Schoenberg’s name has become sadly synonymous with padlocks on emergency exits in concert halls and the punchline for jokes about musical elitism. Perhaps due to his gaunt facial features, a few well known musical scandals, anti-semitism, and a lack of understanding about what atonality actually is (Schoenberg would slap me and say ‘pantonality’), there is a populist image of him as some sort of terrifying musical cyborg. Rather than a merciless maverick who was breaking away from tradition, the composer saw himself as both inheriting and contributing back to it.
I do not attach so much importance to being a musical bogey-man as to being a natural continuer of properly-understood good old tradition! – Arnold Schoenberg
Last night was the opening concert of the VSO’s series at the Annex which is dedicated the dots of both living composers and those who haven’t been dead long enough to decompose.
Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony inhabits his awkward transitional phase between obscurity and becoming pantonality’s unwilling patriarch. It almost starts with a musical joke that sounds like a high diver fumbling his approach and then somehow mangling a perfect score: after what sounds like resistance to an explicit shave-and-a-haircut, there is a set of rising fourths that resolve emphatically onto a white vanilla major triad. He teases us with this musical event throughout the entire work. A favorite iteration is a transition in the middle of the piece that gives birth to the rising fourth motive on the natural harmonics in the strings, ending with the bass (Culminating in the unique once-in-a-lifetime event known as “The Dance Of The-Only-Time-Someone-Looked-At-A Bass-In-A-Concert-Hall-Ever”).
Brian Current’s Inventory left an undeniable impression on the audience. Sung with enormous richness of character that was equally hilarious and terrifying by Robyn Driedeger-Klassen, it tells the story of a woman downstairs at a shoe store literally taking inventory of the stock. Part of the initial fun of the piece was some of the wordplay. I couldn’t help but be smitten by lines such as, “Mai Tai nut meg platform wedges”, and “Espadrille gosgrain ribbon ankle-wraps”. But the fun quickly runs dry as the protagonist hints at some of the darkness that lies beneath:
In this basement mortuary
Boxes shroud me like a tomb
Songs I know on the stereo
For yet another hour alone.
The other exceptional standout from the evening was Maestro Tovey’s english horn concerto, The Progress Of Vanity. I haven’t had many opportunities to hear Tovey’s dots before (I completely missed out on everything to do with his opera, The Inventor) but his taste for jazz is very apparent; especially in this piece’s incredibly funky middle movement. The ostinato that drove it was my take-away ear worm of the night. It also gave us an opportunity to get to know a long-time resident of the VSO, Beth Orson, in a context that did her playing great justice.