Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra: making great music personal

program notes: baroque conversations 2

Thursday February 16, 2012

Vivaldi Trio Sonata in D minor, RV 63, “La folia” (“Madness”)


Sanz Pavanas from Instrucción de Musica Sobre la Guitarra Española


Sanz Canarios from Instrucción de Musica Sobre la Guitarra Española


Ganspeck Overture in A major for Viola d’Amore & Violin


Campra Rondeau & Loure from L’Europe galante (“Galant Europe”)


Campra Bourée from Les fêtes vénitiennes (“The Venetian Festivals”)


Soler Fandango in D minor, S. 146


Lully Gavotte & Sarabande from Atys


Rameau Tambourin I, Tambourin II


As the host of tonight’s concert, the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra welcomes beloved principal keyboard Patricia Mabee, who celebrates her 35th anniversary with the Orchestra this year.

Mabee has included selections on the program featuring the Baroque guitar, an instrument whose disputed origins might have been Greek, Egyptian or perhaps even Mesopotamian. Guitars, as we recognize them, appeared in Europe in the Renaissance and shared some physical features with the lute. The four-course guitar—a course refers to a string or pair of strings—appeared in the 15th century, while the five-course guitar developed over the following century. (Today’s classical guitar has six courses.) Each of the courses on the Baroque guitar had two strings, except for the highest. Although the guitar was particularly popular in Spain in the Baroque period, some of the most accomplished guitar-makers lived and worked in Paris and Italy. The body of the Baroque guitar was a bit smaller than the modern classical guitar and was strung with gut. The frets were also made of gut strings. There was no universal way to string and tune the instrument at first, but gradually an accepted method for both was adopted. One of the first important experts on the Baroque guitar was Gaspar Sanz. Like Vivaldi, Sanz was a composer, musician and priest, but instead of violin (Vivaldi’s specialty), Sanz played guitar. In fact he wrote three books on how to play the instrument. The Pavanas and Canarios on the program are both dances, the former a court dance with a regular metrical structure, and the latter, an energetic dance from the Canary Islands featuring jumps and stomping feet.

Antonio Soler was born in Spain, in the Catalan region. Unlike Sanz, Soler was known for his work with keyboard instruments. His harpsichord sonatas are among his most famous pieces. It is thought that he wrote many of these for the son of King Carlos III, who was his student. Soler also published a treatise about modulation, the shifting of keys within a piece of music. The Fandango in D minor on tonight’s program was written for the harpsichord and is Soler’s most performed work. However, its authorship is not completely proven.

Wilhelm Ganspeck is best known, if he is known at all, for the sacred compositions he produced while working in a convent in Ranshofen, a small town in northern Austria near the border with Germany. His father, Johann Kaspar Ganspeck, was also a composer. Works attributed to the younger Ganspeck were written in Baroque style and therefore probably date from the mid-18th century. Tonight his Overture is performed with viola d’amore and violin, although it can be played by two viola d’amores.

“La Folia” refers to one of two established musical frameworks used in the Baroque period. The earlier folia was popular in Spain in the early 1600s, forming the basis for a dance that was played on the five-course guitar. This folia made its way to Italy where it became very popular, and was subsequently exported to France and England, where the folia was altered, giving rise to a second type. Antonio Vivaldi’s Trio Sonata in D minor, RV 63, “La folia” of 1705 uses this later folia as the basis for a set of variations. Vivaldi was just one of around 150 composers who have used the folia since the early version was developed more than 300 years ago. As one might expect, Vivaldi’s version is the quintessence of grace and beauty.

Like Vivaldi, Jean-Baptiste Lully was another of the 150 or so composers who used the folia. One of his first published pieces, the Air des hautbois, used the later version. Lully is best known for composing French Baroque opera, but he was actually born in Florence. One of his first musical experiences in Italy was learning to play guitar. After he moved to France, he learned how to play the violin. He also learned how to dance, a skill which brought him the favor of Louis XIV. Lully danced at court and was also given charge of Louis’ group, Twenty-four Violins of the King. He wrote ballets when the king’s interests ran along those lines, and when the king lost his appetite for them, Lully adroitly switched to operas. Atys, Lully’s opera from 1676, wasn’t popular with aficionados from Paris, but Louis XIV enjoyed it very much and it came to be known as “the King’s opera.” After Lully’s untimely death — due to gangrene after he accidentally stabbed himself in the foot with a conducting
staff — Jean-Philippe Rameau became the dominant voice of French opera. He gained fame as an opera composer late in his career, composing works like Dardanus when he was in his 50s. Rameau’s opera represented a developing new style that moved away from Lully’s older style, but the French were divided on how they felt about his innovations. Although Rameau’s operas fell out of favor soon after his death, his work has become much more popular recently.

André Campra occupies a very important place in between Lully and Rameau, a middle ground of sorts, between the old and the new. The combination of Lully, Campra and Rameau on the same program allows us to hear the differences among these three distinct styles, and to see the big picture of French Baroque Opera over the span of about a century.

Campra is considered an innovator whose progressive style moved away from the more conservative mode of Lully towards the new ideas of Rameau. He is an important name in the history of music, but his memory is dimmed by the two bright stars around him. Campra was, like Lully, an Italian-born composer who found his greatest success in France. Around the turn of the 18th century, Campra held the position of musical director at Notre Dame Cathedral, but his real passion was the theatre. Unfortunately, as director of Notre Dame, Campra would have jeopardized his reputation with the church if he published operas. In order to avoid any trouble while he worked at the famous cathedral, he published his operas anonymously or under the name of his younger brother. Campra eventually left the church to concentrate on his stage music after his work L’Europe galante (1697) became popular. This opera is the first example of a specific type of French Baroque opera: the opéra-ballet. Campra is considered the pioneer of this genre, and he wrote a few of them, including Les fêtes vénitiennes in 1710. In opéra-ballet, the singing style is heavily influenced by Italian opera. There is more dancing in this genre than in Lully’s tragédie lyrique. The storylines differ as well, as the opéra-ballet eschewed the mythical plots of Lully’s loftier, serious operas. In fact, each of the acts of an opéra-ballet is a self-contained comic story, and all of the acts usually shared a theme.

– Christine Gengaro, PhD

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