Colin Currie, percussion
David Danzmayr, conductor
With the holidays around the corner, ProMusica felt it only fitting that we treat our audience to at least a bit of music composed for the season. And so, the strings of the orchestra offer up the Christmas Concerto of Corelli, always a seasonal favorite. Our program will open with an energetic overture to Armida by the little known classical-era composer, Tommaso Traetta. We will then drop you into the here and now with the Ohio premiere of one of the classical music’s newest concerti, the Percussion Concerto of Helen Grime, featuring a return engagement by our soloist, Colin Currie. We then close out the year with Mozart’s 40th, among his best-known symphonies and a work composed in the mere span of a few weeks. Happy holidays!
Tommaso Traetta (1727-1779): Overture to Armida
Instrumentation: pairs of oboes, horns and strings
Duration: 7 minutes
In Torquato Tasso’s 16th century epic poem Jerusalem Delivered, the enchantress Armida is sent by her father to murder the handsome Crusader Rinaldo, thus disrupting the knights’ Christian duty to wrest control of Jerusalem from the Muslims. Instead, Armida falls in love with the soldier. Their story has intrigued any number of artists and composers and the list of adaptations reads like an operatic who’s who: Monteverdi, Lully, Handel, Vivaldi, Gluck, Haydn, Rossini and Dvorak. More recently, add the British composer Judith Weir, whose Armida was produced in 2005. The list also includes an all-but-forgotten Italian, Tommaso Traetta, certainly among the most peripatetic musicians of his day.
Among the vanguard of 18th century opera composers, Traetta was born in the south of Italy. From there he headed north, first to Parma, where he served the court and absorbed the unshakable influence of French operatic tradition, and later to Naples, Rome, Vienna (where his opera Armida was premiered in 1761), Mannheim, St. Petersburg (where for seven years he was in the service of Catherine the Great), London, Paris (one year before Mozart’s arrival there), and finally back to Italy, where he died in Venice a celebrated composer who was buried with honors.
Traetta’s Overture to Armida reveals the composer’s penchant for the dramatic. Comprised of three sections (Allegro-Andante-Allegro), the score opens with high energy, featuring driving strings punctuated by wind interjections. Listen for a range of surprises, including sudden shifts of harmony and extremes of dynamics amidst the unrelenting forward motion. A gentle, French-inspired Andante follows, whose moving violin writing reveals the composer’s ability to target human emotion. Traetta’s concluding Allegro is itself constructed in miniature A-B-A form. It opens with a hunt, evident in its triple meter and horn calls, while the contrasting B section, featuring violins alone, illustrates the composer’s command of contrapuntal technique. A return to the hunt concludes this short, charming work by a sadly neglected figure.
Helen Grime (b. 1981): Percussion Concerto
Instrumentation: solo percussion (consisting of vibraphone, glockenspiel, marimba, crotales, cowbells, bass drum, tom-toms, congo drum, bongo drums, suspended cymbal, brake drums, woodblocks and metal pipe), pairs of flutes (second doubles on piccolo), oboes (second doubles on English horn), clarinets (second doubles on E-flat clarinet), bassoons (second doubles on contrabassoon), horns and trumpets, harp, celesta and strings
Premiered: London, January 16, 2019
Duration: 23 minutes
Scottish-born Helen Grime’s Percussion Concerto is but the most recent of a portfolio of work that already includes music for all major genres: orchestra, chorus, chamber music, solo piano, concerti and the stage. Though born in York, England, Grime’s family moved to Scotland while she was an infant and it was here where she came of age and began studying oboe and composition. She later returned to England to study at the Royal College of Music. It was also in England where much of her music has subsequently been performed, whether by the London Symphony, at the Proms, or by the Hallé Orchestra during the composer’s tenure as that orchestra’s associate composer.
Rather than focus on rhythm per se, Grime’s concept for her concerto was to explore issues of pitch and rhythm separately. Thus, the concerto’s first movement, which is largely pitch-oriented, opens with the vibraphone and the cadenza (soloist alone) combines both glockenspiel (tuned metal plates arranged in the fashion of a keyboard) and crotales (small tuned antique cymbals made of brass or bronze), resulting in a bright, high-pitched atmosphere. The second movement of the concerto, by contrast, is focused largely on rhythm and features percussion instruments of indefinite pitch. The third movement sees the marimba take to the fore until a coda-like section toward the end looks back to the prior combination of glockenspiel and crotales. There is no obvious form or tonality to the overall work. Rather, matters shift and evolve, as Grime explores a kaleidoscope of colors and textures between soloist and orchestra. The latter is itself afforded an impressive arsenal of instruments, allowing for maximum timbral and dynamic potential.
Grime’s twenty-three-minute Percussion Concerto was co-commissioned by the Baltimore Symphony and the Swedish Chamber Orchestra, and premiered with tonight’s soloist, Colin Currie. As reported by Steve Lomas of the Classical Source, Grime “continued the upward trajectory of her position on the British music scene with her superb new Percussion Concerto…. The whole work is a model of clarity, timbral exquisiteness and rhythmic tautness.”
