Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble woos with 'Drunken Moon'

| Wednesday, July 30, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

Some masterpieces are not easy to love. Those who perform such pieces often wonder what it will take for audiences to share their enthusiasm.

Few go as far as Kevin Noe and the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble, who, in collaboration with composer Kieren MacMillan, created a full-length show that culminates in Arnold Schoenberg's “Pierrot Lunaire.”

Noe says that, when the show debuted in 2006, more people who attended the first night came back to see it again than any other concert in his 14 years as artistic director of the ensemble. He's planning to take it on tour.

Fortunately, the set fits in his Volvo.

The New Music Ensemble will present “Drunken Moon” on Aug. 1 and 2 at City Theatre, South Side.

Schoenberg wrote “Pierrot” in 1912 using a German translation of 21 poems by Albert Giraud. The words are delivered in sprechstimme, speech inflected with specific pitches.

“The goal with this creation was to provide a way in for ‘Pierrot,' a piece that is traditionally admired by many, especially music geeks, but not liked by that many people, including many of the very people who say they admire it,” Noe says. “Our job is to provide a portal so you can lose yourself in ‘Pierrot,” and not in only an academic ‘admiring' way.”

MacMillan's score for “Drunken Moon” is unabashedly tonal, and makes clever use in that different harmonic context of musical ideas from Schoenberg seminal work.

“I enjoy performing it,” baritone Timothy Jones says. “I think Kieren's treatment prepares you to experience Schoenberg without the usual jolt because you have the characters. Those characters continue to be alive in both pieces. So, what is different is that, although we usually experience Schoenberg's ‘Pierrot” through one singer, with two people you get the vocal adjustment of having a soprano for a while and then a baritone.”

Noe says the original concept was to create a prequel to put the audience “in the right head space” so that ‘Pierrot' seemed the next step in the journey.

“As we worked, we made discovery after discovery. One that turned out to be central is a kind of gender polarity,” he says. “ ‘Pierrot' is obviously a male character sung by soprano; yet ,the soprano sings as though male, a weird gender ambiguity. Our solution is to use two narrators to split the poetry.

“My concept as director is perhaps this is not a real second person, perhaps an alter ego. More than our heroine falling in love with her true self, here it is more like an exorcism of another identity trapped inside of her.”

The story arching over both parts of the program is a woman doing what she's been doing for years — going to a cabaret with the hope of meeting someone. This night, however, will be different.

Mark Kanny is classical music critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7877 or mkanny@tribweb.com.

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