Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra: making great music personal

Saturday May 17, 2014
Sunday May 18, 2014

Bach Concerto No. 2 in C major for Two Keyboards


Mozart Concerto No. 10 in E-flat major for Two Pianos, K. 365

orchestration: 2 solo pianos; 2 oboes, 2 bassoons; 2 horns; timpani; strings

Ligeti Selections from Etudes for Piano, Book I & II


Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 1 in C major Op. 15


Like many Baroque composers, JS Bach wrote different kinds of pieces depending on where he was working at the time. In the city of Cöthen, working for Prince Leopold, Bach focused on secu¬lar music because the Prince didn’t need complex religious music. When Bach was Cantor for St. Thomas’ Church in Leipzig, much of his output was composed for the Lutheran Church. Here, Bach also composed the Concerto in C major for Two Pianos. In 1729, Bach had taken over leadership of the Collegium Musicum, a secular per¬forming group that had been founded by Georg Philipp Telemann in 1702. The Collegium was made up mostly of university students, but ones with fine musicianship. When Bach took over this posi¬tion, he effectively became the leader of both sacred and secular music in the city.

The Concerto in C major for Two Pianos was composed in 1733- 4, and like many concertos of the time, it has three movements. The first has no tempo indication in the score, but we assume from con¬vention that it is an Allegro. It is an energetic beginning, and Bach’s orchestra supports the soloists, but it is the soloists who are meant to shine for the majority of the movement. Once they begin, their musical lines never seem to cease or even slow down until the very end. The middle movement provides variety with a more melancholy, pensive mood. The orchestra remains silent for this section, and although the tempo is a bit slower than the opening, the activity of the soloists never stops for a moment. The final movement is a quick fugue, beginning with the exposition of the theme in the two keyboards. The soloists bandy the fugue subject between them for a while before the orchestra joins in to offer support and dynamic contrast. From that point forward, there are long stretches for the two soloists, with orchestral episodes in between. The final drive to the end is lively and spirited and shows the Baroque concerto in the very best light.

György Ligeti is probably best known for his pieces that explore the nature and movement of sound masses. A sound mass is a compositional device wherein individual pitches are less impor¬tant than the collective of many pitches played or sung at once. The result is a thick texture of sound, with pitches placed very close together, as in a cluster (usually dissonant-sounding). Ligeti’s works from the late 1950s and 1960s for both orchestra and choir are sound experiments, liberated from the expectations of harmony, concerned mostly with texture and timbre. The Piano Concerto, however, dates from the 1980s, and Ligeti’s preoccupations had changed slightly. Rhythm, more specifically polyrhythm (wherein two or more conflicting rhythmic patterns are presented simulta¬neously), is one of the central elements of the work. Written—with changes and rewrites—over three years, the current version of the piece was presented in 1988. The Piano Concerto grew out of his award-winning Piano Etudes, which in retrospect seem to offer some sketches for ideas that would ultimately find their way into the Concerto.

Ligeti’s Piano Concerto is scored for a small orchestra with some non-traditional instruments, including slide whistle, alto ocarina (a small, egg-shaped flute) and harmonica. There is also a well-equipped percussion section. There are five movements in the piece, the first marked Vivace molto ritmico e preciso. From the very first moment, the rhythmic drive of both soloist and orchestra is striking. The sheets of sonority and masses of sound from the 1960s are gone, and in their place are rhythmic and melodic patterns, coupled with a terse sense of harmony. The orchestra and piano do not exchange ideas in the way one might expect in a concerto, instead moving forward with independence. The Concerto is extremely active here, with strong percussive accents and repetitive melodic ideas. A long, low note in the double bass provides a musical bridge between the first and second movements. The second movement, Lento e deserto, is the only slow movement in the piece, and it is here that we can truly appreciate the sheer variety of timbres Ligeti assembled for the work. There are mut¬ed strings, harmonics and the piano working at the extremes of its range. The lonely-sounding alto ocarina slides between notes, hitting those microtones (tones pitched between the half-steps of the normal, Western scale) so associated with Ligeti. The quiet of the movement is interrupted by loud brass blasts, a whip crack and a dissonant high passage in the woodwinds, among other things, but it ends very quietly, with a pianissimo line for the harmonica. The third movement allows the soloist to begin with a song-like passage, which is supported by active accompaniment in the woodwinds. Ligeti seems to be outlining some whole tone lines here (as opposed to the traditional diatonic scale which has both whole steps and half steps). The violin emerges from the texture with an impassioned line, and the percussion and brass add to the intricacy of the movement. Although the piano has some soloistic moments in the piece, it often functions as part of the orchestral texture. The fourth movement is marked Allegro risoluto, molto ritmico, but its sudden stops and silences keep interrupting the sense of forward motion. We begin the last movement without pause, and with it, there is a return to the mood of the first, with quasi-minimalist gestures abounding throughout.

The rhythmic and sometimes melodic independence of the soloist is one of the most challenging aspects of the work. It isn’t hard to see why Ligeti described the Piano Concerto as “my most complex and difficult score so far” at the time of its composition. Difficult as it may be for the performer, it is an important work in Ligeti’s output. He went so far as to say that the Piano Concerto was a statement of his “aesthetic credo.” Complex and demanding, Ligeti’s Piano Concerto is a unique contribution to the history of the concerto.

Mozart, in many ways, absorbed the idioms of the Classical style better than anyone, and this was true even when he was a young man. Early in his precocious career, Mozart traveled with his mother to Paris and Mannheim, soaking up the musical influences there, trying to make a name for himself. When he returned to Salzburg, he wrote symphonies to show off his international style. The Concerto in E-flat major for Two Pianos dates from this time, although this was a work that had no official commission and was likely written simply for Mozart and his older sister, Nannerl, to play. Maria Anna, as she was christened, was four years Wolfgang’s senior, and a talented musician in her own right.

This Concerto allows the two pianos to exchange ideas with each other, as well as with the orchestra. The role of the orchestra is actually subdued, allowing for the pianos to take the spotlight more often. The difficult passages are equally divided between the two soloists, all the more evidence that it was meant for his beloved sibling, whom Mozart looked up to and respected. The opening Allegro is light-hearted and playful. The middle movement provides contrast with a charming and lyrical Andante in triple time. The woodwinds here provide some beautiful color. This centerpiece is the epitome of grace, and must have been quite something to hear when played by two siblings who had so much experience working together. The finale is a rondo, and each return of the main theme is quite satisfying. The solo lines are especially impressive, fast-moving and sophisticated. Mozart was soon to strike out on his own, and in a few years Nannerl was to be married, and mother to three children, so this work was something of a fit-ting and charming end to their musical collaborations.

– Christine Lee Gengaro, PhD

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