Arcangelo Corelli (1653-1713): Concerto Grosso in G minor, Op. 6 No. 8 (“Christmas Concerto”)
Instrumentation: string orchestra
Duration: 13 minutes
When we think of the violin, Italy should spring to mind. It was here, after all, where the violin family was born and then experienced its zenith with makers such as Stradivari. It is no coincidence that here too were to be found the foremost performers on and composers for the instrument. At the turn of the 17th century, then, Italy was the ideal laboratory for the violin and no violinist-composer from this period ranks higher in importance than Arcangelo Corelli. Born in the diocese of Ferrara, Corelli eventually moved to Bologna, where he appears to have been accepted into the Accademia Filarmonica by the age of 19, a very young age for so esteemed a performing society. Eventually Corelli settled in Rome, where he worked with a number of ensembles and slowly gained a reputation that would eventually attract the attention of popes and dukes. Ultimately, however, it was Corelli’s contributions as a teacher of the next generation of violinist-composers and his own music that established the Italian as “the iconic point of reference” to all later violinists.
Corelli’s compositional oeuvre can be broken down into a neat set of six opus numbers, each containing twelve separate works and each employing the violin in a solo capacity. The first five are sonatas of various types, while the Opus 6 are Concerti Grossi, an early Baroque form that Corelli almost single-handedly developed—he was also the first composer to actually use the term—and which in turn gave way to the classical concerto. As is typical of the composer’s concerti, the Christmas Concerto juxtaposes a concertino group (in this case two violins and cello) with the larger body of strings known as the ripieno. As is also typical, the concerto demonstrates Corelli’s inventiveness as a composer whose harmonic designs created a sense of inevitability of direction. Whether involving scaler melodies, string crossing patterns or Corelli’s trademark “suspensions”—two notes that grate against one another until one resolves into yet another clash, and then another, until the pattern comes to rest—Corelli’s music always pushes forward in exciting and moving ways.
As opposed to the four movements common among Corelli’s “church” concerti, the Christmas Concerto is comprised of six. The first opens with a few festive introductory Vivace bars before moving on to a more sustained Grave. The Allegro features our two groups, as the two solo violins and solo cello are answered in quick succession by the larger ripieno group. The third movement is itself a tripartite form, Adagio-Allegro-Adagio, the glorious slower sections featuring the chains of suspensions mentioned earlier. Two fast movements follow (the first in 3/4 time, the latter in 4/4) and then the concerto concludes with a gentle pastoral, marked Largo, arguably the most famous movement to come from Corelli’s pen. While there is nothing religious about the concerto per se, the undated score bears the inscription Fatto per la notte di Natale, “made for the night of Christmas.”
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791): Symphony No. 40 in G minor, K. 550
Instrumentation: flute, pairs of oboes, clarinets, bassoons and horns, timpani and strings
Composed: July, 1788
Duration: 35 minutes
While there is some mystery surrounding the genesis of Mozart’s 40th Symphony, one thing is for certain: it was finished by 25 July, 1788, the date the composer entered the work into his catalog of compositions. The G minor Symphony (sometimes referred to as the “Great G minor Symphony” to differentiate from the earlier symphony in the same key performed earlier this season) followed on the heels of No. 39, completed the previous month and was in turn followed 16 days later by the completion of No. 41, what would prove Mozart’s final symphonic offering. Given the sophisticated nature of these scores, this was a remarkable stretch by any standards and shows Mozart at the height of his creative powers. Yet these symphonies were far from his only concerns, musical or otherwise, during this phase of the composer’s life. That July he also completed a violin sonata, a piano sonata, and a piano trio. And the previous month, besides composing another piano trio, Mozart changed addresses and sadly experienced the loss of his fourth child. We might wonder where he found the energy, much less the concentration required for such work?
Why these three symphonies at this stage? In all likelihood, Mozart had plans for them to be performed at Vienna concerts, although there is no record of these specific works being played on any concerts during this time, with a single exception: a letter survives telling about a private performance of the G minor Symphony at the home of Baron Gottfried van Swieten, one of Beethoven’s patrons as well. Unfortunately, it appears that the symphony was so poorly executed that Mozart left the room! Whether or not he ever heard it performed as he envisioned it remains a question but the fact that he subsequently incorporated clarinets and adjusted the wind parts accordingly—the version performed tonight—suggests that another performance of the work was pending.
Two factors heard at the outset of the opening Allegro should grab our attention: first, the work opens not with a melody but with an accompaniment (listen for the active viola writing in the first bars). This concept—setting up the entrance with a measure or two of accompaniment—was to become a standard feature of the romantic era, as evident in Schubert songs, for example, but was as of yet a very uncommon opening gambit in a symphony. Second is the nature of Mozart’s melody when introduced by the fiddles. Rather than a flowing melody, note the repeated three-note motive with which he builds this theme and how it’s developed throughout the course of the movement (the building of a theme from shorter fragments would prove a technique often employed by Beethoven and in fact the latter composer came to Vienna the previous year to study with Mozart but had to return home to attend to his mother’s health; by the time he returned five years later, Mozart was dead). The lyrical major-mode Andante, with its patches of musical humor, provides welcomed respite from the brooding nature of the opening Allegro. The Minuet again plunges us back into the darker world of G minor, its angry opening theme very far removed from the aristocratic dance-type that Mozart had so often incorporated into his symphonies. The middle “trio” section again offers major-key balance and features colorful wind writing. The opening theme of the spirited Allegro assai plays off the major and minor modes so quickly as to slip by almost unnoticed. This finale is cast in a sophisticated sonata form and as such the glorious second theme, introduced first by the violins and restated in slightly altered phrases by the winds, is a long time in coming. This fact alone gives us an idea of the breadth of this last movement, one of the composer’s last pure symphonic creations and one of his most musically challenging (you will soon hear grating dissonances not often associated with Mozart’s “classical” style). Yet as with much of the composer’s late works, in the final analysis it also remains one of his most satisfying scores.
© Marc Moskovitz