Dawn Walker, flute; Jesse Barrett, Ellen Sherman, oboe; Ginger Kroft, Erin Finkelstein clarinet; Dominic Teresi, Laura Koepke, bassoon; Meredith Brown, Alicia Mastromonaco, horn.
Charles Gounod, Petite Symphonie: Scherzo: Allegro moderato
Sergei Prokofiev, Romeo and Juliet Suite
The Street Wakens
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Serenade No. 11 in C Minor, K. 388
Menuet and Trio
One of the most popular forms of musical entertainment in the 18th century came from ensembles of wind instruments, often called Harmonie, that were assembled to provide a pleasant background for banquets and ceremonies. Wind instruments were especially favored for outdoor events. Light multi-movement serenades or divertimentos and arrangements of popular opera tunes were the standard fare. Such works, as Alfred Einstein wrote, “are ‘innocent’ in every sense, written as it were before the fall from grace—the French Revolution—written for summer nights of torches and lamps, to be heard close by and from afar; and it is from afar that they sound most beautiful.” In 1782, the same year that Mozart composed the Serenade, K. 388, Emperor Joseph II established his royal Harmonie ensemble as an octet of virtuoso players.
Charles Gounod is perhaps best known today for his opera Faust. But for Bach lovers, his Ave Maria, with its sumptuous romantic melody superimposed on a Prelude in C Major from the Well-Tempered Clavier will come more immediately to mind. Gounod’s influence on French music is widely acknowledged. He was respectful of classical forms and successfully incorporated them within his updated French idiom. A perfect example of this is his Petite Symphonie pour instruments à vent (Little Symphony for Wind Instruments), composed in 1885 for his friend Paul Taffenel, the leading flutist and perhaps the most influential woodwind player of his time. Taffenel had recently founded Société de Musique de la Chambre pour Instruments à Vent (Chamber Music Society for Wind Instruments) and it was for this organization that Petite Symphonie was premiered in 1885 in Paris. In this work, which elegantly straddles the realms of symphony and chamber music, Gounod replicates the instrumentation of a Harmonie ensemble as in one of Mozart’s serenades, with the addition of a flute part originally intended for the virtuoso Taffenel. The Scherzo is in a traditional “hunting” mode, with a contrasting trio in a more relaxed, pastoral character.
Prokofiev’s ballet Romeo and Juliet originated with a commission in 1934 by the Kirov Theatre in Leningrad. Controversies and political tensions, including an originally intended happy ending, delayed a complete premiere in the Soviet Union until 1940. In total, the ballet contains more than two and one half hours of music. In the years between its completion and its premiere on the stage, Prokofiev created three separate symphonic suites with movements extracted from the ballet, and this evening’s suite, arranged for woodwind quintet, is distilled from those collections. In The Street Wakens, and the livelier Morning Dance, the servants first gather and then dance with the tavern servants. Madrigal concerns the star-crossed lovers’ first meeting. In Aubade, the staccato notes are meant to evoke mandolins. The march-like Montagues and Capulets, one of Prokofiev’s best-known pieces, vividly portrays the tension between the feuding families. Mercutio is a witty dance depicting Romeo’s friend.
It is not known for what occasion or patron the Serenade in C Minor was written, but from its very first notes—a stark C minor triad climaxing on falling diminished seventh—Mozart seems to steer the course of Harmoniemusik away from casual entertainment. This is not music that is “more beautiful from a distance,” this is Harmonie for connoisseurs. Originally entitled Parthia, it is cast in the four-movement format associated with symphonies of the time and uses formal designs also found in such works. The opening Allegro is a dramatic essay in sonata form with elements of sturm und drang style. Its antidote is the Andante, a lyrical, dare we say serene, sonata-form movement. Mozart’s recent immersion in the works of J.S. Bach is reflected in the Menuetto in canone. Bassoons follow one bar behind oboes in strict canon, with a rhythmically driving syncopation foreshadowing the atmosphere of the equivalent movement in Symphony No. 40. By contrast, the Trio sounds deceptively simple, but Mozart is deftly concealing even more contrapuntal complexity, since this is a double canon, al rovescio, which means that the answering voice is turned upside down, forming a mirror image. The finale consists of eight variations on a theme in C minor that restores the gravitas of the first movement. In the fifth variation the horns introduce a motive later used in Don Giovanni, guiding the music to an interlude in E-flat major. After returning to more vigorous variations in the home key, a coda in C major brings the work to a bright conclusion. –Allen Whear