Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra: making great music personal

program notes: tango

Saturday February 21, 2009
Sunday February 22, 2009

Bizet/Borne/David Shostac Carmen Fantasy (LACO commission – world premiere)


Lalo Schifrin Tangos Concertantes (LACO co-commission – US premiere)


Haydn Symphony No. 92 in G major, “Oxford”


An orchestra is capable of sounding like a single unified voice or a crowd of a hundred individual voices. It can display sweeping vistas and intimate gazes, stentorian authority and playful mischief. The orchestra is a unique “instrument,” so versatile and so adaptable to diverse musical influences that composers must be overwhelmed with possibilities when writing in this medium. Tonight’s concert features three pieces that display the stylistic breadth and breathtaking beauty of classical and modern music for orchestra.

David Shostac has been the principal flute of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra since 1975. A graduate of Juilliard, Shostac is a versatile musician, fluent in jazz and Latin-influenced music, as well as the traditional flute repertoire. He has played on hundreds of film and television scores, and displays his talent for orchestration and arranging tonight with his Carmen Fantasy. This showpiece is based on themes from Bizet’s opera, Carmen, which Shostac originally envisioned as a work for flute and piano and later arranged for full orchestra. Shostac was inspired by, and incorporates parts of, the Carmen Fantasy by François Borne in this work. During its 40th anniversary, LACO is highlighting the compositional talents of its Orchestra members. As part of this celebration, LACO commissioned a new orchestral version of Shostac’s Carmen Fantasy, and tonight will be the first time this version of the work is heard. One of Shostac’s aims in creating his Carmen Fantasy was to bring a more authentically Spanish flavor to the work, in contrast to Bizet’s use of the Cuban habanera to communicate Carmen’s exotic character to his Parisian audience. To this end, Shostac incorporates the flamenco style that originated with the gypsies of southern Spain during the 19th century. The work also shines a spotlight on Shostac’s incredible virtuosity on the flute.

Another type of music from a different Spanish-speaking culture appears in Lalo Schifrin’s Tangos Concertantes, a work that draws on Schifrin’s Argentine heritage. Schifrin is, of course, best known as a film composer, penning the scores to classics like Cool Hand Luke and Dirty Harry, as well as the well-known Mission Impossible theme used on the original television show and in subsequent movies. He has also composed for the concert hall and shares a long-standing connection with LACO. Not only has Schifrin written commissions for LACO before, many members of the Orchestra have recorded his film scores in studio sessions. LACO’s unique position as an institution in a town where the entertainment industry is so prominent allows connections like these to flourish and enhances the musical life of the city. This work is a LACO co-commission and tonight will be its US premiere.

The tango is a traditional dance that began in early 20th-century Argentina. Some scholars have suggested that the tango developed as an adaptation of an earlier Andalusian dance and the Cuban habanera (mentioned above), among other influences. Before Schifrin, composers — most notably, Astor Piazzolla — brought the tango to the concert hall. Schifrin’s take on the dance, Tangos Concertantes, features solo violin and orchestra. Schifrin wrote the violin solo specifically for the player we will hear tonight, Cho-Liang Lin.

While both the Carmen Fantasy and Tangos Concertantes are new works for the Orchestra, the symphonies of Joseph Haydn are among the cornerstones of LACO’s repertoire. Despite what its nickname suggests, Haydn’s Symphony No. 92 in G major, “Oxford” was actually written as part of a commission from Paris. In his Parisian symphonies, Haydn experimented with a number of characteristics—like the slow introduction—that would come to full flower in his 12 “London” Symphonies (Nos. 93–104).

Symphony No. 92 was given the name “Oxford” for a very speccial occasion. In 1791, music writer Charles Burney suggested to Oxford University (his alma mater) that they give an honorary doctorate to Haydn. Burney, a composer and teacher, is best known as a historian and an observer of the musical life of Europe, whose firsthand accounts are some of the most valuable primary source material we have about European musical culture in the Classical period. Oxford apparently requested three concerts from Haydn to fulfill the “requirements” for the degree. A late arrival in Oxford prevented Haydn from playing all new material, so he used his last completed symphony — No. 92 — in the celebration.

The first movement begins with a slow introduction that moves away from the home key of G major as it sets up a contrast with the faster main section. Once the Allegro spiritoso section of the movement starts, Haydn reveals the main theme, which displays characteristics like lightness, symmetry and simplicity that are the hallmark of the Classical period’s style. Instead of adding a second contrasting theme, Haydn presents the main theme in D major (the “dominant” key for a work in G major), making the movement monothematic. Haydn was fond of using this variant of sonata form in some of his symphonies. Haydn also flirts with the minor mode in this movement, creating a contrast of light and dark that suits the theme well.

The second movement, marked Adagio cantabile, is in three parts. Like many of Haydn’s slow movements, this part of the work is intensely melodic. The meandering melody that makes up the main material of this movement is presented in the first and second violins and then echoed in the flutes. As in the first movement, Haydn hints at the minor key, casting the middle section in this darker mode for an intense contrast with the sweet lyricism of the outer sections.

The third movement, a spirited Minuet and Trio, features phrases lasting six measures rather than the traditional structure of four-measure phrases. Haydn, always one to inject humor into his compositions, gives the orchestra unexpected stops, starts and rhythmic syncopations that should keep the audience on its toes, feeling slightly off-balance. The final movement is given the extremely fast tempo marking of Presto. It is shorter than the opening movement, but even more exciting. Here, Haydn is still working with dynamic and textural contrasts, and he allows the texture to thicken without adding a lot of complex counterpoint. He does this by gradually adding instruments, while keeping the texture homophonic: The instruments all play in a similar rhythm, even if they are playing in harmony rather than in unison. An accompaniment figure heard in the low strings and bassoons underlies a chromatic theme and grounds it firmly in this earthy musical material.

Haydn’s “Oxford” Symphony is a reflection of Haydn at his most cosmopolitan. He spent such a long time in the employ of the Esterházy family, somewhat isolated from the prevailing musical culture, that his travels must have influenced him greatly. We can see cosmopolitan influences in Haydn’s symphony, and we can also see different cultures working similarly to influence Schifrin’s Tangos Concertantes and Shostac’s Carmen Fantasy. A composer never works in a vacuum; it is his or her interaction with the world that defines style, and in the case of the three composers on tonight’s program, inspires them to write great music.

– Christine Lee Gengaro, PhD

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