Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra: making great music personal

Saturday September 21, 2013
Sunday September 22, 2013

Beethoven Twelve Contredanses for Orchestra

orchestration: flute, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons; 2 horns; percussion; strings

Mozart Violin Concerto No. 5 in A major, Turkish

orchestration: solo violin; 2 oboes, 2 bassoons; 2 horns; strings

Lutosławski Chain 2

orchestration: solo violin; 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons; 2 trumpets, 2 trombones; timpani, percussion; piano/celesta; strings

Kodály Dances of Galánta

orchestration: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons; 4 horns, 2 trumpets; timpani, percussion; strings

The Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra’s season opens with a program bursting with youthful energy. We begin with the early musical experiments of Beethoven and Mozart. Despite their relatively young ages when writing these works, we can see the greatness that is to come. On the other hand, Lutosławski’s Chain 2 represents the work of a mature composer finding inspiration in both compositional techniques and his dedicatee, violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter, while Kodály’s Dances of Galánta represents a composer on the cusp of changing his focus from composition to pedagogy.

In the 1680s, the English country dance came to the French
court. Instantly popular with the young nobility, the contredanse, as it was called, fused together English tunes with the formality and specific steps of French dance. The traditional English country dance featured two lines of dancers facing each other, an aspect often altered to fit the usual square patterns in French court dances. For decades, the contredanse remained popular in France, and traveled with the French army into Germany, where it became part of German musical culture as well.

By the 1790s, the popularity of the contredanse had begun to wane. Despite that, Beethoven began work on his Twelve Contredanses for Orchestra, finally completing the set in 1802. Beethoven was no stranger to dance forms, having already composed a few sets of minuets and German dances. Although most of these works were published without opus numbers, the seventh of the twelve contredanses in this set became quite important in Beethoven’s official legacy. In 1800, he received a commission for a ballet called The Creatures of Prometheus. Beethoven used musical material from Contredanse No. 7 in the music of the ballet. Beethoven later used this same material in the finale of the Symphony No. 3, “Eroica,” as well as in the Variations and Fugue for Piano in E-flat major, Op. 35, known as the “Eroica Variations”.

The dances of this collection are absolutely charming, with
lively rhythms and dynamic contrasts. Beethoven’s seemingly simple pieces were actually a treasure trove of good ideas to which he could have returned again and again. That he didn’t is a testament to Beethoven’s desire to relentlessly move forward creatively.

Mozart learned to play the violin as a child from his father, Leopold, an accomplished violinist and pedagogue. By the time the younger Mozart was 21, he was focusing more on the piano. But in the mid-1770s, when the composer was in his late teens, he seemed quite preoccupied with the writing of concertos for string instruments. It’s not clear from the paper evidence in what order he wrote them or for what occasion, but the Violin Concerto No. 5 in A major, “Turkish,” appears to have been one of the last ones of the group, and is arguably the most popular. Completed in 1775, it represents the culmination of Mozart’s experiments in the genre. The themes are light and graceful, and Mozart shows an evolved mastery of technique.

The work is in the traditional form featuring two quick outer
movements and a slow middle movement. Mozart, however, has a few surprises up his sleeve. The first movement is marked
Allegro aperto, an unusual indication calling for openness and
forthrightness. The orchestra begins, with a rousing opening that is contrasted by the soloist’s lyrical entrance. There follows new melodic material, and the orchestra and soloist engage in a spirited dialogue that never becomes serious or overwrought. The second movement is notable for its sheer, lilting grace. Just 19 years old, Mozart was already capable of writing melodies of heartbreaking radiance. The finale of the Concerto features a recurring melody passed around between soloist and orchestra, but also outlines a minuet. Mozart interrupts this dance with a surprise: a duplemeter march. This alla Turca section mimics the sounds of Turkish military band with the cellos and basses playing col legno, that is, with the wood of the bow rather than the hair. We return to the original mood to close the movement, but Mozart eschews a loud and bombastic ending, making sure the minuet is light and lovely to the last.

