Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra: making great music personal

Thursday April 10, 2008

Handel Concerto Grosso in D major, Op. 6, No. 5

orchestration: 2 oboes; strings; continuo

Albinoni Concerto in F major for Two Oboes, Op. 9, No. 3

orchestration: 2 solo oboes; strings; continuo

Corelli Concerto Grosso in F major, Op. 6, No. 6

orchestration: strings; continuo

Vivaldi Concerto in B minor for Four Violins, Op. 3, No. 10

orchestration: 4 solo violins; strings; continuo

In the Renaissance period, vocal music reigned supreme in the sacred forms of masses and motets, and also in the developing genre of opera. As the sun set on the Renaissance and rose on the Baroque, vocal music was still prominent, but instrumental music began to assert an important position in the marketplace. Unlike carefully notated church music, instrumental styles had their origins in court and folk music and had often been handed down through improvisation. As more people in the middle class learned to play instruments, and as inventors in France and Italy devised efficient ways to print music, instrumental genres began to grow in popularity. To meet the new demand, publishers first turned to instrumental versions of vocal pieces, but soon composers were writing music specifically for the new audience of players.

The typical Baroque ensemble is anchored by the basso continuo, usually two players who round out the harmonies and bass line of a piece. One continuo player performs on a chordal instrument, like a harpsichord or lute, and the other plays the bass line, typically on cello or bassoon. Together, the two members of the basso continuo provide the harmonic glue that holds Baroque compositions together, functioning not unlike the rhythm section of a jazz band. Over this, there can be any number of instrumental combinations. In trio sonatas-common in the early Baroque-there were only two soloists with the continuo (giving the trio sonata four players playing three distinct musical roles). In some instrumental works from the High Baroque (Bach, Handel and Vivaldi), a continuo provided the anchor for much larger ensembles, with full string sections and some winds.

The weight of the basso continuo allowed composers to explore the interplay of the other orchestral instruments. The concept of conversational or competing forces within an orchestra was something that fascinated Baroque composers. One important type of piece, the concerto, explored the relationship of solo instruments to the larger group. In the Baroque, there are two main types of concertos: the solo concerto and the concerto grosso. The former features a soloist and a small orchestra, or ripieno. The concerto grosso features a small group of soloists, called the concertino, alongside the ripieno. The soloists play more virtuosic material, while the ripieno and basso continuo provide accompaniment.

The conversational give-and-take is further built into the structure of many concertos though the use of ritornello form, particularly in the first and final movements. In this form, the entire ensemble begins the movement by playing a musical passage that will return again and again. The term ritornello (from the Italian, “to return”) refers to this signature element of thematic repetition. In between sections of the ritornello-usually played by the entire ensemble-the soloist or concertino group explores more difficult musical ideas. The alternating sections of soloist and orchestra provide interesting contrasts between simple and complex, soft and loud, accompaniment and virtuosity.

Another early source of instrumental music in the early Baroque period was dance music. Dance forms existed on their own and in collections called suites, but they also found their way into concerto movements. Once dance forms started to be written down, they began to be stylized, and little by little lost some of their practical usage. The dances that you hear in a concerto-a minuet or gavotte-are not meant to be danced. They retain only the most basic rhythmic vestiges of their past, instead becoming more complex works of art, written for a thoughtful and attuned ear. Using stylized dance movements in orchestral works is a tradition that continued into the Classical period.

The four composers on tonight’s program wrote concertos for various reasons and occasions. The Concerto Grosso in D major, Op. 6, No. 5 by George Frideric Handel was certainly one of his best-known concertos, even though he was far more famous for having written operas and oratorios. Tomaso Albinoni, too, wrote dozens of operas, but at the apex of his career, published a stunning set of 12 concertos. Arcangelo Corelli was a famous violinist who traveled around Europe pleasing many patrons with his virtuosic playing. He was not as prolific as the other composers on the program, but he did write a good number of trio sonatas and concertos. His Concerto Grosso in F major dates from his last year and was actually published posthumously in 1714. Like Corelli, Antonio Vivaldi was a violinist, but he also held a teaching position at a girls’ orphanage, the Pio Ospedale della Pietà . Many of his hundreds of concertos were written for his music students. Vivaldi naturally favored the violin as a solo instrument, but he also wrote concertos for viola, cello, flute, oboe, bassoon, trumpet and horn. His Concerto for Four Violins is the earliest work on tonight’s program, dating from a collection published in 1711.

Baroque composers showed their talent for orchestral writing through the concerto; the vaunted symphony would not become an important genre until the Classical period (1750s and beyond). Certainly, the scope of the Baroque concerto is smaller than that of a Classical symphony, but to many ears, the Baroque concerto is the best of both worlds: It is a form that combines the instrumental timbre of the symphony with the more intimate quality of a chamber ensemble in the interplay among the concertino group of soloists. Even though our modern performance venue is larger than the salons for which such works were written, the musical material on the program requires a delicacy and virtuosity from the performers that would easily suit a smaller space.

– Christine Lee Gengaro, PhD

tonight’s compositions in LACO’s history
The Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra has performed the Concerto Grosso in D major by Handel in two previous seasons, with conductor Robert Bernhardt in 1985 and then-music director Iona Brown in 1992. Both the Albinoni and Corelli works on the program are being performed by LACO for the first time this evening. The Orchestra first played Vivaldi’s Concerto in B minor for Four Violins in 1978 with conductor Antonio Janigro. The work later became a staple of LACO’s repertoire under Iona Brown, who doubled as conductor and violin soloist in several performances of the piece. A concert with Brown in 1996 was the last time LACO audiences heard this Vivaldi work before tonight’s performance.

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