“Schoenberg in Color” kicked off this year’s Boston Ballet Music Series Wednesday at the company’s Clarendon Street headquarters. The educational and enjoyable tribute to Arnold Schoenberg gave seven players from the Boston Ballet Orchestra a chance to step onto the stage. A string sextet essayed Verklärte Nacht (“Transfigured Night,” 1899) in the original form (rather than the 1917 string-orchestra version), and principal solo pianist Alex Foaksman played the Opus 11 Drei Klavierstücke (1909), as a slide show of contemporary paintings ran on a video screen to the audience’s left.
Inaugurated last season as a series of film projects, the series offers Boston Ballet Orchestra members additional playing time while spotlighting composers, like Fanny Mendelssohn, whom the company’s audiences wouldn’t normally hear at the Citizens Bank Opera House.
Boston Ballet music director Mischa Santora reminded us that Schoenberg was an accomplished painter as well as a composer. (Schoenberg himself said, “Painting was to me the same as making music.”) To accompany Verklärte Nacht, Santora chose work by Gustav Klimt, pointing out that the inner detail in the music mirrors the detail in the art. The selection of 15 or so paintings included landscapes like The Park and Cottage Garden with Sunflowers as well as more familiar portraits like Adele Bloch-Bauer and The Kiss and images from the Stoclet Frieze. As much as I love Klimt, I found his detail hard to make out in the video images, and I’ve never associated his art with Schoenberg’s music. Besides which, the interpretation of Verklärte Nacht was so engaging, I kept forgetting to look over at the video screen.
And Verklärte Nacht has a more pertinent literary association. Schoenberg’s inspiration came from Richard Dehmel’s 1896 poem of the same name. A man and a woman are walking through a cold, bare wood on a moonlit night. The woman confesses that she’s pregnant. She had wanted to experience the joy of motherhood, and so she went to bed with a stranger. She was happy to find herself with child, but then she met the man she’s now walking beside, and she’s apprehensive as to what he will think. They walk on, the moon following. The man invites her to look at how brightly the universe shines. He tells her that they have lit an inner warmth in each other, that this warmth will transfigure the child and make it his, theirs. The couple’s breath kisses in the air and they walk on.
Schoenberg’s half-hour score is not exactly program music, but its five sections reflect the poem’s emotional ups and downs. The opening walking section in D minor is followed by the woman’s anguished confession; when she meets the man she is walking with, the music bursts into E major. Schoenberg stretches Dehmel’s middle section — just four lines of continued walking — into a seven-minute scherzo of suspense that stops dead before the man replies in D major. Depending on your point of view, the piece either just barely affirms traditional harmonic values or else steps off into the chromatic void.
Since chamber sextets usually don’t require a conductor, I was surprised to see a single conspicuous chair and score in front of Christine Vitale and Julia Cash (violins), Jean Haig and Sarah Darling (violas), Ronald Lowry and Melanie Dyball (cellos). In conducting the ad hoc ensemble, Santora emphasized Schoenberg’s many marked nuances of tempo, dynamics, and texture. His reading stressed the contrasts, from the turbulent emotional swings of the woman’s confession and that moonlit E-major moment to the long trudge in the scherzo where we wait to hear what the man will have to say. The man’s response was sweet and ecstatic, and by the end the descending motif that represents walking seemed indeed transfigured.
Paintings by Schoenberg and Wassily Kandinsky accompanied Drei Klavierstücke. Schoenberg and Kandinsky were great friends until 1922, when Kandinsky joined the Bauhaus, a group Schoenberg came to suspect of anti-Semitism. But in January 1911, as Santora explained, Kandinsky attended a concert of Schoenberg’s music in Monaco that included Drei Klavierstücke. He made a representational sketch of the evening, as we saw on the video screen, followed by a more impressionistic one and then finally one of his best-known paintings, Impression III (Concert), which in its color and energy really does evoke Schoenberg’s piano composition. During Foaksman’s performance, artistic works by Schoenberg — mostly portraits — and Kandinsky alternated, and they made a reasonable accompaniment to the playing, though it wasn’t ideal to have the screen on one side of the audience and the piano on the other.
Santora also sat down at the piano to talk about Schoenberg’s “atonality.” He began with a major triad (1-3-5), added a seventh, and then a ninth to produce a chord that’s still familiar (1-3-5-7-9). Then he showed how Schoenberg might drop the 3 and the 5 to produce a very unfamiliar 1-7–9. It was a nice prelude to music that can be challenging.
Schoenberg wrote the first two pieces of Drei Klavierstücke in February 1909 and the third in August, finishing just before Debussy started work on Book I of his Préludes. Glenn Gould called Opus 11 No. 1 “a masterpiece,” though he added that Schoenberg “did not write against the piano but neither could he be accused of writing for it.” The three pieces, which mark the beginning of the composer’s Free Tonality period, form a kind of suite. No. 1, with its tightly woven motivic cells, contrasts thematic areas with polyphonic outburst material. The two sections are more closely related than they might appear, and they achieve a synthesis at the end, though an ongoing battle between E natural and E flat is not resolved. No. 2, at eight minutes longer than the other two pieces put together, is a slow movement with a recurrent ostinato in the left that undercuts the melodic material in the right. Every time you think the ostinato is gone for good, it returns. No. 3, the most forward-looking of the trio, seems all outburst, with mere remnants of motivic constructions. Yet the more you listen to this Opus 11, the more you appreciate Schoenberg’s representation of himself as a “traditional and romantic” composer.
Pianists as different as Maurizio Pollini and Glenn Gould have shown how intimate and expressive this music can be. Foaksman took a more aggressive, modern approach, playing down some of Schoenberg’s dynamic and tempo contrasts. But there was still shape to the interpretation. He plunged right into the motif that opens No. 1; then after the first outburst, that motif sounded less self-assured, as if it were shocked by what it had just heard. And the upward left-hand runs at the two-minute mark sounded particularly ominous. So did the ostinatos in No. 2, in which he built powerful climaxes. And the fireworks of No. 3 occasionally paused for thought before Schoenberg’s little joke of an ending.
“Schoenberg in Color” will reprise tonight. The Boston Ballet Music Series will resume January 19 and 20 with “A Fiddler’s Tale,” Wynton Marsalis’s response to Stravinsky’s Histoire du soldat.
Jeffrey Gantz has been writing about music, dance, theater, art, film, and books for the past 35 years, first for the Boston Phoenix and currently for the Boston Globe.