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Part II: Schoenberg’s Children On performance

Part II: Schoenberg’s Children On performance

What are your favorite recordings of your father’s music?

Nuria: Pierrot lunaire conducted by my father. (I remember listening to the rehearsals at home: it was an unforgettable experience even though I was just 8 years old!) The quartets and the trio and Verklaerte Nacht by the LaSalle Quartet. There are several very good Moses und Aron recordings: Gielen, Solti; Abbado’s Gurrelieder.

Larry: I always waited for the next installment of the Columbia Records Robert Craft Schoenberg series. This series included the Glenn Gould recordings, performances of the Brahms and Bach arrangements, the one act operas and most of the chamber music. In most cases it was the first time that I was able to hear a work. Later I especially appreciated all of the Arditti recordings, the Ozawa Gurrelieder, the Boulez Moses and Aron (from Amsterdam) and very recently the Hilary Hahn Violin Concerto. My experience with the Hahn recording reminded me of when I first really heard a performance of the Wind Quintet.  It was in Vienna, probably around 1974, when the wind players of the Vienna Philharmonic performed the work in a way that I had never imagined.  The performance enabled me to really appreciate the work. Up until then it never made much sense to me – most likely because it was played without any feeling. There is a video recording on YouTube of the Survivor with Hermann Prey which I think is excellent.  

What advice would you give performers who approach your father’s music?

Nuria: It is not really up to me to give advice but I think I would tell them to find the emotions my father was trying to convey, because if they only play the right notes and do not feel the emotions, they will not communicate the music to the audience.

Larry: I would advise performers of my father’s music to listen to as many “earlier” Schoenberg works and to commit themselves to the performance of the work in question in the same way that he committed himself to the compositions.  I would advise them to prepare the work until they felt that everything is “comprehensible” and then to perform it as though they were passing on their discovery of that comprehensibility.

Is his music performed frequently enough?

Nuria: It is different in different countries. Of course we would wish it were performed more often, because the more you hear a work the more familiar you become with it and the more you will love it. I purposely do not use the word: understand. Musicologists and composers understand music, but it is important to FEEL the music and what it has to say. Most of us do not understand traditional music either, but we have heard enough of it to react emotionally to it and to know what to expect.

Is it performed well enough?

Nuria: There are many performers nowadays who interpret Schoenberg’s music really well and the positive reaction of the audiences is the result of this. Examples: Pollini, Levine, Abbado, and many young pianists, among others

Larry: I have attended horrible under-rehearsed performance of almost all of his works. This includes Gurrelieder by the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Moses and Aron in Bremen. I can understand the difficulty of performing the orchestral works when they are allowed only 2 or at most 3 rehearsals.  But I am sure that one could say the same about any contemporary work.

Are there certain musical establishments that promote Schoenberg and others who avoid his music?

Nuria: Yes. The people who make up concert programs are often much more conservative than the audiences. But things have changed very much in recent years and it is not so risky – at least in Europe – to put a work of Schoenberg’s on the program. The important thing is that although his works are 115 to 57 years old, they are still “new” to a lot of people and often need quite a bit of rehearsing before they can be played well. Bad performances are counter-productive and induce the audience to believe that the composer meant the work to be what they are hearing. Another problem is that there is an attitude which I think is partly the fault of Schoenberg’s pupils who, after the war, (for instance in Darmstadt) promoted the idea that his music was esoteric, difficult to understand and that only they and a very few initiated people could really appreciate it. Even when a concert is a great success the reviews seem to always begin with a negative phrase like: why don’t audiences like Schoenberg’s music; he is a controversial figure, difficult to listen to etc.

Larry: I have been particularly saddened by the lack of good performances of my father’s works here in Los Angeles.  The Los Angeles Philharmonic rarely performs a work, the local chamber groups, with maybe one exception, never do, the local choral groups have excluded his works from their programs, the Los Angeles Opera has never staged a Schoenberg Opera (a single non-staged performance of Moses and Aron was imported from Germany many years ago), the local Universities never program his music, the single classical music station includes only Verklaerte Nacht (during the Nacht).  When a visiting group to Los Angeles schedules a Schoenberg work there would be a disclaimer stating that “the work is an early work before he started composing those unharmonius, atonal, 12-tone composition”. 

It has been a sinusoidal ride. My experiences with the music of my father in Los Angeles have been both positive and negative.

