Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra: making great music personal

program notes: chopin: piano concerto

Saturday April 26, 2014
Sunday April 27, 2014

Lash This Ease (Sound Investment commission) (world premiere)


Chopin Piano Concerto No. 2 in F minor


Haydn Symphony No. 102 in B-flat major


The world premiere of the Sound Investment commission is always an exciting event for the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. Tonight we hear a brand new piece, This Ease, from award-winning composer Hannah Lash, who has received the ASCAP Morton Gould Young Composer Award and commissions from many esteemed institutions. Lash explores musical textures, and it is her ability to create finely wrought, crystal-like textures that will likely be on display in this piece. “In this work, I wanted to build a sound world that feels familiar, but which I could subvert, protract, or denature. The musical material, at its most elemental is comprised of major and minor thirds chained and stacked together in various ways, which gradually mutate to highlight different harmonic colors and to create the piece’s dramatic formal shape. The title This Ease is meant to suggest the feeling of familiarity with what we are hearing, yet invoke the underlying unease that allows for the piece’s forward motion and unique fingerprint,” said Lash.

Chopin undertook the writing of his Piano Concerto No. 2 in F minor in 1829 and finished it the following year. He was about 20 years old when he composed the work, and it, along with the Concerto No. 1 (which was actually written after No. 2), was intended to show off young Chopin’s considerable skill at the piano. As an impressive showpiece, the Piano Concerto in F minor did its job admirably, and he premiered the work in Warsaw on March 17, 1830, to great acclaim. Chopin then moved on to Paris in 1832, and those in attendance at his performance of the Concerto there were just as charmed as his compatriots in Poland had been.

As the remainder of Chopin’s output would prove, though, the two piano concertos are something of an anomaly in an important respect: Chopin rarely wrote orchestral music. Chopin’s life and career were inseparable from the piano. After the Concerto performance in 1832, and in fact, for most of the rest of his career, he did not perform in public much, instead expending his energies on teaching and composing. Most of his works consisted of small-scale pieces for piano, and the performances he did undertake were usually for intimate gatherings of friends. Those who are familiar with Chopin’s piano pieces know that he was adventurous with harmony, always presenting the listener with rich chords that both surprise and delight. With the two piano concertos, he played it a little safer, looking to Classicists like Mozart and Hummel for his models. While he did not display the innovative talent for orchestration that contemporary and friend Franz Liszt showed, Chopin was enormously sensitive to color on the piano and was able to parlay this preoccupation into a delicate orchestration that bolsters the solo lines of the piano. And, indeed, it is the piano solo in Concerto No. 2 where Chopin’s genius truly shines.

The opening movement, marked Maestoso, is sufficiently dramatic, with the piano soloist taking on most of the thematic development. In this movement, Chopin eschews the traditional cadenza, possibly because the entire movement has had the soloist as its focal point. The second movement seems to draw upon the bel canto style popular in the Italian operas of the time. The piano part may seem improvisational, but it was meticulously planned. The delicacy and intimacy of the movement come more sharply into focus when we learn that, while writing this piece, Chopin claimed to have been thinking of a young woman he’d known and loved at the Warsaw Conservatory. The final movement, an Allegro vivace, was inspired by the mazurka, a Polish dance. Such a touch must have pleased his audience in Warsaw greatly, and of course it was a wonderful way for the composer to distinguish himself in Paris. The piano again gets the spotlight, with the orchestra providing accents and punctuation. The soloist never rests, and indeed the virtuosity, ornamentation and adventurous lines continue to the very end of this scintillating rondo.

During the 30 years that Haydn worked for the Esterházy family, he did not travel much. Of course, as part of the Prince’s entourage, he followed his patron from palace to palace, but he did not often travel alone. Although his music was known outside of his patron’s family—Haydn occasionally completed commissions, like the Paris Symphonies, for other patrons—he did not have occasion to bring his music to an international audience. The death of Prince Nikolaus of Esterháza in 1790 caused something of a rebirth for Haydn. The Prince who took Nikolaus’ place was not a great connoisseur of music, and he dissolved the family’s musical organization. Haydn was given a pension and his freedom.

German impresario Johann Peter Salomon, who was living and working in London, proposed that Haydn visit the city. Salomon would arrange for special concerts of the composer’s music. Haydn made two visits to London (1791-2 and 1794-5), and for each, he composed six symphonies. The 12 symphonies are often referred to as The London Symphonies, although also known as the Salomon Symphonies. Having a reputation for sophistication and for being quintessential examples of the Classical style, the London Symphonies are among the most popular and most often played of Haydn’s works.

There is no doubt that Haydn was a hard worker. He produced almost constantly for his entire career, and yet, he still managed to have a light-hearted attitude, and a very good sense of humor. In so many of works, his sense of playfulness and ebullience shines through. Such is the case with Symphony No. 102, written in 1794 for Haydn’s second visit to London. Unlike some of the other works in the second set of symphonies, like the “Clock” and the “Drumroll,” this work has no nickname. It begins with a Largo introduction that rumbles with seriousness and pathos. It then takes off with a lively Allegro vivace that, despite a few interruptions that appear to echo the introduction, seems to be constantly in motion. There are some passages of minor-key development that are serious and dramatic and provide great contrast to Haydn’s more playful themes. The second movement features some beautiful work in the strings, especially in the cello, representative of the height of Haydn’s lyric writing. The minuet of the third movement is bouncy and brisk. Its merry pace suggests a rustic dance, but the orchestration is clear and suave. The finale is a Presto that begins as a conversation between the strings and woodwinds. As the whole orchestra joins in, the mood is animated, even jolly. The main theme is revisited again and again, with an expressive foray into the minor mode. It ends, as Haydn’s symphonies often do, with a final nimble drive to the end.

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