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Schoenberg Festival Weekend One

New York
Bard College Olin Auditorium and Festival Tent
08/14/1999 -  
Ferruccio Busoni: Violin Sonata #2
Franz Schreker: Der Wind
Hans Pfitzner: String Quartet #2
Arnold Schoenberg: Serenade, Op. 24

Arnold Schoenberg: Gurrelieder

Susan B. Anthony (soprano), Petra Lang (mezzo-soprano), Thomas Studebaker (tenor), Steven Tharp (tenor), Leon Williams (baritone), Werner Klemperer (speaker), New York Virtuoso Singers, Harold Rosenbaum (choral director), Leon Botstein (conductor)

Leaving the humid, grimy city early in the morning and driving two hours north up the beautiful Hudson River Valley, one encounters a world of peace and beauty not far from the United States Military Academy at West Point. This area is replete with venues of spiritual introspection (Deepak Chopra has his retreat up here for example) and the natural setting contributes mightily to the positive and calming energy of an area where the clouds are lower on the horizon and the trees are all-embracing. On a small tract of hidden land stands Bard College, a school with a fine reputation of academic freedom and individualized study which happens to have as its president the remarkable musician and musicologist Leon Botstein. Now acknowledged as the inventor of thematic concert programming, Botstein pursues his avocation as a conductor with the zeal of a religious fanatic and the humor of a borscht belt entertainer. His festival annually explores the milieu of one particular composer (recent years have been devoted to Bartok, Dvorak and Tchaikovsky) in a scholarly and provocatively engaging manner that involves the audience not only in the music of the creative genius in question but also in the cultural environment of his times (and ancillarily in that of our own era). The resulting three-week festival (two at Bard and one later in the season in New York) focuses attentions on the oeuvre of one man and puts into perspective his contributions to the rich history of music.

This year's honoree is the bad boy of twentieth century music Arnold Schoenberg. Still thought of as a revolutionary contemporary composer, if not the devil incarnate that he was at one time portrayed (and not just by the Nazis), Schoenberg began to publish his radical compositions exactly 100 years ago (Verklaerte Nacht was written in 1899). To this day he remains the most misunderstood composer in history, often talked about but virtually never listened to. Although it is by now clear to all serious music listeners that the Viennese master influenced all of modern music in a highly significant way, it is disconcerting to contemplate the depths of the ignorance of the public of even his major compositions. Bard's focus and the retrospective nature of thought as the millenium approaches should help to ameliorate this unfortunate situation.

There are five days of festival currently and I am covering two of them. I will of course also be there in November when Mr. Botstein recreates the "Skandalkonzert" of 1913 which was halted in progress when so many physical fights broke out in the audience between the young firebrand's supporters and the members of the more conservative (and anti-Semitic) community. Ironically the festival honoring music's most notorious triskaidekaphobe began on Friday the 13th but this was not an inauspicious start judging from the high quality of the performances which followed on Saturday. A very pleasant surprise for a summer festival was the absolute quiet of the packed house. You could hear a piece of music paper drop at the Olin Auditorium and even out of doors in the huge tent big enough to accommodate orchestral forces even larger then those of Mahler in the Symphony of a Thousand and a full male chorus as well.

After a lunch at the Bard cafeteria wherein Mr. Botstein table-hopped among his "guests" (there had been a symposium in the morning), we were all treated to a chamber program which was designed to acquaint us with music of Schoenberg's contemporaries who in their own ways were also challenging the bonds of tonality. By far the most beautiful piece of the afternoon was the Busoni which, along with its sister sonata and the magnificent Violin Concerto, deserves to be heard much more often. It was lovingly played by both participants with Mr. Wyrick's richly varied palette of tonal color worthy of special mention. The Schreker piece was a chamber depiction of the wind in the trees immediately outside (another happy accident was the sounds of the insects during the softer parts of the Gurrelieder) while the Pfitzner was intensely lyrical and revelatory of the beautiful soul hidden within that cantankerous personality who made so many enemies among the artistic community of his day. The unnamed violist of the Wihan String Quartet was especially adept at his instrument, coaxing a truly lovely sound out of it during his solo passagework. The Schoenberg piece on the program was the first instrumental composition written in the "serial" manner, the extremely difficult to perform Serenade. This ensemble was very well coached and conducted by Eckart Preu and left us with the feeling of southern European street musicians perceived by an auditory cubist (like listening to the fourth movement of Mahler's Symphony #7 on LSD).

Following a lovely dinner in the town of Red Hook, my friend and I returned to hear a spectacular performance of Schoenberg's gargantuan masterpiece Gurrelieder, the piece which prompted contemporary music critics to hail him as the legitimate successor of Wagner and to predict a bright future for the young man as the most popular composer of the twentieth century. Now virtually never performed, this massive song cycle/oratorio/cantata uses so many instruments (well over 110) that for the premiere special music paper had to be invented to hold all of the lines in the conductor's score. The playing of the Bard Festival Orchestra (really Botstein's American Symphony augmented by many free lance musicians from New York and Boston) was superb throughout, although there was an inevitable relaxation of crisp intonation after about and hour and a half. The singing of Susan B. Anthony (yes, that is her real name) as Tove was poignant and strong and the great Song of the Wood Dove was performed expertly by Petra Lang. The men were less satisfying in breadth and depth of vocal quality and it was debatable as to the relative merits of their inaudibility during the louder orchestral passages. The ever delightful Werner Klemperer was, as always, perfect for the speaker's role, with the added nostalgic thought that Schoenberg was a frequent guest in his father's home in Los Angeles when Werner was a still a young man. The performance was powerful enough that I was struck with the thought that this was really quite an event. I would have never thought when I was a young Schoenbergian Turk 40 years ago that a performance like this one would be so warmly received and so well attended. Perhaps those early twentieth century Viennese critics were right. Arnold Schoenberg will become the most popular composer of his era, only the era will be by then only a pleasant memory.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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