Program notes: Mozart and Ginastera

Friday, August 4, 2023 , 6:30 PM

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Concerto in C Major for Oboe, K. 314 [285d]

Alberto Ginastera: Variaciones concertantes, Op. 23

Concerto in C Major for Oboe, K. 314 [285d]

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)

Composed: 1777
Length: c. 21 minutes
Instrumentation: Solo oboe, 2 oboes, 2 horns, and strings

By the mid-1770s, Mozart had become deeply dissatisfied with the court in Salzburg, as he longed for employment that would free him from the obligations that he found burdensome and boring. When Mozart petitioned the court for his release, the archbishop had had enough and abruptly fired him. While extreme, it provided Mozart with the opportunity to travel abroad, and in September 1777 he left Salzburg to seek work elsewhere. By late October, Mozart was in Mannheim, home to what his father described as “that famous court, whose rays, like those of the sun, illuminate the whole of Germany.” Mozart schmoozed with the musical elite in Mannheim for over a month and seemed optimistic at the prospect of an appointment, but his hopes were dashed when he was told that no position would be available for him. At this point, winter weather prevented further travel, so Mozart was stuck in Mannheim until March.

The bright and airy Oboe Concerto was likely the last piece that Mozart composed prior to his Salzburg dismissal. Concertos were something of an obsession of Mozart’s during that time: he had composed about a dozen for various instruments over those years. The Oboe Concerto was written for Giuseppe Ferlendis, who played in the Salzburg court orchestra, but in Mannheim, Mozart found a true champion of the work in court oboist Friedrich Ramm. Mozart gave the concerto to Ramm, who performed it with great success five times during Mozart’s stay.

What to listen for

  • First movement: Mozart cleverly delineates the division between the first and second themes with a kind of musical “sigh,” a single sustained note (first appearing in the violins, then later in the solo oboe) played twice, stopping the otherwise continual patter.
  • Second movement: As in the outer movements, the soloist is offered an opportunity to play a brief cadenza toward the end of this lyrical Adagio. Mozart left no record of any of his own cadenzas for the piece, so each soloist must decide for themselves what to play here.
  • Third movement: Breath control is paramount for the soloist in the rondo, with endless 16th-note runs and a nine-measure sustained G at one point in the movement!

Variaciones concertantes, Op. 23

Alberto Ginastera (1916-1983)

Composed: 1953
Length: c. 25 minutes
Instrumentation: 2 flutes (2nd doubling piccolo), oboe, 2 clarinets, bassoon, 2 horns, trumpet, timpani, harp, and strings

Many of Argentinian composer Albert Ginastera’s compositions are rooted in the music and cultural history of his homeland. His career trajectory was also closely tied to the political context of Argentina, often to his detriment. However, these setbacks were met with resilience. With the military coup d’état and the rise of Perón in 1943, Ginastera was forced out of his teaching position and relocated to the United States for 16 months. While there, he took every opportunity to absorb the modern music scene, including studying with Aaron Copland at Tanglewood. Upon his return to Argentina in 1947, Ginastera embarked on his second stylistic period, which he called his “Subjective Nationalism” period. Rather than directly quoting traditional Argentinian music or folk tunes as in his prior period, Ginastera incorporated references to this musical vernacular and seamlessly weaved them into his music, creating a swirl of tonal colors and a sound that was uniquely his own. During the earlier period, Ginastera leaned heavily into the Argentinian system of musical “codes”: references that were developed to represent the national identity. This second period saw Ginastera stretching these codes and generating new ones as well.

In 1952, Ginastera refused the Perón government’s demand to rename the Conservatory in La Plata after Eva Perón, forcing another firing. He would not regain his position until after Perón was ousted in 1955. During this interim, Ginastera cobbled together his living mostly through compositional commissions, and this freedom to devote his time to composition led to one of the most creatively rich periods of his career. The sparkling Variaciones concertantes was composed during this time and is a prime example of Ginastera’s second-period work.

The Variaciones concertantes is uniquely structured to feature an ever-changing palette of instrumental “colors.” In fact, it’s something of a masterclass in orchestration, with each soundscape chosen with meticulous precision using a reduced orchestra. Broadly, the piece is a theme and variations. The theme is stated initially using just two instruments: harp and solo cello. The variations that follow (each featuring a different instrument or instrumental pairs) are framed by two interludes—a rich, and at times eerie, string introduction at the beginning and a calm reflection in the winds and brass after the seventh variation. A recap of the theme (now replacing cello with bass) and a lively rondo for full orchestra wrap things up.

What to listen for

  • The opening harp gesture is a great example of Ginastera extending the Argentinian national “code.” The notes that the harp plays in order are E-A-D-G-B-E—the open-string notes of the guitar, which are so important to traditional Argentinian music.
  • The final section of the piece is a “Malambo,” one of Ginastera’s favorite forms. The term describes a type of dance specific to the southern plains of Argentina (La Pampa) and is associated with cattle-herding gauchos (as important to the Argentinian mystique as cowboys are to America), often dancing in competition. The unrelenting rapid patter here represents the quick-moving feet of the gauchos.

Program notes by Jon Kochavi