Arnie Schoenberg’s ghost comes alive, still creepy after all these years

If the scene in Branford common room last Friday at midnight was any indication, Arnold Schoenberg is the next indie rock hero. The sheer number of excitedly babbling students jammed into such a small space, in conjunction with the makeshift seating, free-flowing booze and mood lighting, created the pleasantly electrifying atmosphere of a rock concert. One would never expect that the crowd had gathered to listen to “Pierrot Lunaire,” a cycle of 21 atonal German songs about the moon.

“Three-times-seven Songs from Albert Giraud’s Pierrot Lunaire,” the work’s full title, is a masterpiece of Schoenberg’s early career, drawing elements from classical tradition, Commedia dell’Arte, cabaret and German Expressionism. The quintessential Viennese composer fuses all of this into 35 minutes of some of the most fiercely original music ever written. The poems are nocturnal and sometimes darkly funny (but mostly just dark). Displaying a frightening preoccupation with gore and the devil, songs like “Red Mass” and “Mean Trick!” are perhaps the goriest in the classical canon — they’d even give Slayer’s classic “Reign in Blood” a run for its money.

The cycle chronicles the misadventures of Pierrot, the white-robed clown of Commedia dell’Arte, as he becomes drunk on the moon’s rays, falls in love, renounces Christ, sees a grotesque prostitute hanged, plays the viola and waxes nostalgic for his homeland, Bergamo.

Scored for flute, clarinet, cello, violin, piano and voice — a diverse, if small ensemble — Schoenberg produces an astonished variety of tone colors, in part by requiring some of the musicians to play more than one instrument: The violinist must also play viola; the flutist, the piccolo; and the clarinetist, the bass clarinet. He also throws a wrench in the works by calling not for traditional singing, but rather a technique called “sprechgesang,” or speak-singing. Though rhythms and pitches are precisely indicated, the vocalist must never linger on any particular note, but instead slide between them. The effect is something drastically different: not quite recitation, not quite singing and, in this case, more effective than either one would be. It also gives the vocalist considerable freedom to inject tonal range and drama into the performance. The music is capriciously expressive, painting minutely detailed sound-portraits of the poems.

It’s a rare occasion to hear “Pierrot” live, given the enormous artistic and technical demands it places on all six musicians. Friday marked the debut performance of the piece for the Yale group, which formed last September. Their work paid off. I had anticipated a competent performance from these experienced musicians, but got much more: a truly thought-provoking, moving rendition that showed a deep understanding of this difficult music. But besides being thoughtful, the performance also had a thrilling spontaneity, reacting to Schoenberg’s split-second emotional twists with assured nimbleness.

Mellissa Hughes MUS ’06, the sing-speaker, was the natural star of the evening. Nattily bedecked with a pink necktie, she brought immediacy and humor to the role of Pierrot. Though currently studying in the Institute of Sacred Music’s early music program, she seems a natural interpreter of recent repertoire as well. Violinist Owen Dalby ’06, the group’s only undergraduate, applied his trademark all-or-nothing musicality to Schoenberg’s jagged chromatic lines; in “Homesick” his harmonics aptly illustrated the poem’s “crystal sighing.” Flutist James Devoll MUS ’05 gave one of the most controlled piccolo performances I’ve heard (no mean feat with the notoriously screechy instrument). His wan flute line in “The Sick Moon” formed an eerie duet with Hughes. Likewise, Dmitri Atapine MUS ’05 gave a suitably grotesque cello solo in “Serenade.” The clarinet, though given the least time in the spotlight, was strikingly played by Mingzhe Wang MUS ’06; the pall of dread his bass rumblings cast over “Night” was one of the highlights of the set. Ilya Poletaev MUS ’04 brought a characteristic mix of intelligence and intuition to the piano part, from his ghostly opening arpeggios to the steely pounding of “The Cross.”

Schoenberg remains one of the 20th century’s most controversial musical minds. Many blame him for the stagnation in classical composition during the middle of the century — and by extension, the continuing decline of interest in concert music. These accusations stem mostly from the composer’s invention and relentlessly dogmatic espousal of atonality (a kind of music not based on traditional diatonic harmony.) In Schoenberg’s mind, he was the only person who could free music from its prison of conventional tonality. A charismatic man with a ruthless sense of humor, he amassed a worshipful following of students. His deification eventually spread, virus-like, to most compositional niches of the Western world. Only in the past two decades, thanks in part to the fresh influence of Minimalism, has it become “cool” to write tonal music again.

So how does this explain the unexpected hipness of “Pierrot Lunaire”? I think it’s the new underground. Long relegated to the subject of dissertations and scholarly debate, Schoenberg’s music is finally ready to be heard, and judged, in context (and maybe even in bars).

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