Alice Tully Hall
Arnold Schoenberg: Chamber Symphony # 1; Pierrot lunaire
Franz Joseph Haydn: Trio in E Major
Peter Serkin (piano)
Mary Nessinger (mezzo)
Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center
“…Arnold Schoenberg arrived, followed by a group of pale young men. We were told they were his pupils. So might a philosopher in ancient Greece have wandered about with his disciples.”
An American Musician’s Story
With the benefit of historical perspective, we can now begin to assess the impact of the achievements of Arnold Schoenberg. In 2001, the 50th anniversary year of his death, it is clear that no significant Western music written after his demise would have even existed without his experimentation and dogged pioneer spirit. Certainly the grip of serialism on art music was steadfast in the 1950’s and ‘60’s and the music of Carter and Boulez, Stockhausen and Kirchner, Nono and Maderna, Berio and Yun trumpeted the influence of this great artist and pedagogue. Further, even the counter-Reformation of the 1970’s and beyond mirrors the journey of Schoenberg himself from elasticized tonality to more basic ancient forms of harmonic theory. In fact, it was his reimposition of form, in the guise of the dodecaphonic system, which paved the way for the resurgence of tonality in our own day. His influence reaches far beyond the comfortable confines of “classical music” and hommages by Charles Mingus (who specifically cited Schoenberg’s influence in an essay about the genesis of his own unique musical voice) attest to his freeing of music in the popular arena as well. His fabled composition classes at his home in Brentwood, California included such students as Dave Brubeck and Gunther Schuller and his posthumous presence in the guitar solos of Jimi Hendrix and Lee Rinaldo assure, to paraphrase the master himself, the hegemony of his music for a hundred years to come.
The vituperative critical climate of the day coupled with the practical considerations of organizing performing ensembles led Schoenberg to establish a personal vehicle for disseminating his artistic vision. The Society for Private Musical Performances allowed the composer to preach to the converted, to present his new ideas in a nurturing rather than a discordant environment. Meeting at various small venues including private homes, the fraternity eventually flowed into the International Society for Contemporary Music and featured composers and artists from all over Europe and the United States interested in the cutting edge. Such luminaries as Bela Bartok and Maurice Ravel attended these sessions to present their own progressive ideas. The very nature of these soirees demanded small performing groups and so the Second Viennese School became a veritable cottage industry of musical reduction: arranging larger works for presentation by versatile instruments such as Schoenberg’s beloved harmonium. The master even believed that the future of classical music was the radio and, fifty years before McLuhan, saw the medium as the vehicle which would launch serious art music onto the popular imagination (no one ever said that he was infallible), scoring compositions and arrangements for smaller groups which could perform live in the studio. Anton Webern’s reduction of his mentor’s groundbreaking Chamber Symphony, itself an imaginative reduction of a generic concept of a symphonic score during a period when orchestras were growing exponentially in personnel, was fashioned especially for this club of musical friends and colleagues.
Last evening, an equally dedicated, and perhaps even more talented, group of friends and colleagues presented this private miniature in public performance. Inspired by Peter Serkin, whose father served for a time as Webern’s own personal rehearsal pianist, the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center combined intimate works of both the first and second Viennese schools in an innovative and challenging look at the vanguard of music from differing eras. The younger Serkin, appearing for the first time in New York since experiencing retina problems, has played with some of these artists for many years now; in fact, the society as a whole is the evolutionary creature of that old chamber group Tashi, a rebellious unit whose specialty was always music of their own turbulent century. The insoluble problem for Webern the arranger was, of course, density, how to distil fifteen very thick instrumental parts down to five. Not being a pianist himself (he was most noted as a performer as the violist in the Austrian Army String Quartet in WWI), Webern does not rely on the all-inclusive keyboard to absorb most of the notes but rather expands each and every solo part to its logically sonorous breaking point. Thus the cello intones the bassoon and horn lines as well as its own. This high-energy performance was thrilling, each voice very clear throughout, expressing in yet another, deeper level of miniaturization the complexity of the Schoenbergian aesthetic. Four of the five members of the group are ex-Tashi and their sense of togetherness and, most importantly, commitment, was infectious. Mr. Serkin showed no ill effects from his recent bout with the corporeal, leading a spirited interplay of independent phrases which journeyed excitingly down wide boulevards and narrow cul-de-sacs.
