Saturday, March 25, 2017

The International Street Cannibals - Air Schoenberg: Connecting Flights - 03/22/17

Pärt: Fratres, for violin and piano 
Zemlinsky: Entbietung from Irmelin Rose und andere Gesänge, Op, 7 
Webern: 5 songs from Der siebente Ring, Op. 3 
Berg: Nachtigall from Sieben Frühe Lieder 
Schoenberg: String Quartet in F Minor No. 2, Op. 10 
Berg: Two settings of Schliesse mir die Augen beide 
Schoenberg: Sechs kleine Klavierstücke 
Schoenberg: Erwartung from Vier Lieder, Op. 2 
Korngold: Glückwunsch, Op. 38 
Schnittke: Silent Night 
Schubert: Erlkönig 

 Sometimes there’s nothing better that a last-minute notice of an exciting event to suddenly perk up an uneventful week. So when on Tuesday night I had the bright idea to check the Goings On About Town section of The New Yorker issue I had just received, I immediately spotted the intriguingly named concert "Air Schoenberg: Connecting Flights" by the equally intriguingly named International Street Cannibals and soprano Ariadne Greif. The program would apparently revolve around Schoenberg’s emotionally gripping, musically ground-breaking, and rarely heard String Quartet No. 2, and be performed the following evening in the St. Mark's Church in-the-Bowery on the Lower East Side. A proposition definitely hard to turn down.
So on Wednesday, after having quickly ditched all my other tentative plans, I had a brisk walk in the cold wind up Broadway, grabbed an ersatz dinner at Maison Kayzer (Spending an evening in a historically gritty part of town did not have to mean you have to rough it all the way, after all), and finally made it to the Episcopal church’s bare but welcoming main space for an intimate soirée of still edgy music in the company of about 40 like-minded souls.

Beside Arnold Schoenberg’s String Quartet No. 2, which needless to say amply justified the spontaneous expedition by itself, Arvo Pärt’s endlessly versatile and always mesmerizing “Fratres” was the other piece that had caught my eye on the program. And sure enough, as played by pianist Conor Hanick and violinist Natalie Kreiss, the deceptively understated composition swiftly turned into a bouquet of dazzling virtuosity as the duo expertly alternated frantic outbursts and ethereal stillness.
After Pärt’s hypnotic tintinnabuli, Hanick was joined by Ariadne Greif for Alexander Zemlinsky's "Entbietung", an invitation that took us straight to the heart of Romantic passion in all its grandeur and seriousness, complete with wild black hair and red poppies as striking visual touches. 
Still from early 20th century Vienna, Anton Webern's intimate 5 songs from Der siebente Ring, the first foray into atonality of Schoenberg’s student, beautifully blossomed while celebrating life and nature with attractive melodic lines and subtle poetic undertones.
Who says nature says birds, and that’s when “Nachtigall” from Sieben Frühe Lieder by Alban Berg, another prominent student of Schoenberg’s, came in handy. As voluptuously sung by Greif, this colorful nightingale flew high on Late Romantic tradition.
About half-way through the intermission-free concert we finally got to Schoenberg’s String Quartet No. 2. Written when the composer was going through extreme personal turmoil, his wife having just left him and their young children for a neighbor and friend of the family, the painter Richard Gerstl, the work not only reflects a dire emotional state, but also takes the time to slowly but surely usher a revolution into the world of classical music, which of course also means that it was not well-received, to say the least, when it first came out in 1908 Vienna.
Flash forward over a century to New York City’s Lower East Side, and the piece sounded as fascinating and timeless as ever. In the solid hands of the International Street Cannibals, the first movement started conventionally enough, harmonically safe and emotionally self-possessed. Things, however, quickly took a discreet turn for the stranger during the second movement, never mind the fleeting quote from the popular nursery rhyme tune "Ach, du lieber Augustin". And then all hell – or at least tonality – broke lose during the last two movements, during which Greif brought her blazingly expressive singing to the two heart-wrenching poems anchoring them. Bold and insightful, the performance strongly emphasized the intrinsic beauty and the emotional resonance of the game-changing quartet.
Speaking of music history, the following number was actually two compositions that were written almost 20 years apart by Berg based on the same poem by Theodore Storm, "Schliesse mir die Augen beide", and therefore constituted a fun comparative study. And it was in fact best advised not to close both eyes, or even blink, because the two songs were really short, and widely different, the first one oozing opulent Late Romanticism, the second one consisting of bold atonal fragmentation.
And since you can never get too much Schoenberg once you’re hooked, we proceeded to his "Sechs kleine Klavierstücke", whose six exquisite miniatures were soulfully brought to life by Hanick, each proudly standing on its own with its unique personality.
Ariadne Greif was back in the spotlight for the last Schoenberg piece of the evening with "Erwartung", a lushly colored love song in which a lover is waiting for his beloved by a pond as the music, and presumably his being, become more agitated.
The duo then moved on to Erich Wolgang Korngold, another one of Schoenberg's students, and his "Glückwunsch", a lovely song that offered sincere, tender and passionate good wishes.
Next, Hanick and Kreiss winningly teamed up again for Alfred Schnittke's arresting version of Christmas favorite "Silent night", which unfolded in an eerie atmosphere without the slightest trace of serenity or sentimentality, but with plenty of restrained sarcasm and dark humor.
The last work on the program was Franz Schubert's animated song "Erlkönig". Based on a famous poem by Goethe, which was itself inspired by a Scandinavian folktale, this four-minute ballad shows an inordinate sense of drama and impressive compositional sophistication from the 18-year-old youngster that Schubert was at the time. The sharply defined four characters gave Greif a priceless opportunity to display her remarkable gift for spellbinding narrative and on-the-spot shifts in rhythmical nuances. The last image of the dead child was grim and irrevocable for a concert that had been well thought out and brilliantly carried out.

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