MEDIA PARTNER

Sunday, June 18, 2017

PROGRAM SCHEDULE  •  SUN 18  •  MON 19  •  WED 21  •  FRI 23  •  SUN 25

Newport Harbor Lutheran Church, 4 p.m.

All a Bout: Dialog in Music & Fencing

This concert was underwritten through
the generous donation of Patricia Bril

Elizabeth Blumenstock, violin
Rob Diggins, viola

Festival Orchestra
Elizabeth Blumenstock, leader


Johann Schmelzer (c. 1620/23–1680)
Serenata con altre arie

Serenata
Erlicino
Ciaccona
Campanella
Lamento
Campanella


Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber (1644–1704)
Battalia a 10

Presto – Allegro – Presto
Der Musquetier Mars
Presto
Aria
Die Schlacht
Lamento der Verwundeten


Johann Schmelzer (c. 1620/23–1680)
Fechtschule

Aria
Aria
Sarabande
Courante
Fechtschule
Bader Aria

 

Intermission

 


Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
Brandenburg Concerto No. 6
in B-flat major, BWV 1051

[Allegro]
Adagio ma non tanto
Allegro


Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
Air (Adagio)
from the Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D major, BWV 1068


Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
Italian Concerto in F major, BWV 971
transcribed for violin and orchestra

Allegro
Andante
Presto

 

Reception on the Patio

 


The first half of our program explores some quite unusual music by two 17th-century Austrian composers, Johann Schmelzer and Heinrich Biber. Take a look at the movement titles; I will wager there are a handful that are new to you!

Schmelzer was an employee of two Hapsburg emperors who loved music — Ferdinand III and his son and heir, Leopold I — mostly composing ceremonial, chamber and dance music for the Viennese court. Biber, the preeminent violin virtuoso of 17th-century continental Europe, was employed at the nearby Salzburg court roughly a generation later; the two composers knew each other, and Biber may actually have studied with Schmelzer.

All three of the pieces in the first half of our program evoke scenes that would have been familiar to their audiences. Another quick look at the movement titles shows that the pieces share, to some degree, a preoccupation with scenes of grieving and/or combat. Austria in the 17th century was embroiled in frequent wars; the Thirty Years War killed some 7–8 million people throughout Europe. The 17th century also saw many outbreaks of the Black Plague, as increasing urbanization without public sanitation nurtured new and virulent pathogens. Some 76,000 Viennese died in the plague of 1679. Sadly, Schmelzer himself was one of them.

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The inclusion in the Serenata con altre arie of a campanella (an imitation of the sound of passing funeral cortege bells) and a lamento are somewhat unusual. However, between wars and diseases, death was certainly common and generally publicly observed. It is possible that the work was written upon the occasion of the death of a member of the nobility or royal family, but this is pure speculation on my part. BACK

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Biber’s Battalia is an evocative depiction of scenes prior to, during and following a battle. The piece was composed in 1673; the Polish-Ottoman War of 1672–1676 was ongoing not far from Salzburg, so it is not inconceivable that he drew his inspiration from this conflict. More likely, though, as war was a prevalent part of life, it was an obvious theme for an imaginative composer. It is an odd, bemusing fact that the Battalia is dedicated not to Mars, the god of war, but to Bacchus, the god of alcohol, which rather puts the lie to the possibility the piece is any sort of serious commentary about war.

The second and third Presto movements function mostly as short, entertaining palate-cleansers, situated before more specific programmatic Johann Schmelzer 11 depictions. After the electric opening Presto, you may be worried that we have gotten lost! The Allegro is an utterly unique movement in which eight different regional folk songs are played, in several different keys and three different meters. As you can imagine, the result is cacophony, and is designed to imitate the effect of a large group of soldiers drawn from farflung places assembled in a war camp and enjoying some raucous free time.

Note the unusual use of left-hand pizzicato in the next Presto! Der Musquetier Mars presents the god of war as a gunslinging warrior, strutting proudly through the war camp. Biber calls for paper to be inserted between the strings and fingerboard of the violone, so as to create the sound of a snare drum when the violone player plucks the strings.

