Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra: making great music personal

program notes: mozart's prague

Saturday May 14, 2011
Sunday May 15, 2011

Mendelssohn Concerto in D minor for Violin and Piano

orchestration: solo violin; solo piano; strings

Bermel Mar de Setembro (“September Sea”) Sound Investment commission (world premiere)

orchestration: To include solo voice; 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons; 2 horns, 2 trumpets; timpani; percussion; strings

Mozart Symphony No. 38 in D major, K. 504, “Prague”

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

Tonight’s program begins and ends with works by child prodigies. Mendelssohn composed the first piece when he was barely 14 years old; Mozart, also quite famous for his childhood talent, composed the last piece on the program near the end of his life. In between these works is a newly composed piece by a face familiar to LACO: composer-in-residence Derek Bermel. The three works represent composers at three different stages of their careers. Mendelssohn’s piece represents the artist at the beginning of the journey, when all is fresh and new and ready to be tried. Bermel’s centerpiece shows us the artist in the midst of creativity, at the height of his powers with a bright future ahead. Mozart’s symphony was also written in what should have been his middle period; however his death at 35 in 1791 cut that bright future short.

From the time Felix Mendelssohn was a child, his artistic gifts were nurtured by a supportive family. He studied piano with Ludwig Berger and theory and composition with Carl Friedrich Zelter. Young Mendelssohn also took violin lessons and received instruction in drawing and painting. He began composing in 1820, when he was 11 years old, completing short instrumental works and singspiels, dramatic works with both singing and dialogue. The latter works were performed for the Mendelssohn family and their friends. Throughout his youth, Mendelssohn studied Classical forms like the symphony, string quartet and concerto, and he sought to master Baroque counterpoint. By 1821, he was writing string symphonies, completing eight of them in quick succession. He then turned his efforts to the concerto, a genre he would compose in throughout his life. The early concertos, like the string symphonies, were in the Classical mold, and it is clear that Mendelssohn had fully absorbed the idioms and stylistic traits of the 18th-century style.

The Concerto for Violin and Piano was composed in 1823 when Mendelssohn was only 14. Its first movement opens as one might suspect, with the orchestra presenting the two main themes, the first serious and purposeful, the second more lyrical. When the solo instruments make their entrance, however, they don’t perform a similar rendering of the themes; instead, they present virtuosic flourishes and highly ornamented phrases that are eventually woven into the orchestral fabric. Mendelssohn shows great control of both the orchestra and the complex solo lines. The first movement is of considerable length, nodding to Baroque counterpoint, Classical structure and nascent Romantic harmonies. After an orchestral opening, the second movement allows the soloists to engage in a long, uninterrupted conversation. The opening of the finale is confident and assured, and Mendelssohn perfectly recaptures the mood of the beginning of the concerto. The soloists display some vivacious passagework, and the orchestra provides support that is more than just accompanimental. There is a sense of purpose and drive that carries this fine concerto to an exciting and satisfying end. Imagine such mastery at that age!

Composers historically have dedicated important works to individuals, even naming works for patrons, colleagues and influential friends. Occasionally, a composer might dedicate a work as a gift for a particular place. The following two pieces on our program were intended in such a manner. Derek Bermel’s Mar de Setembro, this season’s Sound Investment Commission, is something of a tribute to the culture of the city of Los Angeles. Referring to Los Angeles’ significant ties to the Latin American community, Bermel’s piece draws upon Brazilian themes and rhythms for the musical material. Bermel has composed what he calls a “vocal tone poem” specifically for Luciana Souza, now an LA resident, in which he sets the poetry of Eugénio de Andrade, who is considered one of the greatest Portuguese poets of the 20th century. Bermel is currently composer-in-residence at LACO, and he’s truly a rising star in the art music scene, writing commissions for orchestras all over the country and acting as Creative Adviser to the American Composers Orchestra at Carnegie Hall. His life’s experience with music of different genres and cultures has informed and enriched his unique compositional style.

Mozart was very busy in 1786 and 1787. His wife gave birth to two children, Johann Thomas Leopold (1786) and Theresia Constanzia (1787), and his father passed away in the middle of 1787. All the while, he composed works in a few different genres: opera (_The Marriage of Figaro_ premiered in 1786), piano concerto (No. 25) and symphony—tonight’s Symphony No. 38 in D major. Its nickname, “Prague,” comes from the city of the work’s premiere. The Symphony was an offering to a city that supported Mozart’s music even when Vienna turned a cold shoulder to him. Prague was enamored of the music from The Marriage of Figaro, and when Mozart arrived in the city to conduct the work, he also premiered this Symphony, which had actually been written in Vienna.

Most symphonies written at this time conformed to the standard four-movement structure typical in Classical symphonies: lively first movement, slow second movement, third movement —a minuet and trio—and fast fourth movement. The “Prague,” however, has three movements and leaves out the minuet. The first movement begins with a slow introduction, something more often found in symphonies by Haydn, although Mozart did use an introduction in two other symphonies from this time (Nos. 36 and 39). Although there are no vocal lines in this Symphony, the influence of opera seems apparent if you are familiar with Mozart’s music. Some musical material in the “Prague” Symphony is reminiscent of themes in Don Giovanni (also composed in 1787), and there is a musical reference to Figaro in the finale. The style of writing in the first movement, likewise, often resembles the dramatic flourishes of an opera overture. Mozart juxtaposed sections of imitative counterpoint among the members of orchestra with powerful statements by the whole ensemble. The second movement provides a lyrical contrast to the first. Its long lines are not entirely serene, however; there is a dramatic weight to this section of the Symphony and shifting moods and colors within the movement itself. The flute is featured in the finale of this work, highlighting Mozart’s splendid counterpoint. Once again, stormy interruptions to the themes suggest an opera overture, in which moods can quickly turn from peaceful to tragic in the blink of an eye. The music in this finale is effervescent and beautifully captures the theatrical flair that made Mozart the toast of Prague in 1786 and 1787.

–Christine Gengaro, PhD

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