Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra: making great music personal

Thursday February 14, 2008

Bach Concerto in C minor for Violin and Oboe, BWV 1060

orchestration: solo violin; solo oboe; strings; continuo


orchestration: soprano; oboe; strings; continuo


orchestration: soprano; oboe; strings; continuo

The term “cantata” refers to two different types of vocal pieces from the Baroque period. The Italian cantata was a secular art form, usually a short collection of recitatives and arias for a soloist. We may think of it as an un-staged mini-opera with a single character. The German cantata, on the other hand, was a sacred genre, a staple of Lutheran church music of the Baroque. JS Bach wrote both types of cantatas, including many of the sacred variety when he worked at the St. Thomas Church in Leipzig (1723-1750). There is evidence to suggest he may have written five complete year-long cycles of cantatas, one for every Sunday. Some of Bach’s cantatas are among his most famous works, and, astoundingly, the approximately 200 of these still in existence are a fraction of his cantata output. While employed at St. Thomas Church, Bach also wrote secular music for the Collegium Musicum, a group of amateur musicians who attended the University in Leipzig. Among these works are some secular cantatas, the most famous being the “Coffee Cantata.” Historical sources say Bach may have written as many as 40 secular cantatas, but only about 20 survive.

A cantata has no set ensemble, but instead may feature a single soloist and continuo, a small group of vocal and instrumental soloists, or even soloists and choir. Just as there is no prescribed instrumentation for a cantata, there is also no set structural formula. Some of Bach’s larger church cantatas begin with a choral movement accompanied by the entire ensemble, while many of the smaller cantatas feature recitatives and arias sung by the soloist(s). There are two types of recitatives in these works. The first type, called secco (dry) recitative, features the voice accompanied by only the continuo instruments. A recitative of this type has a lighter texture, but the collaboration of soloist and continuo allows for more rhythmic flexibility in the vocal line. The other type is called accompagnato, or “accompanied,” because the instruments of the orchestra support the voice. The pacing is more rigid due to the larger accompanying ensemble, but the texture of the music is fuller. In Bach’s cantatas, recitatives are usually paired with arias, florid song-like pieces. In each pair, the recitative has more text but is shorter in duration, while the aria tends to be longer with several highly decorated repetitions of the same phrases.

The “Wedding Cantata” on tonight’s program, known by its first line, “Weichet nur, betrübte Schatten” (“Be gone, bothersome shadows”), was not part of the church year cycle. There are nine movements in this Cantata: four recitatives and five arias. The first movement begins slowly, with a heavily-embellished line for the soprano, and works its way into a walking-pace middle section. Here the voice seems to bubble up like water from a brook, illustrating the cantata’s text filled with images of snow giving way to spring. The keystone of the cantata, an aria right in the center of the work, features the oboe and voice. The two musical lines of the soprano and oboe flutter around each other in a way that is both joyful and playful, the perfect musical response to a wedding day. The cantata closes with a gavotte, a Baroque dance that would have set the wedding guests’ toes tapping.

Cantata No. 84, “Ich bin vergnügt mit meinem Glücke” (“I am content in my good fortune”), was part of the church year cycle. It was written for Septuagesima Sunday, a traditional Catholic and Lutheran pre-Lent observance approximately 70 days before Easter. In contrast to the “Wedding Cantata,” Cantata No. 84 is smaller in scale with fewer movements. Originally performed as part of a church service, it would have concluded with a chorale. Basically a Protestant hymn, the chorale was significant as a feature of Martin Luther’s 16th-century Reformation, allowing the congregation to participate actively in the church service-or in our case, perhaps allowing the audience to participate in the concert! While the majority of the cantata is comprised of virtuosic recitatives and arias, the concluding chorale was designed to be sung by the masses. With or without a singing of the chorale, it is interesting to reflect that such incredible music as Cantata No. 84 was composed essentially for one-time use in a church service to reinforce a sermon reminding ordinary congregation members to be grateful and content with their lives.

This program also features the Concerto in C minor for Violin and Oboe by Bach. Please see the program notes for Baroque Conversations 2 for a discussion of the concerto genre. – Christine Lee Gengaro, PhD

tonight’s compositions in LACO’s history

The Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra first played Bach’s “Wedding Cantata” in 1978 under the direction of Sir Neville Marriner, with soprano Elly Ameling. In 2003, LACO audiences heard this work performed with music director Jeffrey Kahane and tonight’s guest soloist, Elissa Johnston. Tonight will be LACO’s first-ever performance of Cantata No. 84, but the Concerto in C minor for Violin and Oboe is one of the most frequently-played pieces in the Orchestra’s repertoire. Beginning in 1972 with a performance conducted by Sir Neville Marriner, LACO has programmed this work 17 times to highlight the talents of such luminaries as Allan Vogel, Iona Brown and Hilary Hahn.

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