Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra: making great music personal

program notes: virtuoso turns

Saturday April 14, 2007
Sunday April 15, 2007

Adams Chamber Symphony

orchestration: 1 flute (doubling piccolo), 1 oboe, 2 clarinets (second doubling E-flat clarinet), 2 bassoons (second doubling contrabassoon); 1 horn, 1 trumpet, 1 trombone; percussion; synthesizer; strings

Mozart Oboe Concerto in C major, K. 314

orchestration: solo oboe; 2 oboes; 2 horns; strings

Britten Sinfonietta

orchestration: 1 flute, 1 oboe, 1 clarinet, 1 bassoon; 1 horn; strings

Beethoven Symphony No. 8 in F major, Op. 93

orchestration: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons; 2 horns, 2 trumpets; timpani; strings

A native of Massachusetts, John Adams studied with Leon Kirchner at Harvard, where Kirchner was also active as a conductor. Since 1972 Adams has been a California resident, and has become the most frequently performed composer of his generation. During the 1970s, Adams became interested in the kind of music then generally called “minimalist,” based in overlapping repeated patterns and steady pulses. But he quickly distinguished himself from others using that approach by finding fruitful connections between minimalism and older, “maximal,” techniques, which have continued throughout his work.

The term “chamber symphony” calls up the name of Arnold Schoenberg, whose Opus 9 Chamber Symphony is one of the masterpieces of the early twentieth century. Both the Adams and Schoenberg works call for fifteen instruments, though the choice is not identical. Adams noted that the experience of conducting the Schoenberg many times forged an image of “contrapuntal density and high energy” that are very much part of his piece.

The three movements reflect the traditional fast-slow-fast layout of hundreds of compositions over the centuries, differing from Schoenberg, who fused the parts of his chamber symphony into a single huge sonata form. Though the contrapuntal texture may owe to Schoenberg, the sonority often recalls Stravinsky’s neo-Classical period with its busy soloistic parts for the different instruments. The movement titles are eccentric and suggestive: Mongrel Airs, bustling along with a rich contrapuntal texture; Aria with walking bass, a fusion of Baroque and jazz approaches; and Roadrunner, a burst of high energy surely designed to evoke the popular animated cartoon character.

The Mozart Oboe Concerto in C, composed in the summer of 1777, is far better known in its transformation the following year into the Flute Concerto in D, a work that survived when the oboe concerto was lost. On April 1, 1777, a new oboist, Giovanni Ferlendis, joined the musical establishment in Salzburg. Mozart left on a trip to Mannheim (and later Paris) on September 22. Between those two dates he completed an oboe concerto for his new colleague.

Once in Mannheim, Mozart made the acquaintance of a superb oboist, Friedrich Ramm, and had the manuscript of his concerto sent from Salzburg. A few months later, he noted that Ramm had just performed the piece for the fifth time, suggesting that it was very popular. And clearly the score and parts existed in Mannheim at that time. But somehow they were lost, turning up only in 1920. Mozart scholar Bernhard Paumgartner found a manuscript of an oboe concerto that was strikingly similar to a Flute Concerto in D that Mozart had written in Mannheim for a Dutch acquaintance who was an enthusiastic amateur flutist. The oboe concerto was published only in 1948. It remains one of the least known works of Mozart’s entire concerto output, though, given the warm response it always received in Mozart’s day, we should certainly hear it more today, too.

It is rather French in style, with cheerful outer movements that allow the soloist center stage, very much like an operatic singer during the big aria. The witty repartee of the opening movement includes gestures that could come straight out of a comic opera. The slow movement provides a serene contrast to the high spirits of the beginning and end, but the finale soon arrives with sparkling dance rhythms to close the concerto with a cheerful rondo.

