January 20, 2002

Schoenberg, Schubert; Unsuk Chin Premiere; Nagano with Berliners


Arnold Schoenberg
Kammersymphonie (No. 1 in e Major, op. 9)

Unsuk Chin
Violin concerto (premiere)

Franz Schubert
8th Symphony


Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin
Kent Nagano - conductor
Viviane Hagner - Violin

Leserbrief/readers comment Druckversion/printversion

Schoenberg, Schubert; Unsuk Chin Premiere; Nagano with Berliners

by Nancy Chapple

The composer Unsuk Chin herself has asked Klassik-in-Berlin to correct the misleading impression given by the reference to her musical influences. This is her position on the subject:

"As regards the types of music mentioned at the beginning of the article - Christian hymns, shaman rituals, jazz and pop - I would like to stress that they had no essential influence whatsoever on my composing. It is of course true that the chorales I accompanied in the church as a child were significant for me as an early means of learning the musical craft because I learned classical harmony more or less by the way - but that's a very long time ago. They at most form a very small part of the musical influences and experiences in my life. As far as jazz and pop are concerned: there is popular music that I appreciate, but I don't see that it has had any particular influence on my work. The essential influences, on the other hand, include the music of Stravinsky, Bartók, Webern and Ligeti, my own work in the Studio for Electronic Muic and the music of cultures outside Europe, especially gamelan music from Bali.

Otherwise, I am open in principle for any type of music, be it old or new, 'serious' or 'light' - what's important is that it be well-made and original."

Unsuk Chin is Composer in Residence with the DSO this year; this rainy Sunday afternoon marked the world premiere of her new violin concerto. Ms. Chin describes the diverse influences on her composition as ranging from the Christian hymns she "was forced to accompany" at her father's church to Korean shaman rituals in a small town to the jazz and pop she heard growing up in Seoul in the '70s. When describing the Korean aspect of her compositional style, she emphasizes the long held notes and the basic rhythmic movement.

Immediately drawn in by the basses and xylophones beneath open strings and harmonics in the solo violin, we have a sense that something significant is approaching, like a huge observatory roof rolling slowly back to reveal the grand night sky. Viviane Hagner's playing was always clear above the orchestra, which supported or reacted to her musical lines; her virtuoso passages led the dialogue with the orchestra. The solo part tested the violin's possible range of sounds, particularly through its use of the open strings and harmonics in the higher positions.

The second movement too opens with a rarefied sound: harp, celeste, xylophone. Trills and tremolos in the solo violin and orchestral strings create shimmering, absorbing Klangfarben (translated as "sound colors", it sounds much more abrupt than the resonant German word). Woody, spiccato passages are heard in the string bass. The long drawn-out held notes in the lower brass and strings provide a carpet of sound for the soloist. The third movement is over so quickly one wishes one had paid better attention, especially to the transparent texture in the pizzicato strings and cembalo. The fourth movement constantly gives the impression that something is about to break out from under the surface.

Someone was overheard saying, "well, that was a lot more exciting than Schönberg." And indeed, the Kammersymphonie (No. 1 in e Major, op. 9) no longer sounds dissonant or even astonishing in 2002. The 15 instrumentalists seemed comfortable with the chamber music intimacy; whether with eyes open or closed, the sound of the cello and bass or the clarinets and oboe transferred seamlessly from one instrument to the next.

A Schubert symphony is, of course, made up of long melodies and complexes of themes that seemingly never stop. The phrases don't want to come to an end: a cadence is hinted at, but is merely a platform either for an unexpected sequence or for a delicious modulation. Here, in the Eighth Symphony ("Great") the orchestra appeared more relaxed, happy to be playing long phrases with long bows and vibrating richly. Heard with modern ears, the third movement feels borderline cliché, right along the fine line between banal oom-pah-pah accompanying figures and ingenious lively modulatory lines. The last movement swept away all that had been string-heavy, lugubrious, old-fashioned in the earlier movements with rhythmic drive.

Kent Nagano's conducting of the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, as usual, was alert and full of energy. From behind he sometimes seems to conduct as much with his shoulder-length hair as with the baton.

Listening to three works composed at such great historical intervals, one got a sense of entirely different motivations driving the works: Schubert both fulfilling and shattering expectations with long lines and delicious modulations, Schönberg constantly seeking, moving forward, never arriving. And Chin setting up never before heard instrumental combinations and exploring the potential inherent in the instruments.

(This review originally appeared at www.classicstoday.com)