The first eight of the 29 pieces commissioned by the Arnold Schoenberg Institute (ASI) in the recent "Pierrot Project: Homage to 'Pierrot Lunaire' " were given premiere performances Monday night at the institute. The remaining 21 will be introduced in concerts at ASI in the fall.
Commissioned last year to commemorate the 75th anniversary of Arnold Schoenberg's landmark work of 1912, the project aims to complete the setting of the 50 poems by the Belgian Symbolist writer Albert Giraud, 21 of whose poems Schoenberg set in "Pierrot Lunaire."
Monday, settings by John Harbison, Karl Kohn, Richard Hoffmann, Mel Powell, Milton Babbitt and William Kraft were introduced.
It could not be surprising that, given the poetry, and the specification in the commission to draw from the same musical forces used by Schoenberg, that a certain sameness of texture and ambiance pervaded these eight new settings. Sung--rather than recited, as Schoenberg's cycle requires--by mezzo-soprano Miriam Abramowitsch, assisted by six of her colleagues of the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players and conducted by Jean-Louis LeRoux, these miniatures pleased but did not startle.
Kraft's instrumentally colorful setting of "Feerie" (the poems were set in the German translation--used by Schoenberg--of Otto Erich Hartleben) offered the listener a sense of musical and poetic integrity, a melding of thought and sound. Babbitt's notably brief reduction of "Souper" stressed the evanescence of the poetry. Powell's approach to "Die Violine," for voice, violin and piano only, found both delicacy and subtext.
On the other hand, Harbison's bemused, humorously standoffish setting of "Rot und Weiss" seemed the only acknowledgement that Schoenberg's original was written all of three-quarters of a century ago. Kohn's success in setting both "Die Kirche" and "Pantomime" resulted in a minisymphonic texture of handsome density--highly perfumed and specifically soloistic. Hoffmann's approach to "Das Alphabet" and "Das Heilige Weiss" produced similar thickness, more violent in expressing the former, more Impressionist in realizing the latter--yet none of this precluded Hoffmann's use of wit and sly musical references.
The second half of this program featured the same forces in a solid, if sometimes overplayed, reading of Schonberg's original "Pierrot Lunaire.