Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra: making great music personal

program notes: reflection

Saturday December 10, 2011
Sunday December 11, 2011

Ravel Le tombeau de Couperin


Tchaikovsky Variations on a Rococo Theme for Cello and Orchestra, Op. 33


Adès Three Studies from Couperin


Respighi Gli uccelli (The Birds)


One of the composers on tonight’s program, Thomas Adès, has said, “My ideal day would be staying at home and playing the harpsichord works of Couperin—new inspiration on every page.” François Couperin (1688–1733) was the most famous member of a musical family who wrote and performed music during the Baroque period. Le grande Couperin, as François was known, influenced many composers, from Bach to Brahms to Richard Strauss to the composers on this program.

Between 1914 and 1917, Maurice Ravel composed a six movement suite for solo piano he called Le tombeau de Couperin. Couperin’s music and spirit underpin the work. A tombeau (literally “tomb”) is a musical tribute to someone who has died, and Ravel wrote this in the midst of the First World War. The musical world was deeply affected by the conflict, with many composers and musicians serving in the military. Orchestras were depleted of their members, and thus, many composers turned from writing large-scale works to writing smaller works. Ravel, who worked as an ambulance driver in the war (he was nearly 40 when the conflict began), was profoundly changed by the experience, and he wrote this piece to commemorate some of the lives affected by the war.

Although a tombeau was often written for one person, Ravel dedicated the individual movements to his contemporaries. Prélude is dedicated to a colleague, Lieutenant Jacques Charlot, who had arranged Ravel’s four-hand work Ma mère l’oye (Mother Goose) for piano solo. He dedicated the Forlane to Lieutenant Gabriel Deluc, a painter. Ravel, who was also wounded during his service, made his recovery in the home of Jean Dreyfus, to whom the Menuet is dedicated. The Rigaudon commemorates the lives of brothers Pierre and Pascal Gaudin, killed by the same mortar. Ravel orchestrated the four movements in 1919. The piece received its premiere the following year. It is a credit to Ravel’s skill as an orchestrator that he so ably translated this piano piece, with its idiomatic keyboard writing, to the larger ensemble. Although the work rings with 20th-century harmonies bursting with color and inventiveness, Ravel manages to retain the stunning clarity and rhythmic liveliness of Couperin’s music. The upbeat nature of some of the movements led some to wonder why this tombeau wasn’t more somber in character. In response, Ravel simply said, “The dead are sad enough, in their eternal silence.”

Tchaikovsky never wrote a full-fledged cello concerto, but he did write a large-scale work for cello and orchestra in 1876. Inspired by Classical composers like Mozart, Tchaikovsky called his piece Variations on a Rococo Theme for Cello and Orchestra. The title suggests that the theme was pre-existent, but Tchaikovsky composed it himself, crafting it in the earlier style. The sense of order that was so prevalent in the Classical period was very compelling for Tchaikovsky at this time in his life. He was in some personal turmoil over his homosexuality, which he strove to hide from the world. Variations on a Rococo Theme allowed Tchaikovsky to escape into a time and style that must have seemed more simple and orderly. In composing the work, Tchaikovsky consulted with Wilhelm Fitzenhagen, a German cellist who worked at the Moscow Conservatory with the composer. In addition to helping Tchaikovsky write music that would work well for the cello and choosing a suitable order for the variations, Fitzenhagen played the premiere in Moscow in 1877. For tonight’s performance, LACO is honored to welcome acclaimed soloist Ralph Kirshbaum. Kirshbaum’s appearance serves as a prelude to the Orchestra’s participation in the Piatigorsky International Cello Festival, which launches in Los Angeles in March 2012 under Kirshbaum’s artistic direction.

The piece itself begins with the presentation of the Rococo theme. Seven variations follow, each one flowing into the next without pause. The one exception to this is the final variation, which is preceded by a brief break from the previous section. The piece is challenging for the soloist because there are few opportunities to rest. Tchaikovsky’s theme is both simple and charming, with easily discernible phrases. After the theme is stated a few times, the first variation begins with the theme in triplets in the cello. In the second variation, the theme is quite a bit quicker, and there appears to be some call and response between the soloist and the ensemble. The next variation is slower and sweeter, and it culminates in a shimmering ending. The fourth variation returns to a feeling of playfulness, with the theme bouncing around in the high and low ranges. The trills in the fourth variation become part of the fifth variation, as the cello trills against a flute solo. A brief cadenza follows before the orchestra returns, but soon the soloist embarks on a much lengthier cadenza. When the next variation begins, we are in a minor key, and the statement of the theme is a bit more melancholy. The final variation is the most challenging. The cellist plays constant, fast notes, and the orchestra must keep pace with the soloist’s incredible speed. The piece ends with this heart-pounding race to the finish, although it is not all flash and color. Tchaikovsky’s superior craftsmanship holds up beautifully in all the variations, making this piece an enjoyable adventure to what Tchaikovsky must have imagined was a simpler time.

Like Ravel, world-renowned British composer and keyboardist Thomas Adès has also felt the influence of Couperin, going so far as to orchestrate several of Couperin’s keyboard pieces. Couperin’s touch on Adès’ work can also be detected in his Sonata de Caccia (1993), a piece for Baroque oboe, horn and harpsichord, and in the work on tonight’s program, Three Studies from Couperin. Composed in 2006, these studies are not just ordinary orchestral arrangements of three harpsichord works. Adès does keep the music of Couperin’s original pieces, but through his inventive orchestration, he transforms that material into something that sounds both fresh and modern. The first study, Les amusemens, is lively and colorful. The low strings and woodwinds provide an almost understated timbre, but the lively themes still shine through, especially when accented in the percussion section. Adès provides contrast with the second study, Les tours de passe-passe. This section has a sharper, more strident sound due to the use of pizzicato and the high ranges of the instruments. We return to the understated mood with L’âme-en-peine. This study seems very serious at times, with the use of the timpani adding to the section’s gravity. Adès has fashioned something fascinating and new from the works of Couperin, bringing this Baroque master into the 21st century.

Italian composer Ottorino Respighi was also a musicologist, and particularly interested in music of the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. He not only edited collections of Italian masters like Monteverdi and Vivaldi, but also showed interest in the works of French composers. In Gli uccelli (The Birds), Respighi takes earlier works—in this case, five pieces by various composers—and translates them into a five-movement orchestral work. The first movement of Gli uccelli is a prelude, and the others are each named for a type of bird. Respighi was interested in transcribing birdsong into traditional notation, and he features it throughout this piece. The opening “Preludio” is based on the music of Bernardo Pasquini, an Italian Baroque composer. The opening is stately and formal, almost as though we are promenading into an aviary. “La colomba” (The Dove) works with the music of Jacques de Gallot, a French composer and lutenist. Respighi chose very delicate orchestration for this movement, with the cooing of the dove adding color to the other lines of melody. “La gallina” (The Hen) uses the musical material of Jean-Philippe Rameau, who was one of the most prominent harpsichord composers of the Baroque era. Respighi has the orchestra peck away at Rameau’s melody in gestures that mimic both the movement of a hen through the barnyard and the bird’s characteristic cluck. “L’usignuolo” (The Nightingale) is based on an anonymous folk song that was transcribed by Dutch composer and organist Jacob van Eyck. Finally “Il cucù” (The Cuckoo) returns to the music of Pasquini. The high and low notes that signal the sound of the cuckoo figure prominently throughout this section, and at the end, we are treated to a reprise of the opening “Preludio”, bringing the piece full circle.

– Christine Lee Gengaro, PhD

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