Tried and still brilliant: Mary Nessinger sings “Pierrot Lunaire”

Mary Nessinger at the heart of "Pierrot Lunaire"/Photo: Jim Leisy

By James McQuillen

During intermission at Kaul Auditorium Friday night, a colleague noted that for the third time in 13 years, Chamber Music Northwest was putting on Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, and for the third time they’d hired soprano Mary Nessinger. It was, he opined, a sign of the clubbiness of the festival and its reliance on the same personnel for the same repertoire time after time, and he regretted missing the opportunity to listen to someone else have a crack at it.

He was right, perhaps more than he knew, about the sameness of the personnel—the rest of the ensemble was the same as well, with pianist Jeffrey Swann, violinist Ida Kavafian, cellist Fred Sherry, clarinetist David Shifrin and flutist Tara Helen O’Connor (the only deviation from the lineup in previous performances was in 2001, when Peter Serkin substituted for Swann). But once the music started, and especially once Nessinger opened her mouth, I wanted to hear no one else perform Schoenberg’s hair-raising melodrama.

Written in 1912, the piece comprises 21 settings of poems drawn from the collection by the same name by Belgian Symbolist poet and dramatist Albert Giraud in Otto Erich Hartleben’s German translation. The texts involve the clown Pierrot, a stock character of French pantomime, by turns lovestruck, blasphemous, mocking, violent and finally nostalgic. The imagery is arrestingly strange, with “black gigantic butterflies,” a bloodied communion wafer, and Pierrot smoking through a trepanned skull.

The moon hangs over it all (hence “Lunaire”) from the opening lines, “The wine that through the eyes is drunk, at night the moon pours down in torrents.” In later verses, Pierrot wishes to pluck one of “the moon’s pallid blossoms” and “bedizens his face in a high noble style with a fantastical moonbeam;” a pallid laundrymaid washes “linen woven of moonbeams.” Alongside the lunar imagery are abundant references to blood and hints of death.

Schoenberg had already begun to take leave of traditional tonality four years before writing Pierrot but was years away from formulating his twelve-tone system. His Giraud settings unfold in free atonality but often within old forms such as rondo, passacaglia and fugue, like revolutionaries occupying the mansions of some ancien régime. The instrumental writing captures the poems’ nocturnal brightness as well as their sense of the macabre, grotesque and unpredictable. Most arresting, Schoenberg set the vocal line in Sprechstimme, or “speaking-voice,” a hybrid of speech and singing adapted from melodramatic recitation.

In performance, this can vary widely; some vocalists lean more toward a singing style, others more toward recitation. For the stellar Nessinger, singing tone was just part of a continuum of diverse, often spine-tingling vocalizations. Murmuring, shrieking, wailing, intoning, she owned her role completely, with her focused voice and marvelously expressive face. Where some performers adopt a more theatrical style, her gestures—a twitch of a shoulder, a cocked head, a sneer—were devastatingly precise. Scarlet lipstick on her whitened face (colors echoed by her outfit) hinted at bloody images, and her eyes looked sunken and scary. Along with her partners’ rock-solid instrumental playing, she demonstrated that even after a century, the piece has not lost its capacity to unsettle (or to drive listeners from the concert hall; there were at least a half-dozen departures).

Before intermission, Swann, Kavafian and Sherry’s reading of Maurice Ravel’s 1914 Trio for Piano, Violin, and Cello was similarly superb. The music is vast both stylistically and sonically, embracing Ravel’s influences, his passion for music of the distant past and his enthusiasm for Asian forms as well as encompassing virtually the entire range of all three instruments. Swann was masterful in explosive passages with fast notes strewn all over, and Kavafian and Sherry were exemplars of keen ensemble. Their tone was gorgeous and their intonation sterling, which was crucial to bring out the music’s myriad fine details.

The program was intended as CMNW’s contribution to Reed College’s yearlong centennial celebrations—the festival has enjoyed a close partnership with Reed College for coming up on 40 years—by way of evoking the musical world of the first graduating class. Fittingly, it began with the premiere of Reed professor David Schiff’s “Class of 1915,” bright, swinging and all-too-brief arrangements of popular dances of the time.

The first movement combined five foxtrots by African-American composers including Luckyeth Roberts and Will Vodery, mentors to the young Duke Ellington; the third was a rip-roaring rendition of James Reese’s “Castle House Rag.” Between them was a sultry, striding homage to W.C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues,” with quotes from the original and a soulful spotlight on Shifrin’s bass clarinet. Scored for the same instrumentalists Schoenberg used for Pierrot, it made for a satisfyingly cohesive program and a worthy tribute to my alma mater on its hundredth birthday.

One Response.

  1. Bob Hicks says:

    Terrific essay, James. Makes me dearly wish I’d been there. And I hope there’ll be another chance to hear “Class of 1915.”

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