Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Slee Sinfonietta: New Perspectives on Familiar Classics

The Center for 21st Century Music presents the Slee Sinfonietta, conducted by Robert Treviño, on April 11. On this concert, the Sinfonietta will perform two rarely-heard arrangements of well-known turn-of-the-20th-century masterpieces: Claude Debussy’s Prélude à l’Après-midi d’un faune (Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun) and Gustav Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde (Song of the Earth). Both works will be presented in chamber-scale arrangements by Arnold Schoenberg (the latter completed by German musicologist Rainer Reihn).

The arrangements originated in the Society for the Private Performance of Music (Verein für Musikalische Privataufführungen), a weekly concert series spearheaded by Schoenberg in Vienna during 1918-1922. In response to the hostile disruptions that often greeted public presentations of their music, Schoenberg—together with friends and students—founded the Society, whose concerts were open only to subscribers. Critics were barred, as was applause and other overt expressions of approval or disapproval; concert programs were not revealed in advance. The Society’s concerts focused on music written after 1890, including works by Schoenberg, his students (Anton Webern, Alban Berg), and predecessors (Gustav Mahler, Richard Strauss), as well as works by non-Germanic composers pursuing contrasting aesthetic directions: Ferrucio Busoni, Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel, Erik Satie, Alexander Scriabin, and Igor Stravinsky.

The Society’s private, ground-up enterprise necessitated a low-budget operating style, resulting in the need to arrange large ensemble works for a more affordable chamber music format. During the Society’s four years, Schoenberg and members of his circle arranged numerous works for concerts, often for a core group consisting of an abbreviated orchestra of sorts, with single woodwinds, piano, harmonium, and single strings. However, it would be simplistic to understand the Society’s interest in truncated orchestral ensembles solely in terms of financial constraints. Schoenberg had in fact been exploring the possibilities of similar ensembles in his works for a decade prior to the Society’s foundation, for instance, in his 1908 Chamber Symphony no. 1, or the 1912 work Pierrot Lunaire; the chamber medium appealed because of its possibilities for intricate contrapuntal detail, close performer-composer interchange, and clear textures in contrast to the hazy fluidity of the post-Wagnerian orchestra. This new approach to orchestration was also of interest to Schoenberg’s contemporaries like Stravinsky (cf. Pribaoutki, L’Histoire du Soldat), and together these efforts might be understood as a precedent for today’s new music sinfonietta ensemble with one orchestral instrument to a part. Therefore, the Society’s arrangements can be read as fascinating documents of a cross-historical dialogue, of how composers on the threshold of a major shift in thinking about orchestration thought about the work of their predecessors.

Schoenberg arranged Debussy’s 1894 orchestral tone poem Prélude à l’Après-midi d’un faune for a chamber ensemble of single woodwinds, harmonium, piano, antique cymbals, and single strings. The arrangement retains many materials in woodwinds and strings, while transferring woodwind harmony parts to harmonium, the harp part to piano, and splitting the horn part between the two keyboard instruments. As Debussy scholar Richard Parks notes, the arrangement preserves the underlying structural architecture of Debussy’s orchestration—overlapping entrances and exits to obscure structural boundaries, heightening syntactic ambiguity. Beyond this, however, the arrangement fundamentally alters the original: the newfound clarity of texture emphasizes harmony over color, rendering the original’s steamy impressionist landscapes into the chamber music’s solid portrait perspective. This change poses a striking reinterpretation of the piece, downplaying its link to its predecessor Wagner in favor of its descendant Stravinsky, and in turn inviting listeners to hear it less as a terminal development of Romanticism and more as a proto-Modernism.

Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, a hybrid symphony/song cycle for two voices and orchestra completed 1909, might have seemed relatively contemporary to the Society in relation to Debussy’s 1894 Prélude. Even while the arrangements use similar instrumental forces, the Mahler is far less at odds with the Society’s arranging practices than the Debussy. Specifically, Mahler’s work delights in hauntingly sparse moments of chamber music in the midst of its orchestral textures, particularly in its inner movements, and in the desolate cadenzas of its final movement, in sharp contrast to the blurry impressionist textures of the Prélude. In this sense, Das Lied—roughly contemporary with Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony no. 1—might be understood as a forerunner of the Society’s arranging style. As such, Schoenberg’s arrangement does not so much desiccate the original’s lushness, as with the Debussy, as much as further pare down its threadbare constitution. Even while this approach flattens the force and depth of the occasional orchestral tutti passage, it sheds poignant light on the originality of the work’s sparer moments.

For this performance the Sinfonietta will be conducted by Robert Treviño, and will be joined by vocalists Amanda Pabyan (soprano) and Corby Welch (tenor) for the Mahler. Treviño, who will be familiar to Sinfonietta audiences from past appearances with the group, was recently named music director of the Basque National Orchestra, and was previously associate conductor at the Cincinnati Symphony and New York City Opera. Like Treviño, the singers are also rising talents, rapidly gaining accolades for performances at renowned musical institutions. Pabyan has appeared as featured soloist at the Metropolitan Opera and New York City Opera, and with the symphonies of Cincinnati, Los Angeles, and Seattle, while Welch’s solo performances include the Staatsoper Hamburg, Aix-en-Provence Festival, Schleswig-Holstein Festival, Schwetzingen Festival, and with the Berlin Radio Orchestra, Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, Lahti Symphony, RIAS Kammerchor, Stuttgart Radio Orchestra, and WDR Orchestra (Cologne).

The Sinfonietta will also be performing in June at this year's June in Buffalo--stay tuned for details.

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