Concert review: Haunted by the Moon

Challenges of Schoenberg's score don't eclipse Marylhurst's moonstruck production of Pierrot Lunaire

Ken Selden conducted the ensemble at Marylhurst University's production of Pierrot Lunaire.

Portland State University professor Ken Selden conducted the ensemble at Marylhurst University’s production of Pierrot Lunaire.


“Let’s go take in some Schoenberg” is not something I have ever said to another human. Yet I was excited and curious to hear about this harlequin clown, this moonstruck reject from the Commedia de l’Arte, and later, the cabaret. Pierrot Lunaire is a novelty, a rarity, and I enjoyed anticipating the “how will they pull this off”-ness of being in the audience. I had no expectations beyond “this could be a kick.” And it was.
Written in 1911, Pierrot is a transitional work — the composer on his way to the serialism for which he is perhaps best known 100 years on. Here, the beautiful melodies and extended harmonies of Schoenberg’s “Peace on Earth” (1907) are replaced by sprechstimme (a cross between singing and speech) and atonality — neither a curve nor u-turn in the road here, but a hard crank of the wheel into a new dimension. And Schoenberg was consciously making this transition – to the constructivism he wrote about in a 1911 thesis.
While Schoenberg moved away from any expressionism, harmonies and melodic lines as we know them vanished. But this is not to imply that Pierrot is a bland, emotionless experience for the audience. In fact, Giraud’s irreverent, blasphemous and vivid poetry is wildly dramatic.
It is by virtue of the original poetry that the piece might well be called a double masterpiece. From a German translation of Belgian poet Albert Giraud’s 1884 text, Schoenberg chose 21 poems out of the 50 original settings, divided the entire piece into three equal parts of seven poems each, then imposed a wide variety of formal structures on each of the 21 movements, all different in musical form.
The songs — all short, two minutes or less — are full of instrumental effects: ghostly arpeggios on violin, piano and cello; flutter tongue in flute; tone clusters; extreme ranges, multi-textured layering of instrumental and vocal lines and, of course, the aforementioned sprechstimme. Schoenberg bragged that each movement had a different orchestration.
There are motifs: the color red, reflected in the color on Pierrot’s make-up desk, a red dress, and the blood dripping from the body of Christ approaching the Madonna in “Mother of all sorrow.” And there are themes: it’s fairly clear that some of this poetry is intended to mock religion, and specifically Catholicism and the Mass.

Arnold Schoenberg, Self-portrait, 1910.

Self-portrait, 1910. By Arnold Schönberg (Arnold Schönberg Center, Wien), via Wikimedia Commons

Actualizing a piece like this is always a daunting task, even by the most talented professionals. Friday night’s realization, led by Ken Selden, and performed by soprano Pollyanna Hancock-Moody and the chamber group of Fumino Ando, Vadine Iishkin, Jessica Sindell, David Hattner, and Janet Coleman, met all the challenges of the score, and then some. Massive virtuosity was on display for a smallish audience at St. Anne’s Chapel on the campus of Marylhurst University. Coleman was the pianistic “glue” that expertly helped to hold things together in many of the movements.
The greatest weight of interpretation falls on the soprano. As All Classical radio announcer Robert McBride explained in introducing the piece on Friday night, Pierrot is a “nut-job,” haunted by the moon. Hancock-Moody was equal to the task of bringing the text and music off the page, enlivening her singing with appropriate changes of facial expression and gestures, all reflecting the ironies and schizophrenic mood changes inherent in the poetry.
Taken in isolation, the individual “voices” of Pierrot are incredibly challenging. They are asked to come together and stay together, for some 45-50 minutes, and did so under Selden’s immaculate direction. For example, in movement seven, “The Sick Moon” is a duet for the soprano and flute. The counterpoint of the flute against the soprano is highly virtuosic. The flute’s widely varied articulations and rhythms portray the “sickness” of the moon, while the “rezitation” (Schoenberg’s word) narrates the “feverish…unappeasable pain of love” of the “deathly-stricken” moon. Jessica Sindell, new first chair flute of the Oregon Symphony, shone brilliantly here, and throughout.
In movement eight, which begins the second full part, Night, “Black gigantic butterflies” are brought to life by murky instrumental tone painting combined with a lamenting sprechstimme in the voice. The use of bass clarinet and cello, expertly played by Hattner and Mishkin, lent the darkness to the scene.
Perhaps “Serenade” (#19) is the most outlandish mixture of text and text-painting, as the cello moves from long legato tones to sudden pizzicato (plucked strings), as the text exclaims “a bow grotesquely monstrous scrapes Pierrot on his viola” to “a stork standing on one leg sadly plucks a pizzicato.”
Pierrot Lunaire debuted in Berlin in 1912, against the backdrop of the gathering storm leading to 1914. In those earlier, easier years, Austrians and Germans were luxuriating in the gemutlichkeit of the last of the Austro-Hungarian Empire: kaffe mit schlag in the plentiful cafes, while poring over the newspapers and enjoying conversations until mid-day. Little did they know the guns of August were approaching, and life, including the arts and music, would never be the same.
But that night, in the audience for the premiere performance were Stravinsky, Ravel, Puccini, Strauss and Gershwin. These luminaries came to hear something different, something new, something unique because, perhaps, it just might be a kick. They would have enjoyed last Friday night.

Bruce Browne conducted the Portland Symphonic Choir, Choral Cross Ties, and many other choirs, and directed the Portland State University choral programs for many years.
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5 Responses.

  1. bob priest says:

    what about telling your readers a bit about the other works that appeared on this program?

    • Brandon Stewart says:

      I too am curious. I had two pieces on that program.

      • bob priest says:

        yeah, i would love to hear about your & the other works on this concert. pierrot has been both written about & played to death!

  2. Justin says:

    Thank you for this, Bruce!
    Justin Smith

  3. Ian Guthrie says:

    Hello Bruce,

    I’m pleased to see your thorough review of Pierrot Lunaire. Did you have any opinions either way about the premieres by Brandon Stewart and myself?


    Ian Guthrie

Comments are closed.