Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra: making great music personal

program notes: beethoven: pastoral

Saturday November 16, 2013
Sunday November 17, 2013

Dutilleux Mystère de l’instant

orchestration: strings; cimbalon; percussion

Mozart Piano Concerto No. 24 in C minor

orchestration: solo piano; 1 flute, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons; 2 horns, 2 trumpets; timpani; strings

Beethoven Symphony No. 6 in F major, “Pastoral”

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

Tonight’s program features three pieces that seem to confound expectations, surprising the listener at every turn. Dutilleux’s Mystère de l’instant from 1989 is a piece that explores ten quickly changing moods that proceed in an unanticipated way. Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 24 in C minor has particularities that set it apart from the other piano concertos that Mozart wrote. Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, likewise, was a departure for Beethoven. It was also a step
in a new direction for the symphony itself.

Henri Dutilleux, who died in May 2013, was a French composer whose unique style was influenced by fellow countrymen Ravel and Debussy, even though he was a contemporary of Boulez and Messiaen. Awarded the Grand Prix de Rome, the Gold Medal of the Royal Philharmonic Society and the Ernst von Siemens Music Prize, Dutilleux also taught music in Paris.

Paul Sacher, founder of the Basel Chamber Orchestra, commissioned a work from Dutilleux in the late 1980s. In response to this commission, the composer wrote Mystère de l’instant. It is scored for 24 string instruments and percussion. Dutilleux, who dedicated the work to Sacher, constructed the piece in ten movements played without pause. Dutilleux named the movements with suggestive titles like Choral and Rumeurs. There does not appear to be any overarching goal to the work, and the movements are not thematically connected. The opening movement is named Appels, or Calls. The string instruments push into their higher range, each voice adding to the dense sheet of color Dutilleux achieves. Échos, as one might imagine, has a theme that is bandied between instrumental groups. In Prismes, Dutilleux continually manipulates a musical idea throughout the movement. Rumeurs ends with the strings buzzing like bees. Soliloques features a solo violin. The timpani glissandos and pizzicato passages found in a few of the movements give this work more than a passing resemblance to an earlier work Sacher had commissioned, Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta. The penultimate movement is connected to the work’s dedicatee. Called Metamorphoses (sur le nom SACHER), this movement features Paul Sacher’s name rendered in a musical sequence. Dutilleux then composed a fantasy on this melody. The finale, called Embrasement, ratchets up the intensity, bringing the strings into their high range again, with the accompanying lines in the lower instruments building up tension, right to the very final sound. Throughout the piece, the mood changes from playful to serious to sinister, but the work is always fascinating and intriguing. The ten movements provide a thorough exploration of musical timbres, something for which Dutilleux was well-known.

Mozart composed piano concertos throughout the whole of his career. He composed Piano Concerto No. 24 in 1786 and gave the premiere at the Vienna Burgtheater that year. His popularity as a pianist was waning, and the performance of this concerto was one of his last significant solo appearances. Concerto No. 24 is notable for many reasons. First, it is one of only two minor-key piano concertos in his entire output, helping to make its character dramatic and passionate. It is also unique in that it requires the largest orchestra Mozart composed for in this genre.

The first movement is in 3/4 time, another unique choice, as first movements are typically in 4/4. The darkly chromatic opening was unusual for Mozart, and this attracted the praise of Beethoven, whose Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor might reflect its influence. Mozart’s music here is intense, sometimes dissonant and certainly emotional. The second movement, by contrast, returns to the gentle simplicity and clarity of form we associate with the composer. The brass and percussion remain at rest, and the scoring — including clarinets, which appear in only two other Mozart piano concertos — provides warmth. As if to stretch the genre even
further, Mozart used a rondo structure in this middle movement, a form featuring an oft-returning theme that is usually found in faster concluding movements. The charming and graceful mood is broken by the minor-key finale, which features a tumultuous theme and variations form. Mozart leads his theme through various moods and colors, some playful, some sweet, until finally we close with a rolling, swaying variation in a compound meter.

Beethoven’s nine symphonies provide a clear window into the composer’s development. The first two symphonies are very conservative and classical in concept. Symphonies 3, 4, 5 and 6 were all written in what we can call the Heroic period, and they begin to stretch and develop the form. The Seventh and the Eighth Symphonies look back to an older style, while the Ninth is in a category all by itself. We can also think about the symphonies interms of their prospective audience: the first four were meant for private consumption, while the remaining five were written for public concerts.

Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony is quite audacious and impressive in its construction. Beethoven’s Heroic period began with the composer wrestling with his increasing deafness, and his passionate decision to keep composing in spite of it. That choice made, Beethoven embarked on one of the most transformational compositional phases in the history of music. The first major work of this new era was the massively ambitious Third Symphony, appropriately nicknamed “Eroica.” The Third Symphony stretched the traditional symphony form farther than it had ever gone before. He continued this development with the Fifth Symphony, and with the Sixth, Beethoven expanded the traditional symphonic form by adding a fifth movement. Both the Fifth and the Sixth symphonies appeared on a four-hour concert given in 1808, which also featured the Fourth Piano Concerto.

The Sixth Symphony is a very important work for many reasons. First and foremost, it is one of the first major examples of a programmatic symphony, or at least a work that is suggestive and evocative in a very concrete way. Beethoven actually gave names to the five movements: 1. Awakening of cheerful feelings upon arriving in the country; 2. Scene by the brook; 3. Merry gathering of peasants; 4. Tempest; Storm; 5. Shepherds’ hymn; Happy and thankful feelings after the storm. It was not Beethoven’s aim to depict specific events in the music, only to express certain emotions. He would go on to explain that his music was “more the expression of a feeling than a painting.” And indeed, the movements evoke the simple, rustic joy of a trip to the countryside.

Beethoven was not, of course, the first composer to write programmatic music. We can name works with these elements going back to the Baroque period (Vivaldi’s Four Seasons concertos would be an excellent example) and perhaps even earlier. But it seems that Beethoven and some of his contemporaries were searching for ways to stretch the limits of the fixed forms that were so popular in the Classical period. Taking Beethoven as their inspiration, composers of the Romantic period like Hector Berlioz and Franz Liszt would continue this exploration of the programmatic concept in their symphonic works.

The first movement begins with a lively, pleasant theme embodying Beethoven’s joy at being in nature. Even at his most irascible, Beethoven found peace in the countryside. It is hard to believe that Beethoven could conjure the peace and relative quiet of this movement around the same time he was writing the tumultuous Fifth Symphony. The second movement is a relaxing picture of a perfect nature scene, complete with a babbling brook and birdcalls. The third movement features a simple country dance, joyous and fun, but it is soon interrupted by the appearance of dark, heavy clouds. The storm that follows is earth-shaking. Berlioz later described it as “a frightful cataclysm . . . the end of the world.” Beethoven’s instrumentation here includes trombones, which had not become common yet in the symphony genre. Their presence lends appropriate weight to the storm. And, as expected, the timpani roll out the thunder. The darkness of this storm makes the serenity in the last movement all the more appreciated, as the sun and hope return to the country folk. This final section features a solemn hymn of thanks to God for the joys of the day, bringing the sojourn through nature to a quiet close.

– Christine Lee Gengaro, PhD

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