In advance of our Season 6IX opening concerts featuring mezzo-soprano Hai-Ting Chinn, 5BMF sat down with this talented performer for a chat about Arnold Schoenberg’s iconic chamber work Pierrot Lunaire, the focal point of The Pierrot Project.
5BMF: Hai-Ting, thank you so much for taking a few minutes out of your Pierrot prep to chat with us. It’s so great to have you open our 6th Season; you’ve performed Wolf with us in Queens, Bach in the Bronx, and Brahms in Bryant Park, and now Debussy in Staten Island and Schoenberg in SoHo. You’re quite the versatile artist!
Hai-Ting Chinn: You have quite the versatile series! What a great thing for the city. And it’s an honor to be part of it.
5BMF: What first drew you to Pierrot Lunaire, and when did you first perform it?
HTC: I first learned about Pierrot Lunaire while I was at Eastman School of Music as an undergrad. Jan DeGaetani, who taught at ESM, had recently passed away, and everyone in the voice department was still talking sadly and admiringly about her. She was a champion of new and challenging music, even for young singers, and her recording of Pierrot was the first one I heard. Some combination of her passion and the somehow-mysterious nature of the piece made it fascinating to my teen-age self, and it hasn’t gotten any less fascinating over the years. I first performed it myself five or six years ago, at the Greenwich House Music School, with the same ensemble who is joining me this time.
5BMF: You’re teaming up with the Proteus Ensemble for these two programs. Besides being a Pierrot Ensemble, what makes them perfect for this assignment?
HTC: Well, first off, they’re just great, and they are masters of the music from this period. Also, we have now a mutual history with this piece – this will be the fourth time we’ve performed it together – plus, I’ve known several of them since school, and it’s amazing to watch and listen to these incredible musicians grow over the course of their lives and careers. I hope they enjoy working with me half as much as I do with them.
5BMF: What do you think it is about Pierrot that still sounds new and revolutionary, 100 years after its premiere?
HTC: I suppose if you could put your finger on exactly what it is that makes it sound revolutionary, it wouldn’t sound so revolutionary…but I’ll take a crack at it. At the time, one of the revolutionary things about it was its atonality. That was new to the original audiences, and although we are used to some even more radical atonality built on Schoenberg’s beginning, I think his use of it at this period is magical; to me, it feels like listening to a language that you knew when you were a infant, that sounds intensely familiar but that you can’t translate or attach any meaning to – it feels like the meaning is there but you can’t grasp it. It’s like the tonality of dreams. Which is absolutely perfect for this piece and these poems.
“It feels like listening to a language that you knew when you were a infant, that sounds intensely familiar but that you can’t translate or attach any meaning to – it feels like the meaning is there but you can’t grasp it. It’s like the tonality of dreams.”
Something even more obvious that makes Pierrot sound mysterious to us today is the use of “Sprechstimme,” the highly-inflected, half-sung-half-spoken vocal technique. Those who know the history will know that a sort of sing-song performance of poetry was fairly common around this period, especially in German. In fact, the actress who commissioned the piece, Albertine Zehme, was touring Europe declaiming these same poems to another piece of music, by Otto Vrieslander. Apparently she wasn’t satisfied with that other piece, and she asked Schoenberg to compose something new. I wonder if she had any inkling what she was getting into! The previous piece was basically just background music to which she gave dramatic readings; but Schoenberg specified exact (and incredibly complicated) rhythmic delivery and pitches that are supposed to be approximated but never dwelt on steadily. Except for a small number of pitches (nine?) that are actually to be sung, Schoenberg is essentially composing the exact inflection he wants the spoken text to have. And it’s extreme, and wide ranging. I guess what I’m saying is that this old German technique of declaiming poetry, with a little extra specificity by Schoenberg, sounds revolutionary now because it’s not something anyone would think of doing any more. In fact, in some ways, it may sound more revolutionary to us today that in did when it was premiered. Just think of this: at its premiere, it not only got a standing ovation, but the audience demanded a repeat on the spot! I somehow can’t imagine a contemporary audience wanting to hear it twice in one night.
5BMF: You’ve performed everything from cantatas to song cycles to operatic and theatrical works. Where does Pierrot fit in, in terms of the challenges it presents to the performers?
HTC: To me personally, the strict rhythmic challenge is the biggest hurdle, and though that’s kind of a boring technical answer, the instrumentalists might agree. Although they have a whole lot of notes to play. Schoenberg also wrote in his performance notes that the speaker should not add any of their own interpretation to his: that it was all there in the music, and anything that the speaker/singer might add based on their own feeling for the words would detract rather than add to the performance. How to add none of your own emphasis or inflection, and yet give a completely dedicated, dramatic, and heart-felt performances of these poems? It’s a bit of a gauntlet he threw down a century ago, and still a fascinating challenge today.
5BMF: What would you say to a potential concertgoer who gets a bit queasy seeing the word ‘Schoenberg’ on a concert announcement?
HTC: Take some Dramamine and suck it up. If you get on board, it’s worth the ride.
Hai-Ting Chinn and the Proteus Ensemble will perform Pierrot Lunaire on October 16th, in the second part of 5BMF’s The Pierrot Project. Part I, on October 14th, will feature works by Debussy, Ravel and Schoenberg. Buy your tickets today and join us for these exciting concerts!