Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra: making great music personal

program notes: mozart farewell

Sunday February 10, 2008

Mozart Piano Concerto No. 8 in C major, K. 246

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

Mozart Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor, K. 466

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

Mozart Piano Concerto No. 14 in E-flat major, K. 449

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

Mozart Piano Concerto No. 27 in B-flat major, K. 595

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

As a young boy, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart practiced his skills by arranging works by other composers. The pieces numbered as his first four piano concertos are among these student compositions. Soon, he began to write his own works in the genre, completing 23 original piano concertos during his career. Mozart composed a number of these keyboard masterpieces for himself, writing them to display his considerable performing skills and his genius for improvisation. Throughout Mozart’s life, the piano gained prominence as an instrument, and the genres of piano sonata and piano concerto moved to the center of the Classical repertoire.

The four concertos on tonight’s program date from different periods of Mozart’s life. The earliest, No. 8, was written in Salzburg when Mozart was 20 years old. The latest, No. 27, was the very last piano concerto he wrote. The two remaining concertos date from Mozart’s time in Vienna. Most of the 23 concertos-and there were 11 from a two-year period (1784-86)-were written for subscription concerts in which Mozart would perform. He showed great flexibility in this genre, writing piano concertos for varying venues, from large halls to intimate salons, and he displayed great sensitivity to the needs and vicissitudes of each type of performance space. Mozart also adjusted his concertos based on the size of the orchestra available to him. Some of the early concertos can be played with the accompaniment of only a string quartet, an option that would have been very attractive to many a small group of amateur players. In Mozart’s time, a full orchestra was approximately the size of what we consider a chamber orchestra today, and the keyboardist often conducted the group while performing the solo concerto role, as Jeffrey Kahane will do tonight.

Mozart’s piano concertos all share a similar three-movement structure. This tripartite form is a holdover from the earlier Baroque overtures and da capo arias (operatic arias with two similar outer sections and a contrasting middle section). The outer movements of a concerto are usually fast and lively, while the middle movement has a slower tempo. Tonight’s works exemplify this concerto format, but also demonstrate the range of possibilities open to an inventive composer like Mozart. Each concerto is similar in that the first movements are in sonata form, beginning with an orchestral exposition of the main themes. After the orchestra has stated the musical material for the movement, the soloist performs his own exposition of the themes. This section, often called the “double exposition,” usually ends in a key other than the one in which the piece began. In the center of the movement is a section called the “development,” a musical journey that refers back to the main themes, but recreates them in different keys or sometimes in fragmented versions of the original. The developmental section leads back into a return to the main themes as they were stated in the exposition. Towards the end of this “recapitulation,” the soloist breaks off and performs a cadenza that may or may not be thematically related to the musical themes of the movement. After playing for as long as he likes, the soloist gives the orchestra a signal (usually a trill on a certain chord), and then all of the players come in to repeat the main themes again and bring the movement to a close.

There is more variation used in the structures of second movements. Some take the form of wordless arias (as in No. 8), some feature themes with variations, some are lyrical “Romanzas” (as in Nos. 20 and 27) and some are in a more orderly three-part form (No. 14). Although the overall forms are different, the second movement is usually quite dissimilar from the first and third movements in mood and texture. The center movement provides a tuneful respite from the livelier and more contrapuntal outer movements. The third movements of Mozart’s piano concertos often take the form of a playful rondo. The defining characteristic of a rondo is a repeating theme or passage that returns several times throughout the movement without undergoing the melodic transformation that would occur in the sonata form’s pattern of exposition, development and recapitulation. While the rondo form hearkens back to the Baroque ritornellos, Mozart thoroughly adjusted the form to suit Classical sensibilities.

While it is useful to see the general outline of how Mozart constructed these pieces, their significance is not in compositional structure alone. Mozart truly made these formulas his own, creating great art through his subtlety and inventiveness. Since the four piano concertos on tonight’s program date from different times in Mozart’s life, each one is a window into his developing creative process. The context of these works, and the works themselves, allow the listener to form his or her own ideas about Mozart’s progress and growth as an artist. And while the piano concertos have many things in common, it is perhaps most interesting to listen for what makes each one a unique jewel in Mozart’s crown.

