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Bringing Schoenberg to the shadow of a five-story steam engine

The Phoenix Orchestra performed at the Metropolitan Waterworks Museum.Sam Brewer

What’s the relationship between a piece of music and its performance environment? What mysterious laws govern the elective affinities between site and sound? Does the music itself really care where you listen?

These are the types of questions that flit through the mind when taking in a dazzling late-Romantic score far from its usual surroundings. In this case, on Thursday night, here was Schoenberg’s landmark string sextet “Verklärte Nacht,” the quintessential soundtrack of fin-de-siècle Vienna, being performed by intrepid young musicians at the foot of a massive, five-story steam engine located in a vast exhibition space within the Metropolitan Waterworks Museum.


How’s that for cognitive dissonance? Curiously, in this setting, I found the associative mind shifts into high gear, determined to bridge the chasm between the music and its new frame. Let’s see. ... Both this steam engine and Schoenberg’s sextet date from the very final years of the 19th century? Both were the creations of an era still capable of dreaming, whether through the wings of art or the pistons of industry, of a perfectible modern world?

Nah, that won’t do. Affinities between music and place cannot be forced. Schoenberg’s score takes its inspiration from a Richard Dehmel poem that speaks of a couple walking in radiant moonlight and of their love that miraculously transfigures an unborn child. The music pulses with an animal warmth that seemed altogether foreign in this cold, steel-grommeted shrine to the industrial past.

So did the surroundings ruin everything? Oddly not. Thursday’s performance was affectingly sensitive and vividly drawn. The expressive core of “Verklärte Nacht” (or “Transfigured Night”) somehow felt impervious to the chill of this cavernous space. It was as if the music didn’t care much either way about its new setting. It was too busy becoming its ravishing self.

It surely helped that the players on the nonexistent stage were well-practiced in taking their music off the grid. This was a performance by Phoenix, a dynamic collective of young musicians founded six years ago by recent graduates of local music schools. The ensemble has since built a loyal following and expanded its reach year after year. It is guided by a philosophy that, for newcomers to classical music, the art will speak for itself but the packaging could use a good tweak. So while the group still performs in traditional venues such as the Gardner Museum’s Calderwood Hall, it often seeks out less expected spaces such as Aeronaut Brewing or the Bully Boy distillery. Meanwhile, Phoenix’s programs typically place new music and classic repertoire in thoughtful juxtaposition.


On Thursday, perhaps not surprisingly, it was the contemporary works that seemed to thrive most in this setting. In fact David Lang’s 2003 woodwind quintet “Breathless,” a rather abstract study in shifting timbre and in the pristine entanglement of overlapping lines, sat more easily here than it might have beneath the coffered ceiling and statuary of Symphony Hall. So did Molly Joyce’s ethereal “Light and Dark,” for flute and percussion. Only a Boccherini string quintet, played here in an arrangement enlarged to include woodwinds, seemed a bit lost in this space. The piece, written around 1780, is a set of aural postcards that summon, as its title suggests, the “Night Music of the Streets of Madrid.” But the manifest charms of the music seemed to dissipate on contact with these industrial relics of a future beyond the composer’s wildest imaginings.


Interestingly, around 15 years ago, when a rising generation of musicians first started experimenting with new concert spaces and formats, there was a lot of talk about saving listeners from the oppressive stuffiness of concert etiquette, with its “coerced and inculcated rigidity.” Hearing classical music in bars and clubs was supposed to radically liberate audiences, allowing them to clap when they wanted, to cheer whenever the spirit moved them, and to express all that pent-up emotion they had been forced to repress thanks to that vigilante shusher sitting one row up.

Well, on Thursday night, as on many other similar occasions in my experience, it turned out that the audience in this nontraditional venue listened in rapt silence and responded to the music pretty much identically to an audience in Symphony Hall. You hardly need to be a classical insider to realize — by dint of the sheer density of precisely imagined sounds passing before your ears — that this art rewards careful listening. Still, the Phoenix concert’s invitingly casual vibe, and the cocktails, were hard to miss. During the Schoenberg, a cluster of listeners stood near the makeshift bar, sipping drinks and swaying to the music. This might well have been their first “Verklärte Nacht.” I’m guessing it won’t be their last.


At Metropolitan Waterworks Museum, Dec. 5

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at jeremy.eichler@globe.com, or follow him @Jeremy_Eichler.