Mozart and Haydn stand as the two best-known masters of the Classical style. The first two pieces on tonight’s concert, a symphony from Haydn and a Flute Concerto by Mozart, date from the 1770s, right in the heart of the Classical period. In Haydn’s 64th Symphony, we see that the composer was quite capable of including some unexpected surprises, even in the midst of a conservative style that favored established forms and structures. Mozart’s first Flute Concerto shows the composer’s seemingly unending talent for writing graceful melodies. Speeding forward to the 21st century, we find Andrew Norman’s Gran Turismo, a work inspired by Italy, fast cars and a video game. Finally, we end the evening with Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 2 from 1935, a piece that the composer wrote while “on the road,” absorbing influences from his travels as he went.
There are many Haydn symphonies with nicknames (including “The Philosopher,” “The Clock,” “The Hornsignal”), and Haydn gave his Symphony No. 64 in A major an interesting name in Latin: Tempora mutantur or “Times Change.” This expression appears in a few different places, but one popular epigram from 1613 by John Owen reads, Tempora mutantur, nos et mutamur in illis. Quo modo? Fit semper tempore peior homo. (“Times change and we change with them. How so? As times get worse, so does man.”) There isn’t much of a discernible musical inspiration behind the title, but perhaps Haydn was thinking instead of some changes he was making in his professional life. Haydn composed this Symphony sometime in the 1770s, when he was working for Prince Nikolaus at Esterhazy. Although Haydn spent many years in the service of the Esterhazy family, the 1770s seem a particularly important time in his development, as he was moving away from the turbulent Sturm und Drang (Storm and Stress) influence, towards music that displays a light, pleasant quality. The types of pieces he was writing changed as well; Haydn had been providing his prince with a nearly constant flow of trios for an obscure instrument the Prince played (the cello-like baryton), but he stopped writing such works in favor of symphonies and later, operas.
The opening Allegro of Symphony No. 64 displays the lyricism and flexible dynamics we associate with Haydn. There are still lingering hints of Sturm and Drang but they are subtle. The most notable aspect of Symphony No. 64 comes in the second movement. It is a truly unique section of music, unusual for the time in which it was written. And it is time itself that seems to be of central concern. One musicologist has described this movement using words from Shakespeare’s Hamlet: “Time is out of joint.” Haydn chose the very slow tempo of Largo, and bearing out the feeling of the above Hamlet quote, a steady pulse isn’t always present. In addition, the composer has abandoned discernible classical forms, and in fact, the phrases themselves seem to defy expectation. Despite these temporal concerns, the harmonies are quite lovely, and the orchestral colors are rich. When the lilting Minuet begins, we return to the realm of Classical forms and conventions. This movement itself is quite short, but it is a potent reminder of Haydn’s ability to charm. The finale, a quick Rondo, introduces a theme and brings it back repeatedly in between episodes of new material. The speedy tempo and brevity of the final two movements of this symphony bring another Latin phrase about time to mind: Tempus fugit—“time flies.”
Mozart wrote to his father in 1777, telling him of a commission he received from flute soloist Ferdinand De Jean. For De Jean, Mozart was supposed to write four flute quartets and three flute concertos. Because Mozart was likely preoccupied with a romantic interest, Aloysia Weber, he delivered three quartets and only two flute concertos, the second of which was probably his reworking of an oboe concerto. De Jean paid Mozart just under half of the agreed upon fee for the incomplete order. Leopold Mozart was furious with his son for not delivering the promised music. In his defense, Wolfgang petulantly declared in a letter to his father that he did not care for the instrument. Mozart’s skillful writing both in the Flute Concerto and especially in The Magic Flute proves otherwise.
