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Schoenberg with a Heart

Mary Ellyn Hutton
Posted: Apr 6, 2009 - 2:29:25 PM in 
reviews 

schonberg_1.jpg
Arnold Schoenberg

The most profound words heard Sunday evening at the Concert:Nova presentation "Demystifying Schoenberg" -- other than his music itself -- were these, uttered by actor Michael Burnham:

   "No one wanted to be, someone had to be, so I let it be me."

   As Burnham explained -- in an astonishing performance as the composer who revolutionized music in the 20th century -- this is how Schoenberg answered an officer in the Austrian army in World War I who asked him if he were "this notorious Schoenberg."

   His reputation as the composer who had "emancipated dissonance" had preceded him.

   The concert, held on the "garden" level ground floor of the Metaphor building on Reading Road in Over-the-Rhine, drew a capacity audience (well over 100 with extra chairs brought in).  This is something of a feat for the still fear-inducing composer, especially on a rainy night with tornado warnings in effect.

   Central to it was Burnham, whose German accent, wire-rimmed glasses poised on the end of his nose, and wry and often impassioned delivery imparted an unforgettable humanity to the composer.  His lines were drawn from Schoenberg's writings and comments, tailored to the music on the concert.  It was a tour de force that simply must become a permanent part of C:N's repertoire.

   So why did somebody have to be the "notorious" Schoenberg?  

   When the Viennese composer (born 1874) came along, traditional harmony --i.e.  key-centered music that sounds "good" to the ears -- had been stretched to the breaking point by composers like Mahler, Richard Strauss, Debussy, Scriabin, etc.

   Now what?  That was the question.  Schoenberg did not shrink from seeking an answer. Free atonality (he preferred to call it "pantonality") was OK as far as it went, but it needed to have some kind of structure to build on.  After much consideration (and vitriol for freeing "dissonance"), he invented one with what he defined as the "method of composing with 12 tones related only with one another."

  So-called "12-tone" or serial music was born and with it, the Second Viennese School (Schoenberg and his pupils Anton Webern and Alban Berg, as successors to Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, or the First Viennese School).

   The music on Sunday's program, performed by members of the chamber ensemble Concert:Nova with soprano Meng-Chun Lin, pianist/Schoenberg scholar Steven Cahn and conductor Kenneth Lam, spanned Schoenberg's stylistic development. 

  There were excerpts from his light-hearted, completely tonal Cabaret Songs (1901) to his Serenade, Op. 24 (1924), where the possibilities of 12-tone composition bloom artistically (not just intellectually).

   In between were selections from his Op, 23 Piano Pieces (1920-21), "Book of the Hanging Gardens" (1910) and expressionistic "Pierrot Lunaire" (1912).  In "Pierrot," now one of his most often performed works, the "reciter" (singer) employs Sprechstimme or "speech-voice," where the voice falls away from sung pitches in speech-like fashion.         

   The concert ended with the 1909 Chamber Symphony No. 1, where Schoenberg's identity as an arch-romantic in the Strauss/Mahler tradition speaks loud and clear.

   Meng-Chun Lin, a splendid soprano currently pursuing her doctor of musical arts degree at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, inhabited everything she sang, beginning with three of the Cabaret Songs, "Galathea," "Mahnung" ("Warning") and Aria from "The Mirror of Arcadia."  All were delivered in a full, rich voice shaded with expression and enhanced with delightful stage acting. Cahn's accompaniment set the theatrical mood vividly.

   Lin communicated stark seriousness, her gaze fixed forward, in numbers three, four and ten from "Book of the Hanging Gardens," a set of despairing love poetry for voice and piano completed during a marital crisis (Schoenberg's first wife Mathilde eloped briefly with a painter).

   She handled her Sprechstimme to telling effect in three excerpts from "Pierrot" --"Mondestrunken" ("Moondrunk"), "Valse de Chopin" (a horrific waltz) and "O Alter Duft" ("O Ancient Fragrance"), conveying well its sickly mix of madness and calculation.  She was joined here by C:N members Heidi Yenney (violin/viola), Randolph Bowman (flute/piccolo), Ronald Aufmann (clarinet/bass clarinet) and Marcus Kuchle (piano), all keenly in tune with the bizarre melodrama.

   Cahn, professor of theory at CCM who wrote his doctoral dissertation on Schoenberg, exemplified one of the composer's famous remarks in two of the Five Piano Pieces, Op. 23, "Sehr langsam" and "Sehr rasch"  ("Very slowly" and "Very quickly")These aphoristic works -- the two pieces are about three-minutes' total -- were among his first experiments with 12-tone writing and, as such, posed a challenge for its first listeners, including Berg.  Said Schoenberg in effect: "My music is not bad, just performed badly."  Cahn, who obviously "gets" this music, performed them commitedly and extremely well. 

   Following intermission -- a delicious few moments with complimentary wine and snacks for the crowd -- the concert concluded with two of the composer's works for larger ensemble. 

   Serenade, Op. 24, featured violinist Tatiana Bermanviolist Yenney, cellist Christina Coletta,clarinetist Jonathan Gunn, bass clarinetist Aufmann, guitarist Richard Goering and Brian Deyo on mandolin.  Lam conducted.  The Serenade is, as Cahn put it, "one beautiful melody after another," and, though composed using Schoenberg's 12-tone method, it is.  The contrast of instrumental colors contributes to the ear-pleasing effect, with guitar and mandolin against the bowed/plucked strings and woodwind timbres.  Heard were "Lied" (a song without words) and"Tantzscene" ("Dance scene").  Berman's distinctively sweet tone illuminated "Lied," while"Tanzscene" manifested shape, regular rhythms and melody, including a charming clarinet solo with accompaniment.  What more could anyone want?

   If there were any doubts about the emotion in Schoenberg's music -- an object of the program was to dispel that notion, said artistic director/C:N clarinetist Ixi Chen -- they were dispelled with the concluding Chamber Symphony No. 1, led with considerable energy and insight by Lam.

   The ensemble comprised violinists Mauricio Aguiar and Berman, violist Yenney, cellist Coletta, double bassist Owen Lee, flutist Bowman, clarinetists Jonathan Gunn, Chen and Aufmann, oboists Dwight Parry and Lon Bussell, bassoonists Hugh Michie and Jennifer Monroe and French hornists Elizabeth Freimuth and Lisa Conway.  One would have thought an undiscovered work by Richard Strauss had just come to light, so filled with passion (and downright Straussian heroism) the music was.

    The 20-minute work falls into several distinct sections, including a lovely slow "movement" introduced by double bass harmonics.  At one point, there was a clue of the direction the composer was about to take with harmony in an upward succession of fourths.  Tonal harmony is built on triads (thirds).

   Freimuth and Conway soared at the end in a full-bodied conclusion that drew whoops from the crowd.

   Look for C:N, which has performed in many different kinds of venues, including clubs, bars, restaurants and museums, to appear in local jazz clubs in the near future.  Spotted in the crowd Sunday were prominent members of Cincinnati's jazz community.