Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra: making great music personal

program notes: marimba

Saturday December 13, 2008
Sunday December 14, 2008

R Strauss Serenade in E-flat major, Op. 7


Haydn Symphony No. 31 in D major, “Hornsignal”


Jalbert Concerto for Marimba and Orchestra (US premiere)


The program this evening throws a spotlight on wind and percussion instruments. In Strauss’s Serenade in E-flat major, the composer’s genius for orchestration makes sure that each member of the wind ensemble is heard clearly and appreciated. The marimba, a beautiful member of the percussion family, is featured in Pierre Jalbert’s Concerto for Marimba and Orchestra, which will be heard in the United States for the first time tonight. Finally, it comes as no surprise that the horn section plays a starring role in Haydn’s “Hornsignal” Symphony. This work features four horns instead of the usual two used in a typical Haydn symphony, creating the opportunity for bold, brassy ceremonial proclamations.

Richard Strauss first learned music from his father, a successful musician. Franz Strauss was the principal horn player at Munich’s Court Opera. The younger Strauss attended rehearsals there, and there was an assistant conductor who taught the budding musician and composer music theory and orchestration. Strauss was a precocious little boy, writing his first piece at the age of six, and his exposure to the Munich Court Opera’s repertoire of operas by Wagner and Mozart certainly had a great effect on his development as a composer.

When Strauss was about 18 years old, he began attending the University of Munich. It was also around this time that he completed his Serenade in E-flat major. It features pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets and bassoons, in addition to a contrabassoon and four horns. The Serenade can definitely be classified as an early work for Strauss, not just because of when it was written, but because of its style. There are elements of the Serenade consistent with other works by German composers from the 1880s, but there are also hallmarks of Strauss’s own personal compositional mode under development. Strauss’s fine control of the ensemble and his sensitivity to each instrument in the orchestra are traits that would characterize his compositions throughout his life. In 1904, Strauss revised Berlioz’s Treatise on Instrumentation, drawing upon his experience as both a composer and a conductor. This Serenade is, to be sure, something of a light entertainment, harkening back to the serenades of the Classical period that were often composed specifically for parties or court events. However, the seeds of Strauss’s mature style are here, waiting to find full flower in his tone poems, and later in his operas. Clearly evident is Strauss’s appreciation of Romantic harmony and color and a flair for dramatic, evocative writing.

Pierre Jalbert’s Concerto for Marimba and Orchestra premiered in Japan in March, 2005. Jalbert composed the work for marimba virtuoso Makoto Nakura, who performs it this evening. In the writing of this piece, Jalbert has said he was exploring two aspects of the marimba. Most obviously, there is the virtuosic aspect, wherein a player must move quickly, skillfully and accurately over the instrument until, as Jalbert says, “the performer’s hands seem to blur.” Marimba technique requires the player to use two or more mallets in each hand in order to produce chordal harmony. On a more subtle level, there is the marimba’s lyrical singing quality, something that seems counterintuitive as the instrument has no true sustain. The marimba came into Western classical music from its roots in Africa and Latin America, and like other percussion instruments, began to be used in a solo capacity in the 20th century. Before that, a percussion instrument would never have been featured in such a prominent role in orchestral music.

Jalbert, LACO’s composer in residence during the 2002-03 to 2004-05 seasons, is known for his colorful orchestration and percussion-oriented rhythmic drive. In this concerto, there are four movements instead of the traditional three. Jalbert gives the following description of the work:

The first movement begins almost without tempo, very freely, as the orchestra echoes the marimba notes to create floating harmonies. The music gradually speeds up into the main section of the movement, where the marimba moves in a rapid perpetual motion. The second movement is a scherzo, in which the marimba is accompanied by accented string pizzicatos. Next is the slow movement, in which the marimba emerges out of the orchestral texture and “sings.” The fourth movement concludes the work with a rhythmically driving finale and a short cadenza leading to the end.

Just as composers today, like Jalbert, write works with specific players, like Nakura, in mind, so did Joseph Haydn compose many of his pieces specifically to suit the talents of the musicians available to him. Of the 104 symphonies that Haydn wrote, only a couple of them feature four horns instead of the standard two. The one on the program tonight, Symphony No. 31, is one of them. It carries the nickname “Hornsignal,” and it was composed in 1765 for Haydn’s patron, Prince Nikolaus Esterhazy. The prince had four horn players at his disposal in the early 1760s, but the ensemble was left with two when one died and one left. Haydn wanted to replenish the horn section with new players, and he finally got his wish in 1765 when Franz Stamitz and Joseph Dietzl joined the ensemble. Haydn marked the occasion with this symphony. It is interesting that the fluid personnel of the ensemble Haydn worked with has determined the exact character of many of these works passed down to us and played with the same scoring today.

The horns are featured most prominently in the first movement, but the horn sounds Haydn used in this movement are not associated with the hunting horn like the calls he featured in his oratorio The Seasons. Instead, Haydn drew upon military and posthorn signals here, imitating the small, coiled horn that was blown when the mail was being delivered. The second and third movements are exemplary illustrations of the standard slow, lyrical movement and the lively minuet and trio. The finale of the work is a theme and variations, a favorite form of Classical composers. In this form, a melody is stated, and this theme is followed by altered versions of that same melody. Subsequent variations may change rhythmic accents or note values or even mode, substituting a minor key instead of major, for example. This form allowed composers to show their creative virtuosity, as each variation very often becomes more complex than the one before. It is notable that Haydn used the form here, since it is the first time theme and variations appear in one of his symphonies. In this particular movement, he gives each variation to a different soloist or section, like the oboes or horns, a solo violin, or even the whole orchestra. He certainly knew the strengths and weaknesses of each of his players, and it is not a stretch to believe he wrote for each man accordingly. In fact, Haydn helped acquire the best musicians available for the court orchestra by writing music that was complex and quite challenging.

Symphony No. 31 is a fairly early work for Haydn, and although it displays some of the mastery of this quintessentially Classical composer, we cannot forget that this is not the Haydn of the London symphonies, the cosmopolitan traveler of the early 19th century. This is a far younger composer writing for a patron who was a great lover of music, but whose personal taste was nonetheless demanding. Haydn delivered time and again with works such as this symphony bursting with wit, excitement and rustic charm.

– Christine Lee Gengaro, PhD

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