CARNEGIE HALL PRESENTS

Performance Thursday, December 15, 2011 | 8 PM

Orchestra of St. Luke's

Stern Auditorium / Perelman Stage
Messiaen combined crystalline textures with Catholic mysticism to create beautiful sacred music; you could say he was the 20th century’s Bach. Robert Spano and the Orchestra of St. Luke’s perform choral works by each composer in a concert that features a host of astounding soloists and the excellent Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chamber Chorus.
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The Program

 

JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH
“Brandenburg” Concerto No. 3 in G Major, BWV 1048


About the Composer


On March 24, 1721, Bach sent a beautiful presentation manuscript containing six concertos to Margrave Christian Ludwig of Brandenburg. During his work in the Calvinist court of Cöthen, Bach had no call to compose music for the church (his major interest) because the Calvinist church allowed only hymn singing without musical instruments. As a result, most of his energy during the Cöthen years was devoted to chamber music and secular vocal music, including sonatas for unaccompanied solo instrument or for solo instrument with basso continuo, as well as a substantial and growing repertory of keyboard music, some of which was designed for the education of his growing brood of musical children.


About the Work


Bach certainly composed what we now know as the “Brandenburg” Concertos (the nickname was given by the first great Bach scholar Philipp Spitta) in Cöthen and performed them with the ensemble he had at hand. The presentation copy of the manuscript was presumably aimed at generating a response, either in the form of a job offer or a financial gift; however, there is no evidence that any of these magnificent concertos were ever performed in Brandenburg.

The modern notion of a concerto as a work for a large orchestra competing against one or more soloists had not yet developed in Bach’s day. It is most likely that he never intended more than one player on a part in any of the “Brandenburgs.” Despite the presence of prominent and virtuosic solo parts, all of these works fall into the category of “ensemble concertos” rather than “solo concertos,” since the soloists share the glory and the difficulties with the other members of the ensemble. The form in which we have these six works certainly owes much to the ensemble that Bach directed in Cöthen, with the solo parts conceived for musicians Bach knew personally, representing a variety of different approaches to the concerto idea.


A Closer Listen


The Third “Brandenburg” Concerto is unusual for its orchestration of only strings, divided into nine parts. Though it is completely instrumental, the shape of the opening movement corresponds to that of the da capo aria that filled Baroque operas: an opening statement (the ritornello) by the full ensemble, then varied treatments of the material, ending in the home key with a restatement of the ritornello. The middle section ends in a contrasting key. In the opera house, this would be followed by a literal repetition of the opening da capo—that is, “from the head” of the piece, with elaborate ornamentation on the singer’s part. But in the “Brandenburg” No. 3, Bach presents a complete final part, recasting the musical material with different instruments and even adding a new countermelody.

Then comes a mystery: two isolated chords, over which the original performers most likely would have improvised. This leads directly to the finale, a lively, racing dance movement in binary form.
 

© 2011 Steven Ledbetter

 

OLIVIER MESSIAEN
Trois petites liturgies de la Présence Divine


About the Composer


Messiaen developed a taste for music as a young child. He described his encounter with Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande as his “most decisive influence” and entered the Paris Conservatoire at 11 years old. A devout Roman Catholic, Messiaen worked as an organist at the church of La Trinité in Paris from 1930 until his death. During World War II, Messiaen was captured as a prisoner of war; however, he continued to compose during his imprisonment and performed for other prisoners. After his release, he began teaching at the Paris Conservatoire, a post he held until the late 1970s.


About the Work


Trois petites liturgies
was an important milestone in the development of Messiaen’s musical language. It marks his first use of birdsong and his first use of an electronic instrument called the ondes martenot—both of which figured prominently in his later works. In addition, the solo piano part was conceived for Yvonne Loriod, who was to become Messiaen’s second wife. Messiaen’s choice of percussion instruments included both pitched (celesta and vibraphone) and un-pitched instruments, the former employed in rhythmic patterns that recall the continuous tintinnabulation of the Balinese gamelan. The rich, dense chords often color surprisingly simple melodic figures for the women’s voices.


A Closer Listen


For Three Little Liturgies, Messiaen created his own spiritual text, drawing from the Bible, St. Thomas Aquinas, and The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis. He found the idea for his ritualistic treatment—chant-like melodies and rhythmic repetitions—in Stravinsky’s Les noces, one of the scores that he carried with him during his time as a soldier in the early months of World War II and kept throughout his confinement in a German stalag.

Most of the work is based in A major, a key regarded by Messiaen as especially joyous. Despite the rich ornamentation of melodic lines, the dense piano chords, and rapid percussion figures, the essential harmony is stable and centered—possibly one reason why the first audience seems to have been very enthusiastic about the score (though the press insisted that the music was in no sense “sacred”). The work’s formal simplicity, allied with rich and brilliantly colored accompaniments, make it a perfect introduction to the unique world of Messiaen.
 

© 2011 Steven Ledbetter

JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH
Magnificat in D Major, BWV 243


About the Composer


Bach arrived in Leipzig, the place he called home for the rest of his life, in the spring of 1723. For his first Christmas as music director of St. Thomas Church, he produced a version of the Magnificat in E-flat major, and added to the Latin liturgical text four interpolations of German Christmas chorales. At a later date, he reworked the piece, transposing it into the version most familiar to us today in D Major, without the Christmas interpolations, and with some adjustments of scoring and texture.


About the Work


Bach only composed one setting of the Magnificat text, but characteristically he filled it with such richness of invention that it surpasses almost all other settings. He divided the text over 12 brief movements, which range from poignant aria to vigorous choral fugue, providing in a very compact work the full breadth, depth, and range of his art.


A Closer Listen


Bach was always sensitive to the meaning of words, finding wonderful ways to translate them into music: the ecstatic celebration of “Magnificat” in No. 1, the tranquil joy of “exsultavit” in No. 2, or the poignant expression of “humility” repeated in a downward motion in No. 3. At the end of No. 3, the soprano soloist sings a line that should conclude with the words, “all generations”; however, these words are handed over to the chorus, who brilliantly evoke centuries of people through repeated eighth-note figures, each entering one step higher than the last.

The bass continuo aria that declares, “He who is powerful has made me great” in No. 5 presents a striking contrast to the pastoral duet for alto and tenor in No. 6. The choral fugue in No. 7 gives way to a strong choral statement with sturdy block harmonies. Bach’s love of word-painting is evident in the tenor aria (No. 8), as the vocal line moves downward in strong-willed steps and leaps as the “powerful are cast down.” The line then turns gloriously upward to show the elevation of the humble.

The sweet harmonies of the flutes in No. 9 paint the “good things” with which the hungry are filled, while the rich are sent empty away. For No. 10, Bach employs one of the oldest techniques in western music: against the soprano and alto vocal lines, the oboes play a plainsong melody of the ninth Psalm tone, which was often used in Leipzig for singing the Magnificat in regular liturgical services. The closing sentence of the canticle is set by Bach as an old style fugue, with a continuo line supporting the voices—a bow to the church traditions of earlier centuries. The last phrase, “as it was in the beginning,” ends the piece with the same music that opened it—brilliantly festive, overflowing with energy and joy.

 

© 2011 Steven Ledbetter

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