Thursday, August 26, 2010

Transfigured Modernism: The Glass Chamber Players' Schoenberg/Glass

The Glass Chamber Players is a new sextet of handpicked musicians dedicated to the music of Philip Glass. Each player was either a soloist or ensemble musician familiar with the music of the American composer and selected for their “talent and passion for music.” This approach to performing and recording has its pros and cons. The group could drop their egos at the door and make the best music possible, or they could argue over seating arrangements. Fortunately, I’m happy to report, the Glass Chamber Players sound like seasoned veterans who’ve been playing together for years, but it’s not perfect. The sextet made their debut last December in New York at the Baryshnikov Arts Center performing two works by Arnold Schoenberg, Verklarte Nacht or Transfigured Night and the Sextet for Strings by Philip Glass. The latter is a new work arranged by Michael Riesman from Glass’s Symphony No. 3. Schoenberg/Glass is a recording of that debut and in many ways it's a remarkable album.

There was a time when contemporary 20th Century composers were der rigueur to chamber musicians. The works of Schoenberg, Dimitri Shostakovich, Bela Bartok and Alban Berg had a musical cache that marked the post-war in modernist classical music. It was music that young musicians admired and played with artistic abandon during a time when artists were pioneering new and radical forms of expression. But, frankly, those kinds of risks are rare today. As important as tonal compositions were on an academic level, they were not as easily accepted by the public at large. As Igor Stravinsky said in 1961, “my music is best understood by children and animals.” To some extent, that comment could also be applied to the works of Arnold Schoenberg.

Composed in 1899, Verklarte Nacht was a musical interpretation of a poem of the same name by Richard Dehmel. Schoenberg sought to compose a single movement piece for sextet based on the feelings expressed in the poem. The poem is about a man and a woman walking through a moonlit forest. The woman confesses to her lover, that she is pregnant by another man. The man understands and forgives her. The Sextet play the piece with grace and dignity; it's a very romantic interpretation rather than something "modern" and obtuse. They sound like a seasoned group eager to please, but with great tone and lyricism in the voicing.

On Philip Glass' Sextet For Strings, the Chamber Players are asked by the composer for a concentrated effort, removed from the emotional content of Transfigured Night into the realm of a theme with variations. The so-called minimalism of the Symphony is now condensed for six players all astutely aware of what they're doing. But since the group was "hand-picked" and never had played much as an ensemble, I found the second movement, from a technical point of view, taxing on the cellos. The group seemed to be battling for attention rather than playing as one. Perhaps with a few more performances under their belt, the Glass Chamber Players will become more cohesive as a band. Listening is as important in this regard as playing what's written on the page - especially for a group without a conductor. The slower tempos of the third and fourth movements are much more indicative of a group ready to leap into deeper, more emotional content set out by the composer. The playing here redeems the whole Sextet for Strings as a solid piece of contemporary music worthy of anyone's ears.

A brief word about the liner notes.

Booklets in CD cases are usually full of ridiculous photographs, graphics or poorly printed lyrics. The booklet that comes with Schoenberg/Glass contains a delightful story of how Philip Glass was first introduced to music via his father's auto-shop in the 1930s. Writer Richard Guerin tells it with insightful humour.

-- John Corcelli is a musician, actor, writer and theatre director.

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