Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra: making great music personal

program notes: bach's birthday

Saturday March 22, 2014
Sunday March 23, 2014

Mendelssohn “The Fair Melusina” Overture


Clyne Prince of Clouds (West Coast premiere)


Bach Concerto in D minor for Two Violins, BWV 1043

orchestration: 2 solo violins; strings; harpsichord

Schubert Symphony No. 3 in D major

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

Tonight’s concert begins and ends with early Romantic compositions that hint at the large-scale transformation that music would undergo in the 19th century. These two scores, by Mendelssohn and Schubert, bookend a pair of extraordinary works for two violins and orchestra. The first, Anna Clyne’s Prince of Clouds, receives its West Coast premiere this evening—the other, Bach’s Concerto in D minor for Two Violins, is almost three centuries old. Despite the differences in their historical contexts, both pieces allow for stunning interplay between the two soloists, something that never goes out of style.

At the beginning of 1833, Mendelssohn attended Conradin Kreutzer’s opera Melusina. It tells the familiar story of a water sprite who falls in love with a man. As a condition of their union, her husband, Raimund, must not see Melusina on Saturday, and he must not ask why. On Saturday, Melusina must return to the water and her true form. Raimund discovers the secret and feels betrayed. While the Berlin audience with whom Mendelssohn experienced the opera requested an encore of the overture, Mendelssohn felt it did not quite capture the emotional heart of the story. He wrote to his trusted confidant, his sister Fanny, that the opera and its overture were inadequate, and that he could have done a better job.

Mendelssohn set out to prove just that with “The Fair Melusina”. Other overtures by this composer are much better known, but perhaps none is quite as graceful and charming as this one. The rippling arpeggios at the beginning suggest Melusina’s watery realm, a musical gesture that Wagner seems to have borrowed in his setting for the Rhinemaidens at the beginning of The Ring Cycle. The arpeggios develop into dotted rhythms, making the melody a bit choppier.

The agitated string lines that follow provide contrast to Melusina’s undulating melody. They are dramatic, perhaps suggesting Raimund’s sense of betrayal upon discovering his wife’s secret. These two musical themes interrupt each other, but an underlying sense of melancholy keeps emerging, perhaps acknowledging that the union between a water sprite and a human might have been doomed from the start. Charm wins out, however, and Mendelssohn spins many gossamer threads depicting—not in an overly specific way—Melusina’s mysterious allure.

Award-winning composer Anna Clyne’s Prince of Clouds is a concerto that draws upon the Baroque concerto grosso tradition. It is not the music itself that hearkens back to the Baroque (the harmonies are more adventurous), although Clyne did include the directive “play in a baroque style” in the score. Instead, it is the treatment of the two soloists, whose lines tend more to support each other rather than pitting them competitively. Violinist Jennifer Koh, a friend of Clyne’s, asked the composer to write a piece that Koh could play with her mentor, Jaime Laredo. The transfer of knowledge from teacher to student, or from parent to child, is a concept that inspired Clyne, and she celebrates that particular gift in Prince of Clouds.

Clyne’s practical experience on string instruments—she’s an accomplished cellist—is apparent from the opening. The music for the soloists as well as the ensemble is strident, almost aggressive at times. The lines for the soloists weave around each other, making differentiation between them difficult. A delicate section in pizzicato provides some contrast, but we soon return to the rich harmony and searching lines of the beginning. Clyne seems to reach out into the high and low range with the ensemble, exploring a jagged landscape to which we return again and again. The very last moments of the work restore peace. Clyne marked the section “Spilling into tender light” in the score, and it’s a perfect description of the music as Prince of Clouds comes to an end.

When JS Bach lived and worked in Weimar, he studied the concertos of Vivaldi very closely, even transcribing some of the solo violin concertos for unaccompanied harpsichord. His intimate knowledge of these works helped Bach understand the Italian master’s writing for string instruments. Later, Bach moved on to Anhalt-Cöthen, where he was happy working as Kapellmeister for Prince Leopold, a music lover who appreciated Bach’s work. Here, Bach also had access to 18 gifted musicians, and he made the most of their talents. It is generally thought that Bach composed his Concerto in D minor for Two Violins in Anhalt-Cöthen, but recent scholarship suggests that Bach might have penned this work and other string concertos after he had moved on to his next job in Leipzig.

Regardless of its date of composition, this Concerto shows the influence of Vivaldi in its graceful melodic lines. This quality, coupled with Bach’s incredible contrapuntal skill, makes for an exciting work of art. What is not Vivaldi-like, however (and in fact more like Prince of Clouds), is the fact that the two soloists are not called upon for a flashy display of showmanship. In the opening Vivace, Bach has the soloists on solid ground, supporting each other with imitative counterpoint in two “episodes” between statements by the full orchestra. In the center movement, the soloists play a duet of surpassing beauty. The lines are so melodious, one can easily imagine a duet from an opera. We return to the serious mood of the beginning with the Allegro finale. After an initial statement of the ritornello theme, the soloists again begin their contrapuntal interplay. In this movement, Bach achieves an intensity that sounds like Vivaldi at his most dramatic. The ending, however, is pure Bach: complex yet never out of control, with a richness of harmony and melodic interplay that is breathtaking to behold.

Schubert turned 18 in January of 1815, an extraordinary year in the life of this young composer, a year during which he composed four operas, two symphonies and more than 140 lieder. Not only did Schubert work hard, he worked quickly, churning out the Third Symphony in about a month and a half. Beethoven, who would become friends with Schubert at the end of their lives, was an important influence on the younger composer. Like Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony (which was composed in 1812), Schubert’s Third is remarkably succinct, offering an early Romantic symphony in a clean, compact form.

Schubert’s Third Symphony builds anticipation with a slow introduction, which contains music that is thematically linked to the following Allegro con brio. This music is joyful, full of energy, with compelling moments of drama. The woodwinds are especially boisterous in this movement, bringing their color and Schubert’s lyricism to the fore. The influence of opera, specifically Rossini’s comic operas, is quite apparent here and in the fourth movement. Like Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, Schubert’s Third has an Allegretto in place of the slow movement, although the style of writing here seems to suggest Haydn. While Beethoven’s Allegretto is a transcendent theme and variations, Schubert’s treads lightly, using scoring that excludes trumpets and percussion, but features a playful clarinet theme. The third movement avoids the conventions of the minuet and trio form, choosing instead to suggest a scherzo by emphasizing the third beat of each measure rather than the first. The contrasting trio section suggests a charming Austrian Ländler. In the final movement, the themes go by quickly, and we are reminded of the comical speed of the themes in opera overtures. The scampering lines suggest another dance, this time the tarantella. With bold harmonic strokes in this movement, Schubert proves that he was paying close attention to the work of his contemporary Beethoven, not only looking backwards to Haydn and Mozart, but forward to the future as well.

– Christine Lee Gengaro, PhD

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