The 2014 New Millennium concert series opens with a performance of daring early 20th-century music that will test the longstanding relationship between the Orion String Quartet and pianist Peter Serkin.
In that concert, which takes place Thursday at California State University, Sacramento, Serkin and the quartet will perform a bracing work: Anton Webern’s arrangement of Arnold Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No. 1, Op. 9.
The pairing is the first of four spring concerts that bring world-renowned musicians to Sacramento. Noted viola da gambist Jordi Savall will perform March 3. The quintet Windscape performs May 15. A faculty concert with soprano Claudia Kitka, saxophonist Keith Bohm and violinist Ian Swensen takes place April 16.
Of all the concerts in the spring series, the most musically adventurous may be the pairing of the Orion String Quartet and Serkin, a smartly conceived program that includes Stravinsky’s lively Concertino for string quartet and Webern’s String Quartet, Op. 28. It will also be the first time that Serkin and the Orion String Quartet perform Schumann’s Piano Quintet in E flat major.
A pupil of Schoenberg’s, Webern was a prominent Second Viennese School composer who adhered to the serial 12-tone technique – all 12 notes of the chromatic scale are given equal weight, eschewing any key. The bracing appeal of 12-tone music defines Webern’s powerhouse arrangement of the chamber symphony. He stayed true to the spirit and letter of Schoenberg’s work and parsed it over five movements, which are performed without break as one movement.
The work, written in 1906 but not published until the late 1960s, is similar to Schoenberg’s masterwork “Transfigured Night.” Originally scored for 15 instruments, it was the composer’s first work for chamber orchestra and thrust such music kicking and screaming into the 20th century. The work is not often performed.
At CSUS, the piece presented will be Webern’s arrangement for piano quintet. He also scored Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony for flute and clarinet, cello and piano.
“When we heard the work, we wanted to do it with strings instead of two wind players,” said Orion violinist Todd Phillips. “We tried it a few years ago – with a different pianist – and we really loved it.”
Phillips said that it was only a matter of time before they approached Serkin with the idea of performing Webern’s arrangement. The move was logical given that Serkin’s and the quartet’s relationship spans more than two decades.
Serkin, a champion of 20th-century works, has performed the work many times, starting with “its flute and clarinet incarnation – with violin and cello – in the group Tashi,” he said.
His current concerts with the Orion String Quartet mark the first in which he performs the arrangement with the second violin taking the flute, and viola the clarinet parts.
“I love it in this version. Maybe, in a way, I prefer it to the other,” he said.
But that has not stopped Serkin from experimenting with the piece.
“I’m amending Webern’s version somewhat, mainly its piano part. I do this basing the changes very much on Schoenberg’s own later transcription for piano four-hands,” Serkin said.
In doing so, he reintroduces some of the Brahms-like richness of Schoenberg’s work. He said he finds the Webern arrangement spare at times.
For the Orion quartet, the challenges will be deciding which of two violinist brothers – Todd and Daniel Phillips – will get to play the first violin part. Cellist Timothy Eddy and violist Steven Tenenborn also populate the group.
“It’s really casual, who does what,” said Todd Phillips. “When we first started, we decided we’d share the roles on each program. We were careful to make sure everything was evenly split.”
But these days the brothers are not so dogmatic about their roles. “Now we don’t care that much. It is not a big deal. We kind of ask each other what we want to do,” Phillips said.
Either way, the operative word is: ease. That word also has been at play whenever the quartet has performed with Serkin.
“Peter is one of the most creative and deep musicians we’ve ever met, and he has a tremendous and uncanny ability to keep his own individuality,” said Phillips.
“Plus, he’s an incredible chamber player,” he said. “We have this saying that when we’re playing with Peter it’s like we’re playing with a string player. ... Sometimes we refer to ourselves as the Orion Quintet.”
Call The Bee’s Edward Ortiz, (916) 321-1071. Follow him on Twitter @edwardortiz.