Today we think of Benjamin Britten primarily as a composer of vocal music-of operas, choral works, church parables, canticles, folksong arrangements, the War Requiem, and so on. But instrumental music dominated the beginning of his career. Britten composed the Sinfonietta in 1932, while still at the Royal College of Music, and he dedicated the score to his teacher Frank Bridge. The work was his attempt to harness his natural melodic gift into an intricately constructed treatment. Here Britten was specifically influenced by Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony-not so much in the sound as in the elaborate thematic working-out of motivic germs. Britten clearly wished to create an English music with a greater thematic coherence than the sometimes meandering tunefulness of the tradition he had inherited. At the time, few English musicians besides Bridge paid much attention to Schoenberg and his work; it was Britten’s good fortune to study with a teacher who was both gifted and open-minded.

A pentatonic horn call (recalling Schoenberg’s opening, though not identical to it) provides the material from which the young composer mines the tiny germinal elements that make up the thematic language of the piece. Already Britten is willing to play with harmonic ambiguities, but never to dispense with tonality altogether. In this respect the child is clearly father to the man. The so-called recapitulation is actually a further development that postpones a complete tonal close until the end of the entire work. The slow movement’s variations continue to play with the germs of the opening material with an air of nostalgia and gentler, triadic harmonies.

The finale is a Tarantella in continuous motion. The main theme again derives from the opening material of the first movement; the chords against which it is presented come from the end of the first movement. When Britten brings back the main material in a kind of recapitulation, he turns his theme into a background for a fugato section, played pizzicato, recalling material from all three movements, culminating in the horn call and-finally-a strongly asserted close.

While the Sinfonietta may be part of Britten’s “juvenilia,” it demonstrates a command of structure and form that can only be envied in a composer not yet turned twenty.

Beethoven composed his Eighth Symphony in tandem with the Seventh. When it was premiered, the Seventh, a far longer work, overwhelmed the Eighth with its sheer visceral energy. Yet when Beethoven’s student Czerny remarked that it was much less popular than the Seventh, Beethoven replied gruffly, “That’s because it’s so much better.”

The opening movement is small in length, but it is full of events. The opening phrases form a complete melody (How rare that is for Beethoven!), but immediately after the cadence the next phrases open out and grow in the most astonishing way. False leads cheerfully send us into apparent “wrong” keys, only to have the orchestra falter, as if suddenly aware of its faux pas, and swing around to the “right” place.

The development is an astonishing demonstration of almost mathematical perfection. After marking time briefly, the basic melodic idea (from the very first measure of the symphony) dominates the discussion in a long, gradual crescendo that builds while phrase lengths become progressively shorter, so that things appear to be moving faster and faster. The movement culminates in the blazing return to the home key, while the bass instruments proclaim the principal theme. The recapitulation is quite straightforward until the coda, when a bassoon (recalling the leaping octaves heard at the beginning of the development) leads into a new harmonic world, another crescendo, and a new version of the main theme in the “wrong” key. After a solid return to the tonic, the orchestra fades out delightfully, leaving one final salute to the first measure in the bass at the very last instant.

The second movement is a humorous homage to Beethoven’s friend Malzel, the inventor of the metronome, a device that Beethoven found invaluable in giving composers, for the first time, a way to specify precise tempos for their music. The cheerful, jesting movement is filled with humorous touches, including a suggestion at the end that the mechanical marvel has broken down.

The third movement is marked Tempo di Menuetto, a term Beethoven had long since ceased using in his symphonies. This movement particularly is responsible for the symphony’s reputation as a Haydnesque “throwback.”

Having held his horses back, so to speak, for three movements, Beethoven offers a merry rush in the rondo-like tune that seems about to come to a close on a normal dominant C when it is suddenly jerked up to C-sharp, only to have the unexpected note drop away as quickly as it had arrived, apparently without consequence. The same thing happens at the recapitulation, and though the bubbling high spirits leave us little time to worry about details, the sheer obtrusiveness of that note lingers in the ear, demanding explanation. Finally in the immense coda, the obtrusive C-sharp note returns with harmonic consequences, generating a new and distant tonal diversion that must be worked out before we can return safely home. At this pace, Beethoven’s wit can only leave us breathless with delight.

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

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