Mozart spent much of his youth traveling through Europe and performing in circumstances arranged by Leopold, his enterprising father. Their last major trip together took them through Italy for over a year, until they returned to Salzburg in December 1771. This period marked a turning point for Mozart, for at fifteen he was getting a little old to be paraded around by his father as a child prodigy. At the same time, the death of Salzburg’s Archbishop (who had made Leopold the Assistant Kapellmeister and Wolfgang an honorary Konzertmeister) complicated their standing at home, and the new Archbishop proved to be a troublesome employer.
Those problems at court did not slow Mozart’s composing, nor did two follow-up trips to Milan to present music for which Leopold had secured commissions on their earlier visit. Between 1771 and 1774 Mozart issued more than twenty symphonies, about half of his lifetime output. Many of those works qualify as youthful experiments, but some bear early signs of Mozart’s genius, such as the Symphony No. 29 in A, written at age eighteen.
The symphony’s opening movement introduces the primary theme, characterized by its descending octave leaps, over a gentle chorale accompaniment at a piano dynamic. As might be expected, this material repeats at a firm forte dynamic; the surprise is that it adds a layer of contrapuntal complexity, with the low strings chasing the violins on the same material but delayed by two beats. This heightened sense of layering and counterpoint runs throughout the symphony, as in the Andante second movement, which waits only four measures before adding a bouncing countermelody to the dignified violin theme.
After the slow movement’s hush of muted strings, the minuet supplies a playful and rustic color with dramatic dynamic changes and tongue-in-cheek fanfares. Closing the symphony, the Allegro con spirito finale re-integrates ideas from the opening movement, including a new theme built from octave leaps. Call-and-response phrases and melodic imitation reinforce the work’s abundance of sophisticated counterpoint, signaling a new maturity in Mozart’s symphonic craft.
Aaron Grad ©2014
The composer provided the following note about Garages of the Valley for Chamber Orchestra:
Paradoxically, much of what we now think of as "the Digital Age" was dreamed up in the most low-tech of spaces. The garages that dot the landscape of Silicon Valley housed the visionaries behind Apple, Hewlett Packard, Intel, and Google.
My imagined music of these tech workshops begins hyper-kinetically yet sporadically, filled with false starts. It soon flashes into a quicksilver world of out exotic textures and tunings that is informed by the music of the French composer Gerard Grisey, whose imaginative orchestrations sound electronic but are completely unplugged. The exhilarating finale reflects the infectious optimism of the great inventors of our time, who from their dark garages conjured new worlds within the bright Valley.
The piece is dedicated to Maestro Edo de Waart, who lived just north of the Valley when some of its garages were just starting to burst with energy.
Mason Bates ©2014
In the summer of 1880, Tchaikovsky vacationed at his sister’s estate in Kamianka, Ukraine. In a letter to his patron and confidante, Nadezdha von Meck, Tchaikovsky wrote, “How fickle my plans are, whenever I decide to devote a long time to rest! I had just begun to spend a series of entirely idle days, when there came over me a vague feeling of discomfort and real sickness; I could not sleep and suffered from fatigue and weakness. Today I could not resist sitting down to plan my next symphony—and immediately I became well and calm and full of courage.”
Tchaikovsky’s plan for that music wavered between a symphony and a string quartet, until he landed on something in between: a serenade for string orchestra. The title and form of the work paid homage to Mozart, the greatest composer of Classical serenades, about whom Tchaikovsky once wrote in his diary, “Mozart I love as a musical Christ. … It is my profound conviction that Mozart is the highest, the culminating point which beauty has reached in the sphere of music. Nobody has made me cry and thrill with joy, sensing my proximity to something that we call the ideal, in the way that he has.”
Tchaikovsky wrote the Serenade in little more than a month, even with some of that time devoted to a concurrent project, the 1812 Overture. Again writing to von Meck, Tchaikovsky explained, “The overture will be very showy and noisy, but it will have no artistic merit because I wrote it without warmth and love.” By contrast, he continued, “I wrote the Serenade on impulse. I felt it deeply, from start to finish, and therefore I dare to believe it will not be without merit.”
The Serenade for Strings offers up its emotions unabashedly, with Tchaikovsky’s lush Romanticism enveloping the skeletal traces of Classical style. The grand and reverent chorale that starts and ends the first movement defies the unassuming heading, “Piece in the form of a Sonatina,” while the Allegro moderato body of the movement progresses in spare and efficient strides.
Tchaikovsky was one of the all-time great tunesmiths, and also a master of music for dance; those two talents comingle in the Serenade’s graceful and effervescent Waltz. The Elegy counterbalances that dancing exuberance with a somber but no less artful statement. In the finale, the “Russian theme” promised by the subtitle is an amalgamation of folk material taken from a collection by Tchaikovsky’s onetime champion, Mily Balakirev. The main theme traces the same descending contour as the work’s initial chorale, a link that is made explicit when that opening ceremonial music returns, just before the related fast theme reignites for a final scamper to the finish.
Aaron Grad ©2014