Schoenberg masterpiece paired with great works at the Barnes

Pierrot Lunaire. Left to right: Arlen Hlusko, cello; Zo Martin-Doike, violin; Anna Davidson, soprano (standing); Stanislav Chernyshev, clarinet. Curtis Institute of Music.
Pierrot Lunaire. Left to right: Arlen Hlusko, cello; Zo Martin-Doike, violin; Anna Davidson, soprano (standing); Stanislav Chernyshev, clarinet. Curtis Institute of Music.
Posted: April 19, 2013

However strenuously Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire portrays madness, the listener's reaction is often bewilderment and disorientation, mainly because this song cycle about a comedia dell'arte character becoming drunk on moonlight completely bypasses typical theatrical portrayals of madness. It's insanity from the inside out.

So on Tuesday at the Barnes Foundation, when art lovers hoped to catch up with the 101-year-old Schoenberg masterpiece alongside more readily apprehensible paintings of the same era, you wished them the best of luck, knowing that you can listen to Pierrot for decades and never feel on top of it.

The occasion was the Curtis Institute's debut at the Barnes, in what may be the first of many concerts there and one that played well off the foundation's art collection. Also, it was the authoritative modern music group eighth blackbird - in residence at Curtis this year - that taught the piece to this student sextet, soon to tour in South Korea. The performance was well-suited to those hearing the piece for the first or the 50th time.

If there's such a thing as musical non sequiturs that logically lead to one another, the Curtis musicians laid them out, with maximum clarity and faith that the piece's heat is welded to the notes and need not be oversold. Moments written to portray hysteria made their points, but at one particularly spellbinding point dissipated in seconds like a mirage.

Eighth blackbird wanted the performance played without conductor and from memory. The latter didn't happen, but going conductorless created interesting effects. Sometimes flutist Patrick Williams led the way through tricky transitions; other times cues came from pianist Xianhui Yang, who played with Mozartean elegance, giving great communicative responsibility to each note.

Instrumentalists always supported soprano Anna Davidson's Pierrot, whose speech/song approach toward poems full of bloody imagery was more lyrical than operatic. I prefer operatic, but she made a case for a guileless Pierrot who rarely fathoms his insane depths, and mostly makes sense to himself.

Krzysztof Penderecki's sprawling, eventful, semitically inflected Sextet began the program, the Curtis instrumentalists touching its many bases vividly. Consider it a preview: Next season he'll be Curtis' composer in residence.


Contact music critic David Patrick Stearns at dstearns@phillynews.com.

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