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Music Review

Reflections on Schoenberg

The L.A. Philharmonic explores his eclectic compositions with some flashes of insight.

October 08, 2001|MARK SWED | TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

The Schoenberg hard sell has begun. The Los Angeles Philharmonic is filtering the music of Arnold Schoenberg throughout its season and, in honor of the composer who died in Los Angeles 50 years ago, the performances are being surrounded by explorations of the music, the man and his extraordinarily interesting milieu.

There is instruction at the concerts; there will be discussions and symposia around town; and other organizations performing Schoenberg are getting a boost by being invited under the umbrella of what the Philharmonic calls the "Schoenberg Prism." Through this prism, powerful music gains powerful protection and promotion, but it can also be endangered by well-meaning patronization.

On Friday night the prism began refracting light with a performance of Schoenberg's Piano Concerto as the centerpiece of the opening program of the Philharmonic's new season (discounting, that is, the Duke Ellington celebration that the orchestra hosted Wednesday as a gala). Surrounding the concerto were discussions with the performers, pianist Emanuel Ax and music director Esa-Pekka Salonen, on the stage of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Also surrounding Schoenberg was the mantel of Beethoven, with the "Choral Fantasy" to begin the concert and the Fifth Symphony to end it.

On Saturday afternoon at the Schindler House on Kings Road, there was more Schoenberg talk and music. UCLA musicologist Susan McClary gave an absorbing overview of Schoenberg's career and significance, not hesitating to call him "the most consequential composer of the 20th century," without even a runner-up in sight. Schoenberg's two sons, Lawrence and Ronald, fielded questions from the audience about life with their father. Members from the Philharmonic performed two movements from the Second String Quartet.

The performance of the Piano Concerto by Ax and Salonen was warm and attractive. Written in 1942 in Los Angeles and sparked by Oscar Levant's request for a piano piece from Schoenberg, it has four traditional movements tied together into one. But what makes this concerto exceptional is that the traditional music-making occurs in an environment of swirling weirdness, of constant disorientation. Everywhere there are little details in the orchestra parts that throw a complacent listener off course. The piano writing is elaborate and fantastical. It is as if Schoenberg were showing his audience that it must hang on to what it needs from the past, but that it can never forget that it lives in the modern world.

Ax, however, explained the music as Brahms with wrong notes (quoting Leonard Bernstein); Salonen reminded us that Schoenberg was a Romantic. In all their talk, in Alan Chapman's pre-concert introduction, in the program notes, there was a conspicuous effort to put an audience at ease, to underplay Schoenberg as the scary 12-tone inventor who killed harmony and nearly all else that the conventional concertgoer expects from music. There was never a simple description of what it is that Schoenberg actually did in the concerto and why hearing it can be such a compelling experience.

Schoenberg is, in fact, a hard sell for the Romantic sensibility. Schoenberg with the right notes is much more impressive than Brahms with the wrong ones. The next day McClary made the fascinating observation that among her students, the ones drawn to Schoenberg are those in the Nine Inch Nails T-shirts, who find in Schoenberg a music that represents the highest ideals of moral integrity.

It is just that kind of integrity that the Philharmonic will need to work on in its presentations at the Chandler as well. And the more it concentrates on the music the better, especially given the difficulties of hearing Schoenberg in this hall. I'm told that listeners upstairs heard more than those of us sitting downstairs did.

Schoenberg's music presents a fascinating continual shifting of perspective; from my seat, Ax was consistently in the foreground, the orchestra (especially the violas and lower winds) was distant background.

Still, there were significant pleasures to be had. Ax brings a richness of tone and a graciousness of phrasing to Schoenberg that are very appealing. Salonen took care to ensure the rhythms were certain. Ax and Salonen have become deeper interpreters of the concerto than they were nine years ago when they recorded it in London with the Philharmonia. But neither is yet entirely free to be himself, to put a wholly personal stamp on the music.

The Beethoven was a different matter. The "Choral Fantasy" is not to be taken seriously. Beethoven, some scholars conjecture, wrote this piece, which begins as a piano concerto and ends as an overenthusiastic ode for chorus, to describe a vivid story from classical literature that he then concealed.

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