Friday, January 12, 2018

Schoenberg in a Well-Considered Context

Last night in Davies Symphony Hall, composer Arnold Schoenberg was the focus of attention; and that focus was enhanced through the judicious selection of the compositions that preceded and followed his Opus 42 piano concerto. Pianist Emanuel Ax was the featured guest soloist of the San Francisco Symphony led by Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT), who introduced the concerto with a few remarks to provide a positive context for audience expectations. The concerto was composed in 1942 when Schoenberg was living in Los Angeles. The notes in the program book by Thomas May explained that Schoenberg had intended the concerto for Oscar Levant, who found it too difficult to perform.

MTT, on the other hand, provided a perspective that made the music more accessible than many in the audience may have anticipated. MTT’s key message was, “Listen to the rhythm, not the atonality.” That remark reflected on an article that Virgil Thomson once wrote for The New York Review of Books, which asserted that, however hard Schoenberg may have tried to avoid establishing a tonal center, his rhythms remained firmly entrenched in Viennese tradition. MTT’s advice did the trick. For the listener who followed that advice, the four movements of the concerto (played without interruption) flowed by as a fresh perspective on the tradition of four-movement symphonic works from the nineteenth century.

Arnold Schoenberg’s tone row with Viennese rhythms (from Wikipedia, fair use)

One could thus appreciate Ax’s solo work just as one could appreciate his performance of concertos by earlier composers. Indeed, this is where the context card was played. Before taking on Schoenberg, Ax played Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 449 concerto in E-flat major, thus orienting the listener with regard to the relationship between concerto soloist and ensemble. However, this selection also reflected the fact that, as a teacher, Schoenberg had tremendous respect for Mozart, often writing about how Mozart, too, had been innovative in his approaches to making music. The program as a whole thus became a sort of yesterday-and-today reflection on how the idea of a piano concerto had developed between 1784 and 1942.

MTT then chose to follow the Schoenberg concerto with one of Richard Strauss’ tone poems, his Opus 28 “Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks.” This may have struck some as an incongruous juxtaposition. However, Strauss was another composer that Schoenberg admired, including examples from his scores in his textbooks. Furthermore, Opus 28 is yet another reflection of that Viennese tradition, much of which is evoked by the lilting rhythm that begins the tone poem and many of the rhythmic patterns that subsequently unfold. Thus, the “Mozart-Schoenberg-Strauss trinity” emerged somewhat as an apotheosis of the spirit of Vienna, which endured through so many different stylistic periods.

The overture for the evening was also Viennese, Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 72a, the third of his “Leonore” overtures (the name coming from the early versions of the opera that would eventually be performed as Fidelio). Ironically, Beethoven did not quite fit in with that trinity; but then not fitting in tended to be one of that composer’s signature traits. The overture was definitely good for getting the juices flowing, but it never felt quite like the proper way to introduce a Mozart concerto. Nevertheless, MTT’s spirited account was definitely consistent with the engaging rhetorical techniques he summoned subsequently to take us through the different ages of Viennese tradition.

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