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January 10, 2003

Boulez leaves Schoenberg inert at the CSO

Pierre Boulez, conductor

Daniel Barenboim, piano

Chicago Symphony Orchestra

Haydn: Symphony No. 102 in B-flat major

Schoenberg: Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, Opus 42

Schoenberg: Chamber Symphony No. 2, Opus 38

Strauss: Burlesque for Piano and Orchestra in D minor

Thursday, 5 December 2002

8:00 pm Orchestra Hall, Symphony Center

In his 1952 manifesto Schoenberg is Dead, Pierre Boulez had many good things to say about the man who had shrugged off the overbearing tradition of tonality and invented the revolutionary 12-tone or serial method of composition, despite chiding the composer (who had not yet spent one year in his grave at the time of Boulez's perhaps too irreverently-titled article) for other shortcomings. Indeed, the early twentieth-century Viennese composer has remained central to Boulez's career, and two of Schoenberg's later works--the Chamber Symphony No. 2 Op. 38 and the Concerto for Piano and Orchestra Op. 42--formed the centerpiece of the second of three concerts during Boulez's three-week residency at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra last December. The performance of the Concerto however, for which the CSO's Principal Director Daniel Barenboim joined Boulez as soloist, harkened back to the 1952 manifesto's more pejorative themes, but rendered them in very different, and ultimately less sophisticated, ways.

Before discussing Boulez's and Barenboim's performance of the Concerto, perhaps it will best to explore alternative ways of imagining the music. The program notes offer the following outline of the work, drawn from Schoenberg's sketches but never officially published by the composer along with the notes of the score:

1. Life was so easy [andante] 2. Suddenly hatred broke out [molto allegro] 3. A grave situation was created [adagio] 4. But life goes on [rondo: giocoso]

Upon first encountering Schoenberg's program, I was reminded of an often-told explanation of a legend surrounding a certain Beethoven piano sonata and its nickname; it is pertinent as well as hilarious, so I'll repeat it here:

Upon a first hearing of Beethoven's D minor Sonata Op. 31/2, 'ur'-dilettante Anton Schindler shouted out to the composer in amazement: "What a wonderful sonata! What could possibly be the idea behind it?" Beethoven replied: "Well, it's pretty stormy, you know." Schindler: "Ah!! So it refers to Shakespeare's The Tempest." Beethoven: "Yeah. I guess so."

"A stupid question deserves a stupid response." This is the truism left ringing in our ears upon hearing of the hapless Schindler, but also after reading the Schoenberg "program" as well. Schoenberg's music is notoriously difficult, and this difficulty can be attributed to its preoccupation with perceived "technical" issues of music. While this reputation can be misleading, it can be also be true to the extent that hermeneutic interpretation first requires good knowledge of the 12-tone compositional technique. For those unwilling to "engage the music on its own terms" (whatever that can be taken to mean), Schoenberg offers the inanely simple program, suggesting that he cared little for those who did not care to understand the Concerto in a language different from four word titles.

There is some pertinence that all of this holds to Boulez's presentation of the work. Boulez is rather renowned for his aesthetic of the anti-aesthetic, or perhaps more pertinent, his refusal to indulge what can be understood as "metaphysically-inspired" interpretations of the music. The sonic correspondence to this rather abstract categorization is usually marked by a literal, exacting approach to the score, one that is not caught in excessive ritartandi or dynamic fluctuations. Boulez has in fact recently recorded such a rendition of the Concerto with pianist Mitsuko Uchida. Yet this is not what was heard in concert back in December.

One of the most impressionable (although most unimpressive) sonic details was Barenboim's rendering of the solo piano counterpoint. His rendering was such that only "the melody" could be heard (usually, a nebulous term, but given Barenboim's approach to Schoenberg's written score--anything with a Hauptstimme bracket over it qualifies it to be melody--it is rather simplified). Boulez matched Barenboim in this, instructing the orchestra to balance dynamics in a similar manner. There is literalism or historicism in this approach--accompanied melody with Hauptstimme and Nebenstimme as "one of the most unfortunate inheritances from the sclerosis of hybrid romanticism"--and it foregrounds elements that Boulez saw as regressive in Schoenberg.

