Slow Start

If the Philharmonic’s first-of-2002 concert should be remembered at all -- and I see no special reason why -- it ought to be tagged in the index as “D-minor Turgid.” D minor is a dangerous key anyhow: icy and menacing. (The immortal Nigel of Spinal Tap pegged it exactly: “The saddest chord known to man, it sends everybody instantly to weeping.”) Beethoven rescued us all by steering his Ninth Symphony finally into D major‘s sunnier climes. Schoenberg was not so kind, and Brahms’ halfhearted salvation was rendered murky by the, well, Brahmsian orchestration.

Would Brahms‘ First Piano Concerto claim our attention today if its composer hadn’t also composed the Clarinet Quintet and the Fourth Symphony (to cite my own choice as the least unbearable of his works)? Would Schoenberg‘s Pelleas und Melisande still be performed today if its composer hadn’t gone on to Pierrot Lunaire and the Third String Quartet? Musicology needs a comparative study, with built-in trash can, to save mature composers from their early indiscretions. And the Philharmonic needs something similar, to prevent these two indigestible lumps from appearing on the same program and thus beclouding an otherwise warm and sunny afternoon.

Schoenberg‘s exasperating exercise runs nearly 45 minutes. His first and (Gott sei Dank) last attempt at large-scale descriptive orchestral writing, Pelleas assigns recognizable themes to the characters in Maeterlinck’s haunting, symbolic drama, and to some of the concepts as well. They mix in a steady stream of clotted counterpoint, out of which some sense of dramatic narrative may be discernible. The model seems to be the Heldenleben of Richard Strauss, who befriended and helped the young Schoenberg upon his arrival in Berlin. If you believe, as I once did, that Ein Heldenleben is the ugliest of all major orchestral works, you don‘t know Schoenberg’s Pelleas. Its apologists point out that Schoenberg had not heard Debussy‘s operatic setting, and that he should not be judged against that great score. Unacceptable: Schoenberg may not have known the opera -- which had had its Paris premiere shortly before he began work on the tone poem -- but he must have known the play itself, enough not to betray its spirit in his music.

I am perhaps unduly irritated by the time wasted -- the orchestra’s, Esa-Pekka Salonen‘s and mine -- by this inferior addition to the current Schoenberg observance. The Philharmonic may have initiated the celebration, inevitable given the fact of Schoenberg’s residence and his death here 50 years ago. But its contribution, as I have noted before, has been strangely skewed toward a preponderance of the early works, which has had the perverse effect of leaving no real clues as to why we‘re bothering to celebrate him at all. To justify this attention we would need at least the Violin Concerto, the Variations for Orchestra and even the Music for a Film Scene -- plus a Chamber Music Society concert including the Serenade andor the Suite. We did get the Piano Concerto, another great work, but if you recall, it came gift-wrapped in spoken assurance -- by performers and management -- that it wasn’t going to hurt a bit. You have to wonder whether that hasn‘t been the attitude behind this entire venture. None of this happened during last season’s Stravinsky festival, which also included some fairly scary music (along with some deadly dull).

Some of the major holes in the Philharmonic‘s “Schoenberg Prism” have been filled in by other local organizations. The Villa Aurora, that storybook palace in the Palisades where Lion and Marta Feuchtwanger once lived, has sponsored talks and symposiums, including a celebration of Schoenberg’s onetime assistant Leonard Stein on his 85th birthday. Stein himself braved -- with 85-year-old fingers, to be sure -- the whole of Schoenberg‘s piano music at one of the “Piano Spheres” concerts he helped to organize. The Los Angeles Opera brought over Berlin’s Moses und Aron, praiseworthy in both motivation and performance. Southwest Chamber Music has helped fill in the list with the quartets and late works, including the String Trio and the Violin Phantasy. Unfortunately, many caring concertgoers have lost confidence in the group‘s performing standards -- a shame, in view of the enterprise of its programming.

The most recent Monday Evening Concert at the County Museum formed what I would consider the crown of the Schoenberg celebration -- prismatic or otherwise. The excellent Parisii Quartet performed, somewhat changed in personnel from their last performance at LACMA, but no less marvelous in their control of both sound and impulse. They played the Schoenberg Third Quartet, Anton Webern’s Five Movements and Alban Berg‘s Lyric Suite: the excelsis of the master’s expressive manner and its extraordinary echoings in the work of his most prominent disciples.

To my thinking, the Third Quartet represents Schoenberg compleat, the ultimate demonstration of the potential of his dangerous musical theories. The work is pure 12-tone; yet from the very start, the solo for first violin that wraps caressingly around the agitated figuration by the other three players, you sense a melodic process -- as you might in a Haydn Quartet from 150 years before. You hear themes, hear them broken up in a developmental way, and recognize them as they return. The music is appealingly vivacious, even at times witty. The slow movement, the long lines tracing patterns of pure if chilling beauty, holds you spellbound. Everything works, and, before you have the chance to check your watch, it achieves a logical, satisfactory ending.

Webern and Berg took their master‘s teaching in almost exactly opposite directions: Webern to the extreme of compression where a single turn of phrase, even a single note played pianissimo, can send up incendiary showers; Berg with occasional strayings from the strictness of The System in the cause of exuberance and romantic outpourings. All three composers, each in his own way and at his own pace, arrived at beauty; the young Parisians of last week’s splendid ensemble joined them there. That spectacularly good concert furnished the justification we had been needing for the current piling up of honors in this Schoenberg retrospective. It was a long time in coming.