One of the most influential works of modern music celebrated its centenary this season. Arnold Schoenberg’s “Pierrot Lunaire,” an unforgettable atonal song cycle that premiered in October 1912, shattered conventions about how composers treat the human voice. The 21st Century Consort marked the occasion with a performance of the work Saturday at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, for a regrettably small audience.
Soprano Lucy Shelton, who made an excellent recording of the work 20 years ago, gave an authoritative, engaging, even fun rendition of the vocal part, entirely from memory and aided by a microphone. In Schoenberg’s signature Sprechstimme, a rhythmically notated form of recitation, Shelton purred, pattered, hissed, hooted, screamed and growled her way through 21 symbolist poems by Albert Giraud with polished German diction, in a translation by Otto Erich Hartleben. While Shelton mostly sat on a stool, the poetry’s bizarre imagery was acted out by mime Mark Jaster, in Pierrot’s white costume and using a treasure box of props, an arrangement that added little to the performance besides whimsy.
Another kind of commemoration filled the concert’s first half, with performances of two equally fine pieces that honored composers with strong connections to the Consort. Shelton, perhaps under the weather, sounded a little creaky in Stephen Albert’s “To Wake the Dead,” an enigmatic and moving song cycle from 1978 on texts from James Joyce’s “Finnegans Wake.” The concert opened with Bruce MacCombie’s forlorn “Elegy,” itself a tribute to Albert, composed after Albert’s sudden death in a car crash in 1992.
Throughout, the Consort musicians, all of whom play with the National Symphony Orchestra, were impeccable, creating textures that captured the mood of each different work. Particular mention goes to Matthew Schultheis, a high school freshman studying with Consort pianist Lisa Emenheiser, who ably assisted his teacher with the extended techniques applied to the piano in the Albert piece.
Downey is a freelance writer.