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Perle & Pierrot: Celebrating George Perle’s 90th Year: Da Capo Chamber Players, Merkin Concert Hall, New York City, February 7, 2005 (BH)

Perle: Critical Moments (1996)
Schoenberg: Mein Herz das ist en tiefer Schacht (1894), Deinem Blick mich zu bequemen (1903)
Perle: Two Rilke Songs (1941)
Perle: Sonata for Cello and Piano (1985)
Perle: Critical Moments 2 (2001)
Schoenberg: Pierrot Lunaire, Op. 21 (1912)

Da Capo Chamber Players

Patricia Spencer, Flute
Meighan Stoops, Clarinet
David Bowlin, Violin
André Emelianoff, Cello
Blair McMillen, Piano
Guest artists:
Lucy Shelton, Soprano
Tom Kolor, Percussion

Celebrating the 90th birthday of George Perle, the Da Capo Chamber Players presented a well-conceived tribute, with a larger than usual crowd of well-wishers. The two Perle works that linger in the mind the most are his two Critical Moments, written five years apart. The first is in six sections, and the second in nine, and these are beauties – each one a tiny bouquet, each with its distinct character. Perle’s writing is as economical as Webern, perhaps if the latter were played at twice the speed, and he is an expert at delightful colors, with the ensemble of six often grouped in strata of two or three. The percussion, especially in Critical Moments 2, is gently humorous, intended to correspond to the sprechstimme role in Pierrot Lunaire. Guest Tom Kolor, one of the city’s best percussionists, offered droll use of wire brushes across a drum, among other effects, in jazzy counterpoint to the glistening shades created by Da Capo’s musicians. David Bowlin, the group’s violinist, had some particularly nice interplay with Patricia Spencer’s delicate flute work.

In between these, Lucy Shelton offered some rarely done Schoenberg songs, and a nice duo of Perle’s from the 1940s. I especially liked the second Schoenberg, Mein Herz das ist ein tiefer Schacht (My heart is a bottomless pit), which ends: “Bottomless, though, is the pit, and if you think you’ve emptied it, go deeper in.” (Perhaps I found it an interesting metaphor for much of the composer’s music in general.) Cellist André Emilianoff and pianist Blair McMillen gave an intensely committed account of Perle’s Cello Sonata from 1985, with the two musicians listening to each other keenly.

But the heart of the evening was Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, arguably one of the most influential works of the twentieth century, with Ms. Shelton in imaginative form in a role that she clearly adores. The work continues to resonate, even in the genesis of this very group which uses what has now become a standard chamber music combination – flute, clarinet, violin, cello, and piano – a model that has been copied around the world, and for which composers have written hundreds, perhaps even thousands of works, inspired by Schoenberg’s evocative cycle.

In notes thoughtfully written by Mr. Emelianoff, he outlines the beginnings of Commedia dell’Arte and its impact on early twentieth-century composition. Without going into a vast history of the genre here, suffice to say that Schoenberg appropriated some – repeat some – of the style, and transformed it, using a series of poems by Albert Giraud from 1884. Many of the twenty-one that Schoenberg chose are nightmarish despite their titles, such as the opening of the fifth poem of Part I, the lighthearted-sounding Valse de Chopin:

As a pale drop of blood
Colors a sick woman’s lips,
Thus there rests upon these notes
A charm that hungers for annihilation

Or this first stanza of Die Kreuze (The Crosses):

Verses are holy crosses
On which poets silently bleed to death,
Stricken blind by the fluttering
Ghostly swarm of vultures!

If I dwell a bit longer than usual on the background of this work, it is only to re-emphasize its originality, which continues to startle audiences almost one hundred years later. It has also become something of a signature performance for Ms. Shelton. Seated in a chair with a small Pierrot doll in a chair in front of her, she commanded an extraordinarily powerful vision, especially since sprechstimme is much more difficult to do convincingly than some may think. Impressively delivering the entire cycle from memory, Ms. Shelton was riveting, either when leaning back almost reminiscing in the opening Mondestrunken (Drunk with Moonlight), or leaning forward to deliver the almost still-shocking Enthauptung (Beheading). Throughout, she had worked out endless details that made the time speed by in a blur of images and emotions. This work feels almost like a play, rather than music, and requires a singer willing to go for broke and revel in its blood-filled corridors.

I can’t finish without citing Meighan Stoops, whose agile clarinet is always a joy, but all of Da Capo’s musicians responded with alert attacks, sensitive support, and even moments of deadpan silence framing some of Ms. Shelton’s more frantic outbursts. For a work with such an innocent-sounding title, the grotesque, horrifying images that it contains are anything but.

Bruce Hodges



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