It’s not uncommon, at least from what I’ve experienced living in New York and Brooklyn, for new music ensembles to program classic works alongside the more recent fare. And when I say “classic,” I don’t mean Dvorak’s “Dumky” trio or the like; I mean pieces by Messiaen, Vivier, Varèse—composers who should be considered classic by now, after a hundred or so years, but are still all too frequently lumped into the category of “new music” by more mainstream organizations and entities who shy away from anything but the most traditional programs. For new music audiences, these glimpses of the past are vital in understanding the trajectory of twentieth-century music, discerning certain young composers’ influences, or even observing the flexibility and range of the musicians’ sounds and techniques. One of these compositions, Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, offered all of this in addition to its sonic and narrative whimsy as presented by Tenth Intervention at the Bowery Poetry Club on a slushy evening just a few days before Valentine’s day. Although I was present merely as a curious audience member, I quickly rooted through my bag for my notebook to scribble some observations and praise for this remarkably arresting interpretation.
Pierrot Lunaire was first performed in 1912. The influence of the 21-song melodrama can still be felt in the prevalence of the “Pierrot ensemble,” which has been employed in chamber music compositions by dozens of composers in the century since Schoenberg’s Pierrot. Consisting of flute, clarinet, violin, cello, and piano, often joined by percussion or voices, the “Pierrot ensemble” in its original form called for a single vocalist. Usually a soprano, this vocalist narrates in Sprechstimme: not entirely singing or speaking but somewhere between the two; literally “speech singing.” The narrative consists of German translations of “3 times 7” French poems (also named Pierrot Lunaire) by Albert Giraud. Each poem consists of 13 lines (it should be noted that Schoenberg had a lifelong aversion to the number 13; his grave is marked with an even-sided cube). Schoenberg’s music itself is atonal but not yet in his twelve-tone technique; the musicians rarely join in all at once, which, in combination with the Sprechstimme, lends the piece a conversational feel.
On February 9, 2015, a faction of the multi-faceted contemporary music group Tenth Intervention interpreted Pierrot Lunaire after pianist Dorian Wallace performed a fascinating structured improvisation as accompaniment for Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí’s surrealist silent film Un chien andalou. This gruesome prelude, complete with sliced sclera, ants, and a “romantic” walk on the beach, was fitting for the disjointed and sometimes startling story and music that was to follow. The screen on which we had just seen Un chien andalou was used for English line-by-line translations of Giraud’s poems. Conductor Ben Grow led flutist Martha Cargo, clarinetist Mark Dover, violinist Hajnal Pivnick, cellist Colin Stokes, and pianist Mike Brofman through the 40-minute score; they were joined by expressive soprano Charlotte Mundy as the narrator.
Their musicianship was immaculate from start to finish. Mundy’s voice roved from a low snarl all the way up to piercing high notes, and she adopted playful expressions throughout, ramping up to brash mockery as she speech-sang the words “withered whore.” At times her voice glinted like the moonlight on the scimitar that she sang of, and at others it seemed to float out uncannily. Cargo’s tone was milky as those same moonbeams even as she deftly switched from flute to piccolo. Indeed, all the musicians seemed to throw themselves into their parts, from the frantic sawing at the cello to the skips and hops up and down the piano keyboard. The conversation among voice and instruments here achieved a sort of breathless interplay between words, ideas, and timbres that sounded so much newer than its 103 years. Audience members, packed into the space at full capacity, tittered and raised their eyebrows throughout this “Dystopian Valentine:” although not quite new and to some not yet a “classic,” Schoenberg still has the capacity to shock.