CUNY Music in Midtown: Paula Robison presents Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, Thurs. Dec. 2, 1:00 pm

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Carol McGonnell, clarinet/bass clarinet; David Fulmer, violin/viola; Paula Robison, Sprechstimme; Katherine Chi, piano; Eric Jacobsen, cello; Sooyun Kim, flute/piccolo;

Carol McGonnell, clarinet/bass clarinet; David Fulmer, violin/viola; Paula Robison, Sprechstimme; Katherine Chi, piano; Eric Jacobsen, cello; Sooyun Kim, flute/piccolo;

Paula Robison presents Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, op. 21|
Music in Midtown at the Elebash Recital Hall, CUNY Graduate Center
December 2, 2010

Sooyun Kim, flute/piccolo
Carol McGonnell, clarinet/bass clarinet
David Fulmer, violin/viola
Eric Jacobsen, cello
Katherine Chi, piano
Paula Robison, Sprechstimme

During the course of 2010-11, our back-to-back Mahler years, his already renowned statement to Sibelius: “The symphony must be like the world. It must embrace everything,” has been ubiquitous. It seems to explain a lot about his most ambitious works in a pair of short sentences, but not everyone is convinced that Mahler actually succeeded in realizing his prescription. After hearing Pierrot Lunaire last week, so brilliantly performed by Paula Robison (Sprechstimme, not flute!) I had no doubt that Schoenberg had succeeded where Mahler may have only labored mightily…and his world was so much bigger than Mahler’s! Death is very much an impassible limit for Mahler’s vision, both in his work as a composer and in the boundaries he observed in creating the mythical world of his compositions. In Paula Robison’s narration, I found myself face to face with a strange being — whether we call him Pierrot, the poet, or the artistic psyche — who moves freely between past and present, life and death, and wherever his experience or his whim happen to lead him — or her, at least some of the time, for Giraud, Hartleben’s, Schoenberg’s and Robison’s narrator presents a fluid persona. There is a story here, actually more than one, but neither the story-teller nor the story is centered on a single figure or nexus of events. One might call Schoenberg’s perspective either prismatic or multi-local, reflecting the theosophical spiritual researches he had been conducting conjointly with his friend Wassily Kandinsky.

Pierrot Lunaire has endeared itself to audiences unlike any other work of the Second Vienna School. Hence a number of  distinguished performers and musicians have worked very hard to realize it and have succeeded in creating impressive, lively, coherent, musical performances, as well as many other good things (cf. Seth Lachterman’s review of a performance by the Proteus Ensemble, who make a speciality of the work). If I say that after this performance I had a feeling of discovery, as if Ms. Robison and here colleagues had really gotten it right for this first time in my experience, I can’t mean that quite literally, but, without minimizing the achievements of others, I can say that I found in it a comprehensive understanding of the whole and its countless details, both in the text and in the music, which I found surpassingly coherent and expressive, but not in the least cautious or less than fully alert in the hyper-conscious way Schoenberg demanded.

All the musicians in the group, I understand, have played the work often, and it has been a lifetime passion of Paula Robison’s, who first played it under the guidance of Felix Galimir in her early days at Marlboro. Of course more people know her as the flutist in the ensemble, not as the Sprechstimme. It has remained something of an obsession of hers over the years, and I’ve heard quite a bit about the energy and passion she has put into this latest performance. On the one hand, she shows a deep understanding of the “thrice seven” poems Schoenberg extracted from the original fifty and the way they fit together in his imaginative scheme. On the other hand, her experience as an instrumentalist has given her a unique grasp of the melodic and textural qualities of the vocal contribution, which I have not ever heard from a singer. Some of her phrases are highly colored speech, and others become melodic and musical. The nature of the written part, in other words does not stop her from participating in the ensemble as a full member. Especially impressive was the way in which she blended her part with the ensemble, as indicated in Schoenberg’s score.

