Friday, May 17, 2013

Chamber Group Salastina Society

THE other evening I saw a sextet performance of Transfigured Night. To say that I have mixed feelings about its composer, Arnold Schoenberg, is about the only way I can put it: The dude wrote some lovely and powerful music, but also left the state of western classical music, especially in the academy, a smoking ruin for about two generations after his 120-stone and serial systems. He was clearly a complex dude, with what seemed like good reasons at the time for his formal shifts. (A stranger once asked him, "Are you that Arnold Schoenberg?" -- he offered back, "Well, no one else wanted to be, so I had to take the job.")

But I want to talk about this piece specifically, and Saturday night’s rendition of it. Transfigured Night was written when he was still quite young, and still a Wagner-drenched late romantic. The piece take tonality and chromaticism about as far as it can go, and the music and its poem are very much works of Germanic romanticism. I've always loved the piece in its sextet recording -- it's put on more often, I suspect, with orchestra -- but have never seen a chamber group version of it until last weekend.

The show was a performance by the Salastina Music Society, a mostly youngish Los Angeles group only a few years old that performs typically at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica, Zipper Hall at the Colburn School in downtown L.A., and elsewhere. I always love seeing chamber music, which I often prefer to orchestra concerts, so I'm hardly an unbiased judge here. But I can't imagine a better interpretation of this piece, which was remarkably warm and saw each voice fully integrated with the others. 

A nice bonus to this and some other Salastina concerts include an introductory interpretation by the KUSC deejay and general classical man-about-town Brian Lauritzen. I'm very fond of Brian's delivery -- here is my story on him -- and by asking the group to play brief passages from the piece, he brought out far more than I knew about the piece, the poem it's based on, romanticism, and Schoenberg's life story.  

My only regret is that poor Arnold -- at the time a 25-year-old in love with the sister of his music teacher -- did not write more pieces in this idiom.

I'll keep my eye out for more offerings from Salastina Society.


Three thoughts came to me last night. First, how certain passages or phrases of the piece remind me of film music. As scary as Schoenberg can be, some of his stuff can be very cinematic. (I think Mark Swed has written how bits of serialism have shown up in movies, especially, if memory serves, horror movies.)

I usually groan when any event is opened up to audience questions. But the brief post-concert Q+A here was really illuminating, including the part where each musician spoke about his or her instrument, some of which were quite old. (As the owner of several guitars I could share their pride even though my instruments are not Venice-made or 19th-century.)

Finally: Composers like Schoenberg -- and this starts with Wagner and Liszt, I suspect -- felt the need to move beyond traditional major and minor keys, since tonality was supposedly confining. The musical innovations of the 20th century were supposed to allow you to do more. But listen to Transfigured Night, especially the way it was played the other night, with its moments of terror, guilt, uncertainty, pastoral, romantic sublime, and open-hearted forgiveness. It covers an enormous amount of emotional terrain.

When we listen to much contemporary music -- including all but a few pieces from Schoenberg's Second Vienna School -- the emotional palette is vastly narrower. You can do more technically, perhaps, and it gets alienation real well, when you "liberate" all twelve tones in the octave. But with the musical language that came after this early piece, you can say far less about human experience.

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