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Review - Pierrot! Exciting new musical ideas

Right: Soprano Tabatha McFadyen


Composed by Arnold Shoenberg and Benjamin Marks

Presented by Kupka’s Piano

The Judith Wright Centre of Contemporary Arts

Fortitude Valley,


Performance on June 10.

It is not often that I get the chance to review a concert of music, let alone such inspiring music as that of German Modernism star Arnold Shoenberg. His music may not be to everybody’s tastes but he certainly demonstrated a vast imagination for new ideas and a taste for the unknown.

He was born in Austria, 1874, and lived through both great wars to usher in a new era of music which he helped shape with serialism and the 12-tone row. So why am I talking about Shoenberg? Because last night I witnessed one of his most influential works, Pierrot Lunaire, or “Moonstruck Pierrot”. Pierrot is a character from Italian Commedia dell’arte whose “trusting fool” persona didn’t seem to be transposed into the poetry this music was based on. In fact, this version of Pierrot was quite dark and full of anguish.

Before I get any further with Pierrot Lunaire, I have to talk about the piece that opened the show – Passage 4 / Artefact 1 by Benjamin Marks.

This piece had nothing to do with Shoenberg or his work but conformed to the vision of the production company, Kupka’s Piano with its quest to explore “new sounds, new structures and new musical ideas”.

After a brief introduction by the composer himself, Angus Wilson took to the stage. This piece was “reassembled material from Passage 4… [from] The Circular Ruins 2” as the program notes supply. It was a reflection on a squeaky, “resonating” gate which had been recorded and slowed down. This piece was beautiful. Wilson performed his solo in an entirely relaxed manner and made this seemingly difficult piece look easy to play. He performed each pitch and rhythm with a delicate and knowledgeable skill that made the piece breeze through moments of calm and eerie beauty and hectic frenzy.

Then we moved onto the main event for the night. This work is apparently the oldest work that the Kupka’s Piano ensemble will ever play, which is interesting as to me, having been raised on Classical and Baroque music, Shoenberg is pretty modern.

The musicians filed onto the stage quickly and efficiently. Then the soprano took to the stage. And the music began. Instantly I was captivated by the way the music seemed to leap off their pages with strange and bizarre little quirks. As this is a landmark work in the sphere of Atonal music, it definitely wasn’t as melodious as other forms of music written by composers long gone before Shoenberg.

However there was a sort of beauty in the tone of the cello or the piercing notes of the flute that carried out through each short piece. When Soprano Tabatha McFadyen began to sing in the style of the piece using the technique of “Sprechstimme” she commanded the stage with a grace and charisma that constantly drew me to her smouldering gaze rather than the subtitles, helpfully provided on the screen behind.

There was no concrete plot, or at the very least I wasn’t able to sense one, with the lyrics of each piece moving through cryptic poetry. However, there were recurring pieces with mention of Pierrot, the titular character.

The performance was separated into three blocks of seven. The first seven pieces introduced Pierrot to the audience as “the Dandy” and the next seven featured heavy mention of the night in a grotesque manner and Pierrot’s insanity and anguish becoming apparent. The final seven pieces took on a lighter tone with Pierrot becoming more frivolous and journeying back to his home of Bergamo.

The Sprechstimme technique was also quite fascinating, with McFadyen controlling her voice masterfully to move between speaking and singing much like a recitative as the program notes. This was an entirely captivating performance with some members of the audience labelling it “scary”. The musicians were masters of their instrument and demonstrated their skills with every piece. The smattering of advanced technique here and there also brought their abilities to the fore. They should all be congratulated on a thrilling performance of music that is often an acquired taste.

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