Jeffrey Multer spent time recently in a small town in southwest Colorado on what he calls a "Berg retreat.'' Multer, concertmaster of the Florida Orchestra, was in the mountains to recharge his batteries after an intense summer of festival playing and to practice Alban Berg's Violin Concerto, in which he'll be the soloist in the orchestra's first masterworks program of the season next weekend.
"It's a difficult piece in a lot of ways, and there are unusual things in it that take quite a bit of time to figure out, but it's ultimately just so beautiful,'' Multer said. "You're basically spending all your practice time trying to make these gorgeous sounds.''
The Berg concerto is one of the rare 20th century works that manages to appeal to both avant-garde listeners and traditionalists. It's a kind of hybrid between 12-tone complexity and lush romanticism.
"The piece is incredibly romantic, but the romanticism is not sentimental,'' said Multer, who last performed the concerto about 10 years ago. "The sound world is a 12-tone sound world, basically, and the sounds are sometimes ugly. But Berg had such a sense of theater that when he wants to make an ugly sound he does it with great dramatic effect. He is a romantic at heart. He just has so much more palette to work with than a purely tonal composer.''
The violin concerto inspired music director Stefan Sanderling to program Bach's Cantata No. 60 to open the evening. The tie-in is that Berg incorporated Bach's chorale Es ist genug! (It is enough!) from the cantata into the finale of the concerto. This will be the first Bach cantata to be performed in the orchestra's 41-year history, with mezzo-soprano Jessica Best, tenor Bryce Westervelt and bass Won Cho as soloists in the 15-minute work. Beethoven's Seventh Symphony is also on the program.
Berg was part of the triumvirate of 12-tone composers in what came to be known as the "second Viennese school'' — along with Arnold Schoenberg and Anton Webern — but he stands somewhat apart from his colleagues in thorny, atonal music. For example, he was admired by none other than Broadway's man with all the melodies, George Gershwin, who paid a visit to Berg in Vienna and studied the score of his Lyric Suite.
Alex Ross, in his masterful book on 20th century music, The Rest Is Noise, notes that Gershwin "hung an autographed photo of Berg in a corner of his apartment, alongside a picture of the boxer Jack Dempsey and a punching bag.''
The violin concerto was the last work completed by Berg, who died at 50 in 1935. It was dedicated "to the memory of an angel," 18-year-old Manon Gropius, who died of polio that year. She was the daughter of Alma Mahler (widow of composer Gustav Mahler) and her second husband, architect Walter Gropius.
"The storytelling in the piece is so amazing that it's like a Russian novel,'' Multer said. "I feel that it's about one person's struggle in dealing with loss, in this case, with the death of a girl. But in a broader sense, it's about the human condition of dealing with tragedy.''
Berg had a mystical streak that runs through his music, such as the groundbreaking operas Wozzeck and Lulu. He was fixated by what he considered the "fateful numbers" of 23 and 28 for men and women, respectively. Metronome markings in the concerto are given in multiples of these numbers. The composition also contains references to Berg's lover, Hanna Fuchs, including her special number, 10, and her initials.
And there's more. In the concerto's first movement, a "Carinthian folk melody'' is a veiled reference to Berg's first love, Marie Scheuchl, a kitchen helper in his parents' house who gave birth to his daughter when he was 17.
Many analyses have been written about the "secret program'' of the violin concerto, and Multer has looked into them. "I think as an interpreter of his music you need to be well-read,'' he said. "But at the same time you can carry it too far and it can get in the way of your playing a beautiful phrase. I feel that knowledge is power. Know everything you can, but then make sure that you trust your heart.''
John Fleming can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8716.