eighth blackbird’s artsy staging of Schoenberg’s “Lunaire” proves a wounded duck

Wed Dec 09, 2009 at 4:11 pm

By Gerald Fisher

Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire was performed by eighth blackbird Tuesday night at the Harris Theater.

Eighth blackbird’s program, presented at the Harris Theater Tuesday night was subtitled “Paradoxes and Parallels”—and aptly so, since the evening’s biggest paradox was how a program with such first-rate music and first-rate performances could be so cluttered with irrelevant and ill-conceived distractions.

The program was centered on Pierrot Lunaire, Arnold Schoenberg’s Expressionist masterpiece, while the first half showcased composers with some kind of relationship to the great man or his work.

The redoubtable Lucy Shelton bit into some of the best-known of the Brecht/Weill cabaret songs from various musicals, stretching them almost to the breaking point by her mannered exaggerations. The witty arrangements by eighth blackbird’s pianist Lisa Kaplan and cellist Nicholas Photinos were sparse and clean, and contributed to a fascinating take on these standards.

Alban Berg’s Chamber Symphony of 1923 was written to celebrate Schoenberg’s 50th birthday. The group presented its Adagio in Berg’s version for violin, clarinet and piano, with Kaplan joined by violinist Matt Albert and clarinetist Michael J. Maccaferri, The excellent trio played quite adroitly, and managed well the contrasting moods of the piece which run from hectic to romantic.

George Perle, the American composer who died this year at 93, was a next-generation follower and chronicler of Schoenberg, modifying his master’s austere orthodoxy with a cool breath of individualism. Critical Moments 2 (2001) was commissioned by eighth blackbird and is a stripped down but genial conversation among the six instruments exploiting their particular sonorities.

All this music was a prelude to a complete performance of Pierrot Lunaire in a version conceived and staged by Mark DeChiazza, with Lucy Shelton back to do the role for which she is most celebrated. The New York diva has the measure of this melodrama, and it was marvelous to hear her fierce attack on the German text. She clearly has a real feeling for the dark Expressionistic poetry and the sprechstimme style.

Unfortunately supertitles were intermittent or nonexistent for most of the performance and the text was impossible to read in the darkened hall. It was hard to figure why only the title and first line of each poem was all that was projected. While Schoenberg was himself dismissive of the text (for him the music was all) it is still the skeleton around which the music is draped, and Shelton was variously erotic, cajoling and hysterical without the audience having a clue as to why.

There were other anomalies: the dance sequences, created for this performance, partly illustrated the piece and partly ignored it and the stage setting itself proved a distraction, especially when the three large light bulbs above the action were turned on at full illumination and tossed around as part of the action. All the excess frippery was completely unnecessary because the performers were uniformly so superb and could have carried the show on the music alone.

What finally emerged from all the clutter was a sensitive reading of some of Schoenberg’s best middle-period music. One had to admire the courage of all these performers (including percussionist Matthew Duvall performing as actor in this piece and Tim Munro, the virtuosic flutist) as they threw themselves into the action while keeping the rhythms and complexities of the atonal structure under control.

Posted in Performances

Leave a Comment