Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra: making great music personal



program notes: mozart, beethoven & haydn

Saturday January 25, 2014
Sunday January 26, 2014

Mozart Ballet Music from Idomeneo

orchestration: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 bassoons; 2 horns, 2 trumpets; timpani; strings

Haydn Sinfonia concertante in B-flat major

orchestration: solo violin, solo cello, solo oboe, solo bassoon; flute, 2 oboes, 2 bassoons; 2 horns, 2 trumpets; timpani; strings

Kernis Musica Celestis

orchestration: strings

Beethoven Symphony No. 1 in C major

orchestration: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons; 2 horn, 2 trumpets; timpani; strings

Operas are, of course, about singing, but in some traditions, dance is also an important part of the experience. Although dance was part of almost all European opera, it held special significance in Paris, where the tradition lasted well into the 19th century. Baroque opera in France often included dance and spectacle at the end of each act, even if doing so added nothing to the plot. For most Italian operas performed in Vienna and Munich in the 18th century, dance was present, but it was not usually connected to the drama, and often happened at the conclusion of the performance. In this case, a ballet section of this type might even have been written by a different composer rather than the one who wrote the opera.

Mozart’s Ballet Music from Idomeneo grew out of this kind of post-opera ballet section, but he took the idea in a different direction. When he received the commission to write the opera Idomeneo in 1780, he explained to his father in a letter that instead of merely creating an “extra ballet” tacked on to the end of the evening (or allowing some other composer’s ballet music to be performed), he was going to write a divertissement that was connected to the main piece. By doing so, Mozart could be sure that his own music would close the program. Indeed, the opening phrase of the ballet recalls the theme of the final chorus, drawing the opera and the ballet together thematically. There are five sections to the ballet music, beginning with the Chaconne. A Larghetto section follows, and the theme from the Chaconne returns again. The centerpiece of the ballet, a Pas seul, has a noble character. The final two movements, Passepied and Gavotte, are by turns graceful and spirited. The Ballet Music from Idomeneo has been cataloged separately from the rest of the opera (as K. 367), and can certainly stand alone as a charming work in its own right.

In the year of Mozart’s early death in 1791, a decade after the premiere of Idomeneo, his older contemporary Haydn continued to work, although his life and career were changing. When Haydn’s patron Prince Nikolaus died in 1790, Haydn was, for all intents and purposes, released from his duties in the city of Esterháza. Although he was given a pension, Haydn decided not to retire; instead, he accepted an offer from impresario Johann Peter Salomon to travel to London and write symphonies for a large ensemble there. Along with the 12 symphonies he wrote for his two London visits (1791–2 and 1794–5), he also wrote other works in a very accessible, popular style.

Haydn composed his Sinfonia concertante in B-flat major in 1792. The Sinfonia concertante as a genre is something of a hybrid form, fusing elements from the Baroque concerto and the Classical symphony. The idea for soloists, of course, hails from the concerto form, but these soloists are not featured in the same way as they would be in a Baroque concerto. Rather, the piece seems more like a symphony in overall structure, but with periodic statements from solo players. The genre was developed primarily in Paris, and in Mannheim, where many of the musical characteristics we consider quintessentially “classical” were born. Composers like Johann Christian Bach showed particular interest in the form in the last decades of the 18th century.

The featured solo instruments in Haydn’s Sinfonia concertante are the violin, cello, oboe and bassoon. This piece has three movements, echoing the fast-slow-fast structure of the Baroque concerto. While the typical Sinfonia concertante was considered very light entertainment, Haydn here wrote a more sophisticated work, much like his contemporaneous “London” Symphonies.

In the first movement, the soloists are supported by rich harmonies in the ensemble, and display the height of Classical grace in the solo sections. Haydn showed great flexibility in the parts he wrote for the soloists, often pairing them up or forming different trios from the four players. In the second movement, the soloists seem to carry on a conversation among themselves, with the orchestra almost whispering in the background so as not to disturb the interplay. The lively final movement begins with outbursts by the violin and orchestral responses that seem to prefigure the “conversation” in the final movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. The last movement of Haydn’s Sinfonia concertante is a spirited romp with the soloists injecting statements into the tutti passages creating an enchanting and thoroughly Classical masterstroke.

