Eighth blackbird's production of Pierrot Lunaire opened at the Museum of Contemporary Art last night, settling into its three-night run. They engaged Blair Thomas and his company of puppeteers to design the set, costumes and direction for the work, along with the two shorter works on the first half. They also had Lucy Shelton on hand to handle Schoenberg's sprechstimme.
Thomas and Co. create a puppet alter ego named Pierrot for Shelton to interact with. She herself has been cast as "the Poet." There's no plot to Albert Giraud's poems, so almost nothing for Thomas to tamper with. Since there's little to mess with, when Shelton dances a waltz with the puppet and dances, moves and wanders around the stage to some of the creepiest poetry ever set to music, you begin to wonder why exactly she has to move so much. The angst and anxiety in Pierrot is entirely in her mind. If she's crazy and lonely, why is all the action being made so literal?
If you closed your eyes, you heard a singer who knows this work every which way. Shelton understands the quick changes in pace of these poems, from darting to languorous to almost static. As her voice leapt through the poems, your mind was dragged along on the disconcerting words. It felt as if your spine was slithering. "Du todeskranker Mond," "You deathly ill moon," and I felt rather ill myself.
But why gussy it up with all the stagecraft? And such confused stagecraft? A full moon hangs suspended above the stage, so when Pierrot sings of a "moon like a gleaming scimitar" it's impossible not to think that, oh yeah, maybe that shouldn't be a full moon.
The 'birds themselves comported themselves well and performed from memory. But I would have given my left arm to hear them dig beneath the surface of these claustrophobic songs and bring out the tension that's held captive in each phrase. The moments of beauty, uncomfortable as they are, such as the flute-only "Der Kranke Mond," fell forth easily. But the angst was absent.
The first half began with Derek Bermel's Tied Shifts and ended with Jacob Druckman's Reflections on the Nature of Water. Part of eighth blackbird's aesthetic (or schtick, to the cynical), is playing from memory and moving around the stage choreographically to highlight the music's structure. But my god, if there was ever a work that merits such treatment less than Bermel's, I haven't heard it.
Based on Bulgarian folk music, which I'll have to take on faith, it's a hash of endlessly repeating figures and minor-inflected modal (you got a better description?) scales with the musicians pairing off every now and then. Every one gets the same material at one point or another and Bermel drags the piece on and on as a result. Alan Rich called it a "gooey conceit" some months back, not bothering even to mention the title, but that's not quite a fair description. I'd go with sticky conceit.
The Druckman was bogged down by Blair Thomas' puppets, who acted out a scene of an old man going to a river, followed by a little girl. They go swimming. He drowns. She's horrified. Druckman's abstract phrase-upon-unrelated-phrase bore no relation to this mini-drama. I'd bet that Thomas could have set this story on top of any other 20-minute piece with the same result. Shall we gather at the river?
Astute readers will note that I praised eighth blackbird in Time Out Chicago this week for just this sort of daring performance and their willingness to mix with outside disciplines. That's a hard-won and deserved victory for them. But when the actual music suffers from the collaboration, as it does when musicians' tones falter from having to move around and they can't get to the dark current flowing beneath a masterpiece like Pierrot because of that collaboration, it should be rethought. Performing audible garbage like the Bermel also holds them back.
This group has the chops to pull of just about anything—though Alan Rich calls them on being unconvincing in Golijov's Ayre—and could use their clout to push any agenda they chose. But they have no agenda, seemingly. "What do they refuse to play?" I thought after the Bermel finished.
This need for an agenda, or at least an aesthetic, seems that much more important after reading this article by Philip Kennicott in today's Washington Post. He reports on William Safire's recent Nancy Hanks Lecture on Arts and Public Policy, in which Safire defends the edifying role the arts, especially the classics, can play in young people's lives. One tangent in this line of thinking is that music can make kids better at math. A RAND report (it's here) exposes the fallacy and perniciousness of claiming that the arts matter because of their side benefits. If something else comes along which helps students learn faster, then what becomes of the arts?
This is where poor programming enters the picture. If groups that know better, or should know better, continue to perform lousy music, no matter how good the visuals, the music suffers and fewer people will care. Lucy Shelton can perform Pierrot in costume or in a ball gown or in shorts and sneakers, and her musical knowledge will carry her through. It's time, after ten years together, for eighth blackbird's members to begin aspiring to her level of commitment.