Monday, February 5, 2007

The Arnie and Larry Show (continued)

The ongoing Beethoven/Schoenberg smackdown continued this weekend at Symphony Hall, with Larry again bitch-slapping Arnie absolutely silly. Maestro James Levine at least has learned to sweeten the Schoenberg pie – this time out we got to ogle the slimmed-down Deborah Voigt as she valiantly attempted “Erwartung,” (“Expectation”), a seminal Schoenberg “monodrama," as well as Beethoven's “Ah! Perfido”; testy anti-Schoenbergian subscribers were further mollified with the “Coriolan” Overture and the gleaming, but rarely performed, Eighth Symphony.

Erwartung” proved mildly intriguing, but ultimately tiring; Schoenberg’s stated aim was “to represent in slow motion everything that occurs during a single second of maximum spiritual excitement, stretching it out to half an hour,” which gives you a pretty good idea of the piece’s sense of stasis. The text, by Marie Pappenheim, a dermatologist by day but psychoanalytic dilettante by night, has retained its ambiguous allure: a distraught woman, wandering in a dark forest, discovers the corpse of her lover, and seemingly goes mad. But is she lost in anxious hallucination – or has her lover’s desertion broken her mind? Or has she actually murdered the man herself and is now returning to the scene of her crime, unhinged by guilt? “Erwartung” keeps all these possibilities in clever balance, but as a result Schoenberg’s music remains in a floating panic – cross-cut with the kind of tone-poems (moonlight, rustling trees) that would have embarrassed Tchaikovsky. Needless to say, said poetry is more harmonically sophisticated than The Nutcracker; “Erwartung” is atonal, but as it was composed before Schoenberg systematized his music into twelve-tone “rows,” it's still rich in mournful harmonic skill. Little of its experimentation, however, strikes one as shocking today; Schoenberg was, of course, truly seminal, but strangely, he seems to have not so much transformed concert music as indirectly influenced the musical culture at large. All his atonal edginess, for instance, has long since been absorbed into pop culture; the post-melodic shards of “Erwartung” could easily serve as accompaniment to any number of horror movies (as indeed, Penderecki and Ligeti wound up as program music for The Shining).

Given that the work’s power to offend is gone, one is left with the issue that hinders much of Schoenberg, and which he himself attempted to solve with his twelve-tone system; the problem of development. There’s one big shock in “Erwartung” (the discovery of the body), and a rising sense of frenzied recapitulation before the finale, but elsewhere the piece is tedious – because the great gift of tonality (aside from its being a salve to bourgeois ears, of course) is that it allows for rising complexity, conflict and resolution over the course of the piece, while in his atonal fits Schoenberg can only stab at various moods (admittedly, seeing the piece fully staged might distract from this problem; perhaps it’s the concert setting that does in “Erwartung”).

So the piece has many a pitfall - which Deborah Voigt(at left, photo by Evan Richman for the Boston Globe) didn’t so much avoid as simply ignore. The solid, if svelte, Ms. Voigt has little of the madwoman about her naturally (and even less in the glamorous little black number she wore at Symphony), and her gold-tinged soprano, while strong, wasn't always sharp enough to cut through the throngs of instrumentalists around her (again, one longed to hear this piece with the orchestra in the pit – but is there a pit large enough to hold the forces Schoenberg marshals?). She soldiered on, of course, but her heart wasn’t really in it, and her wits remained steadfastly about her – she seemed to be indulging an academic demonstration, and not much more.

Of course, one could argue that was, indeed, precisely the idea – the Beethoven/Schoenberg series is supposed to illuminate its two subjects via inspired juxtaposition. The compare/contrast routine for “Erwantung” and “Ah! Perfido,” however, doesn’t yield much – one is a mad scene and the other a lament, and without much in the way of experimentation on Beethoven’s part. Voigt sang it well (she was much more in her element here), and the orchestra gave her exemplary backup - and of course was brilliant elsewhere, particularly in the Eighth.

But as the Schoenberg/Beethoven “cycle” winds up (or down), we’re bound to ask – what have you learned, Dorothy? I’d have to argue not much, because there’s not much truth in the program’s attempt to short-circuit the conventional wisdom about Larry and Arnie – i.e., that Larry was midwife to Romanticism, while Arnie did its last rites. And despite much local critical huffing and puffing, the BSO’s programming has only seemed to underline rather than overturn that Intro-to-Music thesis. It’s hard to imagine audiences calling back “Erwartung” or Moses and Aaron – instead, they’ll keep demanding “Verklärte Nacht” and Gurrelieder – because in the end, it’s hard to buy the essential argument that somehow Schoenberg transcended Romanticism.

Indeed, sometimes it seems that Schoenberg, for his admirers, exists more as an idea than as an actual composer; his lonely embarkation into twelve-tone rows has to be seen as a successful extension of the romantic ideal - otherwise, romanticism as a script becomes historically limited (at least musically), and Schoenberg never escapes the collapse of nineteenth-century culture into his supposed modernist nirvana. Without Schoenberg, in this reading, Beethoven loses a bit of status, too; he’s no longer the progenitor of an infinite progression of musical innovation, but rather only the instigator of a certain period of music (to which we relate at a certain distance). Levine’s obsession with Schoenberg ties neatly into this cultural imperative - he seems uninterested in the neotonal work that has successfully revived the concert repertoire, but instead remains obsessed with the avant-garde cultural script of his youth. In a way, his Schoenberg seasons have been deeply reactionary (so it’s no wonder Schoenberg has become a middlebrow cause célèbre in the pages of the Globe and elsewhere).

And there’s something else disturbing about Levine and Schoenberg; this composer almost thrashes with frustration, yet Levine treats him with little human passion – only musical passion, which is an entirely different thing. In fact, I’m haunted by the perception that Levine is largely drawn to Schoenberg (and other modernists) simply because he has a sweet tooth for technical challenge – he’s like a gourmand picking musical phrases from a tray, and he’s so superb technically that he can dazzle you into thinking you’ve actually heard the composer’s voice, instead of a stunning simulation of it. Even the BSO’s glossy rendition of the Eighth seemed a bit impersonal; it had speed, not urgency, and a precisely calibrated sense of crescendo rather than true power. It’s strange to think that these two seasons may represent a simulation of Schoenberg rather than the real thing – but it does occur to me that this particular composer may need rescuing not from obscurity, but from his admirers.

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