Program Notes: Mozart’s Radiance

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Dawn: Chacony for Orchestra at Any Distance (2020)
Thomas Adès
  • The son of an art historian and a poet, Thomas Adès is a native of London
  • He studied at London’s Guildhall School of Music and King’s College Cambridge
  • Adès achieved success early, having a retrospective of his music when he was only in his 30s
  • His operas The Tempest, Powder her Face, and The Exterminating Angel have all entered the repertoire
  • Adès is active as a pianist and conductor in addition to his composing

Britain’s Thomas Adès rocketed to fame in the early 1990s with a series of remarkable chamber works, simultaneously cultivating his reputation as a brilliant pianist. A London native, Adès studied at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama and at Kings College Cambridge, where his composition teachers included Alexander Goehr and Robin Holloway. He was only 24 when his first opera, Powder Her Face, was commissioned and premiered by the Almeida Opera Festival. Before the millennium turned, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra commissioned his Asyla, which won the prestigious Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition – then the largest purse in classical music – in 2000. He remains the youngest composer to have received that award.

Adès has fulfilled his early promise as a composer and pianist, and has expanded his activities to include conducting. He served as Artistic Director of the Aldeburgh Festival from 1999 to 2008, and remains active on both sides of the Atlantic. He became the Boston Symphony’s first ever Artistic Partner in 2016.

Dawn was a response to the coronavirus pandemic. It was commissioned by the BBC for a Proms Concert in August 2020 at London’s Royal Albert hall; Sir Simon Rattle conducted the London Symphony Orchestra. In late summer 2020, the pandemic had all but shut down live performances. Adès thus left Dawn’s instrumentation flexible, not knowing what number of performers might be permitted on stage when the work was performed, nor how they would have to be spaced.

The subtitle, Chacony, is a bow to Adès’s 17th-century predecessor Henry Purcell, whose Chacony in G minor is one of his better known instrumental compositions. The term is an English variant of the French chaconne, a dance in slow triple meter with a repeated ground bass that provides the foundation for sequential variations. Chaconnes appear in French operas starting in the late 1650s. The dance seems to have found its way to England in the 1670s.

Adès’s Dawn is an updated Chacony, whose repetitive bass line mirrors the phenomenon of solar progress. “In this piece,” Adès has written, “the sunrise is imagined as a constant event that moves continuously around the world. This eternal dawn is presented as a ‘chacony,’ – in the word that Purcell used some 330 years ago, a mile or two away.” Adès’s perpetual dawn sends a message that the sun is always rising somewhere: an affirmative, optimistic gesture in a pandemic world.

The score calls for woodwinds in pairs plus contrabassoon, two horns, two trumpets, two trombones, tuba, timpani, vibraphone, bells, four gongs, cimbalom (or upright piano), harp, piano, and strings.

Suite from Ma Mère l’Oye [Mother Goose] Maurice Ravel

Born 7 March, 1875 in Ciboure, Basses-Pyrenées, France
Died 28 December, 1937 in Paris

  • Maurice Ravel is best known for Boléro – but he wrote a wealth of other music
  • Though he is often called an impressionist, Ravel favored classical forms and ideas
  • He was a perfectionist and a detail person; Stravinsky liked him to “a Swiss watchmaker”
  • Ravel’s solo piano works are some of the most difficult in the keyboard literature
  • Many of his orchestral works originated as piano pieces
  • Ravel’s orchestration of Pictures at an Exhibition helped to popularize Mussorgsky’s music

Maurice Ravel had roots in the Basque country in the southwest of France, and Basque culture influenced many of his works. In Ma mère l’oye [Mother Goose], he favored not Spain but a more universal land of make believe inspired by the beloved tales of a 17th-century French author. Ravel’s original Mother Goose Suite of five pieces was a four-hand duo for the children of close friends. He eventually orchestrated it and expanded the music into a ballet score. Each movement captures the imaginary fantasy of such familiar tales as Tom Thumb, Beauty and the Beast, and the Fairy Garden.

Maurice Ravel loved children and had a gift for storytelling. When the pianist Riccardo Viñes introduced him to Cipa and Ida Godebski in 1904, the friendship developed in large part because of the two Godebski children, Jean and Mimie. By 1908, Ravel had become a frequent visitor at La Grangette, the family’s country home in Valvins, near Fontainebleau. There he spent long hours with Jean and Mimie, reading to them from classic 17th- and 18th-century French fairy tales by Charles Perrault, Marie-Catherine Comtesse d’Aulnoy, and Marie LePrince de Beaumont.

From piano bench to the ballet stage

Elegant illustrations in the fairy tale books and the children’s rapt attention prompted Ravel to compose a suite for one piano, four hands between 1908 and 1910. He modified his demanding keyboard style to accommodate Jean and Mimie’s technical ability. The simpler approach is curiously apt for the tales. In 1911 he orchestrated it, adding a prelude and several interludes for adaptation into a ballet. The orchestral Suite consists of the same five movements as the original piano work.

