Schoenberg Took Life at the Nasher on Saturday
Courtesy Arnold Schonberg Center; author: Man Ray

Schoenberg Took Life at the Nasher on Saturday

For better or worse, I eat this stuff up. Dark, depraved, macabre, mysterious in that delicately frightful manner, I delight in music that takes me somewhere else, especially if that somewhere is both alien and shadowy. I'm not alone. There's a particular legion of listeners--largely social outliers, closet weirdos, lifetime tastemakers--who wade in this music like it's the lifeblood of their cultured souls. The "why?" of it all, when it doesn't fall into issues of willful socio-cultural distinction and brute artistic thrill-seeking, is a scary question to confront.

Why would someone take pleasure--not just any pleasure, but addictive, continually sought out, born of an insatiable appetite pleasure--in something thoroughly grim, at its center "dark"?

These are the bones to pick when it comes to "dark" music. And when you listen to these sounds in public, if you're one of those people who enjoys this type of music's violent dressing-down effect, a typically private and philosophically self-centered experience is often transformed into something uncomfortable and secretly embarrassing--like one's shameless sadomasochism made public. The nakedness of this exposure makes you question the source of your enjoyment. Something about the light of day and a crowd sobers you up to your own oddness, or rather, the oddness of your artistic preferences.

The flavor of "dark" music in question--namely its astringency--despite what many pretenses might say to the contrary, requires no particular courage, acquired taste or foreknowledge to enjoy, and enjoy thoroughly. And when enjoyed, this music offers the listener certain rewards that other music does not. Particularly, an eye-opening, if discomforting, reconciliation with being mortal. However rewarding, art this heavy can be a difficult burden to carry.

And Saturday night's Soundings concert at the Nasher included some of the heaviest music ever composed; the concert's themes, as specified by the program notes, read "Madness and Betrayal" after all.

In 1908 (possibly before), Arnold Schoenberg began writing a composition that would alter art music for good. The radical Second String Quartet, as calamitous as it must have seemed to audiences--its first performance was nothing short of a riotous scandal--represented an even more catastrophic event for its maker. Not long before the quartet's completion, Schoenberg learned that his wife, Mathilde, was having an affair with a family friend. Although she would eventually return to Schoenberg (though not before deserting both him and their two children) her betrayal would have gruesome lasting effects. Apart from the further devastation of Schoenberg's brittle psyche, Mathilde's betrayal led her partner in adultery, the painter Richard Gerstl, to commit suicide by hanging, but not before he burned the majority of his artwork and forced a blade into his chest.

It was in this grisly context that Schoenberg's "Second String Quartet" came to life, its initial performance coming just months after Gerstl's horrific end.

In a program with two compositions from violist/composer Brett Dean, as well as two works by Robert Schumann (which felt slightly out of place), Schoenberg's "String Quartet No. 2" served as headliner. The crowd was what you would expect--walking blazers and overcoats, thick-rimmed, unnecessarily small-framed spectacles, thin scarves hanging off the shoulders of dark-hued turtle necks, etc; the scene, however, was unexpected. Set in the Nasher's downstairs room, in which the stage's back wall is made entirely of glass, the event stirred to life with Dean's highly textured solo viola piece, Intimate Decisions; snow, nestled across the steps positioned just outside the backing glass, served as a beautiful and surprising frame to the performer's motions. Shortly thereafter, a man in the audience would faint, slinking down into his chair, limp.

The downstairs room was stuffy, warm and packed, which might account for the unfortunate episode. Bottomless cups of wine, offered freely pre-performance and during intermission, couldn't have helped either (though wine, high society's cultural lubrication, does wonders for modernism--it helps the angular, difficult stuff go down easier). Despite the initial shock of the fainting, followed by the infinitely more shocking audience reaction (save for Seth Knopp, Soundings' artistic director, and three or so patrons, the audience seemed more concerned with interrupting the music than with the well-being of the felled gentlemen), Dean managed to maintain his composure, coaxing all sorts of strange and provocative sounds from his instrument.

After some of Schumann's Dichterliebe, Dean's string quartet No. 2, And Once I Played Ophelia--a five-movement character study of the complex and tragic personality of Shakespeare's Ophelia--was slotted next. In the soprano's throaty, animalistic cries and the string players' eruptive, muscled bow work, you could begin to envision Ophelia's fatal suffering and emotional traumas. On the whole, the composition was insensitive toward, palpably hostile to, yet highly respectful of, its audience: it gave them glimpses of hell, without once holding their hand.

After intermission, the audience was treated to another pretty, though underwhelming Schumann segue before the evening's Schoenberg topper. The latter did not disappoint.

Once more, the music eloquently portrayed its source material: just as Dean's quartet spoke to anguish, at times suicide, so Schoenberg's expressed a sense of hopeless longing, and venomous--even fatal--frustration. Within the quartet's belly, string bows were butcher's knives wielded like hypodermic needles, humans became rag-doll marionettes, bent and ravished by Schoenberg's pen strokes. The music's intensity was written on the performer's bodies: four men went in scrubbed, brushed and buttoned, they came out a messy collective of disheveled hair, sweat and smiling grimaces; wristy contortions and sharp turns more than once plucked the players from their seats. More telling was the face of Soprano Tiffany DuMouchelle, which seemed to bespeak genuine dread, animated by vacancy as much as nervous alertness. It takes some doing to conjure the reaper.

As the second movement gave way to the final two, irregular, broken phrases metastasized into atonality. It was a stark, horse's-mouth glimpse at real human suffering and, yet even scarier to some, it afforded access to, and a connection with, the person--Schoenberg--who actually lived that suffering; empathy, after all, being the scariest of all consequences in genuine artistic expression.

From the lightless coal at the music's heart to the pale penumbra of the performance's lingering tremors, the end result of Schoenberg's Second String Quartet was a fierce manifestation of humanity's great immovable antagonist--death--enjoining onlookers to confront their own frailty, while simultaneously basking in the reality of life's cruelest torments--mental illness, romantic pang, and self-destruction. This was misery by proxy--Schoenberg lived it and then manifested it with sound, brought it to life--so future audiences could, to some degree, understand such pain without falling on the sword themselves.

There was nothing rote or reserved about the execution of Shoenberg's String Quartet No. 2; It careened, it scuttled spiderly, it was no more or less nettlesome than it ought to be. It was a testament to the piece and to the players that I felt as discomfited as I did seduced and, above all else, thoroughly reconciled with my own mortality.

The next Nasher Soundings concert takes place April 24.

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