Maurice Ravel’s 1926 “Chansons Madécasses” (“Songs of Madagascar”), set to prose poems by Évariste de Parny (1753-1814), brackets a strong anti-colonialist song with paeans to love and nostalgia. Schoenberg’s 1912 “Pierrot Lunaire” uses hallucinatory verses by the surrealist Albert Giraud to paint a weirdly unsettling picture of the “moon drunk” commedia dell’arte character, reeling through a series of vignettes ranging from the comic to the creepy. The Ravel was sung with great beauty and sensuality by mezzo Debby Lennon and the Schoenberg was powerfully acted by Barbara Sukowa in the composer’s characteristic Sprechstimme style of song-speech.
At first glance, the two works would seem to have little in common. Ravel’s Orientalism sounds familiar to the modern ear whereas Schoenberg’s spiky, compressed musical structures still feel aggressively modern. Indeed, as David Robertson pointed out in his pre-concert remarks, Igor Stravinsky referred to “Pierrot Lunaire” as “the solar plexus of modernism.”
But, as Mr. Robertson also pointed out, there are similarities. Both hew to a three-part form (three songs for Ravel, “Three times Seven Poems” for Schoenberg) and both follow a similar dramatic arc: romantic love in part one, darkness and violence in part two, and nostalgic longing in part three.
Still, the differences outweigh the similarities, and the sharp contrasts between the two works made for a nicely balanced program.
This was my first exposure to the “Chansons Madécasses.” I came away understanding why Ravel biographer Arbie Orenstein considers it the composer’s finest vocal work. In the opening “Nahandove,” the cello and singer begin a rapturous duet that swells to the full ensemble as the narrator sees his love approaching; love and longing are portrayed exquisitely. That’s a marked contrast with the second song, “Aoua! Aoua!,” a militant denunciation of colonial domination. “Méfiez-vous des blancs” (“Beware the white men”), warns the angry narrator. Peace returns in “Il est doux de se coucher” (“It is good to lie down”) as the poet reflects on the simple joy of escaping from the heat of day and awaiting the cool of evening. The final phrase, “Allez, et préparez le repas,” (“Go, and prepare the meal”) is sung softly a cappella. It’s a nice touch.
Local gal Debby Lennon captured every nuance of Ravel’s exoticism and de Parny’s poetry. Her performance was acted and sung with great skill. Supporting her lovingly were symphony musicians Mark Sparks on flute, Jennifer Nitchman on piccolo, Peter Henderson on piano, and Davin Rubicz (formerly of the Kansas City Symphony) on cello.
“Pierrot Lunaire”, although written fourteen years earlier than “Chansons Madécasses,” still sounds aggressively modern and yet, in some ways, oddly dated. The dense contrapuntal music and numerological allusions (seven musicians performing three groups of seven poems with an opus number of 21) are still a challenge to listeners over a century later, but the work’s self-consciously grotesque esthetic and use of Sprechstimme spring in part from a German cabaret tradition that is long gone. And it’s not an easy work to love. Even supporters like composer Charles Wourinen have acknowledged that “listening to it occasionally reminds one of attempts to befriend a porcupine.”
Still, it’s a fascinating piece of musical theatre (it was commissioned by the actress Albertine Zehme, who premiered it with the composer conducting), and you could hardly have asked for a better performance. German film and theatre actress Barbara Sukowa has a long history with Schoenberg’s “Pierrot Lunaire” and “Gurrelieder”, as well as with other works requiring a musically informed narrator, so it’s no surprise that she was so compelling. She delivered most of the work center stage on a raised platform (a good thing since sight lines at the Pulitzer aren’t that great) but didn’t hesitate to use a bit of blocking when it made sense. “The Ailing Moon”, for example, is scored for voice and solo flute, so she delivered it from just above Mark Sparks, as though she were speaking directly to the instrument. Along those same lines “Serenade”, in which the cellist is featured, was delivered mostly to Mr. Rubicz.
The ensemble for “Pierrot” consisted of the four symphony musicians from the Ravel plus fellow orchestra members Diana Haskell on clarinet and Erin Schreiber on violin and viola. They were joined by Linda Phipps on bass clarinet. Mr. Robertson conducted. Congratulations to them all for bringing this very spiky (there’s that porcupine again) music to such vivid life.
If you’re willing to step outside of the comfort zone of the standard classical repertoire, the Pulitzer concerts appear to offer a consistently stimulating and mind-expanding experience. Seating is very limited, though, so it’s best to order tickets in advance. The next Pulitzer concert is on Wednesday, March 6, at 7:30 PM. The program consists of Olivier Messiaen’s 1945 song cycle “Harawi” for soprano and piano. Performers have not been announced yet.
Next on the regular calendar: David Robertson returns to the podium at Powell Hall to conduct Strauss’s “On the Beautiful Blue Danube,” Brahms’s “Symphony No. 2,” and Beethoven’s “Piano Concerto No. 4.” Radu Lupu is the soloist. Performances are Friday and Saturday at 8 and Sunday at 3, February 7-9. For ticket information: stlsymphony.org