The Air Up There
John C. Borden Auditorium
Franz Joseph Haydn: Quartet Op. 20, No. 5
Arnold Schoenberg: Quartet No. 2
Ludwig van Beethoven: Quartet Op. 59, No. 1
Dana Hanchard (soprano)
American String Quartet
It is interesting to speculate on the exact moment which witnessed the birth of modern harmonic language. Was it the unresolved tritone of Tristan wandering the seas of bitonality for five hours seeking its ultimate rest? Or that incredible modulation in L’apres-midi d’un faune? How about the "Petrushka chord"? Certainly a strong case can be made for the premiere of the Schoenberg Second Quartet, a systematically planned escape over the wall of tonality into "the air of another planet". After this revolutionary and yet evolutionary event, no serious composer could ignore the problem of conventional tonality and each had to make their own choice as to what limits they would ultimately subscribe. The inclusion of the soprano voice called attention to the radicalism of the moment and showed, both in text and melodic line, that Schoenberg, like Beethoven before him, was well aware of his place in the parade of music history. As befits their dual role of academics and performing artists, the American Quartet presented this seminal work on the same program as one of Ludwig’s most innovative pieces, which propelled all of Western music forward stylistically at the beginning of another kaleidoscopic century.
Intelligently beginning with a work of Haydn which, atypically, is filled with doubt and conflict, the program pointed out the remarkable similarities between the constructions of the classicists and that of the moderns. Both the Schoenberg and the Haydn begin in confusion and anxiety and each finds its own path to tranquility and inner peace. Within the limits of this group's abilities, the Haydn was the best performance of the evening, the interplay between the voices crisp and the plot lines made visual for all to experience.
Less satisfying was the Schoenberg, shrill in many places and rather flaccid. The timidity of the soprano was noticeable (a particularly inappropriate personality trait for this shocking piece) and there were several crucial notes at the conclusion that were just plain incorrect. Still, the Americans did convey the final sense of comfort and quiet reflection which many of their more talented brethren do not. It was good to see that they would choose such an important work to play for the largely student audience, many of whom, I am sure, were experiencing it for the first time. It should be observed here that the dirty little secret at the Manhattan School is that the students must attend a required amount of concerts each semester or else fail but at least they are exposed to some adventurous programming.
The Beethoven was fraught with intonational and blending problems although played spiritedly. The bizarre lighting in the hall projected the shadows of the four players onto a white background like an Indonesian puppet theater and allowed me to drift off into a reverie for a while, however, I returned to the same somewhat awkward performance of this marvelously expansive string conversation. All in all, the performance seemed well appreciated by the young crowd and, ultimately, it is their introduction to the great tradition that defines the mission of this fine music academy.
Frederick L. Kirshnit