Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra: making great music personal



program notes: london triumph

Saturday March 29, 2008
Sunday March 30, 2008

Mendelssohn Sinfonia No. 9 in C major

orchestration: strings

CPE Bach Cello Concerto in A major

orchestration: solo cello; strings; continuo

Haydn Symphony No. 104 in D major, H. 1/104,

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

There are some figures in music history who fade from memory, but whose influence lingers on. Carl Friedrich Zelter (1758-1832)is such a man. Well known in his time, Zelter is now an all-but-invisible connection among the three composers on tonight’s program; each was someone whom Zelter promoted or influenced musically, thus he provides an intriguing link not only among these composers, but also among different musical styles and historical periods. A composer, teacher and early leader of the Singakademie of Berlin, Zelter claimed CPE Bach as one of his idols, crediting the composer with teaching him about the Classical ideals of order and unity. Two major works performed by the Singakademie were Haydn€‘s oratorios, The Creation and The Seasons, and later in his life, Zelter mentored a young prodigy named Felix Mendelssohn.

Mendelssohn was just a boy in 1823 when he composed his Sinfonia No. 9 in C major. Young Mendelssohn often displayed his artistic talents through drawings and music, and he also used his skills as a poet to construct singspiels (operas with spoken dialogue) for his parents and their guests. In the period leading up to this string symphony, Mendelssohn studied counterpoint, composition, theory and the music of the Classical period with Zelter. The older composer was not just an admirer of CPE Bach, but was also quite fond of the works of Johann Sebastian Bach. It was through his efforts that the Berlin Singakademie brought many of Bach‘€™s forgotten works back into public consciousness. Zelter passed his enthusiasm for both Bachs on to Mendelssohn, and the two collaborated (along with Eduard Derivent, another of Zelter’s students) on restoring Bach’s St. Matthew Passion and performing it on its 100th anniversary. This momentous event, a landmark in music history, took place when Mendelssohn was just 20 years old.

Zelter, in the intervening years, taught Mendelssohn much about counterpoint, and these lessons stayed with the composer throughout his life. Another important figure whom Mendelssohn met in his early years was the poet Goethe, a good friend of Zelter’s. Through their acquaintance and later friendship, Mendelssohn learned a great deal from the poet about the creation and development of art, while the young composer taught the older man about the music of the Classical period. After meeting Goethe, Mendelssohn — €”still in his teens — €”began to experiment with larger-scale forms. His family traveled throughout most of 1822, and the music he encountered on this journey, most notably Swiss folk songs, influenced the young composer’s work. On Mendelssohn’s™ return, he wrote four string symphonies, including the work that we hear on the program tonight.

Some have said that Mendelssohn’s™ early string symphonies are only studies in counterpoint for his lessons with Zelter, but they are much more important when considered as part of a musical transition between the 18th and 19th centuries. These youthful works effectively form a musical bridge from Zelter’s strict and conservative style — marked by the imitative, interlocking melodic lines of counterpoint — to a freer, more Romantic style. The manner of composition in Mendelssohn’s Sinfonia No. 9 leans toward the older style. The first movement is monothematic, which means that Mendelssohn developed only one major musical motive. This movement also displays a ritornello structure — €”alternation between plainer orchestral sections and more virtuosic passages — ”that hearkens back to pre-Classicism. Such an homage to an earlier form might well have been the result of Zelter’s zeal for Baroque style, and in fact, this ritornello principle can be observed clearly in the work by CPE Bach on tonight’s program. The second movement shows Mendelssohn experimenting with textural changes, having instruments drop out and then reappear to create different orchestral colors (a technique one can also recognize in Haydn‘€™s Symphony 104). The third and fourth movements are conventional in structure; even here, however, Mendelssohn demonstrated imagination in the transitions, enlivening the form through the evasion of expected elements. In his more mature works, Mendelssohn would construct themes that lent themselves easily to innovative transformations.

Carl Phillip Emmanuel Bach, commonly known as CPE Bach, was one of the primary composers in the early Classical style. One of JS Bach’s sons, he was perhaps the most famous of the musicians active in the generation after the Baroque era. Although he studied at St. Thomas School, he took a degree in jurisprudence before turning to a musical career. When his father died in 1750, CPE was a chamber musician at the court of Frederick II of Prussia. It was not an ideal position, so he sought to take over his father‘™s job as cantor at the St. Thomas School. He was not hired and remained unable to find a new position for years thereafter.

