I was struck by an odd thought sitting down in the Arnold Schönberg Center’s sleek, V – shaped concert hall last evening: although all the works programmed here are referred to, in particular by the well-educated musical elite, as “contemporary”, the majority of them are over 100 years old. In terms of actual human time, they are not in any way modern. Schoenberg’s Dreimal sieben Gedichte aus Albert Giraud’s Pierrot Lunaire was written in 1912 – the same year the Titanic sank and a U.S. postage stamp cost a mere two cents. And yet there is something that still feels new and shocking – and somehow incredibly modern – every time I hear Pierrot Lunaire in a way completely unlike the experience of listening to Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier, which premiered just one year earlier. And if I am still so surprised by Schoenberg in 2015, how must have his contemporaries have felt over 100 years ago, slammed with dissonance, soundscapes and Sprechgesang? Bathed in the tradition of the past, every ounce of his being understanding and respecting it, Schoenberg forged a way into the musical future as he saw it heading with astounding acuity. For this vision and single-minded, intelligent musical effort it is right that a center dedicated to him and his work exists in the center of Vienna.

Pierrot was the main course on the menu but first, as an appetizer, we were served living composer Martin Bjelik’s Umkreisungen performed by the brilliant Ensemble Kontrapunkte under the baton of Peter Keuschnig. The ensemble was founded by Keuschnig in 1965 and consists of members of elite orchestras in Vienna dedicated to the furthering of modern music. They play brilliantly and manage to not get dragged down by the minutiae of constantly changing time-signatures, complex rhythms or various technical demands while also imbuing everything they touch not only with facility, but also with warmth and generosity of sound. Bjelik, a Viennese native born in 1940 is steeped heavily in the Second Viennese tradition, and this piece fit well into the program. Umkreisungen, a one-movement work opens with atmospheric use of soundscapes and stepwise, descending motifs. Unison movement characterizes the next section, and semi-melodic (and semi-circular) snippets later build to a climax, after which all previous thematic ideas are revisited and developed, semi-symmetrically closing the “circle”.  

The high point of the evening musically was also the most ephemeral. Alban Berg’s Vier Stücke für Klarinette und Klavier are less than eight minutes in length in total, but when interpreted as flawlessly as clarinetist Wolfgang Klinser and pianist Rainer Keuschnig performed them, they really seem to fly by. Schoenberg may have criticized his young pupil harshly at their inception, but these miniatures are absolutely perfection in my book, each one carrying within it a tiny microcosm of sound and expression.

Pierrot Lunaire has Albertine Zehme, a wealthy actress to thank for their existence. She brought them to Schoenberg’s attention, and financed their composition. Zehme even premiered them, quite a feat for a non-musician. It took 25 rehearsals to get them ready for their première, according to Schoenberg’s student, the pianist Eduard Steuermann, who coached her through the process. Also according to Steuermann, at the première Zehme insisted on wearing a Pierrot costume and appearing alone on stage with the orchestra shielded from audience eyes by a screen. Mezzo-soprano and new music specialist Katharina Rikus took a page out of Zehme’s book, shuffling onto an elevated stage behind the ensemble in Pierrot make-up and costume. Using a variety of props she pulled from her leather bag, including a wine bottle, a rope, a black shawl, a pillow, a red balloon and an umbrella, she sang, bleated, whispered, warbled and pantomimed through the difficult score in a terribly impressive manner. I prefer interpretations with more focus on warmth and sympathy of sound, and honestly felt the strongest numbers were the two where she sang the exact pitches outlined by the composer, namely in “Der kranke Mond” and in the final “O alter Duft”. That being said, she was well within conventions for the work, and her performance was technically masterful as well as convincing. The ensemble played brilliantly, as is their wont, and the new music crowd which populated the Schönberg Center left feeling decidedly richer for the experience.

We may not be whistling Schönberg tunes on the street as he predicted we would be over a hundred years ago, but his music is certainly alive and in excellent hands at the Schönberg Center.