Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra: making great music personal

program notes: electric

Saturday September 24, 2011
Sunday September 25, 2011

Mozart Overture to The Magic Flute, K. 620

orchestration: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones,1 timpani, and strings.

Golijov Sidereus (West Coast premiere)


Bermel Ritornello (for electric guitar and orchestra) (West Coast premiere)


Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, Op. 58

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

This season marks the 15th anniversary of Jeffrey Kahane’s appointment as music director of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. Kahane calls LACO “a dream collaboration… [that] represents the core of my musical life.” In honor of Kahane’s outstanding tenure with the Orchestra, we will be highlighting some of his favorite pieces throughout the season. In addition, we will also be—as he says—“breaking new musical ground.” Tonight’s program displays Kahane’s extraordinary ability both to honor the past and to look forward to the new. It begins with two overtures, one supernatural and one natural. We kick off the evening with the Overture to one of Mozart’s final operas, The Magic Flute. From there, we travel into the heavens with Osvaldo Golijov’s Sidereus. This “overture,” like its namesake treatise by Galileo, shows us first impressions of the cosmos, where simplicity gives way to maddening complexity. Derek Bermel continues this exploration through Ritornello, which calls to mind a swirling galaxy of musical influences. We conclude the evening with Beethoven’s slightly more earth-bound, but equally stellar, Piano Concerto No. 4, a work that has special associations for Jeffrey Kahane and LACO.

The Magic Flute was written at the very end of Mozart’s life. It was composed for a theatre troupe led by one of Mozart’s friends, Emanuel Schikaneder. It was Schikaneder who wrote the libretto for the opera (technically a Singspiel since it incorporated spoken words along with singing) and originated the role of Papageno. Because the singers in Schikaneder’s theatre company had mixed musical skills, The Magic Flute seamlessly blends simpler opera buffa with the more complex opera seria style and incorporates folk elements as well. The work was written, first and foremost, as public entertainment, so it is easy to digest, even upon first hearing. Its themes, however, are slightly loftier, as they originate in the ideals of the Enlightenment (and include plenty of Masonic imagery). Musically speaking, the Overture is a study in the kind of clarity for which the Classicists were known. The themes are easily discernible and the sections are clearly demarcated, yet there is nothing pedantic about the music, which is lively and effervescent. It is, indeed, the perfect way to start an evening of music.

Through the history of music, it has not been unusual for individuals to commission works from composers. In more recent times, a commission will likely come from an organization or perhaps a performing group. To receive a commission from a consortium of 35 orchestras, however, is something quite different. Osvaldo Golijov’s Sidereus was commissioned by a group of orchestras in honor of Henry Fogel, former president and CEO of the League of American Orchestras. A master of orchestral management and conadministration, Fogel has also been a teacher and a writer, and he is a well-respected member of the contemporary music world.

The challenge for Golijov must have been writing a piece that would suit all 35 orchestras, but he handled the commission with aplomb, composing a piece with exquisite orchestration that evokes a strong emotional response. Golijov took the title of his piece from a treatise by Galileo called Sidereus Nuncius. Published in 1610, it contains Galileo’s recordings of his early observations through a telescope. Through this new tool, Galileo saw our moon, the moons of Jupiter and the stars. The title is often translated as the whimsical “Starry Messenger.” To Galileo, the word might have meant “heavenly,” while our English word “sidereal” simply means “pertaining to the stars.” Galileo’s observations resulted in more detailed star charts, and the astronomer also discovered that the spheres in the heavens weren’t perfectly smooth. The moon, for example, had craters and mountains. Galileo’s observations of the moon brought up questions like, if the moon had geographical features, might it also have water? And if it had water, might it also have life?

