Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra: making great music personal



program notes: romance

Saturday January 24, 2009
Sunday January 25, 2009

Damian Montano Rhapsody and Scherzo (LACO commission – world premiere)

orchestration:

Chopin Piano Concerto No. 1 in E minor

orchestration:

Mendelssohn Symphony No. 3 in A minor, “Scottish”

orchestration:

Tonight’s program features works by Romantic-era composers and a world premiere by LACO’s own Damian Montano. The style and musical language of this young composer owes a great deal to the 19th-century Romantics, a group that includes each of the other composers on the program tonight. Montano’s work—which can be described as thoroughly “cinematic“—draws inspiration from film music, itself an outgrowth of Romanticism, especially in its use of chromatic harmonies and diverse orchestration.

Featuring the compositional talents of our Orchestra members is one facet of LACO’s 40th anniversary celebration, and for this reason we commissioned this two-movement piece from Montano, which he has called Introduction and Scherzo. Montano, the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra’s second bassoon, has written music for the Emmy-winning television drama, Starting Over, and has received support from the National Endowment for the Arts. In addition, he has had works commissioned by the Houston Symphony, Calico Winds and the Albuquerque Youth Symphony.

One of the distinctively Romantic features of Montano’s new composition is the use of the scherzo form alluded to in the title. The scherzo grew out of the more graceful minuet, a traditional dance form that was the standard third movement of the symphony for Classical-period composers such as Haydn. The scherzo differs from the minuet in that it is considerably faster, dispensing all pretense of being a “dance” movement. The word scherzo means “joke” in Italian, and it was a form popularized during the 19th century by Beethoven and Schubert. Mendelssohn was also fond of playful scherzo movements; the second movement of his symphony on the program tonight is an excellent example.

In 1831, 21-year-old Frédéric Chopin left his native Poland for fame and fortune abroad. Certainly, the aim was for Chopin to travel to the musical centers of Europe, but there was also political unrest afoot in Poland, a fact that might have urged the composer to begin his journey sooner rather than later. Before he left, Chopin wrote his Piano Concerto No. 1 and performed it at a farewell concert. Chopin achieved a great deal with this work, not the leastof which was the way in which it established him as a talent to be watched. When he finally arrived in Paris, his reputation had preceded him, and he was on the brink of international fame.

The main idea of a concerto is not just the virtuosity of the solo instrument, but also the interplay between the soloist and the ensemble. Chopin’s experience was primarily as a pianist, and the lion’s share of his output was piano music. While some critics claim that his orchestral writing—in works like the piano concertos—lacked inventiveness and mastery, many lovers of his music will argue that Chopin’s sensitivity to the piano allowed him to write music that complemented the instrument perfectly.

Unlike other Romantic composers such as Liszt or even Beethoven, Chopin had no great desire to re-invent the concerto form. On the surface, he could seem very conservative, especially in large-scale works, but he was in fact a great innovator in small ways. In particular, his sense of harmony and ornamentation set his solo piano works apart. Even in this concerto, the melodic material played by the orchestra is lovely, but is transformed into something sublimely magical once the piano plays it. The orchestra in Chopin’s piano concertos supports and encourages. It does not overpower; it stays back at times and helps to shape the harmonies that highlight his delightful melodies. The orchestra also has the very important role of guiding the work by introducing the musical material which is then taken over by the soloist.

There are three movements in Piano Concerto No. 1. The first, marked Allegro maestoso, is as majestic as its marking suggests. The orchestral exposition seems to hold itself back a little, but once the piano enters, the movement opens up and shows its noble bearing. The second movement, marked Romanze Larghetto, is actually a nocturne that virtually sings with tunefulness. A nocturne is simply a musical piece that evokes the night. Chopin is probably the best-known composer of solo piano nocturnes, a genre that is thoroughly Romantic. There is no conflict here, no
overwrought drama. Chopin’s gift for melody absolutely shines. At the end of the movement, lovely bassoon lines intertwine with the piano. In the finale, Chopin pays homage to the music of Poland, featuring a polka in the fast-paced repetitions characteristic of the movement’s rondo form.

Musicologists have explored the political implications of Chopin’s use of folk music. Chopin, because he had emigrated, was able to give voice to a culture oppressed by the Czar. Poland had been under the threat of Russian occupation since the end of the Napoleonic wars and the Congress of Vienna. After the war, according to the provisions of the Congress of Vienna, Poland was supposed to retain internal autonomy while subject to indirect Russian rule, but Russian authorities gradually moved into a position of direct power under orders from the Czar. By using the folk tunes, rhythms and styles of Poland, Chopin was politically active. Certainly he wrote in this manner because he missed his homeland, but there is a definite feeling that Chopin felt the need to show the larger musical world the beauty of Polish folk music, a tradition that was surely being crushed under political machinery. Schumann grasped the implications of Chopin’s music saying that Chopin was a dangerous enemy of Czar Nicholas. As Schumann put it, “Those works [mazurkas] are like cannons hidden beneath flowers.”

As a young man, Felix Mendelssohn was extremely receptive to artistic influences gained in his travels. A trip to Italy inspired his Fourth Symphony, and a trip to Scotland in 1829 planted the seeds for two of Mendelssohn’s works, the Hebrides Overture and his Symphony No. 3, known as the “Scottish.” Mendelssohn began sketching the music for both pieces right away; in the case of the Hebrides Overture, he wrote down a few dozen measures almost immediately. He began working on the symphony a little while later, but didn’t actually finish it until 1842, publishing it at first in a piano arrangement and as a full orchestration the following year.

While the ensemble Mendelssohn wrote for was traditional (winds and brass in pairs, plus timpani and strings), there is quite a bit of the Romantic spirit in the symphony, both in the feeling of the work’s dark and stormy sections and in the order of the movements. In contrast to the Classical convention (fast, slow, minuet, fast) established so well in Haydn’s 104 symphonies, the second movement of the “Scottish” Symphony is quick, and the slow movement is in the third position. Similarly, Beethoven re-ordered the movements in some of his works, most famously in his Ninth Symphony, in which the second movement is a scherzo, and the third, slow and lyrical.

The first movement of Mendelssohn’s Third Symphony begins with an Andante opening that gives way to an agitated Allegro main section. Mendelssohn subjects the theme to variations in this movement. The storminess of the weather and the rough seas of Scotland are depicted again and again in these variations. All of the harmonic and melodic touches typical of Mendelssohn are here: lightly chromatic harmonies, jaunty rhythms and tuneful lyricism. The second movement couldn’t be more different in character from the opening. It is derived from Scottish folk ideas, although Mendelssohn doesn’t quote any specific pre-existent folk tunes. His goal in using these musical ideas was picturesque; for Mendelssohn, they were the best way to evoke the place he had seen. This stands in contrast to Chopin’s use of folk material which can be viewed in a political as well as artistic context. The third movement is a melancholy Adagio that again draws on the dark mood, if not the actual musical material, of the opening introduction. The energetic fourth movement has a great sense of drive—more folk-like tunes here—and a return to the stormy opening theme, although Mendelssohn does not simply recap this music. Instead, he transforms it so that we are left with a majestic close, bringing to mind the glory and wonder of Scotland through the lens of Mendelssohn’s music.

- Christine Lee Gengaro, PhD