Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra: making great music personal

program notes: brandenburg

Saturday November 5, 2011
Sunday November 6, 2011

Bach Brandenburg Concerto No. 1 in F major, BWV 1046


Bach Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 in G major, BWV 1048

orchestration: continuo; strings

Bach Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 in G major, BWV 1049


Bach Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 in D major, BWV 1050

orchestration: solo violin, solo flute, solo piano; strings; continuo

Bach Brandenburg Concerto No. 6 in B-flat major, BWV 1051


Bach Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 in F major, BWV 1047


In the spring of 1721, Johann Sebastian Bach was working in Cöthen, supporting his family by working as Kapellmeister. In this capacity, Bach was in charge of the musical activity of the court. His duties included composing music for different occasions, leading performances and possibly teaching. His employer Prince Leopold was a music lover, and Bach and his family were getting along very well in that city. Then two things happened to change Bach’s fortunes. One was the death of his first wife, and the second was Prince Leopold’s marriage to a woman who didn’t care for music. Bach slowly began to feel that it was time to move on to greener pastures. After running into the Margrave of Brandenburg by chance—as Bach was shopping for a new harpsichord—the composer decided to try to capitalize on this fortuitous meeting.

Bach sent a set of six concertos to the Margrave in response to a request (the Margrave had apparently asked for some music), but also, many speculate, as a bid for a new job. Bach did not write these pieces specifically for this purpose; he almost certainly began these concertos while happily working in Cöthen, since the forces he wrote for match perfectly with the musicians he had at his disposal there. However, Bach must have realized how impressive these works were, so he copied them into a set and sent them off to Brandenburg. Bach’s dedication has a bit more bowing and scraping than was probably necessary, but Bach was nothing if not humble. Part of the first sentence reads: “[I beg] Your Highness most humbly not to judge [the concertos’] imperfection with the rigor of that discriminating and sensitive taste, which everyone knows Him to have for musical works, but rather to take into benign Consideration the profound respect and the most humble obedience which I thus attempt to show Him.”

Sadly, the Margrave appears to have completely ignored these masterpieces of the High Baroque style; he never had the works performed, and the set collected dust in the Margrave’s library until his death in 1734. The pieces were subsequently sold—the concertos apparently went for about $20 in today’s currency—and were found in the Brandenburg archives during the 19th century. Regardless of any philosophical reasons for not acknowledging the works, on a practical note, the Margrave didn’t have enough musicians up to the challenge for the successful execution of the concertos, a fact that often prevents their being performed in a complete set even today. There are at least two solo instruments in nearly every concerto, with the larger ensemble rounded out by strings and basso continuo, made up of a bass instrument plus harpsichord. This program gives the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra the chance to show off its incredible depth, with several of our musicians shining in the solo spotlight. Tonight, we are reviving LACO’s much beloved tradition of performing all six concertos in a single night, in the order of Nos. 1, 3, 4, 5, 6 and concluding with No. 2.

Brandenburg Concerto No. 1 is the only one with four movements. It prominently features the horns and oboes. In Italian, the horns were known as corni da caccia (literally, horns of the chase, or hunting horns) because similar instruments were used by hunters to call participants to the chase. Such instruments were needed since hunting parties often traveled over large spaces or in woods, where communication would have been difficult. The first movement is an Allegro that features a serpentine melody line with the horns in harmony. Bach used this same material in the opening movement of Cantata No. 52. The contrasting second movement allows the violin and oboe to shine in a lyrical and intense duet. Some of the music of the lively third movement also appears in another of Bach’s cantatas. The concerto closes with a dance-like section that is crisp and virtuosic, filled with imitative passages and sequences. Bach works his way back to the home key, pausing briefly to gain momentum and then drives straight through to the brilliant close.

Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 features a string ensemble. It seems to be one of the earliest concertos in the set, since its overall structure is fairly conservative. Bach achieves a remarkable equality among the string instruments throughout the piece. There is no one instrument, or group of instruments, that seems separate from the full orchestra. The imitative conversation among the three violins, three violas and three cellos is wonderfully democratic. The second movement is something of a mystery as written. The scoring consists of nothing more than a set of two chords—a cadence. The two chords seem to suggest that the ensemble must improvise the entire movement. Some performers simply play the chords as written, adding no cadenzas, while others insert appropriate movements from other pieces by Bach. Still others meticulously work out entire movements to fit the key and style of the rest of the work. In any case, this unusual middle section of the work prepares the listener for the final movement, which is characterized by constant activity in its joyful and vivacious writing.

Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 features a violin and two flutes as solo instruments. Bach actually scored the work for flauti d’echo or “echo flutes,” even though we don’t know of any such instrument that existed then or now. The “echo” part of the description perhaps refers to the middle movement where Bach seems to suggest the spatial effect of having the instruments play off in the distance. This effect would be easier to achieve with the hollow tone of recorders, but the balanced ensemble sound that we expect today is best created with modern flutes, with their sharper technique, increased subtlety and greater variety in tone and dynamics. This is an extremely light and airy concerto, and its wit and liveliness are among its greatest features.

The solo instruments of Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 are flute, violin and harpsichord. The flute of Bach’s time would have been made of wood with a mixture of finger holes and keys similar to the ones you would find on the modern metal flute. Also, in the Baroque period, the shape of the inside of the instrument, called a “bore,” changed from being cylindrical to being conical. This difference in bore shape increased the range of the instrument and indeed made it more expressive. This concerto is particularly notable for the interesting role played by the harpsichord. Usually relegated to a background part, as the keyboard continuo, the harpsichord here actually becomes something of a solo instrument, especially in the spectacular cadenza of the first movement. In this piece, the harpsichord player gets to step out of the shadows and shine as a virtuoso, thus allowing us to feature LACO’s principal keyboard, Patricia Mabee, who celebrates her 35th anniversary with LACO this season. It is thought that Bach designed the concerto specifically to show off his own considerable skill on the instrument. There is also speculation that perhaps Bach was also interested in demonstrating the new Mietke harpsichord he acquired in Berlin—the same instrument he bought when he met with the Margrave.

Two violas are the soloists for Brandenburg Concerto No. 6. This is a curious concerto in that it features no violins. The cello parts were originally written for violas da gamba, an instrument common in the Renaissance and Baroque periods. The viola da gamba was often associated with the aristocracy and was comparable to the cello in size, but differed in that it had fretted fingerboards like the modern guitar. “Gamba,” meaning “leg,” refers to the manner in which the instrument is held; a viola da gamba has no end pin and, therefore, must be held up between the legs. The combination of viola and cello creates a darker and warmer sound in this work, a beautiful rich timbre that sets it apart from the rest of the set. The melody of the slow movement is utterly breathtaking, and the jaunty spirit of the final movement draws the work to an inspiring finish.

Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 features violin, flute, oboe and trumpet as the solo instruments. Bach’s models for choosing instruments of such disparate timbres were certainly other German composers like Telemann, and this piece seems to be the only one of the set written with a specific player in mind. Johann Ludwig Schreiber was a trumpet player at Cöthen, and he must have had considerable skill to play the part that Bach planned for him. Tonight, LACO’s principal trumpet David Washburn will be featured in this challenging, thrilling concerto. After the virtuosic and active first movement, the trumpet player gets a rest in the middle movement. This was necessary since Baroque trumpets only allowed a performer to play in a single key, and the middle movement was usually in a contrasting tonal area. This work is still notoriously difficult on the modern trumpet and is therefore often played on the smaller, higher piccolo trumpet, which helps to mitigate the challenge of playing in the stratospherically high range of the solo part. The finale is absolutely brilliant, one of the most noble and beautiful movements Bach ever wrote. It is for this reason that LACO has traditionally chosen to close its Brandenburg performances with
this monument to the High Baroque style. Also featured in this concerto is principal oboe Allan Vogel, who marks his 40th season with LACO this year!

– Christine Lee Gengaro, PhD