The evening of the world premiere of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra’s Sound Investment commission is always an exciting one. Tonight, we are privileged to be among the first to hear Ted Hearne’s brand new piece. We are also treated to an established favorite: Mozart’s brilliant Piano Concerto No. 21. From Mendelssohn, we have two sections from his evocative incidental music from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, as well as the joyful Symphony No. 4, “Italian.”
Ted Hearne is a multitalented musician who is both an innovative composer and an accomplished singer. He has received acclaim for his work, most notably for his oratorio, Katrina Ballads, a portrait of media coverage of Hurricane Katrina, which used primary source material as the libretto. The work won the 2009 Gaudeamus Prize for composition. Hearne has also received recognition from ASCAP and the American Academy of Arts and Letters and has collaborated with composers, musicians and filmmakers. As Hearne is not yet ready to divulge details about his new work at the time this program book goes to press, we can only wonder what his “voracious curiosity” (Twin Cities.com) and “off beat imagination” (New Music Box) will bring forth for LACO.
When Mozart composed the Piano Concerto No. 21 in C major, he was in a period of intense activity. It was 1785 and Mozart, just three years married to Constanze Weber and also a new father, was playing concerts, networking and writing music. He wowed Viennese audiences as a pianist as well as a composer, writing piano concertos to show off both talents. Mozart’s writing process on these pieces was always fast and furious, and on more than one occasion, Mozart played from solo parts that were mere sketches. Luckily, he was a fine improviser with an excellent memory, and his performances were consistently impressive.
Though written only a month after Concerto No. 20, Piano Concerto No. 21 is crafted with such skill and flair, one wonders how Mozart managed to conjure such musical magic despite the chaos of his life and schedule. The opening movement is marked Allegro maestoso, and Mozart imbues the music with all the grandeur such an indication implies.
The soloist’s entrance is slightly unusual; instead of presenting the beginning of the theme anew, the piano seems to complete a phrase begun by the oboe, bassoon and flute. The piano part is particularly impressive, with abundant ornamentation and playfulness. One can imagine Mozart having a wonderful time showing off his skills for the Viennese public. The interaction between the orchestra and soloist is dynamic, with changing moods and tonal shifts. Like Mozart’s life at the time, this movement is decidedly busy, but it also shows a great sense of both structure and organization. The second movement mimics the quality of a heartfelt operatic aria, with a cantabile melody that would be delightfully suited to the voice (cantabile, in fact, means “singable”). The orchestra presents the theme, which is then restated by the piano with gentle throbbing accompaniment in the orchestra. This movement is the epitome of grace, as Mozart allows the soloist to be the emotional focal point. The finale brings us back to the non-stop activity of the opening with a lively rondo. The conversation between soloist and orchestra is robust, with the returning theme providing a boost of energy every time it appears.
Mendelssohn composed a concert overture for Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 1826. More than a decade and a half later, he revisited the play as part of a commission from the King of Prussia. The King requested of Mendelssohn incidental music for the play, because he was a great lover of both music and drama. Mendelssohn composed the incidental music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 1842, giving the piece—which incorporated the concert overture—a new opus number. Tonight we present two sections of this larger work, the Nocturne and the Scherzo. The latter movement was performed in between the first and second acts of the play, while the Nocturne accompanies the slumber of the lovers between the third and fourth acts. It also appears at the end of Act IV. Although these two pieces display contrasting moods, both show off the gentle Romantic charm that we associate so strongly with Mendelssohn.
In 1830, in between the writing of the concert overture and the incidental music for Midsummer, Mendelssohn embarked on a journey to Italy, a trip that was suggested by the composer’s frequent correspondent, German poet and statesman Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Over the course of several months, Mendelssohn saw Florence, Rome, Naples, Pompeii, Genoa and Milan. As he did on travels such as these, Mendelssohn composed music inspired by what he saw and experienced and his enthusiasm is evident in the opening theme of his Symphony No. 4 in A major, “Italian.”
The numbering of Mendelssohn’s symphonies is problematic since he often worked for years on single pieces, or held back publication for one reason or another. Mendelssohn wrote a complete version of the “Italian” and conducted the premiere in 1833, although he would not allow publication until he had undertaken revisions. Unfortunately he did not get to complete his desired changes, and the work was only published posthumously.
The “Italian” follows the four-movement structure of the traditional Classical symphony. Mendelssohn’s music, which often leaned towards convention over innovation, bears the influences of Mozart and Beethoven, although there are some unique Romantic touches in the work. One such feature is the key scheme of the entire Symphony, which rather than beginning in A major and ending in that key (as was typical), ends in A minor.
The first movement is relentlessly lively and joyful. In a letter to Fanny, his sister and fellow composer, Mendelssohn described this work as the “jolliest” piece he had ever written. He composed the slow movement in Naples, where he observed a religious procession, and this section provides a musical picture of the scene: the walking bassline suggests the steps of those in the parade, while the minor mode evokes the solemnity of the occasion. The third movement draws upon the minuet and trio traditional in Classical symphonies, but takes on a more Romantic flavor when Mendelssohn brings out the brass in the contrasting second part. This section calls to mind the composer’s work in more dramatic genres, heard for instance in his famous overture inspired by Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (a work Mendelssohn had written a few years before the “Italian”). The final movement captures the flavor of Italy with two traditional Italian dances, the Saltarello and the Neapolitan Tarantella. The minor mode and the highly rhythmic nature of the themes suggest agitation, but Mendelssohn might well have described the music as animated and fiery, a tribute to the spirited and passionate people he encountered along his Italian journey.