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New York
Alice Tully Hall
11/20/1999 -  
Anton Webern: Six Pieces for Orchestra
Alexander Zemlinsky: Four Orchestral Songs
Arnold Schoenberg: Chamber Symphony # 1
Alban Berg: Two Altenberg Lieder
Gustav Mahler: Kindertotenlieder

Edith Wiens (soprano)
Ewa Podles (contralto)
American Symphony Orchestra
Leon Botstein (conductor)

At the Musikvereinsaal in Vienna on March 31, 1913, Arnold Schoenberg attempted to introduce the music of his students and friends to a larger public. The great pedagogue suspected that there would be much public resistance to this new form of orchestral expression and so originally intended to open the concert with the Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde. However the artistic advisor for the verband (loosely translated as association) sponsoring the event, his own star pupil Alban Berg, did not wish to compromise or pander to the crowd and convinced his mentor to open with the most radical of all of the compositions, fellow student Anton Webern's truly revolutionary Six Pieces. Schoenberg's instincts proved correct and, before the second of the Webern miniatures was completed, there were laughs and catcalls throughout the house and a movement by the music's supporters to counteract this rudeness with warm applause. By the time that the Chamber Symphony made its appearance there were fistfights in the hall and, after Schoenberg pleaded for quiet from the podium, the Berg songs were ignored in favor of the pugilism in the theater. The police were summoned and the last piece, programmed as an homage to the recently departed Mahler, was never heard that night. 86 years later Leon Botstein thought that it was about time to present this watershed concert in its entirety and so programmed this splendid recreation as the culmination of his marvelous summer series Schoenberg and His World, which held many of us in its sway on the campus of Bard College.

Thinking about the "skandalkonzert" I was struck by just how radical these Webern pieces really are. Aphoristic in the extreme, they present the ear with timbral combinations not heard since the Renaissance (Webern was a doctor of musicology who wrote his thesis on Heinrich Isaac) and use unusual instruments like the alto flute to create a unique and disturbing sonic atmosphere. Botstein recognizes the romance in these essays and unleashed the full power of his enlarged percussion section for the Marcia Funebre fourth piece, complete with menacing unpitched bell and triple fortissimo sustained rolls of the bass drum. A scandal indeed for the delicate ears of the cloistered Viennese!

The surprise of the evening was the remarkable performance of the Maeterlinck Songs by the fine Canadian soprano Edith Wiens. Hers is a voice of great power as she soared above the large orchestra to take us back to a fin-de-siecle opulence now just a vague memory. Zemlinsky is still waiting for an audience today and this is odd because his music has at least as much appeal as that of Richard Strauss (without the pomposity). Performances like this highly passionate one will go a long way to reintroduce this master to a hungry public. The perfume of rotting flowers pervaded the hall and everyone seemed deeply moved.

Next came a highly charged performance of the seminal work of this entire period in music history. The Chamber Symphony is really the first Germanic work to successfully challenge the bonds of conventional tonality and it remains to this day a rhythmically intense essay unsurpassed for sheer excitement and tonal color. Botstein and his forces wrung much of the excitement out for all to experience and never let up on the white heat of the inner perpetuum mobile that propels all of us into the era of pantonality. After the poisson froid reading of Pierre Boulez just the night before, this was a great performance, even with a few clunkers thrown in by the perhaps overeager ASO players.

Of all of the iconoclasts in the Vienna of the time, perhaps none was more outrageous than the poet Peter Altenberg and it was precisely his radicalism which attracted him to Alban Berg. The artistic advisor's contribution to the ill-fated night, which literally brought the house down, was songs composed from lyrics which Altenberg borrowed from picture postcards marketed for tourists. Besides the insouciant harmonic leaps of the music, the banal texts fly in the face of what a good Viennese would have considered high art and make this music all the more rebellious (a second Viennese school equivalent of Marilyn Manson). Again Ms. Wiens was very impressive.

The patrons of 1913 never got to hear the poignant Mahler song cycle, but if they had I cannot believe that they would have heard a performance as fine as the one to which we were treated last night. Ewa Podles is really a force of nature, her incredibly deep voice seeming to come from somewhere below the stage (her Erda rising from the underworld in Siegfried is one of the great treasures of our current musical age) and her grandmotherly tragic persona just perfect for these laments on the death of children. Madame is a magnificent actress as well (she is definitely a creature from the world of opera rather than lieder) and her eyes alone put over these songs in a silent movie technique that was perfect in its temporal bonds to the reconstruction of a concert from 1913. Although ultimately I prefer the Kindertotenlieder sung by a man (there are genuine textual reasons here), Ms. Podles' instrument made me forget this bias as I sat transfixed.

There was only one major regret. Alice Tully Hall was much less than half full for this important event. It is easy to hate the disrupters who ruined Schoenberg's concert in 1913 but it is instructive to compare them to their counterparts of today. At least people reacted to contemporary music in pre-war Vienna. In pre-millenium America they just stay away.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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