When: Thu., Feb. 9, 8 p.m. 2017
Last year, during the first year of a two-year residency at Duke, the Deviant Septet gave a vivacious performance of its signature piece: Igor Stravinsky's L'Histoire du Soldat. The work calls for an odd ensemble—violin, double bass, clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, trombone, and percussion—that Stravinsky hoped would take off. How wrong he was. For much of the past century, L'Histoire was pretty much the only piece for that particular instrumentation. Instead, the classical music world built itself around the Pierrot Ensemble (violin, cello, flute, clarinet, piano, and percussion), built loosely around the instrumentation of Arnold Schoenberg's 1912 song cycle Pierrot Lunaire (that group, plus a narrator instead of percussion). So, of course, the members of Deviant Septet decided to arrange Pierrot for themselves and soprano Mellissa Hughes, and this concert is the world premiere of that arrangement.
Of all the works that Schoenberg wrote, none have had a larger influence than Pierrot Lunaire. Gurre-Lieder may be larger, Verklärte Nacht more emotive, and his second string quartet more ecstatic, but nothing has stood taller than Pierrot. Written in 1912, the work sets twenty-one symbolist poems by Albert Giraud translated into German by Otto Erich Hartleben. Over the course of the piece, Schoenberg cycles through different groupings of the ensemble, such that no two songs quite sound the same. It will be interesting to see how the Deviants navigate those twists and turns.
Pierrot is written in a free atonal style, meaning that all twelve pitches can wander wherever they want without reference to any home key or chord. In the 1920s, Schoenberg would codify and systematize his approach to atonal music, attempting to give each pitch equal value. Here, he has no such concern, so the musical material is free-flowing and, well, odd. A piccolo babbles, a clarinet squalls, eerie chorales drift by in the strings, and the piano outlines vaguely dissonant chords.
Adding to the weirdness of Pierrot Lunaire is the fact that the narrator doesn't sing in a conventional sense. Instead, the narrator uses a technique called Sprechstimme—literally "speech-voice." Rhythms and pitches are strictly notated, but he instructs the singer to "immediately abandon [a pitch] by falling or rising. The goal is certainly not at all a realistic, natural speech. On the contrary, the difference between ordinary speech and speech that collaborates in a musical form must be made plain. But it should not call singing to mind, either." The effect is uncanny, perfect for the vague blasphemies within the poems.—Dan Ruccia