I wanted to reflect a bit on spending a few weeks rehearsing and performing the Alban Berg Violin Concerto with Caroline Goulding as soloist with two different orchestras.

Alban Berg in Vienna with his portrait as painted by Arnold Schönberg

Alban Berg in Vienna with his portrait as painted by Arnold Schönberg

While rehearsing and performing the piece was certainly the focus of my energies, it wasn’t my only concern during that time as it related to our performances. I had determined from the moment I considered playing the work, that I would need to make some form of introduction to the work in the actual concert that everyone who was going to hear the performance of the piece would hear.

Coming up with things to say about the Berg Violin Concerto is not difficult. The list includes but isn’t limited to:

— a discussion of the 12 tone school
— individualBerg’s individual use of the 12 tone method
— the programmatic and historical leading to them in the work
— musical quotes
— highlights, or musical signposts in the work

But as soon as you start considering putting your words together, you realize that as soon as you start talking about one thing…the 12 tone method, for instance…a discussion of it only becomes interesting if one has the context of traditional composition and why the inherent equality of the 12 pitches in our western scale in that method is something distinct from what came before and why this idea was a logical solution to the question of “what next” which was plaguing that generation of composers. So in order to talk about Berg…I mean, audiences are certainly made up of people who know literally “nothing” about how music is put together as well as many with some degree of musical study in their background…I have to talk a bit about Hadyn, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Wagner, Mahler, R. Strauss and the progression of ever expanding chromaticism during the 150 some odd years between the Classical Era and Berg’s violin concerto cum requiem. So add to the above list:

— tonality
— chromaticism
— overtone series
— Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Wagner, R. Strauss, Mahler
— the impressionists and the whole tone scale

So what to say about the Berg Violin Concerto became, what NOT to say about the Berg Violin Concerto. In retrospect I was fairly pleased with how I managed to boil all of that down to several minutes in the performance, with the use of a piano and chorus to sing the Bach Chorale upon which the concluding the portion of the work is based. Certainly lots of people with no prior exposure to the 12 Tone method or Alban Berg, told me that the introduction helped them hear the piece…which is very gratifying. Many musicians from the orchestras also told me that the introduction I did, helped them understand the work too. That was tremendously gratifying!! One musician used a phrase during rehearsals that will really stick with me as one of the nicest things I’ve ever heard from an orchestral colleague. He was commenting on rehearsals and said that it was amazing to him how I “revealed the piece to the orchestra”. 

All that is to say, that it is a sincerely rewarding thing to share something with others! Whether it is a piece of music unfamiliar to the player to whom as conductor one must share an interpretation, or whether it is trying to give an uninitiated listener help in how to listen to these sounds which are new to them, it is probably the best thing about this profession. It’s certainly not the applause…it’s the feeling that you gave those around you some type of “experience” which they will remember positively, even if as in the case of the Berg, it is unlikely to become everyone’s favorite piece.

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