ARNOLD SCHOENBERG: A PORTRAIT reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Thursday, November 9, 2006,
Art of Time Ensemble, Andrew Burashko, artistic director.
Presented by BMO Financial,
Harbourfront Centre Theatre, Toronto.

Ted Dykstra and Richard Greenblatt–readers, Robin Engelman–conductor, Marie Bedard & Ben Bowman–violin, Josef Tamir–viola, Thomas Weibe & David Hetherington–cello, Joseph Orlowski–Clarinet, Susan Hoeppner–flute, Andrew Burashko–piano.

Andrew Burashko lives in the challenge. His goal is to gather lovers of classical and popular music into one audience, as they were in the past, before classical music went atonal and became unpopular. To accomplish this goal, Burashko challenged the opening-night audience of his Art of Time Ensemble’s ninth season with a concert celebrating the very man who made classical music unpopular: Arnold Schoenberg.

The concert was totally a success. This is the fourth season Burashko has presented “Arnold Schoenberg: A Portrait,” always with a crew of the finest players in the country. The Art of Time Ensemble revealed the lush, sensuous, side of Schoenberg’s music that anyone could enjoy. The 12-tone side that had alienated audiences in the distant past they played directly to our taste for subtlety and intelligence.

The programme presented Schoenberg’s works in reverse order of composition, beginning with the most challenging one, “Ode to Napoleon Op.41 (1942)” for speaker, string quartet and piano. Schoenberg set the English poet Byron’s spew of contempt for Napoleon in defeat (1814) in a quasi 12-tone scena with a miniature overture that echoes the relentless questioning of Byron’s text. The fall of the mighty and it’s native contrast of power and impotence animate this intense, dramatic, piece that Schoenberg wrote in almost in a single sitting while extricating himself from Hitler’s web.

It opens wonderfully with Burashko pounding out staccato tones on the piano while the violins and viola emit screeching lines, and the cellos pulse pizzicato. In the midst of this din of battle, Ted Dykstra ‘speaksings’ Byron’s poem from a text notated for rhythm and pitch, whose pages he lets fall to the floor, like pages of history. The instrumental and vocal passages range in mood from chaotic turmoil that ramps down to mortal terror, which in turn, gives way to slower passages of mourning, tender pathos, and finally, to silence.

The message of Schoenberg’s music is in the form: the message is ‘freedom’. Each instrumental voice is freed from the confines of tonal harmony, sounding like itself, alone, and in concert with the other emancipated instrumental voices, all expressing the working out of the composer’s journey towards freedom–in every sense of that word.

Schoenberg’s 1925 arrangement of by Johann Strauss’ Emperor Waltz, Op. 437(1888), takes us back to the musical splendour of Imperial Vienna. Strauss represents wildly successful 19th century pop music. The potency of Strauss’ single tonal progressions, and their immensely skillful architecture attracted Schoenberg’s mentor Gustav Mahler, and inspired Anton Webern and Alban Berg, Schoenberg’s students in the Second Viennese School, to do arrangements of Strauss, if only to breathe new life into traditional Viennese culture.

The stately “Introduction” to the waltz in slow march time (2/4), leads via a cello solo into the first theme which Schoenberg and Art of Time Ensemble make into something gorgeous, lugubrious, lyrical, and lightly self-mocking. Schoenberg has spiked Strauss with an elixir of expressive freedom, creating new textures, timbres, daring theatricality and humour that has the musicians grinning at each other. The second theme is introduced by clarinet and flute, which are clarion voices of the enhanced intelligence Schoenberg has brought to the waltz. In the closing section, solo violin and trilling piano recall the first waltz theme arranged to show the glory of Imperial Vienna fading into memory. A magical moment.

This grand evening finishes on a Romantic note with “Verklarte Nacht, Op.4 (1899)”, Schoenberg’s ‘greatest hit’. Inspired by the compositions of Brahms and Wagner, this piece is still within the tonal system, though on the edge of it, and is still close to the Romantic programme style of compositions developed by Berlioz, Wagner, and R. Strauss

The music expresses the feelings of a young couple in a poem (written by Richard Dehmel in 1896) who are walking in the moonlight to talk about her pregnancy by another man. The cello goes low and the viola follows in a throbbing largo that introduces the motif of the woman’s anguish in a minor key. The consoling words of the man shift the composition into a brighter, though dissonant major. The violins and violas converse elegantly among dark swells of low register tones. The violins sing plaintively, the cellos rumble, the violas are plucked like living nerves, and a couple of soft, dark chords seal the end of this old fashioned walk.

For a chaser, here is a different view of the evening in this mini-interview with an audience member.

STM: What did you think of the performance?
Vladimir Payewich: I am very satisfied. The “Waltz”, the adaptation of Strauss, is a little commercial. The real Schoenberg is in “Verklarte Nacht.”
STM: Are you a musician?
VP: Unfortunately not. But I am addicted to music.
STM: What did you think of the “Ode to Napoleon”?
VP: I never heard it before, but that is what I was expecting. It is almost the real Schoenberg. I prefer his earlier sprechtgesang piece “Pierre Lunaire.”
STM: What does Schoenberg’s music give you?
VP: To be perfectly honest, I am from Europe. I grew up with this kind of music. It is rare in Canada to find performances that are similar to this. That is one reason why I enjoyed this concert– it made me feel at home, absolutely. One more reason is that I understand completely what made Schoenberg write his “Ode” back in 1942.

LINK: For another thoughtful review of this performance by Joyce Corbett

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