In Sidereus, Golijov presents seemingly simple themes, but through the course of the piece he reveals, as the telescope revealed to Galileo, that what seems simple, might in fact be quite a bit more interesting and thought-provoking. The work opens with a dark theme that poses a wordless question. Golijov has indicated that the mood of the opening should be “ominous, massive, suspended in time and space.” The rhythms do not suggest a definite meter. A livelier section follows, meant to evoke swirling, perhaps the circular movement of galaxies or the paths of the stars. The strings do most of the swirling, while the woodwinds add color, until finally the woodwinds begin to contribute patterns to the activity. Suddenly, the ominous question of the opening reappears, and the piece continues with what Golijov describes as “a strange mixture of melancholy and optimism.” The swirling second section returns, but it continues to grow in complexity as more parts are added. New rhythmic patterns emerge, and the effect is one of getting closer and seeing more detail. A moment of near-silence suddenly brings focus. Some instruments begin their patterns anew, while others hold long notes, like chaos suspended in time.

One of the most exciting things about contemporary composers of art music is their willingness to explore different musical influences in their new compositions. Derek Bermel, LACO’s composer-in-residence, is one such adventurous soul. He has traveled extensively, incorporating world music into his own creations, and has brought his love of rock and funk to the concert stage. This evening, LACO presents Ritornello, his concerto for electric guitar. The piece was commissioned by the Mellon Foundation for the Albany Symphony Orchestra’s American Music Festival.

The name Ritornello refers to a musical structure often found in Baroque music. In a piece in ritornello form, a musical theme returns numerous times throughout the work. (“Ritornello” is an Italian word meaning “return.”) In addition to Bermel’s nod to the Baroque, there are also stylistic references to thrash metal, progressive rock (a rhapsodic type of art rock) and the French Overture. Bermel utilizes counterpoint, drawing the solo instrument into a conversation with the ensemble, in a way that again brings to mind the Baroque concerto.

Ritornello was written with a soloist in mind, Wiek Hijmans, whose experience as an improviser inspired Bermel to allow musical space for Hijmans’ musical inventions. Interspersed between sections, the ritornellos are interludes calling to mind the French Overture, a two-part form that begins with a stately opening and ends with a lively imitative second half. The second of these interludes brings in a thrash metal solo section that Bermel describes as being in a “mannered, epic style.”

Moving away from opera, astronomy and popular music, Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4, composed in 1805–06, was written for more earthly and practical purposes. The Concerto was dedicated to Beethoven’s patron and friend Archduke Rudolph. However, we know he played it privately for another patron, Prince Lobkowitz, the year before its public premiere in 1808. The Concerto appeared then on a massive program with Beethoven’s Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, sections from the Mass in C major, a piano fantasia and a concert aria. This concert was a financial disappointment for Beethoven, and the audience complained about everything from the temperature of the theatre to the quality of the performances. Although it was favorably reviewed by some critics, the G-major Concerto was somewhat lost among Beethoven’s other new works and remained so until the 1830s when Felix Mendelssohn resurrected it. Pianists have historically held the work in high esteem, and many have written their own versions of the lengthy solo passages, called cadenzas. Famous fans of the work include Camille Saint-Saëns, Anton Rubinstein and our own Jeffrey Kahane. He has performed this work numerous times all over the world, including a performance at LACO before he became music director. Kahane chose it for this program because it is a symbol of his relationship with the Orchestra and because, he says, “Its beauty and power never cease to astound.”

The Concerto in G major breaks with tradition—the conventional Classical concerto and also Beethoven’s own style. Beethoven’s first three piano concertos display an effervescent brilliance marked by virtuosity. This Concerto, on the other hand, is quieter and gentler. Beethoven has the same resources at his fingertips, yet he shows a mature restraint in using them. The soloist, likewise, never uses bombast to assert dominance, but instead relies on persistence and even sweetness. The first movement is characterized by unusual chord shifts, a progression through many different keys and a solo piano introduction that sounds almost improvisatory. The second movement has inspired some—an early Beethoven biographer and fellow composer Franz Liszt among them—to hear in the music the story of Orpheus calming the Furies. There is no evidence that Beethoven had this in mind, but it is easy to hear the calming voice of the soloist against the restlessness of the orchestra. The final movement Rondo begins without pause. Its lyrical recurring theme is quick and lively. This tune is soon complemented by another animated theme. The movement plays out with spirited enthusiasm rather than brute force, and it caps a sometimes contemplative, sometimes serene and sometimes effervescent Concerto.

– Christine Lee Gengaro, PhD

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