Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra: making great music personal

program notes: russia revealed

Saturday January 19, 2008
Sunday January 20, 2008

Rautavaara Divertimento for Strings

orchestration: strings

Shostakovich/Barshai Chamber Symphony, Op. 83A

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

Enesco Two Intermezzos for Strings

orchestration: strings

Prokofiev Violin Concerto No. 2 in G minor

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

All of the composers on the program this evening lived, at least part of their lives or careers, under the specter of Communism. Shostakovich, for example, felt a specific, direct pressure to con¬form to Soviet ideals, while Rautavaara experienced the conflict of Finland and the Soviet Union when he was just a boy. The threat of Communist oppression had a profound effect on artists, and composers were no exception. During World War II and the Cold War, some composers apologized for musical indiscretions and vowed to conform, while others escaped influence by emigrating to more democratic nations. The latter choice proved difficult for many artists; the connection to one’s homeland, even if it is artisti¬cally oppressive, is a strong tie to break.

Einojuhani Rautavaara, born in Finland in 1928, is a mystic whose works often have an ethereal and spiritual quality. Many lis¬teners know him best for his evocation of angels in his Seventh Symphony, Angel of Light, and other respected pieces, Angels and Visitations and Angel of Dusk. As a mystic, the composer believes that when he writes, he is not so much writing the music from scratch, but instead acting as a sort of midwife to help composi¬tions-which already exist fully formed in another reality-find their way into our reality. Rautavaara has even gone so far as to say that individual compositions have their own will. This metaphysical spark lies in stark contrast to the more earthbound inspiration of contemporary composers, namely those who drew upon nation¬alistic sources like folk music or folk mythology. The music of Rautavaara’s countryman, Sibelius, exemplifies such a nationalistic compositional style.

Rautavaara’s compositional idiom is constantly growing and changing, because all of his musical experiences inform his style, forming a synthesis of everything he has encountered. In the past, he experimented with modernist and serialist practices, although a singular dedication to serialism was impossible for him because of what he felt were its limits. Even when using serial practices in pieces like the Third Symphony, Rautavaara’s style tended towards late Romanticism. In the 1970s, Rautavaara experimented with taped sounds, pairing recordings of birdsong with an orchestra. There is no one characteristic “Rautavaara sound,” but certainly many musical attributes common to his style-clear lines, bril¬liant sonorities, serene echoes-can be heard in Rautavaara’s Divertimento for Strings, which was written in 1953. Over its three movements, one can already discern subtle hints of the lumi¬nescent ethereal qualities that would later earn his music a warm reception from listeners.

Dmitry Shostakovich was an important and controversial musical figure of the 20th century. He wrote 15 highly-regarded symphonies and as many string quartets. His status as a citizen of Russia was very important to him, and some of his works reflect a sense of duty to his homeland, a desire to honor and celebrate its triumphs. His Second Symphony, for instance, was written to commemorate the Revolution of 1917, while the Seventh Sym¬phony was dedicated to Leningrad. Shostakovich even wrote his Fifth Symphony to answer Russian critics who had called one of his operas a modernist disgrace. While some composers might have bristled under such an attack, Shostakovich put his own ego aside to answer the criticism and to show his allegiance to Mother Russia.

Rudolf Barshai is a conductor and composer. In his youth, he attended the Moscow Conservatory and studied composition privately with Shostakovich. Barshai was also friendly with Ser¬gei Prokofiev, a man who taught him much about orchestration. As an adult, Barshai became a champion of Russian music, and as such, had the ear of many of Russia’s most important 20th-century musical figures. In 1955, Barshai founded the Moscow Chamber Orchestra, a group that toured frequently but also played many concerts at home. Barshai used his position as head of the orches¬tra to introduce his Russian audiences to the Western canon of chamber orchestra literature.

When Shostakovich died, Barshai left Russia and began con¬ducting orchestras all over the world. He was a single-minded champion of Shostakovich’s music, and he recorded all of Shosta¬kovich’s 15 symphonies. His Chamber Symphony, an arrangement for chamber orchestra of Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 4, allows us to observe both his reverence for the Russian master’s music and his own sensitivity to the repertoire. In this arrange¬ment, one can hear the intricacies of the interplay of voices and the fine balance of orchestral resources at Barshai’s fingertips.

