Review: It’s all Stravinsky all the time, but let’s not forget Schoenberg

Susan Svrcek and Nic Gerpe perform Schoenberg's two-piano arrangement of his Second Chamber Symphony for a Piano Spheres concert at Zipper Concert Hall on Tuesday night.
(Duncan Kinzie / Piano Spheres )
Music Critic

It’s going to be a Stravinsky spring, right?

The Los Angeles Philharmonic is about to kick off a two-week Stravinsky festival, Esa-Pekka Salonen celebrating Stravinsky’s association with the orchestra as part of its vast centenary season. In June, the Ojai Music Festival recalls its own historic Stravinsky relationship with a production of his opera, “The Rake’s Progress.”

For the record:

5:30 p.m. April 3, 2019An earlier version of this review said “Transfigured Night” was played in a rare string trio version. It was played in a piano trio version.

But what about Schoenberg? Both composers emigrated to L.A. in the 1930s. But while Stravinsky has always been far and away the more popular and imitated composer, Schoenberg’s influence on music and our institutions was greater.

Tuesday night at Piano Spheres — the uniquely imaginative series of piano recitals begun by Schoenberg’s assistant, Leonard Stein, and his four most exceptional pupils — honored Stein and his association with Schoenberg. Stein had opened the series in 1994 playing all of Schoenberg’s solo piano music. Seven years later, the pianist asked Susan Svrcek to join him in a performance of Schoenberg’s two-piano arrangement of his Second Chamber Symphony, for which Stein had been one of the pianists in the 1942 premiere.

This time around, Svrcek asked one of her former students, and now a second-generation Piano Spheres pianist, Nic Gerpe, to join her in the piece for a very different all-Schoenberg program. One of Schoenberg’s sons and his grandson were on hand to speak about the composer. Schoenberg’s most popular piece, “Transfigured Night,” a string sextet and later string orchestra piece, was played in a rarer piano trio version. Zipper Concert Hall at the Colburn School did not even look half-full.

No matter, Schoenberg creep is all around us. The L.A. Phil season-long Fluxus Festival, which has included such figures as Yoko Ono, would have been unthinkable were it not for Schoenberg. John Cage, who inspired the anarchic Fluxus art movement, was a classmate of Stein’s in Schoenberg’s classes at USC and UCLA. La Monte Young, a crucial figure in the formation of Minimalism whose music will be played by violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja at the Getty on Saturday afternoon, had been a student of Stein’s at Los Angeles City College in the 1950s.


The Piano Spheres program had the subtitle of “Schoenberg Reimagined,” in that these were piano arrangements of works for larger forces. But the subtext, whether intended or not, was the fascinating focusing on Schoenberg the Romantic, rather than the composer who pioneered atonality and invented the 12-system of treating all notes in the scale as equal.

The Six Pieces for piano hands, with which Svrcek and Gerpe began, were written in 1896 when Schoenberg was 22. They are warmed-over Schumann. Had I been a critic back then, I would have written him off as a pallid reactionary and probably would have had little interest in hearing the “Transfigured Night” sextet three years later. Is there any composer in history who has made such leap?

Here revolutionary harmonies, a mysterious atmosphere and voluptuous writing for strings — inspired by a poem by a Richard Dehmel, full of angst, eroticism and transcendence — signifies Romanticism’s next step into the modernist 20th century.

The Second Chamber Symphony is a curiosity that feels very relevant. It was begun a decade later as the composer was, with each piece, tearing apart traditional harmony and form. But something was holding him back. His melodic ideas were were terrific but retrogressive, and he thrice broke off writing it before abandoning the work seemingly for good.

But in 1939 in L.A., with the Europe of his past in terrible crisis, he was gripped by a desperation of nostalgia and refashioned the symphony anew as a work of apprehension. The second of its two movements begins, for instance, with high spirits that break apart. In a new coda that Schoenberg added is the gloomy flip side of the “Transfigured Night” making this the most unsettling of all World War II symphonies, stronger than Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements or Shostakovich’s “Leningrad,” and one that deserves to be better known.

In its two-piano version, Schoenberg’s brilliantly colored scores loses much of its allure, but not its power, which Svrcek and Gerpe brought out greatly. Svrcek was also the illuminating pianist in the “Transfigured” trio, for which she was joined by violinist Elizabeth Hedman and cellist Kate Dillingham.

And now there’s more Schoenberg on the way, if again just a little under the radar. The last three of his four string quartets will be played in reverse order in coming weeks: No. 4 at an L.A. Phil chamber music concert April 30, No. 3 in one of violist Richard Yongjae O’Neill’s chamber music programs at the Broad Stage on May 26, and No. 2 with the JACK Quartet and soprano Barbara Hannigan at the Ojai festival June 7.