Moonstruck Menace at Merkin Hall
This year may the centenary of the Rite of Spring, the Da Capo Chamber Players’ pianist Blair McMillen reminded the crowd at Merkin Hall last night, but it’s also the centenary of Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire. Soprano Lucy Shelton opened the group’s performance of the iconic avant garde work – a staple of hundreds of horror films over the years – by placing a puppet in a tiny wicker chair at the edge of the stage directly in front of the ensemble. One hand on her hip, the other holding herself up on the piano, wild grin straining across her face, Shelton made a delectably demonic moonstruck matron. Crooning, imploring, one second petulant, the next gleeful. she played the role to the hilt. At one point she fanned herself energetically (which may not have been an act – it could have been hot onstage), then ostentatiously took a couple of hits off a snifter of red liquid (vodka cranberry? Nyquil?) and then offered some to the rest of the musicians. Everybody declined.
As dark, carnivalesque, deliberately ugly music – and as a prototype for serialism – Schoenberg’s suite is pretty much unsurpasssed. The Da Capos’ version last night was particularly impactful because they played the calmer sections with such a low-key elegance, leaving plenty of headroom for the piano or the violin or the flute to fire off the occasional savage, atonal cadenza. Watching the group, what was most striking was how minimalist so much of the piece is: the entire group is in on it only a small fraction of the time. Otherwise, it was left to a combination of perhaps three or even fewer instruments out of the piano, Meighan Stoops’ clarinet or bass clarinet, Curtis Macomber’s violin, James Wilson‘s cello and Patricia Spencer’s flutes beneath the vocals. In many places, the music mocks those vocals, sometimes overtly, sometimes by maintaining a perfect calm while the crazy puppet coos and rasps and pulls against imaginary shackles.
Many of the melodies are parodies of circus music. The famous circus riff that everybody knows – dat-dat, da-da-da-da, DAT-dat, da-da – or rather a twisted version thereof, gets played by the cello about midway through the suite. Otherwise, the phantasmagoria is sometimes enhanced, sometimes weirdly masked by the composer’s use of tritones and dissonance in place of anything resembling a resolution. At the end, Shelton took it down with just the hint of a cackle for good measure and won the group three standing ovations.
A Mohammed Fairouz suite that appropriated the title of the Schoenberg work opened the night. Hubristic a move as it was, Fairouz is fearless about things like that. This suite didn’t have his usual politically-fueled edge but it did have his signature wit and eclectic tunesmithing. The ensemble gamely tackled a rather difficult series of switches from uneasy operatics, to lush chamber pop, noir cabaret, gleeful circus rock and finally a plaintive art-rock anthem that morphed into Queen-y histrionics. It was too bad that the vocals and the lyrics weren’t up to the carefully measured melodicism and clever layers of meaning that Fairouz had given the music. As the piece stands, it has a bright future as a suite of songs without words.
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