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Mozart and Schoenberg: The Inspirational Difference

New York
Weill Recital Hall
03/20/2016 -  
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Serenade in B-flat Major for 13 Winds, "Gran Partita", K. 361
Arnold Schoenberg: Serenade for Baritone and Septet, Opus 24

Brandon Cedel (Bass-baritone)
The MET Chamber Ensemble, James Levine (Artistic Director and Conductor)

J. Levine

“Serenade”: From the Latin word serenus, meaning “calm”, “tranquil”, “peaceful”

John Ayto, Dictionary of Word origins

The programming was inspired. That supposedly dogmatic, fierce Arnold Schoenberg in a mood which exemplified tranquility. The youthful Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart with notes as peaceful as breathing. And James Levine, –in this week of Resurrection–calmly transported both composers not only to life but frequently to a musical Eden.

These words aren’t written easily. “Why,” I asked myself, “should I brace myself for 30 minutes of Schoenberg? Why should I leave the calming breezes of springtime for the indoor winds of a serenade, even a Serenade from Mozart?”

After all, a Sunday afternoon in the East Village Tompkins Park is a vernal paradise of its own, abounding with dogs, squirrels, babies, pigeons, dancing and trees beginning to bloom.

James Levine and his first chair players from the Metropolitan Opera, The MET Chamber Ensemble, made that ridiculously easy. Schoenberg’s Serenade not only displayed the composer in his most Baroque mood, but the starting March seemed far more in line with Stravinsky’s Soldier’s Tale, written in l918, five years before this work. The other movements are hardly Stravinsky, but they could well have inspired Berg’s use of Baroque forms in Wozzeck, composed at the same time.

What did Maestro Levine do to make this 12-tone work come alive? First, he took advantage of this singular instrumental group. A clarinet, bass clarinet, violin, viola, and cello would give an autumnal color. But the guitar and mandolin added a sense of the rustic, an almost folksy sound. Second, Mr. Levine made the Serenade sound anything but 12-tone. The March was brisk, the minuet had the most gorgeous trio and almost danced. A Dance Scene, I felt, could have been the background for a classical ballet. (Actually, I heard later that Serenade was indeed inspiration for a ballet.)

Rarer still was a poem from Petrarch. It was listed as Sonnet 217, but that might have been the German version of the Italian poet. We know it as Sonnet 256, a poem of harsh and almost maddening emotions. Schoenberg had set other Petrarch poems, and in all of them, he revealed that most arousing side of the poet.

Here, bass-baritone Brandon Cedel might have been chanting the poem, but so excited were the words of revenge that one again forgot whether it was sprechstimme or simply the rage of a man betrayed.

No, the Serenade didn’t have the mordant humor of Schoenberg’s cabaret songs. But Mr. Levine gave such impetus, such a no-nonsense leadership that anybody describing dodecaphonic technique would have (and should have) been shown the door.

The second Serenade, Mozart’s “Grand Partita” gave an unlikely proof of Jean Sibelius’ statement that “Mozart was the finest orchestrator in the history of music.” The ensemble on paper wouldn’t seem that way. Eleven winds–and Mozart never had to worry about using the flute, an instrument he never liked. Added to the bassoons, clarinets, oboes and basset horns were four French horns and one double-bass.

How does one make “master orchestration” out of such low-pitched instruments? Mozart (and Mr. Levine) performed what Haydn could only dream about. Haydn put forth different consorts, combined them and showed high contrasts. Mozart in this endlessly inventive piece, wove solos and compounds. With 13 instruments, nearly all of which were low-pitched (oboes were the exception), he brought forth songs in a Romance, a series of variations which were more in the instrumental timbre than the pedestrian harmonies, and even let the double bass have its own solos.

What Mr. Levine accomplished with these master players was to accentuate these colors. The start, with its dark horns, could have come from the conductor’s favorite Magic Flute, the buffoonery in the middle of the Romance was given true fun…,and the quick, almost absurdly Turkish rondo was taken less Allegro molto than a happy Vivace, with the notes played to their colorful extremes.

Were the starts of the movements a bit ragged? Yes, but this only added to the improvisatory fun of this gorgeous work, to the al fresco quality of the whole serenade, where Mozart’s 13 original musicians could have missed a cue or been pestered by a mosquito.

The result in the Classical/Baroque Weill Recital Hall was not the usual appreciative applause. It was a genuine delight in this delightful music.

The difference between Schoenberg and Mozart? Well, after Schoenberg wrote each movement, he would call in his students and explain what was done, why it was done, how it was done. All very worthy.

Had Mozart called in his friends after writing each movement, and had they asked what and how he had done what he did, Mozart would have been silent, perhaps tell a poor joke, and finally confess, “Well…the music was all around me. All I had to do was write it down.”

Even without the Tompkins Park squirrels, it was a gorgeous afternoon.

Harry Rolnick



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