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The Most Influential Melodrama of the 20th Century–Performed by the LUNAR Ensemble

February 1, 2011

Conductor Gemma New (photo by Katya Chilingiri)

Just down the street from the Peabody Institute, An die Musik recently hosted two smashing world premieres and the melancholic masterwork of 12-tone titan Arnold Schoenberg: Pierrot Lunaire. The LUNAR Ensemble, whose members are all affiliated with the Peabody, managed to pack the house and then some. So no one present had a right to trot out Schoenberg’s quote: “Music in an empty hall sounds even worse than a hall filled by empty people.”

As you may guess from that quote, Schoenberg was no stranger to bad press or disastrous premieres. This program’s two world premiere composers have nothing to worry about on that score.

First up, Peabody grad student Sam Brannon’s Clarinet Concertino. Each movement of the piece was a fresh turn. The second movement mesmerized as two percussionists, Garrett Arney and Victor Caccese, bowed upward along the aluminum bars of the vibes. Cellist Peter Kibbe worked a similar line to create a brilliant miasma from which Gleb Kanasevich’s clarinet solo could rise out with a surprising melody that was tender and earnest.

Pianist Michael Sheppard set the tone for an exemplary evening by trotting out Chopin’s Fantasie, Op. 49 before launching into the premiere of his own composition Fantasy on Themes from Harry Potter. This tightly woven diversion pivoted around John Williams’ “Hedwig’s Theme” with wonderful surprises: a snatch of the theme from E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, with plenty of rising rumbles and a superb moment of letting the overtones echo and roar. This owl flight is worth riding along any day.

Now to that work of mad genius: Pierrot Lunaire. You may or may not recognize Pierrot. If you guessed that he’s the white-suited clown from the Commedia dell’arte, pat yourself on the back. The “lunaire” part, as in loony, is what makes this work so splendidly strange.

Pierrot Lunaire first hit the stage in October 1912 in Berlin. The performance met mixed reviews. There was hissing, hysteria, and laughter. When it crossed over to America in 1923, the critics tripped over each other to hate it more: “Defying musical grammar!” “An unutterably silly thing!” Perhaps worst was H.E. Krehbiel’s condemnation, recounted by Nicolas Slonimsky in his Lexicon of Musical Invective: Critical Assaults on Composers Since Beethoven’s Time, in a Feb. 5, 1923, review in the New York Tribune:

Pierrot Lunaire is so new that enjoyment of it by such persons who believe that music is the expression of beauty in art will have to wait until all such persons are dead or chaos be come again.

Krehbiel died just over a month after that review. A Pierrot fan at this recent concert remarked that he had studied the composition for 12 years and rejoiced to hear it live for the first time with plenty of company. The very magic of Pierrot is an audacity of tone so distinguished that it still sounds as “new” to us as when Krehbiel heard it.

Twenty-one German translations of French poems about love, religion, sex, violence, and crime are the heart of the work. The instrumentation, motley: piccolo, flute, piano, bass clarinet, clarinet, viola, violin and cello run along in counterpoint as tight as any written in the Renaissance. The moon presents in some form in nearly every section. Poem 8, “Nacht,” begins Pierrot’s descent into depression where “dark, black giant moths” kill the bright sun. The cello weeps along with the bass clarinet, roiling together into the musical weight of a cluster of clouds. This music is like Dada meets the nightmares of Francisco Goya. The Age of Enlightenment breaks down into exaggerated bathos and tightly evolving chaos.

Conductor Gemma New presided over all this music with an emphasis on bringing out the character of Pierrot in every element. Sheepishly, she suggested this might not have pleased Schoenberg, but it did this listener.

Even Schoenberg’s vocal technique, Sprechstimme or Sprechmelodie, is not taken for granted today. Pierrot exploits the rigors of this technique called “speech-song.” Never is the soprano to sing operatically. She must always put timbre before pitch, and give a performance that falls in a rich mid-zone between song and speech.

Danielle Buonaiuto and Lisa Perry, this evening’s sopranos, switched off as Pierrot and mounted the role with ease. Buonaiuto’s last “Mein Lachen!” in “Gebet an Pierrot” cracked out exactly like the “laughter” of a drunken German wraith spitting out her absinthe. She achieved a high point as she raced through “Gallows Song” and into “Beheading.” The piccolo pierced the ear and Sheppard’s piano spelled absolute doom. The work’s metaphors have a particular character, as in this romantic description of a noose: “The scraggy harlot/ With a long neck . . . Lustfully will she/ Hug the rogue’s neck.” Can you imagine a sex metaphor so darkly comic in song today? Maybe in hip-hop.

The players of a 1924 Berlin performance of Pierrot Lunaire earned greater recognition than those of the premiere. Cellist Gregor Piatigorsky was offered an audition for first chair at the Berlin Philharmonic under Maestro Furtwängler. He’d been drafted to play Pierrot when another cellist didn’t want to sit through the more than 20 rehearsals required of him. Let us hope that some of our LUNAR ensemble members are equally rewarded. They deserve it.

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  • Erik Kestler

    More than 20 rehearsals? Good lord, it can be such a task to get people to do only a few rehearsals.

  • Danielle Buonaiuto

    Small correction: the singer who did “Gebet an Pierrot”, “Die durre Dirne”, and “Enthauptung” was Lisa Perry.

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