How does someone decide what to do on New Year’s Eve? I wish I knew. It may’ve been the (blue) moon at work, but the chance to hear Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire seemed like a natural choice. Evidently, I was not the only one so easily persuaded, as a full house turned out at the Gardner museum for this (in)famous piece.
Pierrot is a singular piece. It was written in 1912, during a stretch in Schoenberg’s career when all he could seem to write were singular pieces. It’s a “when worlds collide” song cycle: Commedia dell’Arte characters brought into the decadent avant-garde. It’s music that’s constantly on the edge; searing gazes, unplaceable screams, and bloody knives. The real twist is that the campy, vampy world of cabaret is never far away. The half-spoken Sprechstimme vocal style is as avant as it is of the theater (Pierrot’s commissioner and original singer was a cabaret singer). A healthy genre has since formed around the piece’s (then original) instrumentation: flute, clarinet, violin, cello, and piano.
Being a holiday night, a larger event was spun around the concert. Drinks and hors d’oeuvres to accompany pre-concert mingling. A commissioned video installation on a lunar theme. The crowd that came was not out of the formidably hip new music set. Instead, it seemed to be people attracted to classical music and an evening that would end at nine o’clock.
The Gardner is really a natural location for such an event — if you lived there, wouldn’t you invent reasons to have galas? The bar was set in front of El Jaleo(Sargent’s sensual portrait of a Spanish dancer). Projection screens for the video installation decorated the courtyard. The videos (Taro Shinoda’s Lunar Reflections, on display through January 31) stitched together overexposed urban night shots with close-ups of the moon. The scenes were largely still; any motion emerged from twinkling street lights. Their mood was contemplative, the focus on the gradual variations and their lunar parallels.
The concert was held in the museum’s tapestry room. It brought together a group of ringers, mostly New York-based (Sooyun Kim, flutes; Alexis Lanz, clarinets; David Fulmer, violin and viola; Eric Jacobsen, cello; Steven Beck, piano). Paula Robison, known primarily as a flautist, took the role of the speaker. She wore a plain white dress with a large collar. It resembled a nightgown and suggested a homebound insanity: someone who wandered out of her bedroom long enough to deliver her ravings, someone who would return to her quarters just as suddenly as she emerged. She was placed in the middle of the instrumentalists behind a nearly horizontal music stand, which gave her a sermonic stance. She held her ground for the duration and leaned on a small set of gestures. Her choices were sensitive to the text, but she kept a safe distance from any psychic edge (as did the dry, illustrative musicians). Fitting as it was, a blue moon can only provide the astrological scenery. Moondrunkenness is an individual effort, one that is needed for Pierrot Lunaire to come alive.