in: Reviews

July 7, 2014

Gregory Biss Quarterbacks Summerkeys

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I have reported before from the Cobscook Bay area of downeast Maine. It’s off the beaten path for those habituated to Tanglewood, but adventurous musical souls do come to this remote corner of New England in search of lobster, steamer clams, pine woods, salt air, and a certain peace and quiet. Eastport, where I live five months of the year, is the easternmost city in the United States. In 1900 its population was about 6000, supporting six canneries in a lively industry of tinned fish. The canneries are all closed now; year-round population is 1300; there is an interesting group of very good painters and sculptors; 25 students graduated from Shead Memorial High School three weeks ago. During the Fourth of July weekend, population is said to swell to 10,000, nearly all of them vanished by July 5th this year.

Lubec, incorporated as a town, is two miles further east (two miles across the water, 38 miles by road) and includes Quoddy Head State Park, the easternmost point in the United States. Lubec’s highest point, half a mile from the international bridge that leads to Campobello Island in Canada, is a hill with a standpipe and a congregational church with a small congregation. The church is a white wooden structure with steeple and cupola needing repairs, and an aging, low-pitched Moeller electropneumatic organ with display pipes stenciled in green, black, and gold.

One of Lubec’s most thriving institution is Summerkeys, which offers summer vacation and musical instruction for amateurs in week-long segments. Practice space is provided, local lodging is arranged, and every client gets a short lesson every day on his or her instrument. Bruce Potterton, pianist, who founded and directs Summerkeys, established a series of weekly free concerts at the church. Here we heard on July 2nd what must be the easternmost performance ever in the USA of Schoenberg’s epochal melodrama, Pierrot Lunaire. This masterpiece of early atonality is still as intractable as ever, but the performance was as exciting and interesting as I have always expected it to be.

Quarterbacking the entire performance was Gregory Biss, a year-round resident of Eastport since 1979 and a long-standing regular member of the piano faculty at Summerkeys (he commutes every day by lobster boat). Eve Friedman (flute and piccolo), Anna Maria Baeza (clarinet and bass clarinet), and Joachim Woitun (cello), have also taught at Summerkeys for years. Two others were recruited from abroad: Patti Kilroy, violinist-violist, and Mary Mackenzie, soprano, both well known in the new-music scene in New York. All of these seasoned professionals have been working on Pierrot Lunaire for half a year and more. The ensemble was tightly knit and electrifying at the same time, and provided a first-rate surprise to an audience of about 120, 95% of whom, in my informal estimate, had never heard Pierrot Lunaire before.

Mary Mackenzie’s approach to the Pierrot role was a dramatic one—acting with her voice. The original Sprechstimme of the premiere performances in 1912, Albertine Zehme, treated it similarly. Mackenzie’s vocalization involved clear attacks on indicated pitches, but also an entire range of shrieking and shouting, admirably dramatic, but more, perhaps, than Schoenberg would have found liked — and who can tell? The Sprechstimme technique (or perhaps one should call it a style), after a century, is still an experiment, and there are many listeners, indeed probably many musicians, who wonder whether any degree of spoken vocalization interferes with the essential musicality of Pierrot Lunaire. Even Stravinsky, decades later, remarked that he had wished that Zehme could step aside so that he could hear the music, and went so far as to suggest that Pierrot should be recorded as a Music-Minus-One record without the voice.

The group was scheduled to perform again on July 5th at the Arts Center in Eastport, but Hurricane Arthur intervened. That morning the wind was already in the 50-mph range and the rain torrential. Electric power in Eastport was lost at 7 a.m., not to return for 30-hours. But the sun rose on Sunday with toppled trees and torn-off branches dotting the town everywhere, and the hastily rescheduled concert took place at 3 in the afternoon. Some who had planned to come the night before couldn’t make the afternoon event, but an eager audience of about thirty people attended—a few more than at the world premiere of Pierrot Lunaire 102 years ago, I was told—and including four off-duty sailors from the missile cruiser Anzio (CG-68), visiting for the holiday celebrations. The acoustics were more favorable in Eastport, and the players could hear each other better. Mary Mackenzie’s declamation was more restrained in this more intimate atmosphere, but no less effective dramatically, and it never overpowered the instruments.

Pierrot Lunaire is always an enriching auditory experience, and one learns more and more with each repetition. At the same time, confronting Pierrot Lunaire with the ear, or with one’s analytical intelligence, always leaves questions unanswered. What, for example, is the structural gulf between the recitative-like Gebet an Pierrot, no. 9 (the first of the texts that Schoenberg composed), and the meticulously organized and audibly impenetrable Der Mondfleck (no. 18)? What kind of mind could move so effortlessly from the warm lyricism of Madonna (no. 6) to the clangorous harshness of Die Kreuze (no. 14) and visualize their religious symbolism in the same terms? And yet Schoenberg wrote all of Pierrot Lunaire incredibly quickly, at one point with more than three settings in a single day, and at other scattered moments over just a few months, all the while—perhaps—imagining an overall plan that we can hardly grasp. As Walter Piston once put it, Pierrot Lunaire is an example of “a composer searching for a system.” Schoenberg’s search relentlessly continued, despite the Great War and several large-scale abandoned works in between, until the twelve-tone technique emerged eleven years later.

On both evenings the after-intermission program featured Mary Mackenzie singing seven moon-themed popular songs, oldies and some of the latest, but I mention particularly John Harbison’s innocent “Orange Moon” with its delicious major sevenths, Frank Perkins’s “Stars Fell on Alabama,” and, perhaps best of all, “Reaching for the Moon” by venerable Irving Berlin, a slow C minor serenade that was the evening’s real Valse de Chopin. Gregory Biss accompanied ably. All of these were a treat, eagerly consumed by appreciative audiences in both Lubec and Eastport.

Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert in Alban Berg, also Ravel and Debussy. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (PhD, 1967), he has published extensively on these composers and many music subjects, most notably,  harmony.

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