Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

The Black Butterfly

June 14, 2009

Lucy Shelton, Elyssa Doyle, and members of eighth blackbird
Photo: Jeff 2009

The highlight of Saturday’s schedule at Ojai, was a largely staged performance of Schoenberg’s Pierrot lunaire that closed out that evening’s concert. The musical forces assembled included festival music directors eighth blackbird and soprano Lucy Shelton in a staging directed by Mark DeChiazza. I’ve always had mixed feelings about eighth blackbird. Certainly their musicianship is excellent, but there was something about the hipster marketing of the ensemble that made them too easily interchangeable with outfits like Pink Martini or the Decemberists in my mind. I know, I know - it's all about breaking down barriers between genres. But does everybody have to look the same?

However, last night addressed many of my reservations and I have a new found respect for eighth balckbird on all levels after observing the six players on Saturday night. Throughout Pierrot lunaire the six musicians not only played their instruments, but also actively performed the movement, the acting, and other feats asked of them in this largely abstract and evocative staging. Of special note was percussionist Matthew Duvall. Schoenberg doesn’t call for any percussion in Pierrot lunaire so Duvall was cast in the part of Pierrot and he was often engaged in movement with a dancer, Elyssa Dole. He was very game and very committed as were all the players who were required to frequently travel around the stage, not only sorting and resorting themselves into the small ensembles called for in the piece, but also to conduct various amounts of stage business including moving chairs and lights and interacting with others in the cast by dancing or various other activities.

The production made the most of the cabaret feel of the piece in 20s-inspired costumes on a stage populated only with a few chairs and a variety of hanging lights. It was not a narrative-oriented staging, but one meant to play out in a more abstract sense, a point made at length in a program note projected onto the supertitle screens as the audience sat in the dark waiting for the music to begin. The message induced laughter in the crowd and did seem a bit bizarre for an audience steeped in decades of avant-garde music. I suspect that most folks in this crowd could handle the idea of a non-literal staging and from their applause, it seems they did. It worked well overall, paying respect to the fact that the piece was intended to incorporate staged elements while enhancing the dreamlike quality of the work with soprano Lucy Shelton and the players simultaneously performing in a real and imagined band perhaps in the soprano’s own mind.

Shelton was quite good. The vocal part of Pierrot lunaire can often be marked with a sort of detachment from the text, but Shelton avoided this and wholeheartedly sunk her teeth into the evening with a wink and a smile, unabashedly putting the melodrama right up front where it belongs. Before the Schoenberg was another piece, a west coast premiere from David Michael Gordon entitled Quasi Sinfonia orchestrated for a small chamber orchestra. It was pleasant at times and ended in a rather nice cascade of chimes and gongs. I didn't have a particularly strong take on it after just one listening of the four involved movements, but it didn't distract from the rest of the evening, which I guess is a good thing when you're up against something as showy as this particular Schoenberg work. Overall, it was a pretty good evening.


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