Music in ConcertJanuary/February 2010
“The Blue Rider”, a painting by Vasily Kandinsky, gave its name to a group of German and Russian painters, composers, and writers who published a short-lived almanac. The collective dissolved when its members fled Germany at the onset of World War I. Fast forward to “The Blue Rider in Performance”, an inventive multimedia evening of their works that opened the season at Columbia University’s Miller Theater.
Pianist Sarah Rothenberg’s concept—realized in conjunction with a sumptuous Kandinsky retrospective at New York’s Guggenheim Museum—added projections of his art plus choreography by Karole Armitage to seldomheard piano pieces from the Second Viennese School (some with soprano) and Schoenberg’s Quartet No. 2. The music, often regarded as demanding, became a repeat-performance hit, with separate-day panel discussion and buzzing intelligentsia.
Blue Rider musical works and Kandinsky’s paintings barely predate the twin implosions that changed cultural history: Schoenberg’s 1912 Pierrot Lunaire (music with poetry) and Stravinsky’s 1913 Rite of Spring ballet score (music with dance). Kandinsky, a Russian expatriate, was struggling to achieve emotional expression beyond traditional forms. An all- Schoenberg concert—including the 1909 quartet, which strains against tonality—propelled the artist outside the roped-off shallows of traditionalism, toward the riot of colors and shapes that would express his ideas and passions from then on.
Blue Rider artists viewed abstraction as a goal to be achieved by shedding, rearranging, and stretching existing systems. From a century’s distance, Schoenberg now appears to have spent as much time pushing boundaries from the inside as working outside them in serial mode. Nothing sounded harsh in the Blue Rider pieces, whose voluptuous non-tonal style probed the outer edge of romanticism. “How can this music be so old?” one wonders. Or, “How can it still be so new?”
Two of the quartet’s four movements had lines for soprano, sung with creamy ease by Susan Narucki, who excels in this fach. The other two movements were danced by two mixed couples in tunics and ankle socks, from Armitage Gone! Dance. (Unfortunate publicity described the music as “brought to life” by dance. That statement in fact raises questions about whether any visuals—apart from enticing the art crowd to the box office—increase the music’s intrinsic value. Schoenberg, himself a gifted painter, preferred his music unenhanced.)
During the haunting, acute performance by the Brentano Quartet, handwritten texts, Kandinsky line drawings, splotches of his colors, and mountainous masses floated and grew on a ceiling and two walls that met upstage above the performers, creating a triangular shell.
The first half with piano and some luxuriant poetry consisted of moody early works by Thomas de Hartmann, Arthur Lourie, Schoenberg, Scriabin, Webern, and Berg. Speaking about Berg, Michael Tilson Thomas has said, “There is always a moment that—even on first hearing, even to the unsophisticated listener— is so radiantly beautiful that you think, ‘I must hear that again’. Why would someone who could write as beautifully as this write other music that is so challenging? Eventually you discover that it’s all the same—these lyrical, melting moments are just another way of looking at the basic situation.” His comments also illuminate the works on this program.