Dallas — The composers of the Second Viennese School, most notably Alban Berg, Anton Webern, and Arnold Schoenberg, are not known for their easy accessibility. The compositional style for which they’re famous, known as 12-tone serialism, can be thorny and difficult listening even for experienced audiences.
Although Friday evening’s concert by local chamber group Ensemble75 consisted exclusively of music by the three aforementioned composers, the group’s programming decisions resulted in an enjoyable evening even for those who don’t regularly queue up Schoenberg on iTunes.
One such decision was holding their concert at the Goss-Michael Foundation gallery of contemporary art on Turtle Creek Boulevard. The gallery contains a carefully curated group of contemporary paintings, installations, photographs, and sculptures, including at present photographs by Alex Prager, who stages her contemporary photographs to evoke the 1950s. Music Director and pianist Jonathan Tsay skillfully used these photographs, new pictures showing a past time, as a tie-in to the theme of the program, “The New Made Old Again.”
If the photographs are the old made new, then much of the music the group presented was indeed new made (or seeming) old.
Both Berg and Webern were not always 12-tone composers. Before beginning their careers as serialists, they composed in the Romantic style. Ensemble75 presented listeners with music in both the Romantic and 12-tone styles. For instance, soprano Corrie Donovan and pianist Jonathan Tsay began the evening with two versions of Alban Berg’s song “Schliesse mir die Augen beide” (“Close Both My Eyes”), one from 1900 in the Romantic style and a 12-tone version from 1925. The two versions of the song are a fascinating microcosm of the changes that took place in music and other arts during those tumultuous decades—the decline of Romanticism and the rise of Modernism.
Other pieces on the program used the same tactic, from what pianist Evan Mitchell described as the “crunchy” chords of Schoenberg’s “Sechs Kleine Klavierstücke” making “Romantic gestures” to Webern’s Four Pieces for Violin and Piano, Op. 7, which begins to use the string techniques of playing with the stick of the bow or playing very close to the bridge that are characteristic of much contemporary writing for strings. The Webern was skillfully executed by Mia Detwiler on violin and Jonathan Tsay on piano.
Without notable exception, the five young musicians who performed Friday exhibited musicality and technique, the latter most impressively in evidence during Tsay’s riveting performance of Berg’s Op. 1 Piano Sonata (in one movement).
The gallery provided surprisingly effective acoustics for the Bösendorfer piano loaned for the occasion by Collora Pianos as well as for the string instruments. The atmosphere was pleasant. Servers offered wine and light hors d’oeuvres before the performance to the capacity crowd of about forty attendees. In contrast to the recent trend of conductors or music directors speaking for too long about not enough, Jonathan Tsay and Evan Mitchell both offered engaging and informative remarks with accompanying slides of historical photos and related artworks. Ensemble75 provided listeners with an outstanding experience in all respects.