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24 January 2012

The legacy of a moonstruck clown

Syzygy Ensemble Image: Syzygy Ensemble  

Syzygy Ensemble's 2012 concert series explores the legacy of Arnold Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire. Leigh Harrold explains.

The passing of time has simply refused to blunt the visceral impact of Pierrot Lunaire. Arnold Schoenberg's not-quite-sane settings of German versions of French poems declaimed by an Italian clown continue to send ripples and shivers through the arteries of contemporary music. The work exerts an influence over new Western art music from which today's performers and composers are never really free.

Pierrot was one of those rare beasts in musical history: it was intellectually rigorous, emotionally disturbing, way ahead of its time, and yet… a runaway success! As a result, it entrenched itself in the repertoire early on by being toured around Europe almost as soon as it had been premiered. The message was loud and clear: no longer did major new statements in music need a 12-page programmatic explanation and an orchestra of a hundred. Here was high art for the people - a work of epic proportions that plundered the world of slapstick and cabaret and required only six people to perform.

This last innovation is the one often overlooked when lauding Pierrot. The quintet combination of flute, clarinet, piano, violin and cello - virtually unknown in the 19th century and earlier - became a standard formation in the 20th century, and continues to remain so, purely on the strength of this seminal work. We at Syzygy Ensemble comprise a Pierrot line-up, and are regularly thankful to Schoenberg for the revolution he created and the legacy he spawned.

So, like a fine wine, Pierrot continues to age well. Last year, Syzygy (also over a fine wine) noted that 2012 would mark the work's 100th anniversary, and pounced on the chance to celebrate this with a concert series that pays tribute to all that this piece has inspired. At first we were unsure if we would find enough suitably themed pieces but, of course, we soon found ourselves completely spoiled for choice, and it was deciding what to leave out that quickly became the main challenge.

Ambitiously building on our three-concert series of 2011, we've decided this year to mount no less than five concerts at the Melbourne Recital Centre, each one focusing on a different aspect of Pierrot's legacy. Once we started scratching beneath the surface, we uncovered some truly wonderful stuff. Some links were obvious - Schoenberg's own Chamber Symphony No.1, arranged by Webern for the Pierrot combination, seemed an absolute must. Some pieces had obvious associations but were quite unknown - like the recently composed 7 Pierrot Miniatures by Britain's Helen Grimes, which we can't wait to explore. Other pieces we've known all our lives but perhaps not known their 'Pierrot-ness' - it's not so well known that Debussy's Cello Sonata was originally entitled Pierrot Howls at the Moon.

The connections with Australia are fascinating, too: Brett Dean's Night Window explores the same moon-tinted world as Schoenberg's clown and Debussy's cello. We'll also highlight the link with a slightly barking protagonist when we present Dean's Equality for speaking pianist. Roger Smalley's virtuosic Poles Apart gives us the sonority of an orchestra with just five players, and Annie Hsieh's Towards the Beginning broods with psychological tension - hinting at a hidden world that is just beyond our grasp.

To curate this series has been a wonderfully humbling process as we've sorted through this embarrassment of riches, and I'm sure that learning and performing all these works will prove just as humbling and just as wonderful. And, in case you're wondering, THE work itself will feature in our series too. To find out where and when, follow the links below. In the meantime, let us all be thankful for good wine, good music, and madcap German expressionism.

Event details

Syzygy Ensemble: Pierrot by Moonlight (Dean, Hsieh)
29 February 2012 at 6pm, Melbourne Recital Centre
All details: AMC Calendar

Syzygy Ensemble: Pierrot's Creator (Dean)
25 July 2012 at 6pm, Melbourne Recital Centre
All details: AMC Calendar

Syzygy Ensemble: Pierrot's Successors (Smalley)
5 September at 6pm, Melbourne Recital Centre
All details: AMC Calendar

For details of all 2012 concerts, please see the ensemble website.

Further links

Syzygy Ensemble - http://syzygyensemble.com

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