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My name is Avior Byron and I am a musicologist, blogger and composer. I write books, articles and a blog about music, performance, research, and theory. Read more at my about page

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A student performance of Schoenberg’s String Quartets

A student performance of Schoenberg’s String Quartets

Two days ago I stumbled upon a message via Titter saying that there will be a concert with the first movements of the four String Quartets by Schoenberg. After each lecture there will be a short lecture. I decided to attend the concert that occurred yesterday. The lecturers and the student performers were from the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance. 

The basic idea for the concert is brilliant: play only the first movement from each String Quartet and let the audience hear things that cannot be usually heard in concerts. There were two quartet groups. The first played from the String Quartets 1 and 3 and second group played no. 2 and 4. This could grant the listeners a perspective on the creativity and development of Schoenberg though most of his life. It also granted the students an opportunity to focus on a reasonable task.

It would not be fair to judge a student concert with the same criteria as with more professional performers. It is true that this music is not easy to perform. Nevertheless, there are some things that I would expect also from students of an Academy (this is one of the two highest education institutes for performers in Israel.


 

When the first quartet group started to play I felt physical pain. I know this music quite well from listening to various CDs. I especially adore the performances of the Kolisch Quartet (see the two videos below) and the Lasalle Quartet. I do not expect that the students will play on the level of these excellent quartets. However, I felt that they were simply distorting the music. It seemed to me that they were struggling to play the right notes. There was no groove and no sense of feeling to the various sections of the first movement of String Quartet No. 1. It seemed to me that they did not enjoy playing the music.

The second quartet group was better. I even had a few moments were I enjoyed to listen to the first movement of the Second String Quartet. It was easy to notice that most of the performers, if not all of them, enjoyed the music making. The first violinist (I am not sure whether it was Yuval Herz or Shachar Pooyae) was especially good. They too had some problems with intonation (especially when they started to play) yet the difference between the groups was prominent during the whole concert, especially due to the fact that they played alternately. However, with the second group one could start feeling an interpretation and ensemble playing. The problems of intonation were less important, since they gave the audience the impression that they feel and breathe the music. For me, this is much more important than aspects such as hitting right notes during performance. In short, Yuval Herz, Shachar Pooyae – violin, Willy Zaikin – viola and Daniela Shemer – cello, proved that students can make music on a high level. Yet, even this group had to stop playing in the middle of the performance of the Fourth Quartet. Next time, give the music a few more rehearsals and you will avoid such embarrassing situations.

The lectures were not interesting. The big problem with the lectures was not the mistakes of some of the four lecturers (it is not Robert Kolisch, but Rudolf Kolish), or some of the things that I would never dare to write in public (the program notes actually argued that Schoenberg had a basic musical education! I hope that they meant that he was an autodidact), but they attempted to speak about the music by using anecdotic tales (the Second Quartet and Schoenberg’s wife’s affair with the painter Gerstel) or analyze the music in terms that simply no one could follow (these were moments were some of these people simply slept. The problem was that some of the people were music analysts themselves!). It was absurd that one of the lecturers quoted a letter from Schoenberg to Rudolf Kolisch were he argued that counting the tones in a twelve tone composition is speaking about how the music is built and not about what the music actually is. This was exactly the problem with the lectures. They did not grant the listeners any information that helped them enjoy the music in a better way.


The problem with such concerts is that they give a very bad reputation to the music of Schoenberg, to both the audience and the students. Although the basic idea of the concert was very good, I would recommend that the lectures be much shorter (originally planned for five minutes) and focus on one or two ideas that all of the audience can understand. I would suggest that the students will listen to recordings of famous performers and try to understand what this music is about, before attempting to play it in public.

In short, the feeling was not that of a concert, but of sitting and listening to a rehearsal of under-rehearsed music. I suddenly understood why Schoenberg insisted on many rehearsals. It was clear to me how a bad performance can distort the music. It does not matter whether you like or hate Schoenberg. Listening to an under-rehearsed performance of his music can leave you only with a very negative and general impression. It is simply not the same thing.

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