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Karen Clark brings a major Arnold Schoenberg composition to Old First Concerts

Photograph taken after the first performance Schoenberg's masterpiece: C. Essenberger, clarinet; Jakob Malinjak, violin; Arnold Schoenberg; Albertine Zehme, sprechstimme; Edward Steuermann, piano; Hans Kindler, cello; Hans W. de Vries, flute
Photograph taken after the first performance Schoenberg's masterpiece: C. Essenberger, clarinet; Jakob Malinjak, violin; Arnold Schoenberg; Albertine Zehme, sprechstimme; Edward Steuermann, piano; Hans Kindler, cello; Hans W. de Vries, flute
from the MusicIC Web site maintained by the University of Iowa

Last night Karen Clark returned to the Old First Concerts series at Old First Church to present a program structured around the performance of Arnold Schoenberg’s Opus 21 song cycle Pierrot Lunaire. This is one of the most important works to have been composed in the twentieth century; and its significance was warranted by a lively and informative pre-concert talk, delivered by Sonoma State University Professor Emeritus Will Johnson half an hour before the program began. In addition to introducing the audience to Schoenberg’s language as a composer, Johnson also discussed his relationship to the other three composers on the program, Johannes Brahms, Gustav Mahler, and Alban Berg.

San Francisco has been fortunate in having relatively frequent exposure to Schoenberg’s Opus 21, due primarily to Nonsemble 6, which began as six students at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM) who came together explicitly to perform it. Their efforts were rewarded in 2010 with an invitation to take their performance to Washington to perform it as part of the Conservatory Project concerts presented by the Millennium Stage series of free concerts at the Kennedy Center. At that time they were calling themselves the Bergamo Ensemble; but, by the time they returned to SFCM for a centennial celebration of Opus 21 performed with elaborate staging in the Alumni Recital Series, they had taken on the name Nonsemble 6.

Back in my own student days, Opus 21 was accorded a rather awed respect for its incomprehensibility, somewhat of an icon for the prevailing attitude towards Schoenberg himself. I believe that the success of Nonsemble 6 owed much to the nurturing environment that SFCM provided, enabling its students to find their own path to replacing that detached respect of past generations with a more personalized sense of understanding. (In Anna Karenina Leo Tolstoy described that shift as the difference between respect and love.)

This was probably not an easy path to follow. Pierrot Lunaire rondels bergamasques (moonstruck Pierrot: bergamasque rondels) was the title of a collection of fifty poems by Albert Giraud. These were called rondels after a fourteenth-century French style in which the first two lines are repeated in the middle and the very first line is also the very last. At a semantic level, however, this rigid formalism became a platform for a gallery of nightmarish visions, in which a traditional Commedia dell’Arte character is confronted with the grotesque anxieties that were so abundant in the late Romanticism of the end of the nineteenth century.

As student, composer, and teacher, Schoenberg had an ongoing fixation with matters concerned with the relationship between structure and expressiveness. The rigidity of the rondel form appealed to him, but he then added further structure of his own. He selected 21 of Giraud’s poems and arranged them in three parts, each consisting of seven poems. He thus reconfigured the gallery of the original book into a more directed journey, beginning with a Romantic celebration of excess in the first part. This is followed by a dark second part, which includes crime, prosecution, and punishment, with the thin crescent of the moon becoming the blade of the executioner’s scimitar. In the final part Pierrot awakens from what now reveals itself as an alcohol-induced nightmare and seeks out a path to recovery.

Rather than setting Giraud’s texts, Schoenberg used a German translation by Otto Erich Hartleben. He saw Opus 21 as a unique form of cabaret entertainment and therefore wanted his listeners to understand the words. However, those words were declaimed through Sprechstimme, which may be described as a form of speech whose pitch contours are explicitly specified without using explicitly designated notes. Thus, the other-worldly qualities of the poems were reinforced with delivery by an other-worldly voice. Accompaniment was then provided by a pianist, two strings (violin and cello), and two winds (flute and clarinet).

One might say that, as part of the prevailing spirit of expressionism in the early twentieth century, Schoenberg had decided to adopt the cabaret setting as a sinister environment for the grotesque. His score succeeds impressively, not only in the vocal line but in the bizarre sonorities that emerge behind the vocalist and the disquieting ambiguities of Schoenberg’s avoidance of conventional harmonic progressions. To revisit an old cliché, an effective performance of Opus 21 can leave the attentive listener both shaken and stirred.

Unfortunately, last night’s interpretation was not such a performance. Contralto Karen Clark and her instrumentalists (Karen Rosenak on piano, Terrie Baune on violin, Judiyaba on cello, Leslie Chin on flute, and Rob Bailis on clarinet), all conducted by Michael S. Orland, labored to provide a dutiful account of the score. However, their disciplined execution seldom (if ever) allowed all those nightmarish qualities, that provide the life-blood of the music, to emerge.

The disappointing qualities of these results were, to some extent, foreshadowed by the first half of the program. Clark’s approach to five Brahms songs never established a connection to the texts through which one could admire the composer’s efforts, nor could one recognize those qualities in Brahms’ music that Schoenberg appreciated and wrote about with such enthusiasm in “Brahms the Progressive.” Similarly, the sharp-edged irony of the two songs by Mahler based on Des Knaben Wunderhorn texts was missing in Clark’s account. Somewhat more successful was Bailis’ approach to the four short pieces for clarinet and piano in Berg’s Opus 5. Even here, however, there was a sense that the notes were the primary focus, with any thoughts of expressive interpretation gently consigned to a more distant background.

It would be unfortunate if these many compositions that, as listeners, we have come of love should again recede into the shadows of mere respect for their technical challenges.