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Schoenberg Festival Weekend Two

New York
Bard College Olin Auditorium and Festival Tent
08/22/1999 -  
Egon Wellesz: The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo
Nikos Skalkottas: Octet, Op. 30
Hanns Eisler: Palmstroem
Roberto Gerhard: Concert for Eight
Erich Itor Kahn: Ciaccona dei tempi di guerra
Arnold Schoenberg: String Quartet #3
Bard Festival Chamber Players
Ludwig van Beethoven (orch. Mahler): String Quartet #11
Johann Sebastian Bach (orch. Schoenberg): Chorale Prelude BWV 654; Prelude and Fugue BWV 552
Arnold Schoenberg: Piano Concerto; Variations for Orchestra
Mari Kodama (piano)
Bard Festival Orchestra, Leon Botstein (conductor)

When Arnold Schoenberg's friend and California neighbor Thomas Mann wrote of the experience of Hans Castorp on The Magic Mountain, he told the tale of a knowledge seeker in a rarified environment of contemplation and discussion who ultimately gains insight into his own nature and that of his fellow man. Such an atmosphere has been created by Leon Botstein in the idyllic setting of Bard College each year for the focusing on one composer and his milieu. Among the groves of academe one can wander from symposia to chamber concerts to full orchestral presentations and think only of the particular master and his influence on the contemporary music scene of his time and our own, surrounded by the leading authorities of the day and some interesting special attendees. At the final concert of the festival's second weekend, I had the honor to sit in the same row as one of Herr Schoenberg's children and two of his grandchildren who, as a family, are very directly involved in the preservation of the heritage of their illustrious ancestor. Other friends of the Viennese master were also present, some as invited speakers and some strictly as audience members, and there was also a smattering of New York celebrities in the crowd (this area is crawling with big name weekend expatriates). All of us were treated to a very high level of musical performance and are eagerly anticipating the third part of this series, which will be held in November at Alice Tully Hall.

The chamber concert was an exploration of Schoenberg as teacher, with examples in varying styles from some of his best Berlin students. This group of talented intellectuals, referred to derisively, but also somewhat enviously, by their contemporaries as the "Meistersaenger von Schoenberg", went on to varying degrees of compositional success throughout the world. Of course, Schoenberg had many illustrious students, most notably Alban Berg, Anton Webern and Ernst Krenek in Vienna as well as Gunther Schuller, Robert Craft, Skitch Henderson and Dave Brubeck in California and his influence has spread far and wide in the years since his death in 1951 (it is impossible to think of the music of Charles Mingus or Thelonius Monk without the experimentation of this great theorist). In Berlin his master classes and composition seminars at the Prussian Academy were legendary and he became, like his mentor Gustav Mahler before him, the most influential musical figure of his day (Mann used him for the model of the composer Adrian Leverkuehn in the novel Dr. Faustus). His students took with them a legacy of intense scholarship and a religiously zealous devotion to the rules of traditional harmony, even as they and their master systematically proceeded to break each and every one of them.

The most beautiful piece of the afternoon was the first. Egon Wellesz fashioned a gorgeous work out of a text written by Gerard Manley Hopkins which was masterfully sung by the contemporary music specialist Judith Bettina and an accompanying quartet. Wellesz includes just the right touch of English pastorale to evoke a Shropshire Lad type of idyllic pacifism. The Skalkottas and Eisler works were much less satisfying (although marvelously played) because they violated the first rule of the Berlin Ueberprofessor. Instead of finding their own voice and style, these two imitated slavishly the Schoenberg of the Wind Quintet and Pierrot Lunaire respectively. The Gerhard was an amazingly evocative piece in a now forgotten genre wherein eight instruments produced the most unusual sonorities possible by striking at their backsides, using bows on instruments which do not normally employ them, and reaching into the guts of the instruments to produce a totally new sound. Special mention should go to the percussionist William Moersch, who played many different instruments unorthodoxically at a very rapid pace. The Kahn piano work was very moving (and expertly played by Peter Vinograde), although the composer never actually studied directly with Schoenberg while the master's extremely difficult String Quartet #3 was given a stirring performance by a group which featured the co-artistic director of this festival, Robert Martin, as cellist.

The evening program at the tent was a noble effort to present music of a more popular nature. Mahler's orchestration of the Quartet #11 for augmented string orchestra was very exciting as was the performance of the two Bach transcriptions. The Schoenberg Piano Concerto was given an extremely emotional reading by the soloist Mari Kodama, whose solo passagework was particularly impressive and poetic (she seemed to concentrate on the emotive power of the piece which most soloists tend to ignore), however the Festival Orchestra was obviously under-rehearsed, an inevitability in a ten program celebration, and blew several key entrances, including an entire passage where only President Botstein was active, waving his arms at a totally silent group of bewildered participants. I was concerned that the Variations for Orchestra, considered by Erich Leinsdorf to be the most difficult work to perform in the entire orchestral repertoire, would also suffer from this lack of rehearsal time. Actually the piece held together pretty well, primarily because Botstein took the prudent step of inserting a long pause between each set of variations, ostensibly to help frame the architecture of the piece but really to allow his forces to regroup. The resulting performance was (no pun intended) academic and much duller that this truly exciting seminal work of modern variation technique deserved.

All in all, however, the Schoenberg Festival was a great success, both commercially and intellectually and I felt quite transformed as I made my way down the mountain back to the city. I will try and not tread to heavily on anyone's head with my hobnailed boots (at least for a while).

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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