David LoebelConductor David Loebel writes about works he has programmed with the NEC Philharmonia on October 8, his first conducting date of the new season.

All three of the works on this program are in the key of C Major. Crazy, huh? In these notes, Loebel explains why he's always wanted to do such a program. Also worth noting: this concert could be a great companion to Terry Riley's In C, which is seeing a number of performances this season due to the fiftieth anniversary of its premiere.

A Wacky Fantasy Program

Like many of my fellow conductors, I have an unusual hobby; I like to make up wildly creative (some would say “weird”) programs that contain all sorts of arcane in-jokes or simply look great on paper. (Of course, subjecting an audience to such a program is another matter). Occasionally, however, a wacky fantasy program idea turns into a concert that can potentially shed light on an important structural aspect of music or help us understand how a great composer works. So even though it is a maxim of program making that an entire concert in the same key is careless and intellectually lazy, tonight’s program explores one the most basic, least complex elements of music—the key of C.

For Mozart as for few other composers, the key of a piece of music is the best clue to its character. In his mature works, D major is festive (the “Haffner” Symphony), A major is sunny (the Clarinet Concerto) E-Flat major is dignified (Die Zauberflöte) D minor is dramatic (Don Giovanni) and so forth.

Mozart’s works in C major are also festive but are somewhat weightier than their D major counterparts due to their lower, slightly less brilliant key. In his Symphony No. 28, for instance, the absence of sharps or flats lends the music natural clarity, openness, and directness.

For Bizet, C major was a similarly uncomplicated key. Even when his charmingly youthful Symphony makes the occasional excursion to a remote key such as B major, the trip is a quick one, its destination reached by unsurprising harmonic pathways.

By contrast, Stravinsky’s Symphony in C is, in Paul Griffiths’s words, “…not a symphony in C in the way that Mozart’s “Jupiter,” Beethoven’s Fifth or Schubert’s Ninth are symphonies in C. It knows that the age of such symphonies is past…The ‘in C’ is a little provocative, a little unreal, a little too emphatic.” Never actually landing in either C major or C minor, the symphony prefers to shamelessly flirt with C as its tonal center.

In Symphony in C, Stravinsky employs a Tchaikovsky-sized orchestra (he had the score of Tchaikovsky’s First Symphony on his desk while composing it), using its full power only in the outer movements to achieve something like Beethoven’s rhetorical grandeur. In the course of its four movements the symphony becomes less and less conventional. Although the first movement is in the more-or-less-expected sonata form, the second owes more to the spirit of the Italian Baroque than to either Beethoven or Tchaikovsky. The third movement is a scherzo that ignores the usual scherzo form, with a sly wink to Petrouchka along the way. In the fourth movement we re-enter the world of the first, although the magical, hushed ending is—to use a word that has become horribly clichéd—awesome, recalling the time-suspending conclusions of Les Noces and Symphony of Psalms.