By Mike Greenberg
SAN ANTONIO – A venerable myth in the orchestra industry has it that the merest hint of the names Arnold Schoenberg and Anton Webern on a concert program will send audiences fleeing in panic as though from Godzilla. But what if Godzilla were to come disguised as a friendly puppy?
Thus did those early-20th-century pioneers of 12-tone music sneak onto the Nov. 22-23 Majestic Theatre concerts by the San Antonio Symphony under guest conductor Cristian Măcelaru. The program opened with Webern’s orchestral arrangement of the “Ricercare” for Six Voices from J.S. Bach’s A Musical Offering and closed with Schoenberg’s orchestral arrangement of Brahms’ Piano Quartet in G minor. In between came Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E minor, crisply tailored and accoutered (no disguise necessary) on the back of the Russian-American violinist Philippe Quint.
In a 2010 interview soon after his appointment as music director of the San Antonio Symphony, Sebastian Lang-Lessing noted the importance of programming music by the Second Viennese School – Schoenberg, Alban Berg, Webern, and their followers: “If you don’t play this music, nobody understands contemporary music. You have to play it to make contemporary music work.”
The Second Viennese School was not entirely absent from the San Antonio Symphony’s programs prior to this past weekends. The audience had responded very warmly to Berg’s Violin Concerto (with soloist Kolja Blacher under Lang-Lessing) in 2010. Lang-Lessing’s predecessor, Larry Rachleff, had enjoyed a success with Schoenberg’s delightful “Accompaniment to a Cinematographic Scene” in 2006. Webern’s early Passacaglia, not a 12-tone work but somewhat challenging to hear nonetheless, was well-received in 2010 under guest conductor Julian Kuerti.
Was the audience really hearing Webern and Schoenberg in their arrangements of Bach and Brahms? Well, even with a wagging tail, Godzilla is still Godzilla. Part of the value of these arrangements is that they cast light on aspects of Webern’s and Schoenberg’s music that are sometimes obscured by too great an emphasis on the obvious – the absence of a tonal center in their 12-tone works.
The obvious differences aside, Webern shared with Bach a quasi-mathematical erudition in the construction of musical lines. In his tone rows, Webern sought to develop symmetries that Bach might have appreciated. And one specific characteristic of the Ricercare is worth noting: The theme’s descending sequence of half-steps has a certain consonance with Webern’s frequent use of half-step motion in his tone rows.
But while Bach was a weaver of long lines, Webern was a pointillist, building a piece from tiny fragments distributed among the instruments. Thus, Webern deconstructs the Ricercare theme’s descending chromatic line – two notes for the horn, the next two for the trumpet, the next two for the horn again, and the last four for the trombone. The notes are all Bach, but at the same time we are very much in the world of, say, Webern’s 12-tone Quartet, Op. 22.
Schoenberg was a serious intellect, but his brow was not permanently elevated. His output included cabaret songs and the nutty song cycle Pierrot Lunaire, and flashes of wit were not uncommon in such high-minded works as the string quartets. His orchestration of the Brahms G minor Quartet often sounds fully Brahmsian, though with new layers of color from bass clarinet, muted brass and tuned percussion. But the martial combination of snare drum, bass drum, and glockenspiel makes an appearance in the middle section of the andante, and part of the final “Rondo alla zingarese” sounds for all the world like a Wurlitzer band organ gone amok. What a kidder!
In the Mendelssohn, Quint’s 1708 “Ruby” Antonio Stradivari instrument projected a huge, focused sound with sweet, pure high notes and satisfyingly growly lows. Deftly accompanied by Măcelaru and the orchestra, the violinist’s tight vibrato (a little wider in the slow movement) and his snap in virtuosic passages lent a bit of contemporary leanness, but there was always a sense of direct human expression in his phrasing and palette.
Măcelaru, assistant conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra, made his San Antonio Symphony debut last year as an 11th-hour substitute for another conductor, who had taken ill. His account of the Ricercare on Nov. 22 was too cautious and deliberate, and not fully observant of Webern’s tempo changes.
In the Brahms-Schoenberg, however, Măcelaru was entirely in his element. The performance was vigorous, muscular, beautifully shaped, and attentive to Schoenberg’s distinctive colorations. The finale was a barrel of fun.
Mike Greenberg is a critic based in San Antonio. Formerly senior critic for the San Antonio Express-News, he now maintains his own web site, incidentlight.com.