Friday music

Below, Marilyn Nonken performs the second of Arnold Schönberg’s Three Pieces (Opus 11) at the Neue Galerie last Wednesday night for a members-only audience.

For those who were unable to be there, fear not: she and her fellow musicians violinist Rolf Schulte and cellist Coleman Itzkoff will perform a similar program for the public at NYU later this year. See you at Cafe Katja later today for a nice big glass of Grüner Veltliner.

 

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Friday roundup

Maurice Ravel.

I spent some time with Vienna this week, watching Joseph Koerner’s fine documentary about the city and noting Marilyn Nonken’s appearance at the Neue Galerie next week. I also reposted a little essay about duration and the sacred.

Closing out the week, I offer a Vienna Philharmonic performance of Maurice Ravel’s La Valse, conducted by André Previn. Carl Schorske begins his magisterial study Fin-De-Siecle Vienna: Politics and Culture with a short study of this 13-minute work, seeing in it a metaphor for the condition of the city at the turn of the 20th century. He writes:

At the close of World War I, Maurice Ravel recorded in La Valse the violent death of the nineteenth-century world. The waltz, long the symbol of gay Vienna, became in the composer’s hands a frantic danse macabre. “I feel this work a kind of apotheosis of the Viennese waltz, linked in my mind with the impression of a fantastic whirl of destiny.” His grotesque memorial serves as a symbolic introduction to a problem of history: the relationship of politics and the psyche in fin-de-siecle Vienna.

Although Ravel celebrates the  destruction of the world of the waltz, he does not initially present that world as unified. The work opens rather with an adumbration of the individual parts, which will compose the whole: fragments of waltz themes, scattered over a brooding stillness. Gradually the parts find each other — the martial fanfare, the vigorous trot, the sweet obligato, the sweeping major melody. Each element is drawn, its own momentum magnetized, into the wider whole. Each unfolds its individuality as it joins its partners in the dance. The pace accelerates; almost imperceptibly the sweeping rhythm passes over into the compulsive, then into the frenzied. The concentric elements become eccentric, disengaged from the whole, thus transforming harmony into cacophony. The driving pace continues to build when suddenly caesuras appear in the rhythm, and the auditor virtually stops to stare in horror at the void created when a major element weakens the movement, and yet the whole is moving, relentlessly driving as only compulsive three-quarter time can. Through to the very end, when the waltz crashes in a cataclysm of sound, each theme continues to breathe its individuality, eccentric and distorted now, in the chaos of totality.

Ravel’s musical parable of a modern cultural crisis, whether or not he knew it, posed the problem in much the same way as it was felt and seen by the Austrian intelligentsia of the fin de siecle. How had their world fallen into chaos? …

Schorske spends the rest of the book trying to answer this question, but begins with Ravel. The performance can be heard below; have a good weekend.

Joseph Koerner’s Vienna

I hope to write a few words about Ilsa Barea’s excellent 1966 book Vienna: Legend and Reality in a few days, but in the meantime I repost here Joseph Koerner‘s Vienna: City of Dreams, a BBC documentary that was first televised in 2007. Koerner’s film is not so much a history of the city as a series of meditations on its place in modernity. It’s beautifully shot, however, and Koerner is a pensive, thoughtful guide. The Victor S. Thomas Professor of History of Art and Architecture at Harvard, he is the creative director of the Vienna Project at Harvard University, also worth a look.

Schönberg and Webern at the Neue Galerie next Wednesday

Richard Gerstl, Portrait of Arnold Schönberg (detail)

Next Wednesday night, July 19, at 6.30pm, members of the Neue Galerie will be treated to a concert of music by Arnold Schönberg and Anton Webern, performed by my lovely wife Marilyn Nonken and friends. Those esteemed friends are violinist Rolf Schulte and cellist Coleman Itzkoff, and they’ll be presenting the following program:

Arnold Schönberg: Three Pieces, Op. 11 (1909)

Arnold Schönberg: “Columbine” (from Pierrot Lunaire) (1911)

Arnold Schönberg: Song Without Words from the Serenade, Op. 24  (1924)

Anton Webern: Four Pieces for Violin and Piano (1910)

Arnold Schönberg: Verklärte Nacht, Op. 4  (1899)
Arranged for trio by Eduard Steuermann after poetry by Richard Dehmel,
inspired by Mathilde (Zemlinsky) Schönberg

Marilyn will also be discussing Schönberg’s early music in connection with the Neue Galerie’s current exhibit Richard Gerstl, exploring the community of artists to which he belonged. Here are a few bios of the participating parties:

Upon performing Schönberg’s piano music, Marilyn Nonken was recognized as “a determined protector of important music” (New York Times). A Steinway Artist and Associate Professor at New York University, she studied with Leonard Stein, Schönberg’s longtime assistant.

Fresh from his success at the Arnold Schönberg Center in Vienna, violinist Rolf Schulte is an expert in the music of the New Viennese School. He has recorded most of Schönberg’s chamber works, the Violin Concerto, and Phantasy, as well as music of Anton Webern.

