Courage Beyond the Call

The Philharmonic’s ongoing ”Schoenberg Prism,“ the long-overdue tribute to the resident who endured only limited celebrity status here in his lifetime, leans with undue caution toward the composer‘s more ”accessible“ side -- the post-romantic works like Transfigured Night, Pelleas and Melisande and the chamber symphonies. Other organizations in town -- the County Museum and Southwest Chamber -- are braving the sterner stuff, the last quartets and the String Trio. And the most substantial contribution to our awareness of the stature of this towering if forbidding seminal force in contemporary music came, unimaginably, from the Los Angeles Opera. This most unlikely of all agencies, for one unforgettable night, imported to our midst the forces to honor the least understood and least understandable of all Schoenberg’s scores, the opera Moses und Aron, in its first-ever local hearing. Given the aura of information (not to mention misinformation) surrounding the work, you can well imagine that the opera management approached the project with some trepidation; a couple of weeks before the performance, in fact, there were rumors in high places that it was to be canceled. Measure that against the 2,444 ticket holders -- not a full house at the Chandler Pavilion but a greater figure than the capacity of the world‘s more sensibly designed houses -- most of whom cheered themselves hoarse at the end.

You cannot argue the fact that Moses und Aron is a score difficult to love. I’m not at all sure that Schoenberg, even if he had found the time and support to complete the work beyond its finished two (of three) acts, meant it to be loved. The MGM episode in his early Los Angeles days -- Schoenberg proposing a score for The Good Earth that would all be intoned in the speech-song that Moses uses in the opera, and for a reimbursement of $50,000 in 1935 dollars -- suggests that his view of the purpose of sung drama was little related to such realities as happy movie audiences or producers. Moses und Aron, even unfinished, is a vast speculative work on the nature of faith and the faithful; like the grotesques in the margins of medieval writings, the pagan outbursts in Act 2 establish the dialogue. What astounds us in Moses und Aron is the virtuosity in its creation; derived from a single tone row, but with the richness of language to hold the attention over two hours, it was to become for Schoenberg the ultimate proof of his musical methods as they serve his art -- and also as they serve his God. It is the strength of his arguments, and ultimately of his proof, that holds an audience spellbound in the presence, however unfulfilled, of Moses und Aron.

That presence was stunningly created here by the forces from Berlin: the Rundfunk (Radio) Choir, the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester, the veteran bass-baritone Franz Mazura, who sang-spoke the words of Moses, and the American tenor Donald Kaasch, who handsomely managed Aron‘s visionary coloratura. There was no staging, beyond that of vocal soloists in smaller roles being spotted here and there through the orchestra and offstage. I have seen three settings -- the U.S. premiere in Boston, Achim Freyer’s marvelous production at the New York City Opera and the Met‘s of two seasons ago; I have never been more fully overwhelmed by the work than this time under Kent Nagano’s conducting. I have also never, on any stage, heard a large chorus perform challenging music with the thrilling, astounding clarity of that Berlin ensemble.

It‘s quite the town, you gotta admit, where in a single week on the same stage there can transpire two operas as unalike as Moses und Aron and The Merry Widow and performances -- on separate programs -- of not one but two of Edward Elgar’s elephantine monstrosities. For Elgar‘s First Symphony I have no praise whatever. It’s not only that he drags our patience across the torturer‘s rack trying to figure out how to end the damn thing; he doesn’t even seem to know how to begin it. It‘s as though we opened a door by accident on some pompous and ancient baronet wallowing in a mud bath from which he has lost the power to emerge. Fifty minutes later, he’s still there. Even after Joshua Bell‘s showoff performance of Leonard Bernstein’s pretentious and desiccated Serenade, and even in David Zinman‘s obviously devoted performance, the Elgar First groaned along its painful path. Must such things be?

But the Violin Concerto, a few days later, is another story; this is equally terrible music, and I love every bar. It takes 45 minutes to say absolutely nothing, but does so with such earnestness, grabbing your lapels and shaking you into submission, that you have to give in. Melodic substance is lacking; the First Symphony is a veritable Blue Danube by comparison. The soloist traces circles and ovals around the vast gulps of air where the tunes ought to be. At the end the orchestral strings jiggle their fingers across the instruments to make a soft, distant roar over which the soloist goes up, down and across in an utter void. You sit there, enthralled that someone might have the gall to pass this off as a legitimate concert experience, yet when the Elgar Violin Concerto eventually gurgles its last, something inside -- the ache of disbelief, perhaps -- makes you want to hear it all again.

And so I sat through Pinchas Zukerman’s amiable saunter through the music, wondering at times what he, Zubin Mehta and I were doing in that hall at that time, yet consumed with eagerness to rush home and listen again, this time on the EMI disc of Nigel Kennedy‘s sizzling version with Simon Rattle. My trajectory was slowed by the Mehta Rite of Spring, with its exaggerated dynamics and Straussian ritards, which ended the program. The year that began with Salonen’s exhilarating dash through Stravinsky‘s Technicolored thickets thus lurched to its inglorious conclusion. Oh well, it made the Kennedy Elgar, at home, all the better.

The Moses und Aron made it impossible to hear the second half of Jeffrey Kahane’s survey of the Beethoven piano concertos with his Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, and also makes it impossible to find space to write about what I did hear (concertos 2, 3 and 4) in language of proper effulgence. Simply put, this was some of the most beautiful solo and orchestral playing I have heard all year.

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