Until the age of 21, Ludwig van Beethoven lived in his hometown of Bonn, Germany. He had the makings of a child prodigy — at 11, his piano and composition teacher predicted in a magazine article that the boy would be a “second Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart” — but that sort of high-profile touring career never materialized. Instead, Beethoven entered his twenties as a viola player in Bonn’s court orchestra.
In 1792, a patron paid for Beethoven to travel to Vienna for composition lessons with Franz Joseph Haydn. It was meant to be a short stay, but Beethoven abandoned his plan to return home once he saw that he could follow in the footsteps of his hero Mozart (who had died less than a year earlier) and make a living as a freelancer. Besides performing as a pianist, Beethoven taught lessons, cultivated private patrons, and wrote accessible music for the publishing market, all setting the stage for a composing career that flourished in the next decade.
Beethoven probably wrote this Sextet for two horns and string quartet in 1794 or 1795, although nothing definitive is known about its origins until it was published in 1810 (which accounts for its deceivingly high opus number). Most likely he wrote it for some occasion in Bonn, where he knew the Elector’s orchestra well from his days in the viola section. The publisher who eventually printed the score, Nikolaus Simrock, was also a horn player in that orchestra and a longtime friend.
In writing for the more conservative audience of provincial Bonn, Beethoven grounded his score in popular practices from past decades. Composers from the first half of the eighteenth century delighted in writing concertos for two horns with strings, including examples from Handel and Vivaldi, and Beethoven’s Sextet really functions the same way, with the horns acting more like soloists than co-equal members of a chamber music ensemble. In the more recent past, Mozart had scored a number of Divertimentos for two horns and strings, showing how such an ensemble was ideal for producing light-hearted entertainment, especially outdoors. Within this easygoing setup, Beethoven wrote vibrant and virtuosic music that made the most of the horns and their association with the countryside, including hunt-inspired calls in the finale.
Aaron Grad ©2021
Jazz Montmartre (Jazzhus Montmartre) is a jazz club in Copenhagen, Denmark, where legendary musicians I appreciate have performed, including trumpeter-singer Chet Baker and saxophonist Dexter Gordon.
In 2020, right before the pandemic, I was scheduled to record an album with Marlyn Mazur and bassist Thomas Fonnesbaek. Because the recording was canceled, I never had the chance to realize this dream, years in the making. I decided to actualize this vision in another way, as the opportunity to write a duet for musicians of The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra presented itself.
I became curious about what would happen musically by capturing the essence of an opening set in a jazz club.
So, this piece brings the concept of improvised music through a note-for-note transcription of musical ideas instead of relying on actual improvisation.
Clarice Assad ©2021
As chamber music for small ensembles became less fashionable in the middle decades of the 19th century — a period that glorified Romantic grandeur and hyperbole — Felix Mendelssohn bucked the trend. He had spent his childhood and adolescence playing chamber music with the best young musicians around Berlin, and his schooling in the works of bygone masters, from Johann Sebastian Bach to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, gave him an unusually broad perspective on chamber music’s pure and intimate expressivity.
Mendelssohn’s two string quintets, one from his teenage years and one from near the end of his too-short life, both hark back to Mozart’s model. Whereas the string quartet had been a fixed quantity for generations (consisting of two violins, viola and cello) the quintet was more fluid. Mozart preferred a second viola, adding extra nuance to the inner voices; more recently, composers including Luigi Boccherini and Franz Schubert had used a second cello instead, giving the ensemble a more symphonic heft. Like Mozart, Mendelssohn loved playing the viola part in quartets, and in composing his own quintets he opted for the extra viola.
Mendelssohn’s String Quintet No. 2 wastes no time reaching peak intensity, with rapid tremolo bow strokes in the four lower voices propelling the opening violin melody up like a rocket (or to be more precise a “Mannheim rocket,” an old trick Mozart picked up in Mannheim, Germany).
