A Tribute to Vienna

The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center on Wednesday, September 23.

Vienna has been overshadowed. Well, maybe not overshadowed—that’s too strong—but the Beethoven trio, Schubert piano duet, and Strauss waltzes at the Chamber Music Society’s season opening concert, “A Tribute to Vienna,” all met expectations. They were familiar. David Bruce’s piece for soprano and ensemble—and not just any soprano but the glorious Dawn Upshaw—that was new, a world premiere. No one had any idea what to expect, and it turned out to be textured and evocative and haunting. That was the highlight of the concert—except perhaps for the Mahler work that closed the program. It’s very difficult to overshadow Mahler.

To be sure, everything was performed impeccably. The Beethoven trio for clarinet, cello, and piano (always a lovely combination) was bright and energetic, and although I’m not a huge fun of Schubert’s piano pieces (they don’t hold a candle to his lieder), the duet was well played, stormy but never muddy. The Strauss waltzes are oddities, despite the familiar tunes. Apparently Arnold Schoenberg and his students arranged numerous large orchestral works for chamber ensembles as part of a performance series to “give artists and art-lovers a real and accurate knowledge of modern music.” (So professorial!) The arrangements of the Kaiser-Walzer and Schatz-Walzer were part of that effort, and although it’s strange to hear works that are so lush and extravagant in their original orchestration performed with such comparatively spare ensembles (string quartet, flute, and clarinet for the first; string quartet, piano, and harmonium for the second), the arrangements have their charm, especially when played with such verve and apparent joy.

David Bruce’s work, titled The North Wind Was a Woman, didn’t really fit the program stylistically, but no matter. The song cycle’s conceit is splendid—each of the five songs poetically conveys the perspective of an inanimate element of nature: Snow, Wind, Night, the Moon, and a Mountain—and the shimmery orchestration, with eerie bending pitches and chimes and harmonics, creates a mystical mood. The piece frequently features mandolin and harp for an exotic yet folk-like texture, as if the songs come from some lost country. Mandolinist Avi Avital and harpist Bridget Kibbey were sensitive and deft in their handling of the intricate phrases, but soprano Dawn Upshaw was the main attraction. Her clear, elegant voice brought the poetry to iridescent life, slipping seamlessly from the Night’s gentle lullaby to the Moon’s bizarre, bloodthirsty rant to the Mountain’s lonely melancholia.

Upshaw also closed the program, singing the solo from the closing movement of Mahler’s fourth symphony, another orchestral work scaled down to chamber size by one on Schoenberg’s students. Mahler is known for his vast and varied orchestration so I had my doubts about the arrangement, but the movement is already rather intimate—a setting of a poem in which the speaker, a child, describes heaven—and it makes the transition of scale well. Upshaw handled the song’s naiveté beautifully, and by the final verse, the music felt ethereal. It was a lovely conclusion to the program and a vindication of Vienna: a reminder that with the right touch, even the most familiar works can take one’s breath away.