Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra: making great music personal

program notes: haydn: cello concerto

Saturday October 19, 2013
Sunday October 20, 2013

Britten Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge

orchestration: strings

Haydn Cello Concerto No. 1 in C major

orchestration: solo cello; 2 oboes; 2 horns; strings

Mozart Serenata notturna

orchestration: timpani; strings

Adolphe Do You Dream in Color? (US premiere)

orchestration: solo voice; flute, 2 oboes, clarinet, bassoon; 2 horns, trumpet; percussion; harp; strings

Tonight’s concert takes us on a journey of tribute and collaboration. We have a young composer writing a piece based on a theme written by his teacher; a new court composer penning a work to suit the talent he encountered in his position; and a contemporary composer asking a singer and friend to write a poem to be set to music. Throughout this program we will see and hear how inspiration and personal cooperation can enrich the art of composition.

We celebrate Benjamin Britten’s 100th birthday with a challenging entry from the British composer. It is a spectacular work for strings that Britten wrote in 1937, when he was in his early twenties. Commissioned by the Boyd Neel Orchestra for the Salzburg Festival, Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge began — needless to say — with the music of composer Frank Bridge. Britten met Bridge when Benjamin was just a teenager. Bridge was a working composer, but agreed to take Benjamin on as a private student, because he believed the young man had enormous potential. Britten had spent his childhood churning out compositions, but Bridge taught the youngster to be more exacting, to spend more time on each composition, and to craft each phrase and line as artfully as possible. Britten was to have other composition teachers, but
Bridge’s lessons would continue to exert an influence on Britten’s writing for the rest of his career.

Although Bridge taught Britten much about modern music, Britten chose as his theme one of Bridge’s more traditional pieces: Idyll for string quartet. Britten sketched out his ideas in a matter of days and completed the work in less than a month. Unlike most sets of variations, the theme isn’t stated in a clear form at the very beginning. Instead, the theme emerges quietly out of the orchestral introduction. The variations touch on many musical idioms and showcase Britten’s ability to parody different styles. The first variation is a somber Adagio, followed by a lively March, which is characterized by lots of dotted rhythms, almost as if we’re skipping through the theme. Britten constructs a Romance for the next variation with a dominant unison melody with subdued, but very lovely accompaniment. Britten’s next variation mimics the conventions of an Italian opera aria. The pizzicato accompaniment approximates the strumming of a guitar. Another parody follows, this time of Baroque string music, and then we hear Britten’s take on a Vienna Waltz. A perpetual motion variation comes next, building up excitement, only to be followed by a Funeral March and Chant. The latter of those features harmonics in the violins while the theme resides with the violas. Britten begins his finale with a fugue, the basis of which comes from part of the original Bridge theme. It has been noted that each movement seems to acknowledge some positive aspect of Bridge’s personality, but what comes across in this piece most of all is Britten’s confidence and joy in creation. Although he was still at the beginning of his career when he wrote them, these Variations display a mastery of compositional technique. In crafting this work so carefully and drawing on a theme of his teacher, Britten twice honors Frank Bridge.

Haydn began his long relationship with the Esterházy family in 1761, when he was appointed to the court of Prince Paul Anton. This relationship with the family lasted until 1790. It was in the early years of this connection that Haydn composed his Cello Concerto in C major. The piece was thought lost for many years; the only surviving portion was the main melody that Haydn had written in a thematic catalog. The piece eventually turned up in a collection housed in the Czech National Library in Prague, nearly 200 years after it was written.

Haydn presumably composed the piece for Joseph Franz Weigl, who was the principal cellist of the Esterházy orchestra in the 1760s. The parts found in Prague were likely written in Weigl’s own hand. Although we don’t know when the work premiered, it was written around the same time as Haydn’s Sixth, Seventh and Eighth Symphonies, and the Concerto is something of a hybrid of Baroque traditions and nascent Classical style. In this case, the theme sounds very Classical, while the overall structure suggests a Baroque concerto. Weigl must have been quite the skilled player, judging from the difficulty of the solo part. The first movement, marked Moderato, suggests ritornello form, the preferred structure for the opening movement of a Baroque concerto. There is essentially a single theme, which returns again and again (ritornello comes from the Italian word meaning “to return”) throughout the course of the movement. There are a couple of stormy momentsthat might bring Vivaldi to mind. The second movement is a touching Adagio, in which the woodwinds are at rest. The soloist enters on a sustained note that then blossoms into an echo of the main melody line. If the opening movement showed off the soloist’s ability to perform full chords on the instrument and accomplish quick passagework, this movement shows off the ability to execute a beautiful legato line. The finale, as expected, is brilliant and perhaps even daring, suggesting Haydn’s mature style. The fact that Haydn wrote cello concertos at all — Mozart and Beethoven by comparison did not — would have been an interesting footnote, but to have this score re-discovered after such a long time, that is quite some cause for celebration.

That serenades were “light” fare intended as background music for parties (sometimes held outdoors) didn’t stop Mozart from writing some very artful works in this vein. In fact, Mozart wrote more than 20 such pieces over two decades. One of the most famous, Eine kleine Nachtmusik, was composed in 1787, while the Serenata Notturna was composed much earlier, in 1776. We do not know the specific event for which this piece was written, but we do know it was completed in January, suggesting that it was not intended for an outdoor garden party. This work is often referred to as an “echo” serenade, because Mozart scored it for two “orchestras,” one consisting of four soloists including two violins, viola and double bass, and one with two violins, viola, cello and timpani. These two mini-orchestras might have been placed at different ends of corners of the ballroom, allowing for a spatial echo effect between the two groups. Mozart revisited the idea of an echo piece — this time featuring four orchestras — the following year, a work called Notturno, for New Year’s Day.

The Serenata Notturna has three movements, and begins with a march. It is stately and courtly, and allows for lots of interplay between the two groups. The centerpiece is a charming minuet in D major, with the expected contrasting section in a different key. The finale is a spirited country dance with a section dedicated to the smaller “orchestra.” Serenades were something of a disposable entertainment, to be played once and discarded, but it’s hard to believe that the Serenata Notturna was intended to be the background to anything. Indeed, it is because of his artfulness that this piece and Mozart’s other serenades were not only kept, but became the center of attention in the concert hall.

Bruce Adolphe is a contemporary composer who writes not just concert music, but music for families and schools. He has a distinguished career as both a composer and educator, and has written three books on music. He has a personal connection to the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra as he taught our own Jeffrey Kahane at Juilliard. When Adolphe encountered Laurie Rubin, a talented mezzo-soprano, the two began a musical collaboration. Adolphe asked Rubin to write a poem about her experiences as a blind person, and Rubin penned four verses that Adolphe set to music, creating the work Do You Dream in Color? Adolphe’s music and Rubin’s words combine to form a song that is both weighty and ultimately inspirational. The mezzo-soprano line shows off the richness and range of Rubin’s voice, while Adolphe’s music features lush harmonies and colorful accompaniment. Adolphe originally wrote the piece for voice and piano, but tonight we hear the US premiere of a new version for chamber orchestra.

– Christine Lee Gengaro, PhD

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