Dressed in new-wave outfits, with spiked haircuts, the players of the Kronos Quartet added to their many accomplishments Friday at the Schoenberg Institute at USC by persevering through some of the most difficult music of the great Viennese master. The first installment of a two-part series dedicated to Schoenberg's string quartets commenced with Nos. 2 and 3. It was the "Ode to Napoleon Buonaparte"(1942), however, that turned out to be the crowd pleaser.
Although baritone Charles Roe seemed unenthusiastic about this assignment, his role here as reciter was well received. Schoenberg scholar Leonard Stein's ruggedly aggressive pianism, tightly meshed with the Kronos Quartet, created the turbulent background for Lord Byron's poem about charismatic tyrants and their blind followings.
The Quartet No. 2 in F-sharp minor (1907-8), perhaps Schoenberg's deepest soul-searching trek, breaks into the then-new frontier of atonality and challenges the players' facility to the brink of their technique and expression. Violinists David Harrington and John Sherba, violist Hank Dutt and cellist Joan Jeanrenaud met the challenge.
Mezzo-soprano Jacalyn Wehmhoff remained poised and energetic throughout the vocal part of the final two movements, which move from despair to discovery in Straussian ecstasy and grandeur.