Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra: making great music personal



program notes: firsts

Saturday April 18, 2009
Sunday April 19, 2009

Mozart Symphony No. 31 in D major, “Paris”

orchestration:

Ravel Piano Concerto in G major

orchestration:

Schoenberg Chamber Symphony No. 1 in E major

orchestration:

Beethoven Symphony No. 1 in C major

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

Tonight’s program features some important milestones. There is the “Paris” Symphony by Mozart, the former child prodigy working as a 22-year-old looking to take control of his destiny. We also have one of Ravel’s first tries at the genre of piano concerto, Schoenberg’s first Chamber Symphony and the first crack at the symphonic form made by a young firebrand named Beethoven. This program of early achievements by important composers was chosen and will be conducted by Joana Carneiro, formerly LACO’s assistant conductor in 2003–04, making her Orchestral Series debut. She will be joined onstage by David Fung, who has his LACO debut tonight, making this delightful program a likely milestone for both of these young and talented musicians.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart wrote the Symphony No. 31 in D major, “Paris” for the Concert spirituel, one of the first public concert series in Paris during the 18th century. Leopold Mozart, also a composer, had given his son advice on how to make the work attractive to the local audience, but Mozart also included some elements popular in another musical city, Mannheim. The Mannheim orchestra was an “army of generals” led by Johann Stamitz, and their proficiency and coherence as an ensemble inspired a generation of composers. Mozart was looking for employment in Paris, and he was hoping for a public success with this symphony. He achieved that; the symphony was a hit and was performed often, but it did not help him find a job in Paris. As a young man of 22, he was anxious to break free of the bonds that kept him tied to his father and his hometown of Salzburg. This is the work of a young man anxious to take the world (or at least Europe) by storm.

Mozart’s “Paris” Symphony has three movements, rather than the usual four; it is missing the traditional minuet and trio that would normally have been the next-to-last movement. The first movement opens with the orchestra holding a loud chord for four long beats, followed by two chords, each lasting two beats, and then a set of ascending notes that seems to shoot up to the next chord: the so-called “Mannheim Rocket.” The violins then play the jumpy first theme, accompanied by a figure in the cellos, double basses and bassoons. The strings play fast, chromatic notes, and there are also chords that require the player to roll the bow quickly across all strings. Combined with written-out staccatos and embellishments, these elements create a very impetuous, charming musical theme.

The second movement is in a rocking andante tempo. The melody rolls along with long-short “dotted” rhythms (so named for the way the rhythm is notated with a dot following the note) and trills in the strings. This section positively dances with delicate staccato rhythmic figures. The final movement, an Allegro in 4/4 time, creates a great sense of motion through the use of suspensions, which are dissonant tones that are held over onto strong beats and resolved, or changed, on the weak beats. (Vivaldi and Bach used chains of suspensions to build tension and to make their way from one key to another.) The sound of a suspension is extremely compelling as it drives the melody forward towards a lively, satisfying close.

Maurice Ravel’s first two (and only) forays into the piano concerto genre were written at roughly the same time, from 1929 to 1931. The composer waited a surprisingly long time to write in this genre, considering that piano was his primary instrument as a student, and that he was very well established as one of the leading composers in France, along with contemporaries like Debussy and Satie. Ravel said that his influences in the Piano Concerto in G major were Mozart and Saint-Saëns, partly because they had written light-hearted pieces that allowed the natural beauty of the piano to shine through. Ravel had originally wanted to play this work himself at its premiere, but because of illness, Marguerite Long gave the debut and earned the composer’s dedication of the work.

Ravel adheres to the classical three-movement layout of the concerto, with the outer two movements in a quick tempo and the middle movement at contrasting slow pace. Ravel dives into the concerto with gusto: It starts with a sound like the snap of a whip, played by the percussion section. Ravel then makes the unusual choice of giving the main theme to the piccolo. The piano plays along, and when the solo instrument finally gets to play on its own, it outlines a sinuous jazz melody that seems to echo Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, a composition that had premiered a few years earlier. Interestingly, Ravel and Gershwin were each inspired by a train ride; Gershwin heard the structure of the Rhapsody while riding from New York to Boston, and Ravel planned this piano concerto while riding between Oxford and London. The slow middle movement features the piano soloist alone for the first three minutes, spinning a rhythmically complex line. When the orchestra enters, the piano’s part is contextualized and begins to sound like a waltz. The finale runs on in perpetual motion—the theme is similar to one heard in the first movement—and sounds almost like the piano exercises written by earlier composers. Here too, Ravel uses jazz-inspired ideas, drawing the work together stylistically. Again we hear the crack of the whip, as the piece rushes to its close.

