Last night in the Recital Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, the Left Coast Chamber Ensemble (LCCE) concluded its 25th anniversary season with a program entitled A Rare Serenade. The title referred to the major work on the program, Arnold Schoenberg’s Opus 24, a serenade for baritone and seven instrumentalists. The “rare” part of the title refers to the fact that the work is seldom performed because the combination of instruments is so unconventional that it is seldom assembled.
The most familiar part of the ensemble is a string trio, consisting last night of Anna Presler on violin, Phyllis Kamrin on viola, and Leighton Fong on cello. The only wind parts, on the other hand, come only from the clarinet family, Jerome Simas playing both A and B-flat clarinets and visiting artist Jeffrey Anderle playing bass clarinet. The remaining instruments are the least conventional, a guitar played by Michael Goldberg joined by visiting artist Dana Rath playing mandolin. The baritone sings only in the middle (fourth) of the serenade’s seven movements; and this part was sung by visiting artist Josh Quinn.
In writing the preview for this concert, I observed that the instrumentation was not the sort that one would encounter in the serenades of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. On the other hand most of the movements did not stray far from classical tradition. There was an introductory march reflected by a concluding finale, two dance movements, a set of variations, and a “song without words” for an Adagio movement. The only real departure from tradition came with the insertion of the baritone song setting of Petrarch’s 217th sonnet.
In contrast to these “traditional” elements, the serenade is distinguished in Schoenberg’s catalog as his first use of the twelve-tone technique, which he applied only to the Petrarch setting. All of the other movements drew upon so-called “free” approaches to atonality, which Schoenberg had been exploring since about 1909. (Opus 24 had a long gestation period. He began work on it in 1920, but it was not completed until 1923.)
Nevertheless, when it comes to listening, one must be careful not to make too much of a fuss over pitch classes. This was the point behind Schoenberg himself writing about the need to “emancipate” dissonance, which not only challenges the concept of dissonance as a fundamental category but also abandons the traditional conviction that dissonance can be tolerated only if it resolves to consonance. As was observed yesterday, Schoenberg was far from the only composer to abandon traditional thoughts about dissonance. Alexander Scriabin’s fifth piano sonata, which was written in 1907, was not only exploring the use of unresolved dissonance but had also abandoned the need for a harmonic foundation based on a dominant-tonic relationship. For that matter, by 1920 the world was getting a generous share of dissonance from the pen of Igor Stravinsky.
What is more interesting about Schoenberg’s Opus 24 is that, when one sets aside those dissonant intervals and turns, instead, to the rhythms, the overall rhetoric of the serenade is light and even cheerful. Those fortunate enough to hear Emanuel Ax playing Schoenberg’s Opus 42 piano concerto this past January when he visited the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) would have been sensitized to Schoenberg’s rhetorical stance. Conductor Michael Tilson Thomas offered up a pre-performance demonstration to illustrate that the rhythm mattered more than the atonality, and Opus 24 has many of the high spirits that SFS presented in Opus 42.
Indeed, there were even a few jokes for the really attentive listeners. The Tanzscene (dance scene) movement has at least two passing references to Stravinsky’s own music, one from “The Rite of Spring” and another from “L’Histoire du soldat” (the soldier’s tale). It would not surprise me if Stravinsky found out, sooner or later, that he had been tweaked by Schoenberg, because he eventually “got even.” In the music he composed for George Balanchine’s “Agon,” he not only tried his own hand at Schoenberg’s twelve-tone technique but also included a mandolin in his instrumentation, whose figures occasionally suggest that Stravinsky knew what that instrument had played in Schoenberg’s Opus 24!
Last night’s stimulating performance of Opus 24 was preceded by a “warm-up” of two shorter pieces, both of which involved Goldberg playing guitar. One of these was a world premiere which brought Goldberg together with the string trio for the evening. Nicolas Lell Benavides’ “Rinconcito” (little corner) was an affectionate recollection of the composer’s childhood and his exposure to traditional New Mexican music through his two grandfathers. The title itself comes from Ramón Ayala’s song “Rinconcito En El Cielo” (a little corner of heaven); and it provides the basis for Benavides’ evocation of personal memories through his own imaginative voice as a composer.
Goldberg also played with Presler and Kamrin to present Sándor Jemnitz’ Opus 33 trio. Jemnitz was one of Schoenberg’s students, and he composed this trio in 1932. Like Schoenberg’s Opus 24, Jemnitz’ trio relies heavily on imaginative approaches to rhythm that allow him ample opportunity to find his own ways of working with “emancipated” dissonances. Each of the trio’s three movements is relatively short. However, all were sufficiently engaging that it might have been worth the time to give the entire piece a second hearing, particularly when none of us have any idea when it might surface as a listening opportunity again.