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Galiano Ensemble unearths European Gems

What: Galiano Ensemble: European Gems, conducted by Yariv Aloni When/where: Jan. 8, 8 p.m., Phillip T. Young Recital Hall (School of Music, MacLaurin Building, UVic) Tickets: $33, seniors $30. Call 250-704-2580; email galianoensemble@gmail.
Members of the Galiano Ensemble rehearse. The orchestra’s repetoire can be refreshingly unfamiliar.

What: Galiano Ensemble: European Gems, conducted by Yariv Aloni

When/where: Jan. 8, 8 p.m., Phillip T. Young Recital Hall (School of Music, MacLaurin Building, UVic)

Tickets: $33, seniors $30. Call 250-704-2580; email">; in person at Ivy’s Bookshop and Munro’s Books.

The Galiano Ensemble, the string orchestra founded and still conducted by Yariv Aloni, is now in its 14th season and remains one of Victoria’s premier classical groups, its dozen core members including the entire Lafayette String Quartet, three quarters of the Emily Carr String Quartet and members of the Victoria Symphony.

Under Aloni’s leadership, the Galiano’s playing is both technically commanding and big-hearted, and its repertoire is often intriguing and refreshingly unfamiliar. Its program next Wednesday, European Gems, will comprise two original works for strings and one transcription, all by central European composers: Josef Suk, who was Czech (he was Dvorák’s favourite pupil and became his son-in-law); Mieczyslaw Karlowicz, a Lithuanian-born Pole of the “Young Poland” generation of artists; and Arnold Schoenberg, one of the few canonical “Viennese” composers actually born in Vienna.

The program could also be titled Fin-de-siècle Gems, since all three works are drawn from that fascinating period spanning the last years of the 19th century and the First World War-late-Romantic music of the kind that Aloni conducts with special ardour.

The three works are very different in profile and personality, however, and in their handling of the rich resources of late-Romantic tonality.

The appetizer on this menu is Suk’s short, dark-hued Meditation on the Old Bohemian Hymn “St. Václav,” Václav being the pious 10th-century Bohemian ruler and martyr who became the patron saint of the Czechs. (He is known in English as Wenceslas — yes, the good king who looked out on the feast of Stephen).

Suk composed the Meditation in the summer of 1914, at the outbreak of war, as a patriotic Czech’s plea for his people’s independence after centuries of Austrian rule.

Karlowicz’s Serenade, Op. 2, from 1897, is more substantial — its four movements run a little over 20 minutes — but also, in Aloni’s words, “rather lightweight music and extremely charming,” and its idiom is more conservative. It was Karlowicz’s first orchestral work, in fact, composed when he was just 20 and still a student. Alas, there would be no late works from this promising composer. He died in an avalanche, while skiing, when he was just 32.

The second half of the Galiano’s program is given over to Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night), Op. 4, from 1899, a symphonic poem for string sextet that he arranged for string orchestra in 1917 (and revised in 1943). A single movement running about half an hour, it is based on a poem by Richard Dehmel that deals with what Schoenberg called “a staggeringly difficult human problem”: In a moonlit grove, an unhappily married woman reproaches herself for getting pregnant by her unloved husband and confesses this “sin” to her lover, who comforts her and “transfigures” the child by accepting it as his own.

The poem, inspired by an affair Dehmel himself had had, was considered morally shocking in his day, and can still raise eyebrows because of its misogyny — a “sinful modern Eve forgiven and redeemed by a godlike magnanimous man,” as the musicologist Richard Taruskin put it. Even Schoenberg, in 1950, admitted that many people found the poem “repulsive.”

Verklärte Nacht follows the poem very closely, in terms of structure, topic and mood, and is a splendid specimen of program music, whether Schoenberg is setting a scene or exploring the psychology of his protagonists, though the work is no less masterly as a demonstration of thematic development.

Indeed, it is a potent synthesis of two 19th-century camps — the Liszt-Wagner-Strauss avant-garde and Brahms’s “Classical” style — that had been perceived as mutually exclusive, as rivals, even enemies.

And it seems neatly symbolic that Schoenberg should have effected such a synthesis in December 1899, on the very cusp of the 20th century.

The achievement is all the more astonishing given that he was just 25 at the time and largely self-taught as a musician, eking out a living conducting amateur choirs and orchestrating operettas. Just a few years earlier, he had been working in a bank.

According to Schoenberg, Verklärte Nacht “was hissed and caused riots and fist fights” when first performed in 1902.

Posterity has been kinder, admitting the magnificent music while shrugging off the misogyny; the result is perhaps the only work by Schoenberg that can accurately be called popular.