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Pierrot RE:encountered Review

 —  Press


April 22, 2024 Paul Hertelendy

Without the clown costume and makeup, Schoenberg’s “Pierrot Lunaire” was still a success, thanks to a super-charged singer who could dot all the erratic i’s.

Even a century later, the song cycle/monodrama can shock and outrage audiences almost as much as in 1912, given its ruthless abandonment of tonality as well as the depressing nihilism of the poems in the text. It was undeniably a landmark opus.

But credit the devotees of the Contemporary Music Players for enthusiasm at the April 21 performance, responding to the highly professional rendition of this landmark work. As an unexpected fillip, the CMP projected giant reproductions of Schoenberg’s expressionistic art work, with mobile cut-out material superimposed (as furthered by video artist Simona Futcal).

Yes, art. Schoenberg led the all-time league—in sports, it would be termed a unique double threat—in combining feverish and highly original composing with visual-art work marking his Expressionistic era.

The 21 German poems carry on about morbidity, black butterflies, death in silence, burial caskets, “blotting out the sun”—countless images that are morbid and gruesome. Perhaps more significant is the instrumental group: The quintet (piano-high string-cello-flute-clarinet) has since been used by many later composers, terming it the Pierrot ensemble.

But the focus is unquestionably on the solo singer/interpreter, in this case the wondrous mezzo Rachel Calloway with a wide range, admirable focus, and theatrical projection, bringing to bear Schoenberg’s famous Sprechstimme (speech-song) along with outcries, yips and in general, oversized drama.

SJCMP’s Eric Dudley conducted with sure hand and precise beat.

The concert also featured contemporary works inspired in part by “Pierrot:” Jessie Montgomery’s “Lunar Songs” (2019) and Joan Tower’s “Petrouchskates” (1980).

This was part of a two-day CMP mini-festival also featuring an appearance by legendary local composer Mason Bates, and works by him, Andrew Norman, Katherine Balch, Kevin Day and Massimo Lauricella.

The CMP, founded in 1971, ranks as one of the two or three oldest chamber groups in Northern California. After the many ups and downs of 53 years, it still holds its head high, focusing mostly on works written in the past half-century.

SCHOENBERG NOTES—The Viennese composer who finished by teaching in Southern California had a messianic perspective in his composition of very new music that often discouraged audiences. He once declared, someone had to be Schoenberg, modernizing and updating musical styles. And he was happy carrying that torch, dodging all the slings and arrows of traditionalists.

SCHOENBERG’S SONG CYCLE “PIERROT LUNAIRE,” other works, by SF CMP at the Taube Center, San Francisco, April 20-21. For CMP info: (415) 525-6288, or go online