Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Musicians of Ma'alwyck. "Moonstruck," Union College. March 1, 2008.

Anne Marie Barker Schwartz conceived an inspired program for an expanded edition of the Musicians of Ma'alwyck ensemble, combining two demanding works from the 20th century, and a new work by Hilary Tan.

Pierrot Lunaire, by Arnold Schoenberg, looks both backwards and forwards. Schoenberg accepted the offer to create a melodrama for the actress Albertine Zehme, and it was premiered in 1912. The work sets 21 poems by the Belgian Albert Giraud for recitation and a small chamber ensemble. The poems themselves are ridiculously decadent and profane, filled with macabre images and gallows humor, and are axiomatic examples of Symbolism, written in the midst of that movement's heyday in the 1880's. For 1912, the poems would have been long out of fashion. Schoenberg's atonal musical treatment, colorfully inspired by Pierrot's nightmarish escapades was, however, on the cutting edge, although it predates his dodecaphonic basis of composition. Schoenberg's conception of a small chamber ensemble with vocal soloist would be influential for decades to come, notably in the work of Stravinsky (who, never to be outdone, used three narrators in A Soldier's Tale), Boulez and Crumb, among others. The prickly pointillism prefigures a style that would be further developed by Webern, and a host of post-WWII composers decades later.

Soprano Jean Marie Callahan Kern, was dressed in black and white, emulating the costume of Pierrot, and used minimal props to emphasize the theatrical aspects. The recitation is notated in the score as sprechstimme, where the performer is asked to approximate intonations somewhere between speech and song. Kern's performance vigorously addressed the dramatic content as her powerful voice, swooping and diving, delivered an appropriately exaggerated embodiment of the melodrama. This was, as far as anyone knows, the first and only performance of Pierrot Lunaire in this region. Kern only rested her voice for about 10 minutes before launching into the Strauss songs.

Put in perspective, Webern was already dead three years, and John Cage had completed his Sonatas and Interludes for prepared piano, when Richard Strauss finished the Four Last Songs in 1948. Filled with images of sunset, autumn, rest, and the soul in flight, they are explicitly about the patient anticipation of death, and they were in fact completed close to Strauss's own. The vocal melodies soar on harmonies functional yet dizzying in their shifting of a perceived tonal center. These songs were written in such a highly evolved rhetoric of late-late Romanticism that it exists on a plane above "style." Although the Four Last Songs are well known, Strauss is most renown for his extended (overblown, perhaps?) programmatic tone poems. Here, Strauss gets to the point, immediately delving into the sublime, crystallizing his ideas, instead of dragging them around for 40 minutes. The effect is overwhelming, not overpowering. Beauty is not always pretty, but these songs are pretty on the surface and deeply beautiful as well. Originally written for a large orchestra and voice, this chamber arrangement by William Carragan, for piano and half a dozen instrumentalists, amazingly loses none of the impact of the original. To the ear, everything remains intact, but is now more transparent and intimate in this new setting and, in some ways, even more appropriate to the subject matter.

The writing in Hilary Tann's piano trio, Nothing Forgotten, itself resembled the gnarled trunks of trees depicted in the accompanying photographs by Lawrence White. The trio is modal, organic, with bumpy rhythms, and chromatic notes adding irregularities to the expectations of the emerging motifs. The views of the Adirondacks showed macro and micro views of natural scenes, eventually revolving around images of trees that appear to have grown their roots around and above enormous boulders.

The musicians, led by conductor Lanfranco Marcelletti, appeared remarkably at ease with this program of the new, relatively unheard or, in the instance of the new Strauss arrangement, the unfamiliar. The capacity audience had an obvious appreciation for their effort. Here's hoping our ears will be treated to more fascinating and unusual repertoire by this masterful group.