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By Shawn Stone

Musicians of Ma’alwyck, with Gene Marie Callahan Kern, soprano, and Lanfranco Marcelletti, conductor

Opalka Gallery, Sage College of Albany, March 2

The Opalka Gallery is a great place to experience art; if you don’t believe me, check out Nadine Wasserman’s review of Positions: Gregory Coates in last week’s paper [“Abstract Wit,” Feb. 28]. Last weekend, Opalka also proved to be a terrific venue for a chamber concert as the local ensemble Musicians of Ma’alwyck presented Moonstruck, a program of works by Hilary Tann, Arnold Schoenberg and Richard Strauss.

The show opened with Tann’s Nothing Forgotten, a piece for violin, cello and piano. Consisting of three movements without a break, and incorporating themes from a pair of 19th-century Adirondack songs, this was stark and lovely music.

The centerpiece of the performance—and the most “moonstruck” of the three works—was Arnold Schoenberg’s atonal (but not 12-tone), 1912 song cycle Pierrot Lunaire. Once upon a time, whispering the very name “Schoenberg” was an evil spell that kept audiences away (God knows that most NPR/PRI classical-radio programmers still treat it that way), but the packed Opalka Gallery on Sunday afternoon suggests that this may no longer be the case.

Pierrot Lunaire takes for its text 21 poems by Albert Giraud (translated into German by Otto Erich Hartleben). They align perfectly with Schoenberg’s often endearingly hysterical musical personality. The lines in the “Red Mass” section, “the dripping red Host/His heart—in bloody fingers—for a hideous Communion” immediately brought to mind the batshit-lurid golden-calf-worshipping scenes in Schoenberg’s opera Moses und Aron. Each poem in Pierrot Lunaire is like this; each is, to varying degrees, lurid, fantastic, shocking, cruel or disturbingly hilarious.

(My favorite: “Verses are holy crosses/On which poets silently bleed to death.” I wish.)

This is intricate, demanding, highly theatrical music, which was nimbly performed by Musicians of Ma’alwyck under the direction of Lanfranco Marcelletti. It was almost as much fun to watch the interplay of conductor and musicians as it was to experience the sound they made. Almost.

Soprano Gene Marie Callahan Kern carried the weight of making this prickly, flamboyant song cycle work. The words are sort-of spoken and sort-of sung, but are still deeply embedded in the tricky score. Callahan Kern alternately cooed and shouted, soothed and frightened with complete mastery.

It was a sparkling performance of something that, by common measure, shouldn’t “sparkle.” But I couldn’t stop smiling during the entire piece, and the applause at the end was loud and sustained. It also helped that, in the program notes, the text was reproduced in both German and English so we could all follow along.

After an intermission, Marcelletti, Callahan Kern and the Musicians of Ma’alwyck—augmented by a few more players—returned to perform a new chamber ensemble arrangement by William Carragan of Richard Strauss’ Four Last Songs. I’m not a big fan of Strauss, but these last songs are undeniably beautiful. The rich, deeply moving work was a total crowd-pleaser, so Carragan can be assured that this arrangement will have a life beyond these first performances.

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