Tonight’s eclectic program covers hundreds of years of music histo¬ry, including a Baroque concerto from Vivaldi, a Symphony of Franz Schubert, the late 20th-century minimalist piece Shaker Loops and Peteris Vasks’ Lonely Angel from the cusp of the 21st century. Karina Canellakis is conductor and soloist for the Vivaldi and Vasks and leads the rest of the program.
We begin the evening with the earliest piece, a Baroque concerto by Antonio Vivaldi: the Violin Concerto, “La tempesta di mare” (“Storm”). In his lifetime, Vivaldi wrote more than 500 concertos, and in so doing, set the standard for many of the characteristics we commonly associate with the genre. For instance, his usual structure of quick outer movements framing a slower central movement soon became the norm for the entire Baroque period, as did the ritornello form he favored for his fast movements that feature a lively give-and-take between soloist and orchestra. Some of Vivaldi’s concertos featured solo instruments (often violins) with orchestra, while others featured groups of soloists with orchestra, a genre known as the concerto grosso. His works were a great source of inspiration for later composers like JS Bach, who copied out many of them for study. Bach’s concertos would not have been the same without Vivaldi’s influence.
“La tempesta di mare” was part of a collection of a dozen concertos called Il cimento dell’armonia e dell’inventione, or The Contest Between Harmony and Invention. All of the concertos in this collection are scored for solo violin with string orchestra and basso continuo (a combination of harpsichord and string bass that provides harmonic foundation), including Vivaldi’s famous set, The Four Seasons. In these concertos, Vivaldi evokes the unique characteristics of summer, winter, spring and fall—thunderclaps, rain, a barking dog, birdsong — all without a single word uttered. Vivaldi employs this same pictorial writing in his La tempesta di mare, a concerto depicting a great storm at sea. In the outer movements, the ritornello provides animated interplay between the soloist’s more virtuosic passages and the orchestra’s energetic accompaniment. The slow movement in the center represents a calm eye within the storm.
Native Latvian Pēteris Vasks began his musical career as a double bass player, and studied composition in Lithuania. His early style is reminiscent of the aleatoric work of Lutosławski, Penderecki and Crumb. (Aleatoric music employs chance procedures in the composition process.) As he has matured as a composer, Vasks has discovered his own unique voice. His pieces often endeavor to convey a message or idea, and therefore the composer’s style fosters communication over obfuscation. Emotions and moods are trans¬parent, and there is no attempt to complicate things by abstraction.
In another innovation, Vask incorporates Latvian folk music and style into his compositions. His first concerto for violin and string orchestra, Tala gaisma (Distant Light), draws upon Latvian folk music for inspiration. In that piece, Vasks weaves a tapestry of contrasting sections and textures. A decade later, Vasks composed his second concerto for violin, Vientuļais Eņģelis (Lonely Angel), inspired by a vision Vasks had of an angel looking over the world. Vasks describes this idea: “the angel looks at the world’s condition with grieving eyes, but an almost imperceptible loving touch of the angel’s wings brings comfort and healing. This piece is my music after the pain.” The centerpiece of this work is an ever-unfolding melody in the violin. The orchestra gently supports this endless unfurling, interjecting minimal distraction over the course of the piece. The “voice” of the violin may well be the sonic stand-in for the lonely angel who ceaselessly observes the world. Although the violin doesn’t require breath to play, music for the instrument is often written in phrases. Here, however, Vasks is perhaps suggest¬ing that this angel needs neither rest nor air as the solo line climbs ever higher in range, very beautifully defying gravity with endlessly graceful lyricism.
John Adams composed Shaker Loops in 1978 for string septet. It had its origins in an earlier piece for string quartet called Wavemaker, which was an exploration of both Minimalist procedures and the ripples made in water when disturbed. Adams described “long sequences of oscillating melodic cells that created a rippling, shimmering complex of patterns like the surface of a slightly agitated pond or lake.” Adams’ first experiments with this idea fell short of his expectations so he reworked the piece for string septet and called it Shaker Loops, reasoning that a larger group of instruments and a new approach might convey the waveforms better. The term “loop” came from the idea of tape loops used in tape composition. In such compositions, a fragment of a sound that had been recorded on magnetic tape was looped so that the fragment would repeat continuously. This loop could also be manipulated to increase or decrease in speed, or it could be played in tandem with other loops. While the term “Shaker” brings to mind the religious sect whose worship included dancing and movement, Adams first envisioned it as a play on the shimmering tremolo string technique. The idea of Shaker worship, however, with its ecstatic movement and spiritual catharsis, was also interesting to Adams for this piece. LACO performs a version arranged for string orchestra, which adds a thickness to the texture and depth to the sound. The repeated musical ideas in each movement show gradual changes in focus. Sometimes, the waves seem to crash into each other, while in other parts many sounds become a single sound, like the ripples in water forming concentric circles.
Franz Schubert’s Symphony No. 5 in B-flat major was com¬posed in September of 1816. The previous year, Schubert was incredibly prolific, writing four operas, two symphonies and about 145 lieder. He also made the acquaintance of Franz von Schober, the Austrian poet and actor. Schober not only introduced Schubert to important and influential people, but he provided lodgings in 1816, allowing the composer to focus on his craft, rather than teach. (Shortly after moving to these lodgings, he gave up teaching entirely.) He was just 19 years old, but his extraordinary talent was already apparent to his friends, who did everything in their power to help Schubert write and succeed.
In June of 1816, Schubert had rhapsodized in his diary about the work of Mozart, prompting many to see comparisons between Schubert’s Fifth and Mozart’s Symphony No. 40. The two pieces share the same instrumentation—the smallest for any of Schubert’s symphonies—and a Classical sensibility that seems to suggest the mature works of Mozart. In perhaps mirroring this earlier style, Schubert omitted clarinets, timpani and trumpets from the scoring. (Mozart had done something similar in his 40th Symphony, although he did revise the score to include clarinets in a later version.) The first performance of Symphony No. 5 took place soon after its composition, in a private setting. (It was not publicly premiered until many years after Schubert’s death in 1828 and only published nearly 60 years later.)
In a departure from Schubert’s earlier efforts in the genre, the opening Allegro, does not begin with a slow introduction. Instead, it displays instant energy and a charming effervescence, epitomizing the Classical style. The second movement is an Andante con moto in a lilting meter. The theme is simple, yet engaging, and Schubert’s unique key choices are perhaps the only indication that this is a piece from the Romantic period. The third movement, a Menuetto, begins in a pensive G minor. The trio provides contrast with a G-major dance that suggests a waltz. There is some thematic similarity with the Minuet from Mozart’s Symphony No. 40, but Schubert puts his own stamp on the material. The brilliant final Allegro vivace speeds by quickly, with a merry pace that doesn’t let up until the last cadence.