Georges Enesco, born in Romania, completed his first com¬position at the age of five. The precocious youngster entered the Vienna Conservatory at seven. Although he was a composer, conductor and teacher (of pupils like Yehudi Menuhin), he is best known to many as a violinist. His Romanian heritage informed some of his most popular works, and the folk music of his home¬land proved to be an important source for him in the early years. The Romanian Rhapsodies, composed at the turn of the century, are based on folk melodies and are among his best-known pieces. Like Stravinsky, however, he found the responsibility of using folk music to be extremely limiting, and like his Russian contemporary, Enesco eventually de-emphasized his folk influences.

Although he worked very hard as a composer, he published only 33 opus numbers in about 70 years of writing. One reason for this is the demanding performance schedule he kept up. He was also a perfectionist. Enesco would work and re-work his pieces both before their premieres and afterwards. This desire to perfect his compositions resulted in many of his works being left unfin¬ished. The bulk of his unfinished music fills an archive at the Enescu Museum in Bucharest. (He is best known in the United States by the French version of his name, Georges Enesco, but George Enes¬cu is the original Romanian spelling.) From a young age, he was a patriotic Romanian living in Paris, and after World War II, he did not return to Romania because of the Soviet occupation of his country. Among his completed works are three symphonies, three sonatas and several chamber pieces for quartets, quintets and octets, as well as a large scale opera called Oédipe, written in 1936. Enesco also conducted renowned ensembles like the Philadelphia Orches¬tra and the New York Philharmonic.

Enesco’s early compositions display the influence of German Romantic composers like Schumann. Oédipe featured what can be defined as a system of leitmotivs, a kind of musical symbolism developed by Wagner. By the turn of the century, when he studied composition with Fauré, the influence of the music scene in Paris seems to emerge in his work. Enesco’s style continued to change over the course of his life because he lived for many decades and never stopped composing. His mind was open to the possibilities of new and exciting methods of composition; almost simultane¬ously, he explored the disparate sound worlds of neo-classicism and extended Romantic tonality (almost to the point of atonality). His familiarity with the violin clearly informed his Two Intermez¬zos for Strings. Enesco believed very strongly in the primacy of melody over harmony, often using counterpoint to weave together the strands of two or more melodies. In time, his reliance on coun¬terpoint gave way to a use of heterophony, a way to superimpose similar melodies one on top of the other. Heterophony is a tex¬ture often found in folk music, but this folk method did not seem to Enesco to be limiting; rather it provided him with a system to explore the creation and development of new melodies.
At the time of Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 2, written in 1935, the composer was living in Paris. He was faced with this choice: continue to live away from his homeland, or return to the USSR. After contemplating the options, he decided to return, finally settling in the USSR in 1936. He had little interest in politics, so it is doubtful that Prokofiev truly understood the artistic repercussions of his decision to move back home. Around the time of his return, the Soviet Union began to distance itself from Western Europe both politically and artistically. Later in his career, the composer was called upon to defend his musical style, which some felt was too modernist to fit in with the Soviet artistic ideals. As a composer who was once a young renegade, and as an artist with no political agenda, such explanations must have seemed pointless and upset¬ting to him.

Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto in G minor has three movements. The premiere of the work was played by the Madrid Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Enrique Arbós. It was extremely well received. The featured soloist, and the man who commis¬sioned the work, was French violinist Robert Soëtans. Prokofiev and Soëtans were on a concert tour together through Spain, Portu¬gal and northern Africa, and their schedule was so hectic that the composer often spoke about writing various parts of the concerto in many different geographical locations. The first theme of the first movement, for example, was penned in Paris, while the second movement was begun in Voronezh. For Prokofiev, often seen as a very forward-looking and avant-garde composer, the Violin Con¬certo was not a step backwards, but it definitely featured a more traditional structure than some of his contemporary works. The vio¬lin melody in the opening-a melody that continues through the second movement-is derived from Russian folk music. The theme passes from the violin into the cello part, and the solo instrument becomes accompaniment. The main theme of the rondo in the third movement features castanets, a percussion instrument that strongly suggests Spain.

- Christine Lee Gengaro, PhD

tonight’s compositions in LACO’s history
This evening’s program features several firsts for the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, as we have never before performed Rautavaara’s Divertimento for Strings, the Chamber Sym¬phony by Shostakovich/Barshai or Enesco’s Two Intermezzos. We will end the concert, however, with Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 2, which LACO has played on five previous occasions. LACO audiences first heard this work early in the Orchestra’s history, when Sir Neville Marriner conducted it in March 1971with soloist Pierre Amoyal. More recently, violin¬ist Leila Josefowicz played the concerto with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra under the direction of Jeffrey Kahane in March 2002.

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