Celebrating 100 Years of Pierrot Lunaire at Intermezzi III

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As host John Kennedy told us before Intermezzi III, he could not let the hundredth anniversary year of Arnold Schoenberg’s groundbreaking Pierrot Lunaire go by without bringing it to us here at Spoleto for the first time. What? Hundred-year-old “New Music?” Well, Kennedy described it to us as an ageless work, one that could’ve been written yesterday, and that could still come across to modern audiences as radically new, even avant-garde, with its pervasive atonality and use of the “Sprechstimme” (speak-voice) technique. While I have a recording of it, I was overjoyed to get to hear this classic in performance for the first time.

The work sets 21 poems (three sets of seven each) by expressionist poet Albert Giraud, which have to do with the actions, antics, and experiences of Pierrot: the classic “sad clown” of the old European commedia dell’arte tradition. The half-sung, half-spoken Sprechstimme technique — with its characteristic vocal swoops, sighs, shrieks, whispers and moans — had its origins in the stylized vocal techniques of German Cabaret. It seems ideally suited to the whimsical and totally unpredictable character of Pierrot. Since, unlike conventional singing, the technique follows no specific tonal scheme, it also lends itself well to the atonality of the work’s instrumental accompaniment (which can be either an orchestra or the five-instrument chamber ensemble heard here). You should know that the so-called “free atonality” of this piece pre-dates the “serial” or “twelve-tone” techniques that Schoenberg later developed to bring some order to the chaos of disorganized atonality.

While both the work’s atonality and the Sprechstimme technique continue to rub many ears the wrong way, more adventurous listeners soon become accustomed to it; careful listening reveals some fascinating musical intersections and instances of mutual support between the voice and the instruments, as well as between the music and the often absurd poetry. The attentive listener soon realizes that this is not just random notes and sounds thrown about willy-nilly, but that everything you hear is by meticulous musical design and craftsmanship. The composer employs a wide range of specific musical forms and techniques, like canon, fugue, free counterpoint, rondo, and passacaglia. The overall effect is often that of a surreal vision or dream that — while it often makes little sense — can still stimulate the senses and fire the imagination.

And that’s exactly what happened to the capacity audience at the Simons Center Monday evening at this most excellent performance. The five instrumentalists, along with soprano Anne-Carolyn Bird and conductor Kennedy, added up to seven performers onstage. This was further by careful design, as Schoenberg had a thing for numerology. Remember, the work is delivered in three cycles of seven songs each, and there are seven major musical “themes” of seven notes each. The number three is also of importance, considering the three poetry cycles. And that’s only part of the work’s very complex numerological organization.

Our performers brought this often very difficult music to life with verve, enthusiasm, and tremendous skill. The most excellent instrumentalists (All from the Spoleto Festival Orchestra, save for pianist Conor Hanick) were Lisa Goddard (violin, viola), Grace An (cello), Henrik Heide (flutes), and Jason Shafer (clarinets). Ms. Bird delivered her tricky Sprechstimme vocals with confidence and great expressiveness. She was most effective in projecting a wide range of moods and emotions, to include whimsy, yearning, ennui, anger, desolation, and macabre horror. Being a near-native German linguist, I can say for sure that her German diction was mostly quite good. Incidentally, we had no trouble following each poem’s content and meaning, as good translations were projected on a wall screen behind the performers.  

My only quibble is that the music sometimes seemed overbalanced volume-wise in favor of the instruments, so that some of Bird’s vocals were somewhat obscured. However, this may well have also been by design, as I only have recordings (which usually bring the voice more to the fore) to compare this performance with. Still, the music worked its wonders on me as I sat, spellbound, through the entire piece. The crowd’s response was collectively ecstatic. Here’s to another 100 years of enthusiastic appreciation for this eclectic and fascinating masterpiece.   

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