Tag Archives: Lynn Philharmonia

100 years later, Schoenberg’s ‘Pieces’ still leave audiences grumpy

stein_score_I_2The four-hand piano reduction of part of the first of the Five Pieces for Orchestra, by Arnold Schoenberg.


This year marks another centenary besides that of Vagn Holmboe: the writing of the Five Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 16, of Arnold Schoenberg.

Saturday night I went to a concert by the local Lynn Philharmonia, the music conservatory orchestra at Lynn University, and did a review for ArtsPaper. The group opened its season with the Schoenberg in the 1949 reduction, but it still made a strong impact – particularly on the audience.

It’s been a long time since I’ve heard so much grousing in the lobby and the seats around me; perhaps that’s to be expected, but it bears noting that this music was written in 1909 and has been regularly available in recordings and performances for decades. But the average concertgoer can’t stand it, apparently, and this brings back the old argument of whether atonality ever will be accepted as a listening experience — with the important exception of as background music for movies and television, usually of the thriller variety.

The Five Pieces lasts about 15 minutes, or thereabouts, and I’ve spent the last couple days looking at the score, admiring its craftsmanship and subtlety. It must have taken enormous courage to write music like this in 1909. Only Charles Ives was doing the same sort of thing, and his music is less abstract; almost everything the American composer wrote has a program. There were other experimenters out there: 1909 was the year Strauss’ Elektra premiered, Stravinsky’s Firebird took shape, and Scriabin finished Poem of Fire (Fifth Symphony).

But those, too, are either theater or programmatic pieces, and while Schoenberg appended titles to each of the Five Pieces, this music is more about musical experimentation than it is evoking any particular mood or event. The third piece is about changing instrumentation to make an essentially static music move, and the other movements have themes that are taken through their paces, albeit in a very compressed, not particularly linear way.( I’m not trying to do hardcore analysis here, just noting some obvious things about the music.)

For the listener, it’s hard to hear these transformations, and the music can sound undifferentiated and formless. And while chords like those are perfectly acceptable, indeed expected, as the serial killer lifts his knife above his head while his victim screams in terror, concertgoers don’t want to hear them as pure music. I’m not saying anything here that hasn’t been said in one way or another for many years, but what struck me about the Schoenberg was that it’s 100 years old and the verdict is still: No, thanks.

image002Der Meister at work.

I think it’s likely that atonal music only will ever be accepted by a mass audience as background music, and that so much of it is so indistinguishable from other pieces of its ilk that most of it is dead as soon as it’s written, at least in a sense accepted by audiences at large. Schoenberg himself went in a slightly  more conservative direction himself after this, if not to tonality; his Violin Concerto, which  I wrote about earlier, is a great piece whose difficult tonal language is ameliorated by its clear narrative structure: this is a piece that is going somewhere, and it’s exciting to follow it.

The music that manages to stand the test of time has a clear personality, whether attractive or not. You can hear someone trying to say something , and you want to stick around for the conversation. It may be that the very nature of atonal music makes it too difficult to let a personality come through, even in the case of someone like Schoenberg.

I don’t really know. All  I can say is that I was struck at how visceral the reaction was to this piece Saturday night, a piece that predates the major wars of the 20th century, and which has long been established as a major canonical work.  True, South Florida audiences tend to be conservative, but  they also tend to be well-educated, so they should have known what was coming. And I think they did, which made their  grumpiness about it even more notable.

I guess Schoenberg still has to win his fight for acceptance, but it seems to me that for the most part, he probably never will.

My must-sees for the classical season, Part I

The classical music season in this part of the state is about to get rolling in earnest, so here’s a first list of what looks good to me coming up.It’s a short list, and I’ll have a second one, likely longer, tomorrow:

New World Symphony: The finest orchestral ensemble in South Florida, led by Michael Tilson Thomas, plans many must-see events that will more than likely see me making the trip down to Lincoln Road on Miami Beach. There’s a U.S. premiere of the Irish composer Gerald Barry’s one-acter The Stronger (Nov. 22), in a concert conducted by the English composer Thomas Ades, who also has two works on that same program.

