Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra: making great music personal

program notes: classical fusion

Saturday January 20, 2007
Sunday January 21, 2007

PÄrt Fratres

orchestration: solo violin; percussion; strings

Bach Concerto in D minor after BWV 146, 188 and 1052

orchestration: solo piano; 3 oboes; strings

Bach Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 in D major, BWV 1050

orchestration: solo violin, solo flute, solo piano; strings; continuo

Tchaikovsky Souvenir de Florence

orchestration: strings

Until the dissolution of the former Soviet Union, the little country of Estonia had been under Soviet domination since 1940, ending the short-lived Republic of Estonia established at the end of World War I. Thousands of Estonians emigrated during the war and after, keeping their culture alive in self-exile. One recent emigre who has made a considerable splash in the west is Arvo Part, born in Estonia during the last years of the republic. He was educated at the conservatory in Tallinn, graduating in 1963. Already at that time he had been working for some years as a sound director for Estonia radio. His early work showed the expected influence of Prokofiev and Shostakovich, but he began to use the twelve-tone technique (Necrology, 1959), then not allowed in countries of the Soviet bloc. His Credo for piano, chorus, and orchestra was banned because it contained the text, “I believe in Jesus Christ.”

During a long period of artistic silence, Part studied early choral music and ancient liturgical chants; these unleashed in him a deep mystical strain. In the Third Symphony (1971) he revived old polyphonic forms and ideas from Gregorian chant. By 1976, his studies led to a renewed interest in the traditional triad and the possibilities of extreme simplicity. Soon afterward, Part and his family immigrated to Vienna, and then moved to Berlin. During the 1980s he produced a growing body of music with liturgical connections.

Part has returned many times to Fratres (the Latin title means “brethren”), creating more than a half dozen versions since 1977. All have in common a feeling of timelessness created by a slow tempo and the slow mathematical rotation of ideas over a sustained open fifth, which itself evokes an antiquity of mysticism in an age of belief. The sonority and suggestion of chant seems to explain the title’s reference to medieval monks, whose lives were surrounded and shaped, in part, by the continuous singing of liturgical melodies.

J.S. Bach was gripped by the frenzy of discovery when he encountered the Vivaldi concertos during his years in Weimar (1708-17). He studied them closely, even adapting a number of Vivaldi’s violin concertos into keyboard concertos, absorbing the latest style. To Bach, these works represented one of the highest developments of recent music.

While in Cothen (1717-1723), he wrote no original keyboard concertos. His six Brandenburg concertos were part of the tradition of the ensemble concerto or concerto grosso. The fifth of these is especially interesting in its contemporary context, because in the middle of the first movement the keyboard suddenly takes over and dominates the piece. At that point in time, the keyboard was not known as a solo instrument. Instead, it tended to play an accompanying role, usually as a member of the continuo.

Only after the fifth Brandenburg did Bach begin to compose solo keyboard concertos, and even these were usually arrangements already composed for violin or other instruments. He evidently created these works for the concerts he gave with the Leipzig Collegium Musicum, an association of professional musicians and university students founded by Telemann in 1704. Bach took over its direction in 1729 and retained the position, with one interruption, until 1741.

Some of Bach’s concertos are very likely derived from works of other composers, and for that reason they are not heard as often as they might be otherwise. But the Concerto No in D minor can be confidently attributed to Bach, almost certainly adapted from a lost violin concerto of the Cothen period. We can be sure of his authorship because he used two of its movements (with organ solo) in his Cantata 146, composed for Easter sometime between 1726 and 1728. He used the last movement for the opening Sinfonia of his Cantata 188, composed for Trinity Sunday in 1728. In its final and only surviving form, this work exercised a powerful influence on the development of the keyboard concerto. It is indeed probably the best known of all Bach’s keyboard concertos.

The orchestral opening of the Concerto in D minor’s orchestral opening is one of the most familiar passages in the composer’s entire output. Its vigor and tensile strength generates an opening movement of great drive and panache. The very first measure provides most of the orchestral material for the movement, while the soloist’s interludes offer a wonderful range of virtuosic devices that Bach has imaginatively translated to the keyboard from the original violin concerto. The Adagio provides the framework for a richly ornamented and sensitive aria in the keyboard part, while the final Allegro, based on a tiny motif of two sixteenth-notes and an eighth-note, is imbued throughout with a dance-like character.

The Brandenburg Concertos have immortalized the name of the Margrave Christian Ludwig of Brandenburg, to whom on March 24, 1721, Bach sent his lavishly beautiful presentation manuscript. Bach surely performed all of these works with his own ensemble and conceived the solo parts for musicians he knew well, but there is neither any evidence that these magnificent concertos was ever performed in Brandenburg, nor that the Margrave’s small orchestra could have undertaken most of them.

As the opening movement of the Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 in D major unfolds, the keyboard instrument-at first willing to play its subservient role as part of the continuo-becomes more and more assertive until finally it bursts forth into an astonishing cadenza of tremendous difficulty. Violin and flute share the solo spot at the beginning, but once the cadenza begins, they are cast completely into the shade. At the opening of the cadenza, we are listening to the dying strains of the keyboard as mere continuo accompaniment and the birth of the virtuoso piano concerto.

The second movement, (Affettuoso or “tenderly, lovingly”), is a chamber piece for the solo instruments with continuo, a format that was very common in the Baroque concerto. The finale, an Allegro like the opening movement, is written in 2/4 time, but the beats are subdivided by triplets, which gives to the ear the impression of a rollicking jig, to close the concerto in high spirits.

As early as June 1887, Tchaikovsky had started on a string sextet for the St. Petersburg Chamber Music Society (which had requested a work the preceding October), but he gave it up after a few days. He was not to return to the medium until the early months of 1890 when, while living in Florence and deeply involved with his opera The Queen of Spades, he wrote down the melody that was to become the main theme of the slow movement. This fact alone-and no further programmatic connotation-motivated the title of the finished composition, Souvenir de Florence.

Souvenir de Florence is one of Tchaikovsky’s last multi-movement instrumental works (only the Sixth Symphony followed) and the last in which he retained the traditional patterns of abstract symphonic form. He worked out a splendidly detailed sonata-form exposition for the first movement, in which the transition grows out of a three-note figure that appears in the main theme and then continues under the surprisingly shy entrance of the second theme in the first violin. Although formal structure was always something of a struggle for Tchaikovsky, this exposition clearly demonstrates the hard-won mastery he had earned over the years.

The slow movement is among the most purely personal passages in Tchaikovsky’s output, and the one place in the score where his love of melodic lines laid out as duets comes to full flower. The third movement takes a melody that suggests a Slavonic folk song and puts it through its paces, alternating two different versions with varied textures and accompaniments.

For the finale, Tchaikovsky offered another sonata-form movement based on a dancing theme of Slavonic imprint varied with two sections of vigorous contrapuntal development. In writing for the mostly German membership of the St. Petersburg Chamber Music Society, Tchaikovsky knew that he would be expected to offer some display of his ability at counterpoint in the Bach tradition, and he obliged with these two passages, the second of which becomes an imitative, fugue-like passage leading to a wildly sonorous close.

(c) Steven Ledbetter (www.stevenledbetter.com)

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