Piano Concerto No. 8 was written for Countess Lützow in Salzburg. Aspects of this work can be classified as galan t, a style popular in the second half of the 18th century. Galant style can be viewed as a reaction to the extreme complexity in music of the High Baroque period. Thus, music in galant style featured short and simple melodies rather than complex polyphony. Steady rhythms, even phrases and balanced structures were also favored, but the galant style was less concerned with large-scale forms than works in the better-known Classical style, which also emphasized clarity and symmetry. In Piano Concerto No. 8, Mozart follows the main format of the Classical concerto in the galant style but also departs from tradition in allowing the soloist to introduce a new theme in the second exposition. Mozart was just 20 when he composed this work in 1776. Although the year is significant for Americans, the spirit of the Enlightenment manifested itself in the music of the time primarily through the Classical model of rational, well-ordered forms, while the democratic ideals that influenced the American and French Revolutions were only beginning to seep into the musical zeitgeist . Decades later, in the music of Beethoven, this sentiment would fully flower.

Concerto No. 20, composed in 1785, is cast in a dark and conflicted D minor. This storminess is made even more blatant when one considers the other concerto Mozart wrote in the same month (No. 21, not on the program), which is unrelentingly upbeat and bright. In No. 20, Mozart gives the soloist a new theme to explore in his first entry, and this new material highlights the give and take of conversation between soloist and orchestra. The finale of No. 20 features a sonata-rondo form in which the soloist plays material that the orchestra does not develop. This was Mozart’s most popular piano concerto in the years following his death, suiting the moody tastes of the early Romantics. Even Beethoven found the work interesting, composing two cadenzas for it.

Mozart’s Concerto No. 14 was written for an exceptional student, Barbara Ployer (for whom Haydn also wrote music), and the orchestral accompaniment seems to be heavily influenced by Mozart’s work in opera. In the years leading up to this piece, Mozart wrote in the genre of the singspiel essentially German opera with some spoken dialogue. Piano Concerto No. 14 has often been labeled as Mozart’s first mature work in the concerto genre. The musical material of the first movement journeys through a wide variety of moods, and the structure of the movement, although it follows double exposition form very closely, is inventive nonetheless. The finale is a complex sonata-rondo form with brilliant variations, as if Mozart wanted to challenge his imagination by tweaking the repetitions of the themes with as many subtle alterations and embellishments as possible.

Mozart’s final work in this genre, Concerto No. 27, is a return to a simpler style; the texture is delicate and, at times, even sparse. He chose B-flat major as the key, a tonality he often associated with joyful, simple times. He wrote the piano concerto in the winter of 1790, along with court dances and a string quintet. He had been traveling in the fall before the work’s premiere and wrote letters home that revealed how much he missed his family. In the months that followed-Mozart’s final days-he enjoyed working on Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute) with his friend Emanuel Schikaneder, and his wife Constanze gave birth to their sixth child (the younger of their two surviving sons), Franz Xaver Wolfgang Mozart, who later became a musician like his father.

It is with Mozart’s final piano concerto that LACO says “farewell” to its multi-year Mozart Festival, a comprehensive exploration of all 23of his original works in this genre. We close this celebration of Mozart’s 250th birthday having gained a trove of insights into the enormous breadth of Mozart’s concertos-the beauty and poignancy of his slow movements, the humor of his third movements-and with a renewed sense of awe for all that he achieved in his 35 years of life.

tonight’s compositions in LACO’s history

After tonight’s concert, the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra will have performed all of Mozart’s 23 original piano concertos with Jeffrey Kahane serving as soloist and conductor. Tonight will be the first time the Orchestra has played Concertos No. 8 and 14. LACO has performed Piano Concerto No. 20 five times in its history, first in 1986with Gerard Schwarz conducting, and more recently in March 2005 with Jeffrey Kahane on the podium and Anne-Marie McDermott playing the solo part. In 1977, Sir Neville Marriner was the first of LACO’s music directors to program Piano Concerto No. 27. Other notable performances of this work include the 1995 concerts in which pianist Garrick Ohlsson played Concerto No. 27 with LACO, as well as last season’s March concert, which featured Ignat Solzhenitsyn as conductor and soloist.

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