The Chicago Symphony Orchestra continues its subscription series with two of what are considered to be the most influential chamber works of the 20th century. The evening began with Arnold Schoenberg’s dark and haunting Pierrot Lunaire op 21, and followed with Igor Stravinsky’s A Soldiers Tale. Packed with renowned actors and musicians, the subscription series is as provocative as it is enjoyable.
The term ‘modern music’, particularly as pertains to classical music, became anachronism decades ago. As early as the turn of the twentieth century, composers have been defying centuries of established convention and aesthetic in search of a bold new understanding of music’s place in the art world. Few artists were more versed or less understood than Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg. His Pierrot Lunaire was composed a century ago, and perhaps another century may pass before it is completely understood.
The narrative of Pierrot Lunaire is difficult to follow, as in itself it is not a complete work, but rather a selection of poems from a larger body penned by the French poet Albert Giraud. These poems are delivered in the Sprechstimme (meaning spoken voice) style, which directs the singer to articulate the pitch but then immediately deviate lower or higher. Combined with the seemingly improvisational instrumentation, the sound is tense bordering on psychotic. Soprano Kiera Duffy sang the material, sounding at times like a lithium-enhanced German version of Bob Dylan, while visual artists Gerard McBurney and Hillary Leben projected creepy and ethereal translations on three sprawling projection screens located upstage. The total effect achieves a degree of discord that is unsettling, and it is unquestionably exactly the way Schoenberg wanted his audience to feel. There is something both genius and insane about creating a work of art that is intended to be misunderstood.
The binding thread between Pierrot Lunaire and The Soldier’s Tale by Stravinsky is that both pieces skew heavily toward macabre themes. The Soldier’s Tale is a Faustian deal-with-the-devil type story, where a proud soldier is presented with the opportunity to achieve untold fortune and fame, in exchange for his violin, here a metaphor for his soul. Unable to find happiness in his new wealth, the soldier abandons all that he gained through the devil’s deal, but the devil is always waiting in the wings to regain the soldier’s misplaced trust and sell him further up the river Styx. A classic warning against taking up company with the devil.
Stravinsky is a masterful composer, using mood and motif with dexterity as he unfolds the Soldier’s Tale. The composition is delightful, but perhaps more enjoyable than the piece was the dramatic reenactment of the narrative. Powerhouse actor John Lithgow narrated, as the soldier (Adam Von Wagoner, with some voice parts performed by Demetrios Troy) and the Devil (Kevin Gudahl) add interjections and breathed life into the story. Brilliant lighting design by Peter Mumford is a character unto itself, allowing floating dresses to take on form and dance through the sky, or to visually convey the change in the soldier’s mood as he realizes all he’s ever known is lost.
Despite a late substitution when world renowned conducter Pierre Boulez was forced to cancel his appearances (Cristian Macelaru graciously substituted), the evening was sensational. Whether you ‘get it’ or not, Schoenberg and Stravinsky will continue to draw praise and critique, as well as no shortage of packed houses.
For more information on the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s season, visit cso.org or call 312-294-3000. Production photos taken by Brian Kersey