Tonight’s concert is book-ended by two symphonies in D major. Although their composition dates are separated by more than a century, these two works have an interesting connection. Twentieth- century composer Sergei Prokofiev claimed that his “Classical” Symphony is what Haydn might have written had he lived another 100 years. Any fan of Haydn knows that he would have appreciated the humor and the craftsmanship of Prokofiev’s work, but you can judge the composer’s statement for yourself when you hear Prokofiev’s “Classical” Symphony and Haydn’s “The Clock” Symphony on the same evening. The program also features the Los Angeles premiere of Mason Bates’s Cello Concerto. Joshua Roman, the cellist for whom the concerto was written, performs this extraordinary piece with the Orchestra.
Sergei Prokofiev spent his formative years as a young student at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. This was a time of considerable political turmoil in Russia. At the tender age of 17, he played his first compositions in public, and his music was perceived as avant-garde and difficult to understand, an opinion that suited the proud Prokofiev just fine. He was more than willing to trade on the image of himself as something of a musical renegade. The premieres of his First and Second piano concertos also caused a scandal in his homeland because of the bold, virtuosic writing, and dissonances some critics deemed disturbing. His reputation as a progressive composer was sealed.
It is interesting, then, that one of his most famous works is a piece that looks back to the older style of Haydn, known by the nickname “Classical.” Prokofiev wrote the Symphony No. 1 in D major in 1917, the year of the Russian Revolution. The composer toured quite extensively during that year, in part to escape the turmoil and tumult in Russia. It was also a creatively productive period for him, as he composed and premiered many works on his tour.
In the time between Prokofiev’s graduation from the Conservatory and the premiere of the “Classical” Symphony, the composer had traveled to London and met many of the musical figures that were shaping modern music in Europe. The idea of using 20th-century harmonies and resources in the service of a classical form, like the symphony, was one that many composers would explore in the early part of the 20th century and beyond. Although we would call this “Neo-classicism,” Prokofiev did not see the “Classical” Symphony as part of a neo-classical trend in his style. For him, it was an isolated experiment, and he disliked fellow Russian Igor Stravinsky’s preoccupation with neo-classicism, famously calling it, “Bach on the wrong notes.”
The “Classical” Symphony is an extremely interesting work that meshes the tradition of clarity and formality with the renegade spirit of Prokofiev’s early works. Classicism was attractive to the unsentimental Prokofiev because it eschewed the overwrought emotionality of Romanticism. There are Haydn-esque qualities in the “Classical” Symphony, like the sudden changes in volume we experience in works like “The Surprise” and “The Clock” symphonies. There is also reference to the classical practice of alternating opposites: loud and soft, high and low, gravity and levity. Furthermore, there is a 20th-century sensibility in Prokofiev’s harmonic and rhythmic inventiveness. This experiment, juxtaposing 20th-century style with the traditional four-movement formality of the classical symphony, allows for moments of parody and humor.
Award-winning composer Mason Bates curates a style that boasts elements of narrative forms, jazz harmonies, innovative techniques for traditional instruments and rhythmic influences from electronic music. He is an advocate of new music and of bringing new work to unique performance spaces. His symphonic music often meshes with electronic sounds, revealing new possibilities of electronic sound sources in the composition of art music. Bates composed the Cello Concerto, which was commissioned by Seattle Symphony Orchestra, LACO and the Columbus Symphony Orchestra, for Joshua Roman. The work has a three movement structure, with the typical fast-slow-fast paradigm, while thoroughly exploring an imaginative soundspace. Bates, who often relies on narrative structures or ideas in his music, put such things aside in favor of a work that would focus more on the instruments involved, particularly the cello. The first movement features cello, in the words of the composer, “singing a plaintive melody.” The sound of the orchestra provides harmonic and rhythmic support. The second movement forms the emotional centerpiece of the Concerto, with a focus on lyricism. Sections of the Concerto found inspiration from a musical idea suggested by Roman, something Bates calls the “ping-pong ricochet.” It is a rhythmic gesture featuring a bouncing that grows faster, like a ping-pong ball bouncing on the ground. The final movement begins in a lively mood and progresses to a display of astounding virtuosity. The orchestra supports the impressive work of the soloist with a full complement of percussion instruments, requiring three players. Bates takes a few opportunities to surprise us, such as the use of a guitar pick instead of a bow, emulating a “punk rock bassist.” Bates characterizes the three movements of his work as “dreamy-lyrical-rhythmic.”
For the 30 years that Haydn worked for the Esterhazy family, he did not travel much, except as part of the Prince’s entourage. Although his music was known outside of his patron’s family, he did not have much occasion to bring his music to an international audience. The death of Prince Nikolaus of Esterháza in 1790 caused something of a rebirth for Haydn. The new Prince was not a great connoisseur of music, and he dissolved the family’s musical organization, which ultimately gave Haydn his freedom.
German impresario Johann Peter Salomon, who was living and working in London, proposed that Haydn visit the city. Salomon would arrange for special concerts of the composer’s music. Haydn made two visits to London (1791–92 and 1794–95), and for each, he composed six symphonies. The 12 symphonies are often referred to as the “London” Symphonies. Having a reputation for sophistication and for being quintessential examples of the Classical style, they are among the most popular and most often played of Haydn’s works. Tonight we present the ninth of this dozen, Symphony No. 101 in D major, “The Clock.” Like its predecessor, “The Surprise,” Symphony No. 101 gets its nickname from a musical gesture in the second movement. In this case, it is the “tick tock” first heard in the low woodwinds and pizzicato strings.
The work begins with a slow introduction in a minor key, an opening gambit that Haydn used to build anticipation. This strategy creates an incredibly effective contrast, as from this mysterious haze emerges a major-key Presto, bringing with it a new driving clarity. The colors of the orchestra are rich and full, including brass and drums. This movement is so lively and enthusiastic, one might be forgiven for mistaking it for a rousing finale. The second movement begins with that telltale “tick tock.” The main theme provides contrast with a charming melody, and often long-held notes, rising above the rhythmic accompaniment. Haydn—always one to delight in surprises—offers contrast in the form of a stormy section in G minor. Equilibrium returns with the tick tock, now in a high register, almost bird-like in its character. The rhythmic pulse moves to different sections in the orchestra, revealing great variety in scoring choices, dynamic interjections and bursting energy.
The third movement exhibits a ceremonial character full of pomp and circumstance, aided by the brass and timpani. The Trio displays a pastoral charm that seemingly keeps being interrupted by fortissimo outbursts by the orchestra. The final movement begins with a brisk theme in a major key. Again, there is a stormy minor-key interruption, invigorating an already energetic movement, followed by a stunning double fugue that brings this spirited Symphony to a breathless finish.