The mere mention of Arnold Schoenberg, the father of 12-tone music, makes some concertgoers want to flee. But on Sunday, Concert:Nova, a groundbreaking ensemble of musicians, set the music of Schoenberg in a striking new light.
Concert:Nova’s program, “Demystifying Schoenberg,” mounted in a basement space in Pendleton which the group calls “The Garden,” was an eye-opening fusion of concert and theater. Concert:Nova, consisting mainly of Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra players, aims to present a “multi-sensory perspective,” mounting performances in various spaces around the city. This space, with its exposed-brick walls and pipes in the ceiling (which provided ambient water noise) became part of the theatrical experience.
Actor Michael Burnham, drama professor at the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music, was superb as the composer, who looked back on his life between musical selections. Speaking in a German accent with a touch of Yiddish, he spoke from an engaging script culled from Schoenberg’s own writings and speeches (by CCM professor Steven Cahn, who also performed on piano). The actor as composer alternately recalled his premieres, raged against critics and spoke philosophically about his life and his work.
It was an ideal way to humanize this oft-maligned composer, and proved to be an evening of discovery for many in the standing-room-only audience. The program included Schoenberg’s lyrical, post-romantic “Kammersymphonie” No. 1, as well as “Pierrot Lunaire,” one of his most haunting works on the road to abandoning tonality.
The first half featured music with voice. Soprano Meng Chun Lin, a doctoral student at CCM and pianist Cahn, opened with three “Cabaret Songs,” written in 1901 in Berlin. It was a rare lighter side of Schoenberg, and Lin communicated the songs with warmth and humor.
Three songs from “Book of the Hanging Gardens” suited her voice wonderfully. The last, “The beautiful flowerbed,” was movingly phrased, and the pianist tackled its rich chords with weight. Cahn also found emotional depth in the short Op. 23 Piano Pieces.
Three selections from “Pierrot Lunaire,” expressionist song settings of poems by Albert Giraud, was another highlight. Lin soared through the melodramatic “Sprechstimme,” and projected its sense of drama. The atmosphere of the small ensemble, conducted by Kenneth Lam, was magnificent, and pianist Marcus Kuchle contributed a magical touch in “Drunk with Moonlight.”
After intermission, Lam, who is assistant conductor of the CSO, led larger ensembles in the “Serenade” Op. 24 and Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No. 1 of 1906. It was a treat to hear the Chamber Symphony for 15 instruments, which looks back to romanticism as much as ahead to the composer’s new style. The musicians gave it an impassioned reading, and Lam was a confident leader through its rapid changes of mood and meter.
One caveat: The intimate room was not always ideal for hearing all of Burnham’s lines or seeing players, something the founders may want to address in future programs.
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