Espressivo, Apr 7

By Scott MacClelland

WHEN YOU PUT THE NAME SCHOENBERG on a classical program you never know what kind of turnout to expect. On Thursday night, the Colligan Theater in Santa Cruz almost sold out of seats to those who came to hear the Espressivo orchestra play Schoenberg and Stravinsky in an ambitious undertaking: Pierrot lunaire by the former and L’Histoire du soldat by the latter.

From out of the commedia dell’arte, Pierrot pops up in “three times seven” poems by Albert Giraud (1860-1929). In the first seven, Pierrot sings (in Sprechstimme) of love, sex and religion. Part two concentrates on violence, crime and blasphemy. TBetanyhe last seven tell of his return home to Bergamo. Mezzo Betany Coffland (right) sang/spoke the German translations beneath projected English supertitles while Espressivo music director Michel Singher conducted the ensemble of flute(s), clarinet(s), violin, viola, cello and piano. Singher’s notes describe Pierrot here as victim, victimizer, sentimental, cruel, and “always, ultimately, a clown.”

Like the verse forms in use—the first line or two comes back at the end of each—Schoenberg’s complex music is fastidiously constructed, using counterpoint, canon, fugue, passacaglia and rondo. (Not bad for an autodidact.) While this is reassuring to know, tracking these procedures on the fly is no easy matter. In his notes, Singher explains, “The essentially linear, melodic-not-harmonic organizing principle is at times carried to a logical extreme in a conservative, historical way.” Scales and melodic mottos do not make it easier. (Opening the first song of the second set the piano sketches an “octatonic” scale across three measures; look it up.)

Not surprisingly, the audience included a large number of musicians—like composers George Gershwin and Carl Ruggles at the US premiere in 1923—who remain beguiled. (San Jose Chamber Orchestra’s Barbara Day Turner remarked to me that the piece isn’t as “weird” as when she first heard it.) Of the one-minute fourth verse of Part 3, “the fanatically contrapuntal Moonfleck,” Singher explains, “the top fugue and the canon begin to unspool backwards at the exact moment Pierrot discovers the moon-spot, and starts trying to remove it.” Isn’t that the definition of a musical palindrome? Soon after, in Homeward Bound, an unmistakable barcarolle rhythm appears. It was Stravinsky who said, “Pierrot is the solar plexus as well as the mind of early twentieth century music.”

After his three big successes at the Ballets Russes, and no thanks to World War I, money got tight for Stravinsky. L’Histoire du soldat by contrast was eminently portable, a low-budget piece that was designed, literally, to be hauled around Europe in a truck and performed wherever an audience could be scraped together. (Though based on a Russian folk tale it calls to mind Leoncavallo’s I Pagliacci.) For this occasion, Singher rewrote the narrator’s text, refreshingly and thankfully updating it into current vernacular. Stephen Guggenheim recited it in a performance directed by Daniel Helfgot that put the orchestra (violin, double bass, clarinet, bassoon, cornet, trombone and percussion) off to one side. Jeannine Charles provided the choreography danced by Erwin Columbus (the soldier), Brendan Mar (the devil) and Megan Hoarfrost (the princess.) Having done a fustian deal with the devil, the soldier exchanges his violin for a book that promises untold riches.

L’Histoire is a case study in asymmetrical rhythms. The instruments continually contradict one another in a witty, ironic astringency. (Stravinsky usually gets credit for using rhythms that define his impact on 20th century music, but in fact it was begun by Charles Ives, witness his Country Band March of c. 1904.)

The soldier defeats the devil in a card game and gets a reprieve by healing a sick princess, but that protection will last only so long as he remains in the king’s castle. Then, Orpheus-like, he succumbs to temptation and the devil triumphs. The 50-minute performance worked its magic on the crowd, despite some scratchy ensemble playing. When it was over, Singher received a line of well-wishers and expressed the hope that his version of the text didn’t offend. I thought it did, in all the best possible ways.

Photo by Elaina Generally