After the third Presto, we hear a slow and poignant air. With no title beyond “Aria,” it is up to us to imagine what it means. Saying farewell to one’s sweetheart before the battle begins? The last sleep before the battle? A prayer for survival?

Then the battle is on, full of rhythmic, drum-like repeated notes, slashing blows and trumpet calls in a ferocious crescendo. Immediately after the battle is done, we hear the agonized cries of the wounded, lamenting their sad fate in pathetic falling lines. BACK

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Schmelzer’s Fechtschule (“fencing school”), another diverting assemblage of dances, is considerably less pictorial than the Battalia, beginning with four simple dances before addressing its titular subject, a fencing school bout. Where Biber’s depiction of mass hand-tohand warfare is turbulent and violent, Schmelzer’s portrayal of the more formalized, non-lethal and rule-driven fencing match is correspondingly more organized and good-natured. The concluding Bader Aria refers to the post-bout remedial visit to the baths, where the fencers could soak themselves and get wounds dressed. BACK

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We proceed with Bach’s marvelous Brandenburg Concerto No. 6. While the six Brandenburgs are famous for their enormously diverse orchestration, the sixth, scored for two solo violas and a backup band of two violas da gamba, cello, violone and harpsichord, is certainly the most unusual of them — and provides a huge boost to Baroque viola repertoire!

The viola has been the dogsbody of the string family pretty much forever. Its tenor-ish voice — in a style devoted largely to the splendors of high voices, with a low-voice foundation — doomed it to occupying the relatively unadmired middle ground. French composers routinely turned the composition of viola parts over to their students. The enormously popular Baroque trio sonata form dispensed with violas altogether, and the number of Baroque concertos involving a solo viola can be counted on the fingers of one hand. Even the less common viola d’amore has more concertos. So a concerto featuring not one but two viola solo parts is a radical thing!

The choice of violas da gamba as the backup band, while very unusual, makes a great deal of sense in this case. One wants backup instruments that are not much higher than one’s soloists, and that sound different, so using the usual violins and violas would not be an effective option. In the first movement, the two soloists virtually erupt from their wonted anonymity in ebullient character, one chasing the other in a close canon at the eighth note, a kind of delighted fencing match of their own. In the leisurely slow movement, the violas get their own trio sonata (the gambas drop out), allowing their distinctive mellow voices a golden chance to glow. The robust last movement finds them in rambunctious dialog, streaking from top to bottom of their ranges and back at high speeds, with earthy vigor and boundless energy. BACK

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Bach’s Air — the second movement of his Orchestral Suite No. 3 — is popularly and erroneously known as the “Air on a G String,” a title that actually applied to a late–19th-century arrangement of the movement for violin and piano by virtuoso violinist August Wilhelmj. The name has clung rather annoyingly to the original piece for more than a century. For those able to stomach it, Hamlet Cigars uses the Air as background music for its stylishly goofy cigar advertisements, which are very entertaining! Google “hamlet cigar air” to bring up the link and view the ads on YouTube.

In any case, the Air is justly famous, and one of Bach’s loveliest compositions. BACK

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Bach’s Italian Concerto for solo harpsichord was included as part of the Clavier-Übung II, published in 1735, when Bach was working in Leipzig. Bach studied Italian concertos, notably those of Vivaldi, and transcribed several of them for solo harpsichord and Johann Sebastian Bach 13 organ. In this way he learned to compress the interplay between soloist and orchestra into the simpler keyboard format.

His Italian Concerto can perhaps be viewed as the fruit of this study, being all his own invention, not borrowed from another composer. The solo sections are set off from the tutti sections in the usual way, by reducing the number of instruments accompanying the solo. The middle movement is a long outpouring of melancholy and longing, but the third movement more than recovers a wonderful joie de vivre — bright, sunny, optimistic, and featuring a solo viola in some delightful dialog with the solo violin.

This charming and masterful transcription was made by the harpsichordist Salvatore Carchiolo, first performed by the ensemble Insieme di Roma with Giorgio Sasso on solo violin. We use it with gratitude to them for sharing it with us. BACK

Notes by Elizabeth Blumenstock

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