Ask a scholar to name two works that changed the course of music in the 20th Century. Chances are, one will be Igor Stravinsky’s “Sacre du Printemps.” And the other will be Arnold Schoenberg’s “Pierrot Lunaire.”
Written in the epochal year of 1912, “Pierrot” celebrated the death of Romanticism and the birth of Expressionism. It reinforced, once and for all, a new stylistic connotation for the so-called Viennese School.
Schoenberg’s setting of 21 macabre poems of the Belgian symbolist Albert Giraud, as Germanified by Otto Erich Hartleben, have lost little in fascination over the decades. The inherent dissonance retains its shock appeal, even as the inherent decadence begins to seem disconcertingly commonplace.
The composer’s revolutionary use of Sprechgesang , a specifically dictated fusion of song and speech, caused several generations of followers to reconsider both the effect and the affect of verbal communication in musical theater. Schoenberg’s manipulation of serial devices, his application of formal compression and textural flexibility remain models of creative daring.
On Monday, the local Schoenberg Institute, joining forces with the County Museum of Art, ventured the second installment of its extraordinary “Pierrot Project.” With the special exhibit of German Expressionist paintings providing appropriate visual impulses in a nearby gallery, the New York New Music Ensemble brought keen style awareness to Schoenberg’s masterpiece at the Bing Theater.
More important, perhaps, the New Yorkers also performed eight new settings of “Pierrot” poems that had not been used by Schoenberg.
Eight latter-day Schoenbergians had been charged by the Schoenberg Institute to enlarge the Giraud repertory using the same forces that had been favored by the master. Beyond that, they were on their own.
The quasi-disciples discovered, no doubt, that Schoenberg is a hard act to follow. If they imitated him, they came away as tired copiers. If they ignored him, they came away as foolish iconoclasts.
It may be significant that the composers selected for this task were not exactly a band of dewy avant-gardists. The youngest, Stephen Mosko, was born in 1947. The oldest, Miriam Gideon, enjoyed her sixth birthday around the time of the “Pierrot” premiere.
It also may be worth noting that several of the “Pierrot” sequels are parts of broken sets. They were played out of context on this occasion. Their design, as a result, became needlessly obscure.
Be that as it may, the commissioned pretenders to the dodecaphonic throne are still just that: pretenders. Schoenberg’s shade can rest in peace.
Some post-"Pierrot” pretenders, however, proved more persuasive than others. Some found the constraints of the historic precedent inspiring, Others obviously found them confining.
Leslie Bassett’s modestly whimsical “Die Wolken” at least enjoyed the dual advantage of a shimmering instrumental fabric and cantabile sensitivity. John Harbison’s “Im Spiegel” played knowingly with fragmentation and, thank goodness, resisted the obvious temptation of mirror images.
Gideon’s “Bohmischer Krystal” exulted in a lean lyricism that actually pointed backward in the direction of Schubert. It also turned out to be one of the few offerings that justified use of the German text rather than an English translation.
Milton Babbitt’s “Souper,” first heard here in February, invoked the gnarled theatrics of the archaic model honorably. Paul Cooper’s “Landschaft” juggled violence and introspection deftly. Mosko’s “Schweres Loos” seemed preoccupied with exquisite detail and with Sprechgesang that bordered on caricature.
Roger Reynold’s “Abend-Nacht-Morgen,” the most ambitious yet possibly most reverential effort, introduced sensitive mood painting and subtle instrumental devices--some of them electronic. Under the circumstances, one wanted to forgive the impenetrable analytic babble of his program note.
The performances of the novelties, conducted by Robert Black, seemed both secure and refined. The performance of the Ur -"Pierrot,” after intermission, found the security and refinement enhanced by passion.
Christine Schadeberg mastered the impossible vocal lines--no matter how high, how low, how jagged, how loud or how soft--with uncommon purity, with uncanny accuracy and dramatic point. The virtuosic orchestral ensemble--Elizabeth di Felice, Chris Finckel, Jean Kopperud, Linda Quan and Jayn Rosenfeld--complemented the singer’s enlightened efforts, nuance for nuance.
The appreciative audience was small by ordinary standards, large by Monday Evening Concert standards, sophisticated by any standard.