As an innovator, Franz Joseph Haydn was the da Vinci of classical music. Although it is not exactly accurate that he invented the symphony, this prolific man certainly refined the genre and established its dominance for the next 150 years. He created the emotional content and conversational form of both the string quartet and the piano trio and virtually all of the chamber music which followed this master’s experimentation was food for the intellect rather than simply condiments for the noble dinner table. Haydn’s music was also written for a private audience, mostly the Esterhazy court. In last evening’s particular context, it was this uncharacteristically dramatic trio which sounded the most revolutionary. Mr. Serkin was especially impressive in this performance, his exaggerated rubato pushing his mates into suspended animations of emotional freight which, when delivered, such as at the very end of the second movement, caused the audience to feel the joyous chills of catharsis. Veterans Kavafian and Sherry lent a stately air to the proceedings but always kept the undercurrent of unbridled passion close to the surface.
Pierrot Lunaire is another of Schoenberg’s compositions which he wrote with his friends in mind. In fact, late in life the composer recorded the highly personal song cycle with some of his oldest Hollywood expat buddies for the Columbia “Meet the Composer” series. Featured on this rare vinyl classic are Rudolf Kolisch, whose quartet premiered so many second Viennese pieces in Europe, Eduard Steuermann, who made a career (if not a fortune) out of touring the globe presenting the gnarled piano pieces of the master (and played the world premiere performance of the Piano Concerto in New York under Stokowski), and Erika Stiedry-Wagner, wife of Schoenberg’s dearest conductorial friend Fritz Stiedry who presented not only the world premiere of Die Glueckliche Handin Vienna but also the maiden performance of the Chamber Symphony # 2 in their new country of America, as the reciter. Here the privacy is internal to the text: we are invited to enter a psychotic world of consciousness familiar to anyone who has ever dreamed of the underlying horror inherent in the distorted face of the clown. Perhaps the most outrageous single work of the 20th century, Pierrot often suffers from performances too imbued with the constraints of good taste. It is, in actuality, the first real piece of performance art in modern theater history and I was extremely appreciative this night to realize that the soloist, Mary Nessinger, was set to exploit to the full its thespian possibilities. She established from the outset her intention to be the many varied characters of the cycle and proceeded to enthrall us with her abilities to shriek, whisper, moan and shudder on pitch. Further, she instinctively understood the roots of this music in the cabaret atmosphere wherein Schoenberg nurtured his original melodic voice. This part is not for the squeamish and this accomplished performer made the most of it. The music of the “thrice seven poems” is filled with misdirection and contradiction (for example, when the text calls for a viola pizzicato, the score insists on a bowed line on the cello) and a good reading should always make one feel considerably off center, a first night out on rough seas. The present dedicated quintet, showing its versatility by switching instruments with ease, was spectacular in keeping us fascinated but wary, riveting our attention so that we could never look away, even when the clown is beheaded by the blade of the crescent moon. Special mention should go to Mr. Shifrin who brought to the party an entire magician’s trunk of expressive effects which he conjured up on three separate clarinets. As in the Chamber Symphony, often the individual voices end in confusion or oblivion; in this rendition of the Pierrot, it was the exploration of these exotic byways which ultimately fascinated and enchanted us all.
When I was a child and all of my classmates were getting their musical thrills from Elvis Presley, I sat alone in the dark and listened to the much more rebellious music of Schoenberg and his school. At that juncture it seemed that this great body of work was forever destined for the musical scrapheap, listened to, if at all, only by cognoscenti and madmen (or both). It is a moonstruck dream come true to hear such excellent musicians presenting such superb readings of these difficult classics and even more satisfying to observe an eager audience attentively absorbing and appreciating their efforts. The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center could certainly make more money sticking to the tried and true; they deserve our highest praise for guiding us instead through the Casbah which is the maze of this powerfully heady music.
Frederick L. Kirshnit