Dolce Suono misses the madness of 'Pierrot Lunaire'

The Dolce Suono Ensemble offered its "Mahler 100/ Schoenberg 60" concert at Haverford College.

Mood-stabilizing medication is a great thing for everyday life. But in art? Pierrot Lunaire - Arnold Schoenberg's revolutionary piece exploring new vistas of madness in music - seems to have had an all-too-tempering prescription when played by the enterprising Dolce Suono Ensemble in its "Mahler 100/Schoenberg 60" concert Friday at Haverford College.

About 90 years after its premiere, Schoenberg's dramatization of 21 Albert Giraud poems - portraying the normally benign commedia dell'arte character of Pierrot having gone crazy from staring at the moon - should still feel wildly mercurial and formidably atonal, with traditional vocal writing replaced by a speech-song that showcases words with an otherworldly eeriness.

Few performances (in this program repeated Sunday at the Trinity Center) have Dolce Suono's clarity and apparent ease of execution. At last, one could hear the intricacies of the score with greater objectivity. The vocal guest artist was Lucy Shelton, who has performed the piece for decades and now navigates Pierrot's vocal lines - so alien to other singers - as naturally as a Schubert art song. I loved the way her voice became a croak in "The Sick Moon." For the final moments, she employed a suitably pale, exhausted tone.

Yet where in the overall performance was the terror? Schoenberg's protagonists from Erwartung to Moses und Aron are seized by moments of self-awareness of the madness within and around them. Without that visceral quality, Pierrot became a fascinating curiosity rather than something that refracts ourselves.

Dolce Suono also commissioned a Pierrot companion piece titled "Moon Songs: A Song Cycle in Four Acts," by Israeli American composer Shulamit Ran. Give Ran an idea, and she'll inject more points of view into it than you ever thought possible. Poetry in several languages was culled in a Google-esque fusion. For example, the Chinese poet Li Bai was represented by his words and biographical information mixed together. With that came a broad range of music, from cimbalom-like flourishes in the piano to woozy, folksy dances.

Ran's brand of madness isn't a self-involved interior state, but a painfully realistic world view that must be expressed without compromise. And that put particular burdens on Shelton, who was asked to use a huge range of vocal techniques. One can't hope to wrap one's ears around "Moon Songs" so early in its life. But no Pierrot companion should be easy.

Contact music critic David Patrick Stearns at