Violinist brings out beauty of Berg concerto
By Mary Ellyn Hutton
Cincinnati Post, January 11, 2007
When does 12-tone music (read atonal or "dissonant") not sound like 12-tone music?
When it's by Alban Berg.
The Austrian composer and disciple of Arnold Schoenberg who helped eclipse tonality during the first half of the 20th-century never lost his feeling for harmonic beauty.
"Berg is always lyrical, always singing," said violinist Isabelle van Keulen of Holland, who will perform Berg's Violin Concerto with Paavo Järvi and the Cincinnati Symphony at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday at Music Hall.
"The beauty of the piece is that it doesn't sound like a 12-tone piece. That is the genius of it, really. It's beautifully, harmonically written."
Berg inscribed his concerto "To the Memory of an Angel" and dedicated it to Manon Gropius, daughter of composer Gustav Mahler's widow. Manon (Mutzi) died of polio in April 1935 at age 18. The Violin Concerto was Berg's last completed work. He died of a heart attack in December 1935, shortly before its premiere.
"It's a very touching piece," said van Keulen, almost "graphic" in its depiction of the young Gropius, whom Berg had known from childhood. "The first movement is about how lovely she was, her character. The second movement is the struggle. Finally, when she dies, there is a Bach chorale, 'I have enough.' The ending just goes up into heaven."
How Berg achieved his congenial harmonies using the 12-tone system is technical. Twelve-tone music is constructed of "tone rows," all 12 notes of the scale laid and combined in prescribed ways. By using rows with sequences of triads - what the ear is used to hearing in music of the past 300 years - Berg's combinations can sound a lot like other late romantic music.
Van Keulen (pronounced van KE-lin with the E as in kerchief) has much in common with Louis Krasner, the violinist who commissioned Berg's concerto. Like Krasner, who wanted a violin concerto written in the new-fangled 12-tone style, van Keulen is a champion of new music.
In November 2001, she made her debut with Järvi and the CSO at Music Hall in the U.S. premiere of Estonian composer Erkki-Sven Tüür's 1999 Violin Concerto. Her repertoire also includes concertos by Alan Pettersson, Peteris Vasks, Oliver Knussen and Tüür's newly composed Double Concerto, "Noesis," for Violin and Clarinet with her husband, clarinetist Michael Collins.
"With modern music, you have a commissioned piece that you play two or three times and then it's sort of finished most of the time," she said. "The (Tüür) Violin Concerto I've played a great deal, like 15 or 20 times." She also recorded it to considerable acclaim with Järvi and England's City of Birmingham Orchestra.
Van Keulen, who grew up in the picturesque countryside between Utrecht and Amsterdam, won the Eurovision Young Musicians Competition in 1984. "I was 17 and had just finished my A levels at school. I was put on by the Dutch Radio Broadcasting Company. It was broadcast for the whole of Europe, 13 million people watching. It was the one and only competition I did and was a real breakthrough, because I had been on television - the X factor and all that sort of stuff."
She gets her love for contemporary music from her mother, who "was always listening to the radio, to the modern programs," she said. She asked to play the violin at 3 (her older sister played the flute). "Still, I had to wait three more years and finally got my violin." She studied at the Sweelinck Conservatory in Amsterdam and with Sandor Vegh at the Mozarteum in Salzburg.
Being a new music exponent has its pluses and minuses, she said.
"It's unbelievably interesting to work with composers who are still alive. You can just talk through your problems and questions. Sometimes they even go as far as changing the piece for you if it makes the piece better. We don't have this with dead composers."
The risk is being "put in a drawer," she said. "You should at all times avoid being a specialist, whether it's baroque, jazz, crossover, or whatever. It's dangerous to be going down such a narrow path."
Van Keulen, who founded and led the Delft International Chamber Music Festival in Amsterdam from 1996-2006, doesn't see new music as a separate compartment of what she does. "It's part of playing classical, romantic and contemporary. It all belongs together in a line of tradition and development."
She is also very careful about the new music she performs. "I like to look at it first and see whether it is any good, whether it suits me and if I can perform it convincingly. Otherwise, it wouldn't make sense. Obviously, I don't want to play everything just once!"
Van Keulen plays one or two new concertos a year, "at a maximum," she said. "I play a lot of Mozart and a lot of Brahms, the whole repertoire."
She has just joined the Leopold Trio, a highly regarded, London-based string trio (violin, viola and cello). "I'm thrilled, because I've always dreamt of either founding a group myself or being invited to join a group like this."
She gave up the Delft Festival to spend more time with her children Simon and Rose (8, and 6).
"They need to see me in the summer. I need some summer holiday."