Fresh avant-garde: The Happenstancers film Pierrot LunaireReview
If you’re one of those folks who get creeped out by clowns, I offer a gentle content warning for the latest item out of Toronto-based chamber group, The Happenstancers.
The ensemble is “the shared vision of clarinetist and visual artist Brad Cherwin, oboist Aleh Remezau, and cellist Sarah Gans”, and they’ve made a name for themselves with their bent for the avant-garde. And though it’s 110 years old, few things sound as cutting edge as Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire.
The Happenstancers have released videos of five songs from Three Times Seven Poems from Albert Girard’s “Pierrot Lunaire”; the film is by Jake Kovnat and produced by Brad Cherwin, and features conductor Simon Rivard on the podium, and soprano Danika Lorèn as everybody’s favourite despondent clown, Pierrot.
Pierrot Lunaire translates eerily well to film, especially in the hands of this team. Shot in black and white and with moments of harsh chiarioscuro in Adam Harris’ lighting design, we’re brought into the delicate world of a chamber group set-up. Lorèn stands upstage, her exaggerated clown’s ruff drawing the eye; downstage, Rivard is flanked by pianist Alexander Malikov, cellist Sarah Gans, violinist and violist Hee-See Yoon, clarinetist/bass clarinetist Brad Cherwin, and flautist/piccolist Rebecca Moranis.
The five songs are directed with beautiful attention to the text-music fusion. “Die Kreuze” blends the stark visual of a stained-glass cross with that eerie sound that only Schoenberg seems to get out of a chamber orchestra. It’s transparent and light, but in a way that feels off, like sunlight shining through threadbare fabric or an abandoned cobweb dangling from one end. Here, Lorèn introduces us to the unique sound of Sprechstimme – where the singer inhabits the vocal limbo between singing and speaking – and it’s clear that this iconic piece of atonality is in excellent hands.
“Galgenlied” is a brief, robotic flash of a song; “Rote Messe” is thick and plodding, visualized by the camera’s long pan in. “Der Mondfleck” is an erratic, too-small spotlight darting around the room, capturing glimpses of the whole ensemble, but never enough to satisfy. In the final song, “Nacht”, Lorèn will give you the heebie-jeebies as she stares into your soul, the black of her eyes against the white of her ruff. shudder
The project is thoughtful, fantastical, and a real pleasure to see out of these Canadian artists. In fact, The Happenstancers’ Pierrot comes after several of the chamber group attended Barbara Hannigan’s Equilibrium Young Artists, at Nova Scotia’s Lunenberg Academy of Music. Clarinetist Brad Cherwin approached conductor Simon Rivard about the project, and as it came to fruition, Equilibrium and Hannigan herself helped fund the project.
This month, The Happenstancers head back to Lunenberg to perform more Pierrot-inspired music with Equilibrium: Stravinsky’s 3 Japanese Lyrics, Delage’s Quatre poèmes hindous, and Ravel’s Trois poèmes de Mallarmé.
If you’ve not done so already, have a look at their Pierrot: