Music review

Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble’s closing performance an audacious undertaking

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Schoenberg’s “Pierrot Lunaire” is a tough act to precede. It’s one of the seminal works of modern music, classical and pop. Premiered in Berlin in 1912, it was based on translations of 21 French poems by Albert Giraud, about the “moonstruck” (read: mad) clown whose mind encompasses a gamut of grotesque and gruesome thoughts and deeds, mostly related to sex and love.   

Schoenberg’s 1912 score introduced atonality, a break from traditional harmony of the time (though not the 12-tone “serial” technique he was later to espouse), while his treatment of the voice expanded traditional vocal technique into “speech-song” – in which the words are declaimed at the approximate pitches but in strict observance of the rhythms. The accompanying ensemble calls for five players: flute (doubling on piccolo), clarinet (doubling on bass clarinet), violin (doubling on viola), cello and piano – essentially the model for a modern music ensemble, just as the string quartet had been the basis of classical chamber music.

In 2006, Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble, guided by its enterprising artistic director Kevin Noe, commissioned a new work from Canadian composer Kieren MacMillan as a prologue to “Pierrot.” The new work was called “Drunken Moon,” and the mini-opera that resulted from this amalgam was repeated Friday and Saturday to close PNME’s summer season at City Theater on The South Side. It was an audacious undertaking.

“Drunken Moon” incorporates. opera, pop songs, jazz, Broadway, even a bit of baroque (an homage to Bach), with a modern dance motive running through the work as well. Everyone gets into the act, beginning with conductor Noe dancing with one of the ladies on stage before the show begins, then introducing the main female character in a brief narrative. There’s a fluidity typical of all Mr. Noe’s programs – calling on the instrumentalists to leave their stands when they’re not playing in order to join in the proceedings of the drama.

“Drunken Moon” takes place in a bar, or perhaps a cocktail lounge, with quiet dancing while one woman – “with a forced smile” – sits at a table alone. That woman (soprano Lindsay Kesselman) becomes the central figure, dancing with one man while obviously preferring another (baritone Timothy Jones), who is ignoring her. Moonbeams, moonshine, moonstruck are prominent words in the lyrics, as they will be as well in the Schoenberg section. 

Without realizing it, we are brought from cabaret into the bizarre world of Schoenberg’s clown. Instead of Cole Porter sound-alikes, the vocal line has become pitch-approximate, taking on the rhythm of speech. The man, aka Pierrot, puts on makeup with a moonbeam, or in this instance, dons the clown’s white mask. Blood competes with moonlight in the poetic imagery. Now it’s a “deathly-stricken moon,” or “rubies bleeding drops of ancient glory.” A moonbeam becomes a Turkish sword for a beheading, or a fleck of white plaster that cannot be removed.

Instead of the traditional reading of the vocal lines by a single person, the lines are here divided between the two protagonists in unorthodox ways. At climactic moments, the two sing their lines in unison – no small feat in Schoenbergian speech-song. Ms. Kesselman and Mr. Jones combined vocal expertise with dramatic conviction in ways that belied this score’s fiendish difficulties. It would also be hard to overpraise the skills of the PNME musicians, who had considerably more to do than sit at their stands and merely play the music.

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