When eighth blackbird’s new, fully-staged production of Schoenberg’s expressionist masterpiece Pierrot lunaire premiered at Ojai last summer, critics were united in their praise. “The intense interaction of the players and [soprano Lucy] Shelton turned this performance into a genuinely new way of looking at a 20th-century musical icon,” wrote Mark Swed in the Los Angeles Times, while Musical America admired the way director “Mark DeChiazza revitalized Schoenberg’s Pierrot lunaire in an intriguing new staging,… successfully returning the prickly speech-song cycle to its expressionist musical theater roots.” The Chicago premiere was equally successful, inspiring headlines like “blackbirds light up the night with their intriguing new take on Pierrot lunaire” (Chicago Tribune) and “eighth blackbird flies high; century-old piece gets the treatment it deserves” (Chicago Sun-Times). Now it is Los Angeles’s turn, when the Grammy-winning sextet – with soprano Lucy Shelton and dancer Elyssa Dole – unveils DeChiazza’s choreographed new production at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art on April 28. Also on the program are Steve Reich’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Double Sextet (2007) and Missy Mazzoli’s Still Life with Avalanche (2008), both of which were specially written for the group.
At 98 years of age, Pierrot lunaire (“Moonstruck Pierrot”) still has the power to shock and inspire awe. Arnold Schoenberg’s atonal tour-de-force is a setting of 21 poems from the German translation of Symbolist writer Albert Giraud’s poem cycle of the same name, which takes the sad, naïve clown of Commedia dell’Arte on a surreal and darkly comic journey. The feverish intensity, gallows humor, and touching pathos of Pierrot is drenched in the music of Berlin’s smoke-filled cabaret clubs and the bizarre world of German melodrama.
The new production continues eighth blackbird’s commitment to performances that blur the boundaries between music and theater, illuminating the landmark work with choreography by emerging New York director Mark DeChiazza. He describes the creative process behind the production:
“Pierrot has no conventional narrative. Instead of telling a ‘story’, I will use dance to highlight the sometimes dramatic, sometimes satirical nature of the relationship between text and music. Movement and gesture will connect to the human core of this amazing work, and expand – rather than circumscribe – its meaning.”
Playing entirely from memory, the musicians are able to engage fully with the drama and interact with the other performers – soprano Lucy Shelton, contemporary dancer Elyssa Dole, and the group’s own percussionist Matthew Duvall in the title role, which he mimes “with perfect detachment, giving the old Frenchman a Mr. Bean-like demeanor” (Chicago Sun-Times). As Schoenberg’s narrator, Shelton – “the definitive Pierrot reciter of our generation” (Chicago Tribune) – delivers the poems in Sprechstimme, or “speech-voice” style, allowing each pitch to rise or fall in the manner of spoken words.
For the Los Angeles County Museum of Art performance, eighth blackbird will also reprise Steve Reich’s Double Sextet (2007), which was commissioned by and written for the group. Scored for two identical sextets, each comprising flute, clarinet, violin, cello, vibraphone, and piano, the work will be played by eighth blackbird against its own pre-taped recording. When it was announced that Double Sextet had won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize, composer Steve Reich admitted: “I’m very glad that this particular piece got [the award], because I do think it’s one of the better pieces I’ve done in the past few years.”
Like Double Sextet, Missy Mazzoli’s Still Life with Avalanche (2008) was specifically written for the group. The work was influenced by indie rock, and Mazzoli describes it as “a pile of melodies collapsing in a chaotic free fall, sketching out a strange and evocative sonic landscape.” As part of eighth blackbird’s “Meanwhile” program, Still Life also features in the group’s upcoming concerts in Northridge, CA (April 29) and New York City (May 8).