Will Anton Webern find a mass audience in 1983, his centennial year? This kind of revival has been triggered, in living memory, by the centennial celebrations of Charles Ives and Gustav Mahler. Both have undergone a major shift of status in the last generation, from a composer who is the object of respect and curiosity to one who is widely and deeply loved, and in both cases a major impetus for the shift was the celebration of the composer's centennial year. It may be harder for Webern, who until now has appealed mostly to other composers and to listeners with highly specialized tastes.
Sunday in the Terrace Theater, the Theater Chamber Players performed two pieces by Webern, a composer who appears in their programs even when he is not having an anniversary--and the quality of the experience awakened hopes that perhaps his time has come. The two pieces were closely related, at least chronologically: The Variations for Piano, Opus 27, and The String Quartet, Opus 28. Together, they took up less time than Mendelssohn's Octet, which was the second half of the program, but in their brief span they offered considerably more musical ideas.
Webern himself described the essence of his style as "lyrical compression," and he was precisely on target--a few notes, in his music, do the work of 100 measures in the music of a less concise composer. But for this reason, they demand an intensity of attention that one seldom needs for Mozart or Mendelssohn. Because it requires so much effort by the audience, this music may have to wait for the composer's bicentennial to be fully appreciated. But Sunday the string quartet that is part of the Theater Chamber Players gave an excellent performance of Opus 28, and pianist Dina Koston gave the performance of a lifetime in the Opus 27 Variations. The fact that he is inspiring performers to such heights of excellence may bode well for Webern's future with audiences.
Posters announcing the event carried the notice "Pina Carmirelli plays Mozart and Mendelssohn" with the name of the violinist in much larger letters than the names of the composer's. Carmirelli was impressive, not only in Mendelssohn's Octet, which occasionally sounded like a small violin concerto, but in Mozart's Sonata in E Minor, K. 304, which she gave a very romanticized interpretation, but one that the music can well take. She broke a string on her violin during the first movement of the Mendelssohn, but took the event in stride, going backstage to get a new string. When she returned and the music was resumed, she seemed to be playing more consistently in tune than she had earlier.
The program also included Luigi Dallapiccola's "Goetha-Lieder" for mezzo-soprano and three clarinets. This music, frankly inspired by that of Webern, is intricate, highly expressive, but not easy to grasp fully without prolonged acquaintance. Mezzo-soprano Janice Felty sang very impressively.