While Ravel combines late 19th-century musical conventions with jazz and impressionistic language, Arnold Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No. 1 in E major was something of an experiment in blending late romanticism with his new, nearly post-tonal musical language. Through careful control of timbre and harmony, Schoenberg was able to create new sounds within the traditional context of the chamber symphony. He was very particular about the way his works were performed and presented. His uncompromising nature and his desire for precision drove him to write careful directions for his works. He often made matters of music theory explicit in his scores (labeling main and subsequent themes) and believed that new music should be listened to in an academic environment rather than as a form of entertainment. The Chamber Symphony helped open the door to more adventuresome pieces like Schoenberg’s famous song cycle, Pierrot Lunaire. The latter work’s radical atonality—coupled with the dark and expressionistic poetry—marked a turning point for music in the 20th century.

The Chamber Symphony was cast in a single movement, but it consists of five distinct sections. Schoenberg fuses elements of sonata form with the overall structure of the symphony, playing with, and departing from, convention. He bases various note-tonote relationships throughout the piece on the interval of a fourth. He used this motif in both harmonic and melodic contexts, previewing a technique used in atonal music in which the music is driven not by traditional chord progressions, but by specific intervallic relationships.

The piece begins with a four-measure introduction before entering into the main section marked Sehr rasch (very swift). The music throughout the work is rhythmically alive, with sections featuring eighth-note triplets against quarter-note triplets against quarter notes. The music is highly chromatic, as was the case with many works from this time period that were extending and breaking the bounds of tonality. The character of the music changes often, with sections marked Sehr schwungvoll, meaning “very upbeat” or “swinging,” and changing meters of 3/4, 6/4, 4/4 and 9/4. These alterations to the number of beats in a measure have the effect of destabilizing the basic pulse of the music, and frequently require the conductor to mark different beat patterns. Schoenberg’s desire for control of his ensemble and of his music led him to many musical innovations both in the realm of theory and in performance practice.

107 years before Schoenberg premiered his First Chamber Symphony, Ludwig van Beethoven completed his Symphony No. 1 in C major. Previously, he had written and published solo piano sonatas and trios, and his biggest accomplishment to date had been a set of string quartets. In Beethoven’s first venture into the symphonic genre, we do not see the uncompromising, trailblazing composer of the Third, Fifth or Sixth Symphonies. Instead, Beethoven draws upon influences like Haydn and Mozart, using Classical dynamic contrasts, instrumentation and forms. There are some forward-looking elements here, like the slow introduction and the special reliance on the color of the woodwinds. And even though there is much in his First Symphony that is traditional, there is the unmistakable genius of Beethoven waiting to burst forth from every gesture. If we listen closely, we can discern what Beethoven would later become, as well as what he was in 1800.

The first movement begins with a set of intriguing chords that draw the listener in while setting up the main theme, a delicate, but firm upward-rising gesture. Beethoven follows the principles of sonata form perfectly with a lyrical second theme, all transitions in place, and every key change expected, but not overly predictable. The second movement, marked Andante cantabile con moto (slow and singing, but with motion), isn’t exactly slow for a slow movement, while the third movement is faster and more playful than a traditional minuet. The minuet section contains a moment where light and dark seem to play tug of war as the theme quickly switches between major and minor. It is a short moment, but it’s indicative of Beethoven’s genius for making such a small gesture so interesting. The final movement, Allegro molto e vivace, ends in stunning style, just as Haydn would have ended it, brilliant and strong, with a playfulness and good humor that show us what is most pleasant about Classicism. Young Beethoven’s first try at the symphony was a success and heralded more extraordinary music to come.

– Christine Lee Gengaro, PhD



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