It was 100 years ago this month that Arnold Schoenberg premiered his dramatic work “Pierrot Lunaire.” Two local tributes are planned to observe this anniversary.
On Wednesday, the Buffalo Chamber Players are tackling the thorny work. The performance takes place at 7:30 p.m. at Buffalo Seminary.
In November, Fredonia State College is playing host to Baltimore’s Lunar Ensemble, performing the piece at 8 p.m. Nov. 12 in Rosch Recital Hall, with a preconcert talk with music professor Gordon Root at 7 p.m. (For info, call 673-3501.)
“Pierrot Lunaire” might not be as well-known to the casual classical music fan as, say, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. But in the subculture of contemporary music, it looms large.
It features an unorthodox ensemble playing music that verges on the atonal. Schoenberg also chose to feature a soprano Sprechstimme. German for “speaking voice,” it refers to a sing-songy technique that borders on cabaret.
The Buffalo Chamber Players, led by Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra violist Janz Castelo, features soprano Tony Arnold.
“Very few people can do Pierrot as well as Tony,” Castelo says. “Watching her, she’s so expressive beautifully. She’s great. She really embodies Pierrot.”
Pierrot is a French form of the sad clown, a recurring figure in music, literature and art.
The Buffalo Chamber Players like to build bridges among the arts, and their performance of “Pierre Lunaire” will be enhanced by paintings by Buffalo artist Mark Lavatelli.
“He’s not doing literal interpreptations,” Castelo says. “I’m a musician and I know as a musician how I react to the piece. It’s great to see how a different artist, a non-musician, treats the same piece. Clearly we react to it differently.
Schoenberg’s quirky, weird drama is a challenge even for the Chamber Players, who are used to taking on unusual works.
“It’s a very difficult piece. We’re not doing it with a conductor,” Castelo says. “It’s intense with its subject matter and technical challenges. There are some parts that are unplayable. He really was pushing the envelope of what each instrument can do.”
“Pierrot,” with its weird and dreamlike themes, can be a polarizing piece. Performances on YouTube draw clashing comments.
“It sounds like hell, but I love it,” one listener writes.
Castelo laughs, hearing that. “It’s a haunting work,” he says. “Every time I hear it, it takes me to a different world, a world that is fascinating and terrifying. It’s hard to describe it.”
To give the evening a kind of balance, the Chamber Players are rounding out the concert with Schoenberg’s romantic “Transfigured Night,” in the original 1899 string sextet setting.
What: Buffalo Chamber Players, Arnold Schoenberg’s “Pierrot Lunaire”
When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday
Where: Buffalo Seminary, 205 Bidwell Parkway
Tickets: $15; $5, students