Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra: making great music personal

Thursday March 10, 2011

Geminiani Concerto Grosso in C major (after Corelli’s Op. 5, No. 3)

orchestration: strings; continuo

Kohaut Concerto in F major for Lute and Strings

orchestration: solo lute; strings; continuo

Handel Concerto Grosso in B-flat major, Op. 6, No. 7

orchestration: strings; continuo

Vivaldi Concerto in A minor for Two Violins, RV 523

orchestration: solo violins; strings; continuo

Concertos are musical studies in relationships. In a concerto, a soloist or group of soloists interacts with a larger ensemble, a musical give-and-take that mimics the daily give-and-take of human relationships. During the Baroque period, the concerto became a form of its own, but the idea of having two different musical entities engage in a “conversation” began at least a century earlier. Renaissance composers such as Monteverdi, Gabrieli and Schütz had experimented with conversational arrangements and echoing musical ideas.

Tonight’s concert features four Baroque composers writing in two forms: the concerto and the concerto grosso, which differ in one important respect. The former features a single soloist and a small orchestra, or ripieno. The latter features a small group of soloists, a concertino, in addition to the ripieno. The composer is free to write more virtuosic material for the soloist or concertino while the ripieno and basso continuo provide accompaniment. The first and final movements of many concertos and concerto grossos are composed in ritornello (from the Italian “to return”) form. In this form, the entire ensemble begins the movement of the concerto by playing a musical passage that will return throughout the movement. In between sections of the ritornello — usually played by everyone — the soloist or concertino explores more difficult musical ideas. The alternating sections of soloist and orchestra provide interesting contrasts between simple and complex, soft and loud, accompaniment and virtuosity.

The Baroque concerto, especially the concerto grosso, developed through the trio sonatas of composers like Arcangelo Corelli, who incidentally seems to have popularized the term concerto “grosso.” The trio sonata, which features two solo instruments over a basso continuo, is, in a confusing twist, actually played by four people. The basso continuo is comprised of two performers, one on a bass instrument and one on a chordal instrument such as a lute or harpsichord. As this accompanimental group was expanded, the trio sonata evolved into the concerto grosso form. Francesco Geminiani was a student of Corelli and wrote a number of concerto grossos including the Concerto Grosso in C major on tonight’s program. Antonio Vivaldi also retained something of the structure of the trio sonata in his Concerto in A minor for Two Violins. He kept the two solo instruments and the basso continuo and added more instruments to the ensemble. Because Vivaldi himself was an accomplished violinist, many of his hundreds of concertos were stunning examples of violin virtuosity and technique.

Karl Ignaz Augustin Kohaut’s contribution to tonight’s program is the Concerto in F major for Lute and Strings. Although Kohaut played the violin and had a career as a diplomat, he was best known as a lutenist. He was born in 1726 and died in 1784, his career thus beginning just as the Baroque period was drawing to a close. Though the lute is a distinctly Baroque instrument, Kohaut composed and performed lute music well into the Classical period and Kohaut is known to have played one of his seven Lute Concertos at a concert in 1777. For context, consider that in 1777 Mozart was 21, Haydn was 45, and the Classical period was already in full swing. The Classical style of instrumental composing was simpler than in the Baroque period, with a more transparent adherence to form. Kohaut also proved his facility in this more modern style by composing a dozen symphonies, the quintessentially Classical genre. The composer seems to have straddled the borderline between the Baroque and Classical periods quite gracefully.

All 12 of the concertos in George Frideric Handel’s Op. 6 are masterpieces, showing off the composer’s knack for melody and variety. Handel was fortunate enough to travel around Europe and was exposed to a multitude of different national styles. His own music is a fusion of all that he had heard and absorbed. His experience with opera and oratorios influenced his melodies, giving them a flowing contour. The interactions between concertino and ripieno in his concertos are reminiscent of the works of Corelli. In tonight’s particular set of concertos, one can also see the fingerprints of Bach and Vivaldi, especially in the counterpoint and virtuosic turns of phrase in the music; Handel even occasionally references dance forms. This is not to say that his concertos are unoriginal; in fact, it is this synthesis of styles that made Handel both so artful and so accessible.

Handel, who died in 1759, left a musical world that was changing. The Classical period was beginning, and the symphony would become the dominant genre. The smaller ensembles of the Baroque would develop into ever-growing symphonic orchestras. The face of chamber music would transform with the string quartet and the art song. The Baroque period provided a great musical foundation for these changes, although outwardly, Baroque and Classical music seem so different. Baroque influences remain to this day: The concerto as a genre has never lost its popularity, and composers continue to explore the concerto principle through their own contemporary styles, instruments and idioms.

–Christine Gengaro, PhD