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Pretty Notes All in a Row 

Wednesday, Nov 11 1998
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Photo by Zoe DominicAlban Berg's Chamber Concerto and Donald Martino's Notturno, composed 50 years apart (1923 and 1973, give or take a few months), were performed two days apart here last week: the Berg by the Philharmonic under Esa-Pekka Salonen with pianist Mitsuko Uchida and violinist Mark Stein berg as soloists, the Martino in a Monday Evening Concert at the County Museum by the New York New Music Ensemble. The two works relate interestingly. Both follow principles laid down by Arnold Schoenberg in his "method of composing with 12 different notes related entirely to one another" - composing, in other words, in a manner that denies the traditional practice of tonality in which some one of those 12 notes becomes more important than the 11 others, and is entirely derived instead from an arrangement (or "row") of all 12. Both works, however, constantly and fluently contradict the harmonic anarchy implicit in the 12-note method at its purest; both succeed in being beautiful in ways that even the most fear-stricken of contemporary audiences can recognize.

Of the triumvirate that constituted the "Second Viennese School" - Anton Webern was the third member - Berg abandoned the old Romantic ways the most reluctantly. His Wozzeck, which dates from around the same time as the Chamber Concerto, draws its overpowering impact from the variety of its music: the 12-note depiction of the grotesque forces that prey upon the hapless nonhero, the more "Romantic" music for Wozzeck and Marie, the almost Mahlerian orchestral summing-up of the tragedy near the end. The Chamber Concerto, written as a birthday tribute to Schoenberg and built on a row that includes the note-equivalents of the letters of Schoenberg's name, is an equally engaging amalgam of old and new. The term "delight" doesn't always come first to mind when writing about these Second-Wieners, but there is no better way to describe the long episodes of smoky, slithery waltz music in the first movement - or the palpable exhilaration in Mitsuko Uchida's interaction with Salonen and his players in the performance here last week.

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The Chamber Concerto isn't often heard; the Philharmonic performed it at Ojai in 1970, but seldom if ever at the Music Center. Its scoring - a 13-member ensemble of winds and brass - puts it in a gray area between chamber music and orchestra. It needs two brave and exuberant soloists; violinist Mark Steinberg, though known as an excellent chamber performer (as leader of the Brentano Quartet), was somewhat behind Uchida in succumbing to the intense power of this marvelous music.

Berg's work compellingly defines its time; so does Martino's. By the 1970s, Schoenberg's principles had been kicked to death by a generation of academics and hangers-on who assumed that the rigid "rules" of 12-note composition meant that all you had to do to make masterpieces was to connect the dots. As a junior critic at The New York Times, I remember being assigned to concert after concert - usually on Saturday afternoons, when hall rental was cheap - of this murky, terribly correct, terribly predictable note spinning, a kind of 12-note Vivaldi. Leonard Bernstein's New York Philharmonic played the nice, easy new music of Copland and Bernstein himself, but did nothing to encourage a generation of American innovators to compete with the vitality of the emergent Europeans (Boulez, Stockhausen, Maderna, Dallapiccola . . . that crowd). Pierre Boulez's accession to the Philharmonic in 1971 changed the atmosphere somewhat; so did the appearance of superb, dedicated smaller groups: Speculum Musicae, the Group for Contemporary Music, Dan Shulman's Light Fantastic Players. The splendid New York New Music Ensemble, which performed Martino's Notturno at LACMA last week, is of that lineage.

Very brave, that Martino work; very brave also the Pulitzer jury that in 1974 abandoned its customary dedication to easy listening and gave its prize to this tense, marvelously atmospheric but gritty music. Like the Berg half a century before, Martino's 18-minute sextet, involving flute, clarinet, strings and percussion, had found a balance between doctrinaire atonality and deep, communicative expression. Many composers seemed anxious to write "night music" pieces at the time; there is much music of nocturnal inspiration worth hearing by George Crumb and Robert Erickson, among others. Martino's nocturnal landscape is visited by storms as well as moonlight. Led by the haunting, dusky tones of Jean Kopperud's clarinet, the New York visitors reminded us of what we miss by not hearing this music every week. (There are, however, excellent recordings, on Nonesuch and Koch.)

There was also Beethoven on last week's Philharmonic agenda: Uchida in the "Emperor" Concerto, replacing the Berg on Saturday and Sunday; the Fifth Symphony at all four concerts. You want to talk about innovation and the modern touch? Beethoven belongs on that list. Recently I've read copious complaints by the New York critics about the inundation of concert life by Beethoven's music; the folks at the Orange County Philharmonic Society have another Beethoven bash planned for later this season. I'm sad for the critics, delighted for Ludwig; we'll never stop learning and discovering as long as his music is around.

Look, for starters, at the astounding, magical passages in both works at the juncture just before the start of the final movement. Look first at the breath-stopping, quiet drop in the concerto from B major (the key of the slow movement) to the distant key of E flat to start the finale. Then look at the similar, sudden key change in the symphony, again in an unearthly quiet, that ushers in the mysterious crescendo over drumbeats and links the third movement to the finale. They weren't supposed to write that way in Beethoven's time, but he did anyhow. (A glitch in the hall's ventilating system on Sunday afternoon, alas, drowned out both these sublime moments with a sustained whoosh that also filled Beethoven's dramatic pauses with audible goo.)

The marvel of Uchida's performance of the "Emperor" was the sense she gave off that every turn in this wondrous score was, for her, a discovery that she couldn't wait to share. Discoveries still await Salonen in the Fifth Symphony; the dark A-flat lyricism of the slow movement is, for him, still ever-so-slightly out of reach. He'll get there, though.

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