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Variations on Variations

New York
Carnegie Hall
03/18/2001 -  
Arnold Schoenberg: Variations for Orchestra
Jin Hi Kim: Eternal Rock (world premiere)
Lukas Foss: Concerto for the Left Hand
Tania Leon: Desde... (world premiere)

Jin Hi Kim (komungo)
Leon Fleisher (piano)
American Composers Orchestra
Dante Anzolini (conductor)

At some point during the nine years that Arnold Schoenberg devoted to the invention and refinement of the twelve-tone system, he realized that the very nature of his new harmonic cohesion lent itself naturally to the variation form. The initial order of tones, or series (the composer hated the term “row”), could be easily varied by playing it either backwards (retrograde), upside-down (inversion) or both (retrograde inversion). Further, several early music fugal devices, such as the crab canon (a musical palindrome), added some compositional spice. After absorbing all of these techniques, Schoenberg, who invented a game that he called “hundred chess” (a ten by ten board was used to exponentially increase the number of permutations of the original classic contest which no longer challenged him), felt ready to fashion his own piece on the order of the Haydn Variations of Brahms but added two extra levels of complexity. The first of these was timbre and the accomplished painter and master of klangfarben (tonal color) plays exotically with his aural palette to create fabulous contrasts which are the most memorable moments in this extraordinary essay. The second new material for variant is the pitch of inner voices and it is this sophisticated mapping of intonational juxtapositions which makes these Variations for Orchestra so difficult to perform (Erich Leinsdorf used to say that this was the single most exacting score in the entire orchestral repertoire). What makes it so hard for the individual musicians is that they must play in unison with others with whom they have little in common and whom they can barely hear on stage (e.g. a flute plays the same note, albeit in a different octave, as a trombone and should attack it in exactly the same manner – this technique much later became the nucleus of the contemporary Hungarian composer Gyorgy Ligeti’s orchestral poem Lontano). The last time that I heard the formidable American Composer’s Orchestra, they produced a very impressive rendition of Charles Ives’ Three Places in New England, whose ”Putnam’s Camp” section is also extremely daunting, and so I had little doubt that Dennis Russell Davies could lead them in a fine traversal of this infamous Austrian bete noir.

But life interferes. Mr. Davies was not present, opting instead to be with his wife on the occasion of the birth of their child, and so Argentinian conductor Dante Anzolini volunteered to direct this infernally complex program on short notice. He was understandably cautious in the Schoenberg, emphasizing his desire not to make any significant mistakes by taking each pause between the individual variants, an optional alternative provided by the composer for the faint of heart which, in this instance, left us all to imagine the emotive power of the composition. Gone was the sense of propulsion and excitement, replaced with a Sunday drive which didn’t hurt anyone. Even with this safe approach, however, there were a number of intonational clashes and the overall performance was really quite uninteresting.

The most deleterious effect of the Korean espousal of Western classical music has been the almost total neglect by the younger generation of their traditional music (this same phenomenon has reached epidemic proportions in China, where entire genres of ancient music are at present teetering on the verge of extinction). It was therefore extremely heartening to hear a piece composed by an Americanized Korean which featured a traditional court instrument, a huge zitherlike structure known as the komungo. Ms. Kim, showing her respect for the art of ancient Cho-sen, appeared in appropriate dress and sat on a raised platform to perform her timeless strums and plucks. The orchestral writing was evocative of the solo instrument, the strong chords of the right hand mirrored in stern outbreaks of brass. However, the komungo, even an amplified one such as on display this afternoon, is a very quiet instrument and its delicate sonority was often drowned in the stridency of the entire ensemble. Even so, of the three new pieces on the program, this one came off as the most exciting.

It would have been natural to ask eminent conductor Lukas Foss to conduct his own concerto under the circumstances except that, by a simple twist of fate, he was about to direct a program of his own music just next door at Weill (ironic, since it can take years to arrange even one performance of your music in today’s cutthroat environment). Foss was able to sit upstairs and acknowledge the applause before running off and I wondered what he thought of the performance at hand. Leon Fleisher, who has forged a decent second career for himself as a one-handed pianist (although, unlike Wittgenstein, he can still be his own page turner), played the minimalist figure from movement one quite well, although ad nauseam. The second movement could be thought of as contemplative and bears additional hearings. The third section seemed to be the most interesting, but, like the Schoenberg, appeared to have been robbed of its rhythmic energy in the interests of law-abiding accuracy. The final work of expatriate Afro-Cuban Tania Leon was little more than simplistic and arbitrary noise, evocative of the islands in the same manner as a bad travelogue.

One has no choice but to admire Mr. Anzolini for allowing us to hear this concert even without its driving force. However, he approached each of the pieces so gingerly that the program as a whole was oddly adventurous and timid at the same time. Here’s wishing Dennis Russell Davies and family all the best and let’s take this opportunity to hope for his speedy return.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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