Program Notes: Mozart’s Groundbreaker

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Tarik O’Regan

Raï (2006)
Born 1 January 1971 in London

  • Tarik O’Regan is a biracial Englishman with an Algerian mother
  • Educated in London, he has taught at many prominent American universities
  • Currently based in Northern California, he is a Visiting Artist at Stanford
  • O’Regan’s music reflects British rock, American jazz, and North African folk music
  • Of 43 recordings of his music, two have received Grammy nominations

Tarik O’Regan’s music draws on his own multi-cultural heritage, and an interest in the cross-pollination of European musical traditions with folk, rock, jazz, and world music. Raï is the Arabic word for opinion, but O’Regan explains that it is also a catch-all for folk and pop music of Oran, Algeria. He uses goblet drums common in North African and Middle Eastern music to produce pitches that are often mirrored in the orchestra’s more melodic instruments. The result is a free rondo whose recurring sections pulse with jagged energy, with more lyrical and smooth episodes interspersed.

Though he was born in South London and educated at British music schools – the Royal College of Music, Pembroke College, Oxford, and Corpus Christi College Cambridge – Tarik O’Regan has long made his home in the United States. He has held teaching fellowships at Columbia, Harvard, Princeton, and Yale. O’Regan is currently a visiting artist at Stanford University, and was recently appointed Composer-in-Residence with the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and Chorale.

Given that O’Regan’s father is an Englishman of Irish descent and his mother is Algerian, it is no surprise that his music reflects diverse styles. These include British rock bands of the 1960s and 1970s, North African music, jazz, and minimalism. He also has a keen interest in Renaissance vocal music. His composer’s note for Raï explains how it embraces European traditions and 1920s Algerian folk music.

Raï (2006) was originally designed to stand alongside Luciano Berio’s Folk Songs (1964) and Igor Stravinsky’s Three Songs from William Shakespeare (1954) in a concert and broadcast by the Britten Sinfonia, which highlighted the work of non-American composers undertaken whilst living in the USA. Having, then, recently moved to New York, I was interested in the way that Berio and Stravinsky turned back immediately to the Old World upon their arrival in the New. Taking one layer of the ‘old’ (for Berio melody and for Stravinsky text) they added to this their own brand of modernism, influenced by their new surroundings in California.

The word raï, meaning ‘opinion’ in Arabic, is a catch-all description for folk, folk-pop or, now, folk-rock music that has its some of its roots in 1920s Oran, Algeria. Its evolution is as nebulous and complex as the history of the blues in the USA. Indeed raï might best be understood as a kind of Arab blues (singing of alienation, poverty & emancipation), its seed planted under French colonial rule, blossoming after the violent Algerian War of Independence (1954-1962).

Its prevalence throughout the world is as diverse and difficult to codify as its better-known American counterpart. Built upon a base of Bedouin folk music and Arab love poetry, raï today partly owes its sound to the eclectic influences of Edith Piaf, Latin-American dance rhythms, East Coast jazz and 80s pop icons like Madonna. In trying to define a ‘sound’ for the genre, one can think of raï as an Algerian textural foundation, to which has been added whatever the prevalent musical trends of the day have happened to be. To me, the clearest features of the style, beyond the resonance of sung and spoken Arabic, are threefold: 1) the use of hand-drums (darbekah), capable of producing several ‘pitches’; 2) ‘gated’ rhythms, which alternately glide in sympathy and grind against the underlying pulse; 3) a doubling of the vocal melody with an instrument (be it a violin or electric guitar).

“For some time, I have been interested in the use of texture as an organic, developmental device. In Raï I make use of two goblet drums, varieties of which are found in Persian, Arab & Turkish music, as a driving feature of the work. Their rhythm, often ‘gated’, is doubled throughout the piece on various instruments. Structurally the form is an approximate rondo, with the ‘jabbing’ material of the opening interspersed amongst other contrasting passages, eventually unifying in a fast-paced coda.

I have not tried to write an ethnographic piece here; there are, for example, no transcribed rhythms or ‘authentic’ melodies sewn into the fabric of the work. Rather I have tried to paint a new image onto the underlying raï canvas. For some time now, contemporary dance music in Europe and North America has adopted varied traits of North African and Middle Eastern indigenous music. And so Raï seeks to highlight the symbiotic nature of Arab dance music today with its influence upon and absorption of non-Arab culture.”

– Tarik O’Regan

Raï was commissioned by the Britten Sinfonia and received its premiere on 3 March 2007 in Aldeburgh Church, Suffolk. This weekend’s performances are the American premiere. The score calls for flute, clarinet, a large percussion complement, harp, and strings.

Franz Joseph Haydn

Symphony No. 95 in C minor
Born 31 March, 1732 in Rohrau, Austria
Died 31 May, 1809 in Vienna

  • Haydn spent most of his career working for the princely, music-loving Esterházy family
  • He wrote for every conceivable genre, including opera, sacred works, and chamber music
  • An early master of the orchestra, Haydn composed more than 100 symphonies
  • Haydn’s style evolved over the course of a long life: from rococo to high classical
  • His mischievous personality manifested itself in witty, often folk-like music

Haydn’s Symphony No. 95 in C minor is one of twelve “London” symphonies that crowned his late years. He composed the 95th symphony shortly after his arrival in the English capital in early 1790. Its terse opening and dark C minor tonality display a side of Haydn’s personality associated more with his so-called Sturm und Drang [“Storm and stress”] period of the 1770s than with the London years. Haydn’s temperament was essentially sunny, however, and his good-natured character shines forth in the lovely slow movement and zesty finale.