I think that now with a broader spectrum of critics due to the facility of publishing on the internet (blogs, websites), I encounter regularly extreme opinions based on strongly expressed personal feelings.

I have had and still do have opportunities to influence the public with respect to my father.  Belmont Music Publishers was the first, followed by the establishment of study centers in Los Angeles and Vienna and the production of multi-media and art exhibitions.

Belmont grew out of the necessity to provide printed scores and performance materials in the United States.  Its goal was to make the music easily available. It also took over the re-publication of works that no longer were available from other publishers. In addition it allowed us to publish works posthumously.  Belmont has been able to influence Universal Edition with respect to keeping scores in print and correcting performing materials.  Their new Gurrelieder production based on the Gesamtausgabe – score and parts - is an important example.

Leonard Stein, assistant to my father at UCLA, family friend and the first director of the Arnold Schoenberg Institute assisted and advised in the Belmont productions - in Los Angeles he was the one who performed Schoenberg. There were regular concerts of his music at the Museum and Monday Evening Concerts.  One could expect performances of Pierrot, the Serenade even the Suite.  Visiting quartets offered the first and second quartets. Verklaerte Nacht was performed regularly.  He began his own Piano Spheres series where he and other performed Schoenberg.  Pierre Boulez visited Los Angeles and regularly conducted Schoenberg in excellent performances. 

Zubin Mehta, a student of Hans Swarowsky programmed some works including the Chamber Symphony Op. 9, Verklaerte Nacht, Gurrelieder and even the Variations for Orchestra.

From 1973 for about 20 years the Arnold Schoenberg Institute at the University of Southern California survived. There were some exceptional events.

For the last 10 to 15 years things have changed dramatically. It is rare that any visiting group would perform any Schoenberg in Los Angeles even though they have works in their repertoire and even though they may be scheduling Schoenberg works in other cities.  Local groups, other than Southwest Chamber Society, never perform a note of Schoenberg.

I am not sure why.  It might have something to do with the dominant Hollywood theme of measuring the value of an event by how entertaining it is.  It is also because of a larger problem seen also in education and medicine – namely that the business model has taken over the arts.  Of course one needs financial security but it is the degree to which this drives the organization, school or hospital that has changed.  I believe that Schoenberg’s music is just one tiny consequence of this change.  And, of course, Los Angeles’s culture is no longer dominated by European immigrants. 

The justifications for not programming Schoenberg have been that, while the conductor appreciates the works, the audience doesn’t.

It is a fact that the audiences in Los Angeles dislike his music and are willing to express that fact.  The orchestra managers naturally do not want to alienate their audiences. Visiting conductors are not permitted to play Schoenberg.   

Zubin Mehta tried a little to perform some works: Chamber Symphony Op. 9, Verklaerte Nacht, Gurrelieder even Variations. Esa-Pekka Salonen first performed some works but rarely, if ever, in the recent past.  He has commented publicly that he does not consider Schoenberg relevant anymore. A visiting Berlin Opera Company presented a single concert performance of Moses and Aron but there has never been a production of any Schoenberg work by the Los Angeles Opera. The Los Angeles Master Choral’s director Grant Gershon has never performed a work by Schoenberg.  I was told that he was not even aware that Schoenberg wrote choral music. I was also told that when Martin Hasselbock wanted to perform the Organ Variations in his recital at Disney Hall the management (Debora Borda) refused to allow him to include the Schoenberg in the program. Neither of the local Universities, UCLA nor USC,   schedule any Schoenberg works by their performing organizations. The single local classical radio station, KUSC, other than occasionally on a late night broadcast, does not include Schoenberg on its play list.

While I can understand the reluctance to perform or play the Wind Quintet, I am amazed that even such works as the arrangement of the Brahms Piano Quartet is considered taboo. (I was once told that the Brahms-Schoenberg [arrangement] had to be cancelled (San Francisco Symphony) due to the fact that one Schoenberg work had already been scheduled for the season and that the subscribers would complain.)

I could make a list of works that would not need to be call “thorny”, that would not “frighten the audiences” including: [see appendix 1]. But then again I am not in charge of the Festival.

Continue to read the interview here:

Part III: Religion and customs

Part IV: How you knew him as a father and Moving the Schoenberg Nachlass to Vienna

Part V: Your mother and children and Appendix 1: Larry’s list of works that ‘would not “frighten the audiences”’

Part I: Childhood

Email interview with Schoenberg’s Children - introduction

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