Happy Birthday, Arnold
Merkin Concert Hall
09/12/1998 - &13 september 1998
Arnold Schoenberg, Conservative Radical
3 Concerts and 2 Symposia
Various artists, Robert Craft and Harold Rosenbaum (conductors), Fred Sherry (artistic director)
Symposia participants: James Levine, Gunther Schuller, Milton Babbitt, Lawrence Schoenberg, et. al.
The New York season got off to a rousing start with a three-concert celebration of the birth (September 13, 1874) of the most influential composer of the twentieth century, Arnold Schoenberg. "My music isn't bad, only badly played" Schoenberg once lamented. He would have been gratified to attend these concerts which featured musicianship of the highest order and a group of artists obviously committed to their cause. The first concert consisted of a performance of the Chamber Symphony for 15 Instruments, Op. 9 conducted by Robert Craft. Craft was the great proselytizer for Second Viennese music in the 1960's and premiered many of the works of Schoenberg, Berg and Webern on recordings. With only minimal gestures Craft inspired his forces to play this rebellious work with great elan. The ending of the piece is terribly exciting though seldom performed that way. It held up remarkably well under Craft's breakneck speed which closely approximated the original tempo markings. Special mention should be made of the beautiful tone of the first violinist, Rolf Schulte, but with only twenty minutes of music as the entire bill of fare, had I been a paying customer, I would have felt cheated.
The first symposium, hosted by one of New York's local treasures, Fred Sherry, was ostensibly about Schoenberg the Inventor, but ranged far afield of its topic. James Levine, who will be conducting Schoenberg's opera Moses und Aron at the Met this winter, spoke disarmingly personally about the great difficulties and even richer rewards inherent in preparing such a thorny score. The serial composer Charles Wuorinen expounded on aesthetics in Schoenberg and Merkin composer in residence Osvaldo Golijov discussed the composer's Jewishness. The symposium was marred, however, by the comments of composer Milton Babbitt who has an irritating tendency toward self-aggrandizement.
Schoenberg suffered a near-fatal heart attack in 1946 and recalled his hospital experience in the String Trio, Op. 45, the highlight of the second concert of this mini festival. Mr. Schulte was joined by Mr. Sherry (cello) and Toby Appel (viola) for a sensitive reading of this free-form work. The pianist Frederic Chiu literally ran through the Drei Klavierstuecke, Op. 11, striking many wrong notes in the process. The Book of the Hanging Gardens, Op. 15 was performed by Mary Nessinger (mezzo-soprano) and Christopher Oldfather (piano). Ms. Nessinger possesses a voice of fine timbre and a secure lower register, however she is young and must still learn how to act with her voice and how to present pieces in varying moods. She has only one "serious" facial expression and she showed it to us throughout all 15 of Schoenberg's brief, Romantic essays. The New York Virtuoso Singers under Harold Rosenbaum weaved their way through De Profundis and then were joined by The Canticum Novum Singers for an extremely moving performance of Friede auf Erden (Peace on Earth).
The second symposium was far more enjoyable than the first. With the topic Schoenberg Remembered we were treated to stories told by Gunther Schuller, a composer and born raconteur, Leonard Stein, Schoenberg's closest friend in the States, Pia Gilbert, a colleague of Schoenberg at UCLA and confidante of his wife Gertrude, and the composer's youngest son, Lawrence, who is also on the board of the Schoenberg Institute in Vienna. Mr. Schoenberg showed slides of birthday parties (a propos of the theme of this entire event) given for his five or six year old sister, Nuria, now the widow of composer Luigi Nono and the president of the Schoenberg Institute. I was not even offended when he presented one of his father's paintings, a portrait of a music critic with no ears! The family lived on the now infamous street of Rockingham in Brentwood and Mr. Schoenberg's presentation did much to demystify the memory of his beloved father.
After readings from Schoenberg's letters by actor David Margulies, the third concert began with the emerging star of these proceedings, Mr. Schulte, giving a passionate performance of the Phantasy for Violin with Piano Accompaniment, Op. 47, the best I've heard since Menuhin. He was joined by a much more controlled Mr. Chiu. Mr. Wuorinen had admitted during the first symposium that his two piano arrangement of the Variations for Orchestra, Op. 31 had sacrificed all of the tonal color of the piece and this was unfortunately apparent even though the performance by Richard Moredock and Cameron Grant was genuinely exciting. The evening ended with a superb reading of the String Quartet #2 with its first whiffs of pantonality. Mr. Schulte and Mr. Sherry were joined by Carmit Zori (second violin) and Paul Neubauer (viola). The vocal parts in the third and fourth movements were sung by Ms. Nessinger (there was that expression again), who navigated the "air of another planet" with the confidence of an astronaut. Her secure command of the demanding range of these two movements (Schoenberg and Webern are the hardest on singers since Mozart) blended perfectly with the fine execution of the quartet.
Schoenberg lived in New York briefly when he first came to America in 1933. He opted for greener pastures in California, supposedly for his asthma, but more likely because he found no suitable position here (he never objected to the bleak winter in Berlin). It takes New York a long time to appreciate the greatness of their residents. Gustav Mahler was not often performed here until 60 years after his return to Vienna. With Mr. Levine conducting the Chamber Symphony as well as Moses und Aron this year and with the Concertgebouw presenting the Five Pieces for Orchestra this winter perhaps this is the year that New York finally embraces Arnold Schoenberg. The birthday concerts are a great beginning.
Frederick L. Kirshnit