Concert review: SSO celebrates iconoclast Arnold Schoenberg in adventurous show

Concerts in the Victoria Concert Hall Chamber Series have seldom come as adventurous as this, a concert devoted wholly to the music of Viennese iconoclast Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1953), credited as the father of musical atonality.

His compositions carried on from the harmonic advances of Wagner and Mahler, propelling music into hostile unknown territory, with earthshaking innovations still being felt in the 21st century.

Schoenberg's Chamber Symphony No. 1, composed in 1906, marked the beginning of the end of tonality. Scored for just 15 instruments (one to a part) and playing for about 20 minutes, it possessed astringency and conciseness that were almost the antithesis of Mahler's sprawling symphonies. Yet they were kindred spirits, but working from opposite directions.

Stretching the limits of tonality to near breaking point, they featured discernible themes which recur and are developed, culminating with a complex signature chord formed by quartals (intervals of fourths). There were even concessional gestures of romanticism, suggesting that Schoenberg could be a fine melodist when he chose to be.

At Victoria Concert Hall on Sunday, the SSO musicians led by Music Director Shui Lan gave a taut and cogent account of this technically very difficult work. Individual virtuosity was only surpassed by cohesiveness of ensemble work, and with each reprise of the motto themes, the work became progressively less forbidding. Schoenberg's tonal colours were well served, and the overall spirit indicative of the times - anxious and increasingly neurotic - was trenchantly captured.

All this effort would have been much harder for the audience had it not been for the excellent pre-performance preambles by American musicologist Angela Hodgins, who provided the historical background to Schoenberg's life and art. These were illustrated by the use of photographic slides and musical examples played by the musicians on stage. Kudos to SSO for paying attention to the educational aspects of the music it programmes and performs.

The main work was Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire, a semi-theatrical 21-piece song cycle (setting of words by Albert Giraud) for soprano and six players. Premiered in Berlin in 1913, this expressionist and wholly atonal work was to change the face of music forever, much like the contemporaneous ballet The Rite Of Spring by Stravinsky. It was Stravinsky (who had considered Schoenberg a mortal rival) who proclaimed that Pierrot Lunaire was "the solar plexus and mind of 20th century music".

This was not the Singapore premiere of Pierrot Lunaire, which received two previous performances by Malaysia-born soprano Khor Ai Ming.This evening's soloist, the Korean soprano Jeong Ae Ree, had the advantage of being schooled in the German language while studying in Schoenberg's Austria. Hers came off as the more natural interpretation although less theatrical.

The sprechgesang technique used both speech and singing with frequent sliding in between pitches, from quiet whispers to hysterical full-throated yelps, and a full gamut of emotions besides. Translations in English were provided, projected onto a screen behind.

Each song had 13 verses, of which the first is repeated in the seventh and final verses. All had a surreal quality, with the commedia dell'arte character Pierrot as the subject who ponders on life, intoxication and lunacy (hence the title of being "moonstruck"), mortality and, finally, restoration.

Given its esotericism and almost impenetrable idiom, the concert was well attended and even the children present were attentively engaged.

Bravos go to the very credible and likeable Jeong, who could have been placed more forward for the audience to better catch her words, and to conductor Shui for smartly marshalling his forces, which included violinist Igor Yuzefovich, flautist Jin Ta, clarinettist Ma Yue, violist Zhang Manchin, cellist Ng Pei-Sian and pianist Shane Thio.

The cause of contemporary music (which still sounds modern a century later) had been more than well served.