Curtis On Tour returns to Mondavi — this time featuring chamber works by Schoenberg, Penderecki

By From page A11 | May 07, 2013

In the know

What: Curtis on Tour

Where: Vanderhoef Studio Theatre, Mondavi Center

When: 2 p.m. Sunday

Tickets: $38 regular, $19 students

Info: www.mondaviarts.org or 530-754-2787.

It has become something of a rite of spring at the Mondavi Center: a touring chamber ensemble from Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music visits the Vanderhoef Studio Theatre, featuring one or two veteran faculty artists along with several bright young Curtis-trained musicians.

And it will happen again at 2 p.m. on Sunday, May 12, when the Curtis 20/21 Ensemble, led by violist and Curtis president Roberto Díaz, performing with eight advanced Curtis students (soprano voice, violin, cello, piano, flute, horn, clarinet and piano) will assay Arnold Schoenberg’s landmark work from 1912, “Pierrot Lunaire,” and Krzysztof Penderecki’s Sextet for Clarinet, Horn, Violin, Viola and Piano (2000).

The Schoenberg has been controversial since its first performance slightly more than 100 years ago. “The most ear-splitting combination of tones that ever desecrated the walls of a Berlin concert hall,” complained one conservative critic after attending the premiere. Thirty years later a broadcast of a recording on the work on a radio station in New York so incensed Mayor Fiorello La Guardia that he reportedly phoned the head of the station to get it taken off the air.

But the piece — which is atonal and also spooky at times, and is often sung with theatrical flourish by the half-speaking, half-singing soprano — developed a following among musicians and has come to be seen as a genuine and thought-provoking, if eccentric, classic. Numerous other composers were taken by Schoenberg’s trippy treatment of poetry set to angular music (with all those lunar references, the moon being beloved of madmen). And the piece has been catnip for vocalists ranging from conservatory-trained classical artists to jazz artists like Cleo Laine to pop stars like Björk.

The Penderecki Sextet is known for the strong, challenging music that the composer wrote for each of the six instruments — some critics have noted the remarkable way in which each instrument is introduced. According to the program notes on the Naxos recording, “The first movement opens understatedly, as, over tramping piano, the other instruments introduce a number of salient motifs with a Shostakovich-like ironic tinge. The music gathers rhythmic momentum, twice interrupted by cello and horn with a more expressive idea, the second time leading to a return of the tramping motion. This draws the instruments into a fearsome whirling motion, presaging the most intensive instrumental interplay yet heard. From here, the music drives to a forceful and decisive ending.

“The second movement opens with sonorous, elegiac music for the strings over a rhetorical-sounding piano. The clarinet enters with an unwinding melody line, and the music settles into a mood of pensive melancholy, clarinet and horn carrying the brunt of the melodic writing. Dramatic intensity is maintained through some typically Pendereckian ‘stepwise’ chromatic ascents, while several brief but jagged climaxes undermine the mood of regret. Gradually the expression becomes more animated and ironic, making the cello’s impassioned threnody, taken up by viola and then clarinet, all the more heartfelt. From here the music draws itself out in a conclusion of sombre, even funereal intensity, becoming increasingly spare and inward as the final bars are reached.”

Tickets to Sunday’s 2 p.m. performance are $38 regular, $19 students, www.mondaviarts.org or 530-754-2787. There will be a pre-performance talk at 1 p.m.  with Curtis Institute of Music President and violist Roberto Díaz with composer David Ludwig, and given the nature of the music on the program, their preview will likely enhance an unfamiliar listener’s appreciation of the concert that will follow.

Jeff Hudson

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