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Music Review

The Proof Is in the 'Pelleas' Performance

March 23, 1998|MARK SWED | TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

The Long Beach Symphony performed Schoenberg's grandiose symphonic poem "Pelleas und Melisande" on Saturday night at the Terrace Theater and it proved much by doing so.

First, it proved that it could play such thick, intricate music lucidly. I wouldn't be surprised if this were the thorniest and lushest score of its size and reach that Long Beach has ever attempted. The orchestra, after all, gives classical concerts only once a month and only a single performance of each program.

It proved, secondly, that conductor JoAnn Falletta can command Schoenberg's epic scope. The sound occasionally turned hard, with glaring climaxes. But still inner lines, which are fitted together with the precision of the parts of a chronograph, were more clear than not, and Falletta never lost her enthusiastic sweep.

Next, and most important, the concert proved that Schoenberg's is an audience's music, even though the Long Beach Symphony can be hard on its patrons. Instead of handing out programs, it sells a single booklet with notes for its whole season. All you get from the ushers is a list of the pieces. The system doesn't work. Almost no one around me had the texts.

Schoenberg's tone poem tells two stories. One is the music's narrative, based on the same Maeterlinck source that Debussy used for his contemporaneous opera. Yet Schoenberg, who wrote his score at the end of 1902, went about the drama very differently from his French colleague. No Parisian half-light and understatement here but, instead, powerful Viennese Romanticism pushing headlong into 20th century psychology and angst. So an audience is far better served if it knows something of what this music is describing.

The other story told by this youthful, ambitious Schoenberg score is that this 20th century modernist came out of the Romantic 19th century tradition. Falletta demonstrated this by prefacing "Pelleas" with Rossini's "William Tell" Overture and five songs from Mahler's "Des Knaben Wunderhorn" cycle. Both the "William Tell" and the songs are good examples of the 19th century's obsession with nature. But the Mahler, more neurotic and grotesque, is closer to Schoenberg. His songs, based on German folk tales, present the forest as a place of mysterious transformation where love and death are inescapably linked.

The singer, a striking Norwegian soprano, Anne-Lise Berntsen, has a dark, commanding voice, but she seems to care less about it than about dramatic effect. She can soar over the orchestra or get lost in it. She can be steady, but the music's emotion can also overtake her.

Still, the songs were excellent preparation for hearing the "Pelleas." Mahler offered Schoenberg a sound world and an ethos, and no matter how far into the future Schoenberg tried to push music, he never lost sight of those roots.

Which is one more thing the concert proved. Although the name of Schoenberg has the power to scare audiences, if the context is right, the crowd can get excited.

Lastly, hearing "Pelleas," which is rarely performed or recorded, proved how much we've lately lost. Well-known Southland Schoenbergians, including the composer's two sons, were not in evidence Saturday. They are in Vienna, where the Schoenberg collection, formerly of USC, is celebrating its move to a more hospitable environment.

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