short foray into the major mode. The soloist’s first entrance sounds almost sweet and melancholy, but the orchestra rumbles to life under the solo part and the storminess returns. The conversation between piano and orchestra continues with the conflict between the second theme’s lightness and the main theme’s darkness. Mozart did not write out a cadenza for this work (he improvised these unaccompanied solo passages, which was customary), but later composers such as Beethoven wrote down their own cadenzas for this concerto. The quiet ending of the movement comes as something of a surprise considering the tumultuous nature of the work thus far, but great contrast comes in the middle movement.

The second movements of Mozart’s piano concertos take a number of forms: sonata form, variations, rondos and even arias. In this case, the second movement is labeled a Romanze. It is technically in rondo form because it revisits the same theme three times, with intervening sections of different musical ideas. Although it is primarily in the major mode, the movement still retains strands of that dark and stormy thread woven into the first movement, echoing the opening if not in direct musical quotation, then in mood. The final movement is also in rondo form. Once again, the conversation between soloist and orchestra is central to this section, with their give and take creating tension and harmonic interest. While the first movement ended in an expected fashion, the third movement subverts our expectations. After the cadenza, the orchestra re-enters with a joyous passage in D major that closes the work in a triumphant manner.

Witold Lutosławski was born in Warsaw just before the outbreak of World War I, and with his family he endured the turmoil of war for the first five years of his life. Lutosławski came of age during the Second World War, in which he served as a radio operator before his unit was captured by German soldiers. After his escape, Lutosławski returned to Warsaw, where he made a living playing in cabarets and cafes until 1944, when he fled the city, losing most of his music in the process. Musique Funèbre is a deeply emotional and heartfelt commemoration of composer Béla Bartók; studying Bartók’s music in his youth understandably left its mark on Lutosławski’s personal voice and approach to music. Lutosławski undertook the commission in 1954, nine years after Bartók’s passing, hoping to finish the work in time for the tenth anniversary of the composer’s death. His efforts took a bit longer than expected, and the work was finally finished in early 1958. The scoring for this work is rather specific: the violins are divided into four parts, and the violas, cellos and basses are divided into two groups each. Lutosławski’s music seems to refer to Bartók’s oeuvre, but not in a direct or overt way; the musical similarities are based more on style and compositional process.

Musique Funèbre does not rely on the language of tonality for its expression; it does not have a “home key,” but its emotional impact remains accessible. Lutosławski distanced himself from the tonal system, which was a big step for him in his musical development; he called this move from tonality the “first word” in a language that was new to him. This one-movement work has four sections: Prologue, Metamorphoses, Apogee and Epilogue. The first and last of these act as bookends as both are canons—pieces written with strict imitation—and share a similar tempo. The Prologue begins in the low strings and builds slowly, adding voices as it goes, and expressing great intensity as it climbs upwards. The section ends quietly, as the intensity dies down, and the notes travel downwards again. Metamorphoses is an apt title for the next section, because Lutosławski subjects some musical ideas from the first section, as well as new ideas, to developing transformations. These begin almost as tremors that sound like primitive first steps. As the music continues, however, the metamorphoses become more complex. Apogee, a mere dozen measures, is true to its name as the highest point of this journey. The Epilogue ends the piece as it began, and we return from our journey forever changed by what we’ve seen and heard along the way.

Joseph Haydn’s second trip to London in 1794–95 was as successful as the first a few years earlier. Having spent most of his career at the court of the Esterhazy family, Haydn in his later years relished the opportunity to bring his music to a larger audience. He produced six symphonies on his first journey and a half-dozen more on the second. Symphony No. 103, “Drum Roll” was Haydn’s penultimate work in the genre. It premiered in 1795 as part of a concert series arranged by German impresario Johann Peter Salomon. The nickname of the symphony comes from the opening gambit, a timpani solo that, of course, ends in a drum roll. The first few notes echo the famous “Dies Irae” chant from the mass of the dead, but an introduction that is anything but funereal follows, and the somber mood is soon forgotten once the movement gets underway. In fact, the lilting main theme is so charming it’s almost as though Haydn set out to write a serious work but couldn’t contain the effervescence of his musical ideas. There is one central theme to the first movement, leading to the label “monothematic,” but Haydn revisits the timpani opening and the following introduction in the coda.

The second movement is comprised of two intertwined sets of variations. Usually in a theme and variations movement, the composer presents a simple tune and follows it with new versions of the original material. The composer can alter the tempo of the theme, change it from major to minor (or vice versa) or add layers to make it more complex. In this case there are two themes, one in C minor, the other in C major. The themes are supposedly developed from a Croatian folk song, “The Little Girl Treads on a Brook.” Haydn excelled at variations, writing them in several genres and in other symphonies (the variations from the second movement of the “Surprise” Symphony have always been a crowd-pleaser). As the alternating major and minor variations continue, there are moments for solo instruments, including the violin and flute, to shine. In the Minuet and Trio, Haydn makes the most of this rather large orchestra, exploiting it to enrich the harmonies and dynamic contrasts. Even in 1795, the Minuet and Trio in Haydn’s hands still seem strongly connected to the dance. It wouldn’t be long before composers like Beethoven would remove the dance-like connotations of this section of the symphony, but here, it is still very much in the courtly tradition. The final movement begins with a horn call instead of a drumroll, retaining the ebullience of the first movement and rushing along lightly with outbursts from the brass and timpani and colorful commentary by the woodwinds. By the end of the Symphony, it is clear that in this work Haydn had reached the apex of his skills both as a composer and as an orchestrator.

– Christine Lee Gengaro, PhD

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