Dallas — Transfigured Night has to be one of the most evocative titles in the entire chamber music repertoire.
So, it is little wonder that Dallas Symphony programmed it for the Soluna Festival and used the title for Friday’s concert at Cliff Temple Baptist Church. The Amernet Quartet (Misha Vitenson and Marcia Littley, violin; Michael Klotz, viola; Jason Calloway, cello; plus DSO violist Barbara Sudweeks and DSO cellist Christopher Atkins) gave it a moving and evocative performance.
Transfigured Night is a stunningly beautiful example of over-ripe late romanticism, which comes as a surprise to many because it is by music’s bad boy, Arnold Schoenberg—inventor of the 12-tone system that sends audiences fleeing. His name on the program may have contributed to the sparse attendance.
The piece most likely to drive out the audience was Ginastera’s String Quartet No. 2 (in its later revised form). It uses the aforementioned 12-tone technique that Schoenberg pioneered, but Ginastera adds some other techniques, such as octatonic, pentatonic and modal flavorings. The entire piece is aggressively dissonant. Like Schoenberg’s similar quartet, Ginastera uses a soprano.
In that role, soprano Audra Methvin was heroic. She has a huge voice over which she has excellent control. In fact, at one point she overpowered the string quartet, which was playing furiously at the time.
She must have perfect pitch because got little help from the composer. She had to pluck her notes out of dense tone clusters, dissonant noodling, hive-like buzzing, open strings, lonely pointalistic notes—or thin air in some cases.
Some advance listening helped for general preparation, but all of the usual comments that a critic makes (correct tempi, intonation, balance, expression) are impossible in a work like this without a score in front of you—if then. That said, this was an involving performance, mostly due to Methvin’s remarkable ability to be expressive and communicate the text.
(Translations in the program were helpful, but once again, the text was in a small point size and, to add another layer of difficulty, printed against a gray background.)
Moment of Geek: Even analysis papers on Ginastera’s second quartet are as dense as the music. Here is a sample quote from a doctorate thesis, by David L. Sommerville, called “Consistency, Context and Symmetry in Alberto Ginastera’s String Quartets Nos. 1 (1948) and 2 (1958, First Version)” [from Footnote 35].
“For example, the tone-row <05e2819t7436> [the first row in the third movement of the second quartet] is J00-related to <071t4e325896>. Thus, in the present case, J00 is I0.*
Right. Got it.
Schoenberg’s string sextet Transfigured Night represents the height of the school of German Romanticism that started with Richard Wagner and was expanded to near bursting by Richard Strauss. Schoenberg took the next step with Transfigured Night and, sure enough, the system burst; after this, there was nowhere to go in the chromatic and complexity side of the tonal system.
The piece has a program. It is based on a poem by Richard Dehmel, scandalous at the time, about an unmarried couple walking in the woods. She has to tell him that she is pregnant with another man’s child. Out of his profound love for her, he forgives her and offers to raise the child as his own. The music reflects the poem in an excellent manner.
The six players gave the piece a magnificent performance. They must have spent a lot of scarce rehearsal time on it. It is very difficult to play and even harder to play in tune, what with its constantly shifting tonality. A recording of this performance would be a valuable addition to any collection.
Moment of Geek: Schoenberg’s solution was reorganizing the 12 notes of the chromatic scale in a different way each time with none being more important that the other. This technique was all the rage for a while and it is still a useful tool for composers. There are undisputed masterpieces that use the technique. But all that was decades in the future when Transfigured Night premiered.
Transfigured Night was also criticized for using a chord that cannot be analyzed in traditional harmony. Thus, musicologists declared in nonexistent, even though there it was for all to hear. Schoenberg explains it this way in his book Theory of Harmony (translated by Roy E. Carter).
“Naturally: inversions of ninth chords just don't exist; hence, no performance, either, for how can one perform something that does not exist."
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