Winds & Piano

Nadine Hur, flute
Donna Conaty, oboe
Ilya Shterenberg, clarinet
Ellen Connors, bassoon
Stephanie Blaha, horn
Scott Cuellar, piano

Program notes

The Jon Mac Anderson Program Notes underwritten by Porter, Wright, Morris and Arthur, LLP

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791): Quintet for Piano and Winds in E-Flat Major, K. 452
Between the years 1777-1781 Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was, for all intents and purposes, an itinerant musician. Having tired of provincial Salzburg and certainly in the attempt to put some distance between himself and his overbearing violinist-father, Mozart hit the road with his mother, hoping to find a professional post and composing prodigiously along the way (Munich, Paris and so on). By 1782, his mother now dead and his ties cut with Salzburg, Mozart settled in Vienna, where he married and hung out his shingle, carving out a living as a composer, teacher and performing pianist. This is what his life looked like when, on April 1, 1784, he played piano at the premiere of his freshly composed Quintet for Piano and Winds. Mozart had only completed the work a day or so earlier, so he was evidently working right up against the deadline of the performance, but given that neither he nor anyone else had ever composed for this combination of instruments, we are still left shaking our heads about the circumstances. Had he been commissioned? Was he playing a concert of his own works for his own benefit? What we know is that a few days later he wrote to his father, “I consider it the best thing I have ever written. I wish you could have heard it and heard how beautifully it was performed. Honestly, by the end I had grown tired from all the playing but to my credit, my audience did not share my fatigue at all.” It’s an amazing statement, given his portfolio to date, which, among hundreds of other works included all but the final symphonies, operas, chamber music, choral works and the rest!

With a quartet of winds and piano Mozart faced an issue he didn’t have to confront when composing for strings: sustained lines. To skirt this problem, he opted for short ideas and these he passes around the group with abandon. To his credit, this is no “mere” piano concerto with wind accompaniment—from the grand introduction to the charming rondo finale (arguably the stand-out movement), he gives each instrument its due…and to be sure, he loved them all, as evidenced by the fact that he wrote at least one concerto for every instrument involved (not to mention some 27 for the keyboard). 

Following the introduction, the sonata-form first movement, Allegro moderato, unfolds at a stately pace. The slow movement (Larghetto) is a rather extended affair, but Mozart keeps the motion moving forward with a fleeting 32nd note gesture that grows from the opening idea (played by the oboe and bassoon). But the finale is the real treat and if you’re familiar with Mozart’s music, you’ll find yourself somewhere between a concerto and an opera and loving every bar!

Joseph Haydn (1732-1809): London Trio No. 1 in C Major, Hob. IV:1
In 1790, after having spent decades in the service of the princely Esterházy family in the Hungarian countryside, his employer died, and Joseph Haydn suddenly found himself able to write what he wanted and travel where he wanted. Fortuitously, that fall a German-born but violinist and impresario by the name of Johann Salomon showed up at Haydn’s door—”I am Salomon from London and I have come to fetch you!”—and induced the famous composer to join him in London, where Salomon was playing an active role in the capital’s bustling musical life. For Haydn, the better part of whose life had been spent composing for nobility, writing for the public was an offer he couldn’t refuse. Haydn actually made two trips to London, in 1791 and again three years later and it was during the second trip that his three so-called “London Trios” were born. 

On November 14, 1794, Haydn wrote in his diary, “I went with Lord Abingdon to Preston, 26 miles from London, to visit the Baron of Aston—he and his wife both love music….” As a gift to his hosts, Haydn brought along some unusual divertimentos—that is, light music for entertainment or diversions, scored unusually for two flutes and cello. We can assume, therefore, that one or both his hosts played flute, cello or both, and Haydn, always the gentleman, was doing his Austrian best to ingratiate himself with his new English friends. 

The first of the set, in C major, falls into the traditional fast-slow-fast pattern (in this case Allegro moderato, Andante, Vivace). As one might expect, the pair of flutes are given dominance, with the cello assigned a relative subservient accompanimental role. Though hardly the sophisticated music that he was delivering to London audiences in the form of symphonies, the trios are nevertheless charming works that provide evidence both of Haydn’s humor and general musical command. In fact, Haydn was deeply enough occupied with this trio’s composition as to have composed an alternate Andante, though it’s not known which he preferred.

Miguel del Águila (b. 1957): “Back in Time” from Quintet No. 2
Miguel del Águila’s musical roots are deeply embedded in the driving rhythms and melodic flair of his native South America. Nominated for three Latin Grammys, the Uraguayan’s music is actively programmed by orchestras and ensembles from Lancaster to Kiev. His Woodwind Quintet No. 2 was written in 1994 and was awarded a Kennedy Center Friedheim Award for excellence in chamber music composition the following year. According to the composer, the work’s first movement, “Back in Time,” has a primitive, ritualistic character. The flute, accompanied by chant, plays a simple, modal theme. The simple musical structure and melodic material are retained as the movement progresses.”

The six-minute movement, then, opens with flute, as the other performers hum along in unison. The simplicity of the opening is, however, rather deceptive, for the music truly blossoms with the entrance of the other instruments. Aguila’s language is a bit Copland-eque in its open intervals and spaciousness and given the singing demands he makes on his performers, it may just well be the most demanding music you’ll hear tonight!

Ludwig Thuille (1861-1907): Sextet for Piano and Wind Quintet, Op. 6
Listening to the music of Ludwig Thuille, one wonders why his name is among those all-but-forgotten composers of the late Romantic era. Born in the Tyrolean town of Bolzan, now Bolzano in Italy, the youth demonstrated a precocious musical talent, excelling in voice, violin, piano and organ. Bozen, however, had little to offer the burgeoning musician and after meeting Richard Strauss in Innsbruck, he made his way to Munich, to study with one of the day’s musical giants, Joseph Rheinberger. Thuille’s early claim to fame came by way of opera, a work that garnered its composer the prestigious first prize in a Bavarian competition held in 1897, a year when another young Austrian—and the subject of a biography by yours truly!—Alexander von Zemlinsky, came in second. Besides the opera, evidently, Thuille had something else Zemlinsky severely lacked—stunningly good looks, to judge by his photograph, and a fantastic mustache to boot but despite a rather prolific output, Thuille’s music has largely faded from the repertoire. This fact is at least partially attributable to his early death at age of 45 from heart failure.

In contrast to most of his oeuvre, Thuille’s B-flat Sextet for Piano and Winds has maintained a toehold in the wind repertoire and for good reason. Besides its indebtedness to both Rheinberger and Strauss, who also acted as significant influence on the conservative composer and both of whom excelled at wind writing, Thuille’s sextet is a truly majestic piece of music. The work opens with a noble horn call over a rippling piano bass line, setting the heroic tone for the Allegro moderato. It is a romantic movement in the truest sense of the word, with the unfolding of gracious themes and rich, lush instrumentation. The horn again introduces the Larghetto, its call perhaps inspired by the pastoral Tyrolean landscape of the composer’s youth, and which is eventually juxtaposed by an upright theme underscored by a punctuated accompaniment. Still, the movement’s overall atmosphere remains one of grandeur. The charming and jaunty Gavotte, marked Andante-quasi Allegretto, again suggests the air of the Tyrolean countryside, though in this case the character is that of a peasant dance. The lively Vivace finale sparkles with verve and the sophisticated working out of ideas, leaving us in joyous spirits and in deep appreciation of a master of his craft.

(C) Marc Moskovitz