Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra: making great music personal

program notes: inspired beginnings

Saturday December 8, 2007
Sunday December 9, 2007

Mozart Symphony No. 33 in B-flat major

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

Mozart Bassoon Concerto in B-flat major

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

Brahms/Swensen Sinfonia in B (Original 1854 version of Trio, Op. 8)

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

Mozart traveled to Mannheim and Paris in 1777 and 1778. The Mannheim orchestra, so famous for its special effects and the fine playing skills of its musicians, certainly influenced the 21-year-old composer. Mozart’s first effort after hearing the Mannheim orchestra was a piano sonata in which the composer attempted to duplicate the dynamic contrasts, forceful rhythms, and keen expression of the well-trained group. Mozart had also passed through Munich and had been influenced by some piano music he heard there. Once in Paris, Mozart wrote a symphony for the public concert series Concert Spirituel in which the young composer showed his gift for echoing popular stylistic characteristics. Here too, he experimented with dynamic changes, lively rhythms, and brilliant passagework. His aim, as stated in a letter from the time, was to impress the Parisian audience with as many “bells and whistles” as possible.

Upon his return to Salzburg in 1778, Mozart began writing again. The first symphony he penned back home, Symphony No. 32, seems to take inspiration from the more experimental models he saw while traveling. No doubt Mozart would have enjoyed sharing his new musical knowledge with his acquaintances in Salzburg, but his employer, Archbishop Colloredo, would not have cared about anything new and innovative in music. There are many accounts, both primary and secondary, about Colloredo’s treatment of his musicians, specifically Mozart, who chafed under his inflexible rule. Mozart himself likened working in Colloredo’s employ to slavery. When he wrote his Symphony No. 33 in 1779, instead of building on the innovations with which he had been experimenting, he returned to the chamber style popular in the city at the time. It is likely that Mozart dutifully looked back to a more conservative mode because of Colloredo’s influence. As a result, the symphony originally had just three movements. Symphony No. 33 does contain some interesting features, however. Most notable among them is a thematic organicism to the piece in which musical ideas provide motivic connections between the three original movements. This thematic unity can be found in earlier pieces but truly comes to the fore in works by later composers like Beethoven. When he finally left Colloredo’s service two years later-literally receiving a kick in his hind quarters (certainly a badge of honor for Mozart, who disliked him so)-Mozart could again return to the more worldly styles he had seen on his travels. The three-movement Italianate format of Symphony No. 33 was outmoded in Vienna, but instead of letting it fall into disuse, Mozart added the popular minuet movement, and the symphony was reborn.

Mozart was just 18 years old when he wrote the Bassoon Concerto in B-flat major. Although there are some who believe that the work was commissioned by an amateur bassoonist named Dürnitz, there is little proof of that. The lion’s share of Mozart’s concerto output features the piano as soloist, but he did write four concertos for horn, five for solo violin and two for solo flute. (There are also concertos featuring two instruments, or small groups of instruments, and single concertos for clarinet and oboe, among others.) Evidence seems to suggest that Mozart wrote more than one bassoon concerto, but the one in B-flat major is the only one now known. When Mozart completed this composition, bassoons were designed somewhat differently from the way they are now. There were about a dozen fewer keys on the instrument in the Classical period, and its range was a bit narrower as well. Some musical characterizations of the instrument portray it as stuffy, or perhaps even clumsy at times, but Mozart’s writing for the bassoon is graceful and light.

Marked Allegro, the first movement displays an effervescent lyricism that shows off the possibilities of the bassoon. One can also hear some of the more subdued tones of the instrument’s lower register juxtaposed against the levity of the oboes. The horns also make repeated appearances with high fanfares. The second movement, with the unusual tempo marking of Andante ma Adagio (literally, “walking pace, but slow” rather than a simple adagio), features something of a conversation between soloist and woodwinds over the texture of the consistently soft strings. The melody played by the bassoon seems to prefigure the aria “Porgi amor” (“Oh, Love”) from Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro). Finally, the Rondo di Menuetto displays a quick meter in three that allows the bassoon to dance around the texture of the orchestra. Throughout the piece, we hear the clipped notes of staccato passages, deft and agile lines, and register changes. This is truly a masterpiece for the bassoon, and it is no wonder that it is still the work by which many players are measured.

Like Mozart, Johannes Brahms had a somewhat difficult youth. Instead of a demanding schedule playing for noblemen like a trained pony, Brahms played piano in public establishments alongside his father, a so-called Bierfiedler (a tavern fiddler). His home life was something of a disaster with the threat of his parents’ separation always looming in his mind. Brahms was a sensitive boy, with the delicate features of someone from a much more refined family. To get away from what he must have considered his unsavory existence, Brahms threw himself headlong into the literary and musical worlds of the Romantic period. He read Goethe and Hoffmann, imitated the actions of their characters, and idealized composition as a way to connect to what was infinite and limitless.
Brahms composed from a young age but destroyed some of his early works. What does survive from those youthful years bears a certain quality that is unmistakably Brahmsian. Biographer Jan Swafford claims that there is no other composer whose early works so clearly reveal a unique sonic signature that would remain in his music in perpetuity. This is not to say that he did not grow and change and evolve; rather, Brahms clearly saw his path and maintained it, step by step, over decades.

