Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra: making great music personal

program notes: celebration

Saturday October 4, 2008
Sunday October 5, 2008

Martin Concerto for Seven Wind Instruments, Percussion and Strings


Mozart Horn Concerto No. 4 in E-flat major


Todd ceLebrACιOn (LACO commission – world premiere)


Mozart Symphony No. 39 in E-flat major


Writing music is a different experience for each composer. Some, like Mozart, seem to have composed as easily as they breathed. There is an anecdote about Mozart traveling from his hometown of Salzburg, Austria to Vienna. On the way, he stopped in Linz, where he had the opportunity to have one of his symphonies played in a concert. Unfortunately, Mozart did not have a symphony with him, but he fixed the problem easily…he simply wrote another one, reportedly “at breakneck speed.” Other composers, like Beethoven, seem to have agonized over their compositions, crossing out passages or reworking sections all the way up to — and sometimes after — publication.

Swiss composer Frank Martin fell into the latter camp. Although Martin wrote a great deal and won his share of awards and accolades, he still experienced anxiety when he began work on a new piece. Some have characterized Martin’s music as neoclassical,because it draws upon Renaissance, Baroque and Classical traditions, however, Martin was also influenced by the music of French and German Romanticism, and composers of fin-de-siècle Paris such as Debussy and Ravel. As an artist, he methodically explored the music of other composers and cultures, including folk traditions and “exotic” music. With such a diversity of influences perhaps overpowering his natural voice, some critics have claimed that Martin’s own unique style did not emerge until the composer had reached middle age.

Martin’s Concerto for Seven Wind Instruments, Percussion and Strings was written in 1949, when the composer was 59. It features seven wind soloists who each play in turn at the beginning of the first movement. The structure of this opening section owes a debt to the Baroque concerto grosso form because there are alternating sections of solo passages and orchestral material. Martin introduces each of the solo instruments in this order: oboe, clarinet, horn, trumpet, trombone, bassoon and flute. This sequence is repeated at the end of the movement, bringing it to a close. The main theme is energetic, and a lyrical melody provides contrast during the development of the musical material.

The second movement unfolds over an ostinato, or repeated rhythmic-melodic figure, in the lower instruments. The word ostinato comes from the Italian for “stubborn” or “obstinate,” and its steadiness is contrasted in this movement with agitated passages in the higher instruments. The last movement is a scherzo featuring virtuosic solos. The middle section of the final movement has an extended episode for percussion. The piece ends with a lively recap of the main scherzo theme. Drawing upon Classical and Baroque styles as well as Romantic harmony and chromaticism, the style of this concerto emerges as something wholly unique — a sound that was completely Frank Martin.

The horn of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s time was quite a bit different than today’s modern horn. The most significant difference is the presence of valves on the modern instrument allowing the player to change pitches more easily and have access to chromatic notes. The horn of Mozart’s time changed pitch primarily through change in a player’s air stream and embouchure (the shape and pressure of the lips against the mouthpiece), and through other physical alterations of the tube length, such as adjusting the hand position inside the horn’s bell. Accuracy of pitch — hitting the right notes — was a central issue for horn players, especially in the higher range. The earliest horns, called “natural horns,” could only play in certain keys, and then only certain notes in the overtone series. By the time Mozart was writing, horn players were able to play melodies, much to the delight of composers.

One of the most famous horn players of the Classical era was Joseph Ignaz Leutgeb. He knew Haydn well and was also good friends with Mozart. Both Haydn and Mozart wrote horn concertos specifically for him. Mozart, who met the hornist when he was a
young boy of seven, composed three concertos for Leutgeb after 1781, while the two were colleagues in Vienna.

