If you haven’t heard the pianist Mitsuko Uchida play, do. She’s performing tonight at Carnegie Hall — solo works by Schumann, Chopin and Beethoven — but even if you miss it, check out some of her albums online. Few pianists bring out the tender soulfulness, the fragility, of the classical repertory than her. While she’s most often billed for her work on crowd-pleasing standards, like what she’s playing tonight, people forget that she’s been a longtime champion of the contumacious modernist, Arnold Schoenberg: the Jewish composer whose music Hitler deemed "degenerate."
Schoenberg contribution to classical music–his creation of the 12-tone serial system, specifically, which upended the logic of traditional Western music–but he’s still not performed much, and for understandable reasons. His atonal music is not easy listening, with all those jarring dissonances and meandering rhythmic paths. Still, his influence lives on in the work of countless composers today, many of whom are decidely more accessible. For a good option, I’d advise you to check out "Glass Pieces," one of the ballet’s currently being performed in repertory by the New York City Ballet.
I saw it last night, for the fourth time, (performances left are on Feb. 15 and Feb. 23) and still cannot tell which part I love more: Philip Glass’s celestial score, which seems as much inspired by the solar system as it does by the busy urban streets, or Jerome Robbins’ choreography, in my opinion the best he’s ever done. Watching the dancers move in a controlled chaos of patterns, punctuated by intermitten ceasuras and sudden bursts of soloists’ leaps and dives, it is the most piquant portrayal of modern Manhattan ballet has ever seen. There is the anonymity of the streets, intoxicating as it is sufficating, and the momentary glimpses of freedom, individual human beings who suddenly come to life.
Both artists–Glass and Robbins–are Jewish, and you could easily read into "Glass Pieces" the social history of modern Jews. Much like Schoenberg’s music seems born from his alienation from Western Europe, Robbins and Glass, who was deeply influenced by Schoenberg, continue in that tradition. There is a notable difference of course–both Glass and Robbins were American-born descendants of poor Jewish Lithuanian immigrants, whereas Schoenberg was an upper crust Austrian Jews. But the parallels in their work are a doleful reminder that, no matter your class, to be born a Jew is to be marked as different.
Last thing worth seeing this week?: "Nixon in China," John Adams’ opera from 1987, which has since become a classic and is finally having its premiere at the Met. I wrote about it last week, focusing on the opera’s portrayal of Kissinger, the only roundly critized element of an opera otherwise admired for the depth of its characters. After all, if the opera tempers Mao’s brutality with his meritable intelligence, why can’t Kissinger be treated in kind? That’s what critcs said when the opera opened, and many are still wondering the same thing now.
Yet after seeing the opera last week, it’s clear that Kissinger is the least significant character; his arias are few, even if his stage presence is ubiquitous. Anyway, I’m a firm believer that even if an artwork has a politics (most do), so long as it is not meant to be a polemic, we shouldn’t fuss over its views. In "Nixon in China," anyway, it was Peter Sellars’ idea to tether the work to then-contemporary politics, but both Adams and the librettist Alice Goodman sought for something more universal in nature. (Goodman, in an interesting aside, was born Jewish but has since been ordained an Anglican priest.)
And "Nixon in China" certainly attains musical dimensions that far transcend the narrowness of its politics. The mash-up score, assimilating swing, minimalism, and mini-Wagnerian whirls, afixed to an often foreboding chorus, is riveting. If you can see it before closes next Saturday (Feb. 19). Or don’t. It will be back for many years to come.