Born in Philadelphia, Aaron Jay Kernis studied with such illustrious teachers as John Adams, Morton Subotnick and Charles Wuorinen. He gained international acclaim in 1983 with Dream of the Morning Sky, and his Second String Quartet won him the Pulitzer Prize in 1998. Throughout his career, Kernis’ style has proven to be somewhat eclectic, influenced by American popular music on one hand and his choice to use limited musical material in his compositions on the other. His music is by turns dissonant yet lyrical and angular while remaining gracefully melodic. Kernis’ earlier works are written in a strict compositional language with formal constructs. In the 1980s and early 1990s, Kernis began to rely less on rigorous formal ideas, developing a more intuitive style.

In the mid-1980s, in works like Invisible Mosaic, Kernis experimented with musical patterns and colors. During that time, Kernis also began working with traditional forms like the string quartet. By the end of the decade, Kernis’ work became more unified and more emotionally expressive. The 1989 composition Symphony in Waves depicts undulating lines in all dimensions of the work including areas of timbre, melody and dynamics.

Musica Celestis is an ethereal piece with two guiding influences. One is the music of the medieval mystic and abbess, Saint Hildegard of Bingen. Hildegard was a respected religious leader in the 1100s who not only wrote music, morality plays and songs, but medicinal and botanical texts as well. Her prominent position as a teacher and interpreter of scripture was quite unusual for a women of her time, and her correspondence with popes and political leaders stands as a monument to her special status in the Middle Ages. The other influence that guided Kernis in the composition of Musica Celestis is a vision of angels in their never-ending praise of God. The work begins with nearly two minutes of arrhythmic passages for the high strings and gradually unfurls with earthy, warm harmonies. As it evolves and changes, the range of pitch and dynamics of the piece expands and the music becomes deeper, louder and more passionate. Quick, ascending scales reach up and up in increasing rhythmic and textural complexity. Suddenly, there is a full stop, after which musical material similar to that of the beginning returns. The music sinks slowly and the harmonies of the opening seem to vanish into the air, like bubbles soundlessly popping.

We return to the end of the Classical period with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 1. Previously, we heard Mozart’s ballet music from 1781, Haydn’s Sinfonia concertante from 11 years later and here we arrive at the year 1800, with Beethoven. Before the premiere of Symphony No. 1, Beethoven had written and published solo piano sonatas and trios, and his biggest accomplishment was a set of string quartets. Although from our current vantage point we think of him as an uncompromising trailblazer, in 1800, he was still trying to make a name for himself. Composing in this milieu at this time had a great effect on Beethoven. In this first foray into the symphonic genre, we see a composer drawing on influences like Haydn and Mozart, using Classical dynamic contrasts, instrumentation and forms. There are some forward-looking elements here, like the slow introduction and the special reliance on the color of the woodwinds. And even though there is much here that is traditional, there is the unmistakable genius of Beethoven waiting to burst forth from every gesture. If we listen closely, we can hear the seeds of who he will eventually become as a composer.

The first movement begins with chords that are intriguing, drawing the listener in, and setting up the main theme, which is a delicate but firm upward-rising gesture. From there, Beethoven follows the sonata principle closely, starting with a more lyrical second theme. All of the traditional transitions are in place, and every key change expected but still not predictable. The second movement, traditionally a slow one, is instead marked Andante cantabile con moto, and moves along more briskly than usual. The third movement, marked Menuetto, Allegro molto e vivace, is faster and more playful than a traditional Viennese minuet, essentially making this movement a scherzo. The minuet section has a moment where light and dark seem to play tug of war, as the theme quickly switches between major and minor. It is a short moment, but it’s indicative of Beethoven’s genius for making such a small gesture so interesting. The final movement, Allegro molto e vivace, ends in stunning style, just as Haydn would have ended it, brilliant and strong, with a playfulness and good humor that show us what is most pleasant about Classicism. Young Beethoven’s first try at the symphony was a success, heralding more fantastic music to come.

– Christine Lee Gengaro, PhD



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