Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra: making great music personal

program notes: mostly baroque

Saturday March 23, 2013
Sunday March 24, 2013

Mozart Serenade No. 10 in B-flat major,

orchestration: 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 basset horns, 2 bassoons; 4 horns; double bass

Stravinsky Concerto in E-flat major,

orchestration: flute, clarinet, bassoon; 2 horns; strings

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

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

Handel Water Music — Selections from Suites I & II

orchestration: 2 oboes, bassoon; 2 horns, 2 trumpets; strings; continuo

Tonight’s concert continues our concerto theme with two unique approaches to the genre. These two pieces may seem far away from each other in style and harmonic language, but despite those differences, they are in fact connected. Stravinsky proudly admitted to being influenced by—and even perhaps borrowing from—Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos when he wrote his own concerto, noting that Bach would have given this homage his blessing. Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos thoroughly explored the concerto grosso tradition of the Baroque period, while Stravinsky’s “Dumbarton Oaks” Concerto comes from the composer’s 20th-century neoclassical period. We round out the evening with two genteel orchestral pieces. Mozart’s “Gran Partita” expands the boundaries of the typical classical serenade, and Handel’s Water Music shows the composer’s great talent for charming instrumental music.

Stravinsky composed the Concerto in E-flat major, “Dumbarton Oaks” in 1937–38. Dumbarton Oaks is an estate located in the Georgetown area of Washington, DC where Robert Woods Bliss and his wife, Mildred Barnes Bliss, lived. They commissioned the Concerto from Stravinsky on the occasion of their 30th wedding anniversary. Composed in Switzerland and Paris, the “Dumbarton Oaks” Concerto was one of the last works Stravinsky wrote in Europe; he moved to the United States after the beginning of the Second World War in 1939. There are three movements in the Concerto, played without a break. The piece is scored for woodwinds and strings, as well as a pair of horns, and fits well into Stravinsky’s neoclassical idiom, a style that emphasized a return to non-programmatic genres like the concerto.

Stravinsky called the work a concerto, but didn’t specify a single solo instrument. Yet every instrument in the ensemble has a soloistic moment in the piece. Such an arrangement refers back to the concerto grosso idea of the Baroque period, in which a group of soloists would at times take the spotlight and in other moments fade into the ensemble. Like Bach’s Baroque concertos, Stravinsky relies heavily on complex polyphony, using short motifs as the basis for an imitative texture. The opening of the first movement, marked Tempo giusto, recalls thematically the opening of Bach’s third Brandenburg Concerto, but then moves into new territory. Stravinsky puts his personal stamp on the movement with lots of rhythmic activity. The movement also explores another Baroque construct, the fugue. The middle movement, Allegretto, features wisps of melody passed around the ensemble with other members offering accompanying lines of counterpoint along the way. The final movement, Con moto, feels like a determined march. Again, Stravinsky plays with the rhythm, building up tension, but he takes a momentary foray into a mock-serious dance-like section. The finale again explores fugal territory, and ushers us too soon to the end.

In the Classical period, the typical serenade offered light diversion and pleasant background music for an event. Mozart, however, was not content simply to write background music. His Serenade No. 10 in B-flat, “Gran Partita”, a unique piece in many respects, raised the serenade from a practical form to a work of art. By adding an introduction, and including seven movements, Mozart expanded the length of the work beyond that of a typical serenade. He also included a double bass in the ensemble, which stands in as the 13th wind instrument. Certainly, the double bass’s musical line could be covered by an actual wind instrument, the contrabassoon, but Mozart marked some pizzicatos in the score, a clear indication that he intended the part for the double bass. Furthermore, Mozart takes the wind instruments of the ensemble and creates smaller chamber groups within the larger group. The result is a variety in texture and thematic interest over the seven movements of the work.

The seven movements are as follows: Largo-Allegro molto, Menuetto, Adagio, Menuetto, Romanze, Theme and Variation, and Finale. The opening motive of the introduction could be described as heraldic, and it is followed by more traditional melodic material. The clarinet plays a prominent role in the movement. This might have been due to Mozart’s love of the instrument or his close friendship with clarinetist Anton Stadler, who played the “Gran Partita” at its premiere. As the slow introduction gives way to a livelier tempo, Mozart quotes an aria by French composer Philidor. Although Mozart adheres to sonata form, the traditional form of many first movements, his intricate thematic development is striking. As the work continues, some of the motives Mozart introduces will return in other parts of the serenade, suggesting that the composer saw these seven movements as being inter-connected.

