Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Honoring the Master

Writing about last week's performance of Alban Berg's 1925 "Chamber Concerto," performed as part of the San Francisco Symphony's Dawn to Twilight festival was one of my greater challenges. As a result, I made an effort to read as many accounts of both the music and the performance as I could find, once I had committed my own thoughts to my Examiner.com site. Looking back on those thoughts, however, I find that I missed out on what may be a key point; and the only comfort I can take is that none of the other reviewers seem to have picked it up either.

The problem may be that the intricacies of Berg's score tend to be taken as an invitation to decode, when all that Berg expected of any of us was that we take the trouble to listen. Indeed, an anecdote I cited about a lecture Berg had given about the compositional details of Wozzeck in my Examiner.com piece makes it clear that Berg was more interested in our listening than in trying to unravel the "codes" behind the structural details of his composition. From the point of view of listening, I would suggest that all we need to know in approaching this music is that it was dedicated to honor the fiftieth birthday of his teacher, Arnold Schoenberg. At one level that honor is conferred by his commitment to the "magic squares" of twelve-tone serial technique and the selection of pitches based on the names of Schoenberg, Berg, and Anton Webern; but, to my ears, the real honor resides in the work of a student highly talented in orchestration capturing and building upon the sounds of one of his master's earliest revolutionary compositions. More specifically, the sonorities of the "Chamber Concerto" were conceived to recognize and advance those of the fifteen solo instruments of Schoenberg's Opus 9 chamber symphony. This is not just a matter of the obvious fact that Berg's work was also composed for fifteen solo instruments; it goes to the core of the specific ways in which Schoenberg elicited sounds, particularly from wind instruments, and pays homage to those techniques of instrumentation.

Thus, while it was definitely valuable that the performance of Berg's "Chamber Concerto" has been preceded, earlier in the week, by a performance of his Opus 1 piano sonata, as a way of cultivating our ears for his piano writing in the later work, I suspect that most of the audience (perhaps all but those deeply immersed in Schoenberg's Opus 9) were deprived of a critical listening aid. In this respect the advice given in the talk prior to the concert (as reported by Jeff Dunn for Classical Music Voice, since I was not there for the talk) to "get out your magnifying glass" may well have been an intimidating piece of misdirection. More useful advice would have been to throw away the magnifying glass, forget about all the codes residing in the notes, and just sit back and enjoy the sounds (perhaps even "bathe" in them, even if Erich Korngold's father had used that metaphor pejoratively in critiquing his son's compositions). That advice should then carry over to this week, when the Berg side of the festival will conclude with a performance of his violin concerto, whose sounds definitely live up to Michael Tilson Thomas' "radiantly beautiful" epithet.

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