Last night, The Girlfriend and I went to the Chicago Symphony for a performance of Schoenberg’s Pierrot lunaire and Stravinsky’s Histoire du Soldat. Given that I’ve posted my amateur reflections on a visit to the Art Institute, I might as well tell you about this, too.
To begin with the Schoenberg: it was amazing, even better than the “main event” of the Stravinsky. The vocalist, Kiera Duffy, put on an impressive performance, her facial expressions and gestures capturing the menacing whimsy of the text. The lyrics were presented in English translation on a series of three screens, where they displayed atmospheric backgrounds and brought up the text from unpredictable directions — having access to the translations “live” did enhance the experience, but as The Girlfriend pointed out, the semi-random nature of the display (and the fact that the words were often in a position where they would be blocked by the musicians for at least part of the audience) put the appropriate lack of emphasis on the text itself. It may seem redundant to say that a piece recognized as one of the foundational compositions of modern music was really powerful, but it was.
On the Stravinsky: perhaps the most surreal moment of the evening was when John Lithgow walked onstage to assume his post as narrator. He did a great job, as one would expect from a famous, critically acclaimed actor, but it was a little distracting. The staging of the story was minimal. The three screens were put closer to the ground and mainly displayed solid colors throughout, and the stage set consisted of a slightly elevated platform. Perhaps the strangest choice was to have two actors playing the part of the soldier — one was dressed in his soldier’s garb, while one had a tuxedo top and soldier’s pants. I suppose this was meant to convey the dividedness of the soldier’s character somehow, but it didn’t work for us.
In both cases, we had been listening to the relevant pieces over the last few weeks, but the live performance added a whole new element. I hadn’t bothered to sit down with the Schoenberg with the lyrics sheet open in front of me, so that all the songs tended to blend together into a mass for me. Having the text projected, together with numbers designating the beginning of each new song, obviously helped to differentiate things for me. In addition, we only had access to a recording of the concert suite for the Stravinsky, so that we were familiar with the music but had no real idea what the plot was.
On the musical level, the CSO’s performance seemed to me to be an improvement over the recordings we had access to. They achieved a different balance among the instruments that brought out the unexpected harmonies more clearly in both cases — for instance, in the opening theme of the Stravinsky, there was a greater sense that the two horns were out of tune with each other, but that only heightened the interest for me. The vocalist for the Stravinsky was also more subtle and versatile, making it seem as though the vocalist from our recording had “hammed it up” in certain places.
Overall, the performance was a good choice for us: I’ve been more interested in 20th century music and selected the program on that basis, but it was presented in a way that gave The Girlfriend a little more to hold onto as someone untrained in classical music. Plus we were like ten feet away from John Lithgow!