IN PERFORMANCE: CLASSICAL MUSIC; Flight From Tonality, All the Way to California
By Bernard Holland,
Published March 26, 2003
Southwest Chamber Music Cooper Union
Historically the chief executive officer of the Second Viennese School, Arnold Schoenberg nevertheless spent the last third of his long composing life in Southern California. The secure professorships escaped Schoenberg and his family, and a genteel hand-to-mouth existence became their lot, but there were the compensations of tea with Charlie Chaplin and tennis with the Marx Brothers. Schoenberg wrote a lot of music, too.
Southwest Chamber Music presented ''Schoenberg in L.A.'' at Cooper Union on Thursday and Friday evenings. Thursday's rain-soaked and war-nervous audience indicated that partisanship for this repertory is far from dead. Indeed, the Fourth String Quartet is one of the more convincing arguments for Schoenberg's flight from tonality. Passionate and densely organized, this music carries the deep, thoughtful seriousness of Brahms into an uncertain world. Listening to the ever-multiplying chains of thought and the search for a new kind of harmonic rootedness was a little like contemplating 16th-century Spanish explorers sailing up the Amazon: courageous, intrepid and with no real idea of where they were going.
Also on Thursday were ''Phantasy'' for violin and piano and the ''Ode to Napoleon,'' a melodrama in both the old and new meanings of the word. The narration from Byron is embedded in the music, following its rhythmic turns and responding periodically to its musical tones. Like ''Pierrot Lunaire,'' the ode expands on the 19th-century words-with-music formula, but its frenetic, sometimes nearly hysterical tone is melodrama in another sense.
The Southwest players -- Mark Menzies, Gayle Blankenburg, Johnny Chang, Jan Karlin and Paula Fehrenbach, with the reciter Michael Ingham and the conductor Jeff von der Schmidt -- emphasized the oldness lurking behind newness, creating an excellent equipoise between a Romantic past and a brave future. Phyllis Bryn-Julson had announced she was ending her performing career with ''Pierrot Lunaire'' on Friday. She has been one of a handful of pitch-perfect performers acting in symbiosis with avant-garde composers hard-pressed to find the competent singer-musician. They will miss her.