Tracing an Idea

This January, Washington DC’s Verge Ensemble (DC’s longest-running contemporary music organization, and since 2003 the ensemble-in-residence at the Corcoran Gallery) put on an interesting concert at the National Gallery of Art. Although the concert received two simultaneous reviews in the Washington Post (which later became the subject of some heated discussion here on NewMusicBox), the themes of the concert—inspired by the relationship between painter Wassily Kandinsky and composer Arnold Schoenberg as well as the suggested trajectory of their techniques and ideas—remained largely uncommented-upon.

As Verge gears up for a companion concert on March 31st to be held at La Maison Française, I thought it might be interesting to get the perspective of the performers and organizers of the event. The meeting of such provocative and influential minds from different art worlds is a striking idea for a concert, which Verge artistic director Steve Antosca conceived in 2003 when he attended the Schoenberg, Kandinsky, and the Blue Rider exhibition at the Jewish Museum in New York. It was the paintings of Schoenberg that he was interested in seeing: “I knew Kandinsky’s work and it is easy enough to see it exhibited,” remarks Antosca, “but I had never seen an exhibition of Schoenberg’s paintings.” There were 36 Schoenberg paintings exhibited, but Antosca says he was most attracted to the painting “Red Gaze” from 1910:

Schoenberg's Red Gaze painting
“Red Gaze” by Arnold Schoenberg. Click for more information about this work

While reading the catalogue for the exhibition, Antosca discovered that Kandinsky had first heard Schoenberg’s music at a concert in Munich on January 2, 1911 (program below):

Schoenberg program

Kandinsky felt an immediate attraction to Schoenberg’s music, and Antosca cites the powerful connection between Kandinsky’s emerging artwork (which was moving away from figurative painting into the realm of abstraction) and Schoenberg’s motion away from tonality as the inspiration for Verge’s pair of concerts:

“With the String Quartet No. 2 (op. 10, 1907/1908), adventurous in its use of a soprano and its progressive movement away from tonality, and Three Piano Pieces (op. 11, 1909), Schoenberg no longer lingered in the realm of tonality. I decided I wanted to take these two seminal works from that 1911 concert and demonstrate one path forward over 100 years. This is a purely personal exercise. Anyone else would have chosen a different selection of works. I wanted a wide selection of pieces that demonstrated a variety of keyboard and string writing developments, concluding with an emphasis on technology.”

This determination to present what Antosca terms the “ripple effect” of such a momentous meeting of creative titans frames the Verge concert series as a speculative, exploratory event rather than simply rehashing a great moment in 20th-century art. So while the concert celebrates the 100th anniversary of the pair’s historic meeting, it’s a celebration that looks forward as much as backward, examining how music has evolved along the initial trajectory set by Kandinsky and Schoenberg as well as where it might be headed.

Longtime ensemble violinist Lina Bahn is one of the performers charged with bridging a program of composers as diverse as Ligeti, Cage, Saariaho, Linda Dusman, and John Luther Adams—to name just a few of the featured composers who have continued to push forward into territory beyond Schoenberg’s wildest imagination, including several pieces featuring electronic elements.

Of Schoenberg’s second quartet—the cornerstone of the upcoming French Embassy concert—Bahn notes that “This is one of those chamber pieces that one always hopes to play; to experience the depth of the text and the incredible spectrum of harmonic language, along with the work’s considerable romantic heritage has been amazing.”

That’s a curious observation: in a concert that celebrates the newness and forward-leaning spirit exemplified in a key Schoenberg work, the work in question seems almost to look back on the past as much as it anticipates the future, especially when paired with other works even further removed from the influence of romanticism than Schoenberg’s quartet.

Perhaps it’s natural for composers and curators to emphasize what is new and revolutionary, just as performers must continually relate new compositions to instruments and playing techniques ultimately rooted in the traditions of the past. But in approaching such complex and far-ranging concepts as artistic influence, genre cross-pollination, and the manner in which technology both aided and modified much of Schoenberg’s inherited artistic vision, Verge has opted to let the listeners form their own perspective rather than trying to advance a particular thesis—turning the concert experience into a way for listeners to draw some of their own conclusions. Having sat through many themed programs of modern music that seem to revel in pedantry, perhaps the best way to share an idea (with a nod to the 2010 film Inception) is to cultivate a situation in which others might be free to come to the idea themselves rather than receiving it passively.

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