Monday, February 5, 2007

Letting a Concert Slip through the Cracks

I feel sorry for San Francisco Performances. What may well be the most exciting contribution to their Chamber Music series (if not the entirety of the 2006–07 season) received no notice by the San Francisco Chronicle, since the premiere of Robin Holloway's Fourth Concerto for Orchestra took place on the same day at Davies. I suppose that it was asking too much to have their music critic cover the San Francisco Symphony at 2 PM and the Artemis Quartet at 8 PM (even if I still look back fondly on my time in New York when that was not asking too much at all). However, since it is now clear that nothing about Artemis is going to appear in Chronicle print or on, I figure I ought to invest a few words to explain my frustration.

First of all, the program was not only out of the ordinary but also designed with uncanny perception. One might almost have given it a theme title: Revolution on Both Ends of a Century. In the center was the second of Beethoven's Razumovsky quartets, composed in 1806. By just about any metric, this is Beethoven at his most radical, beginning with a series of broken and hectic gestures that immediately disorient the listener and then hurtling forward with a grammar and rhetoric that still feels alien today and must of aggravated any listener at the beginning of the nineteenth century. The shock of this work was all the more evident in the performance by the Artemis Quartet, whose members refused to "play it safe," opening themselves to all the risks that follow when those grammatical and rhetorical expectations are pulled out from under you. This is not the "polite" Beethoven that is dished out to us by the many recordings of the quartets; this is experimentation in the chaos of the laboratory. Even the brief citation of a Russian folk melody in the trio of the third movement, often played with the solemnity it receives in the Coronation Scene from Boris Godunov, maintained the unsettling atmosphere of the rest of the composition. This is the kind of performing that reminds us why our love of music can never be entirely sustained by the recording industry.

The "century" of my proposed theme title comes from the fact that the Beethoven quartet was both preceded and followed by music from the Vienna of 1905, a year that we associate more with musical revolution than we do 1806. The Beethoven quartet was followed (after the intermission) by Schoenberg's first string quartet, another extremely unsettling work that again breaks down those grammatical and rhetorical expectations. Indeed, it took me quite a few listenings to an old Vox recording before I felt I could get my mind around the work. Back when the original Kronos Quartet put a lot of their effort into both Schoenberg and Berg, I remember hearing them play this work at the Schoenberg Institute (then at USC). I felt as if I was watching a "dream play" (as in Strindberg's conception of such drama), where I was not sure what language the four "characters" were speaking; but it still made sense! For the Artemis performance I did not feel I needed a "dramatic crutch." I was more aware of how Schoenberg lays all of his cards on the table in the opening section of this single-movement (45-minute) work and then explores the play of relationships among them. In retrospect I realize that, while the Artemis brought just the right sense of urgency to the Beethoven to make it feel revolutionary, they played the Schoenberg as if it were just another step along the path of the history of string quartets. I only wish this quartet received more such performances.

On the other side of the Beethoven, at the beginning of the concert, was Webern's Langsamer Satz. This comes from the early period of Webern's private studies under Schoenberg, and we have every reason to believe that the master's hand is present in the student's work. More important, however, is the way in which this short movement demonstrates what I feel is a fundamental principle of musical aesthetics: Every work of music constitutes a reaction to one or more other works of music. If Webern came to Vienna in 1902, then one of the factors that drew him to Schoenberg would probably have been Verklärte Nacht, which was premiered in 1903. In the Langsamer Satz we can hear the appreciation that Webern had for his master's string sextet; and, perhaps in some way, we also hear how Webern heard this earlier work. Nevertheless, Webern's piece is not an homage. Rather, it is a reaction to what the Schoenberg work taught him about the nature of "musical utterances;" it is Webern's effort at "trying on" such utterances in his own musical discourse.

So it was that, on the evening of February 1 in Herbst Theatre, the Artemis Quartet offered an enduring lesson in musical revolution. This is not to disparage the revolutionary doings at Davies Symphony Hall earlier that day. It is only to express regret that, in that unlikely event that two revolutions happen on the same day, that seems to be more than the Chronicle "Datebook" can handle!

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