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Arnold’s Night

By B.A. Nilsson

Pamela Frank and Friends

Union 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 musical company.

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 music.

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 excitement.

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 to affectation.

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 instrumental combinations.

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 finale.

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.

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