Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra: making great music personal



program notes: mozart (mostly)

Saturday January 21, 2012
Sunday January 22, 2012

Mozart Symphony No. 29 in A major, K. 201

orchestration:

Mozart Violin Concerto No. 3 in G major, K. 216

orchestration:

Walton Sonata for Strings

orchestration:

In 1773, upon returning from a trip to Italy with his father, Mozart began working for Archbishop Colloredo in Salzburg. Although the job was ultimately not a good fit, Mozart was able to write symphonies, concertos, sonatas and string quartets while there. The two pieces by Mozart on the program both date from this time period, the Symphony from 1774 and Violin Concerto from 1775. William Walton, a 20th-century composer, had a very different career than Mozart did. The first money he made from writing music was from composing film scores, and unlike Mozart, Walton was a slow worker whose output was quite small for his 60-year career. For tonight’s program, LACO’s principal cello Andrew Shulman shows us his versatility as he trades his cellist’s bow for a conductor’s baton.

Mozart wrote 41 symphonies in total, and the most famous of these are the later ones. Of Mozart’s earlier attempts at the genre, the 25th and 29th are arguably the best-known. The structures of the movements in Symphony No. 29 are typical for the time. Mozart uses sonata form for the first, second and last movements, while the third movement is a Menuetto. Mozart, who studied the music of the earlier masters, brought Baroque characteristics into some of his works. Symphony No. 29, for example, uses counterpoint in the first movement that hearkens back to the Baroque period. Mozart was a successful synthesizer of styles, managing to show the influence of many without sacrificing his originality.

The opening theme of the first movement is characterized by a downward dropping interval, a gesture that will be echoed later in the finale. The music of the opening is graceful,yet assured. Mozart was just 18 years old and already his grasp of the style and the idioms of symphonic writing was quite facile. The second movement is just as agile and charming as the opening. The strings perform most of the melodic themes while the woodwinds add color to the mix. The third movement is lively and jumpy, with staccato rhythms and quick dynamic shifts. The finale returns to the opening gesture of the dropping interval, but unlike the opening, the answer to the gesture is an upward phrase. The tempo is a bit faster as well. The meter lends the movement a sense of forward momentum, and the piece ends as gracefully as it began.

A year after the completion of Symphony No. 29, Mozart composed a set of five violin concertos. The first two must have helped Mozart master the form, because the last three of the series are part of the standard repertoire for solo violin, including the Violin Concerto No. 3. Tonight’s soloist, Nigel Armstrong, played this concerto at the prestigious International Tchaikovsky Competition in St. Petersburg, where he was the highest-ranked American, taking fourth place. In the first movement of the Concerto, the themes are cheerful with insistent upward gestures at times, but Mozart dabbles in a minor key for dramatic contrast. Mozart makes excellent use of the horns and woodwinds in this section, relying on them not only to fill out the texture, but also to provide counterpoint. A cadenza allows the soloist to show his skill before the final recapitulation of the main theme and the end of the movement. The slow movement begins with the orchestra playing a lovely theme that the soloist soon echoes. Once again Mozart shows that he is the master of delicate melodies. The accompaniment of the orchestra is always quite sensitive, never overpowering the solo violin. As in the first movement, there is some minor-key contrast. After a cadenza, the movement closes with a final restatement of the main theme. The finale is marked Rondeau: Allegro. The interplay of the soloist’s material and the accompaniment of the ensemble are particularly well-balanced. In addition to the soloist’s lines taking center stage, there are also moments when the soloist accompanies a melody played by the ensemble. The movement does not end with loud flourishes; instead, a simple theme from the opening returns quietly and ends the piece on a hushed note.

William Walton composed music in many different genres and styles. He was variously influenced by the music of Stravinsky, Anglican hymns, jazz and Ravel, and like Mozart before him, Walton proved himself to be adept at weaving different musical threads into something fresh and interesting. Although Walton tried his hand at some modernist idioms like atonalism, the work on tonight’s program, the Sonata for Strings, is written in an accessible style that relies on chromatic, sometimes dissonant, harmonies and rhythmic liveliness. It is also a fine example of Walton’s ability to incorporate disparate elements into a cohesive whole.

The Sonata for Strings dates from late in his career, but it is actually an orchestration of his second string quartet, which was composed 25 years earlier, in 1946. The original piece was hailed as both beautiful and precise, with a deeply affecting slow movement. It was conductor Sir Neville Marriner —founding music director of LACO—who suggested Walton expand the work. As an orchestral piece, he argued, it would find a wider audience. Inventive as always, Walton did not simply transcribe the piece for a larger ensemble. There are places in which he changed only the scoring but in other parts, notably the first movement, Walton reimagined the work. Under the baton of Sir Neville, this new work for string orchestra was given its US premiere by LACO in 1973.

There are four movements in the Sonata for Strings. The first and last, in keeping with the traditional structure of the string quartet, are quick, with a sense of importance and majesty that manages to avoid pomposity. The first movement, which features dissonant, and at times, quite intricate harmonies, has a sense of forward motion that cannot be denied. The Presto second movement flies along on a tide of unstoppable fast-moving notes that flows throughout the orchestra. Only at the very end of the movement does the tide lose momentum and finally stop. The third movement is marked Lento and is the perfect contrast to the swiftness of the previous section. It is slow and emotional without being overly sentimental. There is, in fact, a precision to the writing of this movement that lends it a sense of clever, perhaps even Mozartean, charm. The emotional heart of this piece, the third movement, ends in a melancholy mood, but Walton does not dwell on the feeling for long. Soon, we are thrust into the driving rhythms of the last movement. There is a seriousness to this section, an intensity that unexpectedly gives way to a brief lyrical interlude. The variation of mood and color, ephemeral though it is, is enough to energize us for the accelerated and breathtaking final moments.

– Christine Lee Gengaro, PhD