Frank and Friends
College Memorial Chapel, Oct.9
The opening event of the Union College Concert Series is always
a rewarding experience, and those who remained to enjoy Arnold
Schoenberg’s Transfigured Night were treated to a spectacular
performance by a string sextet clearly enjoying one another’s
Those who bolted at intermission missed the concert’s highlight.
They also showed an unfortunate ignorance of where the piece
falls in Schoenberg’s creative life. They’re tempting the
gods to consign them to an afterlife of Richard Clayderman
The friends violinist Pamela Frank assembled are top-flight
players who, as far as I can tell, don’t perform together
regularly, although a light web search yields any number of
connections among them. But the concert proved that a like-minded
ensemble of risk-takers can generate plenty of performance
Simionescu took the violin chair for the opener, a jaunty
trio by Jean Francaix, written in 1933 when the composer was
21. Four short movements give a feeling of Raymond Scott by
way of Django Reinhardt, with quickly shifting timbres and
jazz-tinged close harmony throughout. Violist Dimitri Murrath
and cellist Matt Haimovitz completed the group, sounding a
bit unsettled in the opening bars but quickly finding a shared
voice, particularly in the Trio’s languorous andante.
Although the concert’s other two works were by composers associated
with Vienna, Francaix’s piece gave the evening its schlag,
so frothy that it inspired an idiot in front of me to stage-whisper,
“this piece does absolutely nothing for me,” to his companion
after the second movement.
The piece—and the performance—did plenty for me, my friend.
Just because it’s cheerful doesn’t mean it lacks integrity.
Next the rest of the group—Frank, violist Beth Guterman and
cellist Edward Arron—took to the stage to take on Brahms’s
Sextet No. 1 in B-flat Major, Op. 18. Although one
of the composer’s more youthful chamber works, it’s still
Brahmsianistically autumnal, especially in the first, second
and last movements, where the low voices of cellos and viola
introduce the easygoing themes.
A different Viennese connection was evident in the first movement,
especially when a theme at measure 61 announces itself in
beautiful harmony with pizzicato accompaniment. It’s the Schubert
influence reaching well into the body of this piece, something
I suspect Brahms would have been in no hurry to deny.
Tempting though it always is in a piece like this to “interpret”
the daylights out of it with self-conscious overuse of ritenuto,
Frank and company never sacrificed the pulse of the piece
This was especially desirable in the slow second movement,
a theme and variations offering a textbook example of how
to take a 32-bar statement and toss it around a variety of
There’s Schubert again in the rondo that finishes the piece,
bookending the opening with nicely harmonized themes that
go into unexpected places, expertly performed.
Schoenberg’s early years were heavily Brahms-influenced, and
he also wrote intelligently about Schubert’s style. Having
just been knocked off his feet by meeting the woman he’d later
marry, Schoenberg wrote a most passionate piece in 1899 based
on a poem by Richard Dehmel that tells a story of a woman’s
infidelity and her beloved’s forgiveness.
This was the era of what oddball Viennese poet Peter Altenberg
termed frauenkult—an obsession with notions of femininity
that saw women as merely emotion-driven, and thus all the
easier to (superficially) worship.
Schoenberg’s tone poem amplifies the contrasts in the verse,
setting a scene of a changeable outdoors over which the conversation
takes place, pitting violin against cello in many instances.
But predictable or clichéd it’s not, and its 30-or-so minutes
are completely captivating, climaxing in a lush, fairy-tale
You couldn’t have asked for a better performance. The composer
made arrangements of the piece for larger ensembles, but this
is how it should be heard, performed by musicians communicating
with each other on a level that seemed telepathic to shape
and sound this piece so well.