Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra: making great music personal

Saturday October 6, 2012
Sunday October 7, 2012

Ravel Piano Concerto in G major


Norman The Great Swiftness (West Coast premiere)


Matheson True South (West Coast premiere)


Beethoven Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 61


The opening concert of our 2012-13 season features two concertos,one for piano, one for violin. They are perfect representatives of the genre and excellent contributions to our season’s theme, Concerto Rhapsody. With The Great Swiftness, this concert also introduces LACO patrons to the work of Andrew Norman, who begins his three-year tenure as LACO composer-in-residence this season. Andrew Norman is also the recipient of LACO’s 2012–13 Sound Investment commission and we can look forward to hearing the world premiere of his new work for LACO in April. (For more information on LACO’s Sound Investment, please see the Sound Investment page on our website.)

Ravel was struck with the first ideas for the Piano Concerto in G major while riding a train between Oxford and London. Considering that the piano was his primary instrument, Ravel waited a long time to tackle his first piano concerto. But once inspiration struck, he wrote two concertos over the period from 1929 to 1931. In composing the Piano Concerto in G, Ravel looked to the examples of Mozart and Saint-Saëns, whose light-hearted piano concertos allowed the grace and beauty of the instrument to shine.

Ravel made plans to play the premiere of the work, but illness prevented him from doing so. Instead, Marguerite Long was tapped to debut the Concerto, earning the piece’s dedication. Ravel kept to the classical model of the concerto, with three
movements, the outer two quick, and the centerpiece slow and meditative. He infused this classical structure with more modern harmonies, a meshing of contrasting ideals often termed “neoclassical.” The first movement starts at the crack of a whip, followed by the main theme in the piccolo. As soon as the piano gets a solo moment, it outlines a sinuous, jazzy melody that seems to echo Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue (also inspired by a train ride), which had been premiered a few years earlier. The slow middle movement allows the soloist to spin a complex and rhythmic line, which eventually sounds like a waltz once the orchestra enters. The finale is a perpetual motion machine, with two types of themes: those that sound like piano studies for students, and jazz-inspired ideas. Again, we hear the crack of the whip, and the piece ends as it began.

While travel inspired Ravel’s Concerto, Andrew Norman’s muse was a sculpture in his hometown. The Great Swiftness was commissioned by the Grand Rapids Symphony in celebration of ArtPrize, a city-wide arts festival held there each fall. Norman is a native of Grand Rapids, Michigan, but grew up in Modesto, California, and studied composition at the University of Southern California and Yale. Norman’s The Great Swiftness was inspired by a sculpture on the plaza of Grand Rapids City Hall, the work of Alexander Calder, who was best known for creating mobiles. Calder created La Grande Vitesse (The Great Swiftness) — a reference to the city’s name—for Grand Rapids in 1969. Since the sculpture does not move, Calder called it a “stabile” as opposed to a “mobile.” Over 40 feet tall, 54 feet long, 30 feet wide and bright red, La Grande Vitesse is an imposing work of art set at the center of a large public area, and one can touch it, sit under it or walk entirely around it.

When Andrew Norman received his commission, he thought immediately about Calder’s sculpture, and he asked himself: “What would this Calder sculpture sound like? If it were music, what would it be?” To that end he constructed a piece of music that has a sense of curves and swoops, like the outlines of the steel sculpture. Because he was especially concerned with the artwork’s lines, he gave primacy to melody—the linear aspect of music. Norman also noted that Calder’s work is imposing and monumental, yet still maintains a sense of grace and a feeling of lightness. He tried to capture both this lightness and the shifting perspective one gets walking around the work. Norman explains: “My piece is a bit like
taking a walk around the Calder. The same melodic shapes happen over and over, but with each repetition their relationship to each other shifts slightly, as if one is looking at a stationary sculpture from an ever-changing point of view.” Even though Norman aimed to give the orchestra “one big melody,” the resulting harmony from the sinuous melodic layers creates a unique sonic texture. The melodies continue to trace the whorls and contours in musical lines, until the very last unison swoop.

