Schoenberg and his legacy: a tribute to Leonard Stein By Maiko Kawabata

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SCHOENBERG AND HIS LEGACY: A Tribute to Leonard Stein

By Maiko Kawabata


Leonard Stein was a keeper of Schoenberg's legacy. He was also my mentor and my friend. When he passed away nearly three years ago, we lost our last living musical connection to Arnold Schoenberg, the last person who had worked closely with the composer.  


Stein was 22 when Schoenberg arrived in L.A. just before the Second World War; at first as his student and later as his teaching assistant, Stein became a trusted member of the composer's inner circle. Schoenberg called him "a first class musician" and wrote to him in 1949, "I am glad to name you a pupil of mine... I am sure you will play a role in the fate of my music."


Stein is probably best known as the editor of Style and Idea. This was where I first encountered his name in 1993, when I was an undergraduate at Cambridge University. He had arranged Schoenberg's essays in categories of his own devising which, he hoped would "bring into sharper perspective the many and ever-broadening directions explored by an intensely curious and passionately involved mind of genius." Clearly, these were the words of a person utterly devoted to spreading Schoenberg's music and his teachings.


At the time, I was studying the Phantasy for Violin with Piano Accompaniment, op. 47, a piece that fascinated me on two levels -- densely crammed with complex musical ideas, it was also hard as hell to play. Style and Idea did not elucidate the ideas for me -- there is not a single mention of the Phantasy in all 559 pages -- nor did it make the piece any easier to tackle. But it did draw me into the mind of a composer who had, it seemed to me, an unusually developed sense of artistic purpose. His music was so difficult to understand that it defied ordinary modes of listening, and yet his approach was considered so revolutionary that almost every composer since agreed on its importance, if not its likeability.


The Phantasy troubled me. From my research I knew that Schoenberg considered it "very difficult... but all technically very playable indeed." Technically very playable, my foot. Take measure 26, for instance: the A# trilled with the harmonic, all double-stopped with another harmonic, is simply unplayable as written--because harmonics and non-harmonics require different bow-speeds to sound, and no violinist can draw the bow faster across one string than another. My violin teacher at the time, Nona Liddell, was concertmaster of the London Sinfonietta and had recorded the piece for Decca in 1974. She told me to "fudge" it when I asked her about it at a lesson. She even let me in on her "little trick": lose the double-stop and instead cross strings rapidly, alternating between the harmonic and the non-harmonic. "The whole thing is over so quickly, the effect will be fine," she told me with a wry smile.


Some years later, when I began graduate school at UCLA, I wrote a letter to Dr. Stein c/o the Arnold Schoenberg Institute at USC, where he had been the Director from 1975 to 1991. In my letter, I explained my interest in Schoenberg and particularly his Phantasy. I had no idea whether or not I would get a response. A few days later I received a neatly typed note from Dr. Stein: he would be happy to discuss the Phantasy; he had premiered it with violinist Adolph Koldofsky at Schoenberg's 75th birthday concert back in 1949. Would I care to join him for lunch the following Saturday?


He suggested we meet at an Italian restaurant on the fashionable Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica. I spotted him sitting at a window booth--I knew it was him from the picture on the jacket sleeve–with his distinguished shock of white hair. Clearing my throat, I approached the table. "Dr. Stein?" I said. A pair of glimmering eyes peered up at me slowly through large circular spectacles and the whiskers of his neatly-trimmed moustache were twitching slightly. "My dear," he roared, with an outstretched hand, "call me Leonard!"


He told me he had been there as the Phantasy took shape and watched the creative process unfold before his very eyes. "The writing for the violin is always idiomatic and often purposefully virtuosic," he said.   He did not remember how Koldofsky had tackled measure 26, alas. But his playing had apparently satisfied Schoenberg--no easy feat considering his deep-seated beliefs concerning what constituted good violin-playing. "He hated the idea of stringed instruments sliding all over the place," Leonard said. "I once copied into a score for him, 'don't play glissandi like the Hollywood players do.'"


I could hardly believe I was sitting across the table from this living legend, much less that I was having a meal with such a person (and such a delicious meal too, of seared tuna). This man had actually known Schoenberg, played piano for his university lectures, and was widely regarded as the world's foremost authority on Schoenberg.   Leonard was also an authority on L.A.'s finest dining establishments.


He then steered the conversation to what I later discovered was one of his favorite topics: musical structure. "Why do you think I'm such a nut about thematic form?" he said, with a twinkle in his eye. "Blame it on my studies with Der Meister!"   Leonard admired "progressive" composers like Boulez and Berio, Cage and Stockhausen: they pushed the language of music in new directions. As for the rest (and anyone composing tonal works seemed to fall into this category)... well, it was clear what he thought of them. He leaned in across the table, peered at me over the rims of his glasses, and crinkled his nose in a comic scowl. Where most people were vague or resorted to euphemism, Leonard was utterly no-nonsense in his opinions.


