Menacing whimsy: A night at the symphony

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!

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Posted in music. 5 Comments »

5 Responses to “Menacing whimsy: A night at the symphony”

  1. Peter Gratton Says:

    Thanks for posting this. I’m heading to see Pierrot Lunaire at the CSO this afternoon….

  2. Adam Kotsko Says:

    The Girlfriend had an interesting theory on Pierrot lunaire: Pierrot is W., Cassander is Lars, and the moon is the damp.

  3. Evgeni V. Pavlov Says:

    How did you like the combo of Schoenberg and Stravinsky in one night – was there anything in Schoenberg that connected with Stravinsky’s piece (or vice versa)? I think Adorno would have thrown a fit over such programming choice. Some nice quotes from Philosophy of New Music would probably fit right in: “Stravinsky’s fibula docet is versatile compliancy and obstinate obedience, the model of that authoritarian character that today proliferates on all sides”…

  4. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I believe the pairing was Boulez’s doing (though he wound up having to cancel) — we also went to another concert last year where Boulez conducted Firebird and one of his own pieces (originally it was supposed to be Berg’s Violin Concerto). He’s apparently been trying to enact a reconcoliation between Stravinsky and atonal music.

    The program said that Schoenberg had given Stravinsky a copy of the score to follow along with a performance and Stravinsky later admitted it was a big influence on him — and I believe Histoire du Soldat was the next major piece he wrote after that. That being said, I’m not sure how I would connect the two. The pairing certainly didn’t feel inappropriate, given that both were experimental chamber pieces.

  5. Evgeni V. Pavlov Says:

    Alex Ross gives Boulez hard time in The Rest Is Noise for apparently bullying Stravinsky – Boulez’s probably trying to make up for all the youthful ‘trolling’:

    “I may have booed at one of his concerts, but the incident he is referring to was some of my fellow students of Messaien rather than me. We all felt that Stravinsky’s neo-classical period was a dead-end street, a waste of time.”

    After meeting Boulez, Stravinsky started to write in a more atonal, serialist manner. “Well, he was actually quite independent and open-minded, and decided he didn’t want to be left on the side of the street.”

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