Music that’s a century old really shouldn’t seem terrifyingly contemporary to audiences today. At the same time, all music should sound fresh when it’s performed. The ensemble Eighth Blackbird poised itself between these two facts with its performance of Schoenberg’s “Pierrot Lunaire,” written in 1912, at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater on Tuesday night.
Eighth Blackbird, a sextet formed at Oberlin’s conservatory in 1996, in an ensemble specializing in contemporary music, is particularly attuned to “Pierrot,” as the work is scored for five of its six instruments. (The group’s percussionist, Matthew Duvall, has played the mimed role of Pierrot in past iterations of this production but sat out on Tuesday.) In 2006, they did a version with puppets; but in 2009, when they served as music directors of the prestigious Ojai Festival in California, they came up with the inventive, dark, cabaret-style production seen here, conceived with the choreographer Mark DeChiazza, with suspended globes of light standing in for the moon and also evoking a deliberately grimy backstage cabaret reality.
Rather than a chamber performance, in short, this was a dramatic “Pierrot”: The musicians moved around the stage, carrying chairs, dancing and otherwise interacting with Elyssa Dole, a dancer (who at one point emerged from beneath the piano bench to the amazed reaction of the pianist, Lisa Kaplan, sitting atop it); with the soloist, soprano Lucy Shelton; and the Pierrot himself, Sam Meredith, here a Proust-like cowering dandy in a white suit. “Pierrot” is not 12-tone Schoenberg — the composer didn’t fully develop his signature compositional technique for a few more years — but it’s complex, atonal, intricate music, and Eighth Blackbird added to the sense of a high-wire act with the almost-unheard-of feat of playing the whole thing from memory.
They therefore became expressive participants in a bizarre symbolist work that feels like a kind of fever-dream, with texts (by the Belgian poet Albert Giraud) that link evocative images while skirting actual narrative, delivered in the Sprechstimme — half-spoken, half-sung — that has remained the hallmark of this work.
However good your instrumentalists, it takes a strong singer to bring off “Pierrot,” and Eighth Blackbird had it in the virtuosic Shelton, who played her full, fruity voice like an instrument, glissando-ing and cooing and widening her eyes and clipping her consonants like the stage archetype of an escaped madwoman, the epitome of Weimar-era cabaret Gothic. So expressive were Shelton’s vocal techniques that the words themselves were sometimes drowned in the flow of interesting sounds — though this served to compound the fever-dream impression.
In another move to contextualize the music — to treat it as a work of drama rather than setting it on the forbidding pedestal of a masterwork of the 20th century — Eighth Blackbird juxtaposed it with a set of Brecht/Weill songs and excerpts on the first half of the program, presented in the same Georg Grosz-ian cabaret spirit. Shelton underlined the connection by delivering these songs, too, in a kind of Sprechstimme, half-talking through familiar works such as the “Alabama Song” or “Mack the Knife” until they too became strange fruit, at once alluring and frightening. The loss of the texts was more apparent when the texts were in English, but it nonetheless represented a convincing pendant to “Pierrot,” and created an evening that was a seamless dramatic whole.