The program Saturday at the Hirshhorn Museum was titled "Looney Tunes," but anyone who went in expecting to hear Porky Pig was in for a surprise. "Looney" may have generic overtones of irrationality, an element present to some degree in all three pieces on the 20th Century Consort's program, as it is in any music worth hearing. But the title's clearest reference was to Arnold Schoenberg's "Pierrot Lunaire," the last and most substantial item performed, whose name can be translated "Moonstruck Pierrot" or "Pierrot the Lunatic." Fair enough; in the 21 poems set to music by Schoenberg, Pierrot (a clown figure derived ultimately from the Italian commedia dell'arte) is unquestionably looney--in ways that are both colorful and macabre.
There might be objections from some to the use of "Tunes" in the program title. Schoenberg uses a lot of Sprechstimme, a mode of vocal expression poised between song and speech: spoken words heightened in intensity by controlled pitch, rhythms and pace. Shrieks, whispers, hysterical yammering and a lot of other expressive ploys, yes; tunes, no. Well, maybe bits of melody sometimes in the instrumental parts performed by five players and conducted by Christopher Kendall. But not in the vocal lines performed eloquently by soprano Lucy Shelton.
Don't get me wrong; "Pierrot Lunaire" is a masterpiece, one of the landmarks of 20th-century music. It drove musical expression to new levels, and its inspiration can be heard in the work of many other composers. A good performance of it is a special occasion, and this performance was very good. But "tuneful" is not the first word it calls to mind.
Shelton got a chance to behave more like a soprano in Paul Hindemith's charming, atmospheric nocturnal song cycle "Die Serenaden," which opened the program. These songs, in a pared-down, logical style that sometimes might be called neo-baroque, are imbued with a sense of magic, dreams and romance, with one curiously contrasting poem that compares man to a sea serpent. The moon is specifically mentioned in "Gute Nacht," the sixth and last song, but the word was inexplicably dropped in the program's translation.
Looney and tuneful was Paul Schoenfield's "Carolina Morning," which uses motifs from the song of almost the same name ("Nothing could be finer," etc.), first in small, scattered fragments but finally in a complete statement of the melody. Like much of this composer's work, it walks a stylistic tightrope between pop and classical styles, to delightful effect. The consort clearly enjoyed it as much as the audience.