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Interview: Megan Buness on Pierrot Lunaire

Megan Buness sings Pierrot Lunaire
Mark Woolcott

Denver's new music powerhouse group The Playground Ensemble brings Arnold Schönberg's Pierrot Lunaire to three venues in the region. This groundbreaking work combines an atonal chamber ensemble with the narrator's special sprechstimme voice to tell the melodrama of Otto Erich Hartleben's German translation of Albert Giraud's original cycle of poems in French. Local singer Megan Buness takes on this daunting and legendary piece, and talked with me about her approach.

Ruth Carver: Did you have any personal connection to Pierrot Lunaire before this performance?

Megan Buness: Two summers ago, I visited the Arnold Schönberg Center in Vienna, where an original score of Pierrot Lunaire sits behind a glass case along with chess pieces he made of paper mache, a home-made tape dispenser, and - outside the glass - copies of his music theory homework for you to take home.

I've had my eye on Pierrot Lunaire as early as my graduate years, from the last century. I rented it from the Lamont library and paged through it, listening to recordings. A decade later, the Playground Ensemble was gathering discussions of potentially performing it. And now here we are. It's huge for me. It's huge for us.

RC: How is preparing for a sprechstimme part different than a "normal" sung voice part?

MB: I love this question. I am singing a form of dramatic declamation between singing and speaking without precise pitches, immediately leaving a pitch by falling or rising. Also, Schönberg emphasizes that Pierrot Lunaire should sung on the basis of the music, not on the meaning of the words. This work was originally commissioned by a specialist in melodrama, Albertine Zehme, and we have speculated in our rehearsals that Schönberg was cautioning the performer to avoid being too melodramatic in performance.

These are two unique ideas - avoid staying on pitches and avoid expressing the meaning of the words. Most of the score is written for sprechstimme in a spoken voice. What else is unique to the score is that there are moments that request a singing voice - small phrases to be sung - as well as a movement where the speaking voice should sound like an accompaniment to the instruments (secondary, while the instruments are primary), moments that are spoken to one side, hissed, toneless and even whispered soundlessly. This has been maddening for us when we're so used to a balance where the vocalist is heard over the instruments.

I prepared for sprechstimme by using vocal techniques from the Lessac-Madsen Resonant Voice Therapy (LMRVT), designed and implemented by Dr. Katherine Verdolin. I was her student at the Summer Vocology Institute and her vocal technique is vital when needing a resonate speaking voice that can be heard in loud environments.

RC: This performance also features artwork displayed throughout the concert. How does that change or affect the audience's reaction to and experience of the work?

MB: We hope it will amplify the experience for everyone. Everyone has their own sensory preference. Some people are overwhelmed when focusing on listening to the music (and seeing - for example - the wide variety of clarinets played by the clarinet player, or the pianist reaching inside the piano soundboard to pluck a tone) and simultaneously seeing a visual artist's expression of the work. Personally, I'm intrigued. How did this person [artist] experience Schönberg's Pierrot Lunaire and how did they symbolize it in the visual arts?

RC: Does this work have the same importance now as at its premiere in 1912?

MB: We've had more time with this work, and more time with it in contrast to others where it has become an important composition. The sprechstimme is exciting to put into my voice and our ears, as well as the atonality. Thanks to its premiere, we now have the “Pierrot Ensemble” of woodwinds, strings, keyboard and vocalist which is the backbone of many of our Playground Ensemble's commissions and performances. We've also had more time with the work for academic studies on its musical form and structure. It's a solid composition beneath the novelty of its many unique aspects and has a drawing to audiences today that is amplified with this time.

RC: The original production required some 40-odd rehearsals to prepare. Tell us about Playground Ensemble's approach.

MB: The Playground Ensemble announced this performance last spring, began rehearsal schedule discussions mid-summer and began rehearsals October 3, 2013. What I always appreciate is how academic the Playground Ensemble's approach is. Full scores, footnotes and longer score notes as well as addenda/errata additional notes from Schönberg's conducting score were distributed during rehearsals, and extensive research shared. The Playground's approach is focused on high quality and we have been so excited for this performance of Pierrot Lunaire for such a long time.

Pierrot Lunaire with the Playground Ensemble

February 20, 2014, 7:30pm

Hamilton Recital Hall
Newman Center for the Performing Arts
2344 East Iliff
Denver, CO, 80208

February 21, 2014, 7:00pm

First Presbyterian Church
15th St
Boulder, CO 80302

March 4, 2014, 7:00pm

930 Lincoln St
Denver, CO 80203

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