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Schoenberg’s First, Beethoven’s Last

Arnold SchoenbergLudwig van Beethoven
The first half of James Levine’s Beethoven/Schoenberg project culminated this weekend with the pairing of Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No. 1, op. 9b, and the Ninth Symphony of Beethoven. Most of the buzz surrounding this particular concert, however, concerned the conductor. James Levine, while walking back on stage to acknowledge applause after the conclusion of the opening performance of this program, tripped and fell. Thankfully, no bones were broken, but he did suffer some obvious soreness, which prevented him from completing the remaining performances. Filling in for him was BSO assistant conductor, and Levine protégé, Jens Georg Bachmann. There was some tension on stage. Bachmann, having found himself in a pressure cooker, rose to the task and seemed grateful for the opportunity at concert’s end. I did, however, notice several string players taking their cues from the concertmaster’s bow.

Other Reviews:

Richard Dyer, Historic symphonies elicit emotional performances (Boston Globe, March 3)

Allan Kozinn, With Its Maestro Absent, the Boston Still Takes Beethoven and Runs With It (New York Times, March 8)
Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No. 1 (composed in 1906, rescored for full orchestra by the composer nearly 30 years later) is an interesting cross-section of the composer’s career. The composition is lush, late Romantic muscle. The form is commensurate in terms of its symphonic nature but is contained in a single movement. The orchestration is made with the smaller brushes of the post-serial period. Unlike the larger early works, like Pelleas und Melisande, the sound is not completely overwhelming but is tempered with the spirit of the original chamber writing. Strong solo strings and winds had multiple chances to shine in these pared-down moments.

The Beethoven featured a powerhouse veteran quartet: soprano Christine Brewer, mezzo-soprano Jill Grove, and tenor Clifton Forbis were anchored by bass-baritone Albert Dohmen, whose solos were commanding. The Tanglewood Festival Chorus rounded out the massive and demanding undertaking, the sheer volume of which was appropriate for the magnificence of the last movement. The BSO will perform this program at Carnegie Hall on March 6.

The ambitious Beethoven/Schoenberg project has provided the opportunity for Boston concertgoers to hear an abundance of exciting programming in a relatively short time span. Additionally, the project rapidly encapsulated the conflict of programming traditional and modern (or at least modern-sounding) literature. The conflict, of course, exists between seasoned professionals – who, with varying motivations, see the significance of classics as well as modern works and attempt to present such dichotomies with the intent to illuminate – and the wide-ranging tastes of the public. It’s a sticky subject, and it never dies, especially since ticket sales hang in the balance (the BSO concerts that focused on Schoenberg alone suffered from anemic attendance). Conductor’s prejudices, previews, elongated program notes, and assurances from reputable sources that the modern sounds really are “accessible” seem only to be stifling the potential of such programming.

Why? Perhaps because the attempts to fill the seats rely upon the premise that listening to modern works (or any works, for that matter) will sate a need for the listener. When this doesn’t happen, when the composer fails in proving something to the listener, the fault lies invariably with the composer and the artistic director who programmed the work. Never is it mentioned that the listener, the conductor, and the orchestra members are all experiencing the product of a musical mind that is of a higher magnitude than their own. To do so would be even more damaging to ticket sales. It would, however, be honest. And for the specific argument presented in this season’s programming – that Schoenberg and Beethoven are intellectual and artistic equals – this approach could have helped demystify the music in question. After all, one cannot receive a music degree from an accredited institution in this country without studying, or at least understanding, Schoenberg’s techniques, in addition to Beethoven’s.

The project will continue over the summer at the BSO’s Tanglewood programs, and again during the 2006-2007 season – which will include a pairing of the Beethoven and Schoenberg violin concerti with the Grosse Fugue (see Alex Ross’s article about a newly found manuscript), in addition to concert versions of the operas Fidelio and Moses und Aron.

D.C. audiences will have an opportunity to see the BSO [tragically, sans James Levine--ed.] at the Kennedy Center on March 11. The program will include Elliott Carter’s Three Illusions for Orchestra, Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegel, Beethoven’s 7th symphony, and the D.C. premiere of Peter Lieberson’s Neruda Songs, the Boston premiere of which was reviewed on this site.


jfl said...

[tragically sans James Levine]

NOOooooooooooooooooo. You killed Jimmy, you Bastards!

Levine first did a Schoenberg/Beethoven cycle with the MuPhil. It might be interesting (if unfeasible) to compare the reception that received there and then and how it goes over in Boston. Both towns are conservative, musically, but European standards of musical conservatism are probably quite different than in the U.S.)

Frank Pesci said...

As Charles reported, Jimmy is out for the tour. Here's the Globe article:
And another article about Levine's conducting chair:

Garth Trinkl said...

With all due respect to James Levine, David Robertson is a more than respectable substitute, and audiences should not worry. Best wishes to Jimmy for a swift recovery.

Now, if you had told me that Lorraine Hunt Lieberson was cancelling, I might now be in despair. Best wishes to Ms. Hunt Lieberson on a complete and long-lived recovery from her episode of cancer and her recurrent back problems.

(I had guessed that J.L. would cancel the tour.)

Anonymous said...

Op. 9 is 'lush later romantic'? Sweeping it may be, but expressionist (if we have to choose a simple descriptive) is far closer to the coincides with tonality only by accident, as the composer's organizing principle was thematic, and his indifference to tonality in the piece is what made it revolutionary. And it is a challenging listen. As Carl Schorske puts it, "Schoenberg as psychological Expressionist confronted his listener with an art whose surface was broken, charged with the full life of feeling of man adrift and vulnerable in the ungovernable universe...liberated dissonance became a new harmony." It was to 'restore order' that Schoenberg created the tone-row, hoping to save German music but really ushering in its end.

As for Beethoven=Schoenberg in intellect and artistry: provocative, and maybe Ionarts will explore. But dubious--Schoenberg aggressively made himself an intellectual, Beethoven likely would not have thought himself one. B's artistic impact, like it or not, is light years ahead of S's.

It is good to know the star vocal quartet was employed. It would be more interesting to have a word about the actual performance of the 9th.

Mr. Fish