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The mere mention of the name Arnold Schoenberg sends a shudder through the average audience! It was enterprising of the co-directors of the Carolina Summer Music Festival to explore the many transcriptions Schoenberg and his colleagues made of music intended for their Verein für musikalische Privataufführungen (Society for Private Musical Performances). Sick of concerts of modern music ruined by hostile claques, Schoenberg's private concerts were intended for an invited audience of sincere music lovers. According to Wake Forest music professor David Levy, who gave oral program notes for the audience in James Gray Auditorium inside the Old Salem Visitor Center, a prominent sign at Schoenberg's concerts proclaimed "Critics Forbidden!" This concert's presenters have a more open attitude.
Levy said Schoenberg had not programmed any of his own music for the series but had made numerous chamber music reductions of contemporary orchestra works. Some years ago, I reviewed a fine performance of his reduction of Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde used to accompany dancers at Meredith College in Raleigh. The concert opened with a fascinating chamber music version of Prélude à l'après-midi d'un Faune) featuring flute, oboe, clarinet, two violins, viola, cello, double bass, piano, harmonium, and percussion. The harmonium, played by Ray Ebert, looked like the Moravians might have brought it over from the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. Percussionist John Beck played the crotales or antique cymbals. Their delicate sound may be lost in full orchestra versions in bad halls. James Allbritten conducted superbly. Festival co-director Elizabeth Ransom spun out the shimmering flute solo seamlessly. The delicate muted strings were wonderful as was the blending of the viola and cello, played by Simon Ertz and Philip von Maltzahn. The languid intertwining lines of the oboe and clarinet, played by John Hammarback and Ron Rudkin, were intoxicating. Pianist Ruskin Cooper's sparkling arpeggios supported the flute line at one point. Low notes were in the firm bow and fingers of bassist John Spuller. Schoenberg's transcriptions help music lovers gain a new insight into works taken for granted.
Gustav Mahler was a hero to Schoenberg for his triumph over Vienna's nasty anti-Semitism and Court intrigue. He programmed many of Mahler works, such as Das Lied, or the composer's first song cycle, Lieder Eines Fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer). Kudos are due to the presenters for furnishing the full original German texts AND their English translations. The lyrics are by Mahler himself but show the influence of one of his favorite books, Das Knaben Wunderhorn (The Youth's Magic Horn). The main theme of the second song is used in the composer's First Symphony. Mahler's unhappy love affair was the inspiration for the cycle. The songs are "Wenn mein Schatz Hochzeit macht" (When My Sweetheart is Married), "Ging heut Morgen übers Feld" (I Went This Morning over the Field), "Ich hab'ein glühend Messer" (I have a Gleaming Knife), and "Die zwei blauen Augen von meinem Schatz" (The Two Blue Eyes of my Beloved).
Baritone soloist Michael Redding has a powerhouse voice wedded to excellent diction and a rich warm tone. He sang very expressively without score and showed great care for the meaning of the words. Levy, in his introduction, said Redding would be singing the title role in this Fall Season's Piedmont Opera production of Mozart's Don Giovanni. Allbritten led the musicians in a carefully balanced and nuanced performance.
The concert ended with Schoenberg's delightful reductions of three waltzes by Johann Strauss, II (1825-1899). "Lagunenwaltzer" ("Lagoon Waltz") is scored for two violins, viola, cello, harmonium, and piano as is "Rosen aus dem Süden" ("Roses from the South"). The magnificent "Kaiser-Waltzer" ("Emperor Waltz") is arranged for flute, clarinet, two violins, viola, cello, and piano. Violinist Janet Orenstein played the tricky violin part in the "Lagoon Waltz" seemingly without effort. The strings' pizzicatos were lovely. The players brought out the rich Romanticism of the opening of the "Roses from the South" with great style. The "Emperor Waltz" is irresistible and it was impossible not to be swept along with the fine phrasing and clear rhythms of the players.