Joseph Haydn had arrived in London from Vienna for the first time at New Year’s 1791, at the behest of the entrepreneur and violinist Johann Peter Salomon. Their collaboration was to prove one of the most fruitful in all music history, yielding a full dozen of the most splendid symphonies in the repertoire: the works collectively known as Haydn’s London Symphonies.

Unique among the ‘London’ Symphonies

The one we hear is the sole London symphony without a slow introduction–and the only one in a minor key. These factors are related. Minor mode signaled a work of serious import, a role ordinarily fulfilled by the slow introduction. Haydn punctuated his vigorous opening unison statement with pregnant rests. Those brief silences emphasize drama and invite contrapuntal development later in the movement.

Haydn’s second theme, a lilting, rhythmic descending figure in E-flat major, is worlds apart. The two ideas contrast in character, melodic shape, and rhythmic profile. Indeed contrast, particularly between major and minor mode, courses through this symphony. Rather than ending in C minor, Haydn resolves the first movement in sunny C major.

His slow movement is a series of variations in E flat. The first variation features the cello section. The principal cellist has an even more prominent role in the C major trio section of the Menuetto: a solo of concerto-like difficulty.

Connections to Mozart and Beethoven?

Haydn’s symphony concludes with a brisk Vivace in C major that shows off his skill in fugal writing, while honoring the basic structure of sonata form. Some critics note a parallel with the finale to Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony (1788), others think the entire work foreshadows Beethoven’s Fifth. Ultimately, Haydn is his own man.

Haydn scored the symphony for flute, 2 oboes, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, and strings. Except for the absence of clarinets and the presence of a single flute rather than a pair, his orchestra is at full size for the late classical period.

Wolfgang Amadè Mozart

Piano Concerto No. 25 in C major, K. 503
Born 27 January, 1756 in Salzburg, Austria
Died 5 December, 1791 in Vienna, Austria

  • Mozart was born in Salzburg, but traveled extensively as a gifted “wunderkind”
  • He moved to Vienna in 1781, embarking on the most successful years of his life
  • Between 1784 and 1786, he composed 12 splendid piano concerti
  • The 1780s were also rich in operatic masterpieces, including Don Giovanni and The Marriage of Figaro
  • Sadly, Mozart spent his last years scrambling for commissions and steady employment
  • He died at 35, leaving his final work, the Requiem, unfinished

Mozart’s Piano Concerto in C Major, K.503 dates from the same year as The Marriage of Figaro. Some have called K. 503 Mozart’s “Emperor” concerto, but it is even more aptly compared to his “Jupiter” Symphony: in the same key of C major, and with a melodic sweetness married to Olympian power. Both outer movements are symphonic in scope. Mozart establishes heroic character in the march-like opening. Listen for trumpets and drums; this is bright, assertive music! The pianist’s first entrance is almost like a mini-cadenza. The pastoral Andante shows us Mozart’s softer side, even with wide leaps that are quasi-operatic. He dazzles us with muscle and agility in the finale. It is a joyous ride.

The year 1786 was exceptionally productive for Mozart. In addition to his opera The Marriage of Figaro, he was able to complete a number of splendid chamber works and several piano concerti, including the magnificent Concerto No.25 in C major. Several writers have called this work Mozart’s `Emperor’ Concerto.

The piece is an enormous achievement, with a spaciousness, breadth and power all expressed with a heroism that does indeed look forward to Beethoven. Majestic seems to be the best description. Mozart employed his largest concerto orchestra to support the piano in K.503, excepting only No. 24 in C minor, K. 491, which calls for clarinets as well as oboes. But the first movement of K. 503 is the lengthiest movement that Mozart ever composed.

A bold, assertive C major opening built on arpeggiated tonic chords set a forthright military tone characteristic of many of Mozart’s first movements. A secondary fanfare theme that foreshadows the opening phrase of the “Marseillaise” serves as an important developmental building block. Such Beethovenian gestures are liberally interspersed with delightful little melodies of Mozartian simplicity and appeal. Pianist and author Charles Rosen has observed:

In K. 503, the renunciation of harmonic color is already a marked characteristic: almost all the shadings arise from a simple alternation of major and minor. . . . [This] alternation is the dominant color of K. 503, and a prime element of the structure as well.

Using Rosen’s observation as a listening guideline reveals startling parallels among the three movements, and illustrates with what elemental and economical means Mozart constructs the most elaborate and imposing of his musical structures. In the playful rondo that closes the concerto, his lighter tone never compromises the grandeur and dignity of the whole.

No cadenza by Mozart exists for this concerto, because he wrote it for himself, and his custom in concert was to improvise. (Written-out cadenzas survive for other concertos, usually those he composed for his gifted students.) For this weekend’s performances, Mr. Biss plays his own cadenzas.

K.503 is scored for flute, two oboes, two bassoons, two horns, two trumpets, timpani, solo piano, and strings.



Program Notes by Laurie Shulman ©2021 

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