Music Notes: cutting the symphony down to size 

"I'm a crazy man," Mark Prentiss says, with extra emphasis on "crazy." If you happened to see the six-foot-four Hyde Parker loping around the neighborhood in his Air Jordan sneakers and circa 1961 mohair cardigan, smiling beatifically and gesticulating wildly at no one in particular, you might be tempted to agree. Unperturbed by the double takes of passersby, he navigates the tree-lined streets at high speed, conducting a phantom orchestra.

Prentiss, 31, is no ordinary lunatic. Granted, he hears the voices of people who aren't there. He hears music no one else can hear. But he's not hallucinating. He's rehearsing.

Off the streets, Prentiss conducts the New Society for Private Musical Performances, a chamber ensemble of 12 musicians, many of whom are also members of the Chicago Symphony and Lyric Opera orchestras. In this case, the phantom voice he hears belongs to real-life soprano Deborah Fair, who will appear with Prentiss and his ensemble on a special edition of The Continental Illinois Concert: Live From WFMT this Sunday. The performance will be the first-ever broadcast of a 1920s chamber-ensemble arrangement of Mahler's Symphony no. 4 in G Major that Prentiss has spent the last three years reconstructing.

In post-World War I Vienna, Arnold Schoenberg established the Verein fur musikalische Privat- auffuhrungen--the original Society for Private Musical Performances--as a vehicle for the new music of his contemporaries, including Debussy, Ravel, Anton Webern, and Alban Berg.

"Schoenberg wanted to involve his composition students in a project to enlighten the public and develop an appreciation of new music" at a time when there were few financial resources for cultural institutions, Prentiss explains.

"In Europe at the time, classical music was pop music, and vice versa. If you wanted to hear a new piece, you went and heard the live performance.

"The fans of the day were like rock fans today. Whether they loved it or hated it, they got involved. Sometimes their comments were so loud you could hardly hear the music--they threw vegetables at the musicians when they didn't like what was being played," he says, referring to the famous riot at the 1913 Paris premiere of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring.

Prentiss would like to see more people getting that deeply involved in serious new works in what he calls "this age of canned music." And he doesn't expect to find an outlet for his ambitions in the modern symphony orchestra: "Orchestras will play only 'popular' new composers--minimalists, for example. I call this selling out. Real new music must be uncompromising, and it must reach a wider audience."

While an undergraduate at the Oberlin College Conservatory, Prentiss was chosen for summer study programs under various master conductors, among them Kyril Kondrashin of the Moscow Philharmonic. After graduating in 1979, Prentiss, a Lake Bluff native, returned to Chicago and got together with some musician friends to form his own chamber ensemble (originally called TRANSIT) modeled after Schoenberg's Verein, intending to perform--and, potentially, commission--new works by important serious composers, known and unknown.

In 1985, with the help of the University of Chicago's Major Activities Board, the group brought British composer Brian Ferneyhough to the U.S. for the American premiere of his Prometheus, a 1967 piece for wind sextet. Ferneyhough lectured composition students at the U. of C. and worked closely with Prentiss and his musicians, teaching them the techniques they needed to perform his composition the way he meant it to be performed.

It hasn't been quite so easy for Prentiss to evoke the intentions of Erwin Stein, the Schoenberg disciple who arranged Mahler's Fourth for chamber ensemble in 1920 while director of the Verein in Schoenberg's absence. Arranging the piece for a small ensemble entailed redistributing the various parts among fewer instruments--fewer in kind as well as quantity. For example, Stein combined parts ordinarily played by three bassoons, four French horns, and three trumpets (among others) into a single part for harmonium, a 19th-century keyboard wind instrument.

Prentiss has spent three arduous years reconstructing Stein's arrangement from a copy of an annotated orchestral score found in the archives of the Arnold Schoenberg Institute. (The Verein had performed the arrangement three times in early 1921, but the piece was then in experimental form, and no score or parts for the arrangement are known to be extant.) Prentiss found the annotations incomplete and, in some cases, unworkable: Stein had assigned some parts to instruments incapable of producing the required notes. In other cases, the instrumentation was feasible but impractical; in the first movement, a trumpet fanfare that Stein had assigned to clarinet and flute required adjustment of the orchestral dynamics near the end of the movement, where the flute plays alone. Stein's annotations failed to take into account the differences in timbre between the two types of wind instruments.

Reconstructing the Stein arrangement "to make it sound like Mahler's Fourth" was only the beginning of Prentiss's difficulties. He also had to write out the various parts for his musicians by hand, and he had to locate an accurate and reliable harmonium (a task that had challenged the Verein as well). Prentiss's thoroughly modern solution to the latter problem is the Yamaha DX7II/FD synthesizer, which will be played on Sunday by U. of C. professor Easley Blackwood.

The Verein was a private ensemble; reviews of the concerts were generally forbidden, though critics and other nonmembers were invited to certain special public performances called "propaganda" concerts. Prentiss hopes the New Society will follow suit with four public concerts a year. The WFMT broadcast, at any rate, isn't the least bit private--and that's just the way Prentiss wants it.

"The modern symphony orchestra is an anachronism," he says. "Most symphony orchestra conductors these days are museum curators. Their audience is limited to those who can afford to pay, many of whom prefer to get their challenge at the office. Many patrons regard the symphony orchestra experience as an opportunity to socialize or sleep.

"How many times can you play the same Beethoven and Brahms pieces? Sure, they're safe, comfortable, accessible. But this kind of complacency does no service to new music. It doesn't provide a new stimulus for the ears." (The group will perform the 67-year-old Mahler arrangement "because I wanted to give them something fun to play, so they'll be willing to do outrageously complex new music for me later," Prentiss explains. "It's kind of a carrot on a stick.")

Prentiss, who considers himself a "musical anarchist," regards the modern symphony orchestra's attempts to play new music as "for the most part, a joke--lip service at best. 'Minimalism' and other assorted cop-outs should be banned. If serious composers could get what they really wanted to write played, they wouldn't write that bullshit."

He hopes Sunday's "propaganda" concert will reach that wider audience he seeks. "There's nothing elitist about [the broadcast]," he says. "Anybody can listen to it for free."

Sunday's special edition of The Continental Illinois Concert begins at 3 PM on WFMT, 98.7 FM. The program will open with two short songs, also arranged by Erwin Stein, from Zemlinsky's Opus 13. For more information call 565-5004.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Paul L. Merideth.

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