The highlighting of regression (as opposed to Adorno's assessment of Schoenberg) is also perhaps in line with the absence in the Piano Concerto of progressive elements Boulez identifies: perpetual variation--Op. 42 is not concerned with it in the same manner as Op. 19 pieces; and the preponderance of anarchic intervals--note the reemergence of octave doublings in the Concerto as well a row that does not use many of the "harsher" intervals this is clear preoccupation with counterpoint.

So, "where do we stand with regard to Boulez?" When Boulez asked this same question (but in regards to Schoenberg) in his 1952 manifesto, he began to answer by noting the elusive and baffling quality of the question, but also its "urgent" nature as well. Unfortunately, the team performance of Boulez and Barenboim did not inspire these same adjectives in my reaction to their staging of Schoenberg's Concerto. We are not so much put into the position of Schindler, where we find ourselves unable to cope with the technical details of the work (not in terms of recognizing row forms, but in the case of the performance rather recognizing interpretive decisions) and are left searching for an alternative way to make the music essential by looking for the idea "behind it," as if the performance was meant to suggest it was not only implausible but laughable to do so. In the eclectically selective playing of the contrapuntal lines we were not witness to the transformation of voices becoming "unsung" (but still very much present), but rather murdering of the composer's voice. Schoenberg did not speak, but remained dead at the CSO.

They played other music as well. If the concert could be said to have a theme, we might first consider that all of the composers on it had strong associations with Vienna. This rather arbitrary categorization reminds me of yet another digressive anecdote: in Vienna there was recently installed the Vienna Musical Mile, the equivalent of the Hollywood Walk of Fame but with stars recognizing famous composers and performers instead of film actors and directors. The greatest contribution Vienna made to some of these composers was to put them in POW camps. We might begin to think the same thing about this concert: that is, not only does the grouping of these pieces remove them from their more individualized meaning, but each piece can be seen to be concerned with this process of being imported/exported or put into exile. The Haydn Symphony and Schoenberg Second Chamber Symphony were both conceived in Vienna but written elsewhere. The Strauss Burlesque, having been composed in 1885 and thus before the German composer's more substantial engagements in and with the Austrian capital, is more problematic in fitting in this proposed category of "Vienna in Exile" or the tamer "Vienna Abroad." Perhaps, though, when we consider the Burlesque from the position of today's audience, who knows Strauss best for Der Rosenkavalier, "the" opera of Viennese self-expression (as attested by its continued staging in the city today). In the sense we can perhaps say that the Burlesque is in temporal exile: through its association with the composer of Der Rosenkavalier, it can become about Vienna and thus somewhat alienated from its original compositional setting. Likewise, the Viennese overtones that come with our expectations of Strauss are suspended in the piece: in this sense, the style of the city becomes lost, or rather transmuted. However, in the context of this concert, perhaps the best way to speak of the Burlesque and "exile" is to speak of its silliness in comparison with the other pieces offered on the program. The depth of this piece seems limited to its surface: ffff climaxes, blazing arpeggiatic passages, and other moments of sheer masochistic virtuosity. One wonders if this piece was chosen as one that is actually structured around and encourages the shamelessly performer-centered exaggeration which marked some of the more unbearable moments of Barenboim's rendering of the Schoenberg Piano Concerto.

Looking ahead to some upcoming concerts, it would be a shame not to use this space to advertise the ever-improving Pacifica Quartet, who will present tonight a program featuring two of Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy's quartets (the Quartet in E-flat major Op. 12 and the Quartet in Op. 44/1). The Pacifica have been steeped in this composer's work over the past months, having performed at the beginning of the academic year Mendelssohn's late-Beethoven-inspired A minor Quartet. The program concludes with Brahms's Piano Quintet (a piece "programmed" in the early twentieth-century by Schoenberg as exemplary of many of the same principles displayed in his Piano Concerto) with visiting pianist Wu Han (who has previously appeared in Mandel Hall on a concert with husband David Finckel, cellist of the Emerson Quartet). Tickets are free to students who present a valid U of C ID. Also, information on upcoming Chicago Symphony concerts can be found at www.cso.org.