Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra opens the season with two masterpieces from the early Romantic period, as well as a work so new, we are the first to hear it. Derrick Spiva, whose Prisms, Cycles, Leaps receives its world premiere, is a Los Angeles-based composer and Music Alive: New Partnerships composer-in-residence with LACO. As a living composer, he has the ability to shed some light on his new work’s genesis and inspiration. But for music that is a century old or more, the details of composition are not always available. We may not know why a work was undertaken, or why a work was left unfinished. We have one of these unsolved mysteries on this evening’s program in the form of Schubert’s Symphony No. 8, “Unfinished.” And lastly, we have a work by Beethoven that gained a place in the repertoire nearly 20 years after the composer’s death—and only after being rediscovered by another famous composer.
Derrick Spiva, 2015–16 Music Alive: New Partnerships composer-in-residence with LACO, is a composer and conductor who is well versed in the practices of Western classical music, but has also studied the musical systems of Persia, the Balkans, West Africa and North India (Hindustani classical music). A graduate of UCLA and the California Institute of the Arts, Spiva now conducts the Santa Clarita Valley Youth Orchestra and promotes creative collaboration among musicians. Also a Teaching Artist with LA Phil, Spiva’s unique vision integrates aspects of world music into a contemporary art music idiom.
LACO is delighted to present the world premiere of Prisms, Cycles, Leaps, a work that draws upon Spiva’s knowledge and understanding of disparate musical traditions. The music of the Balkans, Hindustani classical music, and the traditions of Ghana’s Volta region all meet in this unique orchestral piece. Prisms, Cycles, Leaps is fueled by the rhythms of Ghanaian drum ceremonies, including repeated polyrhythmic patterns and shifting meters. Spiva’s melodic influences include the choral music of the Balkans and the North Indian tihai three-part cadence. The work is a fascinating tapestry of varying musical ideas, each thread woven into a cohesive whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. Spiva named Prisms, Cycles, Leaps as a reference to, as the composer describes it, “a search for beauty in life and nature through multiple and varied yet cyclical experiences.”
Schubert’s Symphony No. 8, “Unfinished,” has a complex history. Written late in 1822, the work did not come to light until the 1860s, when it was discovered in the study of Schubert’s friend and fellow composer, Anselm Hüttenbrenner. The manuscript contained two fully scored movements and sketches for a third. The two complete movements (plus a final movement from another one of Schubert’s works) were premiered in 1865, nearly 40 years after Schubert’s death. In the ensuing decades, the practice of adding another movement to the work stopped; it became clear that the two movements of this piece stand alone very well. But why did he write just two movements? He lived for another six years after the work was begun. He certainly had time to finish the work, had he chosen to. Some have thought that Schubert’s physical health was to blame. The composer had contracted syphilis and this illness contributed to depression as well. Perhaps the work had too many unpleasant associations for him. Schubert may have also been dealing with a crisis of confidence. Orchestral music was a realm in which Schubert felt self-critical, and the growing skill and assurance evidenced by the symphonic works of his contemporary, Beethoven, must have felt insurmountable.
The work has two movements, the first marked Allegro moderato, and the second, Andante con moto. The opening of the Allegro moderato is dark, with a theme in the unusual key of B minor (the key was not often used for symphonies at the time) played by the oboe and clarinet. The secondary melody is a well-known tune played by the cellos. There is a warmth and beauty in this section of the movement that reflects Schubert’s talent for melody. The dramatic turns throughout the movement allow Schubert to explore light and dark, gravity and playfulness. Schubert provides contrast in the second movement with a slightly slower tempo and bright major tonality. At this point, the clarinet presents a solo that again highlights Schubert’s ability to write beautiful melodic lines. There is an artful delicacy in Schubert’s textures and harmonies.
Who knows what might have been if Schubert had completed the work as he had originally envisioned? he two completed movements are more than enough to show that Schubert’s considerable gifts translated brilliantly to the symphonic form.
Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D major was composed in 1806, near the start of what we consider the composer’s middle, or Heroic period. This time is marked by forward-looking musical ideas, but also some personal drama. Beethoven wrote the Concerto during a personally challenging time; his deafness was increasing, his attempts at finding love were proving unsuccessful, and Beethoven’s first version of the opera Fidelio ran for just three performances in part because Vienna was under French occupation at the time. Never one to let life’s problems keep him from creating, Beethoven composed the Violin Concerto for violinist and conductor Franz Clement, a man who had helped Beethoven during the composition of Fidelio. Clement was the conductor of the Theater an der Wien, and played the Concerto at its premiere, but the evening did not quite go as planned. Apparently Beethoven finished the piece so late that Clement had to sight-read part of it. There is no evidence that they exchanged angry words on the subject, but when the piece was finally published, Clement was not the dedicatee. Instead, Beethoven dedicated the piece to friend Stephan von Breuning. The Concerto did not become popular at first, and largely disappeared from the repertoire until 1844 (17 years after Beethoven’s death), when Felix Mendelssohn conducted the Concerto with the soloist Joseph Joachim, who was just 12 years old at the time. Joachim, incidentally, would evolve into a world-renowned violinist, inspiring concertos by Brahms, Schumann and Dvořák.
The Concerto is in three movements, following the Classical tradition. The first movement remains mostly genteel in its attitude, but features the tempestuous shifts of dynamics and mode that Beethoven does so well. In fact, barely a minute into the first movement, there is a stormy idea that seems to come out of nowhere. Beethoven plays with these contrasting emotions throughout the movement. The second movement, Larghetto, begins exceedingly gently. The warmth of the orchestral accompaniment is particularly effective as a support for the heartfelt lines of the soloist. The third movement begins quickly after the coda of the previous movement. Again, there is both charm and tempest perhaps giving voice to some of the difficulties Beethoven was having at the time. Despite his troubles, however, the end of the Concerto feels like a celebration, modest and reserved, but triumphant nonetheless.
A compelling feature of this Concerto is the cadenza. Beethoven did not provide one for the performer. Various cadenzas (lengthy solo passages) for this work have been composed by some of its greatest interpreters. Joachim, of course, was one of the first to write cadenzas for the work, although Fritz Kreisler’s cadenzas are often played as well. Camille Saint-Saëns offered his version of the cadenza as did Alfred Schnittke, whose updated tonal language upset some purists. Beethoven re-imagined the Concerto for piano and orchestra (Op. 61a), perhaps trying to make it more popular. In this piano version, Beethoven’s cadenza in the first movement employs the timpanist as well as the piano soloist. At tonight’s performance, our soloist Michael Barenboim plays his own cadenzas.