All About Our May 12 Concert
by David Leehey
Our Mother's Day program will open with our concerto competition winner Leah Iosevich playing a work for violin and orchestra by English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams called The Lark Ascending. This will be followed on the first half of the program by the Concerto Grosso No.1 by Ernest Bloch, a Swiss-born Jewish American emigree.
What is a concerto? According to the "new font of all knowledge", Wikipedia, a concerto is a musical composition in which, usually, one solo instrument (for instance, a piano, violin, cello or flute) is accompanied by an orchestra or concert band. The word concerto comes from Italian; its origin is uncertain, but it seems to originate from the conjunction of two Latin words: conserere (meaning to tie, to join, to weave) and certamen (competition, fight). So how do you join and fight at the same time? You don't, but you can alternate between episodes of opposition and cooperation, which is what typically happens in a concerto.
The instrumental concerto arose in the late Baroque period (ca. 1700-1750). During that time, a form of concerto called the concerto grosso, which contrasted a small group of instruments called a concertino with the rest of the orchestra, called the ripieno, was standard fare. Handel wrote several collections of concerti grossi, and several of the Brandenburg Concertos by Bach loosely follow the concerto grosso form. The popularity of the concerto grosso declined after the Baroque period, only to be revived in the 20th century. In the interim, the solo concerto, one instrument playing with (and against) an orchestra, reigned, and continues to do so today.
Solo concerti were also written during the Baroque era, with the solo instrument usually being a string instrument (such as the violin, viola, and cello) or a wind instrument (usually a flute, recorder, oboe, bassoon, horn, or trumpet). Bach wrote a famous concerto for two violins and orchestra. Keyboard concertos were comparatively rare until the evolution of the modern piano, whose increased volume and the richer sound could compete with a full orchestra.
During the Classical period (ca. 1750-1820), the solo concerto really came into its own. Mozart wrote five violin and 27 piano concertos, as well as concerti for other instruments. Beethoven wrote only one violin concerto and five piano concertos, but all remain in the standard repertoire. Haydn wrote two cello concertos which also remain popular today.
In the 19th century the concerto became a vehicle for virtuosic display. This was the Romantic era, and the solo artist was seen as a hero. Many famous concertos were written by composers such as Schumann, Chopin, Tchaikovsky, Mendelssohn, Brahms, and Dvořák, among many others. Many of these pieces are among the most popular compositions in the history of music. Such virtuosic pieces continued to be written in the 20th century by composers such as Elgar, Rachmaninoff, Sibelius, Bartók, and Prokofiev.
But let’s return back to our Mother’s Day Concert. Neither of the two concerto pieces on the first half of the program are typical concertos (by the way, the plural is technically concerti, but concertos is more commonly used in English). There are so many great examples of a typical concerto to be heard on YouTube that it is hard to choose just one, but I will choose Beethoven’s Concerto No. 5 for Piano and Orchestra (the “Emperor” Concerto) as my example of a typical concerto.
- First of all, it is generally recognized as one of the masterpieces of the concerto literature.
- Second, you only need to listen for a few moments to hear the competition between the soloist and orchestra. After a loud opening orchestral chord, the piano soloist enters with a flourish of scales, arpeggios (broken chords), and trills, which leads to another loud orchestral chord (take that!), followed by yet another even more virtuosic piano passage, leading to (you guessed it) a third loud orchestral chord. The piano soloist, not to be outdone, plays another flourish, leading to the beginning of the main theme.
Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending could hardly be more different from the “Emperor” Concerto. The composer wrote this beautiful idyll in 1914 before the onset of the Great War, revising it in 1920. The inspiration for the piece was the eponymous George Meredith poem:
He rises and begins to round,
He drops the silver chain of sound,
Of many links without a break,
In chirrup, whistle, slur and shake.
For singing 'til his heaven fills,
'Tis love of earth that he instils,
And ever winging up and up,
Our valley is his golden cup,
And he the wine which overflows
To lift us with him as he goes
'Til lost on his aerial rings
In light, and then the fancy sings.
A warm, hazy, rising orchestral opening lifts the solo violin into a rhapsodic soaring fluttering tune. The soloist and orchestra interweave their sounds throughout this gently lyrical piece, though there is a daring and innovative unaccompanied cadenza for the violin (lark) to close the work.
Ernest Bloch’s Concerto Grosso No.1 was written in 1925 as a challenge to his students at the Cleveland Institute of Music, for which he was the founding director. Encountering skepticism regarding the usefulness of “old” techniques (such as tonality and classical form!) when writing new music, the composer chose to prove his point by composing a new work using these old techniques in a modern way. At the first rehearsal, the school orchestra played through this new piece with enthusiasm, leading Bloch to shout triumphantly, “What do you think now? This is tonal! It just has old-fashioned notes!”
Bloch’s point was not that new works should be created exactly in the style of older ones, but that new and exciting music could evolve by combining aspects of various musical techniques. Bloch infused the Baroque concerto grosso structure with the rhythmic and melodic sensibility of the romantics and the polytonal harmonies of the early 20th century, using “old-fashioned notes” to create something entirely new.
The Concerto Grosso No. 1 begins with a prelude of grand, dramatic statements; a dirge follows, with ethereal textures evoking the Impressionistic world of Debussy or Ravel. The third movement brings a new perspective to the baroque fondness for including dance music in concert suites. And naturally, the final movement is that most characteristic Baroque form, the fugue. Bloch masterfully juggles musical textures between three groups: solo strings, section strings, and piano (an update to Bach’s harpsichord).
A final word about this piece: it is most definitely not a piano concerto. The piano is one of the instruments of the ensemble and should be positioned in the midst of the ensemble.