Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra: making great music personal

program notes: murmurs from america

Saturday October 13, 2007
Sunday October 14, 2007

Thomas Murmurs in the Mist of Memory

orchestration: strings

Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, Op. 58

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

Haydn Symphony No. 99 in E-flat major

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

From her childhood compositions to her great success as an adult, Augusta Read Thomas has accomplished much in her life, both as a pedagogue and as a composer. Earlier in her career, she penned smaller educational works, but her style soon evolved into more expansive genres. After spending time teaching at the Eastman School of Music and at Northwestern University, Thomas recently left academia to devote herself full time to composition. This move has proved quite advantageous, since her music is now being heard all around the world.

Murmurs in the Mist of Memory was composed in 2001. Like Haydn’s evocative “Military” and “Clock” symphonies and Beethoven’s programmatic “Pastoral” Symphony, Murmurs in the Mist of Memory seems to connect particular ideas or images through instrumental music. There are four movements in the piece, and each was designed specifically to evoke a unique feeling. Thomas took four poems of Emily Dickinson as her inspiration, all of which are linked by the recurring theme of light. The first movement, “Ceremonial,” is inspired by a poem in which Dickinson likens the blazing gold of the rising sun and the purple of sunset to the graceful movements of a leopard. The second movement, “Lullaby,” is inspired by a poem that speaks of the “Auroral light,” a light so special only a few experience its radiance. The third movement, “Ritual,” evokes the sky surrounding a star. Finally, in “Incantation,” Dickinson bids farewell to the light after a short time in its brilliance. Thomas often expands and contracts short melodies and layers these distinct musical ideas, crafting music that is by turns brilliant and calm, fervent and cool. Never does this layering obfuscate the individual lines, which remain clean and clear and almost luminescent.

The Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, composed in 1805 and 1806, was dedicated to Beethoven’s friend Archduke Rudolph (but played privately for Beethoven’s patron, Prince Lobkowitz, in 1807). This three-movement work is scored for solo piano and a small orchestra of flute, pairs of oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns, and trumpets, as well as timpani and strings. At its public premiere in 1808, the concerto appeared on the bill with Beethoven’s Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, sections from the Mass in C major, a piano Fantasia, and a concert aria. This very long concert was a financial disappointment for Beethoven, as the audience complained about everything from the temperature of the theater to the quality of the performances. Although it was favorably reviewed by some critics after the premiere, the G-major Concerto got somewhat lost among Beethoven’s other new works, and remained so until the 1830s when it was rediscovered by Felix Mendelssohn.

The Concerto in G major breaks with tradition, both in the sense of classical concerto conventions and also within Beethoven’s own concerto style. Beethoven’s first three efforts in this genre display an effervescent brilliance marked by virtuosity. This concerto, on the other hand, expresses a quieter, gentler quality. Beethoven has all of the same resources at his fingertips, yet he shows a mature restraint in using them. The role of the soloist, likewise, never uses bombast to assert dominance, but instead uses persistence and even sweetness to achieve prominence. The first movement is characterized by unusual chord shifts, a progression through many key areas, and a piano entrance that sounds almost improvisatory. The second movement has inspired some-an early Beethoven biographer and fellow composer Franz Liszt among them-to interpret the music as a representation of Orpheus calming the Furies as he tries to gain access to hell to rescue his beloved Eurydice. There is no evidence that Beethoven made such an association himself, but it is an interesting idea to consider when one hears the restlessness of the orchestra and the calming influence of the soloist in this movement. The final movement, a rondo, begins without pause after the second movement. Its main repeating theme is quick and lively. This lyrical tune is complemented by another animated theme. The movement plays out with spirited enthusiasm rather than brute force, and it ends a sometimes contemplative, sometimes serene, and sometimes bubbly concerto.

When Beethoven was nearly 22, he left Bonn to study in Vienna. His patron, Count Waldstein, wrote to Beethoven the following famous prediction: “With the help of assiduous labor, you shall receive Mozart’s spirit from Haydn’s hands.” Although much was expected of this relationship, Beethoven studied with Haydn for only about a year. Their personalities were quite different, and in time, the independent Beethoven sought to find his own way. The rogue spirit that so characterized the younger composer was alien to that of Haydn, who was content to spend much of his life in the service of the Hungarian Esterházy family. While he was the head of this musical court, Haydn was somewhat isolated from musical life in Vienna, but this isolation-instead of stunting Haydn’s growth as an artist-spurred a streak of self-reliance in the young composer. Haydn was prolific while he served the Esterházy family, writing dozens of symphonies and string quartets, as well as piano trios, church music and operas. Haydn’s first contract with the family, from 1761, stated that the Prince had exclusive rights to Haydn’s compositions, but when the contract was renewed in 1779, the Prince was not given these rights again. Haydn began publishing his work and his reputation grew quickly.

When Haydn’s patron, Prince Nikolaus, died in 1790, the succeeding prince, Anton, dissolved the musical court. Haydn remained the Kapellmeister of the court in name only. He received his salary but was able to move away from the palace. Haydn was, for all intents and purposes, a free man for the first time in three decades. He made two successful journeys to London (1791-92 and 1794-95) at the behest of impresario Johann Peter Salomon. Haydn presented many new works for the English public, including 12 symphonies. Symphony No. 99 in E-flat major was the seventh of these 12 and was the first premiered on Haydn’s second trip to London. The London orchestra was well trained and large for the time, and afforded Haydn the opportunity to compose for its full complement of instruments, including clarinets.

Symphony No. 99 maintains the traditional four-movement form of the Classical symphony. Unlike many of Haydn’s other London symphonies, including “Drumroll,” “Clock” and “Surprise,” Symphony No. 99 bears no evocative nickname. In its four movements, it displays Haydn’s new, broader vision of the genre. His first visit to London and the intervening period certainly gave him time to contemplate the demands of his public audience as well as the ongoing evolution of the form. Though there is little that is strikingly innovative in Haydn’s treatment of the genre in Symphony No. 99, the work stands as a wonderful example of the composer’s style and his ability to remain fresh even after writing so many symphonies. There is a sonorous quality to the work that might reflect Haydn’s changing sensibilities in light of his London journeys, or it might just reveal Haydn’s sensitivity to the sound qualities sought by the English public.

- Christine Lee Gengaro, PhD

Murmurs in the Mist of Memory was inspired by
the following poems by Emily Dickinson:

Blazing in Gold and quenching in Purple
Leaping like Leopards to the Sky
Then at the feet of the old Horizon
Laying her spotted Face to die
Stooping as low as the Otter’s Window
Touching the Roof and tinting the Barn
Kissing her Bonnet to the Meadow
And the Juggler of Day is gone.

Morning is due to all –
To some the Night –
To an imperial few –
The Auroral light.

No matter where the Saints abide,
They make their Circuit fair
Behold how great a Firmament
Accompanies a Star.

Image of Light, Adieu –
Thanks for the interview –
So long – so short –
Preceptor of the whole –
Coeval Cardinal –
Impart – Depart –

tonight’s compositions in LACO’s history
This performance will be the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra premiere of Augusta Read Thomas’ Murmurs in the Mist of Memory. Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto, however, has been played eight times by this Orchestra, first on October 1, 1981 with soloist Jakob Gimpel and conductor Gerard Schwarz. Most recently, LACO audiences heard Jeffrey Kahane conduct this work from the keyboard on August 12, 2003 at the Hollywood Bowl. LACO’s first and most recent performances of Haydn’s Symphony No. 99 were in March and April of 1999 with Jeffrey Kahane. The Orchestra will play the Haydn on tour in Europe in March 2008.

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