Last night The Fabulous Wife and I paid another visit on Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony. In addition to Beethoven’s Leonore Overture № 3 (crisply performed) and Richard Strauss’s first-rate second-rate tone poem Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks (ditto), they played two piano concertos: Mozart’s Piano Concerto № 14 and Arnold Schoenberg’s one-and-only work in that format.

The pianist for both was roly-poly 68 year-old Emanuel Ax, a native of Lviv, Ukraine. (Hiya landsman!) Both pieces recall Vienna, but the Mozart dates from 1784, and the Schoenberg, written in Los Angeles rather than Vienna (which the prescient Schoenberg fled in 1933), dates from 1942. So they’re, um, different. Ax showed us not only how different, but how effortlessly he can transition from a classical piece to a modern one.

Schoenberg is a pivotal figure in modern classical music. He started as a romantic so maudlin even his mentor Gustav Mahler lapsed into diabetic comas hearing his stuff. (Must tread lightly; The Fabulous Wife adores Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht.) By the time Mahler died in 1911, Schoenberg realized romanticism had been taken as far as it could, so he ambitiously sought an entirely new paradigm for musical composition. By 1921 he hit on the dodecaphonic, or twelve-tone, scale.

The concept is simple. Forget about traditional musical scales and their corresponding harmonies. Instead, take the twelve notes comprising a piano octave (C, C#/Db, D, D#/Eb, E, F, F#/Gb, G, G#/Ab, A, A#/Bb, and B), put them in an arbitrary order called a tone row, and voila, there’s your melody! Need a variation? Play the tone row backwards. Or upside down. Or upside down and backwards. Simple and clever. A lot of other composers took to dodecaphony in the early twentieth century.

Not coincidentally, perhaps, that’s when classical music began losing its popular audience. From my perspective, great art combines the rational and emotional at a high level. Twelve-tone and subsequent compositional techniques connected on the rational side, but lacked feeling. Classical music became head music, not head and heart music.

Schoenberg had been using the twelve-tone technique for twenty years when he composed the piano concerto, and had come to see that limitation. So he arranged the concerto’s twelve-note sequence in an order more congenial to classical melody and harmony. He also broke his own rules, allowing certain notes to repeat before playing others in the tone row.

Even so, I couldn’t find a way into the piece. I listened to it for weeks on my iPod, where I have a separate playlist for concertos. The Schoenberg precedes Sibelius’s violin concerto. To my horror I found myself listening to the Sibelius and fighting off one earworm after another from that piece rather than the Schoenberg.

I pinned my hopes on MTT, Ax, and the San Francisco Symphony. Often when I hear a piece live I get a more vivid sense of it, not only because there’s more spontaneity but because there’s also a visual element. I get cues from the conductor, the soloist, and the orchestra that help me understand what the music means.

They tried. MTT grabbed a microphone and spent five minutes explaining the concerto, asking the affable Ax to play the opening tone row and then a more Mozartian version of it so we could hear how grounded in musical history Schoenberg’s concerto is. And then they all played the piece brilliantly.

But I still didn’t get it.

Hope is not lost, though. This morning I woke up with an earworm from the Schoenberg. So maybe if I listen to the previous concerto on my playlist (Alfred Schnittke’s fourth violin, dating to 1984) and stray into the Schoenberg afterwards, I’ll finally get it.

Former Risk Manager at UC Berkeley, author of four books, ectomorphic introvert.

Former Risk Manager at UC Berkeley, author of four books, ectomorphic introvert.