The concerto on the program tonight, Horn Concerto No. 4 in E-flat major, was composed in 1786. Like most Classical concertos, it consists of three movements. In the autograph score, there are humorous directions meant for Leutgeb, an indication of their close relationship. The “dedication” to another of the four horn concertos reads: “Wolfgang Amadé Mozart takes pity on Leutgeb, ass, ox, and simpleton, at Vienna, March 27, 1783.” Mozart’s teasing comments likely refer to the difficulty of the solo part, especially in light of the mechanical limitations of the horn in the Classical period. Still, Mozart’s gift for melody and his superb control of the orchestra shine through in all three movements of this concerto. The middle movement, the Romanza Andante, is especially melodious, providing a contrast from the speedy first movement and the vivacious Rondo finale. The last movement provides a breathtaking close to the piece, challenging the soloist’s control, while still
being sonorous and even playful at times. Leutgeb must have been a fine horn player, and while contemporary accounts support this, the best evidence for Leutgeb’s skill is the beautiful music Mozart wrote for him.

Richard Todd, principal horn for the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, chose the Mozart concerto on the program tonight. Todd joined the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra in 1980, as he was establishing himself as one of the top young horn players in the world. In addition to his work as a performer of both classical and jazz repertoire, Todd is also a composer. LACO has commissioned a jazz-influenced piece for horn and orchestra from Todd, which gets its world premiere tonight. He titled his piece ceLebrACıOn to commemorate the occasion of LACO’s 40th anniversary and his successful 28-year tenure with the Orchestra. Like Mozart and Beethoven before him, Todd will be the soloist for his own composition. Todd’s performance will likely include improvised passages, harkening back yet again to the way in which Mozart played.

At the end of 1784, Mozart became a Freemason, joining the ranks of a secretive fraternal society that was particularly in vogue in Enlightenment-era Europe. Continuing today, the Freemason ideals emphasize charity, morality and brotherhood. Many of the works from Mozart’s last years draw upon Masonic symbolism or imagery (especially his opera, The Magic Flute), and even the key choices of these late works, like Symphony No. 39 in E-flat major seem to suggest some extra-musical influence. The key’s three flats underscore the significance of the number three in the Masons’ secret lore. Mozart’s last years were often extremely productive: In the summer of 1788, he completed his final three symphonies in less than two months. Part of his productivity was a matter of necessity because Mozart was having difficulty getting subscribers to a concert series, as his popularity had begun to wane among the fickle audiences of Vienna. It is not clear, however, how beneficial these symphonies were to him; no evidence exists that these works were played while Mozart was still alive.

Traditionally, Symphony No. 39 has been the least discussed of the last three symphonies, falling into the shadows of the great Symphony No. 40 in G minor and the “Jupiter” Symphony, and that is a shame, because Mozart’s Symphony No. 39 is a masterpiece of the Classical style. Its traditional four-movement form is opened by
a slow introduction that sets up the Allegro beautifully. The work is constructed organically, with some of the figures that appear in the introduction returning for further development in the main section of the first movement.

There is a great sweetness to the slow movement. The music begins in the strings and soon the woodwinds join in a dialogue with them. There are brief moments of darkness that interrupt this conversation, but none of them gain any meaningful foothold in
the proceedings. Instead, this movement is devoted to the gentle give-and-take between winds and strings.

The third movement is notable because it features a folk melody played by the clarinets in the trio section of the minuet. The trio is a notable feature of any minuet, distinguished by its contrasting melody and sudden change from the movement’s original key. The fourth movement finale is a vivacious theme and variations of sorts. This form is delightfully entertaining because it features a melodic theme — usually quite simple in nature — which is then played in different versions. Some versions might utilize faster or slower note values (i.e. eighth notes instead of quarter notes), some might be in a minor key rather than major, some might heavily decorate the main melody. In theme and variations, the fun is trying to recognize the bare bones of the theme in each variation regardless of how embellished or hidden it may be. The composer helps the listener do this by presenting the theme in a very simple version at the beginning. Mozart’s considerable skill in varying an established theme is greatly in evidence here. Each variant of the original theme is inventive and lively, and it is absolutely clear that Mozart — even though he wrote these final symphonies in a matter of weeks — was still very much a genius at work.

– Christine Lee Gengaro, PhD

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