VANCOUVER — Despite its historical significance, the music of the Second Viennese School is definitely more talked about than performed. In a pair of concerts given March 25-26 at The Annex, a recently constructed small concert space tucked in behind the Vancouver Symphony’s home at the grand old Orpheum Theatre, Vancouver’s Turning Point Ensemble offered “Vienna, End of an Era,” a program devoted to mostly early works by Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg and Anton Webern.
Founded in 2002, Turning Point Ensemble is a chamber group of about 15 instrumentalists and conductor. Its stated mandate is “to increase the understanding and appreciation of music composed during the past hundred years.” The ensemble has pursued that mission in a number of ways. Contemporary music plays a big role: Past performances have included music by Sofia Gubaidulina, Giya Kancheli, Tōru Takemitsu, Judith Weir, and James MacMillan, to list just a handful of important figures. The Ensemble has also prioritized exploring the work of composers who have been eclipsed, marginalized, or at one time or another banned, such as Erwin Schulhoff and Pavel Haas.
Then there are regular concerts of significant works from the modern era that rarely make their way onto the programs of more conventional or box office-conscious organizations and presenters. “Vienna, End of an Era,” certainly fit that category and proved exemplary Turning Point fare.
An important asset is the Ensemble’s ability to adapt to music in various instrumental and/or vocal configurations. Artistic director and conductor Owen Underhill has pointed out: “The unique thing about a large ensemble of approximately 15 players like Turning Point Ensemble is that it fits in between medium chamber and orchestra. There is the transparency and intimacy of chamber music, as well as the full range of orchestral timbres in this size of ensemble.”
On this occasion Underhill curated a fine, if eclectic, selection of arranged and adapted works. Most were created in the first decade of the 20th century, that extraordinary moment in Vienna when composers said farewell to the Late Romantic idiom and embraced the rise of Modernism. Berg’s Seven Early Songs (1905-1908), Webern’s Passacaglia (1908), and three of Schoenberg’s Six Orchestral Songs (1903-05) show that evolutionary step in complementary ways. Underhill’s playlist also included a single masterwork from the 1930s, Webern’s Concerto (1935), and — to make the point that this celebrated trio of composers was very aware of tradition, both highbrow and popular — Webern’s extraordinary orchestration of J. S. Bach’s Ricercar from The Musical Offering, plus Schoenberg’s setting of Johann Strauss’ Kaiserwalzer.
The program started out with what might have appeared to be an “Eat dessert first” proposition: the Strauss-Schoenberg waltzes, written in 1889 by Johann Strauss and arranged by Schoenberg for his Society for Private Musical Performances. They are charmers, of course, but so much more. The pacing of the interlocking dances is exemplary, as is Schoenberg’s spare but effective scoring for strings, a pair of winds, and piano. Eschewing superfluous effects, the textures are exquisite — colorful but never garish and always eloquent and refined.
Unfortunately, a cut-down version of Webern’s Op. 1 Passacaglia produced by Belgian late modernist Henri Pousseur (1929-2009) was neither. Webern’s proto-Expressionist effects and relentlessly contrapuntal writing are one thing for full orchestra, quite another for the one-of-each-set of bright instrumental colors explored by Pousseur: good to hear — once — and important in the context of Underhill’s carefully considered program, but not particularly nourishing.
Paul Leonard Schäffer’s 2014 arrangement of Berg’s Seven Early Songs brought the program back on track and introduced soprano Robyn Driedger-Klassen, who showed a sympathetic understanding of the composer’s nuanced lieder. With a rich palette of vocal colors, Driedger-Klassen soared over the occasionally overstated accompaniments, making the most of the songs’ dramatic range and intrinsic lyricism.
Following the intermission it was back to Webern. His 1935 colorized version of the Ricercar from A Musical Offering has extra significance for the Ensemble: It was part of their very first program back in 2003; reprised some 20 years and one pandemic later, it was delivered with style and confidence. And if “Vienna, End of an Era” did nothing else, it compellingly showcased Schoenberg’s and Webern’s singular approaches to the arranger’s art: utterly distinct results, but each masterly in its own way.
Webern’s Concerto for nine instruments was written immediately before his Bach adaptation. Are we now far enough from the climate of near idolatry that surrounded this influential, much-imitated, composer that we’re finally able hear his mature works as entirely of their era, not as holy relics of a particular brand of modernism? A clean, clear reading like that given by the ensemble, featuring their stalwart pianist Jane Hayes, helps make the concerto’s case as part of tradition. For all its pointillistic flashes of instrumental color and cerebral organizational principles, the work can be heard as a quite conventional, if condensed, romp through the three-movement concerto formula.
Three of the Op. 8 orchestral lieder arranged for small ensemble by Hanns Eisler and Erwin Stein (both one-time Schoenberg pupils) and Klaus Simon ended the evening, and afforded soprano Driedger-Klassen a real triumph. What luscious music, these too rarely heard treasures!
Within the narrative trajectory persuasively established in “Vienna, End of an Era,” the juxtaposition of works by Webern from the early years of the Third Reich with pre- and post-First World War Schoenberg proved particularly telling. Webern’s cool, crystalline logic and economy; Schoenberg’s generous expressiveness, even sentimentality. A showcase of contradictions and complexity, innovation and tradition.