How long can music be “new”? It’s already 100 years since Arnold Schoenberg launched his mercurial, moon-drunk clown onto the stage with a five-person chamber ensemble and fevered poetic language brimming with symbols of nightmare, ecstasy and blood. Pierrot Lunaire, his Opus 21, was well received at its première by the audience, if not the local critics, and went on to tour 11 European cities.
For Stroma, the “new music” ensemble presenting Pierrot Lunaire in Wellington this month, bringing us such 20th-century masterworks is part of their raison d’être. Of course, Schoenberg has seldom been the darling of audiences – much of the music he wrote before this was regarded as iconoclastic in conservative Vienna, and even today some classical music lovers view his atonal language with open dislike – but the importance and originality of this piece were acknowledged by no less than Igor Stravinsky, who described it as “quite simply the solar plexus of early twentieth century music”. Pierrot Lunaire has subsequently proved both influential and unique, particularly in its use of the remarkable sprechgesang (literally “speech-singing”).
Composer Michael Norris, Stroma’s artistic co-director, believes that in 1912 “the golden glow of the romantic period was turning a sickly orange” and that Schoenberg’s hyper-romantic expression was perfectly suited to the imagery of death and disease he found in Otto Erich Hartleben’s German adaptation of Albert Giraud’s fin de siècle poems. Within the text and the dazzling counterpoint is ambiguity, too – on the one hand, both the music and the work’s protagonist are sinister, macabre and grotesque, but Pierrot can also be light, ironic and almost endearingly out of control.
Soprano Madeleine Pierard will play the challenging role. In choosing her, Stroma’s conductor, Hamish McKeich, considered her technical accomplishment and musical intelligence as well as her commitment to contemporary music. Norris also refers to her theatrical poise and composure. “The role of Pierrot can be overdone,” he says “and the deeper truth of the piece can be found in a more focused performance.”
When I talk to Pierard, the busy soprano is briefly in Wellington between rehearsals for Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte in Auckland. She’s excited about the dramatic possibilities in the role, particularly in the sprechgesang, and likes the mix of romance and cabaret in the piece. “It’s phenomenally difficult,” she says, “and unexpected intervals and rhythms fly by quickly; you need accurate pitching and an intimate knowledge of the music.”
When Schoenberg conducted the première, he did so after 40 rehearsals; for this performance, just two days of ensemble rehearsal are possible. Stroma have been on the scene for 12 years and their reputation for highly professional performances is well established, as you’d expect from an ensemble formed largely of New Zealand Symphony Orchestra players, many section principals. Neither Norris nor McKeich specifies artistic excellence as part of their ethos but it’s clearly a given.
Stroma work around the NZSO schedule, so rehearsal periods are sometimes fragmented or short. That said, I’ve never heard a Stroma performance that was less than high quality – my only occasional regret is their use of a conductor for quite small ensembles, even a trio. McKeich is not at all defensive about this, noting it’s his role to ensure the players have enough flexibility to capture the intimacy and rapport of a good chamber group.
Programming concepts have also developed and Norris laughs ruefully, remembering Stroma’s first concert in 2000. “We programmed eight works, more than two-and-a-half hours of music, including Jenny McLeod’s For Seven – we’ve learnt a bit about length since then.” Their current three-project season provides what McKeich describes as a “capsule of what Stroma’s about”. The October concert, Luminous Horizon, was a “Headliner”: a big concert with a star performer. Visiting Italian flautist extraordinaire Roberto Fabbriciani featured. He has collaborated with a staggering number of big 20th-century composers – John Cage, Luciano Berio, Bruno Maderna, Olivier Messiaen and more.
The concert contained music more properly “new”, composed between 1983 and 2012 by avant-garde composers from France, Finland and Italy, including the world première of a large ensemble commission, Hóros by Paolo Cavallone. My highlight was Synchronie for two flutes, the frenetic virtuosity and hair’s-breadth precision of Fabbriciani and our own star Bridget Douglas capturing the headlong excitement of Yoshihisa Taïra’s musical portrayal of two Japanese warriors in battle, complete with notated grunts.
In December, the ensemble move to Downstage Theatre for Blue Page, two 50-minute “Soundbytes” inviting us to sample the blues-related results of collaboration with Australian looping multi-instrumentalist Adam Page – and to meet the musicians afterwards. Here, Stroma are showcasing new and crossover music from closer to home, including Jack Body’s Tribute to the Blues. The Pierrot Lunaire programme is the second “Headliner” and a major event. We haven’t heard Schoenberg’s compelling masterpiece since it was memorably performed in 1994 by CadeNZa with Margaret Medlyn. Time for some to put prejudices aside, perhaps. A century after its première, it’s not too late to become a Schoenberg fan.
PIERROT LUNAIRE, Stroma with Madeleine Pierard, Ilott Theatre, Wellington Town Hall, November 25; BLUE PAGE, Stroma with Adam Page, Downstage Theatre, Wellington.