Dynamic contrasts are the most obvious characteristics of the second movement, which is a stylized dance, a Menuetto. The second movement’s energy is followed and complemented by the slow third movement. Another Menuetto follows, and like the first, this one has two contrasting trio sections. The second of these trios is in the style of a Ländler, a broad, Austrian folk dance that features hopping and stamping. The fifth movement is called Romanze, a term rarely used by Mozart. It has been suggested, but not proven, that this Romanze is based on a pre-existent song. The sixth movement features a theme and six variations. All 13 instruments state the theme, and then different groups of instruments play each subsequent variation. The final variation is another Ländler. The seventh and last movement of the Gran Partita has all of the instruments playing a lovely, flashy finale. The music of this movement is more in line with what one might expect from a serenade. It is light and airy and charming to the last.

In the spring of 1721, JS Bach was working as a Kapellmeister in Köthen. In charge of the musical activity of Prince Leopold’s court, Bach’s duties would have included composing music for different occasions, leading performances and possibly teaching. Bach did very well in his position, but when Prince Leopold—a music lover himself—married a woman who didn’t care for music, Bach began to feel that it was perhaps time to find new employment. When Bach ran into the Margrave of Brandenburg by chance (as Bach was shopping for a new harpsichord), he thought it best to take advantage of this fortuitous meeting.

In response to an apparent request by the Margrave, Bach sent the nobleman a set of six concertos, though many speculate that this was also a bid for a new job. Bach didn’t write these pieces specifically for this purpose; he almost certainly began these concertos while happily working in Köthen (the forces he wrote for match perfectly with the musicians he had at his disposal there), but he must have realized how impressive they were. 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. It wasn’t until 1849 that these pieces found their way into concert halls.

The solo instruments of Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 are transverse flute, violin and harpsichord. The flute of Bach’s time would have been made of wood with finger holes rather than the keys that you would find on the modern metal flute. Also, in the Baroque period, the shape of the inside of the instrument, called the “bore,” changed from being cylindrical to being conical. This difference in bore shape increased the range of the instrument and made it more expressive. Especially interesting is the fact that the harpsichord, usually relegated to the continuo role, actually becomes something of a solo instrument in this concerto, especially in the cadenza of the first movement. Here, the harpsichord player gets to step out of the shadows and shine as a virtuoso. It is not hard to imagine that Bach designed the Concerto specifically to show off his considerable skill on the instrument. The emotional second movement features just the soloists, playing an intense trio. The final movement is simply effervescent, with the concertino (group of soloists) and the ensemble engaging in lively counterpoint and enthusiastically bringing this masterpiece of the Baroque concerto to a close.

Handel moved to London in 1712, after leaving his employment with the Elector of Hanover. The story goes that the Elector was upset with Handel and still held a grudge against the compos¬er when he became the King of England two years later. In order to regain the king’s favor, Handel composed Water Music. But in truth, King George enjoyed Handel’s music, and perhaps anticipating they would meet again, harbored no ill feelings. Leaving aside the relationship of the two men, the origin of the piece can be put into more practical terms: Handel was assigned the task of writing music to be played on a barge adjacent to the King’s for a boating party on the Thames River.

Like Mozart’s Gran Partita, Handel’s Water Music takes music that could have simply been light entertainment and makes it artful. If it had just been background music, it might not have gained the popularity it did. Yet it was a hit not only on the night it was performed (the King apparently called for encores), but has stood the test of time. Water Music is a collection of movements, often separated into three suites, each in a different key, F major, G major and D major. Tonight we will hear selections from all three of these suites. Handel specified no set order for the movements, leaving that up to the discretion of the conductor. This arrangement allowed the music to be long or short, loud or soft, depending on the length of the journey and how close Handel’s barge was to the King’s.

Water Music begins with a French overture, a two-part movement with a slow, stately opening and a faster, imitative second part. The following movements feature dances like the Bourée and the Minuet, as well as other forms common to suites. Of the scoring Handel chose, not every instrument is present in every movement, lending a sense of variety to the different movements. Because the piece was written for performance on a moving watercraft, Handel chose instruments whose sounds traveled well outside, such as trumpets and woodwinds. In addition, the composer omitted two instruments he would normally have used: the harpsichord and timpani. The harpsichord in particular would not have fared well on the water. Handel was sensitive to the absence of those instruments, and cleverly orchestrated the piece to respond to this by filling out the lower harmony and bass line with low strings and bassoons. (Later published editions of the work included a continuo part for the harpsichord, as most subsequent performances took place inside.) Handel might not have needed to compose Water Music to regain the favor of King George, but for at least one night on the Thames, the monarch was certainly pleased with Handel’s work.

–Christine Gengaro, PhD