By the time Brahms left on his first musical tour, he was already an experienced performer, a piano teacher and an avid composer of art songs. In 1853, Brahms went on tour with Hungarian violin virtuoso Eduard Hoffmann (also known as Ede Reményi), and along the way, discovered that his musical goals differed from those of Liszt and others in the New German School. Brahms’s early study of Bach and Beethoven gave him a strong background in Classicism and absolute music (that is, music that does not represent or reference a specified program or storyline). On this tour, Brahms wrote one of his early works, the Piano Trio in B, Op. 8. This original version of the piano trio was arranged by Joseph Swensen for the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, and tonight is its US premiere. Such an arrangement allows the listener to hear the melody very clearly, along with the harmonies that are prototypically Brahmsian in both their seeming simplicity and their true craftsmanship.

Mr. Swensen wrote the following comments about his arrangement of the Brahms:

This work, which I have entitled Sinfonia in B, is my orchestration of the little-known, original version of Brahms’s B major piano trio. Completed in 1854, it is the largest and arguably the most important of Brahms’s published early works, yet it remains almost unknown to most musicians and music lovers alike.
This phenomenon is the result of Brahms’s apparent dissatisfaction with the work (hence his revision of it over three decades later) and his rather strange decision to list the revised work as Opus 8 (the opus number of the original), in spite of the fact that it is nearly 75 percent newly-composed music and should have a listing closer to Opus 110.

Yet, in a letter to his publisher, Fritz Simrock (dated 13Dec 1890), Brahms seems to cite commercial and technical reasons for undertaking the revision rather than purely artistic ones: “...with regard to the refurbished trio…I simply want to say that the old one will continue to sell poorly not because so much of it is ugly, but because so much of it is unnecessarily difficult.”

For me, the original Opus 8 is intriguing for many reasons. Not only is it a work of extraordinary quality and emotional depth, written by a composer just 21years of age, but it is a quintessential example of Brahms’s ultra-Romantic and forward-looking early style, a style deeply influenced by his mentor Robert Schumann. This early period came to an abrupt end when Schumann attempted suicide for the first time. The original Opus 8 trio was to be the last work Brahms wrote before a hiatus of six years in which he published not a single piece of music. When comparing the original Opus 8 with the revised version, one can clearly hear that nearly all of the fantasy-filled wandering and subjectively emotional “Schumann-esque” music of the original was replaced with Brahms’s late-period style: concise, intense and emotional, yet overall, clearly an economical pursuit of the Classical ideal. This is a perfect example not only of Brahms’s conscious rejection of Schumann and of course Wagner, but also of his adversity to the whole German-Austrian Romantic musical revolution, which found its ultimate and inevitable end just over half a century later in Schoenberg’s absolute annihilation of tonality.

My original impetus for writing this orchestration was to somehow resurrect this great work, and thereby share my love for it with those who may never have the opportunity to hear it otherwise. The greatest dilemma for me was how to treat Brahms’s extraordinary virtuoso piano writing. This material, transcribed for the orchestra, could never resemble Brahms’s own very conservative orchestration style. My choice was between emulating Brahms’s own orchestrations-all products of his later post-Schumann period-or being true to the material itself. I chose the latter, with great enthusiasm, to such a degree that every single note that exists in the original has found its way into the orchestral version. The result is an orchestration where the abilities of every player are stretched to the limit and where the orchestra as a virtuoso instrument is exploited to the same degree that Brahms exploited the limits of the piano. More importantly, it results in a more ‘forward-looking’ orchestral sound world than one is accustomed to in Brahms’s later orchestral works. My hope is that this orchestration acts as a mirror reflecting the mentality of this surprisingly radical, incredibly romantic, 21-year-old Brahms.
Joseph Swensen
29 September 2006

- Christine Lee Gengaro, PhD

tonight’s compositions in LACO’s history

The Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra has played Mozart’s Symphony No. 33 five times before tonight, with the first performance on December 4, 1972 under the baton of Sir Neville Marriner. LACO audiences most recently heard this work in March 1997, led by Iona Brown. Christof Perick was conducting in January 1984 when LACO gave its only previous performance of Mozart’s Bassoon Concerto in B-flat major. As in this evening’s performance, Kenneth Munday was the featured soloist. Joseph Swensen’s Sinfonia in B, an arrangement for chamber orchestra of the original version of Brahms’s Piano Trio Op. 8, receives its US premiere at this concert.

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