The Elaine Kaufman cultural center at Merkin Concert Hall threw safety-first programming policies to the winds by opening its season with Arnold Schoenberg: Conservative Radical, a three-part retrospective in celebration of the composer’s 124th birthday. As the twentieth century nears its end, Schoenberg is still seen by many as a villain whose dissonant idiom infected composers everywhere and soured an entire generation on the whole notion of listening to new music. Few composers nowadays write according to strict Schoenbergian twelve-tone principals (few actually ever did), but his influence continues to be enormous and his legacy demands periodic reassessment. This investigation, led by cellist Fred Sherry, made a valuable contribution, both by performing several key works and by inviting musicians who knew Schoenberg, studied with him, or have performed his scores extensively to sit down and discuss the man and his work.
Schoenberg once remarked that his music was not so much difficult as it was badly performed. Perhaps, but the sheer density of his musical thought processes has always created a barrier for many audiences, a quality that was present even in his early “easy listening” tonal period. Few composers ask for more active auditory participation than Schoenberg, but during a good performance – and the fifteen musicians who played the Op. 9 Chamber Symphony gave a sensational one – no one’s attention is likely to wander. The to-and-fro discussion that followed was equally absorbing as three generations of composers (Milton Babbitt, Charles Wuorinen, and Osvaldo Golijov) joined conductors Robert Craft and James Levine to explain what it is about Schoenberg’s music that blows them away. It may still take some convincing to persuade the rest of the world, but who knows? When Levine conducts Moses und Aron at the Metropolitan Opera in February, perhaps even Met audiences will find something to love in this awesome vision by a composer whose music is as at least as generous as it is uncompromising.