The inspiration for award-winning composer James Matheson’s work True South came partly from a Werner Herzog documentary called Encounters at the End of the World, which takes place at the South Pole. Matheson saw the documentary and noted that Antarctica was a place that attracts people he characterized as “perpetual wanderers” who “live at the periphery.” Seeing the world from a perspective in which the south is the focus of humanity allowed Matheson to flip “upside down the notion of ‘true north.’”

Matheson, a recent recipient of the prestigious Charles Ives Living Award, wrote True South in 2010 for a commission by the New York Philharmonic. True South is the perfect embodiment of Matheson’s style, which he describes in this way: “I use harmonies and sounds that have a familiar aspect to them…but I try to use them in ways that are unusual and not expected. I love, for instance, to create an expectation only to go around it, to subvert it.” The piece begins with serious and driving strings—low violins and violas—against a lively melody in the woodwinds and pitched percussion. The combination of these instruments creates an effervescent and sparkling timbre. Matheson explores many such timbres throughout the work, and shows he is a master of orchestration, blending instruments together to create unique sounds. The active opening gives way to the next section, which features pensive melodies in the woodwinds, meandering lines that perhaps refer to the “perpetual wanderers” Matheson observed in Herzog’s depiction of the South Pole. After this calmer section, the composer builds up the energy again, with cascading lines throughout the orchestra. Matheson’s interesting timbres are enhanced by a steel drum, xylophone and marimba, and the melodies shimmer and scintillate. The texture gradually becomes thicker with swirling lines until finally the driving opening of the beginning returns, bringing True South to a dramatic and dynamic ending.

Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D major was composed in 1806, when Beethoven had just entered his middle, or heroic period. During this time in Beethoven’s composing life, while he was coming to grips with his increasing deafness, he began to inject an introspective, yet bold quality into his music that lifted it to the heights of musical innovation. The Violin Concerto was written for violinist and conductor Franz Clement, a man who had helped Beethoven when he was writing his only opera, Fidelio. Clement was the conductor of the Theater an der Wien, and played the piece at its premiere, but the evening did not quite go as planned. Apparently Beethoven finished the piece so late that Clement had to sight-read part of it. There is no definite word on whether they argued about the situation, but when the piece was finally published, the dedication was not to Clement. Instead, Beethoven dedicated the piece to friend Stephan von Breuning. The Concerto did not become popular at first, and largely disappeared from the repertoire until 1844 (17 years after Beethoven’s death), when Felix Mendelssohn conducted a concert featuring the Concerto with the soloist Joseph Joachim, who was just 12 years old at the time. Joachim became a world-renowned violinist, inspiring concertos by Brahms (with whom he was good friends), Schumann and Dvořák. The Concerto was written in difficult times for Fidelio had only received three performances before being dropped (the entrance of Napoleon’s troops into Vienna certainly didn’t help matters), and he was in love with a woman who would not marry him.

The Concerto is in three movements, following the Classical
model. The first movement remains mostly genteel in its attitude, but features the tempestuous shifts of dynamics and mode that Beethoven did so well. In fact, barely a minute into the first movement, a stormy idea appears. Beethoven plays with these contrasting emotions throughout the movement. The second movement, Larghetto, begins exceedingly gently. The warmth of the orchestral accompaniment is particularly effective as a support for the heartfelt lines of the soloist. The third movement begins directly after the coda of the previous movement. Again, there is both charm and storminess, perhaps giving voice to some of the difficulties Beethoven was having at the time. Despite his troubles, however, the end of the Concerto feels like a celebration, a modest and reserved one, perhaps, but triumphant nonetheless.

A significant feature of this Concerto is the cadenza. Over the years, various cadenzas (lengthy solo passages) for this work were composed by some of its greatest interpreters. The cadenzas we hear tonight were written by Fritz Kreisler.

– Christine Gengaro, PhD

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