The American composer Kevin Puts (at right) will hear his new Hymn to the Sun on Nov. 8-9, and American music also will be represented April 26 in a program of music by Lou Harrison, Tilson Thomas, Ives, Bernstein, and Crumb. I’m also excited about planned performances of the Mahler First on Jan. 29 (violinist Joshua Bell does the Saint-Saens Third on the same bill) and on March 28-29, the Nielsen Fifth (the Sixth under Paavo Jarvi was a highlight of an NWS concert several years back).

The Korngold Violin Concerto is scheduled for Nov. 8-9 with soloist Vadim Gluzman, and the fine young Chinese pianist Yuja Wang, whose Netcast recital this summer at the Verbier Festival in Switzerland showed me an intriguing young artist, comes to town for the Ravel Concerto for the Left Hand and the Stravinsky Capriccio in concerts Oct. 17-19. Actually, I’d be happy to see pretty much everything on this group’s bill this season. Box office: 305-673-3331

Lynn Philharmonia: This is the Lynn U. orchestra, composed of students from the school’s conservatory, formerly the Harid Conservatory. The group, led by director Albert-George Schram, can be inconsistent but when it’s good — as when they took on the Shostakovich 10th Symphony a couple seasons ago — it’s very good, and well worth seeking out. Its first of its six concerts (this Saturday night and Sunday afternoon) under Lynn dean Jon Robertson, features the Rachmaninov Third Concerto with the Armenian-born pianist Sergei Babayan.

I’ll go to that one, and I’m also interested in the Feb. 21-22 concerts, which will see Schram and his charges take on the Bartok Concerto for Orchestra as well as the Mozart Symphony No. 29 and Leonard Bernstein’s Candide overture. Information: Call 237-9000.

Delray String Quartet: In their fifth season, the Colony Hotel-based foursome offers five programs this year, four of which will feature arrangements of the movements of Frederick Delius’ Florida Suite. Delius lived in Florida, near modern-day Palatka, in the 1880s, where he studied harmony with an itinerant musician and failed to get an orange grove going.

I’m most interested in the Feb. 1 concert, which will feature a world premiere: the String Quartet No. 2 of Thomas Sleeper, the well-known University of Miami composer who was commissioned by the Delrays to write the work. The concert also includes the Brahms Clarinet Quintet with guest soloist Paul Green, and the “Sunset Near the Plantation” movement from the Delius suite. For more information: 213-4138.

Seraphic Fire: Patrick Quigley offers another brilliant series of programs for his chamber choir and the new Firebird Chamber Orchestra, which debuts Thursday at the Arsht Center in Miami in a program of music by David Diamond, Samuel Barber, Telemann and Vivaldi. The two will combine in November for Bach’s Cantata No. 82 (Ich habe genug) and December for Handel’s Messiah. I’m particulary interested in the choir’s Ikon program (Feb. 12-15) which will feature music in the Russian Orthodox tradition (Part, Tavener), the April program (April 16-19), featuring Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater, and the May 14-17 programs, which give pride of place to Salamone Rossi, the most eminent of early Jewish classical composers.

Seraphic Fire has added Thursday afternoon concerts at West Palm Beach’s Harriet Himmel Theater this year for non-orchestra concerts. For more information: 305-476-0260.

Music at St. Paul’s: This series at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Delray Beach looks unusually rich this season. I’m partial to the March 21 concert, which will feature the church choir and the Sinfonia del Re in music by Haydn, Charpentier and Karl Jenkins.

The Bach Legacy, a May 17 program featuring music by C.P.E. and J.C. Bach, along with Krebs and Abel, should also enlighten audiences about the rich legacy of music J.S. Bach’s sons and disciples carried on after the master’s death. Information: 278-6003.