Ravel once told an interviewer that he wanted to bring to life “the poetry of childhood” in these miniatures. In the opening movement, sobered courtiers dance their sedate pavane while gazing upon the slumbering princess, who has pricked herself with an enchanted needle. Petit poucet is Tom Thumb. Ravel’s music suggests the boy wandering aimlessly, trying to locate the trail of breadcrumbs that will lead him home. Chirping birds, who have eaten the crumbs, mock him cruelly.

Laideronette, one of Mme d’Aulnoy’s tales, is a child’s fantasy in the bath. The air fills with the tinkle of pentatonic bells, Renaissance lutes and theorbos. Beauty and the Beast needs little introduction in our culture. The animated video found its way into millions of American homes in the mid-1990s. Ravel’s movement contrasts the grace of Beauty’s waltz with the low growling of the enchanted prince imprisoned within the Beast. The Suite concludes with the awakening of the fairy garden, a musical breaking of the spell whose peaceful, melodious strains wreak their own sorcery.

Ravel scored his Suite for two flutes (both doubling piccolo), two oboes (both doubling English horn), two clarinets, two bassoons (both doubling contrabassoon), two horns, timpani, triangle, cymbals, bass drum, tam-tam, xylophone, glockenspiel, celesta, harp, and strings.

Piano Concerto No. 23 in A Major, K. 488
Wolfgang Amadè Mozart

Born 27 January, 1756 in Salzburg, Austria
Died 5 December, 1791 in Vienna, Austria

  • Mozart was an astonishing musical prodigy, evincing keyboard talent at age 4
  • His father Leopold was a court violinist and composer in Salzburg, and taught the boy violin and clavier
  • Leopold took Wolfgang and his sister Marianne on concert tours in the early 1760s, when they were still small children
  • Wolfgang started his professional career in Salzburg, but moved to Vienna at age 25
  • He was enormously successful in the Austrian capital, but a poor money manager

Mozart distills his style to pristine perfection in the Piano Concerto No.23 in A major, a key he reserved for works with a transparent, joyous quality. For its gentle strains, he used clarinet in the orchestra instead of the more piquant oboes, forgoing timpani and brass. The result is intimate and tender, absent of the military flourishes in the larger-scale concertos. The soloist dazzles with brilliant passage work in the outer movements, with poignant tragedy in between. In the finale, a secondary theme that sounds a bit like “Dixie” lends bounce and exuberance, bringing the concerto to a sparkling close.

Mozart reserved the key of A major for special works. His compositions in A reflect tranquility, clarity of spirit and a measure of intimacy that are rarely present in other tonalities. Both Mozart’s A Major Piano Concerti (K. 414 and K. 488) are exquisite jewels with an immediate melodic appeal that does not preclude emotional weight. This later concerto holds a special place in the Mozart canon, more fully realizing the tenderness, pathos and sparkle hinted at so generously in the earlier work.

As a performing artist in the Vienna of the 1780s, Mozart was famed for his brilliant improvisations. In his piano concerti he left us a tantalizing glimpse of his improvisatory style in the surviving cadenzas. These cadenzas present a paradox: Mozart generally committed them to manuscript paper only when they were intended for someone else. When performing concerti in public, he relied on his own inexhaustible invention, creating the cadenzas spontaneously. Thus, those cadenzas produced for his students are the best surviving evidence we have of his imaginative, freer playing. They submit readily to the interpretive keyboard gifts of other pianists. The first movement cadenza to the A Major concerto is Mozart’s sole surviving cadenza for any of the dozen concerti he composed between 1784 and 1786. It is played by virtually all pianists who perform this work, including Ms. Dinnerstein in these performances.

Many writers have noted the increasing importance of opera in Mozart’s instrumental works during the 1780s. His dancing bassoon lines in the concerto’s zesty finale look forward to the irresistible shenanigans brought to such masterly perfection in The Marriage of Figaro (which Mozart completed just months after this concerto). Even more striking is the emotional intensity of the slow movement. H.C. Robbins Landon has drawn a parallel between the Adagio and the affective arias of Mozart’s opera seria heroines; there is a prescient relationship between this music and that of Pamina in The Magic Flute as well.

Once again, tonality plays an important role: this Adagio is the only instance in all of Mozart of a movement in the dark key of F-sharp Minor, the relative minor of A Major. Musicologist and pianist Charles Rosen singles out the slow movement as an astonishingly poignant expression of grief and despair, referring to its “passionate melancholy”. Mozart achieves this by the simplest of means; no virtuoso figuration interferes with the tragic intimacy of this lovely Adagio in slow siciliana rhythm.

Despite the jollity and brilliance of the ensuing rondo-finale, our memory of the slow movement is never fully erased. Mozart gives us a powerful reminder of it in a thrilling F-sharp Minor episode. He concludes the concerto with brilliant figuration in an exuberant style, but that echo of wistfulness still hangs in the air.

The score calls for two clarinets, two bassoons, solo piano and strings.


Program Notes by Laurie Shulman ©2021 

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