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eighth blackbird takes new staged Pierrot lunaire to L.A.

When eighth blackbird’s new, fully-staged production of Schoenberg’s expressionist masterpiece Pierrot lunaire premiered at Ojai last summer, critics were united in their praise.  “The intense interaction of the players and [soprano Lucy] Shelton turned this performance into a genuinely new way of looking at a 20th-century musical icon,” wrote Mark Swed in the Los Angeles Times, while Musical America admired the way director “Mark DeChiazza revitalized Schoenberg’s Pierrot lunaire in an intriguing new staging,… successfully returning the prickly speech-song cycle to its expressionist musical theater roots.”  The Chicago premiere was equally successful, inspiring headlines like “blackbirds light up the night with their intriguing new take on Pierrot lunaire” (Chicago Tribune) and “eighth blackbird flies high; century-old piece gets the treatment it deserves” (Chicago Sun-Times).  Now it is Los Angeles’s turn, when the Grammy-winning sextet – with soprano Lucy Shelton and dancer Elyssa Dole – unveils DeChiazza’s choreographed new production at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art on April 28.  Also on the program are Steve Reich’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Double Sextet (2007) and Missy Mazzoli’s Still Life with Avalanche (2008), both of which were specially written for the group.

At 98 years of age, Pierrot lunaire (“Moonstruck Pierrot”) still has the power to shock and inspire awe.  Arnold Schoenberg’s atonal tour-de-force is a setting of 21 poems from the German translation of Symbolist writer Albert Giraud’s poem cycle of the same name, which takes the sad, naïve clown of Commedia dell’Arte on a surreal and darkly comic journey.  The feverish intensity, gallows humor, and touching pathos of Pierrot is drenched in the music of Berlin’s smoke-filled cabaret clubs and the bizarre world of German melodrama.

The new production continues eighth blackbird’s commitment to performances that blur the boundaries between music and theater, illuminating the landmark work with choreography by emerging New York director Mark DeChiazza.  He describes the creative process behind the production:

Pierrot has no conventional narrative.  Instead of telling a ‘story’, I will use dance to highlight the sometimes dramatic, sometimes satirical nature of the relationship between text and music.  Movement and gesture will connect to the human core of this amazing work, and expand – rather than circumscribe – its meaning.”

Playing entirely from memory, the musicians are able to engage fully with the drama and interact with the other performers – soprano Lucy Shelton, contemporary dancer Elyssa Dole, and the group’s own percussionist Matthew Duvall in the title role, which he mimes “with perfect detachment, giving the old Frenchman a Mr. Bean-like demeanor” (Chicago Sun-Times).  As Schoenberg’s narrator, Shelton – “the definitive Pierrot reciter of our generation” (Chicago Tribune) – delivers the poems in Sprechstimme, or “speech-voice” style, allowing each pitch to rise or fall in the manner of spoken words.

When the production premiered at the 2009 Ojai Music Festival, where eighth blackbird was Music Director, the Sunday Telegraph’s response was typical:

“Stage animals as well as outstanding chamber players, eighth blackbird performs with a freedom almost unheard of in its technically demanding repertoire.  In Schoenberg’s Pierrot lunaire … the musicians were integrated into the production and played their parts from memory – an uncommon delicacy.”

After the Chicago performance this past winter, veteran music critic John von Rhein agreed, proclaiming the group’s interpretation “an incisive account,” and praising “Mark DeChiazza’s fluid staging… [which] added its own layer of surreal ambiguity” (Chicago Tribune).

A filmed interview with the director, plus texts of the poems, cast biographies, and further details of the production are available at the ensemble’s web site:

For the Los Angeles County Museum of Art performance, eighth blackbird will also reprise Steve Reich’s Double Sextet (2007), which was commissioned by and written for the group.  Scored for two identical sextets, each comprising flute, clarinet, violin, cello, vibraphone, and piano, the work will be played by eighth blackbird against its own pre-taped recording.  When it was announced that Double Sextet had won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize, composer Steve Reich admitted: “I’m very glad that this particular piece got [the award], because I do think it’s one of the better pieces I’ve done in the past few years.”

He was not alone; Tim Munro, eighth blackbird’s flutist, explained: “The piece is a skillful, imaginative, and engaging distillation of Reich’s work over the past 40 years, featuring funky riffs, soulful lyricism, and playful banter.  The adrenalin rush we get performing this piece is very intense, and it leaves us wired for the whole night.  It’s certainly as close as I’ll ever get to being a rock star.”  He added, “We’re not surprised by the award, given the overwhelmingly positive reception with which the piece has been received around the world.”  One such enthusiastic response came from Los Angeles Times critic Mark Swed, who described the piece as a “kind of explosion of fractured rhythms that never ceases to amaze the ear,” and pronounced eighth blackbird’s interpretation “a really good, rocking, rollicking performance.”

Like Double Sextet, Missy Mazzoli’s Still Life with Avalanche (2008) was specifically written for the group.  The work was influenced by indie rock, and Mazzoli describes it as “a pile of melodies collapsing in a chaotic free fall, sketching out a strange and evocative sonic landscape.”  As part of eighth blackbird’s “Meanwhile” program, Still Life also features in the group’s upcoming concerts in Northridge, CA (April 29) and New York City (May 8).

April 28, Los Angeles, CA
Los Angeles County Museum of Art (Bing Theater)
eighth blackbird
Schoenberg: Pierrot lunaire (Op. 21, 1912)
Lucy Shelton, soprano
Elyssa Dole, dancer
Mark DeChiazza, director/choreographer
Reich: Double Sextet (2007)
Mazzoli: Still Life with Avalanche (2008)

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© 21C Media Group, April 2010

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