Benjamin Britten had a precocious start in music, studying piano and viola and composing hundreds of works by the time he was a teenager. At fourteen, Britten’s viola teacher introduced him to the composer Frank Bridge, who agreed to give Britten private lessons. “I, who thought I was already on the verge of immortality, saw my illusions shattered,” Britten later wrote about his course of study with Bridge, a demanding teacher who fostered the rigorous technique needed to round out Britten’s natural inventiveness. Britten went on to enroll at the Royal Conservatory of Music in 1930, and even if he chafed at the conservative approach of his teachers, he was able to fill in the gaps by devouring recent music by Stravinsky, Schoenberg and other modernists.
Britten’s career began to take off in 1932, when a prize-winning Phantasy for string quartet led to his first professional performance. That same summer he took three weeks to compose the Sinfonietta, the work that would become his first published opus. The scoring for ten solo instruments (a woodwind quintet plus a string quintet) reflects the influence of Schoenberg’s First Chamber Symphony, a seminal work for such mixed ensembles. The dissonant harmonies and spiky phrases in the opening movement also point to young Britten’s fascination with Continental modernism, but still the music retains Britten’s intuitive feel for melody, as heard in the mellifluous woodwind phrases and crystalline violin duet in the central movement. A trembling viola line links directly to the Tarantella, a kinetic finale in the manner of the Italian folk dance named, so it is said, for the manic gyrations intended to ward off death after the bite of a tarantula.
Aaron Grad ©2018
Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges
Clarinet Concerto in A (arr. by Bermel)
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
The music that Mozart wrote for his friend Anton Stadler, a clarinetist and fellow freemason, was instrumental in establishing the clarinet as an equal to its older cousins in the woodwind family. Mozart’s first composition for Stadler was the Kegelstatt Trio from 1786, scored for clarinet, viola and piano. (Mozart played the viola part himself.) Next came a quintet for clarinet, two violins, viola and cello, completed in 1789. This work required a basset clarinet in the key of A, an instrument with a low-range extension designed by Stadler. Mozart went on to write Stadler a concerto featuring the same instrument, completed two months before the composer’s untimely death.
The Clarinet Concerto in A Major demonstrates Mozart’s keen understanding of the solo instrument’s range and agility, especially when rendered on a replica of the original basset clarinet, as in this performance. (To play the concerto on a modern clarinet, the player must transpose certain passages into higher octaves.) The tonal quality of the clarinet changes through its range, from the deep resonance of the extended bass notes, through the warm and hollow midrange of the chalumeau register, and up into the brilliant clarity of the highest octaves. At certain points in the fast opening movement, the soloist seems to play several opera characters engaged in dialogue, leaping from range to range; other times, a single scale or arpeggio journeys across all four octaves of the instrument’s compass.
In 1785, a critic wrote of Anton Stadler, “One would never have thought that a clarinet could imitate the human voice to such perfection.” Judging by the slow movement penned expressly for Stadler, Mozart surely agreed!
The finale has a bit of Haydn’s sense of humor in it, as in the playful held notes of the main theme that draw out unresolved tension. The episodic structure of the Rondo allows for fanciful and dramatic excursions, making each return to the familiar music all the more delightful.
Aaron Grad ©2017
About This Program
Individual and Concert Member tickets will go on sale in August. Currently, you can purchase a Season Ticket Package, starting at 3 concerts, for the 2023.24 Season.