The Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra’s new season gets off to an energetic start with a program of drama and pathos, but one that ends with triumph. Tonight LACO features a brand new commis¬sion from violinist and film composer Cameron Patrick, a piano concerto by Camille Saint-Saëns, and one of classical music’s most well known and powerful compositions.
Cameron Patrick, a native of Brisbane, Australia, began his musical journey as a violinist. After graduating from the University of Queensland, he played professionally in Brisbane before moving to the US to further his studies at USC. Active as a violinist and violist in Los Angeles, Patrick has also carved out a career as a composer. After hearing Impressions of Erin, a recent concert work commissioned by the Camerata of St. John’s Chamber Orchestra, Jeffrey Kahane invited Patrick to compose a work for strings and percussion. In this new work for LACO, Patrick has developed themes that explore the spirituality of the Australian landscape and draw upon a musical tradition called the songline, which is an oral map that describes geographical features. The work is an emotional journey through three specific regions travelled by the composer, expressing the mystery, wonder, joy and even pain that Australia holds. It is also a celebration of the inseparable connection between the continent’s Indigenous peoples and the land itself. Tonight is the world premiere of Lines of the Southern Cross.
Camille Saint-Saëns was a child prodigy, penning his first compositions at the tender age of three. At age 11, in 1846, he made his debut as a pianist at the Salle Pleyel. He impressed the crowd there by playing whatever sonata by Beethoven the audience suggested, and he continued his career for many decades after that, writing music and performing. With the exception of a few pieces, much of his enormous output has been unjustly neglected.
Saint-Saëns composed five piano concertos in his career, but there was a gap of two decades between the Fourth (1874) and Fifth (1896) concertos. Saint-Saëns found a good reason to revisit the genre in 1896: he composed Piano Concerto No. 5 in F major, “Egyptian” to play at the 50th anniversary of his debut. This concerto was given the nickname “Egyptian,” because Saint-Saëns composed the work while in Luxor, as he often wintered in Egypt. As a conductor, Saint-Saëns’ work took him to many places, but outside of that, he also had a deep passion for travel and vacationed as much as he could. He was able to indulge this passion because of a large bequest from the director of the French Post Office. The years of travel injected musical ideas into his compositions that can be classified as “exoticism,” musical depictions of cultures that are not native to the composer. In a way, exoticism is the flip side of nationalism, in which a composer pays tribute to his or her own culture in music. Exoticism, on the other hand, represents a composer’s idea of another culture, an appropriation. For Saint-Saëns, the Fifth Piano Concerto painted the picture of a cruise to various places, including of course Egypt, but also Spain and Java.
The opening movement is an Allegro animato, which begins with two contrasting themes. The first provides the subject for a set of energetic variations, each one more technically brilliant than the last. The counterbalance to this energy is a slower theme of bittersweet quality. Saint-Saëns gives the soloist many moments of brilliant passagework, with the orchestra providing lush support, full of rich and colorful harmony. The dynamics are especially unpredictable and the mood shifts from pleasant to stormy and back again. The coda settles everything down and provides a calm and sweet ending.
The second movement of a concerto usually provides a peaceful contrast to the energetic first movement, so the lively opening of this section might surprise the listener. After the initial burst, Saint-Saëns arrives at his main musical idea, a lush setting of a song he heard while sailing on the Nile. In addition to giving us full, complex Romantic harmonies, Saint-Saëns brings out individual orchestral colors, especially in the woodwinds. The movement has some wonderful orchestral effects, some of which evoke wonder and some, the exotic.
The finale, Molto allegro, begins with the low rumbles of what might be a motor, urging us on to the next travel destination. The piano part is quick and effervescent, with the orchestra keeping up at every turn. One can imagine the 61-year-old Saint-Saëns dis¬playing skills at the piano that had only sharpened with age. The ending of the Concerto is breathtaking. Saint-Saëns shows that his travels left him feeling both energized and inspired.
The opening of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 in C minor is one of music’s most recognizable four-note motifs, and the ensuing movement is one of the world’s best-known pieces of music. But it took a while for Beethoven’s Fifth to achieve its status in music history. The problem was not with the Symphony itself; the prob¬lem was one of programming. In December of 1808, Beethoven planned a massive concert for the Theater an der Wien featuring over four hours of his music. Critics and contemporary reviewers might understandably have lost the Fifth Symphony in the midst of these other works.
It wasn’t until more than a year later that famed German Romantic writer ETA Hoffman anonymously sang the work’s praises. It is in his account that the “narrative” idea of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony appears: tragedy becomes triumph; tumult becomes exultation. At the time the piece was being written, Europe was in the throes of political upheaval, as a result of the Napoleonic wars, while in his private life, Beethoven was dealing with a personal crisis of his own. In the first years of the century, Beethoven had come to full realization that his increasing deafness was inevitable, and that his time as a performer was coming to an end. In the face of this challenge, Beethoven ultimately resolved to write music for as long as it was possible. He certainly did not suffer from a lack of ideas.
Beethoven ruminated over the musical material for his Fifth Symphony for quite some time. He started sketching out ideas in 1804, soon after finishing the Third Symphony, but he wrote a lot of other pieces while those sketches were simmering. He finally completed the work in 1808, and dedicated it to his patrons, Prince Franz Joseph Lobkowitz and Count Razumovsky.
Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 is remarkable for many reasons, and not just because of its attention-grabbing opening. Beethoven employs the traditional first movement structure of the symphony—called sonata form—that Mozart and Haydn perfected in the Classical period. He was not content to play by all the rules, however, and the first movement shows flashes of inventiveness: the sequential development of the theme (chains of the short-short-short-long idea), a short and unexpected oboe solo in the recapitulation of the main theme and a brilliant coda. The section ends with a sense of finality, but without a sense of rest.
The second movement offers a theme and variations with two themes, one sweet and melodic, and the other grand and noble. Beethoven’s skill in building on these themes proves that he can command the listener’s attention with lyricism and hope just as he can with turmoil and bluster.
The third movement brings back the short-short-short-long rhythm in the scherzo, and it seems to be everywhere. The contrasting trio theme shows Beethoven’s ability to write dynamic counterpoint. When the scherzo theme returns, it is played quietly, with pizzicato strings creating mystery and setting up a grand transition to the fourth movement. Instead of pausing between the movements, as was common, the fourth movement emerges— without a break—from the ending of the third. If we can glean anything from Beethoven’s sketches for this Symphony, it is that he spent a lot of time deciding how best to proceed. In another surprising twist, Beethoven brings back part of the scherzo in the final movement.
The final movement affirms the key of C major rather than C minor, and in the intervening years many listeners have read into this simple gesture the triumph of hope over despair. In the end, the music in the final movement suggests victory, pageantry, even nobility. There is a long coda in which the bright sonority of C major seems to obliterate the memory of the C minor of the first movement, providing a feeling of finality and of satisfaction. Perhaps Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony should have been the finale on the fateful concert in 1808. Had that been the case, it seems likely that the critics and the public would have immediately embraced this work as a classic.