It is hard to imagine a stronger or more vital group of Schoenbergians than the six splendid musicians who joined Ms. Robison on stage, playing without conductor. While the importance of the Sprechstimme part is obvious, especially when executed as compellingly as it was, this was very much a collaboration of equals. The musicians seemed only liberated by the absence of a conductor, and each showed a well-defined individual personality, making the score a true conversation — and their precision in ensemble was consistently impressive. The clarinettist Carol McGonnell was almost as expressive as Robison herself, as she accompanied her lines with the most vivid facial expressions. Pierrot Lunaire is on one level a commedia dell’arte performance in itself — or a Kabarett version thereof — and this performance realized that most palpably. The purely musical aspects of the score, the character of the melodic lines, counterpoint, voice-leading, harmony, and tonal color, were equally well served. One example of the perfect and complete rendering of musical, poetic, and dramatic values was, as one would expect, the Passacaglia (No. 8).

The program notes, by Paula Robison herself, were especially interesting, and they raised some important issues about the performance of Pierrot Lunaire. The notes include an English performing version, as well as a brief account of how Paula Robison came to create the translation. There is also an especially valuable synopsis of each poem, the three sections into which they are divided, and the work as a whole. It not only provides a handy synthesis of Pierrot, but insight into her interpretation. In the question and answer session which followed the performance, Robison said that she and her group had performed the English version in the past, but she arrived at the opinion that the original is preferable. Cellist Eric Jacobsen, however, praised the translation and stressed that it is very much worth hearing, which I don’t doubt in the least. Albert Giraud’s French originals have been disparaged by many commentators, but Robison referred back to them in making her English version, appreciated their wit, and found them helpful. This underscores the extent to which Schoenberg’s Pierrot is imbued in the harsher language of Hartleben’s translation. The plastic sounds of the German language and the force of his alliterative phrases, some of which evoke the style of Wagner’s Ring, seem an inherent part of the Pierrot Lunaire and its essential and inalienable Germanness. Hence, as intrigued as I am to hear Robison’s English version, I imagine I’d return readily enough to Hartleben’s original. Likewise, on the few occasions when her German vowels and consonants were not perfect, and when her flamboyant gestures included some characteristic American attitudes, I found it noticeable…but to call the gestures objectionable implies that the entire work, both texts and music, are confined to a German frame of reference, and that is absurd, since the work itself originates from the cosmopolitanism of the Belgian, French, German, Austrian, and Jewish aspects of its creation. Far from the self-conscious Americanisms which almost never fail to arouse laughter in operatic performances, these only serve to remind us that classics like Pierrot Lunaire are at home all over the world. In my article on Marlboro, which played such an important part in Paula Robison’s formation, I recounted how European traditions in chamber music became American there, with the full awareness and volition of the principles. And the CUNY group as a whole was not only American, but Korean, Chinese-Canadian, and Irish. In this way this performance was not only immensely enjoyable in itself, but an interesting port of call in the travels of a classic around the world.

I have already mentioned, in connection with the orchestral performances of Schoenberg, Berg and Webern under Rattle, Boulez, Barenboim, and Welser-Möst, how lucky contemporary concert-goers are to live in a time when musicians have fully digested the works of these challenging composers and are able to give such complete, fluent, and accessible performances. This Pierrot Lunaire was another glorious example of this golden age in performance. Its infectious vitality and deep understanding should be enough to put a smile on Schoenberg’s dour face, wherever in creation he might be.

This important event was a lunchtime concert, part of the Music in Midtown concert series at the CUNY Graduate Center. Not only was this an exceptionally substantial offering for a lunchtime concert, it was my first opportunity to enjoy the warm and immediate acoustics of the Elebash Recital Hall. A listing of these concerts con be found at

About the author

Michael Miller

Michael Miller, Editor and Publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts, was trained as a classicist and art historian at Harvard and Oxford, worked in the art world for many years as a curator and dealer, and contributed reviews and articles to Bostonia, Master Drawings, Drawing, Threshold, and North American Opera Journal, as well as numerous articles for scholarly and popular periodicals. He has taught courses in classics, the English language, and art history at Oberlin, Rutgers, New York University, the New School, and Williams. Currently, when he is not at work on The Berkshire Review and New York Arts, he writes fiction, pursues photography, and publishes scholarly work. In 2011 he contributed an introductory essay to Leonard Freed: The Italians / exh. cat. Io Amo L’Italia, exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, and wrote the revised the section on American opera houses in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is currently at work on a libretto for a new opera by Lewis Spratlan, Midi, an adaptation of Euripides’ Medea set in the French West Indies, ca. 1930.

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