Although CPE Bach is held up by followers like Zelter as the epitome of the orderly tenets of Classicism, he also wrote music that looked back to his father‘™s time, as well as works that forayed into the highly emotional Sturm und Drang, or “storm and stress,” style that pre-figured some of the elements of Romanticism. His Cello Concerto in A major is more Baroque in style. CPE Bach wrote this concerto in 1753, and also arranged versions of it for flute and for violin. Other pieces from the time certainly conform to a more Classical construction, looking toward the idea of sonata form with its division of the movement into three sections. Here, we see CPE Bach reaching back to the ritornello tradition of Baroque concertos. In ritornello form, a main thematic section is stated by all players (the orchestra, called ripieno in the Baroque, plus soloist), and then a more elaborate solo section is performed. The texture alternates from solo passages to orchestral accompaniments until there is a final return of the original thematic material and the original key at the end of the movement. The repetition of the movement’s melodic material gives the form its name: “œRitornello€” comes from the Italian word for “€œto return.”

Joseph Haydn, the stalwart of the Classical era, had a long and prolific career. In 1794-€“95, Haydn made his second visit to London, after the death of his Austrian patron, Prince Nicholas Esterhazy, left him free to travel and promote his compositions. Over the course of his two visits, Haydn wrote 12 symphonies. Symphony No. 104 is the last of these, and in fact the last symphony Haydn ever wrote. Although it is one of a dozen he wrote for the city, this symphony is commonly called the “€œLondon.” The work was first performed in the New Room of King‘€™s Theater in Haymarket, London as a fundraising event for Haydn. After the show, he wrote: “The whole company was thoroughly pleased and so was I. I made 4,000 gulden on this evening. Such a thing is only possible in England.” Later that same year, Symphony No. 104 debuted in Vienna on the same concert that featured the Second Piano Concerto of 25-year-old Ludwig van Beethoven.

The “London” Symphony opens with a slow introduction, and the exposition of the first movement is played only by the strings. The entire orchestra enters soon after, but this shifting among different instrumental combinations is a recurring feature throughout the movement. The second movement, marked Andante (or “€œwalking tempo”), features more complex rhythms and contrasts between loud and soft dynamics. Haydn follows tradition by using the Minuet and Trio form for the symphony‘€™s third movement, thus treating listeners to a dance-influenced tune with three beats to the measure. The finale, marked “œSpiritoso,” uses melodic ideas drawn from a Croatian folk song called “œOj Jelena.” Here, too, are dynamic changes and contrasts of instrumental sonorities, but this time with the added layers of counterpoint. The works Haydn composed for London and the following period in Vienna — €”the symphonies, string quartets, piano trios and oratorios — are among his most oft-performed pieces.

Musicians like Carl Friedrich Zelter who composed, but also championed the music of others, allowed works like those we hear tonight to flourish. Although he is unknown to many (and known to others only as a composer of German art songs), Zelter, as an educator, exerted great influence on generations of musicians and is one of countless unsung heroes who helped to shape the repertoire we know and love. By imagining the program through his perspective, we can more clearly discern the connections among these different works, and contextualize them in the continuum of music history.

— Christine Lee Gengaro, PhD


tonight’s compositions in LACO’s history

The Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra has twice performed Felix Mendelssohn‘€™s Sinfonia No. 9 — first in 1971 under the direction of Sir Neville Marriner and also in 1987 with Iona Brown. The Cello Concerto in A major by CPE Bach was another early selection of Sir Neville Marriner’s. When LACO played this work in 1974, Nathaniel Rosen, a founding member of our cello section, was the soloist. Tonight our soloist is Douglas Davis, LACO’s longtime principal cello, who will retire from the Orchestra at the end of the season. This is his final solo turn on our Orchestral Series as a member of LACO. (He will also be a soloist on our Baroque Conversations program on May 8.) Haydn’s Symphony No. 104 has been a favorite in LACO’s repertoire. The Orchestra has performed this work five times before tonight’s concert, first in 1983with Gerard Schwarz on the podium, and 20 years later with Jeffrey Kahane in 2003.



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