Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra presents celebrated pianist Jonathan Biss in an enchanting program led by guest conductor Peter Oundjian.
Biss performs Mozart’s Piano Concerto in G Major, and the concert also features Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5, Ruth Crawford Seeger’s Andante for Strings and composer Sarah Gibson’s Sound Investment world premiere.
Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra’s vibrant and engaging Orchestral Series showcases the ensemble’s remarkable artistry and trademark mix of regal classics and music from today’s leading composers. After the performance, the audience is invited to a free post-concert party in the lobby to celebrate!
Tonight’s concert presents an evening of brand new music and old favorites. LA-based composer Sarah Gibson opens the evening with her commission for LACO’s Sound Investment program. Soloist Jonathan Biss follows with Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 17. Ruth Crawford Seeger’s Andante for Strings showcases her forward-looking style, and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 anchors it all.
Award-winning composer and pianist Sarah Gibson has written warp & weft, this year’s Sound Investment commission. Inspired by the act of weaving and sewing, Gibson’s work aims to represent these disciplines — arts long been associated with women’s activities in the home — in musical line and form.
As a young boy, Mozart practiced his skills by arranging four piano concertos by other composers. He then began to write his own works in the genre, completing twenty-three original piano concertos during his career. He composed a number of them for himself, writing them to display his considerable performing skills and his genius for improvisation. During Mozart’s life, the piano gained prominence as an instrument, and the genres of piano sonata and piano concerto moved to the center of the repertoire. Mozart composed piano concertos as a way to strengthen his reputation as both a composer and a performer. He presented a few new concertos each year from 1782 to 1785, and his concerts were very well attended. He reaped considerable profits from these ventures and began living in a manner that he couldn’t have hoped to maintain; Mozart and his family would run into serious financial difficulties in the ensuing years. After 1785, Mozart shifted his focus to opera, and what was once a flood of concertos became a trickle.
Piano Concerto No. 17 in G major was composed in 1784. It has the standard three-movement structure common to classical concertos. It may be that Mozart didn’t premiere the work, but rather Barbara Ployer, his student. If Ployer indeed introduced the work, she would have premiered it at a concert to which Mozart invited fellow opera composer Giovanni Paisiello. This is one of only half a dozen piano concertos published when Mozart was alive.
The opening Allegro has the character of a march, but a courtly and stately one. The orchestra presents the two main themes of this movement before the soloist plays a note. Once they are done, the soloist presents his/her own version of these themes. In the center of the movement is the development, a musical journey that refers to the main themes, which are sometimes in fragmented forms or in new keys. The development section leads back to the main themes as they were stated in the exposition. Towards the end of this recap, the soloist breaks off and performs a cadenza. These were traditionally improvised and could go on for an indeterminate amount of time. These days, a soloist might choose to play one published by the composer (or perhaps even by later composers), or they might write their own. The soloist gives the orchestra a signal—usually a trill on a certain chord—and then all of the players come in to bring the movement to a satisfying close.
The second movement is an Andante. It has a contrasting character and a much more complex tonality. The third movement begins gently but soon picks up speed. It’s a theme and variations, where each one gets more complicated.
Ruth Crawford Seeger is one of the most important and forward-looking composers from her generation. As one of the first prominent female composers, she broke down barriers as she pushed relentlessly forward. She studied at the American Conservatory in Chicago during the early 1920s and developed a modernist style that was influenced by the music of Scriabin. She then moved to New York in 1929 to study music with Charles Seeger, who had a reputation for teaching mavericks. Crawford was a maverick herself, being the first woman to win a Guggenheim Fellowship. After her fellowship years in Europe she returned to the U.S. and to Seeger, whom she would marry in 1931. She composed the majority of her original works in just a few years.
Andante for Strings began life as part of Crawford Seeger’s String Quartet from 1931. It has been excerpted and transcribed for string orchestra. The String Quartet is a landmark in her output. It is inventive and experimental, and its complexity suggested that her future works would continue in a similar vein. Just five years later, Crawford would begin the other important musical journey of her life, arranging and transcribing American folk music. Her shift in focus makes the String Quartet and its further fruit, the Andante for Strings, even more precious. The music she created was part of a tradition of “dissonant music,” and this piece delivers on that. It’s a study of dynamics and musical color, but it does so without a steady rhythmic drive. It relies on the swell of dynamics. She transcribed this work for string orchestra in 1938, two years after beginning her work with the Archive of American Folk Song in Washington, DC, which, in many ways, would become her enduring legacy.
Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 has probably the most famous opening of any symphonic work in the classical repertoire. Interestingly, the piece barely made a ripple when it was first premiered. In December of 1808, Beethoven planned a massive concert for the Theater an der Wien featuring over four hours of his music. The evening started with the Sixth Symphony, and the first half ended with the Fourth Piano Concerto. After intermission, the Fifth Symphony was premiered, but it was soon followed by excerpts from the Mass in C major, an improvised piano piece by Beethoven and his Choral Fantasy. Critics and contemporary reviewers were likely to have lost the Symphony in such an extensive program.
Beethoven spent a lot of time ruminating over the musical material for the Symphony. He started sketching out ideas pretty soon after finishing the Third Symphony, but left them to simmer while working on other music. Beethoven worked on what would become his Fourth Symphony, his only opera, Fidelio, the Appassionata piano sonata, a piano concerto and a few string quartets in the time between the Third and Fifth Symphonies. He completed the Fifth Symphony in 1808, and it was during the years 1807 and 1808 that Beethoven was writing the Sixth Symphony, which received its premiere on the same night. When the Fifth Symphony was published, Beethoven dedicated it to Prince Franz Joseph Lobkowitz and Count Razumovsky.
Not only does the four-note “short-short-short-long” musical motif have importance to the opening movement, it is an important idea that pervades the entire Symphony. It links the movements together in a thematic way that hadn’t been explored quite like this before. Finding this musical motive throughout the Symphony can be something of a scavenger hunt, but one that rewards the vigilant. There’s a lot of tumult in that first movement. The second and third movements provide their own diversions from this. 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 as much with lyricism and hope 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. The transition from the end of the third movement to the beginning of the fourth movement is a wonder—there is no break between the movements—and one that Beethoven agonized over. The final movement refers back to C major rather than C minor and also brings back part of the scherzo. A few years later, he would do something similar in the Ninth Symphony.
More than a year after the work’s premiere, E.T.A. Hoffman sang the work’s praises and presented the narrative that we now associate with this symphony: tragedy becomes triumph, tumult becomes exultation. We do know that at this time Beethoven was coming to terms with his deafness and trying to figure out how he would live the rest of his life. Whether those struggles entered into his mind as he wrote, we simply don’t know.
This concert is made possible, in part, by a grant from the E. Nakamichi Foundation.
The appearance of Jonathan Biss is made possible by the Lois Evans Guest Artist Fund.