More than 11 decades after he first put marks on music paper, Arnold Schoenberg can still strike terror into concertgoers' hearts. Yet works such as his "Three Little Pieces" for chamber orchestra -- played exquisitely on Thursday by members of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra under Pierre-Laurent Aimard's direction -- are too diminutive (and perhaps too nostalgic) to frighten anyone. Listeners who had girded themselves to repel the affronts of a bomb-throwing anarchist must have been a trifle disappointed.
Written in 1910, a year in which Schoenberg was reduced to borrowing from Mahler to pay his rent, the "Three Little Pieces" were unknown in Schoenberg's lifetime; the not-quite-finished score, found among his papers, premiered in 1957.
Sometimes reminiscent of the 1906 "Chamber Symphony," the pieces further the musical distillation process in which their composer was then engaged.
Anton Webern, who collaborated in that process, began studying with Schoenberg in 1904. His lyrically geometric "Concerto for Nine Instruments," completed 30 years later, was a 60th-birthday gift to his former teacher.
Aimard and colleagues found veins of tenderness and wit in this Mondrian-like sound-object.
Mendelssohn's "Italian" Symphony (1833), which opened Thursday's program, was played by the Minnesota Orchestra just last week. You'd think that one ensemble or the other would seize upon this accident of scheduling as an opportunity to leave the beaten path -- to explore, for example, Mendelssohn's extensive revisions of 1834, which are readily performable. But no: Listeners hearing both programs got exactly the same notes, in the same order, on both sides of the river.
Is this a matter of timidity? Laziness? Lack of imagination?
Whatever the answer, we should expect more from the curators and gatekeepers of our concert life. With so much worthwhile music awaiting discovery, there's no call for recycled Mendelssohn, however sparkling its execution.
The evening ended with a tour de force: from his lidless Steinway, its keyboard parallel to the front of the stage, Aimard played and conducted Beethoven's C-minor piano concerto, a work that, in its reduction of thematic ideas to their elements, invites comparisons with Schoenberg & Co.
Aimard's baton-free conducting has the careful precision of his English; his pianism is more confident and more expansive. Especially in the spacious Largo, this combination made for intriguing Beethoven. The orchestra was a keenly alert and disciplined partner.
Larry Fuchsberg writes about music.