This long and interesting concert was structured around Schoenberg’s extraordinary setting of 21 poems by the Belgian poet Albert Giraud, Pierrot Lunaire. Composed in 1912, the work created such a sensation that Stravinsky went all the way from Paris to Berlin to hear it. Stravinsky’s next work was the even more remarkable Rite of Spring, performed early in 2013.

Pierrot Lunaire is a work sui generis. It sets not Giraud’s poems but a translation of them, so walks the fine but distinct line between French surrealism and Viennese decadence, expressing both only partially. It was commissioned by an actress/singer who asked for the vocal part to be half spoken, so the result was the infamous Sprechstimme; neither speech nor song, interpreters have wrestled with what to do with this mode of delivery. It is neither a cabaret piece nor a straight concert piece, which always causes production problems. It is scored for an ensemble which is too small to warrant a conductor, but the music is so unfamiliar and so rhythmically and tonally complicated that a conductor is often neccessary. All these aspects of the work reflect the text of the poems, and combine to produce a work that inhabits a liminal space in almost every direction – a threshold with no before and after, a threshold that doesn’t go anywhere.

This concert at the Adelaide Festival approached these problems by attempting to integrate it into a normal concert format, with a nod to cabaret in the lighting, and a nod to the conductor problem in having Jack Symonds conduct from the piano. Very kindly, subtitles with translations were projected above the ensemble so we knew what the strange, fleeting text meant.

Jessica Aszodi delivered the Sprechstimme in a manner closer to singing than speaking, as has become normal, and of course the closer to singing the more expressive the performance. She conveyed well the flightiness, the intangibility of the emotions of the imagined protagonist, using the dramatic and seemingly arbitrary changes in tempo of the music to articulate a disconnect central to the work. However, the relatively normal format of the performance constrained her repertoire of gestures, which I felt could be very much expanded in a cabaret direction.

The ensemble of five players was a fine foil to Aszodi. In this work each song is accompanied by different combinations of the five players. Most comfortable when playing individually or in pairs, the players supported the vague tensions of the text by generating extremes of different textures and dynamics. In particular, the flautist, Geoffrey Collins, seemed completely at home with this score.

This music of Schoenberg, and the destroyed sounds of his later twelve-tone music, had a profound influence on European music for the next 40 years or so. Its complete abandonment of the very idea of consonance seemed to portray the horrors of the period between 1914 and 1945 in Europe all too faithfully. Schoenberg himself, less than endearingly, pronounced that his system would ensure the hegemony of German music for a hundred years, but composers in Europe crawled out from under his baleful influence during the 60s and 70s of last century.

And some managed to escape unscathed. Stravinsky’s masterpiece bears almost no trace of any influence from Schoenberg. Before the concert its curator, Kim Williams, gave us a lecture about the structure of the coming weekend of concerts at Ukaria (about which I will write in these columns soon), in which he declared that (white) Australian composers were strongly indebted to Schoenberg. Thankfully, I have to disagree.

The first half of the Pierrot concert was devoted to three pieces by white Australian composers, and in none of them was there a single bar that sounded anything like Schoenberg. However, In the final piece, Elena Kat’s Chernin’s piano quintet, The Offering, there was plenty of evidence of connection to eighteenth and nineteenth century European music. The opening movement, with its skittish piano scales, reminded me of Saint-Saens, and the majestic second movement sounded to me like a passionate re-thinking of the Et Misericordia from Bach’s Magnificat. Pianist Jacob Abele was joined by the Flinders Quartet for this work. All accomplished artists, I would single out violist Wenhong Luo, with her capacity for making every phrase glow, as exceptional.

The concert opened with a gorgeous, little-heard piece by Richard Meale. Written in 1998, Lumen shows some connection with structural practices of Debussy, particularly the paired short phrases which propel this meditative work to its climax. There followed a reading of a beautiful poem by Judith Wright, whose relevance to the rest of the program was lost on me, unless it was supposed to be read metaphorically as Schoenberg saying to younger composers, “Don’t waste your time writing music you don’t like, as I did”.

The other piece in the program was Ross Edwards’ recent Saxophone Quintet. Ross talks of deriving his inspiration from the sounds of insects and birds, but these sounds rarely translate into sonic impressions in his music, unlike, for example, the birds in Messiaen’s music. This work presented music in the two styles which Ross has crafted out of his own imaginations, called the Maninya style and the Sacred style. The first, exemplified in the outer movements, is characterised by strong irregular rhythmic patterns, and is familiar from the series of works entitled Maninya, (a word he made up). The second movement is one of the most touching examples of his Sacred style, related I suppose to slow music from various religious traditions. I was transfixed by this movement, hanging on every moment of its deceptive simple texture. Kim Williams singled out the third movement, a lament, for special praise, but I found that its effect was somewhat attenuated by having the sacred second movement immediately before it. The program suggested that Ross’ earlier intention was to have a fast movement in between, which I think would have been good. This work, played by saxophonist Michael Duke, avoided all the clichés of saxophone music, and could as well be performed by a clarinet.

The audience looks forward to the expansion of this program over the weekend at Ukaria, of which more later.

Event details

2021 Adelaide Festival
Pierrot Lunaire

Conductor Jack Symonds

Venue: Adelaide Town Hall | 128 King William St, Adelaide SA
Dates: 4 March 2021
Tickets: $89 – $30


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