Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra: making great music personal

program notes: pastoral & world premiere

Saturday May 17, 2008
Sunday May 18, 2008

Handel Concerto Grosso, Op. 6, No. 9

orchestration: strings; continuo

Puts Night , Sound Investment commission (World Premiere)

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

Beethoven Symphony No. 6 in F major, “Pastoral”

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

George Frideric Handel was a German who found his greatest success writing Italian opera in England. Although he is perhaps best known as the composer of large-scale vocal works like the oratorio Messiah or the opera Julius Caesar, Handel also had occasion to write instrumental music, such as the Concerto Grosso, Op. 6, No. 9. The genre of concerto grosso was a Baroque instrumental staple, and it differs from a solo concerto in a very significant way: The concerto grosso features a group of solo instruments, rather than only one. This solo group is called the concertino, and the accompanying orchestra is called the ripieno. The main thrust of the concerto genre (both solo and grosso) is the interplay between these contrasting forces. The concerto grosso is a particularly good yardstick by which to measure the composers of the Baroque era, because its structure allowed the composer to show off his skills in writing both virtuosic material for the soloist and simpler ensemble passages for the accompanying orchestra.

Concerto Grosso, Op. 6, No. 9 opens with a slow passage featuring the soloists and ripieno playing together. Once the Allegro starts, all of the instruments are caught up in continuous motion. The solo parts are only briefly differentiated from their orchestral accompaniments. The movement features contrasts in volume and rapid chord changes. In the middle section, a somewhat slow Larghetto, we hear a rolling meter that is dominated by stately long-short rhythms (called “dotted” rhythms because of the way they are notated). Here, the exchange between soloists and ripieno takes place almost every measure. The Allegro finale begins with the second solo violin playing a lengthy passage which is then imitated by the first solo violin. The ripieno joins in and continues this imitative counterpoint throughout the entire movement.

After the Baroque era, the solo concerto came to replace the concerto grosso in prominence. Thus, the concerto as a virtuoso showpiece has remained an important compositional genre up to the present day. One of the pieces on tonight’s program is the world premiere of a piano concerto by Kevin Puts, commissioned by the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra’s Sound Investment club.

Hailed by the press as “one of the best young composers in America,” Kevin Puts has had works commissioned and performed by leading orchestras, including the upcoming premieres of a new orchestral piece for the New York Philharmonic and a clarinet concerto for Bil Jackson and the Colorado Symphony. His cello concerto, Vision, was commissioned by the Aspen Music Festival and performed by Yo-Yo Ma in honor of David Zinman’s 70th birthday. A native of St. Louis, Missouri, Puts received his Bachelor’s Degree from the Eastman School of Music, his Master’s Degree from Yale University and a Doctor of Musical Arts at the Eastman School of Music. In the fall of 2006, he joined the composition faculty of the Peabody Institute. Though at the time of this writing, the Puts Piano Concerto has not yet been heard, the piece is expected to display the hallmarks of his finely-honed musical style, which can be described as neo-Romantic with Minimalist influences. This Piano Concerto will be notable to LACO audiences because it is the first solo concerto that has ever been written specifically for Jeffrey Kahane to conduct from the piano. The performance practice in which a piece is led by one of the ensemble players or conducted by the soloist is common in chamber works such as trios, quartets and quintets. This method is also possible in a smaller orchestra, however, as you can observe in the two out of three pieces on this evening’s program that will be played without a conductor on the podium. (Concertmaster Margaret Batjer will lead the Handel Concerto Grosso from the first chair.)

The neo-Romantic style of Kevin Puts draws upon idioms of 19th- and early 20th-century Romanticism, taking inspiration from the lush soundscapes created by composers like Beethoven. We usually think of Ludwig van Beethoven’s music as belonging to three periods, but in looking solely at the symphonies, one can classify the works in this genre in a couple of ways. First, we can divide them into four groups: The first two symphonies would be in Group 1because they are very conservative and Classical in concept; Group 2 would include the Third, Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth because they were all written in what musicologists call the “Heroic” period; Group 3 would contain the Seventh and the Eighth, which again look back to an older style; and the Ninth is in a category all by itself. We may also think about the symphonies in terms of their prospective audience: The first four were meant for private consumption, while the remaining five were written for public concerts.

Many music lovers will definitely categorize Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony as part of Beethoven’s so-called “Heroic” period because it is quite audacious and impressive in its construction. Beethoven’s “Heroic” period began with his Third Symphony, nicknamed the “Eroica” Symphony, which Beethoven originally intended to be named for Napoleon Bonaparte. It was also at this point that Beethoven truly began to come to terms with his progressing deafness. With the Third Symphony, Beethoven stretched the traditional symphonic form farther than it had ever gone before in terms of musical structure, length and the size of the orchestral ensemble. He continued this development with the Fifth Symphony, and in the Sixth Symphony, Beethoven’s expansions included the addition of a fifth movement.

The Sixth Symphony is a very important work for many reasons. First and foremost, it is one of the first major examples of a programmatic symphony, or at least a work that is suggestive and evocative in a very concrete way. This is the only symphony in which Beethoven actually gave names to the movements, although others dealt in more general terms with philosophical ideas like fate (in the Fifth Symphony) or the brotherhood of man (in the Ninth Symphony). The Sixth Symphony’s structure of five descriptive movements was echoed years later by Hector Berlioz when he composed his Symphonie Fantastique (1830). He too named the movements, but he went Beethoven one better by including an explanation of the story for the audience in the program. Beethoven, in contrast to Berlioz, did not want to depict a fully-formed narrative in the music, only to express certain emotions. Instead, he explained that his music was, “more the expression of feeling than a painting.” Each of the work’s five movements brings to mind a simple, rustic joy in the countryside. Even the appearance of a thunderstorm cannot dampen the lively spirits of the villagers, who have been dancing and frolicking. The final movement is a solemn hymn of thanks to God for the joys of the day.

— Christine Lee Gengaro, PhD

tonight’s compositions in LACO’s history

Handel’s Concerto Grosso, Op. 6, No. 9 was programmed by two of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra’s former music directors. LACO played the work in 1984 under Gerard Schwarz and in 1996with Iona Brown leading from the first chair. Similarly, LACO has played Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony on three occasions prior to this evening’s concert; the last of these performances was in 1989 with music director Christof Perick.

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