IN: Reviews

Moondrunkenness Needed for Pierrot Lunaire to Come Alive


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.

Publisher’s note: I do not consider the term, “ringer,” to be pejorative. In my understanding of musical parlance a ringer is a highly qualified professional artist who is brought into an assemblage with which she is not normally associated.

Adam Baratz is a composer and pianist. He lives in Cambridge.


14 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. what the@#$^&*()_&*()_#@#$%^&* are you talking about?????????
    Happy New Year.

    Comment by paula robison — January 4, 2010 at 11:32 am

  2. AND….how DARE you call our group of artists “ringers”???? What a disgusting term.
    Well….you are young. I hope you can learn to listen a little better as you grow up.

    Comment by paula robison — January 4, 2010 at 11:53 am

  3. A “highly qualified professional” is not an artist. We are all artists and we worked together for over a year to prepare this performance.

    Comment by paula robison — January 4, 2010 at 2:25 pm

  4. I’m very sorry that your year of preparation was not apparent to our reviewer. We would be happy to consider an additional review from another attendee. Do you care to suggest someone? One of my purposes in creating this site was to foster learned and civil discourse among musicians, musical academics and listeners.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — January 4, 2010 at 2:43 pm

  5. Dear Lee Eiseman,
    Thanks for this.
    How absolutely wonderful.
    Another attendee? Perhaps the curator, Pieranna Cavalchini, would have an idea.
    I have never replied to a review in my entire life, and it’s a great romp to participate in this discussion. Makes me happy to live in Boston….
    Brava to you, and Happy New Year!
    Paula Robison

    Comment by paula robison — January 4, 2010 at 3:13 pm

  6. I actually liked the part about the nightgown. Emily Dickinson was there..

    Comment by paula robison — January 4, 2010 at 3:21 pm

  7. Paula Robison would have been better advised to use her “Moondrunk” expressions in the performance, rather than in her hysterical reaction to Adam Baratz’s review, which was insightful, descriptive and dead on (in fact, more gentle than it could have been). Frankly, there have been many fine singers and actors who have performed this demanding “Sprechstimme” role with skill, experience and, if you will, “expressive expressionism;” Paula Robison cannot be counted among them. However, since her husband Scott Nikrenz directs the music program at the Gardner like an absolute monarch, hiring only his friends and ignoring everyone else, I am sure Princess Paula will have no trouble getting a return engagement there. Hey, Gardner Museum Overseers! Would you employ a curator who only put the paintings of his friends or useful contacts on the wall?

    Comment by e.r.staunt — January 7, 2010 at 10:15 am

  8. Well, maybe it;s time to escape from Boston!

    Comment by paula robison — January 7, 2010 at 6:21 pm

  9. And, by the way, hysteria was not what we were aiming for in our year of work together, but rather
    the “light, satiric, ironic tone” which Schoenberg wanted…….

    Comment by paula robison — January 7, 2010 at 6:23 pm

  10. And, Mr Baratz’s review had been modified by the time Mr Staunt read it. The earlier version was the one which annoyed me. There seem to be other issues at play here! How interesting!I’ve never been called a princess before….hmmmmmmmmmmmm

    Comment by paula robison — January 7, 2010 at 6:27 pm

  11. Perhaps it’s time to declare a cease-fire here. The issue under consideration was a particular evening and a specific performance,
    not larger philosophical questions about how a director chooses to run a music series (I must interject, however, that Mr Nickrenz was not the director of this particular event, but rather Pieranna Cavalchini, curator of Contemporary art at the Gardner). I’m happy to take my knocks as a performer. That’s the dust of the arena which we all must eat if we choose to enter that creaky wooden gate with the spikes on top of it. I apologize if I was too energetic in my reaction. I
    was breathing the ether of a free artist after the experience of a masterpiece, an experience not readily available to me as a flute player.I pray that with help from my colleagues and teachers, I may someday become an eloquent interpreter of “Pierrot Lunaire”. Happy New Year.

    Comment by paula robison — January 7, 2010 at 7:12 pm

  12. YMs. Robison’s desire to call a cease-fire on this issue is a good one. But a clarification is in order; yes, Mr. Baratz’s review was modified (for the better), but only by the addition of more information on Pierrot (second paragraph) and listing the “ringers” (second sentence, last paragraph).

    Comment by Bettina A. Norton, executive editor — January 8, 2010 at 7:44 am

  13. Dear Ms Norton, If the modified,improved review (listing my fellow artists) had been the one I had read originally, I would certainly have kept my big mouth shut. It did, however, result in an extensive and lively discussion on facebook of the meaning of the word “ringer”! We all learned a lot about our differing reactions to the word, and about its origins. So, thanks for that! I shall henceforth take the label as a compliment. The “Pierrot” scores and books are all in the attic, at rest probably for good. I won’t waste time on the nasty remarks about the Music Director,
    except to ask: doesn’t any Director have the mandate to engage the artists he or she is interested in? Perhaps this could be a future post/forum……..

    Comment by paula robison — January 8, 2010 at 9:16 am

  14. I would like to chime in here as an attendee in the front row of this fantastic NYE event. What Paula Robison and esteemed colleagues accomplished in their passionate rendition of Pierrot was truly notable and it sent shivers of humanity running up and down my spine throughout the performance. I was positively overwhelmed with the performers precision during the Galgenlied, their enthusiasm in Der Mondfleck, the morbid humor/gestures of Gemeinheit, and the altogether brilliance of Ms. Robison’s presentation and ensemble coordination, especially. My concert partner (a string player who has studied and performed this piece) and I could not stop talking about it for days after the performance, and we are still talking about it!! For this concert attendee anyway, it was truly remarkable what they did on New Years Eve and I was thrilled to witness it. As a trained classical flutist myself, I would also like to congratulate Sooyun Kim for a very rich and colorful performance which I found to be refined, expressive, and inspiring. To those who have read E.R. Staunt’s comments about Ms. Robison – if you know anything about the classical music world, Paula Robison is among the most acclaimed and celebrated flutists and musicians of our lifetime… there are musicians and music aficionados worldwide who are envious that we get to hear/see her perform as often as we do, right here in Boston, and we should be humbled by our good fortune in this regard. We might also appreciate the Gardner and Mr. Nickrenz for organizing what, in my opinion, is second in all of New England/Boston only to the massive buying power of the Celebrity Series of Boston. Kindest regards to all and indeed – HAPPY NEW YEAR!

    Comment by Adam Workman — January 16, 2010 at 11:59 am

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