For the second movement, a composer would typically choose a slow movement or a scherzo, but, in this case, Mendelssohn gives us a hybrid marked Andante scherzando. This restrained interpretation of Classical-era dance music exchanges polite phrases and conversational counterpoint, although its rhythmic pattern of anticipatory upbeats adds a touch of subtle, winking humor.
A true slow movement comes next, made clear by the tempo marking of Adagio e lento (two ways of indicating “slow” in Italian musical terminology). The reduced pace, though, does not shrink the scope of the music, which rhapsodizes through a range of grand, orchestral textures. It turns positively heroic in the closing minutes, as the persistent D-minor tonality emerges into the light of D-major, the entire passage coursing with tremolo bowing.
It was Mendelssohn’s uncertainty about the finale that kept him from publishing the quintet in his lifetime, but it is hard to sympathize with his misgivings. Again borrowing from Mozart’s playbook, one particularly thrilling episode whips the thematic gestures into a muscular fugue that volleys among the five voices.
Aaron Grad ©2021
Entr’acte was written in 2011 after hearing the Brentano Quartet play Haydn’s Op. 77 No. 2 — with their spare and soulful shift to the D-flat major trio in the minuet. It is structured like a minuet and trio, riffing on that classical form but taking it a little further. I love the way some music (like the minuets of Op. 77) suddenly takes you to the other side of Alice’s looking glass, in a kind of absurd, subtle, technicolor transition.
Caroline Shaw ©2017
Antonio Vivaldi composed at least 230 violin concertos, many of them originating at the Ospedale della Pietà in Venice, where he taught violin to “orphaned” girls — most of whom were actually the illegitimate offspring of aristocrats, which explains why their school was endowed with such excellent music instruction.
In 1725, Vivaldi’s publisher in Amsterdam released a set of twelve of those concertos under the title Il cimento dell’armonia e dell’invenzione (The Contest Between Harmony and Invention). Vivaldi named the first four concertos after the seasons, and he organized the musical ideas to correspond to descriptive sonnets. These interrelated works that we know simply as The Four Seasons live on as the crown jewels within Vivaldi’s incomparable catalog of solo concertos.
The second concerto, Summer, opens under the scorching “heat of the burning sun,” matched by wilting musical figures. The soloist enters in the style of a cuckoo, with the distinctive two-note call embedded within constant bow-strokes. The arrival of a stiff wind from the north, bringing a squall, sends the movement into an agitated state. The slow movement depicts a nap interrupted by the nuisance of gnats and flies and occasional peals of thunder. With phrases cascading down like sheets of rain, the finale unleashes the full force of the summer storm.
Aaron Grad ©2021
About This Program
The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra brings chamber music to the Lake Harriet Bandshell Park. The program opens with Pulitzer Prize winner Caroline Shaw’s string quartet Entr’acte, inspired by Joseph Haydn’s Second String Quartet, which, in her words, “takes you to the other side of Alice’s looking glass, in a kind of absurd, subtle, technicolor transition." SPCO Principal Clarinet Sang Yoon Kim and Principal Bass Zachary Cohen perform a new duo by Clarice Assad. We also share Ludwig van Beethoven’s Sextet for Two Horns and Strings, composed during his student years and modeled after Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The program concludes with Antonio Vivaldi’s Summer violin concerto from his best-known work, The Four Seasons.
There are currently no city or state requirements or recommendations regarding mask use or social distancing outside. We encourage audience members to use personal discretion and to respect the space and choices of those around them. People who are sick or exposed to someone with COVID-19 should stay home.
Bread & Pickle will be open and offering a full menu, along with beer and wine sales. More information can be found at mplsmusicandmovies.com.
Please note: This event is free and open to the public. Tickets are not required for entry, but space is limited so please arrive early. There are a limited number of bench seats available at Lake Harriet, but you may want to bring chairs or a blanket for seating if no bench seating is available.
This concert is presented in collaboration with the Minneapolis Park & Recreation Board