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.