Monday, July 21, 2014

Menlo, first day

The Music@Menlo festival has begun, so I'm plunged into that again, though a little less intensely than previous years. I'm reviewing a small marathon concert on Wednesday of all four string quartets by Alexander von Zemlinsky (1871-1942), and since he's an Expressionist composer and that's not my native musical tongue, I decided to attend the introductory session on his quartets today, because I'll need all the help I can get.

It wasn't much. Help. Actually. Though the performing quartet played a few excerpts, the session consisted largely of their violist talking in an impenetrable accent - he pronounced disciples so as to rhyme with bicycles - about the TMI of Zemlinsky's personal life. For instance, did you know that he dated Alma Mahler before she married Gustav? Neither did Gustav, and boy was he pissed when he found out. Alma had eventually turned Zemlinsky down because he was ugly (cue presenter unsuccessfully trying to find a photo of Zemlinsky being ugly).

He also found hidden coded messages in Zemlinsky's work, of the kind that led me to drop out of Honors English. For instance, he was sure there had to be some significance in the fact that Zemlinsky's rather extensive Second Quartet is 1,221 bars long. Sure enough, it turns out that Schoenberg's Second Quartet, on which Zemlinsky's was explicitly modeled, had premiered on December 21st.

The idea of a composer manipulating his phrase style and the whole structure of his work to produce this meaningless, trivial, and inaudible piece of symbolism croggled me, and raised some followup questions in my mind. 1) If Zemlinsky had been British, would he have penned a quartet that was 2,112 bars long? 2) If Schoenberg's quartet had happened to have premiered on January 1st instead, would Zemlinsky have written a quartet eleven bars long? The presenter failed to address any of these urgent questions.

Following that came the Listening Room, one of a series of presentations of recorded music related to the year's concert themes. One of the composers being heard this week is Haydn, so the Listening Room included excerpts from some Haydn symphonies: mid-period ones, since they're little-known but interesting. This delighted me, as they're my favorites. Alas, the presenter didn't make particularly interesting choices of excerpts.

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