Tonight, LACO presents a distinctive world premiere from former Sound Investment composer Gernot Wolfgang, followed by two beloved concertos by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The woodwinds take center stage for the first part of the evening with Wolfgang’s new Sinfonia Concertante and Mozart’s exquisitely delicate Clarinet Concerto, played by our own Joshua Ranz. Finally, Jeffrey Kahane serves as both conductor and soloist for tonight’s finale, the Mozart Piano Concerto in D minor.
Gernot Wolfgang was born in Bad Gastein, Austria, but currently lives in Los Angeles. In addition to LACO’s commission, Wolfgang has written compositions for orchestras, ensembles and individuals all over the world. He is the guitarist for the Austrian jazz ensemble, The QuARTet, and has performed with them throughout Europe. Wolfgang is a graduate of the film and scoring program at USC and works in film and television as an orchestrator. He also is associate artistic director of HEAR NOW—A Festival of New Music by Contemporary Los Angeles Composers.
The Sinfonia Concertante for Four Winds – “The D.A.R.K. Knights” features four solo instruments: flute, oboe, bassoon and horn. The composer had this to say about his new work: “Sinfonia Concertante for Four Winds –‘The D.A.R.K. Knights’ was written to honor and showcase the exceptional talents of longserving LACO principal wind players David Shostac, flute; Allan Vogel, oboe; Kenneth Munday, bassoon; and Richard Todd, horn. During the early composing process I decided that in addition to the Sinfonia Concertante concept, which was Jeffrey Kahane’s idea, I also wanted to highlight each of the soloists by incorporating four mini concertos into the piece.
“The composition turned out to be in one movement, with the Sinfonia Concertante portions occupying the energetic outer sections. The lyrical middle part of the piece consists of the succession of said mini concertos. The soloistic parts for each of the featured wind players were inspired by their individual, very specific instrumental sounds, which have become very familiar to me over the years. I also took into account special musical abilities of some of these four musicians—both David Shostac and Richard Todd will get a chance to improvise in selected passages.”
In the last few months of his life, Mozart kept quite busy. He worked on operas The Magic Flute and La clemenza di Tito and of course the Requiem. But one of his last instrumental works—listed after the final two operas in the personal catalogue Mozart kept of his compositions—is the Clarinet Concerto in A major. It premiered in October 1791 in honor of clarinetist Anton Stadler. Mozart first sketched out the work for basset horn, the clarinet’s larger, lower cousin, but later settled on the basset clarinet, which is a clarinet with a simple lower extension that allows the musician to play just a few more lower notes. Some notes in this version could not be played by the clarinet, so when the work was published after Mozart’s death, those troublesome notes were transposed into the regular clarinet’s range. Since the 1960s, musicologists and clarinetists have attempted to reconstruct the Concerto for the basset clarinet, hoping to uncover Mozart’s intentions and hear the work as he had intended.
The Concerto adheres to the traditional three-movement structure—fast-slow-fast. The opening Allegro shows the utter clarity Mozart was so skilled at creating, with its clean phrases, structure and symmetry. The clarinet’s entrance provides a decorated version of the exposition just stated by the orchestra. The lines written for the instrument seem to suggest that Mozart was quite taken with its unique timbre, especially in the lowest and highest extremes of its range. The solo part showcases the work’s dynamic flexibility, quick passagework and beautiful legato phrases. The orchestra provides a supportive backdrop here, coming to the fore now and then, but also content to offer accompaniment to the solo line. The second movement brings a contrast with a slow tempo and more pensive mood. It is tempting to hear this as melancholy and foreboding, with Mozart’s death just two months later, but there is no indication that Mozart had any idea his end was near. Like any Classical concerto, the middle movement is there for a thoughtful respite. Here again, Mozart shows his affinity for the lows and highs of his solo instrument, the two registers known as the chalumeau and the clarion, respectively.
The third movement is a cheerful Rondo, with a lively repeated theme in between episodes of new music. Sometimes these passages may shift mood or dynamics, but Mozart always brings us back to the effervescent conversation between the soloist and orchestra. Although the solo part is challenging and reveals moments of brilliance, this is not an overly showy work. It possesses an intimacy that seems somewhat at odds with the other works he was composing around that time, but there is an easy conversational feel to the writing, the clarinet holding court in a room of lively voices: the life of the party.
Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20 is one of only two concertos the composer wrote in a minor key—in this case D minor—a fact that has helped it become one of his most popular works in the genre. The Concerto was composed in 1785, when Mozart was still very active as a soloist. Mozart presented a few new concertos each year from 1782 to 1785, and his concerts were very well attended. He reaped considerable profits from these ventures and began living well outside his means, courting financial trouble that would eventually plague his family. After 1785, Mozart switched his focus to opera, and what was once a flood of concertos became a trickle.
Like the Clarinet Concerto, Piano Concerto No. 20 has the traditional three-movement form. What is atypical is the overt emotionality of the musical material. It is no accident that many believe this to have been a great influence on Beethoven’s piano compositions. This is the dramatic Mozart we know from his operas and from the Requiem. Although the Concerto features occasional stormy outbursts, it maintains its inherent elegance and charm throughout. The customary crisp phrases and effervescent style we have come to expect from Mozart are in grand supply in all three movements. The work begins with a passage for the orchestra—called the orchestral exposition because it reveals thematic material—while the soloist stays silent. The soloist then reiterates some of those ideas in his own exposition. In No. 20, the orchestra presents a restless and moody theme, which is soon contrasted by a short foray into the major mode. The soloist’s first entrance sounds sweet and melancholy at first, but the orchestra rumbles to life under the solo part, and the storminess returns. The conversation between piano and orchestra continues with the conflict between the second theme’s lightness and the main theme’s darkness. Mozart did not write out a cadenza for this work (he improvised, which was customary), but later composers, such as Beethoven, wrote down their own cadenzas for this Concerto. The quiet ending of the movement comes as something of a surprise considering the tumultuous nature of the work thus far, but great contrast comes in the middle movement.
The second movement of Mozart’s 20th Piano Concerto is labeled a Romanze. It is technically in a rondo form because it revisits the same theme three times, with intervening sections of different musical ideas. Although it is primarily in the major mode, this movement still retains strands of the dark and stormy tone that was woven through the first movement. The final movement is also in a rondo form. Once again, the conversation between soloist and orchestra is central to this section, with give-and-take between them, creating tension and harmonic interest. This is unlike the first movement, which ends in the way we expect but teases our sensibility. After the cadenza, the orchestra re-enters to conclude with a buoyant section in D major, instead of D minor.