IN: Reviews

New Pierrot Ensemble Belies Its Name


Nicholas Borgia-Tran; and Spencer Winell (Julie Ingelfinger photo)

Der Gestanke, Boston’s winsome and welcoming new Pierrot ensemble, provided high entertainment at Boston Conservatory’s Studio 106 this past weekend with three world premieres and a full performance of Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire. In case you did not already know, a Pierrot ensemble named for the famous 20th-century piece, includes those instruments of the seminal composition of that name—flute, clarinet, violin, cello and piano. Furthermore, such groups often include other instruments—particularly percussion, and additional strings; the flute and clarinet parts can often be two-fers or three-fers, given the use of piccolo and alto flute by the flutist, and bass clarinet for the clarinetist. Many such ensembles come together for only a concert or two; the last with local staying power, Boston Musica Viva’s. Widely known Pierrots have included Fires of London, the Da Capo Chamber Players, The New Music Players, Standing Wave, Brightwork New Music, What is Noise and Ensemble Namu. Based on this event, Der Gestanke may find itself welcomed among great Pierrots.

Conducted for the evening by Justin Taveras, the group included Rose Hegele, soprano; pianist Daniel Nerger, as well as Hannah Elizabeth Tobias, flutes; Walter Yee, clarinets; Brian Stuligross, violin; Ashtyn Brown, cello and Wes Fowler, percussion. All of these players are committed to inclusivity and acceptance and adventuresome spirit.

Leading off the evening were two world premieres by the co-director, “queer composer” and teacher, Spencer Winell, whose prolific oeuvre and expansive spirit are infectious. Winell’s His blood—all over my hands (2023) pays musical homage to Pierrot Lunaire with a fitful and bleak sense of madness, inspired by the composer’s horror of over 540 anti-queer bills appearing across the US in state legislatures during the first half of this year. Soprano Hegele’s Sprechgesang and Sprechstimme with additional technical devices of hissing, rumbling, and alarming, suggested Pierrot Lumiere on steroids. Hegele, a fine actress as well, conveyed the lunacy and horror inevitably present, given the Macbethian lyrics. Her phrasing and pronunciation led to wonderment that she could speak at all at the conclusion.

Winell has noted his “musical quotes from Schoenberg’s Erwartung laced into the text at the same point as the quote from Pierrot‘s ‘Der Dandy’ ― ‘aber es wird gleich zerfließen’.” Instrumentation more than supported here—it enhanced. Beyond that, juxtaposed and triturated textual references throughout to Shakespeare/Verdi, Schoenberg, Puccini, Donizetti, Wilde/Strauss, provided a monodrama-mad scene.”

Rose Hegele (Julie Ingelfinger photo)

Next, Winell’s reaching towards, reaching from, with its strophe and antistrophe, kept the audience spellbound, as percussionist Fowler managed an ever-complex set of instruments. Fowler partnered at intervals with pianist Daniel Nerger, never stopping in the work’s passage towards and away from A4 (A440—the A above middle C); the other four members– Tobias, Yee, Stuligross and conductor Taveras got fully into Fowler’s pyrotechniques. In the main the piece would make any child beg for percussion lessons– and from Fowler.

A third world premiere came from Nicholas Borgia-Tran, a self-described “queer first generation Vietnamese-American composer,” commissioned by Boston Musica Viva’s “Write it Now” Competition, honed true to its title, “on becoming space// Emergent Becoming.” Borgia-Tran notes that it took three years to write, and the outcome, exploring the beauty of emergence, is well worth the wait. Further, Borgia-Tran notes that he had considered himself offspring of war, but through this composition found he felt reborn of beauty. The work delivered contrasts, innovative use of strings, and enchantment.

Pierrot Lunaire (1912), set “Three Times Seven Poems” by Albert Giraud, through Expressionist poet Otto Erich Hartleben’s German. The composition draws out myriad moods, ranging from ironic, melodramatic and sinister, to tender. At its debut it created a sensation with the composer’s new Sprechstimme or Sprechmelodie. Here, the German text and its English translation appeared in the handout, carefully parsed by Hegele.

Pierrot, Schoenberg’s final Expressionist period piece, described in its title as “dreimal sieben” held mystic importance for the composer—for instance, 21 sections, reversing the opus number (12) and year in which it was composed (1912). It has become archetypal, inspiring many, including the composers whose premieres we heard. This 12-tone piece brought innovative, wider limits to pitch configuration. The full version by Der Gestanke, roused both audience and the performers. Hegele’s contribution dominated, but collaborations, including the Pierrot motif (G-sharp, E,C,D,B-flat, C sharp, G)—7 notes and 7 performers, stood out throughout.

The end of this inaugural event found both audience and performers in high spirits. Winell noted, in an aside to this journal,  “the name “Der Gestanke” comes from the idea of stinky music —like cheese, the stinkier the music, the better. If we take this further, we can then try to imagine “the stench” emanating from Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire…let alone the premieres!” For this season the group will continue to hold concerts in Boston and plans New York City and Baltimore appearances as well. So, stay tuned and hold your nose for great musical cheese!

Julie Ingelfinger studied piano at the Hartt School of Music, Aspen Music Festival and School and at Harvard. She enjoys her day jobs as professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, pediatric nephrologist at Mass General Hospital for Children and deputy editor at the New England Journal of Medicine.

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