Mercurial Manoeuvres, Episodes, and Fearful Symmetries

The New York City Ballet on Saturday, October 1.

Atonal music is easier to appreciate than to love—and it's not particularly easy to appreciate. In college, I performed one of Arnold Schoenberg's Drei Klavierstücke on recital, but that selection stemmed mainly from a perverse impulse to be off-putting and inscrutable. Despite the hours I spent studying the work's spiky lines and stream-of-consciousness form, it never truly coalesced for me the way Bach and Brahms and Prokofiev did. I can't imagine that I played the piece particularly well.

But what I failed to learn of atonality from my own dogged study, I've learned easily from George Balanchine. Since I started attending the ballet upon moving to New York, Balanchine's iconic "black and white" works—stark, stripped-down pieces, usually set to music by Stravinsky at his most esoteric—have consistently snuck up on me, somehow surprising me again and again and again with how much I prefer them to much of the floaty, romantic rep. Balanchine's choreography shows me the music in the atonal—the shape of the lines, the rhythmic motives, the elegance in the severity—that I glimpsed but never truly grasped on my own. It's finally dawned on me that I should stop being surprised. Balanchine is the best ambassador for modernist, twentieth-century music I've ever encountered.