Love—tormented and tender—from Wagner and Schoenberg at ‘Le Salon de Musiques


Even 130 years after his death, Richard Wagner is a person that for many music-lovers—and especially for those who have never heard a single note of his music and know him only by his (bad) reputation—remains difficult to love. His vanity, his shrill self-promoting, and the ease with which he stooped to betray even close friends do not exactly make him an endearing figure. Then there is the composer’s virulent and very public anti-Semitism, which made him an object of near-deification in Nazi Germany. (Though how many Nazis actually listened to Wagner, let alone enjoyed his music is another story.) But there is always more to a person than broad characterizations and stereotyping. And Wagner, though not an easy person to like at times, was certainly not the monster modern-day critics tend to paint him as.

He was an anti-Semite in public, yet carried close and very friendly working relationships with Jewish musicians and supporters on the other. (Incidentally, Jewish conductors have probably been the most persuasive and active proponents of Wagner’s music—even after World War II. “Wagner is my God,” wrote the young Bruno Walter who was well aware of the composer’s anti-Semitism, “and I will be his prophet.”) He could be harsh, petty, mean-spirited, but also warm, witty, and eager to help friends. He was, in short, a man and artist an artist of a great many contradictions; flawed, but certainly not evil.

As it turned out, for a few people at least, he even could be something beyond the comprehension of his critics—deeply lovable.

Le Salon de Musiques presented this often overlooked side of the composer last Sunday afternoon at Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Downtown Los Angeles. Not the Wagner of the mighty Der Ring des Nibelungen, but a more vulnerable side of his character: tender, soft-spoken, graceful, perhaps even more human.

The Wesendonck Lieder, which opend the program, is a work inspired by love—albeit an illicit one. Setting to music five poems by Mathilde Wesendock, Wagner takes us into a sound world both familiar and different. Familiar because it prefigures his epochal Tristan und Isolde at points, specifically the moonlit Act II love duet and the death-haunted Act III prelude. But also different in the intimacy of its mood, the softness of its sensibilities, the artless unguardedness of its emotions.

It was a facet that was well captured by Le Salon de Musiques founder and artistic director François Chouchan and soprano Tracy Cox. Chouchan, who performed as pianist, eschewed sentimentality, instead offering a limpid, cool accompaniment that offset and complemented Cox’s expressive warmth and thoughtful word-painting.

Another Wagner love letter followed in the Siegfried-Idyll, this time a work composed as a Christmas present to his new wife, Cosima.

The mood here is airier, sunnier. Again, the work echoes Wagner’s other work, in this case the opera Siegfried. But the sensual ardor of the Wesendonck Lieder is cooled. Sensuality is still there, but kept in check; this is an ode to domestic bliss, after all.

Coming nearly a half century later, the young Arnold Schoenberg took the harmonic limits that Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde touched and pushed them further. Schoenberg was also another difficult to love character, though mostly for musical reasons. The atonality he helped pioneer (he preferred calling it “pantonality”) have helped make the name “Schoenberg” into almost a four-letter word with some audiences, his name being a byword for “unlistenable” or “abrasively modern” music. (Of course, some audiences are just plain lazy and lack curiosity for the wider world around them.) In his youthful Verklärte Nacht; the passion and erotic energy of Wagner’s opera giving way to the torment and neuroticism of modern urban life expressed in the Schoenberg.

The Le Salon de Musiques musicians (Anna Landauer and Teresa Stanislav on violins, Rob Brophy and Shawn Mann on violas, and John Walz and Armen Ksajikian on cellos) brushed each work with a patina of elegance and refinement, neither skimping on each score’s expressive potential, nor wallowing in it.