Bringing together music that is both intriguing and colorful, tonight’s program opens with dramatic music from three French Baroque operas by the always surprising and inventive Jean- Philippe Rameau. The centerpiece of the concert is the Los Angeles premiere of the virtuosic and emotional Viola Concerto that Aaron Jay Kernis wrote for Paul Neubauer, an extraordinary performer whose talent has continued to blossom since he became the youngest principal violist for the New York Philharmonic at the age of 21. We close out the evening with Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3, a piece at the heart of LACO’s repertoire and that of our illustrious music director Jeffrey Kahane.
The dominant voice of opera in the Baroque period in France was Jean-Baptiste Lully, whose charming vocal and instrumen¬tal music made him a favorite of Louis XIV. After Lully’s untimely death due to gangrene after he accidentally stabbed himself in the foot with a conducting staff Jean-Philippe Rameau became the primary composer of French opera. He gained fame in this role late in his career, composing works like Dardanus when he was in his 50s and Zaïs when he was 65. His operas moved away from Lully’s style, and his innovations sometimes proved challenging to the French public, who might not have been ready for so many new ideas. For example, in the Overture to Zaïs Rameau attempted a musical depiction of the formation of the four elements—Earth, Air, Fire and Water—out of chaos. Rameau features a beating drum, moments of silence, rhythmic syncopation and musical figures that variously seem to represent flames, flowing water and thunder. But even with all of these depictions of chaos, Rameau gave us music that is both fascinating and charming from beginning to end.
Also featured on the program are dances from two other Rameau operas, Dardanus and Les Boréades. Rameau composed Dardanus in 1739 and revised the work in 1744. The myth of Dardanus—son of Zeus and Electra—is the basis for the opera, but the libretto by Charles-Antoine Leclerc de La Bruère took some liberties with the story to add drama and conflict. Although there are some dramatic differences between the original version and the revision, Rameau’s genius particularly shines in the instrumental interludes and dances of both. The same is true of Les Boréades, a five-act opera by Rameau, and the last of his tragédies en musique. This piece was not premiered in Rameau’s lifetime, receiving its first performance nearly five years after the composer’s death. There are many whimsical and mythological elements and characters in the story including the Graces, a nymph, Cupid, the muse Polyhymnia, and of course, the gods Apollo and Boreas. The music is rhythmic, with lively accents and shifts of mood. The percussion and brass lend a ceremonial touch, and Rameau devises many orchestral effects, including the rushing of the wind, with his melodious music.
Born in Philadelphia, Aaron Jay Kernis studied with such illustrious teachers as John Adams, Morton Subotnik and Charles Wuorinen. He gained international acclaim in 1983 with Dream of the Morning Sky, an orchestral work premiered by the New York Philharmonic, and he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1998 for his Second String Quartet. Throughout his career, Kernis’ style has been somewhat eclectic, influenced by American popular music on one hand and the use of limited compositional means on the other. By turns, his music has been dissonant and lyrical, angular and gracefully melodic. His earlier works are written in a strict compositional language with pitch groupings as formal constructs while his more recent efforts show a freer and more emotionally expressive musical language.
Tonight, LACO presents the Los Angeles premiere of Kernis’ latest endeavor, a Viola Concerto for soloist Paul Neubauer. Neubauer’s sense of color and expression first intrigued and inspired the Kernis Concerto, but there are other fascinating influences as well. Kernis named the first movement of the concerto “Braid” to call to mind a construct of many woven layers that increases in density. For contrast, the second movement is, as Kernis describes it: “lyrical, expansive, and a bit sad.” Neubauer’s beautiful sense of line and phrasing, and indeed color, are particularly suited to bringing this movement to life. The final movement bears the title “A Song My Mother Taught Me,” and features a Russian Jewish folk¬song called “Tumbalalaika” in which the Yiddish words speak of a conversation between a young man and a young woman about questions of life. A piano piece by Robert Schumann provides another musical theme that intertwines with the folksong. In this movement, Kernis creates what he calls a set of “backward variations,” wherein the soloist and orchestra play the variations first and find their way eventually back to the melody at its heart. The movement then embarks on a tumultuous emotional journey, and Kernis, with the heroic efforts of the soloist and orchestra, covers the spectrum of emotions from joyful to melancholy, from bright hopefulness to dark despair.
As a composer, Beethoven experienced some encouraging success at the turn of the 19th century. He wrote his first two symphonies, his first set of string quartets, the famous “Moonlight” Sonata, and the ballet The Creatures of Prometheus, among other works. Beethoven’s encroaching deafness meant that his days as a performer were coming to an end, but in 1800, when he wrote the Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, he was still able to play, acting as the soloist at the premiere in 1803. It’s a good thing, too, because a friend, Ignaz von Seyfried, who turned pages at the premiere of the concerto, said that Beethoven hadn’t completely written down the solo part and played much of it from memory. Beethoven dedicated the concerto to Prince Louis Ferdinand of Prussia, a soldier, nobleman and composer, whose considerable skills as a pianist gained him the respect of his musical peers.
Piano Concerto No. 3 is Beethoven’s first in a minor key. It follows the standard three-movement format of the Classical concerto, although there are aspects of it that show the composer already leaving Classical conventions behind. The first movement opens with an exposition of a powerful theme played solely by the orchestra. The second exposition features the soloist playing the same compelling theme, followed by a contrasting second theme, much softer in character. The mood of both the opening and development of the movement remains somewhat subdued, suggesting that Beethoven is saving the drama for later. The dramatic moment arrives at the end of the movement, in both the recapitulation and the cadenza. In the Classical era, cadenzas were typically improvised during performance, but some composers published versions of their cadenzas. Beethoven’s is particularly stormy.
The second movement, which is in a major key, provides a respite from Beethoven’s turbulent first movement and cadenza. There is a lyricism and even a sense of longing that hints at the mature Beethoven. The conversation between orchestra and soloist is not emotionally complex, but it is not overly simple either. In the center of the movement, Beethoven achieves a wonderful sense of color with the woodwinds, pizzicato strings and a flowing line in the piano that is achingly beautiful. The final movement has a rondo structure with a lively theme that returns periodically both in the piano and in the ensemble. The key is once again in C minor, interrupted by a very sweet section in A major. Beethoven’s grasp of the dramatic is evident as the main theme and the sweet theme vie for prominence. Near the end, the soloist has a final moment in the spotlight before the piano and ensemble play the lyrical major key theme, ending the work on a bright note.