The Flute Concerto No. 1 in G major is in the traditional three-movement form used for Classical concertos. The opening is marked Allegro maestoso and the orchestra begins by presenting the main themes, which are later taken up by the soloist. Mozart allows the flute to expand upon the themes, leading the orchestra into various key areas with florid expression and idiomatic flute lines that prove how well Mozart understood the instrument. The cadenza provides a moment for the soloist to shine. The second movement asks for muted strings and displays a beautiful range of emotion from pensive to yearning. The sentiment in this particular movement is a potent reminder that just months earlier, Mozart lost his mother to illness. There are some truly heartfelt works from this time period that seem to bear some of the weight of Mozart’s grief. In the face of this loss, Mozart responded with maturity and poise. The earnest tenderness of this movement gives way to a hopeful, almost sunny finale in a swift triple meter. A central episode in a minor key provides contrast, but the movement’s positive disposition cannot be denied. It seems that Mozart understood that life had to go on.
LACO composer-in-residence Andrew Norman has shown an uncommon openness in his ability to draw inspiration from the most unexpected places. Gran Turismo from 2004 grew out of disparate elements: the influence of Futurist art—specifically Giacomo Balla’s paintings of speeding cars, and a video game called Gran Turismo. For Norman, the two ideas coalesced at a time when he was beginning sketches for a motoric work for strings. Norman explains that the imagery in Balla’s art and the video game became a metaphor for the “cut-and-splice method of juxtaposition that permeates the violin piece. In addition, the reiteration of fragmentary motives in the art recalls the repetitive visual vocabulary of the racing game as well as the obsessive motivic hammering of the violin music.”
The result of these threads coming together is a virtuoso piece for eight violins in which the members of the small ensemble vie for prominence—like the tightly-packed cars in a road race—as they move ever faster towards their goal. There are moments of quiet, but the music never seems to come to rest, maintaining the tension of relentless motion.
Prokofiev was living in Paris in 1935 when he composed his Violin Concerto No. 2 in G minor. He had been away from Russia since 1918, choosing to leave amid the conflict and turmoil of the war. By the 1930s, he was eager to return, and had gradually been building a relationship with the USSR, touring there in 1927 and scoring the film Lieutenant Kijé in 1933. He returned with his family in 1936 only to find that his choices as a composer were limited by the demands of the state. He was called upon to defend his musical style, which some felt was too modernist. As a composer who was once a young renegade, and as an artist with no political agenda, he found the Soviet system quite frustrating. Prokofiev’s Second Violin Concerto, premiered by the Madrid Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Enrique Arbós, was extremely well received. The featured soloist, and the man who commissioned the work, was French violinist Robert Soëtans. Prokofiev and Soëtans were on a concert tour together through Spain, Portugal and Northern Africa, and their schedule was so hectic that the
composer often spoke about writing various parts of the Concerto in many different geographical locations. The first theme of the first movement, for example, was penned in Paris, while the second movement was begun in Voronezh, Russia. For Prokofiev, often seen as a very forward-looking and avant-garde composer, the Violin Concerto was not a step backwards, but definitely featured a more traditional structure than some of his contemporary works.
The violin melody that opens the first movement suggests longing and yearning. The theme moves into the orchestra, and Prokofiev provides some interesting tonal shifts while the soloist shows off virtuosic technique. With the second theme, the mood changes from pathos to an agitated pensiveness, by way of beautiful melody supported by the warm tone colors of the orchestra. The movement comes to a close with an energetic flight through some challenging material, a final restatement of the original theme, and some plucked notes on the violin to punctuate the end. The second movement begins with pizzicato accompaniment in the strings and lively detached notes in the woodwinds. The soloist then enters with a gorgeous sinuous melody. The dynamics are in constant flux with crescendos building up and then collapsing down into near silence. The movement ends with the melody in the lower range of the orchestra while the soloist plucks a contrapuntal melody high above. The final movement begins with accents in the percussion and brass. The violin line pulses with energy and insistence while Prokofiev adds some Spanish flavor with the castanets, aspects that all come together to suggest a lively dance. As this section progresses, the dance takes on a relentless, animated drive to an exciting, breathless finish.