After polishing off a large helping of tiramisu, he offered me a ride home and on the way stopped to point out the house in Brentwood where Schoenberg had lived--not far from O.J. Simpson's house, he said with a snort. He invited me to a recital he was giving as part of a series he ran called Piano Spheres, with a program including works by Schoenberg (of course), Eisler, Ruggles, and Bach. At 81, Leonard was well beyond the age when he could have kicked up his feet and spent his days playing mini-golf and bingo. But that was not the life for him--he was passionate about new music and clearly enjoyed challenging himself. The recital was nothing short of extraordinary: throughout Bach's Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue, Leonard attacked the keys with the energy of someone half his age--maybe even a quarter. The reviews later commented on the "arresting drama and depth of expression" of the Three Pieces, op. 11, and his "crisply pertinent and persuasive" account of Eisler's Third Sonata.


Afterwards he invited all the pianists and devotees of the series out for dinner at one of his favorite restaurants, Il Fornaio in Pasadena. We drank to Leonard's health and shared steaming plates of capellini pomodoro. He introduced me to everyone, including a student of his, a young conductor, saying "you young people should meet, raaaah!" Edwin Outwater was a sun-tanned native Angeleno with an easy-going manner, a quick wit, and big dreams of conducting his own orchestra some day. We hit it off instantly and became close like cousins who share a "musical grandfather." He has since gone on to assist Michael Tilson Thomas--another former student of Leonard's--at the San Francisco Symphony and now leads the Kitchener Waterloo Symphony in Canada.


When he wasn't performing or practising, Leonard was busy teaching, lecturing, and corresponding with musicians around the world. He was a regular at the L.A. Philharmonic, the "Green Umbrella" contemporary music series in downtown L.A., and the Ojai Music Festival, and he often invited Edwin and me along. Among the highlights were Mitsuko Uchida playing Schoenberg's Piano Concerto (Leonard admired her rendition) and a Boulez piece with 3 harps that went way over my head (but delighted Leonard).   Leonard followed contemporary music with a passion, he knew everyone, and he steered us to secret, out-of-the-way parking spots where we could park for free. He was constantly running into friends and colleagues: at the Philharmonic, the Executive Director and concertmaster stopped by to say hello, as did the composers Morton Subotnick and H.K. Gruber. During intermission at a chamber music concert at Zipper Hall, Leonard embraced his "dear friends Anne and Larry." It was only afterwards at the Patinette Cafe, where Leonard adored the Tarte Tatin, that I realized his friends were Schoenbergs--the youngest son of the composer and his wife.


One day Leonard invited me over to play the Phantasy with him at his house in the Hollywood hills. A long, steep driveway led up to the house where he lived alone, across the street from supermodel Linda Evangelista ("they say she is a fashion model, raaah!"). In his music studio were not one but two Steinway grands.   The bookcases bulged with books, scores, and papers. Letters lay on the tables from musicians the world over--he had a thick folder of correspondence with Boulez, to whom he referred as "my friend Pierre."

"Okay, Mai, let's have a go at it," he said, sitting down at the piano. The Phantasy begins an exordium in the violin--fortissimo, with heavily demarcated bowstrokes, marked "passionato". Then the piano comes in with a discordant, descending gesture rather like a controlled tumble. When Leonard played this it was so loud it took me by surprise. We played on through the contrasting sections--the ethereal Lento, the Grazioso leading to the lively Scherzo, and then the return of the opening. Finally, we reached the dramatic conclusion--huge leaps in the violin and brittle textures in the piano leading to an expressionistic scream that crescendoes to the last, stabbed chord. I waited with bated breath to see what he would say.


"You play very well," he said, and I sighed with relief. "You see, this is the work of an older person," he continued. "He knows what to leave out. It's a very compact work. He says a lot in a very short space of time. It's only, what, 12 minutes long and yet it has all these different movements in it."   He then showed me how to bring out the musical character of each section. Play the Meno mosso again," he said (starting at m. 34). "Not too much pathos."   "The Scherzando (mm. 85 ff) should have spice and be demoniac in character... that was Schoenberg's word," he explained. "Oh, and here," he said, pointing to bar 52 in the score, "this part should be light, like a Viennese waltz." I played the phrase again and again until he said, "very good, raaaaaah."


A short time after that visit, Leonard asked me to perform the piece with him at the Monday Evening Concerts. I was surprised and incredibly honored by the invitation. I was also terrified: the historic series, formerly known as "Evenings on the Roof," had once featured Schoenberg and Stravinsky. I knew it was a once in a lifetime opportunity for me. As we rehearsed, Leonard taught me that technique was only a small part of preparing a performance–he simply didn't care how I got around m. 26, as long as all the notes sounded clearly. I was struck by what a unique person he was: a tireless champion of Schoenberg's music, which he knew and loved better than anybody else, here he was, fifty years after the premiere, still playing the Phantasy with unabated curiosity and commitment.  


Schoenberg may have talked about "Heart and Brain in Music," but Leonard seemed to go one step further: along with the emotional and intellectual dimensions, there was the physical. He embodied the music, lived and breathed it, involving his entire self: heart, brain... and hands. He taught by example that this is how traditions are really kept alive--not just through the books and scores left for generations to come but through the human legacy, through those that the composer touched directly.


On the night of the concert I was so nervous I have almost no memory of it. But I do remember Leonard's contented roar shot through with post-performance adrenalin ("RAAAAAAAAHHH!"). He patted me on the back then rounded up everyone who had come to see him backstage saying, "come on, we're all going to Kate Mantilini's for oysters and champagne!"


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