"Bach in Back"

Sunday, February 11, 2024, 7:30 p.m.

J.S. Bach/L. C. Harnsberger, "Jesu Joy of Man's Desiring"
J.S. Bach/Leopold Stokowski, Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor
Hector Villa-Lobos:  Bachianas Brasileiras #4
Felix Mendelssohn:  Symphony #5, "Reformation"

Brian Stone, guest conductor

Music mostly "around" Bach rather than by him. The highlight will be the great work of the young Mendelssohn that integrated the Lutheran chorale (central to Bach's work) into the symphony.

An informal reception will follow the concert.

Palisades Lutheran Church
15905 Sunset Boulevard
Pacific Palisades,  California 90272

Notes on the program

We welcome the distinguished conductor Brian Stone to the podium for this performance. We have greatly enjoyed rehearsing under his direction and believe you will likewise enjoy the end result.

"Jesu Joy of Man's Desiring" is a cantata movement Bach wrote in 1723 as part of his new job as music director for the churches of Leipzig, Germany. The cantata bears the title Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben (Heart and Mouth and Deed and Life). The lines of a Lutheran chorale melody are played slowly, interspersed amidst a catchy accompaniment composed of triples of triplets -- nine notes to the bar. The title words come from the poetry to which this music is usually sung in English, not a translation of the original German but a distinct work by Victorian poet Robert Bridges.

For this performance the Palisades Symphony revives its tradition of performing works by local composers, offering a version arranged for orchestra by the Los Angeles composer Lindsey C. Harnsberger. Our Music Director Joel Lish will lead the piece.

Leopold Stokowski (1882-1977) was of Polish ancestry and British nationality. He became a celebrated conductor in America, where he led the Philadelphia Orchestra for many years. Like Harnsberger much later, Stokowski endeavored to arrange Bach's music for the sonic splendor of the modern symphony orchestra, most famously in his version of the organ Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, which he conducted along with other works for the Walt Disney animated film Fantasia. A "passacaglia," such as we perform here, is like a series of variations on a very short theme, in this case a stern minor-key bass line; the work ends in a fugue. Bach originally wrote this work for organ, early in his career.

Between 1930 and 1945, the composer Hector Villa-Lobos sought to create a music that would blend Brazilian folk sources with Bachian compositional techniques. He wrote a series of seven suites of this kind, the Bachianas Brasileiras, of which we perform #4. In this work, Brazilian folk melodies play a similar role to that played by Lutheran hymns in Bach's music. They can appear set in simple chorale mode, like the Bach chorale settings that recur through the St. Matthew Passion. They can also appear quoted line-by-line, interspersed among more complex musical textures, as we heard earlier in Bach's "Jesu Joy of Man's Desiring."

Felix Mendelssohn, once he had reached full maturity, rejected his youthful "Reformation" Symphony (1830) and did not seek to perform it, regarding it as "juvenilia". Fortunately for us, posterity has rejected his opinion and the symphony holds a place in the standard modern repertoire. It is very much a Lutheran symphony, composed to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the Augsburg Confession, a key document of the Reformation and of the Lutheran faith. We hear one Lutheran melody, the so-called "Dresden Amen," in the first movement, and another -- Martin Luther's famous "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God" -- dominates the last, played serenely by a solo flute at its first introduction, and with thunderous sound and fervor by the whole orchestra at the end of the work.

While the connection to Bach via Lutheran melody is plain enough, the symphony also shows influence of late works by Beethoven -- at the time of composition still fairly new and echoing in the ears of the young composer (born 1809) as he learned his craft. The first movement of the "Reformation" Symphony ends in a way quite reminiscent of the first movement of Beethoven's own D minor symphony, the Ninth (1824). The "Reformation" scherzo is in the same rhythm, key (B flat major), and order (second movement) as the scherzo of Beethoven's monumental "Hammerklavier" Sonata for piano, from 1818.

Not all reaction to Mendelssohn's religious concert music has been positive -- Charles Rosen notably called it "kitsch" (roughly: tasteless pretentious trash), while admitting with irony that this body of kitsch includes kitschy masterpieces! We are all free to decide where the "Reformation" Symphony fits in here.