The 1980s found Witold Lutosławski in his native Poland,
during a period of unrest. Although Lech Wałęsa had started
Solidarity, all of Poland lived under orders of martial law. In protest, Lutosławski did not perform in or appear at any professional engagements in Poland during that time. It was in this atmosphere that Lutosławski composed Chain 2. Then in his 70s, he could look back at a long, wide-ranging career that spanned many different musical and compositional ideas. His early works drew upon Polish folk music, while later musical explorations included atmospheric sound masses (thick texture of notes placed close together) and the introduction of chance procedures into his compositional processes. He had also worked with a musical technique early in his career called a “chain.” It is this idea that Lutosławski revisited in Chain 2.

In a “chain,” a perpetual flow of sound is developed as different instruments pick up and leave off phrases. One instrument may begin a phrase, and that phrase might be taken over by another instrument, but before that instrument can complete the phrase, a third instrument enters and takes over, and so on. The idea of the chain forms the basic idea behind the first and third movements of this four-movement piece. Lutosławski marked these movements Ad libitum, indicating that strict time was not an organizing principle. The violin soloist especially can be expressive and free with time, perhaps suggesting a feeling of improvisation, although the
part is fully notated.

Chain 2 is complex and highly dramatic. The freedom and flexibility of the Ad libitum movements fit in well with Lutosławski’s use of aleatory technique, which means that some of the composition is left up to chance. In the case of Chain 2, every performance will be somewhat different. In this way, Lutosławski captures one of music’s most compelling qualities: its ephemeral nature.

Zoltán Kodály was a composer and ethnomusicologist at a time when the academic study of non-Western and folk music was in its infancy. He is, however, best known as a pedagogue, and even today in the United States, scores of teachers become certified in his teaching methods every year. When he was in his early 20s, Kodály traveled around to villages in his native Hungary (and elsewhere) to transcribe and record folk songs. He wrote a thesis on the subject, and later moved to Paris to study. Although he was greatly influenced by some of the music he encountered there (Debussy was a favorite), he soon concentrated his academic energies on the preservation of folk music and the improvement of music education methods. Kodály’s attitudes towards composition—specifically his uses of folk music in his own creations—reflect sensitivity to the
traditions of the past. In much the same way Romantic composers paid homage to the Classical masters, Kodály’s reverence for what came before dominates his work.

Kodály’s 1933 work Dances of Galánta takes its name from a market town between Vienna and Budapest. This Hungarian town was Kodály’s home for seven years when he was a child. In Galánta, Kodály sang in the choir, enjoyed folksongs sung by his childhood friends and the classical music taught to him by his parents (his father played the violin and his mother played the piano and also sang), and the music of the town band led by a fiddler named Mihok which included in its extensive repertoire Hungarian folk music as well as Gypsy music. Interested in all the music of Hungary, Kodály spent decades studying, analyzing and collecting the indigenous music of his native land. Believing that it was his duty to preserve and ensure the survival of the Hungarian heritage, Kodály found inspiration for the Dances of Galánta in the many influential styles he experienced in his childhood.

Unlike Beethoven’s courtly contredanses, Kodály’s dances drew upon songs with a specific purpose. In this case, he featured recruiting songs that were used to stir up youths to enlist. There are seven dances in Kodály’s piece, each one of a unique character, but most of them feature lively passages that might ostensibly agitate the patriotic spirit. Although drawing upon some musical traditions of European Romanticism, the folk-like character of the songs is never fully obscured. The variety of instruments—woodwinds, four horns, two trumpets, strings and percussion—gave Kodály the tools to evoke contrasting moods and emotions. Fittingly, the work was dedicated to the Budapest Philharmonic Orchestra’s 80th anniversary, and it was that group which gave the work its premiere in 1934.

– Christine Lee Gengaro, PhD

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