Cellist Coleman Itzkoff, Artist-in-Residence on American Public Media’s Performance Today, has performed as soloist nationwide, recently giving his Walt Disney Concert Hall concerto debut. He performs regularly at the Aspen Music Festival, La Jolla SummerFest, Music@Menlo, and Bargemusic.

The concert is open to Neue Galerie members only, but if you must go, you can fix that by becoming a member yourself — it’s worth every penny. Tell ’em Arnold sent you.

225 minutes

Originally published here on June 23, 2016.

The wife is away and the kids went to bed at about 9.00, so I spent some part of this evening listening to Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion, in the 1962 recording conducted by Otto Klemperer. (And I’ll bet this is the only blog in the world in which you’ll find an opening sentence like that today.) Not all of it, I’m afraid; only the first 75 minutes or so. The entire recording lasts for nearly four hours, and I doubt that I or anybody else for that matter has the time to listen to it in its entirety in one sitting, with the exception of those who deliberately carve out an evening to hear it live. Still, even its first third was powerful enough. Listening to it without distraction, even in your own home, leads you into a deep enough contemplation and meditation that is far too rare in my own experience. And I choose my words carefully here — “far too rare” is, in reality, only once every few years. The fragmentation of contemporary musical experience, apart from the sublimity of Bach’s Passions, means that our music comes to us in three- or four-minute slices, far from the 225 minutes of a Bach Passion. What’s more, the Passions don’t even have the narrative drive of an opera. We know how they end, let alone how they begin. Wagner’s Ring has the conflict and characters of the Nibelungenlied, a grand tale of passion stretching over many, many years, and Wagner does with the myth what he will. Bach was rather more constrained with the gospels.

For some reason, this brought to my mind my father, who for the last twenty years of his life lived more or less by himself. His companion, and it was an important one, was the classical music station in Philadelphia WFLN. (Don’t go looking for it; it ceased operations in 1985.) In the 1970s and 1980s, he would sit by himself, quietly smoking and drinking in his sitting room, listening to the chamber music, symphonies, operas, and most likely the Bach Passions every evening for several hours. He listened to them not on a computer or a DVD player, but a radio (I tried myself to find some classical music on the radio tonight, only to find that WQXR has gone all web). He may also have read a book or magazine, and in the spring and summer watched a baseball game or two on television, but even after the games were over, far into the night, he listened to WFLN and thought — about what I can’t say. Maybe philosophy; maybe about his own life; maybe about other things. But listening to the St. Matthew’s Passion tonight myself, alone in my living room, my daughters asleep nearby, drinking a few glasses of Gruner Veltliner, I possibly experienced the same thing, and about what I thought I would find it hard to say. Even “thought” is the wrong word. Perhaps, and only perhaps, it was a few hours in which the music brought me closer to my Self, whatever that is, however that may be defined.

Solitude, quiet, and time unbroken by interruption, whether it’s by glancing nervously every few minutes at an iPhone or by something else: these are the dearest and rarest things, not least because so poorly valued. (And ironically they’re the costliest: Find a quiet bar where you can while away a few hours with a few quiet drinks by yourself, or even a place where you can sit quietly without disturbance in New York. You’ll pay for it.) These are the things that the spirit requires. But of what value is the spirit today? One of the ways in which art teaches us the value of the sublime is through mere duration — not noise or variety necessarily, but through listening or seeing quietly over a long period of time. It carves out a large piece of our lives. I know of few King Lears that last less than three hours, and I’ve already mentioned the Passions of Bach. Contemporary equivalents might include the music of Morton Feldman. They don’t benefit from smartphones buzzing with calls or incoming emails that must be dealt with instantly, or constant looks at one’s watch. Quite the opposite. If you listen to the St. Matthew’s Passion on your computer, you’ll find yourself clicking away to Outlook or another email program, or Facebook, or Twitter, I guarantee it. The music suffers. The spirit has its demands on our attention, and as our attention is distended across distractions, it suffers too.

I mentioned solitude briefly above, but I must contradict myself here, for a live performance of St. Matthew’s Passion is (most likely; I’ve never experienced it myself) an example of individual contemplation within the intentional community of those who choose to attend the performance. In that sense, it is like church. I’ve also been attending services at Grace Church over the past six months or so, and perhaps its greatest message to me has been the necessity of pursuing spiritual life through community. There is a moment during the service in which those in the congregation turn to each other, friends or strangers, to shake hands, to acknowledge fellow churchgoers. It draws the individual from himself to the truth that there are others around him, and that there’s no separation from them; and especially at Grace Church, I’ve found, those others are of far different backgrounds than oneself. For the ceremony, however, we are united, one in spirit, whether white or of color, gay or straight, rich or poor, and however our opinions may differ. (Even atheists may be welcome. As the Yes, Prime Minister series once waggishly put it, they’re called “Modernists” in the contemporary Anglican Communion.)

The sacrament of the Holy Eucharist takes only about an hour — about a quarter of time a performance of St. Matthew’s Passion. Even so, it’s an hour that one must make plans for, for the solitude and quiet the sacrament demands. It is nearly 1.00 in the morning now, but I may just spend another hour or so with the next CD of the Passion. One must make the time, wherever one finds it.